Category Archives: Iosepa

It’s not every day you get to crack open a time capsule…

Ok, so I won’t be cracking it open, but I’ll be there.  If you’re a regular BonnevilleMariner reader, you know I love all things Iosepa.  What is Iosepa?  Just click on the Iosepa category link to the right to read all about it.  The time capsule will be opened tomorrow, and I’ll be there to cover it.  Stay tune for photos, video and a fresh TTB article next week!


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Posted by on August 28, 2015 in Ghost Towns, History, Iosepa


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Mystery of Kanaka Lake carp defies those fishing for answers

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.


On-site at the Iosepa dig

Last week I visited the dig site at Iosepa where Dr. Benjamin Pykles and his team of archaeology students are excavating the remains of one of the home lots.  Here are some video highlights:



Iosepa back in the news as archaeological team returns to sift through the past

Welcome to Iosepa! (photo by Clint Thomsen)

As I mentioned in my Tooele Transcript Bulletin report on this year’s Iosepa festivities, The archaeological team that began digging at the old Iosepa townsite in 2008 is back again this year.

The study is led by Benjamin Pykles, a professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam. Pykles and a group of anthropology students spent a month in 2008 digging on a lot that was owned by one of Iosepa’s original settlers. I spent some time with Pykles and crew in ’08 and look forward to spending some time with them again this week.

Just like it did in 2008, Pykles’ current study has caught the eye of a few major Utah media outlets. While it’s nice to see the Big Boys actually acknowledge Tooele County’s existence once in a while, I find their coverage somewhat lacking.

That’s not entirely their fault. Iosepa is too significant a topic to completely ignore, yet too far distant (physically and historically) to devote any real time or resource to. The result is usually a quick run-down of the Hawaiian ghost town’s high-level history laced with a few quotes from Pykles.  Often more interesting than the stories themselves are the comments they garner on their websites.  It’s clear that familiarity with Iosepa’s purpose and history is not widespread– at least among the commenting masses.

If you’d like a good run-down of what’s going on with the dig, check out this piece by the Transcript Bulletin’s Sarah Miley.  Later this week I’ll post a Iosepa FAQ of sorts here that will address a number of misconceptions about the old place that seem to spread through news media comment boards every time Iosepa is mentioned.  And later this month I’ll be writing about another Iosepa adventure.

In the meantime, here’s some primer material:

Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery
At Iosepa, a few pictures are worth thousands of words
Iosepa becomes Polynesia in desert – if only for a weekend
Images of Iosepa
Immersion in Iosepa’s past requires imagination, good shoes



Iosepa becomes Polynesia in desert – if only for a weekend

The sun had begun to sink behind the Cedar Mountains, its burnt orange rays reflecting on the surfaces of Skull Valley’s normally unseen network of springs. The scents of smoke and juniper hung in the air as the last groups of hikers trickled back along the wishbone trails that lead down from Salt Mountain. The day was waning, but the atmosphere pulsated with the spirit of aloha.

Jacob Mulivai twirls a pair of flaming machetes in a traditional ailao warrior dance during this year's Iosepa celebration (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared in the June 3, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“Talofa!” Josh Mulivai called as he walked on stage waving a ceremonial war knife that flamed audibly at both ends.

“Talofa!” Came the crowd’s retort, though with less gusto than the warrior-garbed 14 year old had hoped.
“You can do better than that!” He yelled before repeating the Samoan greeting.

This time the response was sufficiently enthusiastic. Mulivai began twirling the burning machete to the beat of a single tribal drum as he and his brother, Jacob, ramped up a jaw-dropping performance of a traditional Ailao warrior dance.

The sun had begun to sink behind the Cedar Mountains, its burnt orange rays reflecting on the surfaces of Skull Valley’s normally unseen network of springs. The scents of smoke and juniper hung in the air as the last groups of hikers trickled back along the wishbone trails that lead down from Salt Mountain. The day was waning, but the atmosphere in the old Hawaiian ghost town, accompanied by Mulivai’s drum, pulsated with the spirit of aloha.

