Walking The Salton Sea Shoreline: Day 2

4:15AM. It was still dark outside and I was already obsessing about the day to come as I lay in the motorhome staring at the ceiling, covered in a light coating of sweat.

I slept better last night. Less tossing and turning, but still only managed to get 4 or 5 hours of sleep. The heat, the humidity, the excitement, and the anxiety of the next 5 days were still dancing in my head. There would be no alarm to wake me up this morning, the thought of everything that could go wrong is nature’s wakeup call.

Today should be an easy day.  I had scouted 18 miles of today’s planned 20 mile section from Niland Marina to the New River only two months before.  Most of today’s terrain was easy and the temperature was forecast to only reach 102°F, but I would have a few canal crossings and would be encountering mud today for the first time.  I wasn’t overly concerned, but in the back of my mind I knew that today was the last “easy” day.  I started my routine of blister-taping my toes while drinking coffee, and I could hear the sizzle of bacon cooking outside as John cooked breakfast for the crew. “Easy day” I told myself. “Easy Day”.

Taping up my feet and toes took a lot of time but there was no way around it. Since I started my training a year prior I have always had trouble with blisters.  Through the use of special socks designed for marathon runners and after testing several different types of shoes and walking boots, I was finally able to control my blisters by wrapping my toes and feet in Leukotape.  Blisters were one of the few things that could bring my walk to a halt, or slow me down, and the last thing I wanted was open blisters while walking through the New River. Even using the tape there was no guarantee, but it was my best defense. At this point, it was my only defense.  My first overnight trip and 20+ mile test walk in October 2014 was stopped short by blisters, even while using tape. Among all of my other fears and worries, being slowed down or stopped by blisters on my feet was high on my list of things to worry about. I had already decided that blisters would not stop me – but if the worst were to happen and if I did get some bad blisters, it would be painful.  Getting an infection from dirty New River water getting into an open blister was another story.

Picture of blisters

Blisters in October 2014

The crew would get bigger today as our boat captain, Aaron Smith was scheduled to arrive later this morning.  Aaron would be my safety net, watching over me from his boat as I cross the large rivers and he would also ferry the camera crew into some of the inaccessible areas of shoreline on his boat.  It was Aaron that only a few months before had helped to shave over 10 miles off of my walk-plan by suggesting that I go through the New River and Alamo River instead of around them.  Up until that point when I got to the Alamo and New Rivers, my plan had me walking from the shoreline, inland, to the nearest bridge to cross each river. I thought that the rivers were simply too deep and too dangerous to get thorough and walking out to the bridges was my only option.  Aaron, having hunted ducks at Salton Sea for years thought this was a waste of energy and in a test walk in April he proved his point.  He threw on his waders, walked up to the New River, walked into the sea about 100 yards, and making a large, horseshoe-shaped path, proceeded to cross the river.  He then did the same thing at the Alamo River, never going more than belly-deep in either.  The following month after purchasing my own pair of waders to keep dry and clean, I proved to myself that crossing the rivers was actually far easier than I anticipated.  Although still dangerous, cutting over 10 miles off my walking distance was worth the risk.

Crossing the New River during a training walk

Feet taped, Camel Bak filled with 2.5 gallons of water, and belly filled with bacon, pancakes and copious amounts of coffee, we jumped into the Jeep and made our way to Niland Marina to start the day.  When we arrived at the marina we were greeted by a few supporters, who it turns out would be following along for the next few days. I strapped my mud-shoes and waders to the back of my Camel Bak, strapped it over my shoulders, and after a little hamming it up for the cameras, day # 2 had begun.

Video outtakes from day #2

As planned, the first few miles were an easy walk.  After just a few miles I did my first live video update:


The next several miles went quickly. Easy walking and temperatures in the mid 90’s.  As I made my way further south toward Mullet Island I came upon on what I call “the basketball court”.  A giant old sign, at least 40 feet tall, 100 yards from the water now, but once underwater – out in the middle of nowhere.  There is nothing left on the sign, so it’s just a tall pole with a giant wood board on the top. From a distance it looks like a big basketball hoop backboard.  

Every mile or so I would take a picture of something interesting on the shore and post on Facebook with an update on my progress and I had chosen the basketball court to be the photo for the next update.  While looking up and trying to get a good shot with my camera and not paying attention to where I was walking, I backed my leg into a sharp, stiff branch that was sticking out of the ground.  There isn’t much plant-life around the shoreline, but somehow I had managed to find the only branch for miles and proceeded to harpoon my leg with it.  Instead of an update with the basketball court, I posted an update of my bloody leg.

