Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Walk to Fremont Island (twice) on Dry Ground!

                          Strolling to Fremont Island in 2008

                          Footprints in the dry lake bed of the GSL.

By Lynn Arave

SOMETIMES you've got to make history yourself, if the occasion presents itself (and nature cooperates), as it did for me in both 2004 and 2008.
As a kid growing up in Western Weber County, I often heard tales of the mysterious Fremont Island -- located straight west of my house.
One story highlighted a West Point, Utah farmer who drove his truck on a sandbar from the then dirt road causeway to Antelope Island, all the way to Fremont Island and back in only a few inches of water, when the Great Salt Lake was near a record low.
I vowed if the lake ever got that low again, I would walk all the way to Fremont Island.
(I had previously canoed to Fremont Island with Steve Hubbard and Larry Saunders and explored its secrets in the summer of 1982, when a herd of wild shetland ponies still roamed the island.)
One of the most reliable indicators of an extra dry Great Salt Lake is the presence of a large sandbar that leads to Fremont Island.
You can't walk on water without divine help, but you can get a kick out of this kind of a limited "Red Sea on dry ground" experience by walking on this waterless sandbar to Fremont Island when the Great Salt Lake level is 4,194.5 feet or lower.
That certainly was the case in September 2008, as the lake level sat at 4,194.1 feet above sea level. This sandbar (referred to as the "Fremont Island Bar" on maps) is located about 1.6 miles out from the causeway connection at the northeastern edge of Antelope Island.
 Why boat the lake when you can simply walk some of it? Seeing first-hand how dry this large tract of lake bed is illustrates perfectly the impact of low lake levels.
The window of opportunity for this kind of feat is small, with the sandbar being water free only 14 times in the past 167 years. In normal years, when the lake is at its 4,200-foot average elevation, the sandbar is under nearly six feet of salty water. 
During the lake's record high level of 1985 (at 4,212-feet), the sandbar was under 17 feet of water. 
 Prior to that, the sandbar had consecutive dry periods during portions of 1960 to 1965. The years 1936 and 1937 and 1939 to 1941 also offered brief periods of a dry sandbar. The sandbar is huge. It's almost a mile wide in places and goes 6.5 miles northwest to Fremont Island. Walking across the sandbar is like walking on the moon — no vegetation, almost nothing. It's the void itself that becomes an eerie attraction.
 The first few hundred feet off the causeway are the muddiest. From there, you might sink a bit in the crusty lake bed, but it is far easier than walking through sand. It's startling how empty the vast lake bed is.

In fact, rainfall can inundate portions of the sandbar, especially near the Causeway start. So, is isn't just the low lake level, there needs to be several weeks of dry sunny weather to evaporate any rainwater on the sandbar. Otherwise, it can be a mucky mess of sinking, almost like quicksand!

UPDATE 2015: You can't legally walk to Fremont Island on the sandbar anymore. Prosecution signs have been posted. (See below).

     As of 2015, no more walking to Fremont Island, per this warning sign posted at the sandbar start..

                        No unauthorized vehicles on the Sandbar to Fremont Island.

                          The sandbar "road" to Fremont Island, Oct. 21, 2015.

Bird feathers here and there are the most common sight. There are also periodic dead birds, tumbleweeds, rocks, shotgun shell casings, old tires and bottles. A few ropes and plastic buoys also crop up. Faded tracks of three-wheeled ATVs are sometimes visible along the sandbar.
(During my 2004 walk, with Ryan Layton and Mike Spencer, we  encountered some type of large ship anchor about two miles out. It had been hauled away by someone before my 2008 walk. We only went to edge of the island that trip, lacking permission to visit Fremont Island itself.)
Fremont Island's owners can legally use the sandbar to reach the island and these tracks were probably from as long ago as 2004, the last time the sandbar was this dry. It took about 2 1/2 hours to walk the entire sandbar to Fremont Island.
Any potential lake bed walkers should be aware that Fremont Island is privately owned and requires permission to legally visit it. Also, there is no parking allowed along the causeway to Antelope Island.
Lightning during any storms would be of the greatest danger here too.
But this sandbar to Fremont Island is huge in places, spanning more than 1,000 yards in width.
After the fall of 2008, the Great Salt Lake's water level rose again and this feat was not possible in 2009, 2010, 2011 or 2012. (It was possible to walk the bar, briefly, in the fall of 2013.)
Odds are looking like with a dry winter in 2013-14, the sandbar could be walkable again in the fall of 2014.

