Walking Over Water- Traversing Stansbury Island

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There’s a spring in my step as I bound on and off of quartzite boulders, rising as I do above the north tip of Stansbury Island in the Great Salt Lake. Windy conditions have rendered fishing for brine shrimp eggs unproductive, so we fishermen have the afternoon off. Since I was fishing nearby in Carrington Bay, I motored into our fleet’s small harbor on the rocky, rugged northern-most point, eager for some time on terra firma. Now, after being cooped-up in a boat the majority of my time, it feels great to move. The gritty surface of the ancient, orange, white and tan stone, eroded by eons of wave action, grips my shoe soles. Occasionally a boulder stands tall enough to require hands as well to climb up and over or traverse around. I’m tempted to stop and challenge myself by scaling harder boulder “problems,” but I have a lot of ground to cover, so I keep cruising.

Between the boulders I find a game trail where the Great Basin grasses have been tamped down by many hooves, and I can travel faster. As I jog along one, it winds west toward the afternoon sun, and crosses a horizon. I see movement ahead, and suddenly a small of herd of white-rumped, mule deer are bounding away much faster than I can follow. One small buck is leading a dozen or so other animals.

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I’m glad for my ankle gaiters as I tramp through areas with no path, wading through many seeds that would otherwise scratch my ankles and stick to my socks. I pick a line along the crest as much as possible, to enjoy big views east and west as I progress south. Now the rolling ridge is grassy with few rocks. I set my sights on Point 5429, after I pass Blazzards Cabin, the only house I know of on the entire island. It sits in a pretty cove just inland from a sandy beach, and looks like a great place to find peace and quiet within sight of the multitudes living along the Wasatch Front. I drop to another pass, and now the route climbs steeply southwest, pushing my heart rate up, even as my pace slows. I flush a flock of Chukars, and watch them flap away knowing many fishermen would love to be here to hunt the elusive, exotic-looking fowl. They seem to flourish on Antelope and Stansbury Islands, where they dwell amongst the rocky outcrops. Their sage color camouflages them until they panic and take flight. I’ve also seen a bobcat on Antelope Island, and imagine they would be a formidable predator.

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I gain the 6,000-foot crest as it narrows, and falls off precipitously east toward the main body of the South Arm of the lake, 2,000 feet below. The corridor of deep water between the two twin islands harbors good fishing and great scenery. Rugged rock outcrops populate the many coves and canyons along Stansbury’s east coast. Natives left petroglyphs and other signs of their historic presence on the southeast end of the island. To my west now I see the bizarre man-made Hogle Pond, with its, salt-saturated, purpleish color, divided from the adjacent body of turquoise-blue water. Beyond it is the hideously polluting U.S. Magcorp plant, which spews chlorine gas from its tall, rusty stack. Year after year the EPA superfund site is fined for excessive emissions. The owners simply pay the fines and carry on producing magnesium, 24-hours a day. Given the prevailing westerly winds, the millions living along the Wasatch Front unwittingly pay the real cost of production, breathing chlorine-enhanced smog on a daily basis.

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Immediately west of the island crest is Corral Canyon, a good place to start a traverse of the highest points to the south. I’ve also used this broad valley to bail off the ridge, and walk or hitch a ride back north or south to my starting point (although traffic is light in these parts.) The canyon’s southern rim is composed of a dark limestone wall just above lake-level, and challenging quartzite ramparts guarding the summit. I’ve scrambled that ridge as an objective in itself. 4th class rock-climbing is required, even if you find the easiest weaknesses. As I approach the 2nd-highest point of the island’s spine, rows of limestone gendarmes stand watch along the ridge. Their sharp texture and grey color distinguish them from the predominant quartzite. Seashells and fossils are imbedded in their previously immersed surfaces. Gazing southeast past the towers, I see the north end of the Oquirrh Range, Garfield Stack, downtown Salt Lake and the Wasatch Mountains.

North End of Stans

Now the incline steepens, and I’m eventually required to scale a loose chimney to avoid steeper rock left and right. Emerging above the cliffs, a forest of dead juniper snags greets me. Probably sparked by lightning, a fire has evidently ripped across the summit. When I reach the innocuous summit itself, 6,609’, an enclosure of stones marks it. Perhaps someone slept here and needed a wind block? Gradual slopes south of the summit soon give way to a narrow technical razorback. I must explore right and left of the crest for easiest passage, and in some cases, exposed climbing moves are still needed to pass 15-20 foot drop-offs. Having never been here, and seeing improbable difficulties ahead, it’s a great feeling of relief and accomplishment when a passable route is discovered. Often it takes several failed attempts to find the way. When I come back in spring with a friend, I’m compelled belay her down to keep the risk reasonable.

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Next ahead is the true summit of “Stans,” Castle Rock, 6,649. In spite of all the rocky steps and knife-edge sections between the high points, the Castle itself is rounded, not steep, at the top. We celebrate with high-fives and photos, but the way south is long, so there’s no time to waste. Travel is friendly for the most part, except for intermittent cliff bands cutting across. But we look at our watches and realize time is running out. There is a last, technical-looking, horizontal fin, above Tabbys Canyon on the islands south end, that we’d like to check out, but it’ll have to wait for another day. Instead we start looking for a descent route. Our goal is to drop to the Provo Bench, one of several ancient Lake Bonneville shorelines, and walk it south. We stashed our bikes at an established mountain biking trailhead near the south end of the island. Now we want to recover them and pedal back north to our car. A couple miles south of Castle Rock, we angle west down a grassy ridge. We sneak past a rock reef at its shortest point, with a few careful climbing moves, and start contouring south-ish at the 4,900-foot level on the mostly flat, ancient beach.

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Our speedy progress is interrupted by each of several eroded gullies, where water has cut a narrow furrow perpendicular to the bench. These little gorges have steep, loose sides that demand careful footwork. After dropping down, we plod our way back up to the bench level, with feet now heavy from 7 hours on the go. The last hurdle is a low ridge. Even the 100 feet we have to gain is arduous at this stage, but we’re rewarded by the sight of our trailhead and bikes. Ski poles break our rate of descent to them. Soon we’re in our bike saddles, rolling north on the washboard, gravel road to complete our loop. We admire the elegant, undulating crest we spent our day on, smug in the knowledge that we’re in a tiny, select group of humans lucky (and hardy) enough to have traveled it.

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