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Utah Lake story changing with times

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PROVO — The story of Utah Lake began once upon a time in a Precambrian world. But the story of Utah Lake is still being written, whether it is one of disregard, disdain or daily boating trips.

In its history, there are stories of survival, strange speculations on the lake's murkiness and, believe it or not, tales of a Utah Lake Monster.

Along with long-lasting legends come rampant rumors.

And some of those rumors — such as tales about pollutants in the water — keep many Utah Valley folks from venturing near the waters that once fed their pioneer ancestors.

"It's like a liquid carcinogen. It smells, it's too shallow and it's just creepy," says Brigham Young University student Daniel Brathwaite.

After some prodding, he admits he's never personally visited the lake.

"But I've heard lots of stories about how gross it is," says Brathwaite, an avid wakeboarder. "Maybe some people like falling off their board and landing in 2 feet of muddy water. I guess I'm just a lake elitist."

In reality, Brathwaite is just one of many who shun the massive freshwater lake because of its muddy appearance. It didn't always look that way, however.

As the story goes, the lake provided necessary sustenance for a group of Mormon pioneers who fled persecution in other states before arriving in Utah.

Those who settled in Provo were drawn to Utah Lake, which stretches 24 miles north from what is now Goshen to the Jordan River outlet near Saratoga Springs.

Like the American Indians who lived in Utah Valley when pioneers arrived, the Mormon settlers relied on the lake for food. They feasted on the June Sucker, a fish native to Utah Lake that is now on the endangered species list.

Valley residents ate June Sucker and Bonneville cutthroat trout — "so much so that because of poor irrigation practices, overfishing and fishing during the spawning season, the lake was thinned out of trout by 1875," said Provo historian D. Robert Carter.

That didn't stop commercial fishermen and those affected by economic depressions in the 1890s and 1930s from returning to the water for food.

No one complained about the smell of the fish or the water when native tribes, like the Fremont and Ute Indians, hunted for food around Utah Lake.

According to Ute legend, the lake was home to water creatures. At first, it was a story about "water babies" — mythical creatures that "swallowed" people down into the water, where they would become a water creature themselves.

Some said the monster had the head of a greyhound. Others said it looked like a reptile. Later, when the lake was spotted with various resorts — the successful Saratoga that attracted many, as well as the Provona, which closed following flooding — occasional sightings of lake monsters continued.

Today, the story has changed just as much as the lake.

These days, those who visit the lake use it for recreational outings — fishing, waterskiing, wakeboarding or picnicking. And when people talk of creatures in the lake's waters today, they aren't discussing mythical beasts.

They are describing real dangers like pollution, drought and the voracious habits of the carp, all which have degraded the lake's quality.

Though its waters have never been truly clear, algae growth has turned Utah Lake an opaque blue-brown. Years of drought have also taken their toll on the water, making it even more shallow and even more difficult for boats to maneuver.

Carter, for one, vows to promote the present-day lake and improve its current condition — so that Utah won't stop adding pages to the lake's story.

And so that the lake and its neighbors will live, well, happily ever after.

Note: This is the first of a periodic series of stories about Utah Lake.

E-mail: lwarner@desnews.com