Photo Essay

The Salton Sea is a strange place


The smell hit me first. I had just opened my car door at the Salton Sea, and my immediate reaction was to wrinkle my nose. The salt air must just be especially powerful today, I thought. The ocean sometimes smells similar, if not as strong, so I wasn't bothered.

The Salton Sea had always sounded very mysterious. All I knew was that it was a huge lake in the middle of the desert in Southern California. I'd picked up the notion that it was an unusual place, but I didn't know exactly why. So one morning in March, I went to take a look.

The Salton Sea State Recreation Area, on the lake's northeast shore, was backdropped by the mountains (big hills, really) on the fringe of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Scrubby bushes twice my height ringed the shoreline, punctuated by palm trees. I couldn't see another person, but dozens of dragonflies kept me company. When the wind-whipped waves reached the shore, the water was the color of weak tea. The place had an odd beauty.

I walked onto the beach, feeling the coarse sand under my sneakers. I was sinking in farther than normal, so I took a closer look. I wasn't walking on sand. It was bones, the remains of millions of dead fish that had washed up on shore, mostly in the past few years. I hadn't been smelling salt air, but rather the carcasses of sport fish. Hundreds of them, all smaller than my hand and in various states of decomposition, dotted the shore.

Now I understood the Salton Sea's reputation for weirdness. Turns out, the lake was formed accidentally in 1905 when the Colorado River broke through canal barriers and the entire river poured into a salty depression. It took engineers a year and a half to stop the flow, and by then, one of the world's largest inland seas had been created. The lake was 45 miles long and 20 miles wide, and it stood at 227 feet below sea level. In time, it became 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

The dead fish were the apparent victims of a combination of desert winds, the salt and algae blooms. Water diversions over the years haven't helped, and the lake is in such bad shape now that if something isn't done to fix it, some experts think it will disappear in less than 30 years. There's a plan in the works to save the Salton Sea, but it would cost nearly $7 billion.

I didn't know any of this on that day in March. All I knew was that I was in one of the most bizarre places I'd ever seen. As I drove around the recreation area, I saw other daytrippers and campers. There were about a dozen RVs, but one of the encampments looked like something out of "Lawrence of Arabia." Or maybe "The Wizard of Oz." It fit in perfectly.

Although some of the nearby businesseshad seen better days, the parks and rec folks had set up a visitor center, boat docks and plenty of picnic tables (although some of the nearby vegetation wouldn't provide much shade). So if you're in the mood for something strange, head for the Salton Sea. Just don't mind the smell.

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