Antelope Island

The first thing I noticed on the island was the silence. It wrapped around and surrounded me the moment I exited my van. No engine noise, hum of power lines, or buzz of refrigerator could be heard. Most times even the drone of airplane engines were absent. Instead I heard the sound of the breeze blowing gently against my ear, the buzz of a beetle flying ten feet away, the distant cry of sea gulls. It was a place which exuded solitude even when other people were nearby. I could hear other people from as far away as the sea gulls, but these noises were welcomed by the island. Voices belonged there as much as the birds and beetles. I stood on the first overlook and breathed in the fresh salty air. I was simultaneously glad to be on the island with my friend and her baby, while wishing to be there alone, and wishing I’d brought my own children. I was going to need to take another pilgrimage there, this much was obvious.

(Many more pictures beyond the jump)

Antelope Island is the biggest island in the Great Salt Lake. In low water it is a peninsula. When the water is high, it is still reachable by car because some long-ago Utahn built a causeway and paved it. Google maps does not believe in this causeway, and only got confused if I asked for directions to the island, though it can find the land side of the causeway without difficulty. I think I like it that way. It is as if google acknowledges that the Island is a place separate and special.

I was surprised how big the island was.

It looked small on the map, but it would take a person all day to walk it. Even that would only include one straight line and probably skip the mountain entirely. We hiked up two high places to get an overview. The weather was perfect, both sunny and breezy. The long expanse of sandy beach called to us and we descended to see.

We arrived at the beach in stages. Dry sand covered the picnic areas near the parking lot. It was soft, but so littered with small rocks that walking barefoot was likely painful. The dry sand shifted under every footstep, leaving new pock marks in our wake. The flat wet sand was much more firm, almost like sidewalk except that every step left a shallow footprint. This was where the sand flies lived. They rose in clouds as we approached then settled themselves back into the same spaces when we had passed. I was fascinated by the texture of the ground beneath my feet, I leaned closer and saw natures own zen garden in miniature.

The feather and plant were pressed into the flat surface of the sand, deposited there when this space was more wet. The tracks were more mysterious. Some small worm creature had made thousands of these lines all over the beach.

Also fascinating were the miniature waves frozen in sand. Under my footsteps, these were flat. I could have failed to notice them.

But on a micro scale they were large enough to affect the fall of salt crystals.

The beach was full of different textures and arrangements of sand, salt, pebbles, and found objects. All arranged via wind, wave, rain, or the footsteps of visitors human and otherwise. I looked up from these marvels at the rises of land and rock around me. They too were similarly arranged, although on a much grander and slower scale.

On one such height I saw the strangest boulder. It looked as though some park ranger had stuck thousands of pebbles together with cement in order to secure the hiking path. A closer look told a different story.

I remembered the feather and plant flattened into the sand. These were rocks and shells that once fell into the silt at the bottom of the sea. Lake Bonneville once covered the whole valley. Now I could view this glimpse of sea floor by climbing to the heights of Buffalo Point.

I did not spend all my time observing tiny evidences of geology. There were many living examples of beauty as well.

Whole fields were dotted with sunflowers. Most of them had lost their petals and were instead brown seed stalks. This made the chukars and other ground birds of the island quite happy. The birds themselves were hard to spot, but if I stood quietly, I could hear them talking to each other. Then I would see a sunflower stalk rustle and shake more than those around it. Before we left, we drove down the East road where we were assured that the buffalo could be found.

They were right. This fellow stood a mere 15 yards from the road. He was quite bored as people jumped out of their vehicles to take pictures. I like my buffalo to be bored, particularly since the alternatives are much more likely to result in damage or injury. My friend had a better telephoto lens than I.

Time had come for us to leave even though there were many things we still had not seen. At the south end of the island is an old house, reputed to be the oldest still-standing original structure in Utah. There were Buffalo pens we missed and many more wonders to behold both large and small. I’ll have to go back. The island will be there. It has a timeless and patient quality. These things seeped into me along with the solitude. They stayed with me despite the long drive home through traffic, putting kids to bed, and watching a show. I lay in bed with my eyes closed and the island came back to me, as if filling up spaces in my mind which had been vacant. I need more wild places in my life. My children do too.