I have no genetic ties to Polynesian peoples, which makes my bond with the culture a challenge to explain. Whatever its roots, it runs much deeper than the allure of exotic locales and the much coveted “island mindset” we mainlanders tend to attribute to them.

Less difficult to define is my interest in Iosepa, the Skull Valley town settled by Hawaiian converts to the LDS Church in 1889. The town’s story is punctuated by faith, hardship, and its unique position at the crossroads of extremes—tropics and desert, gathering and seclusion, joy in desolation. Few places speak to the history-minded adventurer like Iosepa.

The contrast with their island home was certainly not lost on the Hawaiian pioneers as they set about carving a new life in the desert. Hawaii it was not, but faith was the impetus for their migration, not greener pastures. The town—named in Hawaiian for LDS leader Joseph F. Smith— became well known for its industrious attitude, being designated in 1911 by Utah as the “best kept and most progressive city in the state.”

Iosepa’s history spanned a relatively brief 28 years, ending in 1917 when the bulk of its settlers returned to Hawaii to support the newly announced temple there. Iosepa was sold off, its buildings dismantled. Only the town’s small cemetery remained, along with overgrown sidewalks and images of sharks, sea turtles and palm trees carved in nearby rock outcroppings.

A photo of Iosepa residents (courtesy the Iosepa Historical Association)

A resurgence of interest in Iosepa several decades later resulted in the 1971 placement of the cemetery on the National Registry of Historic Places. In 1980, a collection of Iosepa descendents and other Polynesian families began a tradition of beautifying the graveyard annually on Memorial Day. Then LDS apostle Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated a monument on the site in 1989.

The Iosepa Historical Association was organized the same year. A pavilion was constructed adjacent to the cemetery, and the annual Memorial Day activities evolved into a weekend-long celebration with additional emphasis on general Polynesian heritage.

On the historic front, an archaeological study of the old town site by a team from the State University of New York at Potsdam began in 2008 and is shedding some light on day-to-day life in Iosepa. After a year-long hiatus, the study will resume there next month. Iosepa is coming full circle, its story fleshed out little by little as stories are recorded and discoveries made.

I’ve been attending the Memorial Day weekend festivities at Iosepa since the late 90’s, when curiosity led some friends and me to the Saturday evening luau. We were greeted with open arms and filled plates, and I’ve only missed one year since.

The pot-luck dinner was under way when the kids and I arrived at the pavilion last Saturday evening. Opting not to wait in the hundreds-long food line, the boys headed for the hills. I placed our fruit platter on the serving table and sat with 1 year old Dillon beneath the pavilion. To my surprise, a friend who had seen us arrive set a food-packed plate before me. Dillon allowed me a few bites before commandeering the fork and clearing the plate.

After dinner, I walked up the mountain to meet the boys on their hike. 4 year old Coulter pointed toward a distant ridge. “Dad, I think the ocean is that way,” he surmised.

If he was referring to the Atlantic Ocean, I suppose he was technically correct. I played along. As far as he knew, we were really in Hawaii. And given the cheery air at the pavilion when we returned, we might as well have been.

Josh Mulivai plays with fire (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Children wearing flower leis danced to the music of various Polynesian performers. When two young boys decided to ride their skateboards across the stage, a woman wearing a traditional Hawaiian dress stepped to the microphone to chide them.

“You rascals riding skateboards—that’s something you do on the mainland, not here,” she scolded.

Her symbolic reference to the mainland sparked a thought: The Iosepa celebration to me is like the otherworldly portals you see in science fiction movies—there one precious moment and gone the next. For a short period each year, Iosepa becomes a window to a world where the past is lauded and the present enjoyed for what it is. Worries and cares are checked on the mainland. They have no place here.

