A Baja Utah Sailing Adventure Sept 2014
It was a dark and stormy night. No really. It was. I know writers use that cliché to build suspense, and adventure writers use the dramatic flashback to some dark and stormy night to allow their hero (usually them...) to reminisce about what craziness had brought them to that dangerous situation on that dark and stormy night. But this trip started on a dark and stormy night from the git go.
For several years I have loved Baja Mexico and have made several trips down there to sail. The wonderful wilderness, majestic desert mountains, the sea and sea life, certainly the wonderful people and great food make it a paradise. With a trip to Baja on the agenda again this year with my new sailing kayak Vagabunda, I was looking for a good long shakedown trip here nearby, about 2 weeks or so, to make sure all my skills and gear would be up to the rigors of Baja. I thought about Lake Powell, certainly beautiful, but not a good sailing lake. Lake Meade? A reasonable option but with the low water level the "bathtub ring" makes it a pretty dreary place. Then I realized I have my very own Baja right here in my own front yard. The Great Salt Lake! I had pretty much been ignoring “GSL” for 40 years for not very good reasons. Too salty, I thought, too buggy, too stinky, too shallow, with all the shoreline surrounded by miles of sucking mud flats. Boy, was I wrong, and I lost out on many years of great adventure I could have had out here.
GSL is one of the largest "dead seas" in the world. River water for hundreds of miles around drain into this lake with no outlet to die a salty death. The GSL is about three times as salty as the ocean, and nothing much can live in the briny water except a tiny brine shrimp that is harvested by very tough guys out on the lake for months every autumn, and brine flies (no relation to the shrimp), both of which feed on a few species of algae that also live there. These, in turn, are food for millions of migratory birds that pass through here on the Pacific Flyway on their way to the Arctic every spring. The lake is a remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville that once covered several western states about 1000 feet deep. You can still see the old line of the shore up on the face of the surrounding hills. At its modern peak, in the early 1980s, the lake was about 100 miles long and 50 wide. Now, with the water level shrinking from years of overuse and drought, and vast sections carved off by dykes, levees, causeways, and evaporation ponds for extracting minerals, the current lake is about 30 miles long and 15 wide. There are several islands in the lake, Antelope, Stansbury, Carrington, Hat, Gunnison, Fremont, to name a few. Most of these are technically not islands anymore, as the shrinking water level has left them connected to the mainland by big sand flats that allow you to walk, even drive, out to almost all of them.
There never has been any significant sort of recreation or real estate development on the lake. For 100 years the Saltair resort on the south shore has struggled to make a go of it. They built a big dance hall with giant golden St Petersbergesque onion dome towers. Sort of an odd choice if you ask me. They once had amusement park rides back in the day, and held pretty big concerts. Old timers recall seeing the Beach Boys there. The place has burned down a few times, and got flooded out in the high water days in the 80s. I recall seeing pictures of a guy in a boat rowing across the dance floor! It has been restored again and open as a concert venue.
The state has built 2 marinas, but low water has forced closure of the one at Antelope Island, and the one on the south shore can now only handle shallower draft boats. The bulk of any other development has been industrial. The west side of the lake has become the domain of the mineral extraction folks, mostly via giant evaporation ponds.
When I was a kid my family moved to Utah from Oregon. I had loved small boats even back then and just restored an old homebuilt flat-water kayak I got from a buddy. The first thing I noticed when I looked at the map of Utah was this giant lake right next to town! This was going to be great. I didn’t drive yet but it was so close to my home I planned to build a little trailer for the kayak and tow it to the lake with my bike. But when we got here, I fell in love with the mountains, climbing and hiking and skiing became my passions for the next 35 years, and the lake and the kayak were forgotten. I think my dad hauled it to the dump when I was away at college.