Note that the sandbar curves on its west end -- it eventually reaches a section of lake water, but head east and the sandbar curves around this depression .....

              Kit Carson's famous cross at the north end of Fremont Island isn't all that large.

                      The strange shaped rock where Carson's cross was carved.

               Taylor Arave stands next to a landlocked buoy at the eastern bay of Fremont Island..

   Taylor Arave holds up his walking stick to show how deep the water here might have been in the mid                  1980s, when record water levels were reached by the GSL. This area is now under some 3 feet of water and has been under some 17 feet of water here before.

The Fremont Island Sandbar was discovered in the 1930s by Charles Stoddard of West Point.
He was able to put stakes in the lakebed to mark where the sandbar was and found it to be some 3/4 of a mile wide in places. The lake level was just 6 inches above the sandbar then, with often low lake levels of the 1930s.
According to the Davis County Clipper newspaper of May 19, 1967, Stodard then created a "Lakemobile" to traverse the sandbar.
This was a model "A" Ford Truck with caterpillar-like chains on it.
It easily crossed the sandbar to Fremont for several years.
Although there was no causeway to Antelope Island back then, Stoddard would have likely accessed the bar from the east, somewhere near Howard Slaugh.
However, in 1942, an iceberg ("saltberg?")  in the lake (they do form some years) struck his vehicle. This berg was 30 feet high and some 100 feet square. He escaped from the truck over ice on the lake's surface in the area.
When he returned the next year, he found his vehicle in a bog of quicksand material, where the ice had pushed it. He had to work at it, but soon got all the salt encrusted material off the engine and spark plugs and got the motor going and the Lakemobile moved once again.
However, the lake began an upcycle soon after and it would not be until the early 1960s that the levels dropped again.
The Fremont Sandbar is listed on some lake maps.
Apparently, the City of Corinne boat in the 1870s traversed through the Fremont Sandbar area and noted its presence.
The Fremont Sandbar also became important again in the 1960s. 
According to the Davis County Clipper on Nov. 27, 1964, when the original causeway to Antelope Island was constructed, builders took some of the sandbar itself (a mixture of sand and salt) and used it for portions of the causeway, instead of having to haul in fill from further away. 

                                                    Our foot prints in the cracked, dry lake bed.

                                      The Wenner grave marker on Fremont Island, above/below.

   Look to the left side of this photo and you can see the huge sandbar snake toward the Causeway. This picture was taken along the southern end of Fremont Island looking toward Antelope Island.

--John C. Fremont and Kit Carson, a pair of legendary 19th-century Western explorers, would certainly be awestruck by a visit to 21st-century Utah. That's not just because of modern technology, but because many Americans actually enjoy and savor "badlands" areas, places of no apparent worth in their day.

