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Climate and Environment

How One Man In A Canoe Found Beauty In The Troubled Salton Sea

Early morning soft light falls on a red canoe parked on a salt-encrusted shore next to a lake that stretches to brown-hued mountains in the distance.
Sicco Rood's canoe on the shore of the Salton Sea.
Courtesy Sicco Rood
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Sicco Rood didn't know what to expect when he set out, in the last days of December, to paddle his canoe around the Salton Sea. The 300-square-mile lake in the Coachella Valley is California's largest inland water body and one of its most forbidding, at least for a long-distance adventure with just a paddle.

Temperatures around the lake can approach freezing in the winter and rise well above 100 degrees in the summer. There's no fresh water. And much of the lake is bordered by marsh, mudflats and quicksand.

While preparing for the trip, Rood, a 50-year-old photographer and research associate at UC Irvine's Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center in eastern San Diego County, hadn't come across any accounts of anyone ever having canoed around the lake before.

"Am I going to scrape along old bombs or get stuck in the weeds?" he recalled wondering. (The Navy's former Salton Sea Test Base practiced bombing during World War II in and around the lake.) "Or get blown into the middle of the sea by the winds?"

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Sunset paints the sky hues of orange, red and purple. In the foreground, a canoe sits on a lakeshore. A solar panel and paddle lay next to it.
Sicco Rood set out to canoe around the Salton Sea to get beyond the lake's reputation as an environmental catastrophe.
Courtesy Sicco Rood
The Brief

None of those things happened, although conditions weren't perfect enough for Rood to make it all the way around the inland sea, an estimated 87-95 miles by his planned route. A storm and a family commitment sent him home after six days of paddling with about one-third of the trip left to complete, which he hopes to do sometime this year.

Rood shared with LAist some of his photos from the trip, and his discoveries.

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Listen: How One Man In A Canoe Found Beauty In The Troubled Salton Sea

The lake's accidental creation

The modern version of the Salton Sea was accidentally created in 1905 when the Colorado River breached an irrigation canal and began flowing into the dry bed of historic Lake Cahuilla. (Prior to that, the lakebed naturally filled up and dried out periodically.)

Seven tall blackish birds stand on a salt-encrusted structure in the middle of a body of water.
Cormorants in the Salton Sea.
Courtesy Sicco Rood

The Salton Sea's trajectory since then has been turbulent — from a water sports and fishing mecca to a major ecological dilemma, seemingly ever on the brink of disaster.

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It had intrigued Rood since he backpacked across the Santa Rosa Mountains several years ago to watch the sun rise and set over the lake. "It just looked like a jewel in the desert," he said.

He wanted to experience it close-up, which isn't easy — much of the lake's perimeter is inaccessible by road or trail, although one person did walk around it in 2015.

The view from a ridge covered in yucca and other desert plants of a lake edge. Square agricultural fields in different shades of green border the lake in the distance, while light brown sand borders it closer to the camera.
The Salton Sea from the Santa Rosa Mountains.
Courtesy Sicco Rood

Rood wanted to be on the lake. "I think there's no more intimate way to experience a lake or a sea than by way of canoe," he said.

I think there's no more intimate way to experience a lake or a sea than by way of canoe.
— Sicco Rood

Months of prep for challenging conditions

Rood spent months planning for his Salton Sea trip. He patched up his old canoe. He made a spreadsheet with everything he'd need, including a solar panel to keep his phone and camera batteries charged. He bought snowshoes at a thrift store, which he hoped would help him safely trek across mudflats to find dry spots for camping. (Good news, they worked!)

Right before the trip, Rood cached water at key spots along his route, for drinking but also for washing his feet, which he knew were likely to be frequently covered in the lake’s potentially toxic mud. The Salton Sea is fed mostly by agricultural runoff. Testing of sediments has found chemical compounds used in pesticides as well as elevated concentrations of heavy metals including arsenic and selenium.

Rood found a good weather window at the end of December and decided to go for it. Through a Salton Sea Facebook group, he found someone to help him get the canoe to his starting point, the former Navy base on the lake's southwest shore.

He set off on Dec. 29.

Finding life in a 'dead' place

The Salton Sea once supported a wide variety of fish but as the water has gotten steadily saltier — now nearly twice as salty as the ocean — only two species have survived: tilapia and endangered desert pupfish.

A closeup of a surface covered in hundreds of pink and white dried barnacles and a few white pieces that look like animal bones.
Barnacles are part of the food chain in the Salton Sea, though they are not native to the lake.
Courtesy Sicco Rood

The lake is also plagued by algae blooms that kill off fish, which in turn threaten the hundreds of bird species that depend on those fish for food. Plus, the shoreline has been receding for decades, exposing toxic dust that threatens the health of local communities.

These facts have given the lake an increasingly bleak reputation, But Rood says the dystopian narrative is wrong. "People have been saying the place is dead … but that's not what I saw at all."

What Rood experienced during his six days on the lake was abundant life, he said. Lush vegetation lined some parts of the lakeshore and he said he paddled past thousands of birds every day.

Rood also marveled at the solitude he found on the lake despite the millions of people who live within a few hours' drive. During his trip around the northern half of the lake, Rood didn't see a single person out on the water.

Two delicate birds are caught in mid-flight over glassy water. They have long, delicate orange legs, thin, straight, black beaks, and white bodies with black around the eyes and back of the neck and black wings.
Black-necked stilts over the Salton Sea.
Courtesy Sicco Rood

For the first five days of the trip, he saw just one other human on shore, a lone fisherman near the old Navy base.

Rood had hoped to end back at the old military base, but strong winds and white caps during the middle of his trip forced him off the lake for hours at a time. Rain also seeped into a crack in his cell phone. It died, and he decided to call it quits, for now.

"It wasn't a race for me," Rood said of his truncated trip. "It was really about a retreat. … so I'll just come back later and finish."

Until he heads out again in his canoe, Rood is sharing photos and videos from the trip on social media in an effort to shake up the public’s perception of the Salton Sea as doomed, if not already dead.

"It's a beautiful place," Rood said, "it just needs protection."

How to visit

Discover The Salton Sea For Yourself
  • To visit:

    • The Salton Sea State Recreation Area is open year-round for birdwatching, fishing, camping, and boating. Because of high summer temperatures, the best time to visit is October through May.
  • To learn more about the lake's past, present and future:

    • Read The Audubon Society’s report on the status of birds at the Salton Sea in 2019. 
    • Read about the Salton Sea Management Program’s efforts to improve air quality and bird habitat in and around the lake.
    • Learn about Riverside County’s pilot project to create an artificial deep-water lake for wildlife habitat and recreation on the north end of the Salton Sea. 
    • Explore LAist’s recent reporting on the potential for lithium mining at the lake.
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Updated January 19, 2024 at 10:06 AM PST
This story has been updated to correct the number of birds Sicco Rood remembers seeing each day.
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