“One of the things Utahans are notorious for is not really paying attention to the lake,” explains Greg Smoak, director of the American West Center and an associate professor of history at the University of Utah.
Perhaps because the Wasatch attracts a large percentage of outdoor recreation, the 2,000-square mile lake 20 miles north of the downtown with its namesake is often overlooked. If most people miss the lake, then its islands aren’t even blips on the radar. How are a group of peak-dotted islands and a lake bigger than Delaware relatively ignored? The resounding reason, most sources say, is access. The Great Salt Lake and its islands are so close, but in many ways, so far away.
Author of the blog, “Summer of Salt: An Exploration of Great Salt Lake,” and owner of ExploretheGreatSaltLake.com, Cindy Lund points to the nature of the lake itself and a shore lined with wetlands, mud flats, private land, and industry.
“It’s really four lakes in one,” says Lund.
“The main part of the lake is about 13% salt, about four times as salty as the ocean, she explains, adding, “The railroad causeway cuts across the northwest portion, which is saturated at 23%. East of that is Bear River Bay and it’s also cut off—one of the tributaries to that bay is almost fresh water. Farmington Bay is between Antelope Island and mainland; and also because of the causeway, it is close to the ocean in its salinity.”
Southern Pacific Railroad built a railway from the mountains of West Desert to Promontory Point and then to Ogden. It separates Gunnison Bay in the lake’s northwest corner, called the North Arm, and Gilbert Bay in what’s called the South Arm. Bear River Bay in the northeast corner of the lake receives most of the fresh water inflow, making it suitable for fish. The road between Syracuse and Antelope Island similarly slices the eastern part of the lake, creating a border between Gilbert Bay and Farmington Bay.
The two causeways effectively limit each bay from mixing with its neighbor, which results in dramatically different salinities. This directly affects the ecology of each bay, and indirectly, public access to the islands within them. For example, because Bear River Bay stays mostly fresh and full of fish, it is a feeding ground for one of the largest pelican populations. The pelicans nest on Gunnison Island, an area so remote in the North Arm that it’s virtually free from predation. As a result, the area is a restricted, wildlife management area.
The islands’ management varies. According to Antelope Island State Park assistant park manager Wendy Wilson, Hat Island also is an off-limits bird rookery while Egg Island and White Rock are seasonal restricted for nesting from April 1 to July 31.
Since the Beehive State has pretty much unmatched proximity to any kind of outdoor recreation, wouldn’t it be a welcome challenge to experience a hard-to-reach place that’s almost certainly devoid of people and full of very unusual history and wildlife?
“As far as adventure goes, you can go out and paddle around some of these islands,” say Cindy Lund. “Understand with Gunnison Island, the pelicans are so sensitive that they will not come back if something disturbs them. It’s very precious that no one goes out there.”
She adds, “Hat Island is also wildlife management area. Right off of the northern tip of Antelope Island is Egg Island, it’s really, really tiny but it’s crazy to take a kayak because there are so many birds nesting there. It’s loud, hilarious and full of California gulls and cormorants.”
John Luft, program manager for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’ Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Project, the lake’s largest monitoring effect, says a one-mile halo restricts boaters from visiting anything close to the shoreline. Luft says he and his crew try to limit their exposure to the birds, which he estimates are part of 160,000 migratory birds breeding at the Great Salt Lake.
Where you can go and how you get there also depends on the lake’s water level.
“The physiographic feature of the lake that really shapes everything is shallowness: minor changes in water levels change its surface area,” says Greg Smoak.
Because the lake levels fluctuate anywhere between 1,000 and 3,000 square miles depending on the snow year, and the lakebed’s deepest point is 45 feet with depths averaging between 6 and 8 feet, many of the islands are sometimes not so island-like. Moreover, the shorelines can turn into expansive mudflats.
Water-bound travelers can look to the Great Salt Lake Marina and Antelope Island. Sailing Solution and Gonzo Boat Rentals and Tours offer chartered tours of the lake. Great Salt Lake Rowing and the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club run racing series for nearly every level of rower and sailor. All of these businesses also represent great resources for beta on the lake, including current water levels.
Wilson says, “All islands, other than Antelope and Stansbury, are accessible only
by boat with difficulty. Dolphin Island, on the northwest side of the lake
can actually be accessed by foot from the west shore. Not easily.”
