Tourists no longer bob like corks in the Great Salt Lake here, as they did for decades. Ever since Brigham Young led a party of bathers here back in 1847, visitors have wandered onto the barren beaches to experience the extraordinary buoyancy of the salt waters, where no drowning has ever been recorded.
But flies, acrid smoke from a nearby copper shelter and the fluctuations in the lake's shoreline have long thwarted entrepreneurs' visions of drawing tourists to this giant liquid mine laced with $8 billion in minerals and chemicals.
This summer, however, Utah has been pressing ahead with plans to extend water and sewer lines along the lake's south shore, and some groups are proposing recreational developments ranging from a few kiddie rides to a $78-million theme park and vacation development.
In addition, the state legislature has appropriated $3.2 million to buy Antelope Island, the 18-mile-long mountain in the lake's southeast corner. Except for a couple of simple homes and seasonal herds of cattle and buffalo, the 25,000-acre island has been untouched by man even though it is less than a dozen miles from the Mormon Temple at the center of Salt Lake City.
State parks and recreation officials believe the island could become an extremely popular camping area for nearby residents; particularly if gasoline prices discourage long trips. And public use of Antelope Island, they hope, would also spur recreational developments along the south shore. Still, there is much that should intrigue travelers in the odd lore of Great Salt Lake:
*Icebergs sometimes form there when fresh water from the Bear River freezes on top of the salt water and warm spring winds pile the ice up. An iceberg in 1942 was 100 feet long and became a temporary winter playground.
*Jean Baptiste, who is said to have robbed 300 graves in the area, was banished to the island by the Mormons in 1862 -- and then mysteriously disappeared.
*Huge waves sometimes break over the top of the trains that cross the lake on a causeway.
*Corpses have been preserved in the lake for months, and hundreds of tons of raw sewage settle on the lake's clay bottom without decomposing because of the salt water's extraordinary preservative qualities.
Today, Great Salt Lake is actually two lakes, divided by the causeway built in 1957 by the Union Pacific Railroad across the remote northern basin. In the smaller northern lake, the water is nearly 27.05 percent salt, the maximum possible. The southern lake, which is two-thirds of the surface area, is about 14 percent salt, or four times that of the open ocean. Water flows between the two lakes through openings in the causeway.
All of the water is dense enough to keep one from sinking, but it takes the thick brine now found only in the northern basin to thrust a bather's arms and legs into the air.
The lake is only one of a number of sources for salt in America, but it is estimated that it contains 4.5 billion tons -- enough to supply the country's needs for food, industry and roads for 250 years. Lithium, potash, magnesium chloride and magnesium are also extracted. The industries on the lake's south shore build huge ponds, using dikes to hold the lake back, and let the water evaporate, leaving the minerals.
But, except for mining, Great Salt Lake has been more nuisance than anything else.
The lake surface today is 4,200 feet above sea level, the same as it was when Young led the Mormon pioneers here. Since 1847 the level has fluctuated from a low of 4,191 feet in the 1870s to a high of 4,211 feet above sea level in the 1960s. The deepest spot in the lake is less than 45 feet.
Although Young feared that the 1,438-square-mile lake might dry up one day, removing its moderating influence on the region's climate, a recent federal report said that is highly unlikely. But the lake level will continue to fluctuate, the report said. The shoreline can move 100 feet in either direction with a one-foot rise or drop in the level.
And that, along with the high salt content of the water, has hampered development of Great Salt Lake as a recreation area. Currently, Del Rowe, a Salt Lake attorney, and Tom Lasko, an industrial engineer, are pushing the state to approve a $78-million venture that would include a theme park built around the lake's geologic past and future. They also want to build a 7,200-acre fresh-water reservoir and put expensive homes on the eight-mile-long dike that would separate the reservoir from the salt lake.
"All, or most all, of the defeats in the past have been the result of the rise and fall of the lake level," said Lasko. "Our proposal would solve that problem because the reservoir level would be stable."
A Los Angeles firm, NGN Enterprises Inc., is proposing a theme park on 81 acres of south shore. The park would involve limited diking, at the company's expense, to create a salt-water bathing area. Herb Nero, the company's executive vice president, said its first phase would cost $22 million.
The state is, however, interested in developments that would bring tourism revenues to Utah. Two years ago the legislature appropriated $3.4 million for the water and sewer line extensions, which reach far beyond the existing airport and industrial park just west of Salt Lake City. And there is the $3.2 million set aside to buy Antelope Island, which is within sight of downtown Salt Lake City.
Gov. Scott M. Matheson has urged public ownership of the island, now owned by a subsidiary of the Anschutz Corp., a Colorado petroleum and coal firm. The subsidiary, Antelope Island Cattle Co., runs cattle on the island but is apparently interested in the possibilities for oil and gas.
John T. Evans, an attorney for the owners, said they are also interested in developing the island as a privately owned but publicly available recreation area, with perhaps some housing.
"There's no question the island is going to be developed," Evans said. "The only question is whether the state or a private firm will do it. I've seen no evidence that the state will do a better job than we would."
The last successful recreational development on Great Salt Lake, other than a small sailboat marina near Silver Sands, was the Saltair resort, where swimmers gathered. The original Saltair, with its giant dance floor and graceful wooden cupolas on a platform in the lake, burned in 1925. It was rebuilt, but a wind storm blew over its wooden roller coaster in 1955, and it went out of business in 1958.
About the only things that live on the lake are seagulls and the rare, shy American white pelicans, which nest on Gunnison Island in the northern basin. Like suburbanites everywhere, the pelicans commute many miles to fresh-water lakes in search of sustenance. The only life in the lake is bacteria and quarter-inch-long brine shrimp.
Remains have been found of camels that roamed the lake shore 25,000 years ago when much of Utah and part of Nevada were covered by Lake Bonneville, a glacial lake that was probably 1,000 feet deep. Bonneville eventually spilled over and a torrent of water four times the volume of the Amazon River blasted down what is now Snake River Canyon on its way to the Pacific. The shrunken remnant is Great Salt Lake. It is salty because it has no outlet to the sea. And each year salt and various minerals wash into it from other mountains; the water evaporates in the heat concentrating the substances even more.
So infused is the lake with salt that the water is an amazing preservative. When a military plane crashed in the lake in the 1940s, it took months to find the wreckage. But when the bodies were finally recovered, the victims looked as if they had died only minutes before.