- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

SALT LAKE CITY — Western writer Wallace Stegner called it “a desert of water in a desert of salt and mud and rock” — an apt description for Utah’s dead sea. Only brine shrimp, which are less than half an inch long, some bacteria and algae can survive in its waters, which are three to five times saltier than the ocean, and everyone gets a whiff when stiff winds blow the lake’s peculiar odor — known affectionately as “lake stink” — into the Salt Lake Valley.

For adventurers who can look past their noses, this desert of water — much like the desert playa across which it spreads — is desolately beautiful. It covers 1,200 square miles and is home to hundreds of bird species, three state parks and a piece of modern art, Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.”

On a bright fall day near the lake’s northernmost tip, a field of salt stretches out from what formerly was a rocky shoreline. Amid the icelike field are old pilings covered in crystalline salt, like open-air stalagmites. The “Spiral Jetty” juts out. The black basalt boulders once outlining the jetty are entirely exposed and, like everything else, have been overtaken by a thick crust of white. Sunglasses are a must.

Mr. Smithson created the earthwork in 1970 using black rocks from eons-old volcanic activity and sand.

The jetty is 15 feet wide and stretches out 1,500 feet counterclockwise from the shore. Coral-pink water — turned that color by salt-loving bacteria — once covered the jetty, leaving it visible only from the air. However, the region’s five-year drought, which has dramatically dropped water levels, has left the jetty bone dry, says Wally Gwynn, a saline geologist for the Utah Geological Survey.

Small white signs with black lettering direct the curious to Mr. Smithson’s work, which typifies his experimentation with environmental art and crude materials.

For those familiar only with the lake’s postcard scenes of turquoise waters against an alpine backdrop, the jetty is but one of several hidden gems.

About 25 miles southeast of the “Spiral Jetty” is the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a 74,000-acre sanctuary and home to more than 220 bird species throughout its 75-year history.

A recent drive on the refuge’s 12-mile tour route revealed a few solitary great blue herons standing majestically in the reeds, along with flocks of ducks, geese, soaring pelicans and chattering California gulls. The gull is Utah’s state bird, so designated after gulls devoured crickets that were destroying Utah’s crops in 1848.

The delta was made a refuge by Congress in 1928 and is open year-round. In the dead of winter, raptors such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons can been seen. Mid-May to early June is the best time to see downy chicks.

Thousands of shorebirds, including American avocets and black-necked stilts, migrate through the refuge in July and August. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, reports that up to 500,000 ducks and geese can come through the refuge in the fall.

Great Salt Lake is the remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville, which covered about 20,000 square miles and most of western Utah, along with parts of eastern Nevada and southern Idaho.

Bonneville’s footprint can be seen on terraces along the mountains surrounding the Salt Lake Valley, which were created as the lake evaporated. In Utah’s west desert, about 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, that evaporation left what is known as the Bonneville Salt Flats, where car-racing enthusiasts gather each September to challenge speed records. The vast expanse of blinding white salt is among the flattest areas on Earth, according to the Utah Geological Survey.

Bonneville was considered a freshwater lake, and whatever salt was left after its evaporation concentrated in Great Salt Lake.

It is a terminal lake, with no outlet. Four rivers flow into it — the Ogden, Weber, Jordan and Bear — but nothing flows out.

This lack of outflow contributes to the lake’s salinity. While the ocean is 3.5 percent salt, Great Salt Lake’s southern area is 15 percent salt. The north end, where the saline concentration is enhanced because the area is cut off by a railroad causeway, is 27 percent salt, Mr. Gwynn says.

Several mineral extraction companies operate on the lake, sucking out the salt or highly concentrated brine.

Each fall brings the brine shrimp harvest. The tiny creatures are the only animal life the lake supports. What’s harvested is actually called biomass and contains mostly brine shrimp eggs, algae and adult brine shrimp. The material ends up as feed for table shrimp and farm-raised fish.

The lake has 11 recognized islands, although at its current level, several of them are landlocked. The lake’s current elevation is 4,195 feet — barely above its record low in 1961 of 4,191 feet.

