Wharton: Paying a visit to an old friend — Farmington Bay

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Farmington Bay • I paid a visit to an old friend the other day.

That would be the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, an 18,000-acre expanse of marsh, wetlands, mud flats, salt water and dikes located so close to Salt Lake City and bustling Davis County that a visitor can hear the slight roar of civilization if he listens close enough.

I don't know when I first visited this place. Perhaps I came here with my father to hunt pheasants in the upland areas. I often covered duck hunt openers here. At one time, several thousand hunters would line the dike, shooting at any poor bird that happened to pass. Once, I took a Korean visitor who watched the scene in amusement. He especially enjoyed watching my Labrador retrieve errant ducks from hunters who had no intention of going into the muddy water.

On another frigid late fall early morning, a wildlife biologist and hunter invited me to watch the sun rise over the Wasatch. He used a contraption called a coffin that was anchored into the mud as a blind. I had my own, and watched the wild scene in amazement. There were several million people living only a few miles away, yet the primeval sounds of birds coupled with the Wasatch range reflecting in the shimmering water was something not ever to be forgotten.

I got serious about learning about the Great Salt Lake and its marshes in 1991, when I headed a yearlong Tribune project to examine all aspects of the lake. I learned about the history of this place, first built in 1935 with help from the Civilian Conservation Corps. I explored it with airboats, on foot and on bus tours, slowly learning to identify birds such as phalaropes, stilts, avocets, great blue herons, pelicans and a variety of birds of prey that call it home at least part of the year.

Standing on Goose Egg Island, I read the well worn sign designating this as a place of hemispheric importance for shorebirds. I felt a touch of pride looking at a design of a bird on top of the western hemisphere map designed by my old friend Mark Knudsen as part of our Great Salt Lake Project more than 20 years ago.

On the last walk I ever took with my mother-in-law before she died, my daughter and granddaughter joined us on the new nature boardwalk, strolling to a little blind where we hoped to see some birds. Four generations enjoyed the scenery, the easy walk and the wildlife without paying a nickel in entrance fees.

I took field trips with school kids here as well as on a Great Salt Lake Bird Festival behind-the-gates tour.

On one brutally cold winter day, I counted more than 150 bald eagles on the frozen water, looking for carp in the patches of open water near the dikes. Photographers with long lenses lined up along the dike as if they were waiting for a drive-in movie to begin.

On this day, though, I experienced a first. As far as I can see, I am the only human on Farmington Bay, at least for 15 or 20 minutes until another single birder approached just as I left trying to beat the 5 p.m. gate closure. This is the only time I've ever been alone here.

Shutting off the truck and just observing, I savored the sounds, smells and colors. I waded through the high weeds to read some of the kiosks. I listened for birds and try to get the cobwebs out while attempting to identify the birds using the shallow ponds. There were so many colors of tan and brown surrounding me that I could exhaust all the words in a thesaurus and still not do the scene justice.

The contrasts were so great. The bustling civilization and traffic to the east, the wild scene of open space to the west. The distant roar of the freeway combined with the more primeval sound of the birds.

I only paid a brief visit to my old friend, Farmington Bay. As it always does, it left me relaxed, inspired and more than a little awed about a natural world most of us take for granted.


Twitter @tribtomwharton