Photo by John McCarthey
The Great Salt Lake is a glory, a natural wonder that nurtures hundreds of bird and mammal species and, yes, brine flies and sea monkeys (only you call them brine shrimp or Artemia franciscana) that make the lake anything but dead. If you're among a legion of scientists, birdwatchers and naturalists from around the world, that's how you think of the Great Salt Lake.
But if you live here, you seldom notice or visit our immense inland sea and city namesake. What do most Salt Lakers think about the Great Salt Lake when they think about it? That it stinks and it's full of flies and salty, salty water and dead, and that it's useless for the works of man. And that isn't true, well not exactly true.
Flies are only there certain times of year and only along the shore. There is a stink, but also only near the shore. It is, of course, salty, way saltier than the ocean (5 to 25 percent salinity, compared to the ocean's 3.5 percent) and you'll bob like a beach ball on its surface. But there is so much more out there right under our held noses and beyond our cultural blindness-nature lovers, scientists, brine shrimpers, canoe paddlers, kayakers, rowers, sailors and even artists love the lake for its strange bounty of life, vistas and gripping sunsets. You'll find peace and quiet beyond its shores and a stark landscape like no other on Earth.
Then why is it so widely loathed by Utahns who live near its shore? Dr. Bonnie Baxter of the Great Salt Lake Institute and John Luft, the state's GSL Ecosystem Program Manager, share a theory: The lake cruelly mocked the early pioneers. They needed water for crops and cattle, yet the lake's 1,700-square-miles of water was too saline to slack their thirst. Terry Tempest Williams famously dubbed the lake, "the great wet lie." Thus, Utah developed a cultural animosity toward the lake. "We live in a user society and the only people interested in the lake are those who are getting something out of it," Luft says. "If you can't get something from it, you might as well throw it away."
Sailing: Home of the World’s Saltiest Sailors
GLS harbor master Dave Shearer and dog, photo by Adam Finkle
The Great Salt Lake Yacht Club, founded in 1877, is one of America’s oldest sailing clubs. You read that right. Here in landlocked Utah, a century-plus-old sailing community races and cruises on our inland sea. Its members say sailing the Great Salt Lake is a nautical experience that rivals, in terms of quality and beauty, the world’s oceans.
“I have sailed all over the world,” says GSL harbor master Dave Shearer. “And I have never seen sunsets like we have here on the Great Salt Lake. It’s a unique body of water to sail on. Our boats float three inches above the normal water line on totally glassy water. It is so serene out there.”
Apart from some outrigger canoe paddlers and kayakers, GSL sailors have the lake to themselves because the lake’s high salinity drives off all but the bravest power boaters whose vessels aren’t built to run in the extremely salty water. If you want to play on the lake, wind and muscle power are the best options, which enhances the experience.
“There’s no other noise out there and you feel very far from civilization,” Shearer says.
Yacht Club commodore (yes, we have commodores in Utah) Tiffany Jackson says that when people find out she sails on the lake the first question is “What about the stink?” Her reply: “What stink?”
“It doesn’t stink once you get off shore,” she says. “Everyone I’ve taken out is shocked to learn that.”
The club, which has about 120 members, sails year-round, including a club tradition of sailing on New Year’s Day (“It’s chilly, but you bundle up,” Jackson says.) The group is mainly centered around its racing season that starts in spring and continues through the fall, but sunset cruises and less competitive activities are also part of the fun. After a day of sailing, Jackson says club members will often meet up and tie boats together to watch the sunset and talk of the day on the waters of Utah’s secret ocean.
“It’s something everyone should experience,” Jackson says. “Once you get out on the water, you realize how different it is from what most of our Utah culture expects.”
The Great Salt Lake Yacht Club hosts an annual event in June called Sail Fest. Landlubbers are invited out for free sailing, educational tours and other nautical fun. This year’s event will be held June 12–15. On Sept. 19 and Oct. 25, the club invites the public out to the marina for a fall and Halloween social. For more information, visit gslyc.org.