When I got into sailing a few years ago, I met several folks with sailboats out on GSL. The few times I went out with them were fun, but there didn't seem to be anywhere cool to go, and everybody just seemed to go out, sailed around in circles, watched the depth gauge and made sharp U turns when they hit shallow water again and again and again, have a glass of wine watching the sunset, and motor back in. Not that any of that was bad, not just the sort of sailing exploring adventures I had in mind. Then I met Josh Church recently and he said he had been out on many multi day cruises on the lake, anchoring out over-night, having a great time. It was true that there were vast sections that were too shallow for his 4 foot deep keel, and he had to anchor a few miles off shore of some islands, but he was out having a great time in a truly wilderness setting. Talking to Josh I realized that the GSL would be perfect for my kayak. I could hop from island to island, sail in water as little as 6" deep, pull up on shore, camp in wonderful secluded desert wilderness. Just like Baja. OK, sure. It is missing the sea life, the whales, the dolphins, the pelicans, the wonderful "south of the border" charm, people, music and food, but it is still an amazing place to enjoy a grand wild adventure, loving the desert, the seclusion, the magnificent mountain vistas across sparkling water.
The Saturday I had planned to leave was one of the nastiest on record with cold rain and fierce winds. I stayed in bed and started out the next day under partly cloudy skies and moderate winds from the east, perfect for heading west as I was. My sailing kayak performed perfectly. I made 13 miles that day, one of the longest of the whole trip. I did run into some shallows and had to walk the boat through a "rock garden" of tufa knobs for a while. (Tufa is a soft rock that precipitates out of the water and settles on the bottom.) I camped on the south end of Stansbury Island on a sandy spit. That night a big bad thunderstorm came over and thrashed on me for about 2 hours. I have spent a lot of time out camping in small tents in bad storms, but never in conditions like that before. The wind was blowing my tent over so I sat on that side of the tent with my arms up holding the wall from collapsing. I felt like that raw army recruit who was always screwing up at basic training and his drill sergeant made him run around all day holding his gun up in the air. (Of course he goes on to save the platoon with his strength and valor). But I wasn’t in a war zone, it just sounded that way. Lightning bolts and simul-thunder crashed around me for hours. Flash-crash-boom. The rain pounded down in waves, like a fire hose turned on patriots demonstrating in a town square. I was thinking perhaps I should put on some pants in case the tent blew out and I had to scurry to another fox hole, but it took both hands to keep the tent up, so I just sat there bare-bummed and whimpering shamelessly. I can see the family reunion scene many years from now. "Grandma Kenzie, was great grandpa Kyle brave when the worst storm of the century paddled his bum out on the Great Lake?" "No Julito" she replied, "He wasn't wearing any pants, and we all know that you can't be brave if you are not wearing any pants. He just sat there in that tent whimpering shamelessly" (Julito wanted to be brave, and he never again went to bed without wearing Gore-Tex pants. No amount of pleading or threatening or bribing with Otter Pops could change him. Bearded psychotherapists with round spectacles would study his behavior and mumble among themselves and shake their heads. Years later he mentioned this odd fact about himself in his Match.com profile and he met a spunky kayak sailor named Wind-Song who understood him perfectly and they proceeded to complete the second ever sailing kayak circumnavigation of the Great Salt Lake, and went on to solve the mystery of why pelicans stopped nesting on Hat Island.)
My boat is a sailing kayak rig, basically cobbled together out of spare parts. The hull is a very good two person touring kayak with a foot operated rudder. I added home-made outriggers for added stability, a lee board, mast and sail, and I sewed a spray skirt out of cast-off boat cover material I found in a dumpster back in California. I have been working on her for 2 seasons now, sailing almost every week from April to October, upgrading to some store-bought parts, making little improvements continuously here and there and she really is turning out to be a fine little craft. She is rugged, reliable, sails well, and I can paddle when I need to. I admit I am an unenthusiastic paddler. I know many people love it and wax poetic about "the song of the paddle", but I am a sailor, and for me every paddle stroke is a song yodeling my failure to get to where I am going under sail. But certainly paddling is better than needing a motor!
The next day I sailed up to the north end of Stansbury and camped near what I think is the one and only beach-front cabin on the entire lake. It seemed abandoned and didn’t look like anyone had been there in a long time. The graded track into it was overgrown with weeds and brush. The cabin was of modern construction, with vinyl siding, metal roof, huge 2 story glass wall facing the lake. Inside was beautiful wide pine plank paneling and vaulted ceiling, really a treasure. Too bad whoever owns it doesn’t seem to be using it. The inside was a mess, a window was broken out, and there was a huge hawk nest on the second story deck!
