Salton Sea in May

First a look backwards…

Wow, I seem to have opened an interesting can of worms with the last discussions regarding judging at the Fair.  But as they say, “If you can’t stand the heat… don’t tickle the dragon!”  Seriously I think it is an important discussion for any photographer seeking to improve their work.  Some of the really important material occurred in the comments and replies so do please check those out as well.  But mercifully I was then able to go out shooting and put some of that discussion behind me.  So now a step forward…

Sunday, (May 5th) my friend Cynthia and I were scheduled to go do some photography but had not settled on a location.  The desert had not been on the radar since it is already heating up.  ButI had heard however that there were some major winds in the desert.  If that report proved to be true it might create some interesting visual potential.  When the dust and sand is whipped up in the Anza-Borrego area to the west of Salton Sea, you can look across from the eastern shoreline and the stuff in the air obliterates the mountains and even the far shoreline turning the scene into something surreal. And the wind would help mitigate the heat. Obviously there are never any guarantees about the weather but when I suggested it Cynthia liked the idea so we headed out to El Centro then north to the Salton Sea.

Sure enough the wind was blowing.  Good grief, it was REEAALLLLY blowing hard.  The little Montero was rocked all over by some pretty strong gusts.  I would not have wanted to be driving Rocinante on Highway 8 as it went through the mountains and dropped into the desert floor.

We went through El Centro and Brawley, and then joined old Highway 111 going north. As we turned off of Highway 111 that runs north and south along the eastern shore to first take a look at the Mud Volcanoes, I was telling Cynthia about the tiny burrowing owls that sometimes come out of their holes along the canal banks and right away she spotted one as we went by it.  So we turned around to go back to see if it would pose for us.

The little devil was not a happy camper with us and proceeded to bob and weave and, in that quaint owlish tongue, talk trash to us and emphatically invited us to leave it in peace.  I assume it was protecting a nest.

We did leave as it wished, but not before we got a shot or two or twenty of it… Cynthia is really a major fan of owls so I loaned her my 400mm prime lens and really did not intend to shoot since I have shots of the funny little critters.  But its antics in trying to scare us off and casting a baleful eye in our direction was irresistible so I hauled out the 70-200 and did a couple of quick shots.

A Burrowing Owl along a canal near the Salton Sea.

A Burrowing Owl along a canal near the Salton Sea.

The owl had not minded the stopped vehicle all that much but when Cynthia got out and walked across the road to get closer it was most unhappy and spoke to her in a decidedly uncharitable way.  Here is a shot of her getting into position for another shot across the canal.  On the far left of the shot, right along the top of the far bank, you can see Mr. (or Mrs.) Owl growing impatient with these tall interlopers.

Cynthia Sinclair getting into position to try a 400 mm handheld shot of a little Burrowing Owl.  The circle on the far left shows the tiny bird.

Cynthia Sinclair getting into position to try a 400 mm handheld shot of a little Burrowing Owl. The circle on the far left shows the tiny bird.  The angle of the shot and telephoto compression makes it look like she is not aiming at the owl but it is an optical illusion.

It was like a Chihuahua squaring off against a Rottweiler: size has no bearing on ferocity or courage and the little owl sent a look our way with the clear message that if we didn’t leave immediately, if not sooner, it was going to fly over here and rip us to ribbons with its mighty beak and talons.

So after we had harassed the poor little devil enough we headed toward Red Hill Marina and the poor “Three Sisters” trees now dead and rotting out in the mud flat.  The water keeps retreating farther and farther from the old shoreline.

These poor old trees have become nearly iconic photo subjects over the years but the caustic environment is finally taking its toll.

These poor old trees have become nearly iconic photo subjects over the years but the caustic environment is finally taking its toll.

You may recall a shot of these trees I posted some time ago from an angle that made it look like the one tree that has fallen was being carried by one of the others.  With the water so far away there were no birds resting on their branches but if you enlarge the image you can see the nests in the trees in the background near to the current waterline. During the early spring this area, along a major flyway, has more species and individual birds for a few weeks than almost anywhere else.

This time of year should be annual “high water” point but it still left the old docks high and dry and the old boat ramp allowed launching only into the mud.

Then we headed over to the mud pots.  But now there are signs all around the area telling people to keep out.  That is a bummer!  And it is new to me.  Perhaps someone got hurt doing something stupid and the owner of the land decided to solve the entire issue by posting it for trespassing… ???  I can think of no other legitimate reason to close off something that has been a place to visit for so many years. I hate it when idiots ruin good stuff for others.

At least I had photos form previous trips but Cynthia was disappointed at not being able to get close.  It did not occur to either of us but the question arises as to whether a proscriptive easement had been created over the years so that the well worn pathways now were de facto public access.  That would be worth checking out.

