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Paddling the Great Salt Lake

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On September 7, I traveled to Utah for some field experiments. I was supposed to return from Salt Lake City on Wednesday the 12th, but the tragic events of the 11th changed everyone's plans.

On Wednesday evening I got to thinking about what to do until the airline system could get me back to Boston. I knew I wasn't going anywhere for at least two days. Of course, kayaking immediately came to mind. After a few phone calls and a brief drive to the Salt Lake City REI, I had a Perception Eclipse strapped to the roof of the SUV.

My plan was to explore the northern coastline of Antelope Island the next day. (After a few quick measurements, circumnavigation was out. That would have been ~36 miles, more than I was prepared to do). Antelope Island is a large State Park sitting in the Great Salt Lake. It is about 15 miles long, 6 miles wide, with a 6600' peak in the center. It has a marina, swimming beach, camping area, hiking and mountain biking trails, and its own bison herd. All that for $7 / day. Getting to the island was easy: one drives about 40 minutes from downtown, then 7 miles across a causeway from the park entrance gate.

Thinking ahead for once, I left a _detailed_ float plan with the rangers: who I was, what I had with me, what my skill level was, where I planned to be, and when to start looking if I didn't show up. Interestingly, they were thrilled. Apparently, many folks just wander off not leaving any plans either for kayaking or hiking. Then the rangers get to clean up the mess.

At the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake, it is immediately apparent this is someplace different: There are billions of flies that live at the water's edge. As you walk, they move ahead like a gray powder snow, but unlike the NE Greenheads, they seemed to be indifferent to my presence.

Paddling out past the marina breakwater, I began to see the beauty of the place. There were thousands of birds: I assume Salt Lake gulls, small loon-like diving birds, and many others I've never seen before. They made little sound, but flew when I got within a few kayak lengths.

I headed west , then south as I rounded the Northern end of the island. This took me across the mouth of Bridger Bay where the swimming beach and camp ground are. Passing the western most tip of the island, I paddled into the expanse of White Rock Bay.

I found myself looking at an extraordinary landscape. From my left, far to the east across the foot of the island, I could see the front of the Wassach Mountains with large cumulus clouds building in the updrafts. On the island, closer to the east, the rolling plane was covered in a golden layer of grasses. Over the bow, I could see the backbone of the island extending up to Friary Peak rising half a mile above the lake. It appeared to be barren, black grey in color, burned from a lightening storm last Spring: stark, but exquisite in contrast to the green of the lake and deep blue of the desert sky. Also straight ahead, was White Rock which shone mineral white in the sun. To the right, west, I could see down the Tooele valley and further abeam, the Lakeside Mountains 35 miles away.

I had difficulty judging the distances. White Rock seemed a ways off, but took an even longer time to get there. Once there, the next headland, Elephant Head, looked as if it had moved even further away while I had been paddling. The sky was immense.

I eventually stopped for lunch at Elephant Head, pulling out in small bay to the south. I wanted to continue on after eating, the next headland looked so interesting, and, of course, so would the next. I became more aware that I was in a wilderness, quite alone. Reason and not wanting to spoil my claim, "experienced sea kayaker" in my float plan prevailed and I stayed put.

On the rocky shore, there were small sunflowers growing. They were about 3-4' tall, amazingly tough, and growing amongst rocks with salt deposits on the surfaces. I had a perfect view of an amphitheater bounded by Elephant Head and the curve of the bay. The back of the bowl extended all the way up to Friary Peak. At the back of the bay, I noticed some large brown boulders. Looking again, a few minutes later, I realized the boulders had moved. It finally dawned on me here were three bison grazing in the distance.

Since this was the first day off I'd had in 18 consecutive days of intense work, I just drank this all in. Melting into the rocks, I became part of the land. Clock time ceased to have any meaning. Occasionally, I had trouble focussing on the scene about me, through tears, as I thought of the violent deaths of so many of our Countrymen and women. I needed the land, water, and sky. The lake, the island, the animals hadn't changed. They knew nothing of the human struggles. This is why we take to the sea in our tiny boats.

Perhaps the most powerful element of the lake was the Silence. Sitting here at my computer with its fan, and the refrigerator humming in the kitchen above me, it is hard to explain just how profoundly quiet it was. For six hours, I saw no one; I heard no one; I saw no boats; I heard no motors. A few ravens flying along the slopes above me, were calling to each other. The little water birds made no sounds. The wind was light and carried no sounds to me. The lake was glassy, so no waves broke on the shore. I even found myself breathing very softly to blend into my surroundings. There were no planes in the sky above, just a silent vault of blue. I didn't want to leave this wild, silent place.

After long time, I climbed back in the kayak and explored the bay looking for more brown boulders that moved. Only two remained, still some 200 yards away.

I turned north, pulling against a moderate breeze from the NW which had kicked up in the late afternoon. Again the distances were playing tricks on me. The GPS said I was making 4.5-5.0 mph yet nothing seemed to move. The rental paddle felt heavy. Finally I crossed to the north of White Rock bay. With the closer shoreline, speed and distance made sense again.

Besides the green color, brine shrimp, and pink streaks of algae bloom, the water of the lake seemed physically different. There was a lot less chop than I expected for the wind and fetch. It was as you might expect, very salty, but when I checked the chemical composition, it is not too much different from seawater. It is denser however, so the kayak must have sat higher and even with the hairy rental hull, I was able to make good speed.

I returned to the marina with the sun only a palm width above the horizon. There I saw the first people of the day, brine shrimpers preparing their skimmer boats for the harvest in October. Fortunately, they were kind enough to help me get the Eclipse back on top of the SUV.

I had paddled only 14 miles, but I had been to a very wild and special place. I burned through two rolls of film attempting to capture the expanse of the land. The photos turned out pretty well, but still fall short. What I will always remember will be the magical, silent stillness.

Juan Ochoa

Harvard, MA


If you are traveling to Salt Lake City, take an extra day and rent a boat from REI. The prices are reasonable. Then take I -15 N to the Syracuse Exit. Follow the signs to Antelope Island, ~ 40 min from the SLC Airport. Everyone is very friendly and helpful. You will have a different adventure, but it will be worth it.

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