Small American flags marking Iosepa’s graves waved gently as the Mulivai brothers finished their knife dance. Crowds began to disperse with the sunset. Silhouettes carrying bundles of wood made their way from the ridge into camp. Soon the darkened hillside was dotted with bonfires.

Many people would stay the night in tents and trailers and participate in more activities in the morning. Those less fortunate would say goodbye and make their way home. The boys and I walked back to our car. Soon we’d take our place in the long string of tail lights that wound slowly down the hill—away from Iosepa, and back to the mainland for another year.



Images of Iosepa

Another Memorial Day weekend has passed, as has another Iosepa celebration.  This year’s festival was awesome– good times, good food, perfect weather.  You can read the full report in tonight’s Transcript Bulletin.  I shot a few photos and video clips with my point-and-shoot and cobbled them together for the montage below.

Previous posts on Iosepa:

Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery
Return to Story Rock
Immersion in Iosepa’s past requires imagination, good shoes


Immersion in Iosepa’s past requires imagination, good shoes

The following originally appeared in the May 30, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

A branch of Spring Canyon Creek, one of five streams diverted and used to provide water for the Iosepa colony, flows nearly hidden in Skull Valley (photo by Clint Thomsen)

A branch of Spring Canyon Creek, one of five streams diverted and used to provide water for the Iosepa colony, flows nearly hidden in Skull Valley (photo by Clint Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

It wasn’t my most embarrassing outdoor moment, but were I not alone, it might have been.  And it might have gone mostly unnoticed too, if it weren’t for those nosy kids, who just had to ask why I came staggering back to the van soaking wet and barefoot.

I suppose my Pavlovian conditioning to running water and my often quixotic zeal for symbolism were partly to blame for the mishap.  But in my defense, the little jaunt along Spring Canyon creek was impromptu.  And who could have known that the creek’s grassy bottom was actually a whole foot deeper than it looked?

I don’t usually embark on adventures wearing flip flops.  That is, unless I’m heading out to Skull Valley for the annual Memorial Day weekend celebration at Iosepa, where I spend most of the day in a lawn chair watching Polynesian dances and snacking on Spam musubi.

Correction:  Where I spend most of the day convincing my young sons not to try to catch the snakes they find on Salt Mountain and trying to keep their baby sister from stealing Tootsie Rolls from other kids’ candy leis.  Actual moments spent watching Polynesian dances and snacking on Spam musubi are few and far between.

Still, the day never calls for more than flip flops.  The festival’s tangible Aloha Spirit makes me feel like I’m actually in the islands.

Which is how I imagine it makes the festival’s attendees, many of whom are descendents of the Hawaiian colony’s original residents, feel too.  “A malama la Iosepa mea na keiki a mau loa,” read this year’s official festival t-shirt—“To preserve Iosepa and her children forever.”

There are many reasons these people feel so strongly about this place.  About 50 of those are the tidy, decorated graves a few feet to the west of the modern cement pavilion.  There lie the Mormon pioneers who left the islands to gather in Utah and eventually settle this seemingly inhospitable corner of the desert.

In 1889, a committee of returned missionaries from Hawaii and three Hawaiian converts began looking for a suitable place for Hawaiian immigrants to gather together and thrive economically.  After considering various properties, the committee decided on the 1,280 acre Rich Ranch in Skull Valley.  Despite the seemingly cruel desert environment, the more it was considered, the clearer the choice became.

According to the committee’s report, the deal included exclusive rights to five streams flowing from the Stansbury Mountains which, when collected and conveyed by a single ditch, equaled “one quarter or one third of the waters of City Creek.”  The property also included a number of large springs, one of which formed a large fish pond.

The streams and ponds already supported an established ranch, thus eliminating much of the guess work.  The new colony, called “Iosepa” after LDS missionary to Hawaii Joseph F. Smith, would expand on an existing and proven framework.

