Chapter 1: Utah’s Dead Sea Brims with Life, Myth and Mystery

Chapter 1: Utah’s Dead Sea Brims with Life, Myth and Mystery


From Tom Wharton’s Year with Great Salt Lake, a series originally published in the Salt Lake Tribune, 1992. Read more about the series here.


Nelson Ellinwood of Salt Lake City recalls the first time he took a friend duck hunting on the Great Salt Lake.

“We were rowing down the channel at twilight, right before the sun came up. You could hear the rumble and rustle of wings as they exploded off the water. They were like a train in the distance. You could see warms of dark shapes off the water. It was spectacular.”

Ellinwood is one of the few Utahns who have experienced the wealth of wildlife and colorful changes on the largest lake west of the Mississippi. Most residents view the Great Salt Lake with contempt or apathy – a dull, briny body of water plagued with stinking algae and waves of brine flies.

“You go there to be refreshed and often you are repulsed,” says author Terry Tempest Williams, who’s written two books about the lake. “It’s a touch landscape. People once thought it was a body of fresh water with an outlet to the sea. In fact, it’s a basin of old, old water. In that sense, it takes on a mythic character and one that does not yield itself easily to visitors.”

Mysterious Great Salt Lake draws some 325,000 visitors yearly, many just to shoot a sunset. © Jeff Allred/The Salt Lake Tribune
Mysterious Great Salt Lake draws some 325,000 visitors yearly, many just to shoot a sunset. © Jeff Allred/The Salt Lake Tribune

Access is difficult. Most visitors – about 325,000 annually – see only the south shore adjacent to the waterlogged Saltair resort, where the lake’s foul breath can be overwhelming. But Antelope Island State Park, closed since 1983 when flooding wiped out the causeway, is schedule to open soon. And visitors can launch boats and walk along dikes at Willard Bay and the lake’s eight wildlife refuges.

In late fall, billions of blood-red brine-shrimp eggs float on the cobalt blue water, creating brilliant streaks of color a quarter-mile wide and 2 to 3 miles long. The north arm of the lake also turns a greenish-red in late summer when billions of bacteria color the water.

Here’s a real surprise: There’s no stench on the open waters. “That smell is not the lake, it’s the shore,” says John Rowland, a Salt Lake City resident who sails a catamaran. “It’s a lot like being on the ocean. You can’t see the bottom. Land is quite a ways away. It’s peaceful, quiet and serene.”

Those searching for the bizarre can find it in plant life along the lake’s salt marshes. There are bushes with microscopic salt glands that burst like balloons, and grasses that secrete salt crystals on their leaves.

“These marshes are like wilderness,” says Ty Harrison, an associate professor of botany at Westminster College. “They’re the end product of 15,000 years of rapid evolution.”

Ella Sorenson, a birder from West Valley City, adds this about the lake she loves: “There are waves. There is foam. There is a cacophony of all the different sounds. You hear avocets weep and calls from the terns. The yellow-headed blackbirds sound like a strangled cat. You’ve got the quacks of ducks. Then, the sky broadens out and you get a feeling of space. People who call it a disgrace and say it stinks haven’t really been there.”

University of Utah geologist Frank DeCourten knelt down in an old riverbed just off the Pony Express trail and sifted 22,000-year-old Lake Bonneville ooze in his hands. Poking through the dirt in Juab County, he found tiny shells.

“These,” he proclaims, “are the remains of creatures which lived in this mud 20,000 years ago.” Geologists such as DeCourten have discovered a world in Lake Bonneville’s sediment almost unimaginable to modern-day Utahns.

“The strangest animals are those found in the gravels and shorelines of Lake Bonneville,” says DeCourten. “You find exotic Ice Age creatures like mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, giant ground sloths, musk oxen, native North American horses now extinct and camels. They were here just 20,000 years ago.”

Evidence of Lake Bonneville now can be seen by looking closely at the benches of Great Basin valleys. When the huge freshwater lake formed 70,000 years ago, it covered parts of Utah, Idaho and Nevada.

