Bottling A Cure
I’ve always thought that because of my Norwegian heritage, my body has an affinity for the sea. Living in California, I was always close to my source, and my body never experienced a single symptom. But once I moved to a landlocked state, my body seemed to crave the salinity so available to my ancestors.
This may be a mythology of my own making but it’s one I have relied on throughout my life. Whenever I swim in a warm ocean, my body feels healed―as though I’ve been dipped in the waters of the River Styx. My aches and pains are long gone, my mind is clear, and I feel as though I can float.
When I’ve gone too long without the sea, I often have to replicate its effects. When my muscles ache, I soak them in a bath of Epsom salts. When my hips tighten up, I rub them with magnesium lotions. When I suffer from migraine headaches, I use a Neti pot to soothe my sinuses. Even my larger ailments have been healed with a dash of salt.
I once developed the underpinnings of hypothyroidism―and healed them by adding trace minerals to my water. When a bone in my left foot became fractured at the same time that my teeth began to show signs of gum disease, I took calcium and magnesium supplements and ate phosphorus-rich foods to bring my bone density back into balance.
Eventually, after paying $79 to soak in a float tank filled with 2,000 pounds of Epsom salts in an effort to soothe my aching muscles and joints, I came to a revelation. My body is made for the sea, and I live in a state that contains one.
I have lived in Salt Lake City for four years, and yet―until I wrote this article―I never swam in the Great Salt Lake. Everyone told me not to. The mosquitoes, they wax. The smell, they wane. But apart from a camping trip to Antelope Island during which I was neither accosted by mosquitoes nor assaulted by an odor, I never really tested the waters on my own.
But I wanted to. On the wall of my office is a picture dated 1900. In it, some 50-60 people bob next to a buoy that reads “try to sink.” They’re wearing old fashioned swimsuits and bathing caps and the first iteration of the Saltair looms behind them, the very portrait of an exultant summer getaway. It was a swimming destination then. Why isn’t it now?
Dr. Jeff Nichols is a professor of history at Westminster College, and he’s just as nostalgic for the way the lake once was. “The train would take you right out onto the pier. It was exciting!” he tells me. “On a beautiful summer day, you go out there and you’re in the middle of the lake, far from the shore… Saltair had bathhouses, a big dance floor―the biggest in the world, they claimed. They had amusement park rides, they had bullfights, they had pilots fly over the lake. They even had a saloon and sold beer.”
Before automobiles became de rigeur, a steamboat took city dwellers to the eastern shore for a variety of recreational activities. There John W. Young―a son of Brigham Young―built Lake Side Resort in 1870. Eventually, the train wrapped all the way around the south shore, where the larger Lake Point Resort featured a 40-room hotel and sandy beaches. Black Rock Resort also made an entrance, as did Lake Shore. Finally, in 1893, Saltair created its getaway right on the water and eclipsed them all.
But the draw wasn’t just the recreation, it was the swimming―and the purported health benefits of bathing in such potent waters. Hot springs dotted the eastern shore, drawing from a natural sulfur spring discovered at the base of Ensign Peak. Brigham Young and fellow pioneer Thomas Bullock dug out the spring, built a public bathhouse around it, and planted locust trees nearby. Wasatch Plunge Springs, as it came to be known, was a popular soaking destination.
“These springs, like the pool of Siloam, heal all who bathe, no matter what their complaints,” Mr. Bullock said at the time. “Oh, what a blessing for the rheumatic; cramps, sprains, bruises, itch, every skin disease, and almost every complaint will here be healed.”
But things changed. Shifting tides meant resorts were no longer as lakeside as they originally intended to be. “Lake Park went under, Garfield Beach burned down in 1904. Saltair burned down in 1925. The hot springs and bathhouses were paved over. They plumbed under the road and put quarries and strip joints on top of them. It’s known as Beck Street now,” says Dr. Nichols.
There have been minor resurgences since the glory days of the Great Salt Lake. In the 1960s and 70s, a man by the name of John Silver tried to compensate for the changing tides by taking people on day excursions to the Black Rock coast―wherever it happened to reside that day. “He had a dune buggy, umbrellas, and a moveable cabana,” Dr. Nichols says. “But when eventually he died, so too did his idea.”
