Great Salt Lake Trip Rept

Posted by Robert N Pruden on Jan 5, 2006

The Great Salt Lake Paddle

The drive to Salt Lake City, Utah from Edmonton, Alberta, in December, made for a wondrous adventure that brought us through a through a wide range of landscape possibilities, from prairie flatlands to tilting mountainous landscapes carved up by rivers in deep canyons spanned by a myriad of bridges. My concentration for safe driving was constantly distracted by the changing landscape. However, it was refocused often enough by a teeth-gritting range of weather possibilities, from white-out blizzards to fog and torrential downpours. The one blessing realized was that the temperature outside gradually increased from a low of -10 C (14 F) when we left Edmonton to a high of 10 C (50 F) when we finally met Scott Baxter on the causeway to Antelope Island at Great Salt Lake, Utah.

Meeting Scott was another fulfillment of my desire to meet as many of the Guillemot folks as I can. This was a fitting place for us to meet because I was biting at the bit to set the VJ on liquid water so I could feel her hull course through the waves again. Later on, I would also meet Chris Ostiland and thus scratch two more names off my list of Guillemot folks to meet and paddle with.

Scott led us to his office on Antelope Island near Syracuse, Utah, where he operates his kayak guiding business, “Great Salt Lake Adventures, Kayak Tours and Rentals”. Inside the office we chatted about the drive down, his business, the sights on and surrounding Antelope Island and, of course, the lake. The following link takes you to Scott’s web site where you can read about many of the very interesting aspects of the Great Salt Lake region.

It wasn’t long before we traded the confines of the office for the very wide open expanse of the Great Salt Lake. The lake is about 35 miles wide and about 75 miles long and surrounds many islands, some nearby and others in the far distance. It is surrounded by both high brown hills that excel as grazing grounds and also by high mountains laden with the famed skiing snows of Utah. The air has the familiar oceanic scent of salt: it permeates everything in this area from the ground to the air. Microscopic crystals constantly formed on my mustache and beard. In fact, from time to time, I would lick my lips, taste salt and then develop a sudden craving for French fries. A thin coating gradually formed on the deck of the VJ once we got started on the water and created a glittering response to the brilliant sunshine, which bore down on the lake through cloudless blue skies.

The waters of the lake have a heavy, molten appearance that take a remarkable amount of wind to stir up. The concentration of salt in the lake is upwards of 12 percent, a heavy burden for any wind to rouse. Scott told me that once the winds get the water going, waves appear quite suddenly and generally tend to be large. One interesting feature of the lake that I noticed quickly was that the foam that forms on the surface is very resilient and sticks to anything it touches with great tenacity. I tasted the foam and found it to have a high mineral content – that explained matters for me. Scott and I had some fun with the foam by taking turns ramming our kayaks through the larger “bergs”: they sliced through very neatly, as you will see in one of the images I posted at the link below.

One of the big surprises for me during this trip was to learn that the brown matter I spotted decaying amongst the rocks on the shore was not rotting lake vegetation but the husks of brine fly larvae. During a rest stop at the north end of the island, I stepped into the brown matter only to see my foot sink deep into it – that was the time Scott used to tell me what it was. Needless to say, it was with great haste that I removed my foot from the etymological offal. I noticed no underwater plant life anywhere in the lake. In fact, the only real life form within the lake is the brine shrimp. See the following link for more info on life in and around the great lake:

There are many reef-like calcium carbonate formations throughout the lake that “grow” from the bottom of the lake. I tested my graphite/cab-o-sil/epoxy coating on a couple of these formations just to see how well the kayak would bounce off the sharp edges. When I heard and felt just how deeply these hard formations cut into the coating, I immediately backed off and avoided them. I doubt there is anything that would create a resilient enough surface to make it possible for a kayak to run over the top of these sharpies short of titanium plating. I haven’t looked to see just how deeply the kayak was gouged but I will be prepping the VJ for this year’s leg of my cross-Canada trek soon. I’ll find out how well/badly the coating worked then.

