For the first time in perhaps 10,000 years, there was a lake in Death Valley, and I had to go paddle it.
Death Valley once had a wetter past. For hundreds of thousands of years it contained large lakes fed by abundant rainfall and meltwater from receding ice age glaciers in the Sierra Nevada. Ten thousand years ago climate change gradually dried up the valley of lakes … until the winter of 2005.
Steep snowcapped peaks melted thousands of feet down into sweeping alluvial fans, eventually draining into a foreboding salt pan, one of the most inhospitable and hottest places on the planet, and the lowest point in the western hemisphere.
Badwater, 282 feet below sea level at Death Valley National Park, in eastern California, barely receives two inches of rain per year in the 3.3 million acre expanse. Some years America’s largest national park receives no rain at all. However, since an intense monsoon rain in August 2004 flooded the park, followed by the wettest winter since recordkeeping began in 1911, Death Valley had received a record 6.3 inches of rain through March 2005. This created a 5-mile wide and 20-mile long lake engulfing one of the driest basins on earth.
After spending the night at the Badwater parking lot, I woke up at dawn to soft purple hues on the summit of 11,049 foot Telescope Peak, the tallest mountain in the Panamint Range. With the newly formed lake only 10 feet from Badwater’s winding road, I pulled off onto the shoulder and pulled my kayak down to the edge of the salt flats for a sunrise paddle. Warning signs abound regarding hiking across the salt pan, stating it’s too hot to cross, but now paddling across was viable; there was water all the way to the daunting Panamints.
I paddle in the ocean a lot, so I’m used to salt crusting on me and my gear, but after paddling for 10 miles across Badwater, I felt like a slab of heavily salted meat. A dry desert wind stirred up tiny whitecaps large enough to launch off the bow of my kayak, while quickly drying and crusting thick splotches of salt all over my boat, paddle, life vest and me.
Park rangers weren’t sure how long it would be before the lake receded into a salty bog before drying out and living up to its reputation as the hottest venue in North America. However, they were sure the lake was a 100-500 year phenomena, not to be seen again in our lifetime.
On my return paddle back to my truck I came across an odd looking contraption, complete with solar panels and other twirling gizmos. A ranger called it a mini weather station that gauges the evaporation of the water levels.
Another mile back to the pothole-riddled road just in time to beat the rising sun, Badwater’s stifling heat, and to scrape enough salt off to fill a saltshaker.