Antelope Island and/or Bust

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“You should never become a salesman, Steph,” Shaun Raskin told me the night before our departure to Antelope Island. I had just finished laying out the vague details of our upcoming trip and had started to recount the mundane memories from my only other Antelope Island experience when she interjected. “This isn’t very convincing.”

 

My sales pitch to Shaun, Weston Deutschlander and Alisha Niswander on joining me for a 48-hour multi-sport jaunt to Antelope Island was uninspiring, at best. A poorly timed story assignment put me on the island during one of the worst possible months to visit, and I made no effort to hide that truth. The start of arid, hot temperatures in early June, compounded by the tail end of bug season, led to plenty of hesitation from everyone that was attending – including myself.

 

But I was willing to give it a shot, especially if the occasional rumors of the island’s beauty and charm were even remotely true. And just maybe, I hoped, the memories of my earlier visit were less than accurate. “Oh man. Sometimes that place can be downright amazing,” said a friend who once worked for the Utah Office of Tourism and who also heard of my Antelope Island escapades. “Other times, it is a hellscape.”

 

Of the 11 islands in the sprawling Great Salt Lake, Antelope Island is the largest, measuring 15 miles long and 7 miles across. Despite its sizeable presence just northwest of downtown Salt Lake City, it’s often an overlooked destination for many Utahns – perhaps in part due to the callous rumors of relentless bugs, sun and briny odors that permeate from this inland sea.

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Nevertheless, Antelope Island ranks fifth among the most visited state parks in Utah, attracting more people than Escalante Petrified Forest, Goblin Valley and Dead Horse Point State Parks combined. Its popularity is most fitting for armchair adventurists who prefer to skirt the perimeter of the island and look for wildlife sightings by means of an air-conditioned car or well-stocked RV, more so than adrenaline junkies looking for a new fix. It’s a naturalist’s paradise here, and physical recreation merely plays a supporting role in the bizarre ecology that sets a behemoth herd of 500-plus bison against the backdrop of prehistoric rock.

 

All the more reason to explore this place, I thought, postulating that its reputation had scared people away from venturing beyond the casual tourist traps and leaving the hidden gems untouched for curious hikers, mountain bikers, standup paddleboarders and flat water kayakers. Even then, it’s not a new destination for recreationalists who are in the know. The annual 50K and 100K Antelope Island Buffalo Trail Run has gained regional notoriety over the years, and road cyclists have been privy to Antelope Island’s secret for far longer. Of course, the cycling mileage isn’t heroic by any standards, but the flat, 7.5-mile causeway funnels onto an undulating paved road along the eastern edge of the island, and a detour towards Frary Peak delivers a 23-percent grade hill climb and descent. Simply put: this little island packs a big accomplishment.

 

With a trio of friends in tow, we make the short trek from Park City to Antelope Island, just a few miles west of Farmington. Our mid-day arrival wasn’t ideal for physical exertion, but we decided to unload our mountain bikes and ride anyway. After deciphering a misleading trail map and navigating a few wrong turns, we made it to the trailhead and set off on a mellow climb towards the Elephant Head Trail peninsula, a roughly 13-mile out-and-back.

 

Snow-capped peaks along the Wasatch and the mirrored, blue water in the Great Salt Lake taunted my thirst as we biked along the hot, exposed singletrack, slowly gaining elevation towards the center of the island. A tectonic uplift of rock and grass rose before us, resembling a dramatic mountainscape that seemed more appropriate for Ireland than Utah. The trail weaved smoothly and forgivingly along the foothills before opening up to doubletrack and finally reconnecting to more technical singletrack for the last two miles.

 

Fearing that their dog, who had been maintaining a steady trot alongside our wheels, was reaching the point of total exhaustion and too much sun exposure, Shaun and Weston peeled off in the direction of the car before reaching Elephant Head. Alisha and I continued the remainder of the ride, encountering unexpected ledges and short, sudden climbs until we arrived at the trail’s abrupt and stunning cliff end.

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Exhaustion, however, wasn’t just for the dog. A mere two hours into our ride, I had sucked down the last of my three-liter water supply. Alisha’s water was also gone. By the time we rendezvoused with Shaun and Weston at the car that afternoon, the only sport on any of our minds was sitting in the shade at camp and drinking cold beer, a consolation for the defeating ride we had all encountered.

 

Warm winds kicked up over the Great Salt Lake that evening, continuing to intensify after we retired to our tents. Sleep didn’t come easy for any of us. Ferocious gusts whipped through the campsite all night with enough fury to fold the walls of our tents over our heads, limiting us to a few broken hours of fitful sleep.

 

Group energy was low when we woke at dawn the next morning. There was barely enough water for two percolators of coffee, divvied up between three of us. And with the wind still lingering after last night’s storm, it was difficult just to keep the stove lit, let alone our enthusiasm. Worried that my companions’ caffeine rush would quickly fade, I hyped up the promise of a rewarding, if not strenuous, 7-mile-roundtrip, 2,100-vertical-foot hike to Frary Peak at 6,956 feet, the island’s tallest point. But first: a stop at the visitor’s center to refill our water cache.

