Thursday, October 23, 2014

From a ‘Lakemobile’ to a stroll to Fremont Island

  The "lakemobile" that Charles Stoddard used to cross the GSL to Fremont Island in.

                    Fremont Island with a dry eastern bay  

By Lynn Arave

LIKE its larger cousin, Antelope Island to the north, 
Fremont Island isn’t always truly an isle at all.
A huge natural sandbar, during low lake levels, can offer dry land access to the somewhat mysterious, privately-owned “island.”
Growing up in Hooper, directly east of Fremont Island, I had heard tales of a man from West Point who years earlier – when the Great Salt Lake was at very low levels – used to drive a special truck all the way to the Island over only six or so inches of water.

                     The Fremont Island Sandbar, far left, as seen from Fremont Island.

Later, I found out his name was Charles Stoddard. He leased Fremont Island in 1932 and began ranching sheep there.
However, not wanting to rely completely on boat travel, Stoddard put caterpillar-like chains on the rear wheels of a Model “A” Ford Truck and created what others called a “Lakemobile” to access Fremont Island for several decades.

This natural sandbar, that Stoddard first discovered, was large, but not straight. So, during the low lake levels of the early 1930s, he put upright railroad ties along the shallowest part of the sandbar, from west of Syracuse – some 10 miles -- to Fremont Island, to mark its course. Then as the lake level rose, he had what David E. Miller in “The Desert Magazine” of May of 1949 referred to a “Salt Lake Trail on the Desert” to follow.

               The "Lakemobile" arrives on Fremont Island for the first time in 1934.

So, he basically drove a truck in the middle of the Great Salt Lake!

  The Fremont Island sandbar,from Fremont, as it snakes to the Antelope Island Causeway.

His only major problem was an ice floe that struck his truck in March of 1942. Although the lake’s briny waters do not freeze easily, the incoming fresh river water can and thus a small iceberg hit his truck and knocked it on its side.

  Charles Stoddard fixing the Wenner graves on Fremont Island. --Photo courtesy of Stoddard Family. He used rock from the old Wenner home to create part of the rock memorial.

Stoddard managed to upright the truck and get the ice away, but the Lakemobile ended up in a bog and wasn’t freed until more than eight months later -- the following November. Even then, he had to replace the truck’s salty motor oil and spark plugs and use kerosene to loosen the cylinders. Then the old truck started up and moved again.

                   Charles Stoddard's boat pulled by horses to reach Fremont Island in 1947.

Stoddard was also known to use a small boat, mounted on a two-wheeled trailer, and pulled by a team of horses to access the Island. He even told Miller that some youths once rode bicycles to the Island, while riders on horseback and even a touring car had successfully made the trip too.

                  Sheep travel the sandbar to Fremont Island in the 1940s.

By the early 1940s, the sandbar was briefly, but almost completely above water late one summer season. So, instead of having to boat sheep to and from the Island, Stoddard was able to herd them on mostly dry ground. Only the south end of the sandbar was then under water, just a few inches deep.
By 1948, the GSL had risen two feet in seven years and Stoddard had to use boat travel his remaining years of ranching.

  Horses used to traverse the sandbar to Fremont Island in 1943 to go on the Phantom Coyote hunt.

Twenty years later, in the late 1960s, as a teenager, I noticed two black posts and a gate sticking up in the water when traveling the newly built dirt road causeway to Antelope Island. I surmised that marked Stoddard’s “road.”

     The "black gate posts" circa 1980, as they marked the start of the sandbar to Fremont Island.

In the summer of 1979, a friend, Mich Oki, and I tried wading out to those black posts and found the water not only 4 feet deep there, but very muddy ground to try and wade through. The Great Salt Lake kept rising for another seven years.
 June 1982: Steve Hubbard and Larry Saunders as they prepare to explore Fremont Island after landing on its southeast tip after about a seven mile paddle in a canoe.

In June of 1982, two friends (Steve Hubbard and Larry Saunders) and I canoed about 14 miles roundtrip from Antelope Island to Fremont Island. We also had permission and visited the island at length. Wild ponies roamed the island back then, amid some exotic sheep.
(John C. Fremont and Kit Carson used an inflatable rubber boat when they visited the island in 1843. I also took a motor boat trip there in the late-1990s.)
The causeway soon washed out and was later rebuilt higher.
I tested the water around the gate post several more times over the years. They were completely under water in the mid-1980s, as the Great Salt Lake reached a historic high mark.

                                The ride to Fremont Island.

My parents too were fascinated by Fremont Island and they hired a boat and its captain in the early 1990s and we visited Fremont Island and waded to its shores for a brief visit, lacking permission to roam the isle.

       My family on Fremont, Mark, Norma, Gene and Wayne Arave, with boat off shore.

             Taylor Arave near the Fremont Sandbar in about 2002.

               Taylor Arave and what's left of the back gate posts in 2002.

 Enter the 21st Century and the lake was receding again and now the posts were barely under water. But, again bogs near the causeway were hard to wade through.

          Mike Spencer, September 2004, resting after a 6-mile walk to Fremont Island.

Then, in the late summer of 2004, the lake was almost lower than it had ever been. Myself and two different friends, Mike Spencer and Ryan Layton, walked about 13 miles roundtrip on 100 percent dry ground to the edge of Fremont Island and back. We found a huge old anchor, antique bottles and even tires along our stroll of what used to be under up to 18 feet of briny water in the mid-1980s during the lake’s historic high mark.

              Taylor Arave in a dry bay around Fremont Island.

Again, in 2008, with permission to access the Island, I and my youngest son, Taylor, again walked the same dry sandbar route and roamed the isle. Then, we also ATV tracks and evidence of their visit to the island over the sandbar.

                       ATV tracks across the usually underwater GSL.

(As a sidelight: there is evidence too, that Kit Carson may not carved his cross on the island’s north end out of boredom, but rather as testimonial of his conversion to the Catholic Church.)

  Our bicycles, a few hundred yards off the Antelope Causeway. We rode them to the sandbar, as parking on the causeway after my first walk to Fremont is now prohibited

Thus, people have boated, floated, driven, bicycled and even ridden on horseback to Fremont over the years. There’s even a rugged airstrip on the island’s western side.
Fremont Island, though mostly barren, is a magical place that somehow always beckons you to return.

 Taylor pointing upward to show that the water was more than 12-feet deep here in the mid-1980s around Fremont Island in the bay off the island.

(-Originally published in the Ogden Standard-Examiner on Oct. 23-24, 2014.)

-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at:  

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