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Salt of the Earth

Valued since ancient times by humans and wildlife, salt lakes remain one of South Texas’ oddest natural marvels.

By Eileen Mattei

The glistening white surface crunched underfoot like corn flakes. With each step under the Valley sun, my shoes cracked through the salt crust, sinking deeper as I walked closer to the open water of La Sal del Rey. Dead bees, butterflies and walking sticks dotted the solid salt pushed into tiny ridges by the wind. Ahead of me, hundreds of long-billed curlews foraged for brine shrimp. Behind me, my footprints filled rapidly with brine. When the warm slush rose to my ankles, I turned back.

On higher, drier ground, nilgai and deer hooves had left sharp-edged indentations near tiny ballerina marks of javelinas, each print was topped with a glittering layer of salt crystals. What looked like mudpies with white-frosted sides were piles of scat being desiccated by salt.

Up to 10 times saltier than the ocean, La Sal del Rey is a hypersaline lake sitting over a solid dome of salt estimated at 4 million tons. Exactly how the massive salt deposit originally formed remains unknown, but it is probably a remnant of an ancient seabed. With salt crystals that are 99 percent pure sodium chloride, it is the most famous of the dozen or so salt lakes found across South Texas. These natural mineral licks attract herds of cattle, and the brine shrimp draw flocks of shorebirds and waterfowl to nest, roost and stop over on migrations.

Exploited by tribes north and south of the Rio Grande before the first Europeans ventured to the New World, La Sal del Rey, or the King’s Salt, covers about 380 acres in Hidalgo County. Also known as El Sal del Rey and La Purificacion, the salt lake was the destination of an ancient salt trail and a critical supply point and military objective during the Civil War. More important today, La Sal del Rey was the catalyst for an 1866 Texas constitutional amendment that turned over mineral rights to property owners and took them away from the government, which by law and custom in Texas had controlled all minerals until then.

Also known as El Sal del Rey and La Purificacion, the salt lake was the destination of an ancient salt trail and a critical supply point and military objective during the Civil War.

Salt was once linked to power and wealth, a prized mineral because it is an essential human nutrient and crucial for preserving meat, fish and hides. In 1798, Spanish army Captain Juan Jose Ballí was awarded the San Salvador de Tule land grant including La Sal del Rey, which the Spanish had already mined for 40 years, and nearby La Sal Vieja. By law, the King of Spain received a royalty or tax of 20 percent of the salt mined there. Salineros or salt miners came from Mexico with trains of pack mules or ox carts. The salt was shoveled loose, dried briefly on the shore, and then packed into bags to be hauled away. Spanish ships that brought supplies to the Americas returned home with loads of salt and other precious minerals.

The ancient tracks of the salt-laden carts are still visible today on undisturbed land since salt that dribbled from the bags poisoned the ground, according to Elouise Campbell. Her family owned the 5,384-acre El Sal del Rey ranch for 40 years until selling it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1992. “I can picture those conquistadores coming out of the brush, spotting this huge white lake and thinking it was snow,” Campbell says. “They must have tasted it and claimed it for the king.” Before that, Indian tribes considered it neutral ground, a place to peacefully harvest the salt used to cure hides. In Raymondville, 18 miles to the east, a pocket park commemorates the old salt road with a mural of salteros loading bags of salt onto wooden carts. A big-wheeled weathered cart is parked in front of the mural.

During the Civil War, the Confederate states lost their sources of salt, and the La Sal del Rey salt works prospered as prices rose to $8 a bushel. The wagons that smuggled southern cotton to the Mexican border port of Bagdad returned home with cargos of salt and guns until the Yankees captured the salt lake in 1863.

When the Campbell family started ranching at the lake, farmers would still come to retrieve salt for their livestock. After laying wide planks on top of the solid salt out into the lake, they used hoes and shovels to cut out blocks of salt, which they put in wooden boxes that burros took to shore. Ice cream factories were major salt buyers, too.