An Inland Sea
It’s not just the waning shorelines that caused the lake’s decline, it’s the water as well. When I began writing this article, I thought I’d rediscover an inland sea where I could bathe my body in healing waters and soothe my skin on salted sand. Instead, a grim reality lapped up against those illusory shores.
Dr. Bonnie Baxter is a professor of biology at Westminster College and the director of the Great Salt Lake Institute. She’s been studying the biology of the lake for 21 years. Mining, she says, has been the greatest detriment to the lake. “It’s loaded with heavy metals,” she says. “The Great Salt Lake has the highest mercury level in the west.
“Kennecott discharges into the lake too, but I don’t want to single them out because sewage goes into it as well. Human waste goes into the lake. It gets treated, but not at the level it would have to be if it were going into freshwater with fish in it. Then there are a huge amount of prescription drugs such as antidepressants and birth control in the water.”
Dr. Baxter doesn’t believe the heavy metal content is high enough to affect swimmers in the lake, and that is, indeed, the official party line, but Dr. Mark Schauss, a medical researcher who has been studying the effects of minerals on the body for more than 30 years, disagrees. “I wouldn’t swim in the Great Salt Lake,” he says. “Certain areas are very high in mercury, and any amount of mercury is going to damage the brain.”
It’s true. The Great Salt Lake actually contains the nation’s highest levels of methylmercury. And while it’s at its greatest concentration―25 nanograms per liter of water―at depths of 20 feet or below, it can also be found at concentrations of up to 6.43 nanograms per liter in less than 10 feet of water. According to the World Health Organization: “Exposure to mercury―even small amounts―may cause serious health problems.” Most prevalently severe neurological issues, brain damage, and even death.
A Modern Miracle
Despite the toxins now poisoning our lake, it still contains a number of minerals our bodies need. Salt, for one, is crucial to the wellbeing of our bodies. It regulates fluid balance in our cells and nerve impulses in our bodies. Maintaining that perfect balance of water to electrolytes enables our lungs to breathe, our hearts to beat, and our stomachs to digest. But sodium chloride is only one mineral our bodies need to function optimally―and most of us are getting the recommended 2,300 milligrams daily already.
Potassium, on the other hand, is something we really need to worry about. According to Dr. Schauss, our bodies require a two-to-one ratio of potassium to sodium―and at least 4,700 milligrams each day. Though we have more than enough sodium, 93 percent of Americans aren’t getting enough potassium. As a result, muscle tightness, cramping, tension, depression, and anxiety reign supreme.
After the salt/potassium balance, Dr. Schauss believes magnesium and zinc are the third and fourth most crucial minerals to the body with iodine and selenium following quickly behind. Magnesium, is essential for heart health, bone health, and insulin regulation and our bodies require 250-400 milligrams each day. “There was a study in Germany,” he says, “that showed that, if they just added a couple hundred milligrams of magnesium to men’s diets every day as a supplement, they would reduce the cost of coronary heart disease by something like $500 billion over 20 years.”
Then there’s zinc which affects cognitive function and immune system responses, phosphorus which keeps our bones and teeth healthy, and iodine and selenium which are essential for the creation of thyroid hormones. Scientists have even dubbed selenium the “anti-cancer nutrient” after several studies found that communities with selenium-rich soils were less likely to develop cancer than communities with selenium-depleted soils.
“Selenium depletion and iodine depletion can lead to hypothyroidism which affects 35 percent of Americans,” says Dr. Schauss. “And the rate of hypothyroidism and iodine deficiency-caused goiter has tripled since 1970.”
The problem is―despite the fact that our bodies require only trace amounts of minerals―we’re not getting enough. Minerals are created when rocks break down into the soil―which means we typically ingest them by eating foods grown in mineral-rich soils. Unfortunately, over the past 50 years, there has been a documented decline in the mineral content of soil―largely due to modern agricultural methods.
According to the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 43 fruits and vegetables saw declines in the amount of calcium, phosphorus, and iron, over the past half-century. In his research at Washington State University and the University of Washington, Dr. Schauss found a deep decline in minerality. “Looking at the soil mineral levels over the decades, it looked like it had dropped off a cliff from the 30s until the 60s… and this is happening globally.”
And if we can’t get minerals by swimming in the Great Salt Lake, or by eating foods from our soil, our only hope is to get them through supplementation.
