Of sense and salinity: A swim in the Great Salt Lake

  • Gordon Gridley begins a 19-plus mile swim from Black Rock to White Rock Bay in the Great Salt Lake.

    Josh Green/Utahopenwater.com
 

Standing barefoot and swimsuited on a concrete boat ramp, I eyed the shimmering surface of the Great Salt Lake. On this June morning, clouds of brine flies roiled inches above the water: mouth level if you're a swimmer. Worse, the brine shrimp had hatched, and their countless tiny bodies had turned the water -- usually transparent 13 feet to the bottom -- a murky brown.

"Remember," said local open-water swimmer Goody Tyler dryly, "don't drink the water." No problem there, I thought, splashing into the warm shallows and past docked sailboats after Tyler and two others, Gordon Gridley and Josh Green. All three wore black speedos emblazoned with the slogan Got Salt? Gridley and Green are founding members of the Great Salt Lake Open Water swimming club (SLOW), which promotes swimming in the lake by holding races and selling Got Salt? attire. I share their love of open-water swimming and was passing through town; they offered me a guided lake tour.

It seemed like a good idea, exploring America's Dead Sea from the inside out. I knew the water would have roughly twice the salinity of the San Francisco Bay I was used to. I knew the salt would make me float higher, presumably making it easier to swim. But in the marina parking lot just off I-80, I began to see that the experience was going to be strange. As the four of us smeared petroleum jelly on our necks and underarms to prevent salt burns, two Lycra-clad cyclists stopped to watch in disbelief. "Crazy," said one as she pedaled away. Then, with my face in the lake, my arms splashing to catch up to my guides and the low-level stink of decay permeating my every breath, I couldn't help but agree: Crazy indeed.

Today, few consider the Great Salt Lake a swimming destination. But in the late 1800s, the Mormon Church built the Saltair resort on its shores 16 miles from Salt Lake City. Dubbed the "Coney Island of the West," it boasted Islamic-style minarets, a roller coaster, a dance floor and lake access for dips in the brackish water.

Despite burning down twice, the resort was the finish line for marathon swims from Antelope Island more than six miles to the north between 1919 and 1932. In the late '30s, the finish line shifted west to Black Rock Beach, adding about two miles to the course.

Over the years, fluctuating lake levels have sometimes blocked these routes. The eight-mile course from Antelope to Black Rock is accessible of late, and in 2011, SLOW resurrected it. More than 30 swimmers compete in races here each year, some hailing from as far as New York City. Gridley, Green and Tyler serve as Great Salt Lake ambassadors, inviting other swimmers to meet them here in the morning to give it a try; they hoped to win me over, too.

As it happened, I drank the water. Beyond the marina, wind-whipped waves slapped my face when I came up for air. Two big gulps had me gagging and retching, but my companions assured me I wasn't alone. Swallowing lake water was a rite of passage they'd all endured.

After about 10 minutes, with the brine flies far behind, I finally found a breathing rhythm that worked. Each stroke came a little easier than the one before. Soon, we arrived at our turnaround point, a buoy half a mile out where we leaned back to take in the scene, floating high in the water as if on liquid La-Z-Boys.

Gridley, who would cross the English Channel in August, has likely swum more miles in this lake than anyone. His son kayaked by his side on a 6.7-mile trip from Antelope to Fremont Island in 2010. They stayed the night in that treeless place of rocks and sagebrush blanketed with spider webs. "I felt like I was on a different planet," he said.

The distant, jagged mountains, the shore's barren rockscape and the glistening water definitely gave the lake an alien feel. It is, after all, a fossil of another lake, the much larger Bonneville, which, tens of thousands of years ago, covered almost 20,000 square miles of Utah, to depths of over 1,000 feet. A massive flood emptied most of the basin, and evaporation has slowly sucked the shorelines since -- the Great Salt Lake remaining like the last dregs of broth at the bottom of a giant soup bowl.

On the swim back to the marina, the wind quickened our pace. Somehow, the water didn't taste as salty; my strokes were stronger, more confident. As I stepped from the lake and began toweling off, I assumed the experience was complete. I was wrong. When I peeled off my swimsuit, I discovered a soft, sticky layer of brine shrimp coating me like a second skin. Disgusting? Yes. But somehow, I didn't mind.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -