Island Named For Antelope, The Bison - Part Two

Filling the Spaces in Between

Utah Bison From an overlook called Mormon Rocks, high on the west side of Antelope Island, narrow canyons of rock and sage tumble down to crescent coves of sand, shore and marsh. Jetties of rock ply out into the sea - the lake, I mean - and small lake waves crash against the rocks and loll out on the beach on this bucolic day in November. The rough bike trail I'm on ducks into these canyons and surfaces again on the other side, ready to head into another defile.

Though I stand on a mountainside in the desert, the view is not exactly unlike that of standing at the edge of the ocean, for looking west into the salt haze that hangs over the Great Salt Lake, it is nearly impossible to make out the western shore mountains, some 25 miles away. What you can see, instead, is blue water, small waves, the occasional sailboat and, to either side, miles of dramatic undeveloped coast. The Great Salt Lake is, indeed, a place of wild contrasts.

I am on the island today to witness the annual bison roundup, but almost everyone here knows this island in the desert offers equally sumptuous helpings of great mountain biking, horse riding and hiking as it does wildlife viewing. The 15-mile long, five-mile wide island and state park is home to one of the largest publicly-owned bison herds in America, plus elk, bighorn sheep, coyotes, bobcat, and copious numbers of waterfowl. The bison herd was transplanted here in 1893 and with the exception of a big 'hunt' in 1926, they have been pretty much left alone.

Since the state took ownership of the herd in 1981 when Antelope Island State Park was enlarged to include the entire island, the herd has been closely monitored to support the island's delicate ecology. Every fall the island's herd - more than 600 - is rounded up and brought into pens on the north end of the island where in a 45-second spree a bison is weighed, inoculated and examined. Though some resent the notion of corralling a wild beast like the bison for what amounts to a physical, most understand that the state means to protect the herd. After the examinations, some of the bison are shipped off to start new herds or diversify existing ones. A few are 'hunted' under the guise of keeping herd numbers level. The entire roundup is, predictably, a great tourist draw, and each day during the roundup hundreds if not thousands of tourists sit in bleachers, chomp down on 'Buffalo Burgers' and enjoy the view. Being a militant vegetarian, I passed on the burgers and instead headed south along the spiny ridge of the island on my mountain bike.

Trails for non-motorized visitors fan south from the developed north end of the island. While most of the southern portion of the island remains off-limits to tourists, the island is serrated and cut enough that after just a short pedal the visitor feels completely removed from civilization. As far south as you can see ridges plunge to the water, and broad bowls full of yellow autumn grass and loping antelope fill the spaces in between.

Shoreline Like a Bathub Ring

Antelope Island has not always been so big. In fact, about 20,000 years ago it was less than a tenth the size it is today. The island is growing, you ask? No, the island and its peaks stay the same. It is the lake that surrounds it which shrinks.

The Great Salt Lake as we know it today is just the latest in a series of manifestations that has spawned over the millennia, always in the same place. In the last 30,000 years or so the lake has grown or shrunk depending on how wet the local climate is. Key to the lake's existence is the fact that the lake fills the lowest spot in the Great Basin. The Great Basin is an oft-ignored part of America which stretches essentially from the crest of the Sierra Nevada to the crest of the Wasatch and from about Boise south to near Las Vegas. Within this area, which is defined by long, thin, tall ranges interspersed by level valleys, rivers and streams flow in but not out. This phenomenon took years to figure out. Early explorers and settlers scoured the Great Basin looking for a mythical river which flowed west from the Great Salt Lake to the Pacific - preferably into San Francisco Bay. Such a river would both aid navigation and travel as well as provide habitat for beaver, who were sought by trappers for their valuable pelts. Some explorers even named the mythical river: the Rio Buenaventura. But there was no river running west. There was nothing, in fact, but creeks that flowed into valleys simply to disappear in a mirage or mudflat.

Antelope Island Three major rivers feed the Great Salt Lake: the Jordan, the Bear, and the Weber-Ogden. Each spring, during runoff, these rivers swell with snowmelt and silt and carry the minerals down to the lake. These mineral-laden waters wash out into the broad, shallow lake and, come summer, evaporate, leaving behind the salt. The lake itself has no outlet, so the minerals never get a chance to flow on to the ocean. Human-made dikes which cross the lake help to exacerbate the salinity. Most noticeable is the rail line crossing the northern half of the lake, which passes by Promontory Point. The dike prevents the waters of the northern half of the lake from mixing with those of the southern half, and by some estimates the lake north of the dike is 30 percent saline, which the waters south of the dike - waters fed by the three major river systems - are ten percent salt or less.

Sixteen thousand years ago there was no salt to speak of the in the lake. Ten thousand years of warm, wet weather had filled the entire basin of western Utah with the Great Salt Lake's ancient predecessor, Lake Bonneville. Lake Bonneville's elevation was 5,085 feet above sea level, about 800 feet above the current lake level. The lake sprawled south to Cedar City, north to Malad, Idaho, and west into Nevada, and was filled with long-gone fresh-water fish. Entire mountain ranges were mere islands in the lake. About 14,500 years ago some catastrophic event - perhaps an earthquake - caused the natural dam at the north end of the lake to burst, sending voluminous quantities of water into the Snake River and west to the Columbia. The lake stabilized at 4,860 feet above sea level. Since then other wet and dry cycles have filled the lake or evaporated it. Today, as reminders of those ancient times, the beaches of the former monster lakes can be found all over western Utah like bathtub rings on mountainsides. My town, Tooele, is on the beachhead of Lake Bonneville.