Some confusion exists as to the extensive irrigation system built to exploit the Stansbury streams.  The committee report suggests that at least a primitive system was extant before Iosepa’s settlement.  According to State University of New York at Potsdam archaeologist Benjamin Pykles, who began an archaeological study of Iosepa last year, dates inscribed in cement on some of the aqueduct ruins prove that some work was done on the system after the Hawaiians left Iosepa.

The real innovation, however, came during Iosepa’s boom.  Pykles says the pressurized irrigation system, complete with fire hydrants, was part of a project that culminated in 1908.

The area’s natural water sources also provided food and recreation.  According to a BYU Master’s thesis by Dennis Atkin, the Hawaiians enjoyed fishing and swimming in the larger pond, which they named “Kanaka Lake.”  They even grew proficient at catching carp by hand.  This was done by this was done by sneaking up behind the fish, gently stroking them along their sides, then grabbing them by their gills.

Historical accounts describe frequent celebrations at Iosepa honoring their cultural and religious legacy.  Carvings of sea turtles and palm trees in a large rock slab on Salt Mountain are wistful reminders of their island heritage.  Most of the Hawaiians left Iosepa to return to the islands after plans for a new temple on Oahu were announced in 1915.  By 1917, Iosepa was a very well-irrigated ghost town.

But the rows of tents and trailers at the festival last weekend were proof that Iosepa is still adored even a century later.  The sky was cloudy, the air humid and uncharacteristically still.  The setting couldn’t have been more perfect.

Members of the Iosepa Board helped children scrub and hollow gourds to make traditional instruments called ipu.  Bridger, 7, and Weston, 6, then headed for the hills with their friends.  3 year old Coulter nursed a cup of shave ice and 2 year old Ella climbed on the stage to dance.

As we drove away late that afternoon, I decided to search out the old aqueduct system that allowed Iosepa to thrive.  BLM archaeological papers detail each ruin site, and we began driving along one of the diverted streams.

When it became clear that reaching the aqueduct ruins would require 4WD, we followed the road until it met the stream.  At least I’d be able to dip my foot Iosepa’s life blood.  While the kids had lunch at the van, I walked over to the stream, whose bed was so densely vegetated that I was barely able to see it.

The only way to get close was to actually step into the rushing water.  That’s when I lost my right flip flop.  I stepped in with my left leg to stabilize myself.  That’s when I lost my left flip flop.  That’s also when I slipped and fell.

“So, you’re saying you just…lost them?” Bridger asked, annoyed and confused.  “Yep, they’re gone,” I replied.  Ella tapped her ipu and shot me a reassuring smile.   The symbolism quota for the trip had been met, albeit in clumsy fashion, and it was time to say goodbye to Iosepa for another year.


Weekly Run-Down: Zee Avi, Iosepa, and Selling Out

A Note on the new Zee Avi album
I know I promised a review, but these last few weeks couldn’t have been more hectic for me.  I still plan on writing one, but it defininitely won’t be until next week.  Suffice it to say that the new album is excellent.  Whoever called the shots on instrumentation is a genius.  Avi’s voice is sweet and distinct.  Favorite track so far– ‘Just You and Me.’

Iosepa or bust
My family and I attended the annual Iosepa festival last Saturday.  If you’re new to this blog, read more about this Hawaiian ghost town here.  Below are some pics from this year’s festival:





One of this town’s distinguishing characteristics was its pressurized irrigation system, which exploited 5 mountain streams by converging them into cement and wooden aqueducts.  Last year, archaeologist Benjamin Pykles was excavating one of the old lots, he showed me some BLM archaeological papers that mapped out remnants of that aqueduct system.  This year, I attempted to locate one of the ruins but turned back when I decided my family vehicle’s axles and tires were more important than a moment of archaeological elation.  Read all about it in this week’s Transcript Bulletin column, which I’ll post here this weekend.

Selling Out
Yeah, so I haven’t blogged much the last few days, nor have I had much time to read all of your blogs and leave comments.  That’s because the missus and I are frantically preparing to sell our house.

