People from around the country flock to the Great Salt Lake for a swim

‘You either love it or you hate it, there’s no in between,’ one swimmer says

Forget about the bugs. They are only with you for a little bit on this journey.

As intrepid water enthusiasts took to the dwindling waters of the Great Salt Lake last weekend for the annual open swim — some from as far away as Alaska — they were keenly aware of the uniquely attractive, and alternately dreadful challenge they faced: salt.

Great Salt Lake Collaborative

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

“I mean, heaven forbid you get any of it in your eyes. That would be a nightmare,” said Rachel Wagner, who has done the mile swim for five years. “You have to make sure you have really good goggles ... so it is really challenging.”

The Great Salt Lake Open Swim is an annual event attracting open swim fans from around the country who relish a chance to experience the buoyant, briny water of the Western hemisphere’s largest terminal salt water lake, right here in Utah.

“Some of my friends call it the devil lake, but I love it. There are so many challenging things about the Great Salt Lake. When you finish it, it makes you feel all the better,” Wagner said.

Swimmers run to deeper water during the 1-mile open swim competition at Great Salt Lake State Park in Magna on Saturday, June 11, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Recapturing history

Josh Green, who grew up in Davis County and now lives in Millcreek, has been an open swim enthusiast for years — a sport in which swimmers take to natural bodies of water and use markers to guide their course.

He and a friend were reading a local newspaper story heralding the heyday of the Great Salt Lake, detailing when swimming was a big “thing” at the salty body of water.

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“Both of us grew up in Utah and just never, ever thought about swimming in the Great Salt Lake and there’s a lot of negative stereotypes or ideas about what the lake is,” Green said. “So we decided to give it a try and we swam out from Antelope Island one day and we were totally hooked. So we decided to resurrect what was done in the 1920s.”

The Great Salt Lake Open Swim has happened 11 of the last 12 years — with one pause due to COVID-19.

“It’s attracting people from all over the country, with other open swimmers who come to try it just because it is a unique experience. We’ve had some from Alaska this year, Florida. We’ve had people come from New York, from Hawaii and like everywhere in between from coast to coast who have come and swam with us over the years.”

Competitors wait for the start of a 10K open swim competition at Great Salt Lake State Park in Magna on Saturday, June 11, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Green said the Great Salt Lake is this big, incredible draw because it is so distinct.

“They’re all excited to try it because it is so unique and we can’t really do this anywhere else and have this kind of experience.”

But Green and others in the group worry this year may have been the last for the open swim event due the drought-challenged lake, which dipped to its lowest recorded level last October and is expected to diminish even more by this fall. The course had to be changed this year from the marina because of the extremely low lake levels.

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“I haven’t seen a lot of news about the recreation on the Great Salt Lake,” Green said. “We hear about the stuff that gets kicked up with the dust, the brine shrimp industry and the birds, but not a lot about what happens to people who recreate on the lake.”

Green said the lake is a separate story for everyone.

“It affects a lot of people in different ways. Growing up, there was this idea that it’s just a smelly lake and there are a lot of bugs and that is all there is to it. But when you get 100 yards off, all the bugs are gone and it is like being in the ocean.”

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A family tradition

The Great Salt Lake is part of the fabric of the Les Bullock family from Sandy.

“It’s become a family tradition over the last five to six years,” Bullock says, talking about the Great Salt Lake Open Swim and how his children, Makenzie, 18, and Zachary, 20, participate.

His children are active swimmers, and the Great Salt Lake added a new dimension to their athleticism and joy of water.

“It is really one in a million. There is not anywhere in the world that compares to the Great Salt Lake other than the Dead Sea and you would have to go to the other side of the world for that,” he said. “The Great Salt Lake definitely has a draw throughout the world.”

Rock of ages

Ted Taylor, a chatty teacher at Cedar Valley High School and volunteer chaplain at the Orem Fire Department, hopes state leaders find a solution to the ailing Great Salt Lake.

“I think it is a great asset. There are lots of recreational opportunities, environmentally it is this gigantic ecosystem and all that is changing because of drought.”

Taylor is an avid swimmer — being in the water is his “happy” place.

Ted Taylor, of Pleasant Grove, smiles after competing in the 1-mile open swim competition at theGreat Salt Lake State Park in Magna on Saturday, June 11, 2022. This was Taylor’s third time competing in the race. An Orem fire department chaplain and teacher at Cedar Valley High School, Taylor competes in the race to set an example for his students. Three of students competed with Taylor last year; he beat all three of them. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“The lake was fantastic. I enjoy swimming in the Great Salt Lake,” he said. “This year’s swim was the best they have ever had.”

Because of the drought, Taylor said the swim was strangely enlightening.

“We had to switch course because it was so low and I saw rocks I had never seen before. They were like islands. I’d never seen those rocks.”

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Planning for the future

Taylor talked to the Deseret News after a daily swim on Thursday. It’s his passion to stay in shape, feel good and keep healthy.

Wagner said she is a “slow” swimmer and simply competes against herself when she swims in the Great Salt Lake Open Swim — she just wants to be there and finish.

Rachel Wagner celebrates after completing in the 1-mile open swim competition at Great Salt Lake State Park in Magna on Saturday, June 11, 2022. This was Wagner’s sixth time competing in the race. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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Bulloch is proud his two children are experiencing this unique Western hemisphere asset, staying healthy and expanding their swimming experience.

Green wants to keep the Great Salt Lake Open Swim going. The lake levels are challenging and who knows what the drought will bring, but he does know the Great Salt Lake offers a unique experience like no other — with the brine, the flies, the “float” and the collective “oh wow” factor.

“You know, by the time you finish the 10K in the Great Salt Lake, you either love it or hate it. There is no in between,” he said. “The salt really affects people’s mouths for being that long in the water, but there are some people who really love it.”

Phyllis Camilleri and Jack Deibert, of Tennessee, remark about having a swollen tongue and salty taste in their mouth after competing in a 1-mile open swim competition at Great Salt Lake State Park on Saturday, June 11, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported that Ted Taylor was a teacher at Cedar Hills High School instead of Cedar Valley High School.

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