The bike trail I followed to Mormon Rocks began at a trailhead on the northern tip of the state park. Following old four wheel drive tracks it snaked past one cliff head and into a broad grassy bowl called White Rock Bay, then up the bowl until it intersected with another lake level called Stansbury. This level, at 4,470 feet above sea level, created a nice level bench which the bike trail followed on down the mountainous west side of the island, cavorting in and out of canyons and past beaches of oolitic sand. The oolitic sand (say 'ooh-lih-tic') is an actually concentric layer of aragonite built around a microscopic core of mineral fragments of brine shrimp fecal pellets.

'My home in the wilderness'

Those who may chance to read this at a distance from the scene may perhaps be surprised that the sight of this lake surrounded by a wilderness of more than 2000 miles diameter excited me in those feelings known to the traveler, who, after long and perilous journeying, comes again within view of his home. But so it was with me that I had traveled so much in the vicinity that it had become my home of the wilderness. Jedediah Smith, The Travels of Jedediah Smith, 1827, written after the 28-year old trapper and explorer became the first white man to travel across the entirety of the Great Basin. He did it with just two other men.

Antelope Island, an island in the desert surrounded by waters three times as salty as the ocean, has long attracted ideas and people almost as bizarre as the island itself. One of those people was John Baptiste, who in 1862 was working at the cemetery in Salt Lake City, care taking and grave digging. Well, one day someone in town noticed Baptiste appeared to be wearing precisely the clothes that her husband had been buried in the week before. Others in town noticed that Baptiste's clothes seemed to be, well, familiar. The police searched Baptiste's home and discovered the man had robbed some 300 graves, leaving the bodies but taking the booty. Baptiste was arrested, but an angry mob raided the jail and demanded Baptiste's execution. Instead, city leader Brigham Young ordered Baptiste banished to Antelope Island and, just to make him stand out in the crowd, should he ever return, they cut off his ears and branded his forehead 'grave robber.' Baptiste's stay on Antelope Island was short, however; authorities soon learned he could wade ashore if he wanted. To heighten his exile, Baptiste was taken to even more remote Fremont Island, where he was left alone with a small lean-to and shackled. Returning to the island a few weeks later, ranchers found the lean-to cut apart, a dead and dissected cow, and Baptiste no where to be seen. Twenty-eight years later, a hunter found a human skull in some mud at the mouth of the Bear River, to the north of Fremont. Some years after that, another hunter found a head-less body. When the hunter dug around the submerged body, he found shackles attached to the leg.

Weird stories don't end with the grave robber, however. In 1875, James Wickham was brainstorming for ideas to attract tourists to the lake and its shore-side resorts. One afternoon, Wickham stood on Ensign Peak above Salt Lake City, gazed out at the vastness of the lake, and was struck with a magnificent idea: Whales! Wickham bought two 35-foot whales in Australia and shipped them by boat to San Francisco then railway to the Great Salt Lake. Wickham has visions of 'farming' the whales, and pictured idyllic scenes of the whales swimming around lakeside docks, where visitors could practically reach out and touch them. The whales were released into the lake, but instead of hanging around the docks, they swam off and were never seen again. Though most believe they died quickly due to the high salinity of the lake, there are from time to time stories of 'monster' sightings on the lake. In one report from around the turn of the century, a whole boatload of sailors swore up and down that they saw a 60-foot beast in the moonlit waters.

A few years ago there was a Salt Lake City businessman who wanted to build a causeway to Antelope Island constructed from Environmental Protection Agency-recovered Superfund toxic waste. Others have had grand visions of secluded resorts and lakeshore homes. Many have talked recently of diking and pumping parts of the lake to create fresh-water playgrounds. Now, the state wants to build a freeway along the lake's eastern shore which would wipe out hundreds of acres of wetlands - wetlands home to one of the country's most profuse collections of shorebirds and migrating waterfowl. But through it all, the Great Salt Lake and Antelope Island slumber along without our help just fine, thank you, capturing the last shades off sun or a passing storm.

'The night was cold...'

In his recently-published book Visions of Antelope Island and Great Salt Lake author Marlin Stum likens Antelope Island to a sort of wildlife paradise like that found in Yellowstone. Though much of the island has essentially been off-limits to walk-a-day tourists, Stum has traveled extensively on the rocky island and had close contact with its myriad of well-adapted and surprisingly diverse wildlife. Antelope spring about on broad alluvial fans, bighorn sheep climb the jagged summits, a rare bobcat stalks prey, bison graze grasslands, and great swarms of waterfowl darken the sky en route to points north or south. 'Simply put,' he writes in this excellent book, 'Great Salt Lake is like nowhere else on the plant. Antelope Island... is the living, beating heart of the lake. As more is learned, we will begin to understand - and hopefully appreciate - the remarkable complexities of this ecosystem and what it has meant to us as human beings over time. Each new revelation brings another inquiry.'

Back to the White Rock Bay overlook on my bike. I am dusty, aching and thirsty. My front tire has a slow leak. Below, in the expanse of the bowl at sunset, two horse riders are lost in the vast spectacle, soon noted only by the dust their horses' hooves raise. I pump up the tire again and angle back to the truck.

[T]he lofty range of the Wahsatch Mountains ahead enveloped us in a mantle of such profound blackness that is seemed at every heave of the sea as if we were plunging into the very mouth of Avernus. After shoving the boat over the bar with handspikes, we struck immediately into deep water, and as I now knew every inch of the way, the people again returned to their blanket, being very weary. The night soon began to clear away and the stars to appear, their beams reflected brilliantly in the dense water of the lake. Flashes of vivid lightning blazed up occasionally from behind the north-east. This was the third entire night I had thus spent upon the lake, sitting quietly at the helm, guiding my little bark over its solitary waste. Again I was struck with the deep and profound silence that reigned around me. The night was cold, and I found two great-coats exceedingly welcome. Captain Howard Stansbury, Exploration of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, 1850

Part 1

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