The cheekily named charter company Sailing Solution (get it?) offers basic and advanced sailing classes and charter cruises on the lake. For more info, visit sailingsolution.net.
Inside the International Sea Monkey Trade
Spotting brine shrimp from the air, photo by Steve Jurveston
On any given morning during the months of October through January, boats are seeking a lucrative catch: Artemia salina, or brine shrimp (sea monkeys to comic book readers). And, although sea-monkeys aren’t technically fish—let alone monkeys, and fishing doesn’t describe the vacuuming process that harvests brine shrimp, the sailors who ply the waters in search of the tiny creatures still stubbornly refer to themselves as “fishermen.”
“A brine shrimp fisherman tends to be a rugged individualist who doesn’t mind being out in a small boat in sub-freezing temperatures that will chill your bones on the chance of bringing in a good harvest,” says Don Leonard, Utah Artemia Association President. “It’s a short season and sometimes it’s hard to catch enough shrimp in that window. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
But it’s worth the risk, Leonard says, because the tiny organisms are the live food that feeds farm-raised fish and shrimp in hatcheries around the globe. It’s a billion-dollar industry and a third of the world’s brine shrimp come as eggs from the Great Salt Lake.
The 36-foot aluminum boats go out at first light, awaiting word from airplanes patrolling above. The spotters look for “streaks,” patches of shrimp eggs as wide as a 100 yards. The fisherman below race to the streaks and deploy a large boom.
“They make sure the eggs don’t float away, then vacuum them into bags on the boat,” Leonard says. Deadliest Catch, it’s not.
The state regulates the shrimp harvest and can shut down the season in as little as three weeks to keep the shrimp population at a sustainable level. “Mother Nature has to get hers first,” Leonard says.
The state’s John Luft, who monitors the catch, says brine shrimping has mellowed a great deal since the wild west days of the early 1990s. “There was a time when boats rammed competitors’ boats, he says, “Even threats and guns being drawn.”
Outrigger Canoes: Over the Rainbow
Members of the Hui Paokalani Outrigger Canoe Club
A ukulele's soft strains float across the briny air as muscular Hawaiians and haoles heft a 14-foot outrigger canoe down to the water. They pile into the six-man vessel and the steersman shouts the command "Paddles up!" It's a common scene on any of Hawaii's five islands, where the thousand-year-old cultural sport is as celebrated as basketball and football here on the mainland. But this scene is happening on the Great Salt Lake, far from the lush, dulcet shores of Hawaii.
The Hui Paoakalani Outrigger Canoe Club was founded seven years ago and paddles its canoes on the Great Salt Lake for fun, exercise and to educate Utahns about Hawaiian culture and tradition-to connect its members, many of whom are native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders, with their homeland. "I grew up in Hawaii," says club spokesman Darren Medeiros. "The Great Salt Lake was the closest thing to the ocean I could find here. It's a way for us to travel 10 miles and it feels like we are in a different world, far away from Utah." The club has three canoes and operates on a grant that originated with Utah's Hawaiian Cultural Center. But because it is not the ocean, paddling canoes on the GSL's mirror surface offers a special benefit: The boats go very, very fast. "The water is so dense that you can really grab it with your paddle," Medeiros says.
If outrigger paddling entrances you, the Annual Duke Paoa Kahanamoku Water Fest (Duke was an Olympic-winning swimmer) is in June. The club hosts weekly paddle sessions every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. through mid-September.
Far from the River Charles
Though associated with Ivy League schools, the competitive rowers have beenin the lake since the 1890s. The Great Salt Lake Rowing Club invites the public out to try out the sport through its “guest row” program.
A Salt Lake Super Hero
Photo by Bill Bouton
It’s a homely bird that swims underwater better than it can walk or fly. Yet the eared grebe has awesome superpowers.
The lake supports 7.5 million migratory and native birds, including spectacular Peregrine falcons, majestic bald eagles, Utah’s state bird the California gull and a dozen species of ducks. But none has a more beautifully bizarre relationship to the lake than the eared grebe.
