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Salt Lake Valley’s Leap of Faith
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Salt Lake Valley


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By Lisa Moore LaRoe Photographs by Robb Kendrick



Wedged between snowy peaks and its namesake lake, this fast-growing oasis is ready for its Olympic debut.



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In October scores of hard-core commercial fishermen, most from Maine and Alaska, descend on this fishless lake to catch the infinitesimal eggs of brine shrimp, half-inch filter feeders that, next to brine fly larvae, are the largest life-form the salty lake can sustain. Brine shrimp eggs, or Artemia cysts, float on the water. Dried they can sit on a shelf for years; when rehydrated, they hatch into larvae used as food for prawn farms in Asia and South America. The highest quality aquaculture food in the world, Great Salt Lake Artemia cysts sold for as much as $35 a pound last year on a record harvest that yielded over four million dry pounds.

Among fishermen the word is out: This is the new gold rush. A battered guy named Kelly with hands as worn as old saddles told me he made $42,000 one season. Fish tale? Not likely. Others whispered figures a lot higher.

“If you don’t care about quality of life, it’s a great job,” joked Brad Marden, leader of one of the teams of fishermen granted permits to hunt eggs. A wild-eyed biologist, Marden was mobilizing for battle. At base camp on the tip of Promontory Point, powerboats bobbed on black water preparing for opening day. Crewmen slept aboard to thwart sabotage, which is common in this intensely competitive fishery.

Marden and I flew reconnaissance with Dan Beishline, one of three Alaska spotter pilots Marden’s team hired to locate eggs. From the air the north arm looked pink, tinted by the bacteria and algae that survive in these unbalanced waters, and the south arm was bluish green. Cysts floated in rosy streaks or in swirls like hurricane clouds. Marden and Beishline were stunned by the amount of eggs. The year before there were so few that the fishery on the south arm was closed. That move—along with the lake’s salinity, the temperature, the shrimp, and the algae they eat—led to a rebound.

Opening day broke with a vengeance. Four-foot (one-meter) waves crashed against Promontory Point with the ferocity of a stormy sea. Fishermen need calm water to harvest cysts, which they encircle with floating booms then vacuum into sacks that hold up to 3,000 pounds (1,400 kilograms). Idle crewmen looked grim at this inauspicious start.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.


Did you ever wonder about the elusive Sea-Monkeys that you could mail away for as a child? What were those creatures and how was it possible for them to hatch to life so magically, dance, and perform unusual acrobatic feats all behind the little magnified windows of their castle-shaped aquarium? Sea-Monkeys are actually brine shrimp, primitive crustaceans that thrive in inland waters such as the Great Salt Lake where the habitat is so saline that they live free of predators.

What is it about the natural characteristics of the brine shrimp that make them so alluring to entrepreneurs, who began marketing them in the 1960s? Brine shrimp lay eggs that can stay dormant for years until conditions are right for them to hatch, which allows them to survive in air-tight packaging. They are filter-feeding organisms that swim in an upside down position while rhythmically beating their feather-like legs as they filter in the green algae that nourish them. Training your Sea-Monkey pets to perform acrobatic maneuvers is easily accomplished because they exhibit positive phototaxis—a condition in which they are attracted to and move toward light.

—Nora Gallagher


Great Salt Lake
ut.water.usgs.gov/greatsaltlake/
Visit this comprehensive United States Geological Survey (USGS) website and learn about the hydrology, salinity, and habitat of the Great Salt Lake, which allow it to support such a curious array of organisms.

Utah Birds
www.utahbirds.org/
The Great Salt Lake is one of the world’s most important sites for migratory birds. Learn more at this extensive website, an excellent resource for birding in Utah.

2002 Olympic Winter Games
www.slc2002.org/
Which U.S. athlete will become the country’s biggest star during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games? Visit the official Olympic website and vote online.

Ski Utah
www.skiutah.com/
Curious about skiing in Utah? This helpful site provides a detailed map of each ski area in the valley, daily snow reports, and a complete listing of places to stay.

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Sorensen, Ella. Seductive Beauty of Great Salt Lake: Images of a Lake Unknown. Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 1997.

Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Vintage Books, 1991.

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Webster, Donovan. “Utah: Land of Promise, Kingdom of Stone,” National Geographic (January 1996), 48-77.

Gore, Rick. “No Way to Run a Desert: The Rising Great Salt Lake,” National Geographic (June 1985), 694-719.

McCarry, Charles. “Utah’s Shining Oasis,” National Geographic (April 1975), 440-473.

Borah, Leo A. “Utah, Carved by Winds and Waters: The Beehive State, Settled Only 89 Years Ago, Stands a Monument to the Courage of Its Founders,” National Geographic (May 1936), 577-623.

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