Category Archives: Great Salt Lake

Photographing Great Salt Lake poses challenges of patience

Our hyper-saline inland sea is eye-catching—that’s a given.  That’s why you can spot tourists aiming cell phones and point-and-shoots toward it from the I-80 rest stop at any given hour of the day.  It’s why so many bridal photographers drag their subjects to its shores to have them boulder hop at the marina or climb onto rusting train cars in their wedding dresses.

A long exposure captures lightning over the Great Salt Lake. (photo courtesy Charles Uibel)

The following originally appeared in the April 29 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

It might have been the fastest half-mile I’ve run since high school gym class.  I can’t be certain because I had no way of timing it; in fact, timing it was the last thing on my mind at the moment.  What particularly impressed me about my dash was the fact that it completely was spontaneous—involuntary, even.  One millisecond I felt the dense cloud of bugs envelop me.  The next I was sprinting at superhuman speeds over beach and bog, through a dense phragmites jungle.

Were the tiny flies biting me?  I didn’t matter.  They were swarming me by the thousands—latching on, transforming my head into a Dipterid Chia Pet.  No, I wasn’t scared of them.  But something about the way they feverishly burrowed into my eye sockets I found deeply disturbing.  Some flight responses can’t be suppressed.  I aspirated a dozen with every breath as I raced toward the safety of my car.  Yes, I had come to this forsaken Great Salt Lake beach to get a taste of the ecosystem, but this wasn’t what I had in mind.

“They’re midges,” a Great Salt Lake ecosystem biologist chuckled when I recounted my panicked retreat.  He recommended visiting the beaches earlier in the morning or later at night—or better yet, during high winds and storms.

That’s also what Salt Lake City based photographer Charles Uibel suggested, but for different reasons.  Uibel has a special affinity for the Great Salt Lake.  He’s been interpreting the lake and its environs through his lens since 2005.

“You need to go see [the lake] when there’s some weather, or else it is disguised as just a bland stinky mud hole,” he told me, although he considers the lake photogenic in any condition.

Our hyper-saline inland sea is eye-catching—that’s a given.  That’s why you can spot tourists aiming cell phones and point-and-shoots toward it from the I-80 rest stop any given hour of the day.  It’s why so many bridal photographers drag their subjects to its shores to have them boulder hop at the marina or climb onto rusting train cars in their wedding dresses.

So what makes the lake so visually arresting?

Geologically speaking, the lake is nothing more than pooled water at the bottom of the Bonneville Basin.  As a terminal lake, it contains all the minerals left over from Lake Bonneville and those introduced by rivers and streams.  Yet the lake’s chameleon surface and its islands create a starkly beautiful setting.

The key component of lake’s subtle ecology is algae.  Aside from imbuing the water with a patchwork of reds, blues, and greens, these algae provide sustenance for brine shrimp brine flies.  Believe it or not, these two minuscule creatures are responsible for the unique look of Great Salt Lake beaches.  At the core of each sand grain is a brine shrimp fecal pellet.  Over time, concentric layers of calcium carbonate form around these pellets until they’re washed onto an alkaline shore.

Shorelines are striped by wind-blown rows of amber-brown material.  These are the product of the brine fly, whose total lifespan from larvae to death is about a week.  After feeding on algae in their larval phase, the brine fly’s pupa traps air and floats to the surface.  Once the flies emerge and fly away, pupae are blown onshore in rows of millions.  The flies themselves stick close to the water; their remaining hours are spent mating and laying eggs on its surface.

Higher up on the food chain are the millions of shorebirds who stop to dine on shrimp and flies on their way along Pacific Flyway.  Their presence makes the lake a birding Mecca and fleshes out the lake’s wildlife scene nicely.

Rounding out the lake’s mystique are man’s attempts to comprehend it and his repeated—yet most often futile—quest to harness its charm.  The Great Salt Lake itself is an enigma.  It’s constant and imposing, yet distant and strange.

