Our Brush with Death at the Salton Sea

That’s what I muttered to myself as I was traipsing through the barnacle-like ‘death beach’ of the Salton Sea. Tons of barnacles (and other indescribable things) that laid before waters edge to even hundreds of yards inland. This should have never happened…

What are barnacles?

A barnacle is a type of arthropod constituting the infraclass Cirripedia in the subphylum Crustacea, and is hence related to crabs and lobsters. Barnacles are exclusively marine, and tend to live in shallow and tidal waters, typically in erosive settings.

However, whatever I was crunching under my feet were ‘more’ than just barnacles…

 A Science and Chemistry lesson…

The Salton Sea is one of the few saline, inland lakes in the world with a population of barnacles, Balanus amphitrite. It is also one of California’s most impaired water bodies due to excessive nutrient loading which leads to phytoplankton blooms and low dissolved oxygen. Currently, B. amphitrite growth is limited due to lack of hard substrate in and around the Sea. We have hypothesized that artificial substrate could support the growth of B. amphitrite and their filter-feeding would lead to improved water quality. Periodic harvesting of the barnacles would result in the permanent removal of nitrogen and phosphorus from the Sea.

(borrowed from Barnacle growth rate on artificial substrate in the Salton Sea, California)

How the Salton Sea was created

Salton Sea is located in south central California in the Colorado Desert. In 1905, the Salton Sink was created by the Colorado River breaching it’s levees and flooding the desert floor. For two years, the Salton Sink became the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, measuring 15 miles wide by 35 miles long.

By the 1950’s and ‘60’s, also known as “California’s French Riviera”, the Salton Sea was the happening place. Beachgoers flocked to the sunny inland shores for relaxation and recreation.

Shore life ensued building their habitats along the coastline and fish thrived in the lake. Big money developers grabbed onto the land around this miracle in the desert. Soon, there were homes and hotels being built, small towns surrounded it with schools and public services, jobs were plenty dubbing it a popular resort destination.

Then, disaster occured by, you guessed it…MAN. By the late 1970’s, pesticides and herbicides dispersed through runoff from nearby fruit growers polluting the lake. Periodic flooding brought these unnatural toxins ashore. Adding into the mix, being the lake is located in the desert, rainfall was extremely minimal causing the lake’s salinity levels measuring more than the Pacific Ocean. This resulted in depletion of oxygen causing fish and whatever other sea life to wash ashore either already dead or dying. The hot desert temperatures sped up the decomposition leaving nothing but bone fragments of the fish.

Today, it’s apocalyptic landscape harbors everything dead. The smell is nothing describable other than…just plain nasty. The wasteland shoreline is now nothing but green crap and parted remnants of fish carcasses with deep white God-knows-what-THAT-is.

 A different kind of ‘tourism’

So, I’ve given you the skinny on the history of how the Salton Sea was created and then the making of this environmental disaster that followed. Intriguing as it was, we just had to see this so called ‘Salton Sea Shit Show’ for ourselves. It’s kind of like watching a train wreck each time we drove near it. Something lured us for a closer look like some magical spell. It sucked us in. There aren’t very many regrets in our lives however, this one made our top 5.

A few years prior, while visiting my cousin Bob and his family in San Diego, I rented a Harley Davidson so I could say ‘I rode in California’. We took a motorcycle ride (he on his and I on my rental) around part of it but only saw it from a distance. He told me vaguely about it and of course, I wasn’t paying too much attention.

Fast forward four years almost to the day…

While we were parked near Joshua Tree National Park  in California on some BLM. I mentioned to Dan about the ‘Salton Sea’ however, the fairy tale I ‘thought’ was far from reality.

We day-tripped from JTNP to Mecca and Salton Sea Beach. Once we got to the gateway, we noticed a newly painted billboard sign that read ‘Salton Sea Beach’. Now, what’s one to think when seeing such ‘newly painted sign’? Yes, that’s right. We were expecting new growth and something cool…

…and then there was the town entrance garden…

So, those magical powers told us to turn down this road and go check it out. it was quite the contrary.  We found Salton Sea Beach and the coastal communities nearby in devastating depression, destitute and despair. Driving quite slow through the hood, we noticed beaten down houses that were still inhabited and everything that ‘was supposed to have evolved’ wasn’t. 

There were stray mangy dogs roaming the streets, abandoned and graffiti’d shells of former houses and business establishments, and about every 5th ‘house’ was much more kempt that the other five before and after it. I looked at Dan and blurted, ‘looks like we ain’t in Mayberry!’.

