Emily Barnes, my favorite pioneer foodie, noted that her father William Stewart took hams to the Great Salt Lake to be salted for preservation. She grew up in what we might call West Kaysville today, in the 1850s.
So I thought I should try gathering salt at the Great Salt Lake myself. I tried this endeavor once ten years ago (or so) with a group of friends. We went to Antelope Island and built a fire near the lake shore. We had two large kettles in which we boiled the lake water to reduce it to salt. We worked for several hours, and came up with about two pounds to split between six or eight of us. I didn't think it was a striking success.
The Great Salt Lake is salty because it has no outflow. The Bear, Weber and Jordan Rivers flow into the lake on it's eastern shores, as well as numerous smaller tributaries from the canyons along the Wasatch Front. These streams all carry diverse minerals to the lake, but primarily salt.
Naturally the salinity of the lake is lowest where these freshwater streams feed into the lake. Salinity levels along the Wasatch Front tend to hover around 5%, fluctuating with seasonal run-off and drought cycles. When drought conditions are in effect, salinity is considerably higher. When spring run-off hits the lake, salinity drops.
The Great Salt Lake has been impacted by human inventions in the 20th century. Artificial divisions in the lake seperate the freshwater inlets from the north arm of the lake. The Antelope Island causeway and UPRR causeway both prevent free interchange of the lake's waters, causing a dramatic difference in salinity levels in various parts of the lake. In the north arm of the lake, salinity levels reach more than 20%.
Last week I thought that if I were to gather salt, I ought to go to that 20%. Wife, friends and I drove up to the north end of the lake to see the Spiral Jetty. This modern art installation is world famous. Black volcanic rock marks the shoreline of the lake. In the 1970s artist Robert Smithson used tons of this volcanic rock to make a jetty out into the lake, in the shape of a spiral. It's dimensions are enormous, running 1500 feet long. Contrasted against the white salt plains it is impressive.
To get there we drove first to the Golden Spike National Monument, west of Brigham City, and then carried on west on a dirt road for about twelve miles. The road is easily traversible in a road-worthy sedan, but the last quarter-mile is treacherous and should be walked.
Once on the salt plains we realized we had come somewhat unprepared. I brought a five-gallon bucket, thinking we could just scoop the salt up with our hands. Instead we found the salt was cemented in broad, flat, hard-as-rocks sheets. This salt was also often covered in tiny brine flies or their carcasses, and often came with particles of oolitic sand included. When we tried scooping with our hands, we came away with cuts from the sharp edges. Thereafter salt continued to sting these cuts.
Our best success was in going out into the shallow water. There, the salt formed in large, blocky halite crystals. The water kept the salt somewhat softer and we found we could break these crystals off. This required dipping our scarred, bloody hands into the salt water. Ouch! We ended up gathering about three pounds of it.
Today, here at home, we're bottling the sauerkraut. Some of the bottles need just a little more brine, so we mixed up extra using 2Tbs. salt from the lake with 1 quart water. This just covers the kraut in the bottles. The nice thing about this lake salt is that it doesn't come with iodine. The crystals are pure. Iodized salt tends to soften and discolor bottled preserves like kraut and pickles. The kraut turned out perfect, by the way. Last year's kraut was just a little too salty, so we were more careful in measuring this time.
Salt. Who'da thunk about such a fundamental food ingredient from pioneer perspective?