Great Salt Lake Trip 6/19

On 6/18 we embarked on the most ambitious birding trip I have done and likely will ever do, a two-day road trip to and back from the Bear River Migratory Refuge in Utah.

We started in the late afternoon using a rental sedan, stopping at Yakima for Korean food dinner and continuing to the refuge by 5 AM. I promptly lost my glasses and spent 30 minutes searching for them, missing the great-tailed grackle but I digress, before we waited a bit longer for the sun to come up and then started on the road through the refuge.

The birding was excellent. Apparently it was practically barren compared to more active parts of the year, and previous years because of the lake's shrinkage, but it was still a wonderful time. Everywhere we looked birds kept popping up: terns, pelicans, curlews, avocets, egrets, thousands of swallows everywhere, blackbirds, cormorants, geese, ibises, it was all incredible and a worthwhile experience. The whole road did a round and by the time we were done it was late morning, almost noon. With the water so much shallower and further from the road than before, apparently, there were not many birds left so we went to get lunch and then try Antelope Island. Unfortunately the wind was so severe that we didn't end up seeing any of the main birds -- burrowing owls, chukar, etc. -- and the few meadowlarks I did see were all facing away, obscuring the yellow breast, but it was still worthwhile.

The main takeaway, though was this thing:

This was a cloud of dust picked up from the dried-up lakebed by said windstorm. We'd seen it throughout the visit to the peninsula (it's called Antelope Island but the drying caused it to turn into a peninsula), most notably when we crested this hill on the way back, but it was most dramatic when I stopped to photograph some grazing shorebirds next to the Antelope Island causeway.

I later learned from reading the New York Times that this cloud would have been made out of salt and heavy metals, like arsenic, which was a comforting thought since we drove right past it on the way back home and saw it absolutely enveloping the towns in the area. We later checked out the Golden Spike Park because we were in the area and I'd heard about it in Asian American Studies (and other school lessons about Asian Americans, because of Chinese immigrants working on the trans-continental railway which was covered in the PBS documentary on Asian Americans) and thought it would be cool to check it out. On the way leaving, going home, we saw more of this dust storm.

I'll be uploading my bird photos to my personal blog, but here are two I thought were appropriately dramatic showing the cloud in the background.

For context, the second photo is of a California gull, Utah's state bird. I also upped the contrast a bit, turned down the highlights, and upped the tint a little.

I also submitted this writing to the New York Times Summer Reading Contest. Didn't get anything but it was a good exercise, plus I had a longer version to submit for Tatler that I'll link once it's uploaded.

I was wiping sleep and disappointment from my eyes while leaving Antelope Island, UT; a three-hour detour on a 34-hour birdwatching trip had been mostly fruitless, due to high winds forcing most birds to shelter. My chagrin soon became awe as I summitted a hill and saw a miles-long ghostly white cloud, a portent of the Great Salt Lake’s demise.

Human residence and agriculture has sapped two thirds of the lake, and it continues to shrink. I worry about the millions of migratory birds that depend on it, but the catastrophe extends beyond them. Christopher Flavelle wrote that if the lake continues drying, “the air surrounding Salt Lake City would occasionally turn poisonous,” windstorms picking up the exposed lakebed to create arsenic-rich clouds like the one I saw. More than three quarters of Utah’s rapidly growing population live at risk of lung disease.

Even “at the precipice,” though, trivialities persist. One man stopped watering his lawn; “his homeowners’ association threatened to fine him.” Salt Lake consumes more water per capita at a lower cost than most major U.S. cities, so efficient plumbing and water price-hike proposals were drafted; local governments blocked them.

The Great Salt Lake represents a near future, one we have brought upon ourselves in favor of our short-term interests. It will prove whether we can fight for it and ourselves, or if we will continue to fail and allow our self-destruction.