The presence of the brine shrimp industry on the great lake was obvious at the marina. There were many large aluminum fishing boats pulled ashore and stored at the north end of the parking lot. Also, there was the odor of rotting shrimp permeating the air from the areas where the shrimp fishermen dumped loads of shrimp on the rocks for sorting. I could imagine the thousands of screeching marine birds that must crowd the skies and rocks while the fishermen engaged in their labors. Once we paddled past the breakwater, the air became far more fresh and invigorating.

I have been curious about the Great Salt Lake for many years. I imagined it to be in an area of wide mucky shores that would be difficult to access, much like some of the prairie lakes here in Alberta that are slowly evaporating. These lakes are remnants of the ancient glacial lakes that once covered Alberta. They have no continuous source of water to feed them, so when drought occurs, as has for the last few years, the lakes shrink rapidly. Great Salt Lake behaves somewhat like this but does have some continuous sources of replenishment from the melting snows of the mountains and small river feeds. This allows the great lake to shrink at a much slower rate that our prairie lakes. Scott said that the lake experiences seasonal depth changes by a few feet but is generally becoming shallower over time. This is evidenced by obvious rings seen on the sides of the surrounding hills and mountains. There are at least three flat areas on the sides of the hills and mountains where ancient shorelines once existed. It is easy to deduce that the flat rings were created by sediments that washed up on shorelines that lasted for very long periods of times. There were other times when drought caused the lake to evaporate much faster than the seasonal snows and rains could replenish it so that the shoreline was not built up by sedimentary deposits and the slopes of the hills and mountains are steeper.

The entire region around the lake is a lesson in the life-cycle of a lake. It is also an interesting study in geology and erosion. The shoreline is rife with very interesting patterns of erosion due to the solubility of the rock formations. The shores are often made of gritty, coarse and pitted rocks that are very easy to walk along, even on steep slopes. There is an odd formation of what looks like red-colored calcium carbonate that seems to cement thousands of small rounded pieces of quartzite that could only have been shaped by hundreds of years of exposure to water movement, yet they are not widely scattered but appear cemented together in one gigantic lump that looks like something left behind by a stone-eating brontosaurus (see picture). The variability of geological formations on and around this island is enough to keep any interested party busy for a good week or two of exploring.

One concern that eventually kept Scott’s mind occupied originated by my intent desire to keep rounding corners to see what was coming up next. He knew, as I know, that for every mile “out”, there must be a mile “back”. He is acutely aware of how this lake can lure a paddler along until suddenly the brilliant day skies give way to nightfall. Apparently, he voiced his concerns to Marianne but I was either out of earshot or using selective hearing to avoid responding to ideas such as turning around and heading back. I was finally convinced to turn around some time after we rounded the northern tip of Antelope Island and were heading south. That was about where we spotted the tumbleweed in the water. That was also in the area where we spied a bison grazing on the slope of the hill. I should mention that the island was populated with bison many years ago. The existing herd is now used as a feeder heard to supply bison for other areas around the lake.

The return trip to the marina was not hurried but direct. The paling sun was hanging above the horizon, not appearing to set but no longer pushing radiant warmth onto my back. We chatted amicably with what seemed like conversational endnotes as we moved along, knowing our day was ending. The weather had granted us a boon today that would prove to be unparalleled over the next few days. It was reluctance that I turned the VJ into the harbor but I felt happiness that we all got to share the days experience together. We would get together one more time at the lake but only as a party of three after Marianne and I completed a short two-hour paddle on our own.

On January 01, we would hook up with Chris Ostiland to share chat and pizza before leaving Salt Lake City to do the return trip home to Edmonton. Oddly enough, we barely talked about kayaking at all. I found Scott, Chris and his wife, Lori, to be interesting and engaging personalities that were a pleasure to be acquainted with. Overall, my experience in Utah was very pleasant and enjoyable. The fine folks I met while staying in Salt Lake City were welcoming, pleasant and informative when need be. I even managed to take in a Utah Jazz game, my first NBA experience, and watched the Jazz win against the 76’ers in a game that left my finger nails chewed to the quick.

My last act in Salt Lake City was to give an old, cold and shaking homeless man a dollar after the game. He was leaning on some signage in front, begging in front of the Delta Center. No one was helping him so I handed him a dollar and suddenly others responded in like. I got the tickets for the game from a generous parking lot attendant who had two spares to give, so I paid it forward to the old man.

Robert N Pruden

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