I’ve tried to capture this concept on film for years with varying degrees of success.  Truth be told, I’ve been photographing the lake longer than Charles Uibel has.  The difference is he knows what he’s doing, as evidenced by the stunning images featured on his website,

This photo depicts a the bacteria-dyed waters in a solar evaporation impoundment. (photo courtesy Charles Uibel)

I turned to Uibel for a few tips specific to photographing the lake, then I set out to give them a whirl.

His first tip?  Watch the sky.

“The lake reaches far into the sky with its water vapor and weather effects.  So consider the sky.  It will tell you when you need to drop everything and go take pictures.”

Next, make it personal.

“Take a few moments to stop and become perfectly still,” he said.  “Then ask yourself, ‘What’s important here?’ Make the connection between you and the lake.“

His bottom line: “Don’t let other people’s photos interpret the lake for you.”

My first stop was to the Saltair area—my favorite place on the lake.  The current pavilion is picturesque, and ample relics of the old resort make excellent photo subjects.  Then I stopped at the marina to shoot spiders and docked sailboats.

Uibel suggested I visit the beach north of the I-80 rest stop between Saltair and Lake Point.

“It’s a beautiful, rocky, muddy beach,” he said.

He didn’t mention the midge flies, the last component of the ecosystem which was virtually absent until I walked onto the beach ½ mile from the trail head.  I snapped only precious few shots before the black cloud descended and my mad dash began.

The flies don’t bite.  The swarm is only a mating frenzy—a last hurrah before they, like their cousins on the water, die.  It’s thought that they swarm humans to reduce drag so they can devote more energy to the mating process.   The hundreds that accompanied me to my car were dead by the time I arrived at home.  While their millions of siblings will have been replaced in the ecosystem by the time you read this article, the Great Salt Lake—in some picturesque form—will remain forever.


Check out Uibel’s work at


Is Lake Bonneville Really Dead?

A view of the Great Salt Lake at sunset from the vantage point of Black Rock on the lake's southern shore (photo by Clint Thomsen)

I climbed Black Rock the other day for perspective on a writing assignment on the history of Lake Bonneville.  What was Lake Bonneville?  The short answer: A really big lake that covered about 1/3 of Utah until about 14,500 years ago.

The slightly less short answer:  Bonneville was the latest in a 15-20 million year succession of lakes that have occupied the Bonneville basin of the Basin and Range physiographic province.  Through a combination of flooding and changes in climate, the lake receded dramatically.  The Great Salt Lake is Bonneville’s largest remnant, occupying the deepest areas of the basin.

Lake Bonneville’s currents and waves sculpted the unique topography of western Utah.  The lake was just about the size of Lake Michigan, but deeper.  In fact, at the lake’s highest level, my home in Tooele County would sit nearly 1,000 feet underwater.  When you explore our vast deserts, you’re literally navigating the floor of this ancient water body.  My pen name, Bonneville Mariner, derives from this notion.

And speaking of ancient, most people who write about Lake Bonneville use that word to describe it, and pronounce it dead and gone.  Ancient it technically may be, though consider that we measure Bonneville’s life in thousands of years, not millions or billions, like most other geologic formations here. (hat tip: G. Atwood)

Dead and gone?  Hardly.  Which begs the question, when exactly did Lake Bonneville become the Great Salt Lake?

Think about, say, Lake Michigan.  Say it starts drying up until about 1/12 of it is left in the deepest depression.  It’s still a sizable body of water– still a really big lake.  Would you rename it?

Lake Bonneville, as far as geologists can tell, never completely dried up (though it came close about 7,000 years ago).  And while the Great Salt Lake covers only a fraction of the area Lake Bonneville did, it’s still the largest salt lake in the western hemisphere and the fourth largest terminal lake in the world.  If you’d like a perspective on the scope of GSL’s reach, just paddle out on a surf board.

To be fair, Lake Bonneville wasn’t studied or named until several decades after pioneers named the Great Salt Lake.  But this begs another question: were the GSL to rise over time back up to Lake Bonneville’s lowest major level (the Gilbert Level), would it still be the Great Salt Lake, or would it re-assume its previous (and rightful) name?