7 thoughts on “Antelope Island”

  1. I’m so glad you had such a good time there. Antelope island is one of my favorite places on earth!

  2. Did you see any Neoscona oaxacensis? (Hint: N. oaxacensis is the spider you saw EVERYWHERE ON EVERYTHING out there.) It’s the “Western Spotted Orb Weaver”. I had some good pix up on–I need to revive that site if for no other reason than to get those pix back up.

    There is an entire thriving ecosystem centered on N. oaxacensis out there: the bazillions of dragonflies eat the gajillions of mosquitoes, the zillions of spiders eat the mosquitoes until they graduate to dragonflies, and the millions of birds–you’d know the species better than I–eat the spiders. And there is an entire piggy-back food chain as well: A gigantic population of pepsis wasps–spider-hunters–thrives out there. I don’t know what they eat, but their reproductive cycle depends on the availability of spiders, and their prevalence out there indicates that spider availability is a bottleneck everywhere else.

    The thing that fascinates me is how non-diverse this ecosystem is. In spite of how MANY bugs out there, there is only one species of spider, one species of wasp, and (as far as I could tell) only one species of bird. Dragonflies were another story–because they are strong fliers, their populations mix freely with the mainland and they are hugely diverse. (The birds should speciate robustly for the same reason, and I don’t know why they don’t–communal territorialism, perhaps?) [Also note that I did see another species of spider and a couple species of birds, but I literally saw thousands of N. oaxacensis and only one single solitare Argiope aurantia during my entire visit last year. And though I am hardly a professional entomologist, I was looking.]

    Anyway! Antelope Island! A magical place indeed! I never even looked at the water or geology. We went with different eyes. Thank you for sharing your sights!

    1. Oh fascinating. I did not see any spiders at all and maybe one dragonfly. There were frosts in the past few weeks so I wonder if they’ve gone into winter mode. The chukars are the little ground birds, but I saw dozens of different kinds. The pamphlet/map said that over 200 bird species stop by the island at various points in the year. Different eyes indeed. I’ll have to look for spiders and dragonflies next time.

      1. Oh WOW. Okay, I’m trying to imagine the visitor’s center NOT covered in a halloween freak-show of spiderwebs, and I just can’t do it. Hah! Maybe Liz and I need to drive up there just to see it. They’re bioengineered to withstand nighttime frosts without closing up shop during the day. There is a fascinating ecological, geotemporal niche in Utah which will give a bug an extra month of daytime breeding and feeding in temperatures in the 60’s (mid teens, Canada)… as long as they can survive nighttime lows in the high 20’s (about -4°C, Canada). As a result, many desert insect species have evolved cryostatic compounds–they literally have antifreeze in their blood. They could have packed in, however, especially if the nights out there are colder or the prey species have mostly died off. How was the mosquito population? We had to slather on the Off to prevent instant dessication.

        By the way, the “literal” in “literally thousands” was not hyperbole. The visitor’s center bends in a little L-shape, and the inner crook of the L was solid webbing, 3m high by 6m deep by 10m long, and just that section held maybe 200-500 spiders (Neoscona is a semisocial spider, when population pressures are great, they build communal webs).

  3. Mid-autumn, iirc. Late august, maybe. It was pleasantly warm during the day out there, maybe 80 degrees. Then again, maybe it was later than your visit, because the bison had all be rounded up for the winter.

    I recall looking out through the bay window at the hundreds upon hundreds of spiders, and noticing one very close to the glass and not at all tinted… I walked to the side and looked along the window and realized that she had gotten inside the visitor’s center, and had spun a web that spanned the entire 2m x 4m window, just an inch off the glass. I don’t know how many insects ever made it into the visitor’s center, but they’d have headed to a light source–and become lunch. She was full grown and fat, so I imagine she was well-fed. 🙂

    A family was touring next to me and one of the kids got nose-to-mandible with her and I had to step in and point out that she wasn’t on the other side of the glass. This caused the child to jerk back just as mom was wandering back over, so to prevent her “Stranger Danger” instincts from kicking in I went into lecture mode and told her and her kids (now raptly peering at the spider from a comfortable distance) about the spider and how it fit into the ecology. It was fun, because I turned the creepy everywhere-spiders into something really cool for the kids. They were pretty rambunctious in the Center, and I’m guessing they were disappointed by not getting to see any bison, so I’m glad I got to Save The Trip for them by showing them something cool in the creepy crawlies.

  4. I grew up in Syracuse, so I completely understand your love of Antelope Island. I love how it only takes a few minutes to get completely out of the city and land on this well, island, of solitude.

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