Camp Great Salt Lake lets students explore unique environment in own backyard
Biology • Westminster College program lets students study ecosystem of brine shrimp, waterfowl.
Published: August 9, 2012 05:29PM
Updated: October 30, 2012 11:33PM
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Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Maria Padilla, left, and Bryn LeVaron work in a fume vent to separate hydrocarbons taken from water samples from the Great Salt Lake in Meldrum Science Center at Westminster College.

Syracuse • On the shores of Bridger Bay on Antelope Island, Jaimi Butler is fielding questions from students, parents and the occasional curious onlooker. She’s wearing a straw cowboy hat and a warm smile. One parent looks concerned as she talks about mercury in the lake. She laughs and puts him at ease.

“If you don’t drink the water, don’t eat a lot of flies and don’t eat the spiders, you’ll be fine,” Butler said.

This is the final day of study at Camp Great Salt Lake, a summer activity for high school students interested in science, shrimp and spiders. Westminster College’s GSL Institute has offered the weeklong event at a cost of $250, though it often provides scholarships to worthy students. One student, Stevie Marston, 14, was given the opportunity to attend after winning her school science fair.

“The people here are really great,” Marston said. “Jaimi is so much fun, and we learn an incredible amount. Even on days you don’t think it will be interesting, it always is. You always learn something you never thought you would.”

In addition to the trips to the Great Salt Lake, the students have taken paddleboards to the Spiral Jetty, explored the Natural History Museum and learned more about the birds of the lake with a trip to the Tracy Aviary.

Despite hearing about the more exotic wildlife at the lake, such as white pelicans and a lone flamingo, the students’ favorite organism is the prevalent brine shrimp. It’s the animal that sustains the entire ecosystem, bringing 250 different species of birds to the summer buffet. Its eggs are also responsible for a multimillion-dollar commercial harvest.

On the final day, the students have set three separate stations to talk about the life of the lake. Binoculars are available for bird watchers and telescopes for brine. Butler has a temporary tattoo of a shrimp on her arm. She talks about how her love of bugs led her to a career as a biologist at the Great Salt Lake, her office for the last 15 years.

Butler acknowledged that the lake isn’t the first place Utahns think of for a summer vacation destination. She reminds the parents that the abundant brine flies dotting their legs don’t bite. Still, the camp sold out this year and interest is high. One of her students came from Chicago. Butler said the reason for the piqued curiosity of the campgoers lies in an ecosystem that is unique, understudied and undervalued.

“People overlook it, but there are a lot of cool things out here that you can see and smell and feel,” Butler said. “It’s right in our backyard. Rather than studying the ecology of the rainforest, we can study the same principles here and really make some great scientific discoveries.”

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At a glance

Westminster’s Great Salt Lake Institute has offered Camp GSL for the last four years, with an enrollment capped at 15 students.

Every year, more than 7 million birds stop at the Great Salt Lake during yearly migration.

Jaimi Butler has been in charge of the camp since its inception. She graduated from Utah State University with a degree in fisheries.