Great Salt Lake in Utah may not immediately come to mind when thinking of the best kayaking destinations in America. However, let me share the captivating story of Scott Baxter, a devoted kayaker who has been exploring the lake for over three decades. Recently, he achieved a remarkable feat by becoming the first kayaker to complete a circumnavigation of the vast Great Salt Lake.
The Uniqueness of Great Salt Lake
Framed between the Great Lakes and the Pacific Ocean, Great Salt Lake holds the distinction of being the largest salt lake in the western hemisphere. Stretching over 75 miles long and 35 miles wide, this expansive body of water covers more than a million acres. Situated at an elevation of 4,200 feet, the lake boasts a maximum depth of just 33 feet. Its mesmerizing salt density, ranging from 16% to 27%, stems from a combination of factors, including the absence of outflows for the rivers that flow into it and the desert environment’s evaporative nature.
While most Utah residents have never ventured to the lake, it offers limited public access. Visitors can only enter through three main points: Antelope Island, which features a causeway to reach its state park; a marina located in the south; and a land arch on the northeast side. Unlike traditional picturesque lakes, Great Salt Lake lacks the typical lush greenery and trees that people associate with serene picnic spots. However, Scott Baxter’s unwavering love for kayaking and the lake’s unique ecosystem has driven him to navigate its waters and surrounding wetlands for an impressive 30 years.
A Kayaker’s Paradise
Scott embarked on his circumnavigation journey in the early fall of 2021, finally seizing the opportune moment to explore the myriad environmental influences impacting Great Salt Lake and bring greater public awareness to these issues. The lake faces several potential threats, including global warming, a thirty-year drought, and the diversion of water from its tributary streams and rivers.
More than just a kayaking adventure, Great Salt Lake holds immense ecological significance as a vital stopover for migratory birds. Each year, approximately 10 million birds pass through the lake, using it as a major staging ground to replenish their food supplies. The brine flies and brine shrimp that inhabit the lake play a crucial role in sustaining these avian travelers.
Scott’s primary objective during his kayak trip was to document the conditions of microbialites, fundamental structures within the lake that form the foundation of its intricate food chain. These unique formations consist of cyanobacteria, algae, and various other organisms actively shaping calcium carbonate structures, akin to living rocks. Sadly, due to dwindling water levels, many of these microbialites have become exposed to the air, putting this vital food chain at risk.
For Scott, the Great Salt Lake holds a special place in his heart. His longstanding involvement with local environmental groups, combined with his passion for kayaking and photography, has led him to its pristine waters time and time again. This journey, however, compelled him to take his connection with the lake to a whole new level.
A Daunting Adventure
Kayaking on Great Salt Lake is not for the faint of heart. The remote and inhospitable nature of the lake makes it a challenging endeavor. Inaccessible by rescue boats during certain conditions, the lake’s vast expanse is susceptible to strong winds and high waves that crash close together. During the first five days of Scott’s trip, they didn’t encounter a single soul. The absence of cities along the shore, particularly in the north, results in breathtakingly dark and beautiful night skies.
Ensuring their safety, Scott and his trip partner, Matt Kahabka, carried a six-day water supply with them. Additionally, they strategically stashed a couple of gallons on-shore at different locations for emergency purposes. Despite the initial precaution, they found themselves fortunate not to require the extra water during the expedition.
The Journey’s Details
Securing the necessary permits for their extraordinary journey proved to be a unique challenge. Typically, overnight recreation on the lake is not permitted, except within designated parks, as the area remains relatively untouched and remote. Scott needed a special permit for his 6-10 day expedition. Since no one had ever attempted a circumnavigation of the lake by kayak before, the process itself proved to be quite an endeavor. Nevertheless, Scott was impressed by the cooperation he received from Utah’s State Forestry Department and managed to obtain the required insurance and permit.
The department acknowledged Scott’s expertise as a seasoned kayaker and his deep knowledge of the lake. As part of the agreement, his captivating images would be made available to state agencies, universities, and various groups in the vicinity of Great Salt Lake for their educational use.
Initially considering a solo trip, Scott was relieved when Matt could join him on this extraordinary adventure. At 60 years old, Scott found the journey physically demanding, but having Matt, who is 28 years old and just as hardy, provided him immense mental support.
The duo kayaked an impressive 180 miles, averaging an astonishing 30 miles per day. Battling fierce winds and waves measuring 2-3 feet during the initial stages of their expedition, they had allotted ten days to complete the trip if necessary. However, they managed to conquer the distance in a remarkable six days.
When observing the white shoreline, which is reminiscent of snow for many of us, it’s important to note that it is actually salt—a constant reminder of the lake’s unique characteristics.
Their gear, including kayaks, were encrusted with salt during the duration of their trip, causing Velcro tabs and rudders to malfunction. To overcome this challenge, they resorted to using ropes to scrape the salt off their kayak hulls, allowing for smoother paddling.
The Perfect Kayaks and Paddles
Scott’s love for kayaking goes beyond exploration—he designs and builds his own kayaks. Familiar with the wind and turbulent conditions often encountered in high-elevation lakes across the American West, Scott customizes his boats to tackle these challenging environments.
On this particular journey, Scott and Matt utilized 17.8-foot and 16.8-foot sea kayaks, crafted with precision and expertise. Scott has been a loyal advocate of Bending Branches canoe paddles since the 1980s. In fact, he purchased his first Navigator wood kayak paddle when it was first introduced, and it quickly became his favorite. The paddle’s comfortable shaft, optimal stiffness, and perfectly sized blades allow for effortless and efficient kayaking. As Scott and his children continue to paddle with Bending Branches paddles, they appreciate the reduced strain and the visual harmony between the beautiful wooden paddles and their kayaks.
The salt-encrusted environment posed no challenge for these remarkable wood paddles. Scott trusted the Rockgard protection to safeguard his paddles from the corrosive nature of the salt crystals that cover everything in the north end of the lake. The durability and resilience of Bending Branches paddles proved invaluable throughout their journey.
A Journey That Inspires
Scott Baxter’s circumnavigation of Great Salt Lake is a testament to his unwavering passion for kayaking and his commitment to raising awareness about the lake’s fragile ecosystem. His extraordinary journey sheds light on the critical environmental impacts affecting the lake, such as decreasing water levels and the risk to vital microbialite structures.
If you want to learn more about Scott Baxter’s captivating Great Salt Lake circumnavigation kayak trip, make sure to visit his Facebook page. You can also listen to his interview with RadioWest to delve deeper into his incredible adventure.
Remember, as you plan your own kayaking adventures, make sure to equip yourself with the right gear and paddle. Choose wisely, like Scott, and opt for a durable, high-quality paddle such as those from Bending Branches. With the perfect paddle in your hands, you’ll be ready to embark on your own memorable journey, exploring the natural wonders that await you.
But, hey, if you need any advice or have any questions about paddles, don’t hesitate to reach out to the friendly Customer Service team at Bending Branches. They’re always ready to help you find the perfect paddle for your kayaking escapades. Contact them today at 715-755-3405 or [email protected]
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