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icesloughI wrote last month about Ayers Natural Bridge, and its fame as a day trip for the emigrants to Oregon. Another wonder they encountered along the trail was Ice Slough, near the Sweetwater River.

The Oregon Trail crossed the Sweetwater many times as the river meandered from just past Independence Rock toward South Pass. Actually, the river flowed the other way, but this is the direction in which the emigrants encountered the Sweetwater as their route climbed into the Rockies between the Granite Mountains and the Green Mountains. The scenery grew more spectacular as they entered the western ranges.

After several crossings of the Sweetwater, the emigrants came upon a large slough, which in fact was a tributary of the Sweetwater that ran through a boggy marsh. Just a foot or two under the marsh was ice that remained frozen even in mid-summer.  The peat in the boggy turf insulated the ice all year.

Who first discovered Ice Slough is unknown, but it provided a welcome treat for the travelers. There’s a story of one group of pioneers making mint juleps in 1848. See Oregon Trail, by Ingvard Henry Eide.

The emigrants camped by the slough, and filled their water barrels with ice before leaving, which kept their water cool for a day or two. They also used the ice to preserve meat.

There was a commercial ice trade in the United States in the 1830s and ’40s, so the emigrants would have known about packing perishable goods in ice to preserve them. But think about how amazing it would have been for people who had been traveling for months by this time to come across fresh stores of ice that never melted. Ice was a luxury that few 19th century Americans could afford.

The early travelers were fortunate. By 1849, Ice Slough was covered with pits dug in earlier years to find the ice. Today, irrigation in the area has left the slough almost dry, and very little ice remains.

But in 1847, my emigrant characters could enjoy a respite beside the slough.

For more on this natural wonder, see the websites for Wonders of Wyoming or the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office.

When have you stumbled upon a surprising sight in your travels?

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