 

We lingered inside the visitor’s center, enjoying the reprieve from the constant outdoor elements and delaying the start of our morning hike. Instead, we opted to roam the display cases full of trivia and artifacts from the Great Salt Lake and Antelope Island and watch a 20-minute reel on the island’s habitat. Narrated by Utah author Terry Tempest Williams, the video romanticized the island’s habitat with passages from her book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. “The power of Antelope Island is in its stark beauty,” she said. We rolled our eyes at the cheesy line as she continued: “The hostility of this landscape teaches me how to be quiet and unobtrusive, how to find grace among spiders with a poisonous bite.” To paraphrase her ideology: the desolation here makes you feel (strangely) at peace.

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But for my companions, this desolate island experience triggered a less-than-peaceful decision minutes after Williams’ narrative ended: they had had enough. Within the hour, my three friends had haphazardly packed their gear into one car and left me to explore the island on my own, in all its hot, buggy, brazen glory. Suddenly finding myself on my own not even 24 hours into our trip, Williams’ words hung in the air. Except unlike her pensive optimism, I wasn’t so sure that I could find much grace after my friends had left me figuratively (and somewhat literally) stranded on a desert island.

 

Shaking off the unexpected loneliness that ensued, I continued on with our original plans. Shortly before noon, I rolled up to the Frary Peak trailhead prepared for all the elements that had deterred my friends: lightweight, long-sleeved pants and shirt, hat, SPF 50 sunscreen, water, bug spray and, perhaps ignorantly albeit strategically, a pair of climbing shoes.

 

A steep, three-quarter-mile trail traversed up the mountain face before splitting in two: Frary Peak to the left and the less-famous Dooly Knob to the right, both marked by dismal, weathered trail signs. Already feeling pinched by sunrays and the morning’s prior events, I veered right and began wandering up Dooly’s shoulder, where the familiar Salt Lake City skyline dropped to the east and a range of unexplored mountains smudged into a hazy horizon to the west.

 

The view didn’t change much when I reached the “summit,” a short scramble up a rocky crag. A few hundred feet below, I traced the outline of our bike ride in the rolling foothills. It didn’t look like much from up top, but yesterday’s reality check was still fresh in my mind. It occurred to me that on this isolated enclave of an island, perspective is highly relative. By changing your point of view, even by a couple of steps in any direction, Antelope Island magically transforms into something totally unpredictable – and strangely appealing.

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A few moments of solitude and reflection later and I began to head down. Taking note of tempting rock formations on the hike in, I stepped off the trail to investigate, disregarding the occasional signs that directed me to stay on the trail. Below, a small rock face appeared with pronounced footholds – a perfect setup for my newly acquired interest in bouldering. I spent the next half-hour traversing the low-consequence wall, practicing basic climbing techniques that I had learned only two weeks earlier. With Ms. Williams’ prose still rattling around my head, I reasoned that she would be proud that I no longer saw this as the hostile island she earlier described – even if my method wasn’t entirely permitted by park rules.

 

To whittle away the remaining hours of the hot sun, I spent the afternoon strolling Fielding Garr Ranch, a throwback to the pioneer era when a few permanent residents inhabited the island between 1848-1981, including Fielding Garr, himself, and his nine children. It wasn’t long, though, before I returned to camp to reflect on the day’s bipolar exploits, watched the resident bison graze between tents and RVs and called it a day.

 

 

Waking again at dawn, I was admittedly excited for my final morning, which would be spent taking in an entirely new perspective of the island. I arrived at Gonzo Boat Rentals, the island’s only commercial recreational outfitter, for a morning kayak. The Hunter S. Thompson reference didn’t go unnoticed as I stepped up to the singlewide mobile home kiosk, prepared to confront my fear and loathing of this raw, insipid lake. Gonzo owner Dave Ghizzone assured me that “the water’s pretty nasty right now. There’s a layer of carpet algae that has floated up to the surface. But once you get out beyond that, it’s not too bad.” Hauling my kayak to a small beach put-in, I was quick to agree. Glops of brown, gluey sand stuck to the bottom of my flip-flops as I pushed the kayak through a layer of brine flies and filmy water.

 

Though it’s more than five times saltier than the Pacific Ocean, the thought of water sounded refreshing for my landlocked psyche (not to mention a simple change of scenery). The cool morning air was pungent from the lake, but I had hoped the ripe fragrance would disappear the further I paddled from shore. Sure enough, the smells vanished and the unsightly shoreline was swapped for boundless views of land, water and sky. I made it a goal to paddle to a small island just beyond Bridger Bay: an ambitious distance for my novice abilities, but seemingly doable.

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Every paddle stroke brought me closer to nothing, and even the local avian residents – including the country’s largest concentration of California gulls, which happen to be Utah’s state bird – disappeared when I got too close. In fact, even with 4-5 million winged visitors annually (roughly 250 different bird species at any time) and 90 percent of the world’s brine shrimp supply floating below me, I couldn’t help but feel fully alone.

 

With motivation once again waning, I turned around before ever reaching my final destination. Quietly approaching the marina an hour later, I looked behind me towards the vast seascape and all its stark beauty. Powerful indeed, I thought, reflecting on the last 48 hours of tumultuous adventures and expectations. Strangely, I felt at peace with it all.

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