Dolphin, currently perched on top of mud due to low water levels, is a small island on the western shore near the Hogup Mountains. It is one of a few islands where camping is allowed. In addition to better-known recreation opportunities such as kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding, the northwestern part of Antelope Island hosts two primitive campgrounds called Bridger Bay and White Rock. The BLM-controlled portion of Stansbury Island also has camping, though part of it is owned privately. Only about an hour west of downtown, Stansbury is actually more of a peninsula near Grantsville (credit khaliffe). A 10-mile, interpretative trail winds around it, tracing a bench that was once the Lake Bonneville shoreline and cutting through tawny, low-lying grasslands.
Fremont Island also is privately owned—but completely restricted.
Dave Ghizzone, owner and operator of Gonzo Boat Rentals and Tours, is one of the lucky few that obtained permission from Fremont Island’s landowner to visit a historic cross that was carved into rock by Kit Carson in 1843.
“Off to the southeast shore, there is a break in the aquifer underneath the lake,” says Ghizzone. “Spring water bubbles up from underneath the lake. It’s a little fresher but still has a lot of salt in the water. You can feel the difference when you swim that it’s cooler but not as buoyant.
Fremont Island has a sordid history. Brigham Young exiled grave robber Jean Baptiste there in 1862. Baptiste was never seen again. Ghizzone comments that a natural sand bar from eastern end of the island extends toward where the causeway is now, which could have made it easy for Baptiste to escape. And that’s not the only thing to escape. State officials discovered fugitive Eurasian boars on the causeway to Antelope Island, and then ordered the feral pigs to be killed last October.
The strange island history continues.
“The most fascinating island out there and the Holy Grail is Gunnison,” says Greg Smoak. “First of all, it’s very remote in the North Arm. Today it is off limits unless you are part of a crew banding pelicans, but it has a really cool history.”
Painter Alfred Lambourne tried to homestead Gunnison Island. Smoak explains that Lambourne had a very romantic vision of planting grapes on the island, but ultimately stayed from November 1895 until the following spring. His only visitors were guano shifters. They came to Gunnison to dig pits and trenches, harvest bat dung into bags, and ship it out as part of the fertilizer trade. Ironically, Smoak says, the shifters’ presence later ruined Lambourne’s homestead claim because guano is considered a mineral, not agricultural, resource.
He adds, “Once the guano industry ended, birds populated the island in huge numbers.”
The remote North Arm must have something mysterious that attracts world-renown artists. In 1970, Robert Smithson built Spiral Jetty near Rozel Point. A massive piece of installation art, the 1,500-foot coil of black basalt disappears during high water and reappears during the lake’s recession. Visitors are encouraged to walk on the jetty.
Despite the mystique and intrigue, the most controversial issue surrounding the North Arm is its high salinity and the SPRR causeway. Wayne Wurtsbaugh, professor at Utah State University’s Department of Watershed Sciences, explains that the railroad bridge is collapsing. As the railroad company looks to replace the causeway, he says, “I’m the only person talking about pilings instead of solid causeway.” Having pilings would enable what Wurtsbaugh calls bidirectional water flow. In other words, fresher water could flow northward and denser, more saline water flowing could flow southward.
Luft is quick to point out that the new railroad bridge and the potential change in water flow doesn’t mean the North and South Arms will change the salinity dramatically.
“It’ll probably stay fairly similar,” Luft claims, adding, “It might be a little bit of an increase on the South Arm, but it probably won’t change on the North Arm.”
Luft’s program, Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Project, essentially oversees the multi-million-dollar brine shrimp harvest in the South Arm, which annually runs from October 1 to the end of January. Brine shrimping started on Carrington Island as early as the 1950s, and later boomed in the 1980s.
The brine shrimpers pay for a Certificate of Registration and harvest cysts, which in turn, funds research on the lake. Luft’s crew measures the life stages of the brine shrimp biweekly from 17 different sites and determines the length of the harvest. The USGS Utah Water Science Center reports that cyst product is highest in water salinity above 10%. During the floods in the 1980, the South Arm became less saline and the industry moved briefly to the North Arm. Therefore, the Project has its finger on the pulse of the lake’s salinity.
Much of the western shore is dominated by industry, including evaporation ponds, salt and mineral extraction. Part of it is used as a bombing range for the Air Force. Arguably because of the presence of industry and natural beauty combined, visiting the western shore is a bucket list adventure. Few places within a few hours of Salt Lake City afford you the level of serenity you’ll experience watching a blood-orange sunset over the mirrored surface of the Great Salt Lake and the West Desert mountains while flocks of birds swirl and reeds whistle.
*People interested in reading more about the history of the Great Salt Lake can read for Our Inland Sea: The Story of a Homestead, by Alred Lambourne; Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah, Including a Reconnoissance of a New Route through the Rocky Mountains, by Howard Stansbury; and, Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842 and to Oregon and Northern California in the Years 1843-44, by John C. Fremont.