Kayaking on the Great Salt Lake
I was in the middle of a desert sitting in my kayak watching a nesting island. Gulls swirled overhead while others squawked on the island. Groups of thousands of brine shrimp drifted like clouds through the clear water below me. Great blue heron stood as still as statues on the higher rocks seemingly unaware of the commotion all around them. Double crested cormorants and sandpipers all contributed to the visual feast in the distance. All of this was happening on the Great Salt Lake. I kept my distance to respect the rights of the birds as well as the law that protects all nesting islands on the lake.
This was an experience that I had waited to have for years. As a child I had dreamed of floating in the mystical salty lake in Utah. Years later as I flew in and out of the Salt Lake airport I would look down at the mosaic of marshes on the south end of the lake and think I would much rather be experiencing the marsh instead of another business trip. The historian Dale L. Morgan defined the lake as a "Lake of paradoxes, in a country where water is life itself and land has little value without it, Great Salt Lake is an ironical joke of nature-water that is more desert than the desert." I always wondered if the historian was right, or was the lake a unique and different world we didn't understand. I found the answer that day as my paddle pulled my kayak through the water.
In some ways the lake is like a desert. It has vast panoramic views, solitude, tranquility, and incredible sunsets. The lake is anything but lifeless. It is true that the lake is salty. It is 3 to 4 times saltier than the ocean so it doesn't support your typical marine life. Shortly after the trains came through Utah it was the rage for tourists from around the world to come and float in the lake like corks. The lake is fun to swim in. Just think of it as a salt bath in the largest spa in the world. Unlike the human mega-fauna that came, floated, and left many species have thrived on the lake. The lake is host to an estimated 6 million birds that use it as a stop over on their migration each year. Annual visitors to the lake include about 65,000 black-necked stilts, 2,500 American avocets, and over 10,000 white pelican nest on the islands of the lake. In the heat of summer over 500,000 Wilson's phalaropes will congregate on the lake. They all come to feast on the brine shrimp and brine flies that thrive in this highly saline water. It is one of seventeen sites that are designated to have Hemispheric Importance in the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network. Halophytes or salt adapted plants grow in the marshes that surround the lake. Iodine bush and pickleweed are just two of the interesting flora that flourish near the lake.
The birds are just a small part of the lake experience. I have paddled on the lake several times since that first time I sat enchanted by Egg Island. With over 10,000 miles of paddling experience I have found it to be one of the most rewarding places to paddle in North America. I prefer to paddle during the early mornings or late evenings when the lake is calm. As I glide on the water birds soar overhead. The islands of the lake are arid; they have been compared to the Greek Isles. Looking at the distant snow caped peaks I can see the ancient shoreline of Lake Bonneville. A lake that up until about 14,000 years ago occupied 20,000 square miles of the Great Basin. The 1,700 square mile Great Salt Lake is small in comparison yet rather vast when viewed from the cockpit of a kayak.
Occasionally I share the water with a sail boat but I rarely see motorized craft. The tranquility is incredible especially when you think of the almost 2 million people that live along the Wasatch Front just minutes away. The lake is a wonderful place to learn to kayak. It has no surf zones and the currents are mild. For the experienced kayaker the lake offers an experience like no other in North America. Antelope Island which can be accessed by a causeway is one of the few public access points on the lake that is suitable for launching kayaks. The paddle from the marina to view Egg Island makes a nice short trip. If you want a longer trip continue from Egg Island across Bridger Bay to Buffalo Point. Buffalo Point is a fascinating world of boulders and sea. If you are up to a marathon trip explore remote and rugged west side of the island. The island is closed to landing beyond White Rock Bay so go prepared for a long paddle.
I like to paddle all kinds of craft but sea kayaks are best suited for this lake. Great Salt Lake Adventures offers Sea Kayak tours and rentals on Antelope Island. If kayaking is not for you there are other ways to enjoy the island. There are nice roads for cycling, driving, and wildlife viewing. Bison, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and coyotes are common on the island. Long billed curlews, peregrine falcon, and burrowing owls are a few of the 250 species of birds that call the island home. Several trails on the island allow you to experience every thing from the lake shoreline to ancient Lake Bonneville shorelines or the 6,596 foot Frary Peak. The Utah State Park Service maintains a nice visitor center and the historic Fielding Garr Ranch. Buffalo Point Inc. has a bistro, souvenir shop, and wildlife safaris in an amphibious duck vehicle. If you want to experience the cowboy history of the island first-hand, climb on a horse and enjoy a ride with one of their wranglers. Or you may want to just enjoy the beach and take in a sunset like no other.
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