I had arranged with my friend Josh to report in with him by cell phone every few days. He had told me that he has coverage across most the whole lake. He must have Verizon. I have T-Mobile. Big difference I am learning. I had cell coverage this morning and had checked in with him after the big storm, but no signal up this far. Hmmm. There is small brine shrimp harvest marina on the north tip of the island and I could see people there but I didn’t bother them. Nothing to worry about yet.
Tuesday I woke up early to a drizzle and the forecast on my NOAA Weather radio called for scattered thunderstorms all day so I rolled over and went back to sleep. I woke up about 9 with bright sun and clear skies so I packed up fast and launched for Carrington Island 5 miles away. By the time I was moving, the sky had quickly clouded over again and a frisky wind piped up out of the west and I made the crossing in a little over an hour! Vagabunda was screaming on that beam reach. I walked around the island for a while, climbing up to the summit and seeing an awesome camp site on the north end, a mile away. Up over the summit I noticed the ground was pock-marked with big craters and odd looking rusty metal bits scattered about. The craters were old, all grown over, and I wondered if some treasure hunter had dug about looking for lost Aztec gold or something. Just then 2 fighter jets from Hill Field went screaming overhead heading for the west desert practice bombing ranges. I then recalled someone saying this used to a bombing target and these craters were direct hits, and the metal shards were metal bomb-casing shrapnel. So glad to know they could hit an island. (I heard Iraq air force veterans boast they now can put a bomb down Saddam Hussain’s chimney. If they only knew which chimney...). I walked back to the boat and another thunderstorm looked like it was coming in so I wrapped up in a tarp under a bush and waited for all hell to break loose again like the other night. It never did but I had fallen asleep and enjoyed a sweet little nap and woke to warmer sunny conditions. I launched the boat again and headed to that nice spot around the corner and put in a snug little camp. Because most of the land I was camping on this trip was loose sand or gravel, I made it a practice to back up all the tent pegs with rocks. At this camp, every rock I lifted up was crawling with lizards that darted off to safer rocks. I wonder how many lizards I saw more than once! They must have thought the world was coming to an end.
The next morning, Wednesday, was clear but cold. I noticed a group of guys driving around on ATVs and doing some sort of work on the beach. I walked over, introduced myself, asked if they phones with cell service. He said yes, and I could use it to call Josh and report in. Since that first morning 3 days ago I had not had any coverage. Even up on top of the ridges I had hiked up. Nothing. Then as I walked away from these guys my phone chirped and I had coverage just long enough to receive a text message from a friend hoping all was well. By the time I tried to respond the signal was lost, mood was spoiled and no signal ever again until Thursday evening on Fremont island. I used to have a Spot messenger that lets you use satellites to let everyone back home know all is well. I guess I should get one again. Or just not tell anyone I am going so they don't worry!
The brine shrimp guys were just out scouting for good places, the season doesn't open until tomorrow so I invited them over for coffee. Several came over to my camp and we had fun comparing projects. All of them were immigrants, from Thailand,, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq. They lived at these company shrimper camps out there, made $10 hour with food and lodging included. They all said it was hard work but all seemed very happy with it all. Some had been coming out for years. I later found out that they had spread the word around the lake that some crazy guy in a kayak was out there.
I wanted to go on up to Hat island, only 3 miles north, and the wind was blowing from the north so I just paddled. It was a slog but of short distress. I got into a big area of those tufa heads and after trying to paddle through them and going aground several times, again I just got out and waded, leading the boat like a tame little burro. It was so nice to have my entire camp just follow along with hardly any effort at all. So much easier than backpacking! After a while I started to get cold and my feet were numb so I called it done, pulled the boat into a rocky little cove about 1:00 and took up life on dry land again.