However a little bit up the road to the north is an abandoned resort I thought she would like to see.  This place was once quite a palace.  Built of Adobe it is now returning to the earth and is in far worse shape than when I first saw it on a trip with Lee Peterson and Steve Burns.

Main entrance to a now abandoned resort near the Salton Sea.  Once a show piece for visitors to the area it now lies in ruins, the adobe walls slowly going back to the earth.

Main entrance to a now abandoned resort near the Salton Sea. Once a show piece for visitors to the area it now lies in ruins, the adobe walls slowly going back to the earth.

The carport around the front door has completely collapsed and rotted away. The roof has caved in, one large wing is virtually collapsed.  (A word of apology is in order.  I was rushing to get these photos up during the chaos of end-of-semester spasms at school and did not get the compression/JPEG/editing/resizing artifacts fixed in all of the shots before I uploaded them…)

The collapsed roof and walls have finally given way in what might have once been a dining room or salon with fireplace.  The details and colors of the debris suggest a less realistic approach to the image.

The collapsed roof and walls have finally given way in what might have once been a dining room or salon with fireplace. The details and colors of the debris suggest a less realistic approach to the image.

Only a lone arch at the end of a long decayed hall  stands over what was once the walkway to the swimming pool.  Ah, if only these walls could talk or “play back” the conversations of guests when this area was expected to be the next major resort area in the country.

Only this arch remains to tellt he tale of how visitors and guests at this old resort once cooled off by heading out to the large pool.  The pool house can be seen through the arch.

Only this arch remains to tellt he tale of how visitors and guests at this old resort once cooled off by heading out to the large pool. The pool house can be seen through the arch.

We headed next to that staple of photo opportunity, Bombay Beach.  I get an overwhelmingly sad feeling from this place seeing the remaining artifacts up on the levee being eaten away and watching the town decay increasingly as it is located near the shore.  Such hopes and dreams were pinned on the future of this great salt water sea.  But it was not to be.  The Ski Inn, last remaining café the Bombay Beach was finally closed leaving only a couple of small markets to service the locals.

The old pier has lost a little more of itself every time I come here.  I was wondering what I could do differently but as usual, the place provided an answer.  Normally when I’ve been here and there is wind in the desert, the sea itself has been calm, almost like a mirror as afternoon fades.  But this time the wind simply howled across the water creating something I’ve never seen before there… surf.  Not big surf mind you, but the constant wind piled up little roller waves that crashed incessantly on the old pilings and shore.  All the way to the far shore, the air over the was blown clear of the dust and sand so you could see the choppy water clearly.

So I decided since it was a little early for a sunset shot, to try for a surreal approach on a different tack.  I mounted the camera on a tripod and took a 20 second shot using a neutral density 10-stop filter.  I had not brought my polarizer or I could have boosted the shot duration to a minute for an even better effect.

A 20-second exposure turned the choppy water into a somewhat surreal fog-like area as the water lapped against and around the old pilings.

A 20-second exposure turned the choppy water into a somewhat surreal fog-like area as the water lapped against and around the old pilings.

The long exposure turned the water around the pier into a ghostly mass encroaching on the ancient pilings; an effect that suited the place and my sense of it.

Cynthia meantime got into shooting the old abandoned and decaying buildings.  In one filled with graffiti and broken furniture, the cupboards still had canned goods in them. In another an old suitcase stood vigil over an ancient TV set.  And a third has a bunch of Betty Paige pin-up playing cards taped to the walls.

Evening was approach so we went a bit farther north to a picnic/camping area on the shoreline.  This gave us a better angle on some closer mountains and as the sun worked its way through the clouds toward the horizon, it created quite a spectacle.

The dust and clouds and wind were in perfect harmony to create a spectacular sunset as seen from a picnic/campground on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea.

The dust and clouds and wind were in perfect harmony to create a spectacular sunset as seen from a picnic/campground on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea.  Remember you can click on this and other images to see an enlarged version.

We finished and started to leave when in the rear view mirror I saw a final sunset shot as the sun appeared briefly in open sky between cloud banks and the mountains.  There was no way to resist attempting one more view so I turned the car around and, bracing against the car and trying to shoot between the formidable wind gusts, took this final shot.

When the sun dropped into the break in the clouds seen in the last shot, it created a blaze of golden light before it slipped behind the mountains.

When the sun dropped into the break in the clouds seen in the last shot, it created a blaze of golden light before it slipped behind the mountains.

It was a spectacular sight so I packed the camera away and then we just watched while the sun was slowly eaten by the mountains and then returned to Highway 111 to head back south and on to San Diego.  With the heavy clouds, as soon as the sun was down behind the mountains it turned dark quickly.  But we had some keeper shots.

All in all it was a successful day’s shoot!

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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