Then, about 14,500 years ago, a natural dam in southern Idaho collapsed. That sent 35 million cubic feet of water per second from Lake Bonneville into Idaho’s Snake River Valley. During a four- to six-week period, the amount of water pouring into the world’s seas nearly doubled.

“That,” says DeCourten, “is one of my favorite cataclysms.”

It also marked the beginning of the end of Lake Bonneville. As the weather warmed and the Ice Age ended, Lake Bonneville slowly shrank. The Great Salt Lake is its legacy. “And it is not a static puddle of saline water,” the geologist adds, “but a dynamic water that has expanded and contracted.”

Ask Hal Charles of West Valley City about the lake’s dynamics. On a Sunday evening in mid-June last year, Charles and his family were enjoying a leisurely sail between Antelope and Stansbury Islands when a “Tooele twister” turned the quiet lake into a life-threatening monster.

A strong gust of wind, or microburst, slapped one side of the boat, and before Charles and his son could react, they were hit with another blast from the other direction.

“We tipped from one side to the other in just about two seconds,” Charles recalls. “It was unbelievable.”

The 21-foot boat was on its side, taking in water. Only the mast, touching bottom on the shallow lake, prevented the craft from tipping over completely. Charles, his wife and son held onto the side of the boat and watched the awesome storm work its way across the lake.

“It scooped up water, just like a tornado,” Charles recalls. “It looked like the water was dancing.”

Says William Alder, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service: “Microbursts and erratic winds anywhere from 40 to 60 mph, enough to cause 4- and 5-foot waves, can come up suddenly.”

The lake can also be blamed for fog in surrounding valleys. And the so-called “lake effect” – which occurs when cold air rolls across the lake, vacuums up moisture, and dumps it on the Wasatch Front – accounts for much of the area’s snowfall. “There are a lot of things the lake has up her sleeve which make forecasting the lake effect kind of spooky,” Alder adds.

Those who walk along a Great Salt Lake dike – at any of the eight wildlife refuges – touch history.

The nation’s first man-made public marsh, the Public Shooting Grounds, opened in 1923 on the north side of the lake. The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge became the flagship of the federal system in 1928 when 65,000 acres were acquired by Congress. The Civilian Conservation Corps developed Locomotive Springs in 1931, Farmington Bay in 1935 and Ogden Bay in 1937.

These man-made impoundments created lush marshes. But are they natural?

Peter Behrens, the vice chairman of Great Salt Lake Minerals Co. for the past 25 years, wonders.

“When a dike is built to create a bird refuge, people consider it a good dike because it helps Mother Nature,” the civil engineer says. “When we build a dike to extract minerals, that’s considered a bad dike. We’re told we’re interfering with nature.”

Behrens’ mining company – one of six on the lake – produces salt, potash and magnesium by pumping water from the Great Salt Lake into 100 evaporation ponds covering 36,000 acres. As the water evaporates, huge front loaders are used to remove minerals from the miniature lakes. In 1990, mining companies harvested almost 1.6 million tons, and the value of the minerals was more than $150 million.

During the 1890s, there was a different kind of mining going on: Pioneers in need of fertilizer scooped up bird guano on Gunnison Island. This barren patch of land – a scant 155 acres – grows and shrinks with the decline and rise of the Great Salt Lake. It also remains a nesting ground for some 19,000 California gulls and as many as 18,000 pelicans, which trek to the lake from the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of California.

Though the island is closed to the public during the nesting period, Division of Wildlife Resources biologist Don Paul once paid a spring visit to conduct biological work.

“It’s like watching one of the most spectacular bird-nesting scenes you’ve ever seen in any nature movie,” Paul says. “You get a selfish feeling out there. It’s like walking on hallowed ground or finding a lost treasure in a pirate’s cave. It’s a spiritual feeling.”