Posted by on December 10, 2009 in Great Salt Lake


Saltair in flames: Video documents the ruin of famous Utah resort

I’ve written about Saltair enough now that it merits its own category in my sidebar. If you’re new to the subject, check this out before watching the video below. I’ve read various accounts of the “Lady of the Lake’s” 1970 demise. The best comes from my cyber-pal Gregory Navarro:

I was doing homework with my girlfriend one November night in 1970 when Channel Four TV anchorman Roy Gibson came on and reported that Saltair was burning. I lived on the East Bench at that time, as did my girlfriend, and I ran outside to see the big candle burning near the horizon. I drove that 26 miles in about half an hour. By the time I pulled up to the turnoff on I-80 West, I could only see flames and plumes of smoke. Nothing else. On the news the next night, only the smoldering steel skeleton, melted asphalt and the pilings, like cemetery markers in neat rows, remained.

While researching my recent articles on Saltair, I came across some archival video of that 1970 fire.  I realize this may only be of interest to Utah history junkies, but it’s interesting to actually see the end of such a prominent landmark- a place that meant so much to so many of my older friends and relatives.


Stand-up surfing transforms the Great Salt Lake into Waikiki Beach

Can you tell I’ve got the whole tropical/beach theme bouncing around in the ol’ noggin?  The following  originally appeared in the August 2, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.


Rebekka Stone paddles on the Great Salt Lake. Stone owns Utah Paddle Surfingwhere water enthusiasts can stand-up surf on the Great Salt Lake. (photo courtesy Charles Uibel,

by Clint Thomsen

Every summer has its peak—like the crest of an ocean wave before it breaks.   Be it a grand vacation moment or a subtle vibe in August’s dog days, summer’s peak arrives on its own schedule.  The aim isn’t to predict or engineer it—it’s to catch the wave and ride it to shore.

That moment came for me last Wednesday evening as I stood atop an 11 foot paddleboard on the surface of the Great Salt Lake.  The water was cloudy blue and a balmy 75 degrees.  A gentle southerly breeze carried with it the crisp scent of salt water.  I was paddling toward a boat channel just east of the state marina, savoring what was shaping up to be a perfect summer evening.

My satisfaction was in large part due to this milestone along my elongated, yet determined path to becoming a “waterman.”  In Hawaiian culture, a waterman is someone who swims, surfs, dives, spear fishes, and paddleboards.  As pro surfer Chris Malloy once told Outside Magazine, a waterman has “a rhythm of life dictated by the ocean’s moods.”

That’s a tall order for a guy who lives 683 miles from the nearest beach, and whose rhythm of life is dictated almost solely by my various bosses’ moods.

It’s safe to say I’ll never reach true Hawaiian waterman status, but an innate obsession with all things water finds me, as often as possible, striving toward a Utah equivalent.   So when I heard about stand up paddle surfing on the Great Salt Lake, I was ecstatic.

Stand up paddle surfing, or SUP, is a variant of surfing where the surfer stands on a surfboard and uses a paddle to propel and steer through the water.  Since waves are not needed to propel the surfer, it can be done on any body of water.

Rooted in the South Pacific, the practice is thought to have originated with ancient Polynesian surf instructors, who found they could both manage their students and monitor swell conditions by standing atop their boards.

The concept was popularized on Waikiki in the 1960’s by Hawaiian watermen who used outrigger paddles with their longboards to photograph tourists learning how to surf.  SUP was virtually unknown to the mainland until surfer Rick Thomas introduced it to California in 2000.  The sport has since become viral in the lower 48 and has begun to see global popularity.

Paddle boards are now hitting Utah waters, thanks in large part to Rebekka Stone, owner and operator of Utah Paddle Surfing.

“When I moved here in January, the Great Salt Lake was the only surfable, non-frozen lake,” Rebekka told me.  “It feels, looks like, smells, and tastes like a little ocean.”

A native of Connecticut, she discovered SUP last year while living in Miami.

