The anticipation began to build as I eased the front end of the 4-wheeler up a small incline near the crest of a bluff situated above a familiar river here in Cache Valley that has been one of my favorite places to visit each summer as I begin my summer job with the Mosquito Abatement District.
One of the many reasons I enjoy my summer employment so much (other than the extra income it provides) is that I get to view (and get stuck in) some pretty unique areas here in Cache Valley. I always marvel at the beauty this little place that we call home provides — and pretty much free of charge to boot (unless you want to get into one of our national parks or get a primo camping spot) all within just minutes of our homes.
The spot I enjoy frequenting on my daily wanderings isn’t as spectacular as the Grand Canyon or even as breathtaking as Bear Lake when you drop over the summit of Logan Canyon, but to me it offers its own displays of beauty and a habitat full of life. The trail that leads to this area is bordered by grasses almost 6 feet tall, and riding through feels like being in a tunnel. Beyond the grasses are thick cattails that encompass and take over the small ponds that dot the meadow in the river valley.
Red winged black birds announce my presence by perching horizontally on the cattail stalks and chattering incessantly from their swaying guard towers. Hundreds of camouflage frogs jet into the water, making audible plop plopping noises from the banks of the ponds as I approach. Ducks, muskrats, an occasional lumbering beaver, lot’s of snakes, blue herons, hawks, pheasants, wild turkeys and sandhill cranes also frequent this little section of Mesopotamia, and last year I even saw a fox weaving in and out of the tall grasses above the riverbank.
A big stand of cottonwood trees lines the arena around the ponds and provides the cover and shade that both human and animal might find enticing on a hot summer day. I always bring my binoculars with me to work so I can 1.) check out all the cool wildlife 2.) spot animals, mostly cows and their calves, that have either managed to get themselves stuck or have died, and 3.) keep an eye out for bulls (and one particular mule) who have anger issues. I mean, why can’t all bulls just be more like Ferdinand?
The sight that awaited me as I crested the hill was, to say the least, a bit of a shock. The ponds were mostly dried up, their once vibrant shorelines vacant, replaced by thick mud tiles baked solid by the sun’s heat. The cattails were dead and dried up, not a green stalk among them, forcing the squadrons of bickering blackbirds to retreat elsewhere. The towering grasses were gone, dried and cropped closely to the ground by hungry cows and the few deer who followed the blackbirds to more fertile digs. I only saw one bullfrog as I made my way around the dried ponds, and he didn’t look very excited about the current living conditions either.
Dried floor tiles are a poor substitute for a cool, deep pond. The cattle used to have readily available water to stand in and drink and grass to wade through up to their bellies, but they were now laying on bare patches of dirt with their calves, using portable water troughs brought in by the ranchers.
The scene before me reminded me of movies depicting barren water holes in Africa or similar places where animals travel hundreds of miles following the rains just to survive, which made me wonder a little bit. The conditions I witnessed were reflective of a water situation perhaps in late August during an extremely hot, dry year, not the first week in June. The water levels in all of our lakes and reservoirs have dropped to record levels, necessitating changes in the way we should manage our water. The UDWR has even increased the number of daily bag limits for fish in certain bodies of water so they can be used as a food resource instead of going belly up in water that holds too little oxygen.
How many of you are sick and tired of hearing the word “unprecedented”? Well guess what? I believe the summer/fall of 2021 will go on file as being yet again, you know, that un-word.
It’s not a matter of if but when we start really experiencing some water woes — wildfires ignited by fireworks being one of them. I believe that I saw somewhere that 81% of the fires in Utah last summer were human caused? Yes, I know not all of those were fireworks-related and were caused by other things like gender reveal mishaps, campfires, target shooting, uncontrolled controlled burns, chains dragging on the road from trailer hitches, cigarette butts and of course those with healthy thighs running in corduroy pants. I’m just wondering how much of our state and its resources are going to be consumed as a result of fireworks-related blazes.
Ask firefighters how they’re feeling about things this summer and watch their facial expressions. They know. As for me, I’ll keep watching my little section of Mesopotamia in Cache Valley, hoping to witness its rebirth next year.
Chad Hawkes is a fifth grade teacher at North Park Elementary School. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org