The Exorbitant Allure of Great Salt Lake

Sea-kayaking an Inland Ocean

In the 1820s and 1830s government explorers and private expeditioneers headed into the deserts of western Utah in search of beaver, gold and the Rio Buenaventura, the river they thought they led west from the Great Salt Lake to the Pacific.

When they staggered out of the desert months later, their tongues black from dehydration, they told harrowing tales of springs that bubbled undrinkable water, dead horses which were eaten by starving compatriots, hundreds of miles of uninhabited terrain, and this one poignant though elusive fact: there is no river running west from the Great Salt Lake. The lake - the lake is a dead sea.

The notion of the Buenaventura was, actually, a Spanish one. Imaginative map makers who in 1776 had been to Utah Lake but not the Great Salt Lake, just 40 miles north, drew the salt lake and added a large, unnamed river that drained the western shore.

This fictional cartography caused years of grief among later explorers, who after unsuccessfully finding the river spun fantastic tales of its existence: it flowed through a lush valley teeming with wildlife and could be used as a shipping route to the Pacific.

On June 14, 1850, Captain Howard Stansbury, a surveyor and explorer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, ended a difficult period of exploration in the northwest corner of the slumbering lake and embarked on a journey back across the lake to Antelope Island, where his men could stock up on fresh water and beef. But along the way, Stansbury and his crew ran into elongated sand bar stretching between Stansbury and Carrington islands and were forced to navigate around the impediment in the dark with a storm on the rise. Close to midnight, after a full day of sailing, the crew found a way around the bar and set sail for Antelope. Stansbury, ever the leader, let his men fall asleep while he let the sails rise. But the break was a short one; soon the boat was again aground, this time on a sand spit sprawling south from Hat Island.

In his diary, Stansbury wrote:

This might easily have been avoided had not the night been so very dark and the lofty range of the Wahsatch Mountains ahead enveloped us in a mantle of such profound blackness that it seemed at every heave of the sea as if we were plunging into the very mouth of Avernus.

The men were awakened by a collision with another sandbar, and had to extricate themselves from this, too. They fell asleep again.

The night soon began to clear away and the starts to appear, their beams reflected brilliantly in the dense water of the lake. Flashes of vivid lightning blazed up occasionally from behind the mountains, and several meteors, some of great size and dazzling brilliancy, shot down the sky to the north-east. This was the third entire night I had thus spend upon the lake, sitting quietly at the helm, guiding my little bark over its solitary waste. Again was I struck with the deep and profound silence that reigned around me. The night was cold, and I found two great-coats exceedingly welcome.

I had a sea kayak, a long, trim, light and virtually unbreakable vessel, not a 'bark' like Stansbury, and I had thick fleece for this cool summer sunset, and yet I had only ventured yards from shore when I realized the waves were going to swamp my boat.

From shore, the lake appears choppy this June evening, with a stiff north wind and waves six inches high. But out on the open water, laid low in the kayak, the waves become larger.

Such is the enigma of the Great Salt Lake, I think: it appears simultaneously benign and magnimonious, harmless and fearful.

When conditions are better, however, a sea kayak can be an ideal way to see the lake, or other lakes in Utah, as I learned last weekend while kayaking with my good friend Laura. Before our trip to the Great Salt Lake we spent a few hours in Rush Lake, some 20 miles to the south, which like its sister to the north is a lake without an outlet but much smaller, and much more tightly ringed by mountains.

Why is a kayak so great? The boats are light, and so easy to transport and paddle; though small, their seats are comfortable enough to sit in for hours, and the boats take up only a few inches of water even when fully loaded, meaning you can scoot around through very shallow water without getting grounded. Furthermore, most sea kayaks have sealed storage areas, meaning you can take along a lunch or even a full camp and spend the night on a secluded beach. What's more, you can typically rent them for $25 a day or less. The only challenge is to load them on your car.

Rush Lake is not a looker from the road. I mean, it comes off as being a rather boring lake. That's great, I guess in retrospect, because it keeps everyone away. But once on the lake, its appearance changes. It's long shallow shore gives way to cloudy blue depths. Out in the middle of the lake, which is known for its dependable waves, wind surfers cut across the water at blinding speeds. But along the eastern and southern shores the water comes alive with thousands of birds. Avocets dart among the reed while black-necked stilts strut through the shallow shoals. Bald eagle nests perch in the huge cottonwood trees lining a part of the lake, and three massive pelicans, looking as huge as Hyundais, eye us from their cove then take flight as unsteadily as 747s. It was not unlike being on African safari.

Rush Lake got us warmed up for Great Salt Lake, but by the time we made it to the famous Saltair things were in a downhill spiral - the sky was moody with storm clouds, a north wind was kicking up some serious gusts and the temperature was dropping in to the 50s ... and forecast to be near freezing by dawn. And yet, for just a moment, sitting in the black tumultuous water, I felt a moment of the power and beauty of the lake. Laura paddled to shore but I hung out just a bit from shore, facing the duotoned sunset for a moment later, and pictured myself perhaps another Captain Howard Stansbury.

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