Subscribers to our newsletter will be familiar with The Naturalist’s Corner of Holiday. This is your place to discover something you didn’t know about the desert, its rivers, and anything in between. Check back as we continue to add new entries!


 Tyndall at Crystal GeyserCrystal Geyser

The winter of 2022-23 was the ninth wettest winter in Utah on record since 1895. In our current period of severe drought, the effects of this precipitation have been dramatic and widespread, from a decrease in wildfires to extreme urban flooding. One more obscure result of this can be found just outside the town of Green River at the Crystal Geyser.

Unlike the more famous geysers of Yellowstone, the Crystal Geyser is not powered by heat and pressure but rather carbon dioxide gas. It was partially human-created when an exploratory oil well intersected with groundwater, supplied from the nearby Green River, and an underground pocket of carbon dioxide gas. The well was quickly abandoned and a new attraction was formed, with the geyser shooting water between 80 and 150 feet into the air at incredibly regular intervals. Over the years, the eruptions became less and less frequent, predictable, and dramatic.

That is until the spring of 2023! With the larger volume of water in the river and higher water table, the Crystal Geyser erupted with more force and frequency than it had in years. While still not back to a regular schedule, that summer was a great opportunity to witness the geyser in all its glory.


Guide leans over a melon on the lunch tableMelons

The town of Green River has a rich history with melons and many agree that the best, tastiest melons in the world are grown here. The main crop of the town had been peaches until a deep freeze in 1919 killed most of the peach trees. A local farmer named J.H. Brown had been experimenting with different melon crops, and learned that melons thrive in sandy soils and a desert climate. After the freeze, cantaloupes became the agricultural staple of the area. Every third weekend since 1906, the town has hosted a festival called “Melon Days”, featuring a parade, fair games, craft vendors, square dancing, and more. 

Once harvested, Holiday is proud to support (and indulge in) the delicious tradition by bringing along local melons on every trip. Dunham Farms is one of the primary melon farms in town and dear friends of ours. They tout perhaps the most diverse selection one can find, ranging beyond traditional varieties such as watermelon and cantaloupe to more obscure types such as lampkins, crenshaws, honeylopes, and israelis. Some years, Dunham Farms has had 17 different types of melons to choose from! Choosing the best, most eclectic supply for a trip is typically a guide’s favorite part of the packing process, and we always have some around the warehouse for snacking.


Sego Lily

The Sego Lily (Calochortus nutallii) also known as the Mariposa Lily, is a beautiful white flower that grows across the Western U.S. at low elevations in dry, arid desert sage land, and among ponderosa groves at higher elevations. It blooms in May – June, with each plant sporting three large, waxy petals, and on each petal’s inner surface is a purplish marking with small, bright yellow hairs covered in nectar. After germinating at the surface, the seed has a unique mechanism where it uses contractile roots to slowly burrow into the soil to a depth of around 10cm. There are seven variations of the plant native to Utah, all of which require excellent drainage and no water during the dormant summer months, making it a great option for a xeriscaped garden.

Sego is derived from a Shoshone word believed to mean “edible bulb”. Early Mormon settlers learned from the Indigenous people of the region that the soft, bulbous root, somewhere between the size of a walnut and marble, could be roasted, boiled, or made into a porridge. They typically maintained their color after cooking and were best had fresh-cooked as they turned thick and ropy after cooling. Sego Lillies were critical to providing sustenance to early settlers during a plague of crickets that ravaged crops in the late 1840’s.

The hearty folks who survived through these hard times settling Utah took pride in their self-reliance and toughness, identifying as a “bulbeater” with pride in comparison to the newcomers moving west in the decades to follow. On March 18, 1911, the Utah State Legislature declared the Sego Lily to be the state of flower, recognizing it as a symbol of resilience, beauty, and the pioneer spirit. By the First World War, the flower also became a symbol of peace in no small part to Karl E. Fordham’s poem “Sego Lily” he wrote for the men and women from Utah who were serving which portrayed the plant as an image of home, mercy, freedom, and peace.


Cottonwoods

In Echo Park, the free flow of the Yampa still has the potential to move the channel. Female Fremont Cottonwood trees cast their cotton to the wind according to timing that matches the natural high water flows of the rivers. The timing is such that the cotton falls just after the natural peak flow but only in exceptional flood years does the channel move enough that those newly planted seeds are protected from the high flows of subsequent years. After the peak, a successfully planted seedling rapidly drives a tap root down to follow the receding river flows.  Conditions here are so unique that cottonwoods often end up growing in age cohorts that are traceable to individual floods.

This photo shows bank erosion undermining a mature tree as the channel is finally shifting back to the place where it helped plant the tree.

 


The Collared LizardCollard Lizard on Colorado Wildlife

A male Collared Lizard performed a few pushups for us along the Little Hole hike in Westwater Canyon. They are fiercely territorial and will fight with any encroaching males particularly if a female is nearby.  Males tend to be showoffs and will allow people to come within a few feet but be careful as they can inflict a painful bite.  Eating mostly insects like grasshoppers often catching them after a fast chase running on their hind legs. The female is less brightly colored but retains the distinctive black stripes around the throat. Crotaphytus Collaris.

 


Tamarisk Beetle

Following extensive testing by the USDA-ARS, the tamarisk beetle began to be released in 2004 in our region.  Beetles have had a great effect in controlling the tamarisk. They defoliate the tamarisk and many of the river banks and river bottoms especially along the Green and Colorado rivers have shown great changes in the last few years. Tamarisk trees are resilient and usually it takes several years and several cycles of defoliation before the tamarisk begins to die. Due to their deep, extensive root system, after they die, it takes human labor to remove the remaining plant. It is an extensive, challenging task.  That said, we can already see in some areas the dead stands of tamarisk have started to be removed by volunteer groups. It is amazing to see the new beaches especially after a high water year like this one. In some places, the river banks were once impassible thickets.

Now it is possible to wade through a few willows and reach the canyon flats. A few photos exist from the days before the tamarisk and make for astonishing comparisons. The rivers are rediscovering their freedom and we are starting to see what Powell and the early river explorers or even the ancestral Puebloans might have seen.


Stream Orchids

Stream Orchid

Stream Orchid

Epipactis Gigantean, sometimes called “stream orchid” is not really that big. Each bloom would fit nicely in the palm of my hand. This orchid would normally be found in very wet habitats rather than in the high desert of Northwestern Colorado in Dinosaur National Monument along the Yampa River.

This particular orchid is growing a little way up the canyon cliff in a small alcove far from any side stream. It is however on the north side of the Yampa River.  Because the geologic layers have a small tilt southward in this area enough that the back of the alcove is moist and even damp from water percolating down. It comes through the Weber sandstone and then runs on a bedding plane in the big Aeolian formation. This extra water allows the orchid to continue blooming into June most years and survive in the alcove as part of a little hanging garden that includes some tiny white Columbine as well.

 

 

 


River Guide TJ SattelmeierTJ Sattelmeier is a long-time Holiday guide, ski instructor, and writer who lives in Park City when he is not on the river and is making plans to take his two little boys on the river next summer.

 

 

 

 

Justin Malloy WriterOriginally from the suburbs near Cleveland, Ohio, Justin made his way to Utah after graduating from Ohio University with a degree in exploring and having fun… If not on the river or in the kitchen, you’ll find him wandering the mountains, drinking coffee, or writing down words he hopes will come across as sensical.