Salt, Flies, Pickled Tongues: A Perfect Great Salt Lake Swim Open water swimmers in Utah perform weekly marathon swims in water five times saltier than the ocean. They endure blisters, wild currents, a variety of temperatures and water that tastes "like a battery." They treasure the beautiful view and the refuge from boat traffic.

Salt, Flies, Pickled Tongues: A Perfect Great Salt Lake Swim

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. The Great Salt Lake in Utah is, as its name suggests, very salty. It also emits a putrid smell and swarms with brine shrimp and flies. Still, this weekend, several dozen people are expected to race in a swimming marathon out on the Great Salt Lake. And some people swim there regularly. NPR's Howard Berkes tells us why.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: This is a lake so great it covers 1,700 square miles. It's five times saltier than the ocean with storms that bring surf-able waves. It has brine shrimp that swim right into swimsuits and brine flies that fly right into mouths. The Great Salt Lake is the perfect place for a good long swim.

STACEY SCHLUCKEBIER: If you can swim here you can swim pretty much anywhere. You have all the facets of difficult open water, wide variety of temperatures, wide variety of wind direction, currents. And it's fun.

BERKES: Surgical technician Stacey Schluckebier stands in a circle of six swimmers in the parking lot of the Great Salt Lake Marina, about 16 miles west of Salt Lake City. They're all in swimming suits and they like the open water of reservoirs, lakes and even oceans. Once a week, at least, in the fall, winter and spring, they'll dip into this lake and swim from 400 yards to six miles.

GOODY TYLER: It's so huge and boat traffic is light. On a normal day, you're lucky to even see one boat, so it's a very safe place to swim.

BERKES: Safe from jet skis and motor boats, says schoolteacher Goody Tyler. The salt is tough on them and it's also tough on swimmers. Even the taste stands out, says software developer Gordon Gridley, who swam the English Channel last summer.

GORDON GRIDLEY: The Great Salt Lake was like swallowing a battery, whereas swimming in the ocean was like a glass of lemonade.

BERKES: And in some ways, the ocean is easier on the swimmers than the lake.

GRIDLEY: If you swallow the water, that could be potentially hazardous. You could end up throwing your guts up. And I guess the other main thing is getting chaffed because it's so salty. It's almost like sandpaper rubbing against you. And it doesn't take long before you start to get blistered up and, in some case, it's just really, really painful. It burns. So that's why we put the grease on.

BERKES: The grease is a combination of Vaseline and lanolin, and it glistens on the skin of the swimmers as we talk. They learn to breathe through their nostrils while swimming to avoid inhaling lake water. That also helps with brine flies.

GRIDLEY: They'll fly right in your mouth and sometimes right down into your lungs and then you're coughing up, not water, but brine flies.

BERKES: They get so bad in late summer, swimmers take a break from the lake. Still, the nuisances add up to bragging rights, to gnarliness for Salt Lake swimmers.

GRIDLEY: You're hardcore. When you're out here you're hardcore. You're not just a pool swimmer or - you're out here, no wetsuit, you're swimming in the salt, you know. You're the real deal. I think we're going by the boat ramp.

BERKES: And there's nothing hardcore about talking to me in a parking lot. So the swimmers walk down a concrete boat ramp and into the water, dragging inflated bright orange bags so they're easily spotted by sailboats and each other. The other big attraction for doing this is the setting, a vast and stunning inland sea, framed by snowcapped mountain ranges and its own mountainous islands.

TYLER: Swim was good. It felt great.

BERKES: Back at the marina, Goody Tyler rinses off the salt and issues a challenge, a way to sense some of what the swimmers experience without actually slipping on a Speedo and joining them.

TYLER: Go down to the water and just get a handful, put it in your mouth and then spit it out. Just try it.

BERKES: Oh, man, that is salty. Oh.

TYLER: You'll never forget it.

BERKES: I won't. No, I won't. I won't. I haven't. It took a gallon of sweet tea to get rid of that skanky taste, which won't deter the marathon swimmers this Saturday. They'll wade in at a brown and jagged island in the distance. It's eight miles from there to here. That's more than three and a half hours in the brine, enough to begin the curing process.

Last year, after the race, the swimmers stuck out their tongues. The most wrinkled, reddened and pickled flesh won a special prize, a jar of pickles. Howard Berkes, NPR News, at the Great Salt Lake.

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