While somewhat awe-stricken (more like shock and awe!), I decided to put the camera down out of respect to those who lived there. I was not going to exploit these people, their choice in livelihoods, their homes and their despair, so you’ll just have to trust me on my words blogged here.

We drove a little further where there appeared to be a ‘pretty beach’.

But the palm trees lining the road should have been our first inclination of what we were about to happen upon. The tops were dead.
I asked Dan to take a walk with me down to the seashore (well, I wouldn’t even call it ‘that’) but there was nothing beautiful about it. Instead of sand and shells, it was nothing but thick and deep, smashed, calcified dead matter.
Occasionally, we’d see rusty and corroded pipes and hardware.
Oh, and the smell! I can’t begin to put into words what ‘that odor’ was but it resonated death. There were no fish or anything living in or around Salton Sea. Not a boat or jetski to be seen frolicking in the waters and seriously, not one beachcomber or colorful beach blankets or umbrellas to be seen. No birds, no fish, no living anything; just dead everything.

Against both of our better judgements, we made our way down to where the water met the shore.  Dan stood like he was in a GQ magazine shoot. It looked pretty neat…from a distance…

…but it was eerily weird. Again, no beach umbrellas, laughing children, people swimming nor any watercraft in sight.

Then, seconds later, we were in ‘deep doo doo’ and I mean that in every sense of the word.

Our brush with death…

Dan was already at the shoreline, I was taking my time and studying everything horrid about this nightmare of a place while grumbling because of the stench. HOWEVER, the closer we got to the shoreline, my feet began to sink further into the thick barnacle beach…oh, about an inch or two. I then, decided to step in all of his footprints like a kid following in a new fallen snow because I figured if he didn’t sink, well, neither would I, right?

NOOOOOO!

I sank…to my bleepin’ knees! Obscenities came out of my mouth with screams of horror as if I was being swallowed by this hell hole. Dan turned around and a split second later, I FELL IN IT holding my fairly new $700 Samsung Galaxy phone up in the air hoping it would survive better than I. I have no idea what prompted me to save a phone over myself, I’ll never know.

The look on his face was indescribably priceless. I didn’t know if he was angry, horrified or going to bust out laughing. The other horror is he was not going to retrace his steps to go rescue me. What a guy!!!

(Sorry, no pictures…it seemed like a bad time to video or take pictures.)

Anyways, shaking his head back and forth, keeping his distance, he led me out of that morbid ‘death beach’ up to where our truck was and with every step, it was getting nastier and nastier. There was whatever-the-hell-that-was that was sticking to my pants and my hiking shoes were caked with dead toxic-smelling crap, ground up fish bones and green slime.

We finally got to the truck and again, Dan just shook his head in disgust because I wreaked of toxic crap. To add to insult to my injury, my feet began burning and tingling. In the backseat, we had a couple gallons of water, so pulled one of the gallons out, lifted me up onto the tailgate of the truck and directed me to take my shoes and socks off. Lucky for me (and him), I was wearing hiking pants that unzipped at the knee making them into shorts. He unzipped them while holding back what looked like vomit face.

(Sorry again, no pictures because at this point, I think he was really pissed off!)

We rinsed more and that burning and tingly feeling eventually subsided. We also rinsed off my hiking shoes the best we could however, whatever the hell that was started to harden like concrete. He tossed my zipped off pants and shoes in the truck bed. I put on a pair of extra shoes we kept inside the truck and we drove off quickly.

It goes without saying, the drive back to Liberty was a quiet one. Still, I didn’t know if he was pissed off at me or was going to bust out laughing. All I know is I don’t ever want to do that again and we will never EVER go there again.

(and still, no pictures because, I was now pissed off at myself!).

 We got back to Liberty and the first thing I did was filled his 5 gallon bucket up with water and rinsed my shoes and pant legs as best I could again and then refilled the bucket adding half bottle of my Thieves cleaner (directions read to use only a capful or two) to soak overnight.

I want to kill anything that was remotely alive or toxic on them. The following morning, they surprisingly came out clean but there’s a noticeable deterioration of some of the material on the shoes so that left me wondering what this did to my skin. Good thing though, I’m blogging this so I’m still alive and I’ve not lit up like a chemlight since. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Our Salton Sea ‘experience’ ends there…

 So, I hope you enjoyed the ‘readers view’ of our experience at Salton Sea.  If any of our readers and followers are contemplating ‘going there’, my advice is “don’t waste your time, money or SHOES”. Let this blog post be your reason for not going. This sign should be your clue because it certainly wasn’t ours! Though we were NOT on private property, we should have really paid attention to the signs.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, we later found out that we went to the ‘wrong part’ of Salton Sea.

 

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