Antelope Island

Catch-up post from July 12.

We decided to go to see the Great Salt Lake on our last day in Salt Lake City, knowing we’d regret it if we didn’t, but not knowing what to expect. Our day’s adventure began at the gate of the causeway that crosses the lake to Antelope Island State Park, where we paid $9.00 for our vehicle entry.

Along this five-mile thread of road over water, we saw the surrounding mountains reflected in shimmering pastels on an Easter-egg blue ‘sea’: not the dark mirror of normal lakes, but something almost iridescent: a surface that made reflected shores appear to float without a solid horizon. Once on the island, we passed a tiny marina of sailboats, and climbed the island’s worn, sculpted hills, covered with buff-colored grass and tufted with gray-green sagebrush and low evergreen

We watched a video at the visitors’ center first. It seems silly to sit in a darkened room and watch a screen when a fresh, outdoor experience awaits, but we got a lot of good background information of the island’s geological and natural history. The Great Salt Lake is the last remnant of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville, which covered more than 20,000 square miles during the Ice Age. Beneath this vast lake, the land sank over time, leaving only Antelope Island and smaller Egg Island visible today. Now the lake has shrunk to 75 mi. long and 28 mi. wide. Water flows into it via four rivers and with no outlet, the evaporation leaves high concentrations of minerals (generally 5 times saltier than the ocean).

The island and surrounding lake is home to over 250 species of birds and is a critical link in the Pacific Flyway between North and South America. We saw some of the world’s largest nesting population of California gulls, black-neck stilts, avocets, white pelicans white-faced ibis, and beneath the eaves of the visitors’ center, dozens of barn swallow nests bulging with babies almost ready to fly. These are the same swallows, which fly to Capistrano! We were grateful for their busy parents’ hunting, as the deer flies were persistent and seemed to know that focusing photographers are easy marks.

The island is 28,000 acres, and was rediscovered in 1845 by John C. Fremont and Kit Carson, who observed several pronghorn antelopes and called it Antelope Island. The surrounding lake appears as a dead sea, but it’s home to algae, eye-lash-sized brine shrimp, and the brine flies that feed on them, in turn offering an inexhaustible supply of food for the bird population.

Over at Buffalo Point, we ate delicious bison burgers at the food concession, and then, feeling restored, drove to Bridger Bay, the one accessible ‘beach’ on the island. A white crescent of almost lunar landscape spread before us: sand crusted with salt and odd flat flakes of pale stone. The sun baked down on the shimmering wasteland and as I peered across to the distant waters’ edge to where people were clustered in small groups, I half expected to see Salvadore Dali’s melting watches draped on driftwood, so surreal was the expanse. Only, there was no driftwood: only flakes of stone and salt.

This was certainly not another day at the beach! As we finally reached the water, billions of almost invisible brine flies exploded out in vast brown pressure waves from our footsteps, leaving their feast of dead brine shrimp whose carcasses formed a shredded carpet of amber-brown sludge in the gray-white shallows. Actually, there were only shallows. Far out into the water people were still only ankle deep and this obviously wasn’t the place where you could sit, buoyed lounge-chair fashion by the dense minerals of the water, as seen in brochures.

We soon left in search of other things promised in the video, and were encouraged when we saw a pronghorn cross the road. We hoped maybe we’d see a bison, too. When bison were threatened with extinction, a small herd of them were brought to the island for refuge. We came on a large herd, spending the afternoon at their favorite feeding and dusting ground in a salt marsh, between the road, and another vast salt beach. With no natural predators, they have thrived and multiplied and every October, there’s a round-up, where many are taken to populate other protected areas, ranches and zoos. Big horn sheep have also been brought here, and there are coyotes and mule deer as well.

At the end of the road on the eastern side of the island, eleven miles south of the visitors’ center, we explored the Fielding Garr Ranch. Built in 1848, it represents 135 years of western ranching history, but as we wandered through the house and outbuildings, I had an odd sense of homecoming, to my New England childhood, when my father had taken me on visits to many of his farmer friends. The sparse furnishings, the tree-shaded grounds, the simplicity and peace were so familiar and suddenly so richly remembered.

The best part of this exhibit, was that it was just there, as if its inhabitants had left for the weekend. There were pens of chickens, and a paddock of horses, and we’d seen a man driving a chuck wagon of tourists when we first arrived, but soon we were alone with the past. A man sat working at a computer in a small workshop attached to a barn, but he ignored us. Nothing was under or behind glass. Tools and household items simply lay where they’d been left. It didn’t appear as if anyone had taken advantage of this trust, and it was fun to feel like we were discovering an abandoned settlement. They even had a very early Airstream!

On our way back to the causeway, we photographed the bison herd again. The late afternoon sun now warmed their rich brown color as they strode through the cool gray-green of the sage brush. What a satisfying day!

Explore posts in the same categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: