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The Great Salt Lake: An unusual American oasis

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By Neil Sawyer

GREAT SALT LAKE — The first words uttered by Brigham Young, the Mormon pioneer, when he crested the Wasatch Mountains of Utah and laid eyes on the valley below, were, “This is the place,” but I surmise that he meant the entirety of the beautiful bowl-shaped valley, surrounded by low-lying mountain ranges, rather than any specific feature.

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Whatever Young’s intent, this valley did indeed become the new home of his disciples who migrated on foot and by cart from Missouri. There is no record of exactly when they tasted the water of the beautiful shimmering lake that stretched the length of the valley below them.

There is a good reason to believe, however, that the Great Salt Lake was so named at the first taste of the water, especially after just having trudged more than 1,000 miles across deserts and plains! Now for the question: Is it really salty? Well, Young’s next words could well have been, “Don’t drink the water!” Thus, the Great Salt Lake was appropriately tagged.

The salinity of the water is between 3.5 and eight times the salinity of the ocean — undrinkable.

As the largest body of water in the United States between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean, it is also the fourth-largest terminal lake — no outflow — in the world. The lake is located on the western boundary of what is now Salt Lake City and extends south and north approximately 30 miles, nearly to the city of Ogden.

It is obligatory upon anyone visiting the lake for the first time to take a swim. Be aware, however, that “swim” in the salt-laden water really means simply taking a dip while simultaneously raising your feet and hands in the air. Yes, it can be done. This ceremonial swim usually lasts only a few minutes, but the sensation of burning eyes and skin will last a bit longer. I’ve never known anyone getting a certificate of completion for the event, but it is a unique photographic opportunity.

It is a unique world, including brine shrimp and brine flies, which coexist and are important in the diet of birds, and an array of invertebrates that inhabit the surrounding wetlands.

The combination of the desert location, the super salty water and the broad range of both land and bird species dependent on this unusual water feature qualifies the Great Salt Lake as one of the world’s most unusual oases.

The lake is a major link and stopover point for migrating water- and shorebirds so that they can rebuild reserves before flying on to South America or the Arctic. It is estimated that 5 million waterbirds, including avocets, grebes, and California gulls, to name a few, pass through this region every season.

In addition to the watery side of this story, there is Antelope Island which offers an arid break from the popular ski areas of Alta, Brighton and Deer Valley, on the slopes of the nearby Wasatch Mountains.

The island covers approximately 42 square miles, with terrain running the gamut from waters-edge grasses, sage brush, a variety of desert flora, to rocky promontories. Due to the shallowness of the lake, its size can vary significantly due to water runoff from the mountains, rain and evaporation during the dry season.

Antelope Island is a bonus attraction to the migrating birds, as it adds many miles of shoreline – excellent habitat for the birds’ resting and feeding on their long journey.

Antelope Island doubles as a sanctuary for approximately 600 free roaming bison as well as pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and numerous other desert animals. We also saw rabbits and coyotes among the explosion of wild sunflowers that brighten the landscape in summer and fall.

There are a variety of camping facilities for both daytime and overnight camping, along with numerous well-marked hiking trails leading to various points of interest and stunning views. Hunting, however, is not allowed.

A seven-mile causeway has been rebuilt in recent years, linking the island to the mainland at the town of Layton, near Ogden. A state-of-the-art museum and visitors’ center round out the services and amenities of the island.

Access is easy: From Salt Lake City (and the local airport) take I-15 north to Layton. Highway signage gives ample notice and directions to the causeway. I suggest you pack a lunch, or at least snack food and water, as there are only a couple of vending machines on the island.

Our day at Antelope Island was well spent as the panoramic views and events of encountering numerous wild animals were well beyond our expectations.

Neil and Karyn Sawyer have been residents of Crystal River for 27 years. They travel frequently, having been to 48 states, 64 countries and seven continents. Contact Neil via email to gobuddy@tampabay.rr.com.