April 10, 2011

Kayaking the Salton Sea

For as many times as I've visited the villages and communities surrounding the Salton Sea, skulking around private property, abandoned buildings, and unstabilized structures, I've never done the one thing that was most forbidden: go in the water.

Of course, rampant rumors report of its toxicity from irrigation runoff, its high salinity (even saltier than the Pacific Ocean), its uninhabitability even to the fish that reside there and annually die off. But many of the local officials and residents insist on its safety, even going so far as to catch the tilapia and eat them, and even go swimming.

I've never been afraid of a little salt, and this weekend I got my chance to experience it up close, with one of the weekly kayak tours hosted by the Sea and Desert Interpretive Association, which runs the Visitor's Center at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area on the eastern shore.

It was enough for me to make a special trip all the way down there for it.

I think I was the most excited person there. I could hardly contain myself in my single kayak, water shoes on, life vest strapped around my chest, water bottle clipped onto my seat strap, camera in hand.

There were 20 of us total, mostly families with kids but an older couple or two, and of course me, by myself.

Paddles in hand, we scooted off of the boat launch behind the Visitor's Center, into a little inlet they called "the harbor," whose waters were calm and quiet, interrupted only by our sporadic and sometimes frenetic paddling.

I'd been kayaking a couple of times before, but on this trip, I was surrounded by many first-timers. I welcomed the opportunity to receive a lesson on how to kayak with proper technique. Once we all felt comfortable steering, turning, stopping, and moving forward and backwards, we eased out of the inlet, past the fisherman, into the main body of the sea.

With the cold snap that had hit most of Southern California this week, including the desert, the winds were relatively high, making the water surprisingly choppy. It cracked against the underbellies of our boats, and we dragged across its uneven surface, not feeling the buoyancy or speed that one might expect with such a salty lake.

At first, we fought to get away from the shore, where the tide (yes, the tide) kept sending us - into rocks, salt deposits, bird droppings, and the birds themselves. But once we got out into the sea, far enough away from the shore, the waves took us in the opposite direction, sucking us into the center of the sea, towards the looming mountains of Anza-Borrego to the west. I paddled forward but my kayak seemed to be gliding sideways, towards the center, like a sea-dwelling sidewinder. All I could do was steer.

Arms aching, we paddled down the sea to the Mecca Beach kayak campsite. When we finally stopped - only for a moment, lest we drift away uncontrollably - I asked our tour guide, "How FAR have we gone?" By my arm fatigue, I would have thought we'd already been out there for hours. "Oh not too far," Bob said. "About a mile..." and I laughed at myself.

"I'm a good hiker, so I've got strong legs, but I never really use my upper body..." I explained, as Bob chuckled knowingly.

Seabirds flew overhead constantly, divebombing the water to feed on its fish, bobbing up and down through the sea's surface, often right next to our boats.

The sound of freight trains rattling down the nearby railroad tracks intermingled with the cries of the birds and the squeals of my younger fellow kayakers.

If I paused to rest, take a photo, or peer through the binoculars I'd borrowed, the water tilted my kayak side to side so much, there was no choice but to keep paddling to try to keep steady.

On the way back, the wind picked up and the water became more violent, smacking up against the sides of my vessel, splashing up onto my legs, face, and even lips. I tasted salt. I smelled salt. But on this clear day, with blue skies above punctuated by big white puffy clouds, there was no sense of the beautiful decay, the abandonment, the decomposition that surrounded the sea on land. There was only sky, mountain, sea, bird, boat, paddle, air, breeze, waves, momentum, magnitude.

My kayak was rocking so fervently from the waves that I feared it would flip. I almost hoped it would flip.

I could have used a good swim.

By the time I returned to shore, even though the sea had only dripped on me slightly, I was properly salt-crusted - on my hands, face, and legs.

And as exhausted as I was, and as relieved as I was to stop paddling, I was sad to see those kayaks flipped over, washed of their salt and ready to be put away...

...wet vests hung over the boat launch's railing to dry.

The last kayak tour for the season is next weekend, at sunrise. But they start up again in October, and I have been promised a sunset trip. For that, I will definitely return.

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