Words and photos by Chuck Graham

Desert Destination | Salton Sea

I’d always heard the Salton Sea was dead–a desert wasteland of yesteryear after it once held the reputation of being “the next Las Vegas”, its resort-like atmosphere once breathing life into this manmade lake from the 1940s – 1960s.

Formerly known as the Salton Sink, the Colorado River flooded the area in 1905 and again in 1907, eventually creating the Salton Sea. 

Over time it evolved into a raucous weekender’s paradise abuzz with fishing tournaments, water ski jumps and boat races.  Hollywood also took notice with celebs such as the Marx Brothers, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis frequenting the desert sea.

Eventually, the combination of receding waters and the Salton Sea’s high salinity levels caused mass die-offs of fish. Nevertheless, the birds love it and over 400 species either reside or migrate here for the winter.

Will Miller tip toeing across the mudflats inside Mullet Island.

Guano-covered Mullet Island, an extinct volcano, loomed on the horizon. Behind the craggy isle, geothermal plumes wafted skyward and a post-apocalyptic aura hung over the arid, barren landscape. 

Myself and former U.S. National Rowing Team members Patrick O’Hea and Will Miller were gliding toward the convergence of the Salton Sea and the Alamo River, a runnel that flows northward from Mexico, feeding the Salton Sea.

As we paddled closer, a squadron of double-crested cormorants flew just above the surface of the silky water.  The seabirds were soon joined by a massive flock of migratory American white pelicans.  There was a loud hum as the cormorant’s wings flapped in unison over Mullet Island, muting the sounds of paddles pulling through the water.

After pitching our tents at the mouth of the Alamo River, we paddled back to Mullet Island and the open thermals of boiling mud pots.  The Salton Sea is a hotbed of geological wonders.  The San Andreas Fault runs beneath the Salton Sea and in addition to Mullet Island, there are several other extinct volcanoes in the vicinity.

Patrick O’Hea heading toward Mullet Island in the southeast region of the Salton Sea.

We landed our boards on an extensive mudflat behind Mullet Island, warm mud oozing between our toes.  The open thermals were another 200 yards from shore and an old, faded sign warned us to stay back. Geothermal activity is prevalent throughout the southern region of the Salton Sea.

As sunset neared we headed back to our tents.  This was a magical time on the Salton Sea with the Santa Rosa Mountains to the west and the Chocolate Mountains to the northeast, hues of pink and orange swept across the Salton Sea and the Colorado Desert.

At first light we woke to gunfire blasting across the sea.  It was winter time and duck hunting season had just obliterated our serenity on the Salton Sea.  The Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge allows hunting of waterfowl in winter and we weren’t going anywhere.

Fearful of leaving our tents and walking about, we laid low, hunkering down to avoid being shot.  Four hours later, the gunfire ceased.  We quickly broke down our tents, loaded our gear and paddled southwest for solitude, wind-groomed sand dunes and an abandoned U.S. Navy site cloaked in crunchy brine and thick bird guano.

Twelve miles later, we located the sand dunes a mile west of the U.S. Navy site.  We tucked our tents within the windblown dunes and paddled over to the splintered pilings topped with cormorant nests. 

Once used as a testing site for the Manhattan Project and last utilized for the first Desert Storm, the Navy site appeared ghostly in its desert environs.

Then out of nowhere, a man appeared from behind a row of pilings with a warning for us.

“How did you guys find this place?” The 60-something, scraggly-haired man said.

I looked at O’Hea and Miller paddling just beyond the pilings and said with a slight hint of sarcasm, “Well, a little research and we paddled here from Niland.”

I sensed he may have been affiliated with the U.S. Government in some capacity when he proceeded to instruct us to “keep an eye out for coyotes smuggling immigrants through the dunes and drug runners.”

We looked at each other momentarily.  I was waiting for one of us to crack a smile but it never came.  He was dead serious and then abruptly walked off, disappearing in the pilings.

I caught up to O’Hea and Miller paddling the periphery of the pilings and crumbling docks littered in gun shells, broken glass and bleached brine.  Nervous cormorants peered down at us as we paddled by.  A lone coyote yelped as it scavenged along the shoreline, the sun dipping behind the Santa Rosa Mountains.

The next morning we awoke to a stunning desert sunrise, a lone white pelican creating the only blemish on the Salton Sea.  We had a good 15-mile paddle ahead of us and wanted to beat the desert heat.  Regardless, we were soaked in sweat and the only oasis was the Salt Creek Camp on the northeast shore.

Cold showers were our reward along the quirky, bizarre and just plain strange Salton Sea. While its golden era is 50 years past, the allure still remains and the standup paddling is supreme.

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Photos from paddling in New Zealand