However, tourists shouldn’t worry that the lake will be gone by the time they get there. The drought pattern is normal, officials say, and just 15 years ago the “Spiral Jetty” and other lake attractions were flooded out — a situation that forced the state to spend millions on lake improvements.

In the late 1980s, the lake rose to a high of more than 4,211 feet, flooding Interstate 80 and the nearby Saltair resort. Also lost in the flood, but later restored, was a causeway allowing tourists to reach Antelope Island by foot, bicycle or car.

At more than 28,000 acres, Antelope is the lake’s largest island and home to Antelope Island State Park. The park contains the Fielding Garr Ranch House, the oldest continually inhabited Anglo home in the state.

The island’s calling card, however, is the herd of roaming bison, which can be seen while driving slowly on the island’s miles of paved roads.

About 600 bison, along with mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and coyote live on the island. Every fall the bison herd is rounded up to check on its health, and some bison are auctioned to meat producers to keep the herd manageable.

Hikers and cyclists can traverse miles of trails that crisscross the island. Hungry? Stuff yourself on buffalo burgers at a concession stand overlooking one of the island’s picturesque bays.

Feel like beaching? When water levels are higher than they have been recently, the island reveals some beautiful sandy stretches. With the salt concentration at its current level, one can wade out and float in the lake — taking care to keep the supersalty water out of the eyes and mouth.

Farther southwest, Great Salt Lake State Park is home to the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club, which boasts “the world’s saltiest sailors.”

The lake isn’t all salt. Waters from the Ogden River feed the lake and helped create Willard Bay State Park, a diked-off freshwater playground that draws water-skiers and fans of personal watercraft.

No Great Salt Lake guide is complete without addressing that peculiar smell, likened by many to rotten eggs, that results from sulfur-releasing bacteria. When a good wind blows across the lake and stirs up the mud, the stench can be smelled throughout the valleys along the Wasatch Range.

Still, the occasional flood and frequent bouts of “lake stink” aren’t enough to change Mr. Gwynn’s opinion about this inland sea. He has studied the lake for 30 years and likes it just the way it is.

It was around long before people and will be here long after.

“It’s very much alive; it’s very dynamic out there; it’s ever-changing,” Mr. Gwynn says. “One thing we as people have got to remember is you’re not going to conquer Great Salt Lake.”

Top Utah sites and activities

Here are some of the attractions and contacts for visitors headed for the Great Salt Lake area of Utah.

“Spiral Jetty”: www.robertsmithson.com. From Salt Lake City, take Interstate 15 north for about 60 miles. Take Exit 368 west through Corinne. Follow Utah Route 83 to the Golden Spike National Historic Site, then take the gravel road leading west.

After six miles, take the left (south) fork a mile to another road that heads right (southwest).

The final nine-mile stretch is rough and rocky; a high-clearance vehicle is recommended. The jetty is west of the overlook at the end of the road.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge: 435/723-5887; bearriver.fws.gov/. From Salt Lake City, take Interstate 15 north to Exit 366. Head west on Forest Street. Twelve-mile driving-biking route; free admission. Open during daylight hours year-round.

Utah State Parks: Web sites at www.stateparks.utah.gov/visiting/tour.htm

Antelope Island State Park: 801/773-2941. From Salt Lake City, take Interstate 15 north to Exit 335. Head west seven miles through Syracuse onto causeway. The park entrance fee is $8 per vehicle or $4 for walk-ins and cyclists. The camping fee is $10. Open during daylight hours year-round.

Willard Bay State Park: 435/734-9494. Located north of Ogden, right off Interstate 15.

The north marina, open year-round, is 15 miles north of Ogden and has campsites, modern restrooms, hot showers, a sewage disposal station, boat slip rentals and sandy beaches.

The south marina is eight miles north of Ogden, is open April through October and provides 30 campsites with modern restrooms. Admission is free, with a $9 day-use fee for the marinas and a $14 charge for camping.

Great Salt Lake State Park: The park is 16 miles west of Salt Lake City on Interstate 80, phone 801/250-1898. It is home to a 300-slip marina and the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club.

The Saltair resort in the area also hosts concerts and events. Free admission. Open year-round.

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