Photo of an injury at Salton Sea

The perfect way to get an infection

The injury itself was no big deal, but I began to be concerned that directly poking a dirty stick into my leg and injecting lordy-knows-what into my blood was probably a good way to get an infection.  I was also concerned about any New River or Alamo water getting into the cut when crossing the rivers. I pulled out my first-aid kit, wiped down the wound as best as I could with alcohol, covered it with blister tape, and started walking again. It was only a few more miles to the Alamo River.

Picture of a boiling mud pot on the shore of Salton Sea

Mudpot on the shore north of Mullet Island

As Mullet Island came into view I came across a new mud-pot on the shoreline that I had discovered a few months before.  This mud pot is several miles from the mud-volcanoes on Davis Rd, and a few miles north of the “new” mud-pot field across from Mullet Island. Another one of those interesting things that you come across on the shoreline.  Passing the mudpot and seeing Mullet Island meant I was getting close to lunch, but it also meant that I had to cross my first canals, go through the first mud, and cross the first river.  The temperature was rising, and the day wasn’t going to be easy anymore.

“I don’t like water crossings”

I don’t like water crossings.  Whether it’s a canal or a river, I don’t like them. They are dangerous, they are muddy, usually stinky, and, did I mention, they are dangerous? I don’t like water crossings. The small canals I can hop right over, but anything wider than a few feet and it’s what I call a “wet feet crossing”.  This means that I have to stop and put on my waders so that my feet don’t get wet – if my feet were to get wet, it would almost guarantee blisters.  

Some of the canals run slow. Others, especially the larger canals, run swiftly.  Swiftly enough that it’s easy to knock me over.  Getting knocked-over with a 25 pound Camel Back full of water strapped to my back would not be a good thing so before crossing I put the backpack into “quick eject mode”.  This means I take off all the straps so the backpack is only held on over my shoulders. If I were to go down in the water, I could quickly “eject” the backpack so I doesn’t take me under the water.  This would keep me from drowning, but would also drench the backpack, and everything in it. So in addition to putting on my waders and putting the backpack into quick-eject mode, I also have to pack everything important or electronic into my dry-sack.  All of this takes time and more importantly, energy.  I don’t like water crossings.

Once in dry-mode and quick-eject mode, I’m ready to take my first steps into the canal. But before that, I have to find a spot to cross where the water isn’t too deep and the mud on the edge isn’t too bad.  It’s hard to judge the depth of most canals. If it’s more than a few feet deep it’s too cloudy to see the bottom. Sometimes throwing a rock in will give an idea of how deep the canal is by the “bloop” sound it makes, but depth-finding this way is not an exact science.  Did I mention that don’t like water crossings? More importantly is getting to the edge of the canal without sinking in the mud.  The canals bring in silt, and over the years of the rising and falling, the entire area surrounding the length of the canal is covered in several feet of this very fine silt. When that silt is waterlogged, it turns into mud. Not like the mud you played in when you were a kid, and not the kind of mud you normally find in the desert.  This mud is thick, like tar and it can suck the shoes right off your feet. It’s also deep. Usually when stepping in this mud you will find the bottom within 6 to 10 inches. Sometimes it’s deeper. Sometimes it’s knee deep. Sometimes it’s waist deep. Sometimes it’s forehead deep.  To add to the adventure, this mud is also full of hydrogen sulfide from all of the decomposing ‘stuff’ in it. This gives the mud an aroma that is a cross between rotten eggs and baby-shit. I don’t like water crossings.

Video of me stuck in the mud during a test walk

Once past the mud at the edge of the canal, I have to fight the current.  This isn’t usually very bad, and my walking stick helps me keep my balance, but it can be difficult with the 25 pound backpack loosely tipping side to side because it’s in “quick eject” mode.  Now fighting the current, I find out what kind of canal it is. Will this be a “sand canal” or a “mud canal”.  For reasons that I still don’t understand, some canal bottoms are very sandy and easy to walk through.  I think the level of sandy’ness is related to how swiftly the canal runs.  Faster and deeper canals bring in more heavy sand, and wash away the silt. I call these “sandy canals”.  Then you have the “mud canals”.  My theory is that the slower-running canals don’t bring in as much sand and instead allow more silt to pile up on the bottom. Just like the muddy edges, the muddy bottomed canals have deep, stinky, tar-like mud ranging in depth from a few inches to deep enough to swallow you whole.  From my previous scouting missions I knew that one of the worst mud-canals was coming up, just before Mullet Island.  I don’t like water crossings.  I fuckinghate water crossings.

Now running behind schedule by more than 2 hours because of the extended amount of time I spent getting through the canals, I finally made it to Mullet Island, and the Alamo River.  The Alamo was my first river crossing. Have I mentioned that I don’t like water crossings?

