Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


When T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, he didn't know the half of it. April marks an annual convergence of wildlife art deadlines that makes my normally stress-free life...well, still pretty stress-free, actually—but still, the kind of time I'd like to devote to an exercise like the Blogger Bioblitz is hard to come by. I just returned from Fedexing the last of those deadlines into my past, though, and am ready to dive headlong into my own bioblitz, and not a moment too soon. Before dawn tomorrow, I'll load up my gear and drive to my selected study spot, prepared to make every effort to catalog its macroscopic residents. As I mentioned before, my study site is a stagnant pond a couple of miles from where I grew up, that I've visited numerous times each year for the past forty or so years. Painting Discipline (above), with its panoply of Wasatch Mountain flora and fauna, is probably the closest thing I've ever done to this bioblitz. I have no idea how long it will take, so I'll start at one end of the long, narrow pond, and work my way down, trying to tally the plants, animals and fungi that I observe, and see how far I get. I've set a few rules for myself that will surely be amended as work progresses. We're being asked to identify organisms to species, and I'll do my best to do that, but I'll try not to sacrifice too much accuracy in fealty to this rule. Identifying tetrapods to species shouldn't be too tough during the day, as long as I don't see any voles or shrews. My efforts to borrow a mist net for some bat trapping proved fruitless, and the Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus) is the only local bat I can ID on the wing, so I probably won't go past family on them. Large animals will probably be over-represented, since I've decided to count any animals that I can see from the site (they don't actually have to step within ten meters of the water's edge). Signs like tracks, scats, calls, etc., won't be officially counted, but any noteworthy signs will surely be mentioned. I'll bring nets, field guides, notebook...and since I draw pictures for a living, I'd be a schmuck not to bring a sketchpad. In anticipation of tomorrow's activities, I'll fill out the rest of this post with an in-depth description of the site, which is in Emigration Canyon, a drainage into the Salt Lake Valley to the west, from the Wasatch Mountains. Emigration was not only my boyhood home, but was the route that Brigham Young and his band of Mormon pioneers followed in 1847 to their promised land.

The pond itself is some 600 feet long, running from latitude 40.764486356930334 and longitude 111.77342176437378, east to latitude 40.764860152779484 and longitude 111.77185535430908. In width it varies from about 30 feet to two feet. Seen as a tree-lined, transverse gash in a satellite photo, it's situated in “Perkins Flat,” the remnant of a small Pleistocene lake bed. Ute and Shoshone Indians must have frequented the area in recent centuries, and before them, the Fremonts, but they all left very little evidence behind them. Perkins Flat was first homesteaded by Willie Strong, who grew potatoes, alfalfa, grain and garden vegetables, before moving off of the land around 1891, when Walter Perkins took it over. The Perkins family farm was active for over 30 years, and was later leased to Fran Meik, who usually told folks he owned it, and farmed there until 1947, when Edwin Cannon bought it from Perkins' heirs.

Cannon, who built a tiny amusement park across the street from my house where I used to play as a kid, installed an ice skating rink on the Flat. Digging a circular depression, he rimmed it with a dirt berm, and connected it to the creek with a narrow channel. He hauled in two old army barracks, and enlisted Mel Humphries to plow the frozen pond in winter with his pickup truck, and manage the rink, rent skates and sell hot chocolate. Harm Walker leased a section of the Flat west of the rink, where he built a small riding stable (above), and rented ponies and donkeys, and an eatery, where he sold hamburgers, hot dogs and beer, and lived in the back. These enterprises weren't particularly successful, thanks in part to a succession of mild winters. Cannon sold the two barracks to neighbor E. B. Osguthorpe, who moved one of them to his property, where it still sits today. The other one burned down before E. B. could move it. In 1956, sheepmen Leo and Jay Bertagnole bought the land, and considered a number of enterprises, but did nothing with it but doze out a number of truckloads of dirt immediately west of the old rink, which were sold as topsoil. In the 1970s, Real Estate Developer James Sorenson began buying property in the area, with plans to build a high-end gated development, which eventually saw its grand opening in 1994. Today his colony of garish and poorly-built mansions sits on the hillside above the Flat. A wonderful grove of Bigtooth Maples (Acer grandidentum) was sacrificed for the subdivision, but only the access road insults the Flat itself, which is about as wild as it's been in the last century.

When I first explored Perkins Flat about 40 years ago, two large ponds stood as its main features: the circular, abandoned skating rink, and the long furrow left by Bertagnole's soil excavation, flooded with groundwater. At some point, Mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) had been introduced to both ponds, and large, persistent populations were in evidence. Young Black Bullheads (Ameiurus melas), also introduced, swam in shoals in the round pond. Whether Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens) colonized the ponds on their own, or were transferred by human agency, they were also hugely successful.

In the spring of 1971, I began finding turtles of numerous species: Sliders (Chrysemys spp.), Musk Turtles (Sternotherus odoratus), Mud Turtles (Kinosternon spp.), and even a ten-inch Common Snapper (Chelydra serpentina). The following summer, the mystery of these exotics was solved when I met an older teenage boy who, after a couple of years traveling around the U.S., catching turtles, decided to experiment with introducing them to Utah, ultimately determining that these ponds could not sustain them for more than a couple of years. Somehow, Turtle Boy, who otherwise seemed quite bright, convinced himself that carving an outflow into the berm of the old rink would reduce the filling of the pond with sediment, but when he dug it, the whole thing collapsed. It took a few years for the drained pond to fill in completely with sediment. Today, 20-foot-tall trees grow in the center of the dry depression, which can be seen just above and to the right of the gash in the Google satellite photo.

That gash to the west--the long, narrow pond left by the Bertagnole excavation will be my study site. Although the water table has seen a dropping trend over the past 25 years, there's still quite a bit of water there. Throughout Emigration Canyon, Northern Leopard Frogs vanished quickly between 1972 and '74. The pond's Mosquitofish died out in the early 1990s, but it is still pretty rich with life. More talk of trends after my return. (Thanks to Jeff Carlstrom and Cynthia Furse for Historical data.)
upper: DISCIPLINE--FERRUGINOUS HAWK (1995) acrylic 40" x 30"
lower: Photograph of the Cannon Riding Stables from the Salt Lake County Tax Records.


Blogger burning silo said...

Nice introduction to your survey site. I'll be quite interested to read (and I expect "see") what you find. I was a bit surprised when you made mention of turtles, until I read further about their source. I must say, Turtle Boy must have been a pretty industrious teenager to attempt introducing turtles to an area.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Camera Trap Codger said...

I have the feeling there are more Turtle Boys around than we think. When the 1958 earthquake hit San Francisco about 50 Pacific Treefrogs were liberated from gallon jars in my bedroom. Half of them apparently went out the window and established a chorus in a concrete pond and fountain in the backyard across the way. The old widower who lived there seemed to consider it a miracle.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi! THanks for going into the history of the place! Celeste

1:27 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Burning Silo: Turtle Boy was actually a very smart and knowledgeable kid. I wish I could remember his name. I'd love to find out what happened to him.
CTC: There sure are plenty of Turtle Boys out there. Fortunately, most of their projects, like his did, fail.
Wyldthang: And thanks for coming by.

10:36 AM  

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