Hat Island is a tiny pile of rocks out in the middle of the lake where pelicans nest in the spring. It was totally deserted now. No evidence of any mass nesting now, except for millions of bird bones scattered all over the place. So many in fact it seemed incredible that any birds had survived to nest next year! But I guess they do. Thousands every year. Odd that there were no carcasses of partially decomposed birds, just millions of bones. With the island now connected to the mainland by the sand bar I imagine coyotes, foxes and rats have a feast out there when the birds are on nest. In fact I wonder how much longer the birds will use that place to nest? Seems not so ideal anymore.
The forecast looked favorable for tomorrow, Thursday, to be good for a crossing over to Promontory Point. That will be 13 miles of open water with the potential for big wind and waves to happen, with nowhere in the middle to hop out to safety so I was prepared to wait days if I had to for conditions to be right but tomorrow looked good. The storm was moving out, high pressure was building, and winds from the west (I was heading east). I wanted an early start so I set my alarm for 5:30 and had everything as ready as possible for a quick getaway in the morning. I admit when the alarm went off that early I rethought my strategy and dozed on for another 30 minutes, then scampered to get packed and out to the boat. It all worked out and I was on the water by 7:30 and it was just light enough to see without needing a headlamp. The winds were brisk out of the west as predicted and I was headed northeast so it was perfect. I was going pretty fast, average about 4 miles per hour. I was making good time; the sky was clear and sunny by midway across. After a few hours with winds that were pretty strong, and because of the long fetch (the distance the wind can blow across the water to make the waves) the waves were getting pretty big, about 3-4 feet. Pretty serious conditions, but they were mostly swells, not breaking waves. They were come in on my hind right quarter and the boat mostly just bobbed nicely as the waves rolled on under harmlessly. A few, though, seemed to roll back onto me from the down-wave side of the boat and would slosh back up over the spray skirt. The skirt was working perfectly and the water would just roll off with no problems. Even with all that I only had a few sponges worth to swab out when I got to the other side. I was very pleased with how the boat handled those bigger conditions, but I was a bit worried what would have happened if it had gotten worse, with stronger wind and bigger waves. That is the thing about gaining experience. All you can do is just keep pushing the edge a little further each time, sometimes on purpose, sometimes just because it happens, and you hope you make it. Each time you do, you learn something and gain confidence in your skills and gear until at some point you get in over the limit and it all gets very nasty. But all was fine today.
The travel distance to Fremont Island was about the same as to Promontory, and since I was a few days behind in trying to meet up with my friends at Antelope Island, and since there was nothing really very exciting for me at Promontory anyway, I set the course for Fremont and landed there instead, after a 4 hour crossing. I was tired and hungry since in those big conditions I couldn't take any time or attention to rest or eat while underway. I don’t know what sort of passages and conditions I will run into in the future but I can't imagine having to do many other crossings that would be much bigger that this one, so I was pretty pleased that it all went so well. I sat on the beach, and drank the one beer I had brought along just to celebrate completing this crossing
I hiked up to the top of the ridge on Fremont and got cell signal so I called anyone who would be worrying and checked in with them all. That was nice. As I hiked along I found the skull of a big desert bighorn sheep. The horn curl was a full circle plus a bit. I wandered about, exploring a bit, then set up camp down by the beach.
The next day, Friday, I sailed and paddled the 8 miles on over to Antelope island where my friends from the Wasatch Mountain Club would be arriving for a 3 day car camp. The low water forced me to beach the boat almost a mile from the Bridger Bay campground. That made for a long foot slog with all my gear. I asked a ranger where I could get water and he pointed to the visitor center about 2 miles along the beach across the bay. I almost cried. I had been there before and had seemed to recall there being a water spigot at this campground but no. A fellow just then was walking out of a giant motor home heard us talking and asked "How much do you need? I have plenty here in my rig , you can have all you want.". Schweeet! It turned out he was there with the Wasatch Mountain Club, John was his name, and the nicest guy ever. I was a bit surprised at his RV because I was not used to mountain clubbers showing up in RVs bigger than my house. They have tended to be a small tent crowd. As I got to know him though, I learned that he has recently organized 5 day backpacking trips into the Uintas and the Grand Canyon, as well as just doing a 200 mile self-support bike trip in Yellowstone. Certainly he is no slacker. Since he was not using the tent spot at his site he offered to let me use it, which turned out to be the best site in the park, on nice soft sand right in the shade of the only tree in the park.