Great Salt Lake’s most colorful and dynamic period began in 1870, a year after the transcontinental railroad was completed. Resorts featuring bathing beaches, boat docks, dance halls and hotels popped up along the shores, offering Utahns unique swimming and entertainment opportunities into the 1950s.

John W. Young – Brigham’s third son – opened the first resort in 1870. But when the lake started to recede more than 20 years later, he moved it to what is now known as Lagoon.

The old Saltair resort, constructed in 1893 by the Salt Lake and Los Angeles Railroad Co. at a cost of more than $350,000, once was the jewel of the lake. During the Roaring ‘20s, Intermountain residents rode trains to this combination dance hall-amusement park, where they were unloaded onto a 4,000-foot pier. The Moorish-looking pavilion burned to the ground in 1925 but was rebuilt on the same spot. Retreating waters left it high and dry in the 1930s. After being closed more than a decade, the building burned in 1970, probably the (work of arsonists).

Wally Wright developed a new Saltair south of the original in the spring of 1983. A year later, the fickle lake struck again. This time, floodwaters destroyed the interior of the building months after it opened.

Wright says his two sons were preparing a freshwater pond for tourists when a large wave from the lake swamped it. “My sons had to run for their lives,” Wright recalls. “At that point, I knew we would be shut down.”

Pushed by record rain and snow, the Great Salt Lake wiped out the Antelope Island Causeway in 1983. The lake rose to a record level of 4211.85 feet on June 3, 1986, and again on March 30, 1987. (The record low of 4,191 feet was set in 1963.)

In an attempt to control flooding in suburban areas, engineers breached the Southern Pacific Causeway. The 300-foot-wide breech may have eliminated the color difference and salinity level of the two parts of the lake, but it didn’t drop the south-side level enough. Then-Gov. Norm Bangerter worried that the rising waters would wipe out freeways. Salt Lake City International Airport also was threatened.

The governor and legislature elected to spend $60 million to construct gigantic pumps on the west side of the lake. When activated in April 1987, a drought year, the pumps helped reduce the lake level almost 6 feet. The pumps, shut down in June 1989, now sit idle.

Sir Malcolm Campbell of Great Britain first brought the Bonneville Salt Flats notoriety in 1935 when he raced across the crusty salt at 301.13 mph for a new world land-speed record.

Californian Craig Breedlove, driving in “The Spirit of America,” gained international fame in the 1960s when he became the first to break the 400-, 500-, and 600-mph barriers. Gary Gabalich utilized a rocket-powered wheeled vehicle on Oct. 23, 1970, to become the fastest man on the salt. He traveled 622.407 mph on that record attempt.

The salt flats, once flooded by ancient Lake Bonneville, are the remains of a much larger Great Salt Lake. After thousands of years of drying, the flats are ideal for the land-speed attempts.

The racecars create a colorful contrast on the sea of white crust. But the show doesn’t end there. Camping on the flats during a meteor shower is like spending a night on an alien planet. As stars shoot across the clear sky, the lifeless, flat terrain takes on an eerie dull glow. Even on a moonless night, the mountain loom like strange pieces of abstract art.

This picture may not endure forever, though. Some drivers, environmentalists and geologists worry that the flats may someday disappear. Highway development and mining operations have caused the thickness of the salt to be reduced about 1% a year for the past 28 years.


This big briny lake, scorned and misunderstood, surprises even those who often ply its waters.


Mitch Larsson, who has managed Antelope Island for the past 14 years, recalls one memorable night when he answered a rescue call from a stranded boater.


“There was a full moon,” Larsson recalls. “The water was like glass. You could see all the lights of the city.”


“I’ve seen it when it’s nice,” he says. “I’ve seen it when it’s hard. But there’s always something different. I’ve spent 14 years out here and I’ve not even seen or learned about half of what’s there.”


Adds author Terry Tempest Williams: “It’s a place where nothing is as it appears. It is a landscape of the imagination where anything is possible.”


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