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Exploring Antelope Island

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Until 1981, the only invitation to Antelope Island was through a friend who knew a rancher who had a friend who talked to another friend of a friend who knew one of the owners. That or get a job punchin' cows or shearin' sheep.

Antelope Island was private property. Keep out.Now there's an open invitation to come and do all those things people like to do in wilderness areas. And yet this wilderness is only a few minutes' drive from a busy traffic light.

Imagine stopping at a pedestrian crossing one minute and a few minutes later watching a 1,300-pound buffalo lope through a meadow that looks the same as it did 1,300 years ago.

And now, because of it, Antelope Island State Park is becoming a recreational mecca.

Once a ranch for cows, sheep, horses and a few free-roaming buffalo, people are now welcome to hike, bike or ride horses. And, on the northern end of the state park, camp, go sailing or swim off the beach in the Great Salt Lake.

Aside from the sparsely developed northern tip of the island, and with the small exception of the historic Fielding Garr Ranch on the southeast side, this remains an original, untouched land.

Currently, under a plan to make the old ranch a focal point of the island, the state is paving the road along the eastern shore leading to the house, barn, bunkhouse and free-flowing spring. Eventually, the spot will be pushed back even more in time. Along with the old buildings, people will dress in clothing of the time to give interpretive programs and even offer wagon and horseback rides.

Fielding Garr was a Mormon pioneer who came to Utah in 1847 and herded cattle on the island. He moved them onto the island across a low-water sandbar on the southern end. He began construction on his ranch house in 1848, using adobe bricks made on-site. As lake waters began to rise, he lost his access to the island.

The LDS Church owned the island until 1872, then sold it to a private ranching interest. It remained a private ranch until 1981, when the state of Utah, which owned a small tip on the north end, purchased the entire island for $4.2 million.

Under private ownership, the operation consisted of about 5,000 head of sheep and about 500 head of cattle. Some 200 acres of wheat were cultivated and hundreds of additional acres of virgin grasses were mowed and baled for hay.

Under state ownership, the island is now home to about 700 buffalo, 195 mule deer, a small herd of antelope, Rocky Mountain bighorn, a few bobcats, coyotes and golden eagles, and a whole bunch of smaller birds.

"What people don't realize," said Tim Smith, park manager for the Division of Parks and Recreation, "is that this island can sustain these animals and more. The island looks dry, but there are 40 major springs. Water is not a problem. Also, we're undertaking an aggressive habitat program to improve range conditions for the animals."

Eventually, plans are to use the island as a breeding ground. When herds get too large, animals would be trapped and moved to other parts of the state. The big advantage is that because this is an island, it is relatively free from the spread of mainland diseases.

Four years ago, the state began to open the island to visitors. A gate was put in the fence near the state's buffalo corrals and people were allowed in to roam specified areas by any method that did not involve an engine.

Currently, there are about 20 miles of trails in a root-like pattern leading from the gate.

Mountain biking is the No. 1 choice of transportation. From the trailhead, bikers can pedal along a flat section near the shoreline or climb into the rugged cliffs along the little-seen western side of the island, past White Rock and Split Rock and Elephant Head, eventually coming out near a point where pioneers - maybe even Garr himself - built a corral out of rocks found there.

The next most popular method of transportation is the horse.

A lot of horse owners like the island because the park is close and "because a large part of the island is primitive," Smith said.

As an added benefit, for those without horse ownership, the DPR has contracted with Ron Brown of R. and G. Outfitters to offer horses for rent.

Brown also has rights to guide riders to any corner of the island that they can get to and back from in a day.

"We don't have overnight rides yet, but we can ride anywhere on the island, depending on the group's riding ability," he said.

"Last week we rode to Frary Point, then to the Frary grave. It's the grave of the only white woman buried on the island," Brown said. "We then rode over the to mulberry trees Brigham Young planted. He planted them to get into the silk worm business. The silk worms didn't make it but the trees did. We then went over the Camera Flats. This is where the first movie was filmed in Utah. It was a silent movie, a western. They got a bunch of the cowboys from the ranch to run the buffalo over the flats.

"Last week, we took a group of bird watchers around the island," Brown said. "They saw meadowlarks, horned larks, red-wing and golden-headed blackbird. They even saw a yellow-top canary. I never knew what kind of bird it was. I learned a lot on that ride."

The most popular ride is from east to west and then back again. It takes about 90 minutes.

Cost is $20 per hour for horse and guide, and $15 per hour for those who only want the guide. The advantage of the guide is the opportunity to ride new areas of the island, not just on the designated trails.

Brown is also offering wagon rides for those people not anxious to straddle a horse to tour the island. With the wagon ride comes his own interpretive programs. He has, on occasion, stopped and cooked buffalo burgers for his customers, dressed his wranglers in clothing of certain eras and even had a re-enactment of a Pony Express ride.

Another lure of this island, Smith said, is its geology.

Currently, the ranch is closed while the road to it is being paved. Plans are to have the road and ranch open in March of 1999. When they do, it will become the center for Brown's operations. Also, when access is better, the DPR plans to open the ranch on a daily basis. For the past few years it has only been open on specific weekends.

And when the ranch opens daily, Smith has plans to build additional trails into the more remote sections of the island.

"What we want to do is change the image some people have of the island. Which is that it is a smelly place with too many brine flies," he said.

"It's much easier to fall in love with it when you can get on the island and see how incredibly beautiful and wonderful it is than simply looking at it from the mainland."

And, of course, the invitation to visit the island is always there.