There’s no such thing as a bad day riding in an airboat on Great Salt Lake – but some days are better than others. The perfect day is a warmish spring day in Willard Spur, where the sun hides out behind the clouds and you need a light jacket once you get moving. Where you have enough water to go pretty much wherever you want, and enough birds have migrated in to make you realize how really special this place must be once all of them have arrived at the party. Kind of like the day the WRA board, staff and special guests had last Thursday.
The directions were to meet up at the Flying J truck stop in Willard around 8 am. Once you get off the highway you can’t miss it, because it’s the only thing there. Not to mention the airboats on trailers filling up the parking lot. Most of the boats aren’t much to look at, being designed more for function than beauty. All of the boats have flat metal bottoms that allow them to glide along in an inch or two of water. And all of them have V-8 engines at the back of the boat, connected to large, well-balanced propellers.
On this day, the Utah Airboat Association was kind enough to provide five airboats, with plenty of room to accommodate the sixteen of us. A few of us have had the privilege of going out on the Lake in airboats on a regular basis, but for most this was the first and probably the only time they’d get to do this. The experience is something to be treasured.
Almost everyone who visits Great Salt Lake does so either via the south shore of the Lake or Antelope Island. The south shore is easy to get to, being directly adjacent to I-80. Antelope takes a bit more work, but is worth the effort. In each case, the Lake you experience is one of vast horizons, flat surfaces, and the Wasatch Front backdrop. And everywhere, hyper-saline water. Willard Spur, however, is different.
Water in the Spur comes almost entirely from the Bear River, which provides 42% of the Lake’s inflow. Bear River flows from the north, through the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge – a 74,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge established in 1928 – and then into the Spur. So, unlike water found elsewhere in the Lake, ranging from 13-26% salinity, water in the Spur is almost completely fresh. Unlike other parts of the Lake where little to no vegetation survives the hyper-saline environment, the Spur is bursting with life.
Nine and a half miles end to end and four miles across at its widest point, Willard Spur is by far the most productive part of Great Salt Lake. It’s also the most remote and least known portion of the Lake. The only way of accessing the Spur is by airboat – and we have the place to ourselves.
The Utah Division of Water Quality considers Willard Spur to be a “reference quality wetland,” which means that it’s an almost perfect wetland ecosystem. The vegetation is so thick at times that it’s impossible to find your way; but most of the Spur consists of open water wetlands covered this time of year with submerged aquatic vegetation – a critical food source for waterfowl.
Once the airboats launch and get out into the open waters, the comfortable morning suddenly becomes chilly, with the boats humming along at 20-25 mph. Everyone has on jackets, ear protection and sunglasses. There are lots of bugs out this time of year and getting whacked in the eye with one going that fast tends to hurt. It’s hard to talk over the roar of the engines, but we stop frequently to talk about some of the issues Western Resource Advocates’ Utah office has been working on as of late: protecting the Spur against contamination from nutrients; dealing with invasive plants such as phragmites (a reed that’s taken over tens of thousands of acres in the wetlands along Great Salt Lake); fighting a 92,000-acre expansion proposal by one of the mineral companies (that would have included 8,000 acres contiguous to the Spur); pushing back on a proposal to dam the Bear River (with a possible location taking over a chunk of the Spur); trying to figure out how to get water rights to keep water in the Lake; and challenging salt discharges from the mineral company into sensitive areas like the Spur.
A flock of pelicans sits casually off in the distance, having flown over the Promontory Mountains to the west from the site of their rookery – remote Gunnison Island in the North Arm of the Lake. They come to feed off the many fish that inhabit the Spur – but are especially fond of the carp. We skim through an area known as the grassy islands; patches of mud and emergent vegetation scattered throughout the Spur. A month from now, these patches will be covered with nests, and the airboats will steer clear of them. Come June, the Spur will be cut off from the rest of Great Salt Lake, with most of the Bear River diverted for irrigation. What makes it to the Lake is retained in the Refuge.
At times, the water is open enough for the five boats to form a line; other times the trail through the vegetation is so narrow that it becomes single file. As we head back to the boat launch, the boats start to spread out – each going at their own pace – in no particular hurry. There are lots of places to explore; lots of things to see. Nobody really wants it to end, but there’s work to be done. After three hours, the noise and the wind tend to tire you out; but it’s a pleasant kind of tired.
The airboaters offer an open invitation – they’ll take us out anytime. Happy to take them up on that invitation. Most of the airboaters are duck hunters; fiercely protective of the Great Salt Lake wetlands; passionate about their sport, their boats and their Lake. The ultimate conservationists, and great partners to work with. They’re always grateful that we do what we do to protect Great Salt Lake. Not too many mornings top one like this.