Crossing the Alamo is actually not very difficult. Because it has a strong current, the bottom is mostly sandy. Take the “right line” and it’s relatively easy to cross. Take a “bad line” and it’s going to be a bad day.  The Alamo River branches off into several ‘fingers’ in it’s delta, so “crossing the Alamo” is actually 3 crossings.  I took the “right” lines and made it through the river fairly quickly – about 45 minutes, start to finish, counting all the time to go into dry mode, quick-eject mode, put on my waders, then undoing it all on the other side.

As I crossed the last finger of the Alamo, I came into a small crowd of 5 or 10 supporters in addition to the camera crew and the safety-boat captain Aaron Smith.  I said my hellos, shook hands, and took photos. It was hot, and I was already tired, but seeing another group of people to cheer me on got my blood pumping again.  After the hellos and photos, as I was readjusting my backpack and getting ready for the last mile before lunch on Red Hill, I was about to experience the most moving moment of the entire journey.

A guy. An older guy, maybe 55 or 60. Overweight, bearded, and rough looking, made his way up to me, walking slowly. As he got closer I could tell that the heat was getting already getting to him. He reached out to shake my hand, and held it tightly.  He said that it was nice to meet me and squeezed my still-wet and smelly hands and he shook it with a passion, almost taking my arm off.  He then said quietly, “thank you”.  As I started to say my usual “you’re welcome” he interrupted me mid-word.  “You know” he said, very loudly, “you are the first person to do anything”.  I wasn’t sure what he meant. I started to say something, and again he interrupted me.  This time, with his voice cracking with emotion, “you are the first person to actually do something“. He went on to tell me, still squeezing my hand, and with tears in his eyes now sparkling in the hot sun, that for the last 30 years, all anyone has ever done was talk about helping Salton Sea. Politicians, water company spokes-holes, and agencies that were created to help Salton Sea. He explained how sick and tired and angry he was of all the talk, and lack of action, and how nice it was, how great it was, that someone was finally, actually doing something, even though small in the big-scope of helping Salton Sea, but actually doing something.  I didn’t really know what to say. I was humbled by his words, and touched by the sight of this tough old guy, still holding my hand in his, crying as he thanked me.  I think I muttered out a “thank you, I hope it makes a difference”, patted him on the shoulder, let go of his hand and made my way toward Red Hill. His voice, still echoing in my head.  This water crossing was not so bad.  

After eating some lunch at Red Hill, and taking a shower in the RV park bathroom with some giant water-bugs and spiders, I made my way south toward Red Hill Marina for the final 10 miles of the day.  This last section would be dry – no more water crossings, and would end on Young Rd at the end of the New River delta.

The mysterious Red Boxes at Salton Sea

Posing at the Mysterious Red Boxes

As the temperature started to rise, I was reminded of how quickly the shore line of Salton Sea can change.  I had walked this entire section only two months before, in April, and the entire bay south of Red Hill was dry.  If anything, I calculated that in June, there would be less water, but I was wrong.  Wind had apparently blown water from Salton Sea into the low-elevation bay, leaving water several inches deep over a mile inland.  Because I had planned this section to be “dry”, I wasn’t carrying my mud shoes or waders and I was forced to go around the bay, adding almost 3 miles, more than an hour, to today’s walk.

Thermometer at Salton Sea

Warming up south of Red Hill

Other than water in the bay, there were no real surprises for the last 10 miles of the day.  I made my way past Obsidian Butte, and entered the protected areas of the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge.  As I walked by the power plants south of Obsidian Butte, my friend Tom Sephton, owner of Sephton Industries came out to cheer me on.

Tom Sephton with Randy Brown

Tom Sephton giving me moral support

Picture of an electric fence at Salton Sea

Don’t Touch The Electric Fence!

At least two hours behind schedule the sun began to set behind me. The coyotes were coming out, but mostly kept to themselves and as the sun dipped behind the mountains the temperature dropped making it almost a nice stroll for the last 30 minutes. I was finally able to make out the Jeep and the crew waiting at the pick-up spot at the end of Young Rd as I got closer, bringing day #2 to a close. Not a bad day, but tomorrow, day #3 was already beginning to worry me. Did I mention that I don’t like water crossings?

Video update at the end of day #2, originally broadcast live

2 Comments:

  1. I ran across your adventure while searching for photos of places in and around the Salton Sea. I wasn’t able to see much on my first trip there two years ago.
    I just finished reading day 2 of your circumnavigation. I’m looking forward to your reportage on the rest of your trip.
    I plan to check out your Facebook page, too.

  2. Those mysterious red boxes were once silver sheet metal boxes. A group of L.A college kids in a u-haul droped them off and had some chick’s in bikinis taking pictures on and around them and never picked them up…

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