BIOL 1010: Intro to Biology

Every Day is Earth Day

Graham at Lower Bell Canyon Reservoir 4.25.15

     If you live in Salt Lake City, and also have a love of being outdoors, then you are a very fortunate soul. Along the front range of the Wasatch Mountains, I feel lucky to be able to leave my house and be on a hiking trail in a matter of minutes. While there are many trails and canyons to choose from, Granite trail head at Bell Canyon is absolutely teeming with life this time of year. Located adjacent to Little Cottonwood Canyon in the city of Sandy, the Bell Canyon trail system and reservoirs are ideal for any experience level of hiker, adults and kids alike, but since the area is one of our protected watersheds, our furry, four-legged friends are not permitted to walk or trail run alongside us.

To celebrate Earth Day with my son for the first time, we began our late-morning hike to Lower Bell Canyon Reservoir before the spring sun was high in the sky. It was the most perfect day; the air was crisp, the sun felt warm, and the breeze blew gently upon our faces. To my dismay, I could still hear the traffic below as we started our trek, but thankfully that was quickly replaced by the intriguing songs of a couple of birds. The feeling that I experience when I hear the song of a new bird—one that I cannot identify—makes me feel like a child again, full of wonder and curiosity. I looked around until I found the creature that was making such an interesting sound and mentally noted its size, coloring, spots, and song so that I could attempt to identify it later. The bird was the size and shape of a robin, but with a white feathered belly and red-orange feathers under its dark brown-black wing feathers. Also, it had black spots dotted along the boundary between the white and red-orange feathers. Its song was unlike the sweet chirp of a robin; instead it sang long notes that sounded like something out of a jazz percussion section. I just stood there for several minutes watching him, listening to his song, and enjoying the moment.

Continuing my walk along the trail, I saw ladybugs on the brown, still lifeless scrub oak trees, pill bugs crawling across the path, and big, fat, fuzzy bumblebees buzzing up and over my head. Finally, as I came up to a bend in the trail, I encountered a rather large and gorgeous light yellow butterfly and followed its flitting dance through the air. Thinking of it now, makes me happy—it was the largest butterfly I have ever seen; definitely not an average size and without a doubt, much larger than a more easily recognizable Monarch butterfly. As I watched it bounce around in the air until it was out of sight, another flying creature caught my eye. A singular hawk floated high above the trail, gliding on the wind in a circular rhythm. Observing birds of prey float and fly around always makes me feel enchanted and free. Suddenly, a memory from a hike in Arizona many years earlier comes to mind. Once at sunset, while resting on a large boulder midway through a trail run, I noticed a chipmunk scrambling across an open area, when from behind me, a hawk swooped down right over my head and picked up its dinner. To witness such an incredible power is to fully appreciate evolution. In this moment though, this particular hawk does not appear to be hunting; rather he seems to be enjoying the ride.

As I was hiking, I noticed that the greenest foliage was on the ground, and some plants were even starting to show their flowers. I saw what I think was wild carrot with light yellow flowers and its green leaves that definitely bear a striking resemblance to what we eat in our salads. For the first time ever, I observed desert sage in a whole new light. The sage plants had small tan brown, almost grayish colored round pods all over their branches. When I felt one, it was almost velvet-like and seemed hollow so I am not sure if the spherical pod was a seed, or if perhaps it had seeds inside of it. Regardless, it was neat to witness something that I had not previously done so on hundreds of past spring hikes.

As we approached the pinnacle of Granite Trail, we were flanked by giant granite boulders that had black inclusions jutting out from them in several places. The namesake of the trail head was completely fitting since now I could see granite everywhere. These massive boulders, now resting near the man-made reservoir, must have tumbled or been dragged down the canyon ages ago during glaciation. The feeling of standing there, somewhere so old, where the ancient sea met the glacier is simply extraordinary. I stood there in awe wondering if anyone else hiking today knew the history of this place.

Then just as if I had crossed a threshold, down in front of me was the oasis I had sought after on this adventure. The water was sparkling from the sunlight overhead and looked cool and refreshing. In my mind, I could almost feel that sensation of taking your boots off at the end of a hike and dipping them in the lake. I scrambled down in between the boulders and onto the trail that goes around the reservoir. I headed east towards the sound of a trickling stream and found myself under the canopy of trees, suddenly immersed in a forest. It was as if my son and I were all alone, deep in the woods watching the water run down and over the rocks, sand, and fallen branches finally meeting its resting place in the lake. We crossed over and back on a makeshift footbridge and relished in the coolness of the shade.

Walking around the lake, I found an ideal resting spot, and took off my child-carrying backpack, letting my son get out so we could explore the shore, play with rocks, and see what other forms of life we might discover. I saw a few more butterflies with varying shapes and colors. One was the tiniest thing I had ever seen and the color of rust, orange, and red while another was periwinkle blue with bright orange painted only on the tips of its upper wings.  Soon thereafter, a pair of friendly Canadian Geese honked their way over to us, probably looking for a treat, but instead we just said hello. We sat there for some time listening to the birds chirping, ducks quacking, geese honking and as the wind picked up, it sent ripples of water towards shore. All of the sounds washed over me while I became absorbed in nature and I felt utterly relaxed…now if only we had brought a hammock.

Of all days to experience the lovely world of nature, Earth Day was made even more enjoyable, and made me feel truly connected within the biosphere. I look forward to learning more about all of the different species of birds in my backyard, the Wasatch and Uinta mountain ranges, and across the state of Utah. We live in such a unique area where it seems we have limitless opportunities to see both migrating and permanent bird residents. I cannot wait to be able to identify more birds and butterflies the next time I hit the trail. As a self-proclaimed rock-hound, I typically focus a lot of my attention on the geology and rock formations around me while I am out hiking, but on this particular day, I found myself truly seeing all of the living things around me. Some were new, some were different, but all leave me with the feeling that I was in search of all along – serenity.

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