“The gladdest moment in life me thinks is a departure into unknown Lands”
Sir Richard Burton
Heading west from Black Rock on the Pony Express National Historic Trail, your view is filled by an imposing, rugged range of mountains that comes into view across the barren valley.
These mountains rise precipitously from the waste of the valley floor in stacked cliff shelves up to the summit of 8,523 foot George H. Hansen Peak, the highest point in the Fish Springs Range which is named after a famed Brigham Young University geologist.
This ancient bald peak frowns down on the desolation of Fish Springs Valley, which contains some of the most difficult terrain that the pony rider, emigrant and overland stagecoach had to cross along the journey to California through the West Desert.
The Express Trail heads straight across this wide, flat, valley today but back in the 1860s travelers frequently had to modify their route, detouring many miles south to avoid the deep mud of the sloughs in the center of the valley, depending on conditions of the road and time of year. This section was one of the soggiest, dusty, or bumpy parts of the trail. As Pony Express Rider Howard Ransom Egan put it back in 1862, “It was the worst part of the desert.”
A soldier in Colonel Patrick Edward Connor’s column of California volunteers heading east towards Salt Lake City in 1862 described a messenger arriving at Fish Springs after crossing the valley from Black Rock as follows: “When the correspondent arrived, the sun had well-nigh broiled most of the vigor and all of the patience out of his body, he was very thirsty. If he had a face, a thick stratum of alkali dust rendered it invisible.”
Not much has changed in Fish Springs Valley because if you roll down your vehicle’s windows along this stretch too soon after a stop, you will be enveloped in your own alkali hell and you will be covered as if by volcanic ash from head to toe.
A good rule of thumb in the desert when you stop your vehicle is to wait a few seconds, maybe even 20, to let your dust plume pass you by before you open your door or windows.
The dusty road eventually turns out west to cross the valley directly. The road turns into somewhat of a raised causeway as it crosses the wasteland and enters Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1959.
Tules, tall grasses and cattails appear and grow dense along both sides of the road here. Along this stretch the ominous wall of the Fish Springs Range rises sheer and precipitous above the marsh and it makes a person wonder if it is even possible to get past those mountains.
The contrast between the blue water of the pools and the greenery of the marsh set against the sand blasted, barren and treeless mountains is sharp to the extreme.
If you look closely at the base of Fish Springs Range in several areas you can see triangle shaped deposits of gravel, sand and silt that spread out from the mouths of the barren canyons. These geologic features are called alluvial fans. They are formed when water from cloud bursts or trickles of water from melting snow erodes and picks up debris in the mountain canyons and then deposits those materials in fan-like fashion out into the valley. Alluvial fans are a common sight as you head deeper west into the Great Basin.
Fish Springs is a unique and fascinating place. According to statistics found on the National Wildlife Refuge website, the refuge consists of 17,792 acres, 10,000 of which are wetlands centered on a complex of springs that discharge more than 22,000 acre-feet of water annually. The NWR site also states that the refuge waters are supplied by spring flows that arise under artesian pressure and hydrothermal convection along fracture zones in the Great Basin Carbonate Rock and Alluvial Aquifer.
Very strange to think about how a deep crack in the earth allows all of this water to issue forth in such an unlikely place as this barren corner of the desert. What is also strange to imagine is that during the height of the Lake Bonneville Era, Fish Springs would have been under 850 feet of a fresh water lake and the Fish Springs Range would have been an island. It is something nearly impossible to imagine in this inhospitable desert.
Fish Springs is an oasis for creatures in the desert. Over 250 species of birds frequent and can be found at the refuge. Some stop by during yearly migration along the Mexico to Canada flyway. Others utilize the area for nesting and some of them live there year round. Other creatures such as coyotes, badgers, jack rabbits, muskrats and even giant bullfrogs live in and around the springs.
There is a system of dikes that shore up several very large ponds and there are roadways along the top of these that allow for visitors to get out into the center of the marsh and look for birds and other wildlife.
Even though there is a ton of water here in the desert, most of it is too brackish for human consumption, which was a severe disappointment for travelers who thought they had found heaven after crossing the brutal desert from Simpson Springs.
Similarly, travelers noticed that there were innumerable small fish sporting about in some of the pools but as Capt. James H. Simpson noted during his 1859 visit, “They are very inferior for the dinner table.”
Sir Richard Burton described the marsh in the summer of 1860 and his principle complaint: “The tule, the bayonet grass and the tall rushes enable animals to pass safely over the deep slushy mud, but when the vegetation is well trodden down, horses are in danger of being permanently mired. The principal inconvenience to man is the infectious odor of the foul swamps.”
We who live near the Great Salt Lake in Utah would refer to this as “Lake Stink” which is a malodorous scourge that reminds us once in a while that the prehistoric decay at the bottom of the lake is still present.
Many early visitors to Fish Springs Station also complained of hordes of black flies and mosquitos.
Imagine a time before gravel based roads, bottled water, sunscreen, insect repellant and a vehicle with a full tank of gas that you could use to get yourself very far away from this place after the novelty wore off. Fish Springs must have been a miserable place for the Pony Rider, station keeper and stagecoach traveler back in the day.
The Express Rider would oftentimes fight through these road conditions such as the hideous dust, rocky trail and mud swamps. Upon arrival at the next station, if the next rider was not available, he would have to charge on through to the next home station essentially doubling his 75-100 mile route. A typical route of 100 or so miles would take the rider 10-12 hours to complete. Think of how exhausted you would be only to find that you needed to do a split second change out of the mail pouch and then start another 12 hour shift.
I like to consider the tired stage passengers crowding around a bonfire at Fish Springs station after the horrid crossing of the 40 mile desert under the light of a full moon, or a rider dismounted at times wading through nasty slough to get the mail through. Such was life back in the heyday of the Pony Express & Overland Stage out in Utah’s West Desert.
Even though it was terribly difficult to travel across the West Desert, times such as those must have burned themselves forever into the memories of those who participated in such events.
In next week’s article we will round the north end of the Fish Springs Range, passing by some haunted places where those who came before left the memories of 11,000 years of human occupation that are told of only by the wind that forever blows across the ghost desert.