Bottling A Cure
The remnants of Lake Bonneville passed down to us an inheritance, and despite our best attempts at toxifying it, there are still parts that remain pure and untainted by the reaches of humanity. One such place is a stretch along the north shore, where the water has been separated from the greater lake by the Southern Pacific Railroad Causeway, keeping it relatively free from the heavy metals and sewage that contaminate the deeper parts of the Great Salt Lake.
It is there that Trace Minerals Research built their mineral harvesting facility and harvest minerals from a channel containing high levels of ionic magnesium and other trace minerals. These minerals are piped from the bottom of the channel into evaporation ponds where they are tested for heavy metals and other contaminants internally as well as by third-party laboratories.
The result is a solution called ConcenTrace, which contains extremely high doses of magnesium―250 milligrams per half teaspoon―as well as more than 72 other naturally occurring trace minerals. The solution is virtually free of heavy metals, with only 0.009 parts per million of mercury and a contamination profile that more than conforms to EPA standards. (According to the EPA, the allowable amount of mercury is 0.1 parts per million).
But the Great Salt Lake is only one vein of many mineral-rich deposits beneath Utah’s crust. Just past the far reaches of Lake Bonneville in Redmond, Utah, there remain untouched, pure mineral deposits, the remnants of the long-forgotten Sundance Sea. Though it spans throughout the west, and up into Canada, the salt draws closest to the Earth’s surface in central Utah, where Native Americans had been harvesting it for years.
More than a thousand years ago, Ancestral Puebloans gathered salt from Redmond and carried it by foot to the cliff dwellings where they lived in Mesa Verde. The Fremont people did so as well, often trading it with their Coloradan counterparts. Then in the late 1800s, pioneers began to settle the land and there noticed Native Americans, as well as animals, frequenting the area.
Darryl Bosshardt’s ancestors were such pioneers. After noticing deep deposits of bentonite clay on their property, they began using it as a salve for wounds, boils, and other ailments. But it was Mr. Bosshardt’s grandfather who finally decided to pull up his farm to see what lie beneath the clay. Thirty feet below the surface, he found a beautiful pink salt, sparkling with the light of more than 60 trace minerals―and his salt business was born.
Mr. Bosshardt is now in business development for Redmond, the salt company his grandfather founded more than 70 years prior, and he took me to see his family farm where it all began. Kyle, another Bosshardt who worked in the Redmond mine for more than 22 years―as did his father before him―acted as our guide, taking us 450 feet below the Earth into a mine made of pure salt.
Unlike traditional mining where silica can cause miners to develop irreparable lung damage, salt miners experience quite the opposite effect. “There’s actually known health benefits of breathing just the slightest little bit of salt dust into your respiratory system,” Kyle says. “Salt is water-soluble, so as you breathe salt into your lungs, it turns to solution and nothing stays solid and does damage. In fact, it actually cleans your respiratory system and kills any bacteria.”
I can feel it. The air is cool and clean, as the sea might feel if you could breathe it. There is a darkness deeper than I’ve ever known, and a silence more absolute than I’ve ever experienced. It’s as though I’ve been transported to a time more tranquil than this one, and I want nothing else but to fall asleep in the cavern, enveloped by the most serene sleep.
I mentioned as much to our guide. “I hate to admit this in front of Darryl,” he says. “But I have taken a nap down here. With the temperatures and the dark, what better nap conditions could you find?”
Unlike much of the world we live in, the salt mine is unpolluted―by anything. Not even the sight of the stars or the sound of the wind. There is just pure, unadulterated peace. “Tell me, which would you rather put on your table and eat,” Kyle asks. “Something that’s been under the Earth, protected from any pollutants for more than 150 million years―when there wasn’t any pollutants―or something that is evaporated off our oceans today? This is as pure as you can possibly get.”
As I’m standing in a cavern of salt, I’m allowed to lick the wall. Table salt, by definition, must contain 97 percent sodium chloride―and most salt companies fill the other three percent with caking agents and fillers that form a harsh tang on the tongue. But the wall is marbled with thick black ribbons of manganese and bright red flames of iron―the remnants of a time long ago past. It tastes sweet. Like a dream.
Perhaps I was made for the sea, I think, just a far more ancient one.
Photographs for this piece were shot by Cam Mcleod.