One of the great unanswerable questions of U.S. geography is: exactly where does "The West" begin?" On the South Dakota border, there's a lake that could be used to make a case for Minnesota as the gateway to the West. It has more in common with the land of cowboys and cattle than any of Minnesota's other 10,000-plus lakes.
ON THE MINNESOTA-SOUTH DAKOTA BORDER, near the town of Marietta, a light south wind ruffles the water of a marshy-looking lake. Shore birds pick at the muddy beach for a snack and bees search for nectar in the stands of grass and flowers growing along the water's edge.
Salt Lake is a third as salty as the ocean and it supports an assortment of life not usually found in the state. Salt grasses grow along the water's edge and in the lake itself.
A close look at the thin strip of dried mud flats surrounding the lake reveals what makes this lake different. Like powdered sugar on a brownie, the dark mud is dusted by a layer of white. Oddly enough for Minnesota, that layer is salt.
Avid bird watcher and outdoor enthusiast Goodman Larson has spent a lifetime studying Salt Lake. He was born in Marietta, though he now lives in the Twin Cities. He still owns a farm near Salt Lake and treasures the times he can visit. The lake is, at most, four feet deep, but Larson says it frequently dries up in drought cycles.
"On dry years, it looked like the place was burning, with the wind blowing the white salt off Salt Lake," Larson said.
Brine water lakes become more and more common the further west you go in the U.S. This Minnesota example is a third as salty as the ocean and it supports an assortment of life not usually found in the state. Salt grasses grow along the water's edge and in the lake itself.
"I remember taking a plankton net out in the water and the plankton net at the end has a test tube so they concentrate the plankton in that test tube. It was pink from the brine shrimp that are found here."
Goodman's son, Ken Larson, volunteers to taste the water of Salt Lake.
"It just tastes like very soft water, without that harder mineral content," he says.
Goodman and Ken Larson stand in front of Salt Lake.
The salt in Salt Lake is a natural by-product of the alkaline soils surrounding it. Brad Olson, who works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says runoff from nearby farm fields carries all sorts of things into the lake, including the salt trapped in the soil.
"This particular basin doesn't have a natural outlet so whatever's coming in, stays here, and the only water that we're losing is through evaporation and filtration down into the soil," Olson said.
But only the water evaporates, any minerals in it, like salt, are left behind. It's this centuries-old process of runoff and evaporation that has concentrated salt in the lake. For both Goodman and Ken Larson, the best thing about the area are the birds attracted by the brine-water food. Of those birds you can observe shore birds like avocets, willets and all sorts of ducks like the canvasback, gadwall and shoveler. Canada geese are also regular visitors.
In the prairie grasses surrounding the lake, the Larsons peer through a spotting scope hoping for a surprise.
Salt Lake is well known among Minnesota birders as a great place to see prairie and salt water birds not seen elsewhere in the state. Ken Larson, however, says that's only a part of the attraction.
"It's extremely charming, it's extremely picturesque. It's great for birding, but it's so beautiful and so quiet out here."
The busiest time for visitors at the lake is probably spring, when birdwatchers, armed with binoculars and spotting scopes turn out to see what sort of rare treasures the annual migration bring to the lake. The birders even helped pay for a wood observation deck on the east side of the lake. All the better to view a body of water that's truly one-of-a-kind in the land of 10,000 lakes.