It was the evening before my January trip to Indian Canyon. As I walked to the “camping shed” to get my backpack and cross-country skis, some movement in the sky caught my attention. It was a large flock of Canada geese heading north through the sunset. A moment later an even larger flock flew up over the oilwell that’s south of our house, and I watched them fly north until they became little specks and disappeared in front of the Uinta Mountains. The sight of those geese flying in the evening light was beautiful, but it was also disconcerting to me because it was mid-January – the day before Martin Luther King Day. Geese are supposed to fly north in the spring – not the middle of the winter.
When I was a kid winters usually got bitter cold here in northeastern Utah, and it wasn’t unusual for January lows to get down to around thirty degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Winters tend to be so much warmer now, and seeing those geese showed me just how much things have changed. And it wasn’t just a few geese either – looking at my photos later I was able to count the geese, a total of 123 of them.
I got my stuff all packed up, but before I went to bed I did something every back-country skier should do before a trip. I checked the avalanche center website for the latest forecast. They don’t do a forecast for the area I was heading to, so I looked at the forecast for the western Uinta Mountains. Everything below timberline was shown in green – meaning low avalanche danger. The final sentence on the page said, “many people have commented that conditions right now remind them of what we typically see in late February or March.”
The next morning I went to Indian Canyon, and as I started out on my skis I found myself agreeing that the snow conditions were spring-like. I love spring skiing, but I’d rather wait until it’s actually spring to have those conditions – because it just doesn’t seem right to have spring-like conditions in January.
As I skied, I saw yuccas sticking up through the snow. Yuccas are a plant that I enjoy seeing in Indian Canyon, and it’s a plant that I don’t see in most of the other places that I visit. When I see them I appreciate their beauty, and I also think about the how important they were for Native Americans. On Utah State University Extension’s “Range Plants of Utah” website it states that, “All species of yucca have played an important role in the economy of the American Indians. Stalks, buds, flowers, and some fruits have served as food. Roots are used for soap and as a laxative and leaf fibers were used as cordage, weaving material, and sandals.”
Did you know that yuccas are related to asparagus, and belong to the asparagus family, Asparagaceae? There are about forty species of yucca, and the one in Indian Canyon is Harriman’s Yucca, Yucca harrimaniae (it’s sometimes called Spanish bayonet). Yuccas are pollinated by yucca moths.
Indian Canyon has a lot of steep terrain, and I was curious to see if I could ski up through a steep, forested slope. I made it part way up the steep slope, but ultimately gave up and decided to go back down to the more level area below. It was interesting, though, seeing the footprints of the animals that had been moving around on the steep slope – including elk and rabbits. While I was on the slope looking at the animal trails in the snow I thought about how these animals are living in their own world. We people get caught up thinking about things that our going on in our lives – and I think it’s good to get out into nature and realize that other creatures have their own lives that they are living.
As I was skiing down to the more level slope, I became more and more fascinated with what was going on in the sky. There were such bright white clouds, with strange textures and shapes, standing out against the dark blue sky. It was such an amazing backdrop to the partially snow-covered canyon and ridges around me.
I skied up into a side canyon until I came to a pour-off. Melting snow above the pour-off had frozen and formed icicles that hung from the ledge. It was such a peaceful, beautiful sight. I noticed movement to the left of the icicles and saw a bird moving about in some vegetation. After looking closely at my photos of it and comparing them to my bird guide and some bird websites, I’m almost certain it was a plumbeous vireo, Vireo plumbeus. That species is not supposed to be here in Utah in winter, but as the migrating geese and spring-like snow conditions showed, some things are currently not the way they are supposed to be.
You may notice that the word plumbeous sounds like the words plumbing or plumber, and there’s a reason for that. According to the “Ken Neyer Plumbing” website, “The word plumbing comes from Latin, like many words in English. The Latin word plumbum means ‘lead,’ which is why the symbol for lead on the periodic table of the elements is ‘Pb.’ (Flashbacks to high school chemistry class!) Lead was the material used for the early plumbing systems of the Roman Empire.” The plumbeous vireo was given its name because of its gray, lead-like, color.