The rest of the folks started showing up that evening and we had a nice time. We hiked Frary Peak on Saturday, and huge potluck dinner party. After a week of eating trail mix and dried beans and rice, I really tucked in to the fresh salads, the barbequed turkey, and French fries. Those folks really know how to have a backcountry potluck dinner! Thanks to John and Julie and everyone for such a fine spread.
The next morning, Sunday, was my planned departure day but I delayed long enough to let a few folks play with my boat, and joined in on another awesome potluck brunch with pancakes, eggs, bacon, potatoes. Thanks to Robert and Turtle! Incredible food once again.
I launched about 11 AM. The forecast was for moderate winds from the south, which sounded bad because I was headed south and pretty much expected to beat into it all day and have to paddle much of the distance. However, by the time I got going, there was a light breeze out of the north and I just ghosted along downwind as easy as could be and had completed 8 miles by 4 PM and called that done, half way along the shore of Antelope island. I set up camp on a bluff near some huge rock outcrops, looking up a vast broad grassy valley. It was one of the nicest most picturesque camp sites I think I have ever had anywhere!
My camping strategy on this sort of trip is pretty much like I was backpacking. I use a small tent, tiny cook stove, eat dried food. Since I didn't have any hope of finding fresh water along the way I started out carrying about 11 gallons, planning on using about a gallon a day, and hoped to be able to top up if I found some along the way. Since I used John's water at the club camp I still had plenty.
The next day, Monday, was dead calm, so paddled 5 miles to the south tip of Antelope Island and camped. It was a hot day, but I found a big rock outcrop with a huge crevice in the shade where I am sitting right now typing this. Talk about an office with a view! I am so lucky.
They say that sailing is the art of riding storms around. We had a great storm last week, with wonderful winds. But this week, with a high pressure system building over the area, the forecasts were “Sunny, hot, light winds becoming calm”. Not too happy for a sailor. I started out on the final leg of my journey under dead calm conditions, and had resigned myself to paddling the entire 6 miles. No problem. I can do that. Just grit my teeth and turn up the music on my iPod. And paddle on. After a few minutes, though, a fresh breeze filled in from behind me and I flew across the next 3 miles in less than an hour with no paddling. I did have to paddle in the last 3 miles, but it was a delightful day.
As I paddled in and pulled on to the marina launch ramp where my car was parked, a stern looking park ranger walked down and asked me “Are you Kyle? We have been worrying about you. We found your car left here for days with no word to the harbor master, we looked inside and saw that we were dealing with a kayaker, and proceeded to organize a rescue!” Fortunately, they had somehow connected with my friend Josh, who I had been communicating with, and they realized that I was fine and had no need of rescue. I guess I should have left a note on the windshield telling them what my plan was.
So to my original “complaints” about GSL? There were very few bugs, at least at this time of year, and mostly only around the marina and the Antelope island causeway, and these were non-biting brine flies. Everywhere else was almost bug free. Stink? None, just good salty air. Too salty? The only effect of that I saw was that the cuffs of my clothes crusted up rock hard, (but then rinsed “clean” again every day.) My zippers did seem be pretty unhappy with it. I had to rinse them daily to keep them sliding. Too shallow? Maybe for a sailboat with a deep keel, and yes I did have to walk my boat through the shallows to dry land, but it was no big deal. And I never did see any mud, sucking or otherwise. The lake bottom and beaches were either hard sand or tufa rock flats, very good walking everywhere.
So was it as good as Baja? Well, true, there is no spectacular sea life, no whales, no dolphins. But I had a grand wilderness adventure, I met wonderful, kind, warm, generous people, I enjoyed great food, I watched the most spectacular sunsets over sparkling water with majestic mountains everywhere I looked. No, it’s not Baja, but I can look around, breath in a big whiff of salty air, squint my eyes a bit, take a few shots of tequila, and maybe not be able tell any difference. Muy Bueno!