Date: Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Conditions: Sunny with light wind. Air temp: 61°F, water temp: ~71°F. Some rolling waves, water was greenish gray due to the brine shrimp. Brine flies swarmed just above the marina waters.
Crew: Gordon Gridley, Josh Green, Goody Tyler in the water. Jill, Chris, and John on shore.
Route: Originally considered the Gridley Straight, a 2.2 mile course from the GSL Marina to Black Rock Beach. Decided on a swim to a buoy and back, about a mile.
Observations: Otherworldly. Everything about swimming in the Great Salt Lake is like swimming in an alien sea: the salinity (roughly 2x that of Earth’s ocean water), the exceptional buoyancy, the brine flies guarding airspace just above the water, and brine shrimp below, the desolate, rocky islands in the distance, and the team of bold swimming explorers, strapped with provisions, leading the way. This was a swim to remember.
Gordon Gridley and Josh Green are the co-directors of the Great Salt Lake Open Water Marathon Swim. When they found out I was headed to SLC, Gordon sent me an email inviting me to join them and another GSL swimmer Goody Tyler in the water. I was happy for the offer and accepted. I’ve found it’s good to have guides.
We met at the GSL Marina at 8 a.m. Gordon had recommended I bring some Gatorade to rinse out my mouth and my choice of lube to keep the salt from irritating my skin. So, slathered in sunscreen and Bodyglide®, I handed Gordon my Gatorade. He swims with a leash wrapped around his waist. Attached to the leash is a boogie board. Attached to the boogie board is a net. Under the net is a bottle of water, a dry box with a camera, and a spot for my red sport drink. Josh and Goody swim with orange SaferSwimmer floats to make themselves more visible to boats in the water.
As I stepped into the water, Josh warned me about the brine flies. They had recently hatched and were everywhere, swarming just above the water. Only two weeks ago, Josh told me, there were no flies and there were no brine shrimp. The water was so clear you could see all the way to the bottom, roughly 13 feet down. At this point in June, the GSL was less idyllic and less hospitable. Gordon said the flies can go straight down your throat when you turn to breathe. I made a mental note to keep my mouth shut.
My first few strokes toward the marina exit were a shock. Gordon had reminded me not to drink the water, but salt still found its way in. And this isn’t any salt, it is salt so concentrated, nothing aside from the impressively adapted brine shrimp live in it.
The water wasn’t always this way. The GSL is the remnant of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville, a freshwater lake that covered much of Utah. During the last ice age, about 14,500 years ago, the lake waters rose and then breached the mountains that contained it, pouring into the valleys of Idaho and eroding the natural dams in the process. As temperatures climbed, water evaporated, leaving behind a remnant lake with high concentrations of salt.
These are the same salts that covered my body and splashed in my mouth. In the water, Josh gave me a tip for breathing: in through your mouth like normal, but out through your nose only. No need to expose the inside of your mouth to the salt. But exposure to brine flies was another issue. Luckily, the flies’ range didn’t extend beyond the marina. And to my knowledge, I didn’t inhale any on my way out.
Beyond the marina the big challenge came from the waves, which were a couple feet high. So contrary to instruction, I did swallow some water when I was unexpectedly smacked in the face with one. Dramatic coughing and gagging followed.
Still trying to adjust my breathing to the salt and the waves, I felt a burn under my nose and on my lips. As if on cue, Goody stopped and offered me some Vaseline. I accepted, but wondered where he stashes it as he swims. He turned around and pointed to a glob on the back of his neck. In case he gets some unexpected “hot spots,” he told me. I swiped a bit and wiped it all over the outside of my mouth.
At the turn-around buoy, we stopped to regroup. This was also where I was introduced to the GSL back float, which feels a lot like lounging in a char. Because the water has such a high salinity, it is more dense than fresh and ocean water. This makes it easier to float higher in the water. Even when you’re not floating on your back, the water is holding you up. It doesn’t take much movement at all to tread water upright.
The swim back to the marina was a breeze compared to the swim out. My breathing was easy, and the residual salt in my mouth no longer bothered me. It’s amazing what we can get used to. By the time we finished, I decided that if I lived in Salt Lake City, I would make the GSL my open water swimming spot. It helped too that Gordon, Josh, and Goody completely normalized the experience. They swim in the GSL at least once a week, so it’s like home to them. All I had to do was follow their lead.
After rinsing off (and discovering a layer of brine shrimp under my suit), we went to breakfast at Market Street Grill in downtown SLC. Conversation centered on swimming books, races, other swimmers, and other swims. Sorry John, Chris and Jill! But it was fun to totally geek out on swimming with some of the best in the sport.
It was truly an honor to swim with these guys in the Great Salt Lake. Many thanks to Gordon, Josh, and Goody for their hospitality. Also, thanks for the swag! Gordon and Josh shared a Got Salt? Shirt, Got Salt? magnets, a SaferSwimmer float, and the DVD of a movie called “Redemption,” the tale of an infamous SLC grave robber, Jean Baptiste. You guys definitely made the Great Salt Lake a little less strange.