“My body loved it!  I was instantly addicted, in part from the full body workout my body craved, and in part from the thrill of staying on the board!”

Rebekka started Utah Paddle Surfing in January of this year.  The company offers affordable clinics and board rentals at the marina.  She invited me to one of her clinics last week.  My sons Bridger, 8, and Weston, 6, natural beach bums themselves were happy to accompany me.

The boys didn’t waste any time.  When he reached the beach, Bridger leapt from the shore onto one of the August 78 boards floating on the beach.  Weston dove straight into the water with his eyes open and learned first hand just how salty the Great Salt Lake is.  Rebekka was prepared with a bottle of fresh water and was impressed how quickly he recovered.

“I’ve seen grown men cry when they get that water in their eyes,” she said.

Bridger and Weston hopped on two boards and paddled around the beach.  After some brief instruction from Rebekka, I was up and paddling toward the horizon.  As I reached the boat channel, I stopped paddling and stood still to take it all in.  I was free, alive, in tune with the rolling waves—a wannabe waterman at his zenith.  That’s when my perfect summer moment came.

That’s also when I became one with the water—in the literal sense, when a large wave caught me broad-side.  Only after my wipe out did I remember Rebekka’s instruction about paddling and waves.

“Aim into the waves and paddle through them,” she had told me a few minutes earlier.  Oops.

Rebekka didn’t witness my “controlled fall,” but Weston did, and I heard him chuckle from afar as he dutifully alerted her.

Thankfully it was my only fall of the evening.  It didn’t take me long to get a feel for the board and the water’s groove.  I spent the rest of the evening plying the lake’s briny depths, wondering where I could come up with $1300 to buy my own board.

SUP boards are longer than normal surf boards, usually ranging from 9-14 feet.  Most feature stern fins and padded decks.  Since they are actually considered a vessel, SUP surfers are obliged to keep a life jacket on board.  Rebekka recommends surfers actually wear the life jacket, even if means risking the cool surfer image.

Storms and winds make can make the lake difficult to navigate.  Rebekka encourages paddlers to stay close to shorelines and never venture into the middle of the lake without a marine radio and following several other safety precautions.

After my last run, I began the onerous task of coaxing the boys out of the water.  “You’re stalling,” I told them as they pretended to tow in their boards, never actually getting closer to shore.  “Yes,” responded Bridger, “but it’s because it’ll be so long before we can come back here.”  I realized that he had nearly forgotten we weren’t in some faraway place.

We rinsed our feet off at the marina and began the short drive home.  The boys requested some surf music, and of course I had some ready.

Summer’s peak came a little late this year, but I’m glad we were there to catch the wave.


Check out Utah Paddle Surfing [website, Facebook, Myspace, blog]


Stand up paddle surfing on the Great Salt Lake

The boys and I spent Wednesday evening on a couple of 9′ paddle surf boards at the Great Salt Lake.  This was my first experience with stand up paddle (SUP) surfing and it was a freakin’ blast.

A lot of people think the Great Salt Lake stinks.  I’m one of them, but once you get past the immediate shoreline (where the dead brine shrimp wash up), it smells– and feels– just like the ocean.

We didn’t bring Coulter because he has yet to develop any water savvy, but Boo and West were naturals.   Riding those briny waters will be the subject of my next TTB article.  In the meantime, here are some pics from our session:

Weston plies the waters with a 6' paddle

Weston plies the waters with a 6' paddle.

Boys at play with Saltair III in the distance

Boys at play with Saltair III in the distance.

The boys share a board.  Notice how bouyant the thing is in the second saltiest body of water on the planet

The boys share a board. Notice how bouyant the thing is in the second saltiest body of water on the planet.


A few other surfers were out that night. This girl is paddling into the boat channel. Antelope Island is seen on the horizon to the right.


