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Mystery of Kanaka Lake carp defies those fishing for answers

25 Jan

Mention Iosepa and most people think of the modern steel pavilion that dominates the site. For others, the tidy cemetery comes to mind. Few, if any, consider of the large, pear-shaped pond across the highway. That’s too bad, because it’s one part of Iosepa that remains almost perfectly intact—physically and maybe biologically.

Yep, it's there: Kanaka Lake at sunrise (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared, without tangents and nested tangents, in the November 11, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

It was still dark when Tyler and I rolled onto the banks of Skull Valley’s Rock Bottom Spring.  From here the rutted double track we had been following veered sharply eastward.  Our destination, an unassuming pool called Kanaka Lake, was another half mile due south.  We’d have to park and hike the last leg, but that was fine by us.  What better way to arrive at our favorite Hawaiian ghost town?

“Hmm, coats would have been nice,” Tyler quipped when we were met by the frigid, pre-dawn air.

Ah yes, coats.  Of all the things to forget.  I blamed this year’s extra long autumn for the lapse.  Note to self: the desert gets very cold at night.  The flannel shirt won’t cut it anymore.  Tyler, whose light jacket was also not cutting it, made a similar note.  At least there was no wind.

We hopped a wide ditch and trudged into the darkness, our limbs warmed by movement, our hearts by the prospect of adventure.  Tyler and I have spent a lot of time exploring desert places, but we had never seen this outlying corner of Iosepa up close.  As far as we were concerned, this was uncharted territory.

Though it existed for a brief 28 years, Iosepa occupies a revered spot in Tooele County’s history.  Its story of faith and resolve has captured hearts worldwide.  The town was settled in 1889 by Hawaiian converts to the LDS Church who had moved from the islands to Utah.  Built on a working 1,280 acre ranch purchased by the church, the new colony would become a cultural and economic sanctuary for the Polynesian pioneers.  At its peak, 228 people called Iosepa home.

The town was abandoned in 1917 when all but one family returned to Hawaii to support a newly announced temple there.  The ranch was sold and the buildings were dismantled.  The entire town site was later plowed.  Today, virtually nothing remains of the town that in 1911 held the designation of “best kept and most progressive city” in Utah.

Despite the interest Iosepa generates today, not much is known about day-to-day life there.  Not even the remarkably preserved cemetery can tell us much about how these extreme pioneers lived.  In 2008, archaeologist Benjamin Pykles and a team of New York anthropology students began an ongoing study of the town site.

Regular readers of this column know of my own efforts to help connect the dots of Iosepa’s past.  In 2008, Tyler and I located and documented what the old timers called Story Rock, a limestone slab carved with images of palm trees, sea turtles and sharks.  I often reflect on those petroglyphs and the Hawaiians that carved them.  Who were these people who traded their island home for an unforgiving desert?  What were their dreams?  How did they spend their spare time?

Mention Iosepa and most people think of the modern steel pavilion that dominates the site.  For others, the tidy cemetery comes to mind.  Few, if any, consider of the large, pear-shaped pond across the highway.  That’s too bad, because it’s one part of Iosepa that remains almost perfectly intact—physically and maybe biologically.

The “lake” is a pooling of one or more geothermal springs and part of the extensive wetland system that spans the length of Skull Valley.  Kanaka’s warm, brackish water never freezes and is suitable for livestock drinking.  Carp planted by the Hawaiians thrived in its shallows.  Modern critics who question the Hawaiians’ choice to settle in such a seemingly inhospitable clime need look no further than Kanaka Lake.

The lake was also a recreation hub for the Iosepans.  If Salt Mountain was their island, Kanaka Lake was their Pacific.  Summer days were spent swimming and basking on its shores.  In his 1958 BYU Master’s thesis, Dennis Atkin noted that the Hawaiians caught carp by sneaking up behind the fish, gently stroking them along their sides, then grabbing them by their gills.

SIDE NOTE/TANGENT: The notion that the Iosepans ice skated on Kanaka has been perpetuated in several articles through the years. Atkin mentions ice skating in the same section of his thesis that he writes about Kanaka Lake.  It’s likely that some lazy writer falsely connected the two and everybody else ran with it.  Kanaka Lake is a warm spring.  It does not freeze.  This is just one more example of myth perpetuated by lazy writers.

NESTED TANGENT: There is no documented evidence of the Iosepans ever referring to the lake as “Kanaka Lake.”  The term “Kanaka” is Hawaiian for ‘people’ or ‘person.’  Outsiders often referred to the Iosepans as “the Kanakas” and Iosepa was known to most people as “Kanaka Ranch.”  It’s likely only the surrounding white settlers called the spring “Kanaka Lake.”  If the Hawaiians had an official name for it, it is not known to history.

Last July, Professor Pykles and I stood at his dig site and gazed down at Kanaka Lake.  Are there still carp in there, we wondered.  If so, are they of the same stock planted by the Iosepans?  Pykles wouldn’t have time to investigate the lake before he left.  Neither would I until fall, but if I could catch a carp, somehow deflesh it, and send its bones to New York, Pykles would see if they match the bones he unearthed during his dig.

I secured access from the Ensign Group who now owns the land.  The pressure was on.  I’m a decent angler until an article depends on it, and then I can’t catch anything.  My bad fishing luck has become a running chuckle in the newsroom.  The fishing part of this trip, I assured Tyler, was secondary to the actual experience of being where the Iosepans fished and played.

“But how hard could it be?” I asked as we approached the misty lake.  The atmosphere was surreal.

After almost a century without human encounter, surely these fish were up for a glittery ball of Power Bait.  We cast in as the sun peeked over Salt Mountain, but Kanaka’s surface was as still as glass.  Three hours passed without so much as a nibble.  The sun was up; it was t-shirt weather now.

Tyler decided to consult Google.  “When angling for carp, develop a patient approach,” he read from his phone, then shook his head.  “That’s bogus!  Haven’t you ever spit in the pond at Lagoon?”

“Maybe the Lagoon carp are tame,” I postured.  “Iosepa carp are wild.”

Wild and very picky.  We moved to the lake’s outlet where massive two-foot carp taunted us by zipping back and forth in water more shallow than they were tall.  Our varied baits and techniques were useless here too.  But we had answered our first question:  there were carp in Kanaka Lake.  The second would have to wait.  Like other Iosepa-related quests, success rarely comes on the first try.  It’s ok.  We’re persistent.  Those carp can’t run forever.

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One response to “Mystery of Kanaka Lake carp defies those fishing for answers

  1. nupepa

    July 17, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Hawaiians from Iosepa would write letters to be published in the Hawaiian-Language Newspapers in Hawaii (which they would also subscribe to). Here is an account I just ran into of a Hawaiian man visiting Iosepa on his way back to Hawaii in 1912. http://nupepa-hawaii.com/2012/07/16/a-visit-to-the-mormon-settlement-iosepa-utah-1912/

     

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