In late spring, 2.5 million ember-eyed Podiceps nigricollis fly in from Canada on the first leg of a migration south. The lake provides half the world’s grebe population with a boot-camp experience—in reverse. Each grebe gobbles 30,000 brine shrimp a day—doubling its weight while letting its muscle tone go. The banqueting grebes become flightless birds—too fat and dissipated to lift off the water.
But by late fall, as the brine shrimp population declines, an amazing physiological transformation occurs. The grebes pump up until the bird has the muscle to lift off the lake, but retain enough fat to fuel a 3,000-mile non-stop flight to Mexico.
The ungainly grebe isn’t exactly ripped, and it still requires a goofy run atop of the water with wings slapping hilariously before it stumbles aloft.
All this happens in the dark of night, of course, because in daylight the grebe would be a sitting duck for raptors. “They’re kind of pathetic birds. They aren’t maneuverable or good fliers,” says John Luft, GSL Ecosystem Program Manager. Though no one has seen their exodus, radar detects “pulses” as tens of thousands of grebes lumber upward and southward in an annual stumble-bum story of survival.
A Not-So-Great Salt Lake Future
Lynn De Freitas, photo by Charles Uibel
Maybe it's because the Great Salt Lake is so immense. Or because we insist on seeing it as already “dead.” Utahns don’t seem to be able to conceive of this ecosystem as vital, let alone endangered. Yet the lake is threatened by residential and industrial development, imbalances in salinity and by simply having its water supply sucked away by the lawns of urban sprawl. Not surprisingly, the biggest danger to the lake is our cluelessness. A group of state biologists listed the dumbest things people ask them:
Q: How can you stand that stink?
A: That’s the aroma of a complex ecosystem.
Q: Everything's dead out there.
A: Except several billion birds, mammals and invertebrates.
Q: What good is the Great Salt Lake?
A: $1.3 billion in Utah's GDP.
In short, Utahns insist on loathing the lake that defines their state. And that makes the DNR scientists who study it, instead of sexy mule deer or elk, a Rodney Dangerfield group. “There's not a lot of glory in studying the Great Salt Lake,” says John Neill, an avian biologist in the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program.
But Lynn de Freitas and Friends of the Great Salt Lake are devoted to getting Utahns to embrace their lake and work to protect its bounty and beauty. “It's an inextricably linked picture of life cycles—a whole world in a complex, crazy, misunderstood ecosystem,” says de Freitas. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the future of the lake will soon be the hands of a new generation tutored by programs offered by the DNR, the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster and, of course, the Friends. “The kids probably have more understanding and appreciation for the lake than their parents,” says John Luft, GSL Ecosystem Program manager. “They get it.”
Pass the Salt
Humans have been evaporating salt water for seasoning since the first time anyone said, "this needs salt," so it's no surprise that our hyper-salty sea's north and southwestern shores are home to tens of thousands of acres of solar evaporation ponds to extract salt and other minerals used for industry and agriculture.
One of the biggest operations on the lake is Great Salt Lake Minerals. Though road salt is one of its products, its biggest seller is sulphate of potash [SOP], a mineral used in fertilizer. SOP is extremely rare and the GSL is the world's largest source-the only one in North America. You can thank the nuclear arms race for its discovery. "In the 1950s when the U.S was building up its atomic arsenal and lithium was a key part of making the bombs," says GSL Minerals Spokesman Dave Hyams, "they thought they would find lithium in the GSL. They did, but not in large quantity. But they did find SOP."
The demand for SOP fertilizer skyrocketed as U.S. suburbs gobbled farms during the next 30 years, requiring increased farm productivity. GSL Minerals has 47,000 acres of evaporation ponds dedicated to SOP.
Morton Salt Company's 10 solar ponds on the south shore focus on the company's namesake product. The Grantsville facility's salt is mainly used for water softening, pool treatment and food-grade salt. State Ecosystem Manager John Luffs challenge is to balance the needs of the mineral extractors with those of the brine shrimpers with what is best for the lake's challenged ecosystem.