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Remote Fish Springs appeals to wanderers and solitude seekers

22 May

The following originally appeared in the April 21, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

A collection canal at Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge in the absolute middle of nowhere, Utah (photo by Clint Thomsen)

A collection canal at Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge in the absolute middle of nowhere, Utah (photo by Clint Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

They say that in the desert, water is gold. I guess that makes Fish Springs a mother lode.

The marsh’s sprawling surfaces glinted as the sun rose over Castle Mountain. Were it not for the tall grasses surrounding it, it would have been difficult to distinguish real water from mirage. Panning northward, the marsh faded into a vast salt flat. The lonely Pony Express Route below my perch in the Fish Spring Mountains stretched westward, dodging a knob at the northern tip of the range before disappearing into Snake Valley.

I had made the 106 mile drive from Tooele to cover the 50th anniversary of the Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. The events were to begin at 8AM and I had arrived rather early, so I continued past the refuge and explored the northern reaches of the Fish Springs Range. I climbed to the mouth of a large cave to take in the view, which is almost exactly the same now as it was during stagecoach and Pony Express days.

If one word could describe the spring-fed marsh and the Fish Springs Refuge, that word would be “oasis.” Perhaps satellite views of the region demonstrate it best—a teal and turquoise splotch against a vast, stark white playa at the southern edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert.

But to truly appreciate the haven that is Fish Springs, one must make the three hour drive—most of it along a callous gravel road—from either Tooele or Wendover.

Approaching the Fish Springs Range, the marshland looks like climatological anomaly. One minute you’re surrounded by scrub-speckled salt flat, the next you’re skirting wetlands choked with marsh cane and hardstem bulrush. Here, topography, geography, and geology have combined to form a truly unique environment.

It’s one thing to consider the remote situation of this oasis. It’s quite another to consider just how the 10,000 acre marsh is able to exist in such arid country. For one thing, it’s not new. The same springs that feed it now were gushing into Lake Bonneville over 16,800 years ago. Once that great inland sea retreated, the wetlands were a haven for numerous forms of wildlife. Humans have used the wetlands for up to 11,000 years.

Most of the water at Fish Springs originates as precipitation in eastern Nevada. It percolates into the ground and eventually makes its way into the Great Salt Lake groundwater flow system via carbonate aquifer. A fault at the Fish Springs Range creates artesian springs that allow water to seep upward and emanate, brackish and warm, at the surface.

Think of the Great Salt Lake flow system as a giant underground pipeline and Fish Springs as the surface site of a controlled leak. The 5 major and 6 lesser springs at the site generate 27,500 acre-feet of water per year.

The time involved in the aquifer recharge process is staggering. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the water flowing from the springs today fell as precipitation anywhere from 9,000 to 14,000 years ago. Incredibly, after spending so many thousands of year underground and emanating from the springs, most of it evaporates after just seven miles of free flow.

But before it does, spring output is collected and diverted via dredged canals to nine ponds, or impoundments, creating an ideal habitat for many local and migrant bird species. The Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge covers 17,992 acres and is a key point along the Pacific Flyway, a major bird migration route that extends from Alaska to Patagonia. During peak migration periods, up to 25,000 birds pass through the refuge.

Brian Allen, assistant Refuge Manager, drove me into the spring-marsh network to show me the habitats and several species of rare fish.

“Boy, that looks like it would be fun to swim in,” he remarked as we crossed one of the collection canals. Allen, 46, grew up in Washington State and is a recent transfer to Fish Springs. He’ll take over as Refuge Manager next year when current manager Jay Banta retires. In the meantime, he’s still discovering the wonders of the marsh.

Having worked in remote areas of Alaska and Hawaii, the Utah desert appealed to him. “Fish Springs is perfect for me,” he said of his new post. Fish Springs staff lives full time on site in a small complex of homes and apartments. “I’ve got a nice pickup and plenty of terrain to explore,” he continued. “An airport and hospital only three hours away– that’s pretty civilized in my book!”

We stopped at one of the major springs, whose waters were clear enough that I could see straight down to its sandy floor 10 feet below. Schools of small mosquito fish swam near the surface. Larger Utah chub swam deeper. The Utah chub, along with the least chub and specked dace that thrive in these waters, were native to Lake Bonneville.

Four American bullfrogs took me by surprise at another spring. This one was partially covered by moss, which provided perfect cover for their beady eyes. Wildlife in and around the impoundments weren’t so tough to spot. We spotted avocets, curlew, and several species of duck in their specially managed pools. The birds were the primary reason the refuge was established. So far, 285 different bird species have been recorded in the in and around the marsh.

I got out of the truck to photograph one of the pools against the backdrop of marsh cane and the Fish Springs Range before we returned to the office. Soon it would be back to the sagebrush and salt flats. Fish Springs staffers say they miss it when they’re away, and I can see their point. Lucky for them, they’re never more than a short 3 hour drive away from home sweet home.

TRIP TIPS
The Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge is located in northern Juab County, 106 miles from Tooele and 104 miles from Wendover. Getting there from any direction requires a long drive on gravel roads with no close gas stations. From Tooele, plan for a 3 hour drive. Camping, fishing, and swimming are not permitted. For more information, call 435-831-5353 or visit http://www.fws.gov/fishsprings.

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