Old Saltair: Ruins are all that remain of “Coney Island of the West”

The following originally appeared in the August 13, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

The approach to Saltair I (left) near the turn of the century (source unknown), and the same view today (Clint Thomsen)

The approach to Saltair I (left) near the turn of the century (source unknown), and the same view today (Clint Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

It’s early morning at the Lake Point railway station.  The sun has yet to fully emerge from behind the Oquirrhs, but the dry August heat has already announced its arrival.  You sit with your siblings in the cramped seat on an eastbound rail car.  Scores of your neighbors and townspeople pack the aisles and platforms.

It’s August 15, 1903: Official Tooele County Day at Saltair Pavilion.  The county’s entire population, it seems, has boarded the train’s ten passenger cars to visit the most thrilling resort in the west.  Try as it might, the blistering heat can’t spoil the excited spirit aboard the crowded coaches this morning.  The train lurches forward.  You’re finally on your way.

You watch out your window as the train rounds the mountain and approaches the legendary edifice.  Rising from the lake at the end of a mile-long trestle, Saltair seems fascinatingly out of place.  The sight of its onion domes and ornate archways against the lake’s bare backdrop startles your senses.

You’ll spend the day swimming in the lake’s salty waters, trying—but failing—to sink. You’ll watch the sunset from the narrow bathhouse arcs.   By the time you board the train again, the pavilion will be ablaze in lights and awash with the scents of corn dogs and popcorn.

Happy swimmers pose at Saltair (date, source unknown)

Happy swimmers pose at Saltair (date, source unknown)

It’s not difficult for me to imagine this scenario.  I felt that same excitement as a kid every time our family drove the current version of Saltair.  Known in historical circles as “Saltair III” (since it’s the third incarnation), the pavilion sits roughly 2 miles southwest of the original site.  While an outing to Saltair III in the 80’s may not has been as grand as a trip to the famed original, there was something enchanting about the lakeside resort and the notion of the lake as a getaway spot.

A traffic incident during my commute last week closed I-80 at the Saltair exit, giving me several hours to kill in the area.   Many of my fellow sidelined commuters parked at the Saltair III pavilion to grab a Coke and some salt water taffy from the gift shop.  I turned south on the frontage road and drove to the entrance to the original site.

Saltair I was built in 1893 under the direction of the LDS Church.  Intended as a wholesome alternative to the rowdier resorts springing up along the lakeshore, it was the most ambitious lakeside project to date.

For the edifice’s design, Saltair planners tapped architect Richard Kletting, who had already designed the Lake Park resort and who would later design the State Capitol.  Saltair was built over the water on a platform supported by 2500 pine pilings, nearly a mile offshore and accessed via railroad trestle.

The multilevel pavilion had a bizarre Moorish-Victorian appearance.  Crescent “arms” lined with bathhouses extended from each side.   Kletting’s goal was to overwhelm visitors and transport them to a world of “escape and pleasure.”

The resort boasted various rides, shows, and dining options.  Its signature attraction was the Giant Racer, a massive roller coaster that sent riders screaming through drops and turns over the water.

On one occasion, Orville and Wilbur Wright demonstrated their “heavier than air machine” at Saltair, making short, low flights above the pavilion.   Often billed as “The Coney Island of the West,” Saltair enjoyed considerable success until a fire destroyed the pavilion in 1925.

A larger, more colorful version was built in its place a year later.  “Saltair II” added even more attractions, focusing less on swimming and more on entertainment offerings as water levels receded.  High maintenance costs combined and nation-wide economic woes strained the resort, but another lucky generation of Utahns grew up dancing in its massive ballroom and relaxing on its potted palm walkways.

Saltair II was abandoned in the 60’s and was destroyed by fire 1970.  Saltair III was built in 1982 at I-80 exit 104 for more convenient access.  Knowledge of the original site and its legacy faded from collective memory as the years passed.  Few prominent sources adequately address its history.

A charred pile-on lies on the site of the old Saltair II pavilion.  A 1970 arson fire destroyed the structure (Clint Thomsen)

A charred pile-on lies on the site of the old Saltair II pavilion. A 1970 arson fire destroyed the structure (Clint Thomsen)

Old Saltair’s most visible remnants today are the cinderblock exterior of the power substation that served it, and the old rail car, which was an original Saltair coach.  Around these are strewn various parts and pieces of Saltair III attractions that were destroyed in the 1983 flood.