No, I didn’t lose any of my jobs.  It’s just that we looked at the number of children we have vs. the number of bedrooms and square feet in our little starter home and decided it might be wise to take advantage of the buyer’s market.

It was split-second decision, and as heart attack inducing as that is for me, most of our better decisions have happened that way (getting married to each other, having kids, and buying our current house all come to mind).

The down side is that gave us a week to re-landscape our yard, redo our bathroom floor, and try to make the place look like 5 kids really don’t live there.  All amidst family reunions, weddings, school activities, and work.

Of course if we don’t sell our house, we won’t buy the one we’ve made an offer on, which fortunately is just up the street.  Wish us luck.


Return to Story Rock

A sea turtle carved into Story Rock in the vicinity of the Iosepa ghost town site (photo by Clint Thomsen)

A sea turtle carved into Story Rock in the vicinity of the Iosepa ghost town site (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Last Thursday I went hiking on Salt Mountain with Jeff Barrus, editor of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.  He was planning an article about Iosepa, so I led him to Story Rock, which I wrote about last month.  Having spent many years in the islands (why he ever left them I’ll never know) and the South Pacific, Jeff has a unique perspective on the story of Hawaiian pioneers in Utah.  Click over to the Transcript Bulletin to read his article, “At Iosepa, a few pictures are worth thousands of words.”


Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2008, edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Poignant petroglyphs carved in stone at Story Rock by the Polynesian settlers of Iosepa include (clockwise) the sun, a sea turtle — a Hawaiian symbol of longevity, peace and humility — an island with palm trees and seabirds, and a family circle or ohana. -photography / Clint Thomsen - montage / Troy Boman

Poignant petroglyphs carved in stone at Story Rock by the Polynesian settlers of Iosepa include (clockwise) the sun, a sea turtle — a Hawaiian symbol of longevity, peace and humility — an island with palm trees and seabirds, and a family circle or ohana. -photography / Clint Thomsen - montage / Troy Boman

Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery

by Clint Thomsen

Tyler parked his car near the old Iosepa cemetery. After the half-hour ride, the engine’s abrupt hush amplified a profound silence. A crescent moon hung over the Stansburys and the stars began to fade with the morning’s twilight. The range’s western slopes still hid from the half-light, stifling any attempt to visualize our unmarked route. Even by this early hour, a diffuse heat had rested upon the valley.

We stopped on a foothill and gazed down at the abandoned Hawaiian town site, where overgrown sidewalks fade to dust and a lone, tall tree marks the corner of a vanished town square. The buildings themselves are gone, but a certain inscrutable feeling lingers. It’s a feeling characteristic of historically rich places — but in this case it’s mixed with reverent undertones of aloha.

I fell in love with Iosepa a decade ago. Curious at an unexpected cluster of vehicles on the hillside, some friends and I investigated. We were greeted warmly by a man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and lei who told us how his Mormon ancestors came from Hawaii and built a town there called Iosepa.

He talked about the town — the traditions, the hardships. And though the tidy community died out in 1917, its spirit lived on it its settlers’ family lines. We had stumbled upon their annual celebration, and they invited us to stay for dinner.

Attempting to grasp the irony of a tropical, sea-loving people settling an arid, landlocked desert, I queried our hosts long into the evening. One mentioned a rock high in the mountains, into which Iosepa’s settlers had carved images of boats, turtles and palm trees in memory of their homeland.

The paradise/desert contrast is literary gold, and most writers mine it liberally when addressing Iosepa. But our mountains and Great Salt Lake sunsets actually reminded at least one Hawaiian of his island home: “It’s the pseudo-ocean, the islands on the lake,” my friend Alan Serrao once told me. “The clouds that hang low and heavy on the mountains with peaks popping through them — it looks a lot like home. The Hawaiians that came here must have noticed this.”

