Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
Scott Baxter, an expert kayaker and bird enthusiast, has long watched the slow decline of Great Salt Lake. When it hit a record low this year, he decided to circumnavigate its waters and document the many things that make the lake special but are currently at risk.
“It’s a place that’s pretty important to me,” Baxter said. “The lake could go into full collapse here in the next year or two if it continues to recede as it has.”
While lake advocates point to climate change and prolonged drought as some of the reasons for the lake’s decline, Utah residents have also played an outsized role. A 2016 study by Utah State University and others found Great Salt Lake would be 11 feet higher if not for diversions on its tributary rivers.
“We need to, as individuals, make different decisions every day in how we use water,” Baxter said.
The lake’s unique ecosystem supports 10 million migrating birds each year and multimillion-dollar brine shrimp, minerals harvesting and tourism industries.
But the lake can be an inhospitable place to explore.
It’s so hypersaline that only a few creatures can survive in its water, mostly tiny brine shrimp, brine flies, bacteria and other microorganisms. It’s also prone to tempestuous weather. Boaters will sometimes set out from the Great Salt Lake marina under sunny, clear skies only for the wind to pick up and create dangerous, dense waves that require rescue. And because the lake is so low, rescue boats have a hard time even getting out of the marina, state regulators warn.
Given its size, the Great Salt Lake can be incredibly remote as well. Even though it has shrunk to an all-time low, the lake is still about 75 miles long and 20 miles wide.
“It’s a body of water that you take seriously,” Baxter said. “I almost concluded I would have to make it a solo paddle.”
As luck would have it — if you can call this year’s Western wildfires “luck” — thick smoke had stifled Matt Kahabka’s plans to hike the John Muir trail in California, freeing up his schedule to join Baxter on the journey. Kahabka is in a relationship with Baxter’s daughter, and Baxter knew from Kahabka’s outdoors experience that he had the grit and mental fortitude to make the trip.
“I looked at it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kahabka said.
A relative newcomer to Utah who bought a house in Ogden two years ago, Kahabka only had passing knowledge about the Great Salt Lake. Baxter, however, has explored the lake for 30 years.
“I wanted to be a sponge and learn as much as I could,” Kahabka said.
The pair watched the weather forecast and waited for a stretch where it was cool enough that they wouldn’t bake in the inhospitable sun, but calm enough that they wouldn’t be battling dangerous storms. They figured they’d need a window between five and 10 days.
On Sept. 29, they set off.
The journey, however, merits some disclaimers — the lakebed is owned by the state of Utah and managed by the Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. Overnight camping is not permitted, but the division gave Baxter special permission, aware of his kayaking experience and familiarity with the lake.
“Scott came to us suggesting that he get out and do this trip with the intention of photographing the low lake levels,” said Laura Vernon, the division’s Great Salt Lake coordinator. “We were interested in what he found and thought, with the historic lake level, it would be a good time.”
Baxter also took along kayaks he made by hand. They’re wooden boats with graceful, curving lines specifically designed for navigating the lake’s heavy, salt-laden water. In a word, the journey Baxter and Kahabka mapped out is dangerous, especially for a novice.
“Out on that lake, everything’s different. As exciting as it is, and as interesting as it is, you know you’re out of your element,” Baxter said. “You know the lake is allowing you to trespass and it could change its mind at any time.”
When Baxter and Kahabka departed from the Great Salt Lake marina on the lake’s southern end, they soon got a taste of its capricious nature. They were met with big, red-hued waves.
“What the red was coming from are the dead brine shrimp,” Baxter said.
By late fall, the shrimp have grazed off most of the lake’s algae, turning the water clear. Out of food, the shrimp lay egg-like cysts before dying off, which hatch into a new generation of shrimp when conditions are right. Sailors trawl and harvest those cysts, shipping them around the world to feed farm-raised seafood.
As Baxter and Kahabka crashed through the waves of dead shrimp, a rogue wave came from the east, filling Baxter’s cockpit.
“Dead brine shrimp don’t rub off or cleanup easily,” Baxter said with a chuckle. “It was kind of our welcome to the Great Salt Lake. I think the lake was telling us we were there on her terms.”
Another challenge the lake presented was its shallowness — Kahabka and Baxter had to paddle 1 to 3 miles away from dry land to stay in water deep enough that they didn’t bottom out.
“It would be several miles of detour to head into shore, dragging our boats” when they set up camp, Kahabka said.
The pair’s journey, however, was mostly smooth sailing. They paddled past spits of the lake’s peculiar oolitic sand, formed by minerals built up around little specks of brine shrimp poop. They came across a massive flock of eared grebes, floating as far as the eye could see, that had migrated in to gorge on shrimp. They kicked around the strange foam that collects on the lake’s beaches. They set out before the sun came up, paddling until nearly sunset, covering around 20 to 30 miles a day.
“The morning sunrises were always just serene. The water would be mirror-flat, and you could see the stars reflecting in the water,” Kahabka said. “I had downloaded some audio books and fully expected to be bored out of my mind in these vast expanses. I didn’t turn them on once.”
A highlight for both Kahabka and Baxter was paddling around the lake’s north arm. Cut off from sources of fresh water due to a rock railroad causeway bisecting the lake, the north arm is so salty only extreme organisms can survive, including the halophilic bacteria that turn its waters reddish-purple. Baxter compared the color and consistency to raspberry lemonade.
“We realized we are in what is a beautiful, unmatched area, but it is also as unhospitable as any place you can find on the surface of the earth,” Baxter said.
And with the lake levels low, salt has become so concentrated in the north arm that the water can no longer hold it. It precipitates out as salt crystals, looking like snow and ice as it builds up on the lakebed and beaches.
“There were literally salt crystals floating on the surface of the water,” Kahabka said. “Some of them had formed these perfect pyramidal structures.”
The kayakers didn’t realize salt was building up on the bottom of their boats, too, slowing their progress. Baxter figures they were dragging about 100 pounds of crystals.
“We literally doubled our speed when we got those off,” he said.
The kayakers also saw things that troubled them. As they paddled by the lake’s many islands — such as Badger, Carrington, Gunnison, Fremont and Antelope — it was clear the lake has no true islands anymore. Migrating birds use those islands to rest and nest, but land bridges now make them vulnerable to predators.
“The thing that shocked me the most is we thought we had the most up-to-date maps,” Kahabka said. “But as you got out there and started to see what the shoreline is, it’s hundreds of yards from where you expected it to be.”
In several places, the kayakers also found countless microbialites jutting out of the water. Some appeared to have surfaced only days earlier.
Sometimes called the Great Salt Lake’s “coral,” the structures are rocks formed by mats of microorganisms that pull calcium carbonate out of the saline water and cement it together. The pair sometimes took breaks to investigate the microbialites, which range in size from a basketball to a small car.
“It was a humbling experience, because we knew everything we were walking through, it was all in the process of dying,” Baxter said.
Microbialites serve an important ecological function in the lake, supporting brine flies and brine shrimp, which in turn support the many birds that feed on them. It only takes a few days to completely wipe out the microbial mats when they’re exposed to air, and years to recolonize them when and if the lake levels rise again.
All said, the journey lasted six days. Baxter’s photos have already generated buzz, racking up hundreds of likes on Facebook. He said he hopes they’ll spark more interest in what’s at stake at Great Salt Lake and spur action to ensure the things that make it extraordinary continue to thrive.
“Obviously, the lake is resilient. We steal all its water, we pump our sewage into it, we basically treat it really poorly and it keeps surviving, being magical and beautiful,” Baxter said. “But this trip was the first time that it really sunk in to me how vulnerable that lake is.”