This property is privately owned, but the train car has recently found wide popularity with bridal photographers.  Trespassing photographers stage almost daily shoots there during the warm months.   The actual pavilion site is on public land, but should only be accessed via the Lee Creek Area directly to the east.

Significant remains still lie along the overgrown trestle that leads to the pavilion site.  I followed it, stopping periodically to examine the original salt-crusted pilings that supported the boardwalk.  Pilings marking the Giant Racer’s route also remain along with half-buried strips of metal that the bulldozers missed.  The site of the old Ship Café is littered with ceramic fragments of plates, cups, and saucers.  Anything completely intact was scavenged long ago.

As I traced the outline of the pavilion, I pondered the strange dichotomy this site presents.  Here, two mindsets have always coexisted at odds with each other:  the easy-going beach groove that Saltair attempted to harness, and the harsh desert environment that eventually did it in.

This dichotomy is best illustrated by album art from a 1967 Beach Boy’s record.  Photos show the band hanging out at a decaying Saltair II.  My favorite shot is of the boys balancing atop a tall collection of pilings that once served as a dock.  Those pilings still stand, and given their isolation, they probably will forever.

I returned to my car thirsty and exhausted.  On these flat beaches, one can easily lose track of distance.  The freeway had reopened, and it was time to make my way home.  Were I around in 1903, I wouldn’t have missed that first Tooele County Day for anything.   At least I made it in time for the outing’s 106 year anniversary.   Old Saltair’s remains may be scant, but out there on those flats, it’s spirit is as vibrant as ever.


Ghost towns? How about a ghost resort?

Saltair resort circa 1920 (source unknown)

Saltair resort circa 1920 (source unknown)

Many visitors to Utah wonder about the large, Moorish building that looms on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake.  Marinas and various industrial structures aside, it may well be the only commercial building on the lake.

The building is Saltair– Saltair III, to be exact.  It’s the third incarnation of the historic lakeside resort that was first built in 1893.  You can read a beautifully written history of the “Lady of the Lake”on my friend, Gregory Navarro’s old geocities page.

Fires dealt fatal blows to both of its predecessors, and Saltair III rose in 1982.  For more convenient acess to Interstate 80, it was built off of exit 104 rather than on the original site.  The original site sits quietly, abandoned and disheveled a full two miles northeast.

Last week, a traffic emergency during my commute home stranded me in the Saltair area for about 4 hours.  While many of my fellow traffic refugees stopped into Saltair III to wait for the freeway to reopen, I drove down to the trestle that leads about a mile offshore to the original site.

That outing will be the subject of this week’s Transcript Bulletin article, but here are a few pictures of old Saltair.  Some of the older ones I don’t have credit info for, so I apologize to the various historical organizations they probably came from.  The rest I took myself.

Saltair I (1893-1925) (source unknown)

Saltair I (1893-1925) (source unknown)

Saltair II (1926-1970) (source unknown)

Saltair II (1926-1970) (source unknown)

Saltair III (1982-present) (courtesy Michael C. Berch)

Saltair III (1982-present) (courtesy Michael C. Berch via Wikipedia)

Photo of Saltair II taken during the fire of 1970.  (courtesy Utah State Historical Society)

Photo of Saltair II taken during the fire of 1970. (courtesy Utah State Historical Society)

Wooden pilings line the old trestle that leads to the site (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Wooden pilings line the old trestle that leads to the site (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Remains of a ceramic cup lie partially buried in the rubble of Saltair.  I found this cup on the site of the Ship Cafe, a seafood restaurant at the pavilion.

Remains of a ceramic cup lie partially buried in the rubble of Saltair. I found this cup on the site of the Ship Cafe, a seafood restaurant at the pavilion.

Tall wooden posts that were used for docking boats at Saltair. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Tall wooden posts that were used for docking boats at Saltair. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

My column about old Saltair will run in tomorrow’s newspaper.  I’ll post it here sometime next week.