The bird was previously known as the solitary vireo but, as the Cornell Lab “All About Birds” website points out, that species was split into the plumbeous, Cassin’s, and blue-headed vireos in 1997. I personally think “solitary vireo” was a much nicer, more poetic name than the current name. The bird I saw seemed be solitary, away from other members of its species – like I also was that day.
I sat on a little rock ledge and ate the lunch I’d brought in an insulated container – pasta cooked with dried home-grown tomatoes from last summer’s garden. The warm food really hit the spot. While I enjoyed the meal, I also enjoyed the views and the peace and serenity of the place. I was far enough from Highway 191 that I wasn’t noticing sights or sounds of the vehicles that were traveling the highway. I enjoyed the vistas, and I also enjoyed seeing the shale rocks that were around me. One of them had little marks in it that looked like they could have been the careful work of an artist. It almost looked like a pattern made of frost, or of vegetation.
I heard a sound and looked around and saw that one of the icicles had just collapsed and fallen to the ground. I took a last look at the remaining icicles, and then put my pack and skis back on and skied down out of the little canyon. I skied a ways up into a bigger canyon, where I took off my skis and trudged up a slope that was too steep for me to ski. I went up into a mixed forest that includes bristlecone pine trees. The first bristlecone pine I passed is one of my favorites, and I enjoy seeing it each time I’m in the area. As I mentioned in my “Weird Trees” post about bristlecone pines, warmer winters are making these trees more vulnerable to attacks by bark beetles. Those thirty-below temperatures from my childhood did a good job of periodically reducing the populations of pine beetles, and now those beetles are thriving with the warmer winters.
An elk had recently made its way up the slope, and where things leveled out a bit I found some elk beds. I looked at where elk had laid in the snow, and at their footprints, and I noticed long hairs that had been left behind. The length and color made me think they were probably mane hairs. I wondered if the elk might be shedding hair because of the unusually warm temperatures, so after my trip I did some research.
According to a National Park Service website, “The cue for the elk to change coats is day length. Starting in March as days get longer, the old winter coat starts dropping off.” So, it may have just been a little bit of natural hair loss that I saw, rather than shedding. I am concerned, though, that warming winter temperatures could be a problem for elk. On a page about elk on an Idaho PBS website I read that, “An elk’s winter coat is five times warmer than its summer coat.” As temperatures keep rising, those warm winter coats may be feeling way too warm.
I don’t know what the optimal temperature is for an elk, but I remember being surprised years ago when a local veterinarian told me that the optimal temperature for cattle is about fifty degrees Fahrenheit. He said it’s hard on them when farmers do branding, vaccination, etc in the summer when temperatures are high. I enjoy the luxury of being able to add and take off layers as the temperature changes, but elk and other animals don’t have that luxury.
I found a place with a nice view of an open area and took off my backpack and pulled out a trail camera that I had brought with me. I strapped the camera onto the base of a tree where it could capture photos of animals moving through the area. The light was fading quickly so I hurried back down to where I’d left my skis. About the time I got to my skis the full moon came up over the ridge to the east of me. I enjoyed skiing back to the car in the moonlight. I loaded the skis in and headed for home.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about climate change. Part of my concern about it may be self-centered, because I love cross-country skiing and I don’t want to lose opportunities to do that because of a shortened winter season due to the warming climate. I’m also concerned, though, about the geese and the elk and the bristlecone pines and other species here in this part of the world that are being affected by climate change – and I’m concerned about the negative impacts on ecosystems and species worldwide. It’s urgent that we humans do everything we can to stop causing climate change.
Utah Avalanche Center: https://utahavalanchecenter.org/
Utah State University Extension’s Range Plants of Utah website: https://extension.usu.edu/rangeplants/shrubs-and-trees/Yucca
Ken Neyer Plumbing: https://www.neyerplumbing.com/blog/plumbing-service/plumbing-comes-latin-lead-other-interesting-plumbing-facts/
The Cornell Lab: All About Birds. Plumbeous Vireo: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Plumbeous_Vireo/overview
National Park Service: Rocky Mountain National Park. Why Do the Elk Look So Scruffy?: https://www.nps.gov/romo/elk_look_scruffy.htm
Idaho PBS Elk Facts: https://sciencetrek.org/sciencetrek/topics/elk/facts.cfm