Early Hawaiian Latter-day Saints weren’t unfamiliar with arid mountains and remote locales. Iosepa, Utah, is actually the second LDS Hawaiian settlement to bear the name. The original Iosepa, located on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, was the first gathering place for Hawaiian LDS in 1854. The isle is much more desert-like than its lush neighbors. It’s still only sparsely populated today.

Like Utah’s Iosepa, the Lanai settlement faced many hardships. Water scarcity and crop failures contributed to the eventual decision to abandon Lanai for Laie, Oahu. Some of Lanai’s settlers also ended up in Skull Valley.

But as similar as some aspects are, a pseudo ocean isn’t an ocean, and Skull Valley isn’t Hawaii. So wistful tales of ocean-scene petroglyphs didn’t surprise me. I had to find that rock.

“Unless you’ve been there before, it’s hard to find,” a man at Iosepa once told me. “But it’s there.”

I’ve recalled that first statement many times since that evening, as I’ve sometimes casually, sometimes seriously tried to locate what he called “Story Rock.” My quest to find the elusive rock art was the subject of my first column in this newspaper. I spent a day scouring the mountainside, but my search proved fruitless.

Eight months later, I sat in a hotel lobby with Dr. Benjamin Pykles, an archaeologist from the State University of New York at Potsdam, who was conducting a field study of the Iosepa town site. I had stopped in to help him wash some of the artifacts he had unearthed that day. Pykles handed me a toothbrush and a bag full of glass shards, then joined me at a water basin.

On the floor were several crates filled with artifacts. To Pykles and team, each glass fragment was a priceless clue into Iosepa’s past.

“Ah, the tedium of archaeology,” Pykles remarked, hoping that brushing clay off glass wasn’t boring me. It wasn’t.

Pykles and I had discussed Story Rock at the Iosepa celebration last May. He had heard the stories but hadn’t yet gone looking. I had all but given up. Then after a luau, a familiar face greeted me and scrawled a crude map on a scrap of paper.

It would be July before I would have time to test out that map. Tyler had been with me there 10 years ago and was eager to share the discovery. The sun was starting to peek over the Stansburys and our route was becoming clear. So far, my unpretentious little map had been dead-on.

A few ridges and a couple cheatgrass fields later, it stood before us. Walking toward the limestone slab, the petroglyphs seemed to jump right out at us. First an island scene complete with a palm tree and birds. Then a sun. Then a circle of figures holding hands. And those were just the obvious examples. Nearby was a figure in a boat, a jellyfish, and what looked like whales or sea lions. Even further were a deer, a lizard and a picture-perfect sea turtle.

The carvings had a definite turn-of-the-century look, and were carved several centimeters deep into some of the sharpest, hardest rock I’ve ever felt. The complicated locations of some of the petroglyphs had us puzzled over how the artists could have positioned themselves to make the etchings. We waited for the sun to fully rise, then I photographed each figure, hardly able to contain my elation.

Scanning our surroundings, it was easy to see why I hadn’t found this spot before. I thought of the Hawaiian pioneers who trekked to the top of this mountain to carve their island memories in this rock. Did they do it in memoriam? Or was it more like when I carve my wife’s name on a tree trunk? We may never know.

All I know is that unless you’ve been there before, Story Rock is hard to find.

But it’s there.


Author’s note:  I receive several emails every week from geocachers and explorers who have read this article and want directions or waypoints to Story Rock.  For various reasons, including anthropologic and cultural concerns, I am not at liberty to disclose the location of the Iosepa petroglyphs.

I’m certain that at some point, word will trickle out to the public.  Sadly, once this happens, I give this site a year, tops, until it’s tagged, otherwise defaced,  or completely destroyed.

I know there are many respectful and responsible people who would love to see the petroglyphs.  But don’t ask me– I’m not going to tell you.  No offense intended.  If you do happen to locate the petroglyphs in your own travels, do me a favor:  keep the details to yourself.  Thanks for understanding.  –ct