09-Oct-2003 -- 5:30pm Thoughts: "It WILL be wonderful when we make it through this salt marsh and reach the confluence." 6:00pm
Thoughts: "It WOULD be wonderful if we make it through this marsh and reach the confluence." 6:30pm Thoughts: "Well, we could not reach the confluence, but it would be wonderful if we could make it back to solid ground before the sun sets." 7:00pm Thoughts: "It would be wonderful if we would get out of here alive." Such were the gamut of emotions that I, Joseph Kerski, Geographer from the US Geological Survey in Colorado USA, and Shannon White, graduate student from North Carolina State
University experienced during our 5-hour pilgrimage to Latitude 41 degrees North, Longitude 112 degrees West on
a warm October evening in Utah.
As Ms White and I were attending the annual conference of the National Council for Geographic Education in Salt Lake City, a confluence visit
seemed like an appropriate way to crown a week spent working with 600 of our geography colleagues from across North America. In addition, Ms White needed some unique video for her media technology course at the university.
Unique was a good description of what was to occur next.
We departed the conference site in downtown Salt Lake City at 4:30pm local time, driving north on Interstate Highway
15 to US 89 in Farmington, driving west along Shepard Lane and northwest along Sunset Drive. In this suburban area between Salt Lake City and Ogden, the Wasatch Mountains form an easily identified western barrier to development. The eastern boundary, the Great Salt Lake and its associated salt marshes, is more difficult to discern. At first glance, it seems puzzling why developed land gives way to a few horse pastures, and, just when the land becomes flat and seemingly excellent to develop, gives way to a landscape that is quite similar to that encountered by the Native Americans who lived here before Brigham Young brought the Mormon Pioneers. However, the salt marsh is as much of a hindrance to development as is the steep slopes of the Wasatch. After exploring a few back roads, we determined that a spot near a horse stable would be the closest to the confluence. The GPS gave the confluence as
3.8 kilometers to the west-southwest.
We began hiking at 5pm local time, passing over and under three barbed wire fences and fields nearly devoid of vegetation. We encountered no living thing besides several horses. We almost did not need the GPS, as we headed right into the sinking sun. The GPS gave us a reading of 41 minutes to the confluence at our current rate of speed. However, we knew what lay ahead: The salt marsh. We spied the marsh grasses after passing under a large powerline that ran southeast-northwest. With each sinking step, we sunk deeper and deeper into the marsh.
The Great Salt Lake, the largest salt lake in the western hemisphere, is an area of mystery, without any fish, so
different from the Wasatch Front urban area and from the desert landscape that characterizes much of Utah. Within
the Great Salt Lake, only brine shrimp, bacteria and algae can survive. Surrounding the shoreline are some of the
world's most pristine, ecologically diverse wetlands, which are home to millions of migratory birds. The first
section of marsh was filled with a distinctive smell, gnats, horseflies, mosquitos, and burrs that we collected on all of our clothes. About 30 minutes of extremely slow progress taught us that three distinct categories of salt
marsh exist in that area. The first was comprised of reeds over 3 meters tall; the second, reeds that were lying
nearly flat but about 1 meter deep. In each, the water reached to our knees. Although the reeds in the first type
were taller, it was easier to traverse than the second, where extreme high stepping was required. Soon, our wet shoes felt like lead, and although we tried to keep to a straight course to the confluence, we did deviate a bit into the taller marsh grasses when possible. We amused ourselves with inventing contraptions that would enable a person to walk across such vegetation--marsh skis, perhaps? The third marsh category contained 1 meter tall reeds but with deeper water; up past our knees at times. This portion often caused us to fall over and come face-to-face with the salt marsh. Truly a way to experience our surroundings!
We had read the account of the previous visitors, who had reported that the marsh was only a few hundred meters
across but felt like a few kilometers. This gave us hope that we would reach the salt flats that were easy walking
soon. At nearly sundown, with the GPS still reading 2200 meters to the confluence, we decided to abandon our
pilgrimage. Although it was an agonizing decision, we did not want to make search and rescue crews comb the area for
two wayward geographers. The media would love it, and we would certainly never hear the end of that. We have great
respect for the previous confluence visitors; we might have made it, but ran out of daylight. Now we know why there
have been four attempts and only one successful visit. Not relishing the thought of returning exactly the way we
had come, we tacked toward the northeast, after my words "surely it cannot be as difficult as what we have just traversed." Famous last words!
For, dear readers, you know what is coming next. Truly, it WAS worse than what we had just come through. The sun
set, I could not figure out how to turn on the GPS light, and we were up to our thighs in water when we stepped in
large holes. At times I crawled on the reeds. Our only guide were the lights in Kaysville, and the light on the
top of the mountain, until the moon rose. The car lights on I-15 ahead seemed a world away. However, we were
thankful that the day had been an unseasonably hot 30 degrees C and the night was still warm. We rationed our
water. We tried to cut back toward the southeast to intercept our original course. At times we thought we spied our original track by the parted reeds, but might have been hallucinating. It was only when we felt the return of the burrs did we allow ourselves a sigh of relief. Next, we felt the joy of walking on solid ground, although everything from our waist down was totally soaked. We met difficulty again trying to find our exact route through the horse pastures. After spooking a group of horses and climbing half a dozen fences, and keeping a nervous ear toward a barking dog, we landed on a dirt road. To our relief and amazement, we were only 25 meters south of our vehicle!
It was 9:30pm. We drove to the nearest grocery store, the Kaysville Smith's, where Ms. White made a hurried quest
(given the smells that accompanied us) for two bottles of water while I called home to assure everyone that I was
still alive. We drove back downtown to the conference site and parted ways about 10pm. I stood in the hotel shower
with all of my clothes on and made vain attempts to wash the clothes. Ms. White had taken some unique video for her
class, and we had both participated in a geographic adventure.