Good times at the salt lakes included looking for arrowheads and other traces of long-ago visitors and swimming when the rains raised the water level. “People would stick a branch in the lake for a few days and retrieve a white, sparkling Christmas decoration,” Campbell says, noting that the lake itself sparkled, day and night. “When the moon was full and shining on the lake, it was so beautiful. I could always tell when it was going to rain because the lake was pink.” The pink tone came from the algae, which supports the brine shrimp population. “In the 1950s, Judge Looney’s wife would go lie down in the lake and soak for her rheumatism.” The mile-long La Sal del Rey sometimes dries out completely and is rarely more than three or four feet deep, unlike La Sal Vieja, which is on an adjoining private ranch.

A rickety dock sits high and dry at La Sal Vieja, a remnant of the years when the water near the shore was six feet deep, and people water-skied and swam in its 1,674 acres. “When you floated in it, you felt like a cork riding high. When you got out, salt frosted you like a cake,” says Allan Crockett, a horticulturist whose family’s hunting lease includes a quadrant of La Sal Vieja. Last summer, after trekking about 100 yards out from the dock, Crockett’s sons reached the brine and discovered that the salt mud is hot and abrasive. Salt crystals have sharper edges underwater, before they are eroded by the wind, Crockett says.

Thickets of Texas ebony, wild olive and Texas persimmon overlook La Sal Vieja and its two islands. Stumps and branches of mesquite trees along the high-water line are salt-cured and sand-blasted, a preserved wood that resists rot. “People didn’t realize what a treasure the lake was and abused it in years past,” says Crockett, as he moved a rattlesnake partially buried in the salt. The lake was used intermittently as an oil field runoff basin before regulatory agencies stopped them.

East Lake, the third of the hypersaline lakes running west of Raymondville for 20 miles, is a newly opened tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Wildlife Refuge system, and serves as a protected nesting area for gull-billed terns.

La Sal del Rey, the smallest of the three lakes, is also the most accessible. Next to State Highway 186, a USFWS kiosk provides natural and historical information at the head of the wide caliche walking trail that winds for a mile through Tamaulipan thorn scrub leading to the western, shallower end of the lake. There, rimmed by mesquite, ebony, cactus and huisache, a puddle or two of pink brine lingered in late spring as the evaporative season began.

In light of the lake’s contribution to Texas mineral rights as detailed in Wallace Hawkins’ book, El Sal del Rey, it is only fitting that USFWS does not own La Sal del Rey’s mineral rights. An oil supply company’s pipes snake along the lake’s edge, transporting brine to be used as drilling mud.

La Sal del Rey shrinks and expands with the seasons. “It’s one of my favorite places in the Valley. You get a remote feeling of being on a refuge,” says Christina Montoya, a USFWS Refuge Operations Specialist. Salt crystals glittered like glass shards as she circled the edge of what looks like a barely frozen pond and pointed out perfectly preserved insects — a centipede shell, a desiccated walking stick — along with rabbit and bird bones. Salt removed from any spot in the lake is quickly replaced, usually within three days, she says. In the distance, rime-encrusted fenceposts poke up, while a flock of curlews seemed to wade amid chunks of ice.

On the northeast bank of La Sal, an artesian spring bubbles up from reeds, between the brush line and the brine, and trickles down to the lake. The lake is a stopover for thousands of migrating snow geese, sandhill cranes, phalaropes, eared grebes and other waterfowl and shorebirds. In spring, La Sal del Rey lake hosts nesting black-necked stilts, snowy plovers and least terns. “Access is not restricted,” Montoya says, “but we encourage people to be more cautious during nesting season,” which starts in mid-March. Whooping cranes have been observed here, and most human visitors to this natural wonder are birders.

Standing in this magical place shimmering in the sun, I scraped out a clump of salt crystals. On my tongue, the taste was pure and clean — salt of the earth.

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