During a Sept. 9, 1843, trip to the island in the Great Salt Lake — the first recorded there — Fremont dubbed the isle "Disappointment Island" for its barren nature and lack of game. Carson was so bored he chiseled a cross in a rock there.
However, in the 21st century, Fremont Island is one of the most magical of places in the wondrous Great Salt Lake. It is the only privately owned isle in the lake and boasts fascinating tales of romance and a mysterious grave robber once exiled there, and scenic panoramas that are unrivaled in the Salt Lake Valley.
(Because of its private ownership, permission is required to legally visit the island.)
Some may have to switch into a "desert" gear to best enjoy Fremont. Void of all but a few trees, it isn't much different from Antelope Island. However, undeveloped, with only a few fences, it's like a trip back in time.
Peter G. Czerny, author of "The Great Great Salt Lake" book, accurately stated of Fremont Island, "For even though the island is barren it has a magical quality and those who have visited it have never lost the desire to return to it."
Today the island is used for ranching. Horses, cattle and sheep happily roam the isolated island, third-largest in the Great Salt Lake, behind Antelope and Stansbury islands. Fremont is about five miles long and more than three miles wide at its widest point.
Explorer Fremont and his party of four other men followed the Weber River and used an "India rubber" boat of that day to float to the island that they hoped was a paradise. After making surveys, they left in disappointment. The only excitement the explorers had was being threatened by an incoming thunderstorm; they felt they had to frantically row for their lives to get off the Great Salt Lake.
On April 22, 1848, Albert Carrington and a group of other Mormon pioneers boated around the Great Salt Lake and visited the isle and named it "Castle Island," for the throne-like top on its north end.
In the summer of 1850, Howard Stansbury surveyed the Great Salt Lake and gave the isle its permanent title. During the spring of 1859, Henry W. Jacob and Dan Miller of Farmington put 153 head of sheep on Fremont. They called the island "Miller's Island," though Fremont later won out as the official title.
Jean Baptiste, a Salt Lake City cemetery worker, was arrested for robbing at least 300 graves in the cemetery of clothes and jewelry in early 1862.
Brigham Young said imprisoning the man would do no good and suggested making him "a fugitive and a vagabond upon the Earth."
As such, he was banished to Fremont Island in the early spring of 1862. Water around the island was at least eight feet deep then.
There was a shack and provisions on Fremont. After six weeks there, Baptiste vanished. He had torn the roof and sides of the shack down, killed a 3-year-old heifer and cut portions of the hide into thongs, undoubtedly to make a raft to escape from the island.
What happened to Baptiste? There are many theories. The most plausible are that he drowned trying to float away from the island, or that he made his way to Montana.But Baptiste remains the specter of the island and lake because his fate remains uncertain.
The years 1871-73 featured a brief span of mining for precious metals on Fremont Island. Some 38 claims were made, but only small veins of silver, gold, copper and lead were found.
The island then became owned by the state government and Central Pacific Railroad.
In 1886, Salt Lake probate judge Uriah J. Wenner obtained possession of the island and moved there with his wife, Kate, and two small children for five years to help his battle with tuberculosis through salty, fresh air. The family loved living on the desert isle.
"I lived five consecutive years without a tree, without a neighbor and during this isolation from the world I made just one trip to mainland," Kate Wenner Noble's own diary recorded. "We learned to know ourselves, enjoy ourselves, children and books — without worrying about fashions or gossip and the like in the outside world. ... Fremont Island was my happy home, not a neglected sheep ranch as it is now."
Uriah Wenner died there on Sept. 19, 1891, and was buried on the island. The family moved away and Kate Wenner remarried. When she died on Dec. 29, 1942, her ashes were taken to the island next to her first husband that next June.
Today their graves are enclosed by a fence at the south end of the island. Their stone house foundation is also found nearby.
In 1960, the Richards family purchased the island and remains the current owner.
Visiting Fremont Island now is more desert-like than ever. With the Great Salt Lake so low, the island's shoreline is huge.
Mosquitoes and horseflies seem to love the south end of the island and were out in force to greet hikers. The grave site is here, among many cactus. Some lizards also reside on the island, but blow snakes — or any snakes — are rare these days here. An island-wide fire in 1940 apparently wiped most of them out.
Cattle have grazed this end of the isle well and cow pies have to be sidestepped everywhere.
An old tractor and farm implement was in 2004 sitting just above the island's southeast beach. An occasional tin can, plastic bucket or pile of animal bones dot the landscape, but they are few and far between. One of the island's lone trees is also found in this area.
A few brackish wells supply water for the livestock on the island.
The stone house where the Wenner's lived was readily visible until the early 1970s. Today, it has been leveled by the elements and to find it, you are searching for no more than a small house foundation, below ground.
Moving northward, the center of Fremont rises in elevation some 800 feet. It's a steep climb in places, but it's void of most bugs up there. Some three miles distant are Castle Rock and Carson's cross.
Unusual black rocks grace the island's upper reaches, and one of them contain's Carson's cross. There is at least one small cave, and a metal pole sits atop the island's highest point.
Wild shetland ponies roamed the island as late as the 1980s. Today, they are gone, having been rounded up and taken off.
There were cows and sheep grazing on the island in 2008.
Sweeping views are found in every direction, and a lake breeze continually blows, moderating temperatures. Most of the island is totally quiet. Only the occasional jet flying over, or a passing boat on the west side, breaks the silence. At the north end, industrial noise from lake chemical industries near Little Mountain or from the Lucin railroad causeway can sometimes be heard.
The island's isolation and postcard panoramas give it a national park-like flavor. Today, the only disappointment here is having to say goodbye to the peaceful island and return to civilization.

-Lynn Arave and Taylor Arave visited Fremont Island on Sept. 25, 2008. Lynn also canoed to the island in June 1982. He obtained permission from the owners to visit.
(Some this material was originally published in the Deseret News in 2008, by Lynn Arave.)


  1. Thanks for sharing; I hadn't known so much history which you include on your site. Looking forward to reading it all.

  2. What a great post. Thank you for taking the time to write and share it.

  3. Lynn, Would you mind passing along the contact information?