Dennis Imhoff's cabin windows were covered with snow when his transfer came through.
The ranger was leaving Donner State Park in the frozen Sierra for a new home with miles of deserted beaches, exotic birds and the best fishing a man could wish for. A choice assignment--or so it seemed.
Hot, Humid, Smelly
On a recent Monday while Imhoff was on duty, the temperature reached 109 degrees at Salton Sea State Recreation Area, with the humidity at 70% and a rotten-egg smell hanging in the motionless air. The mercury had measured consistently over 105 degrees in recent weeks, with some 112- to 115-degree days.
"If you let it, it would be extremely oppressive here because of the heat," Imhoff said.
Garth Tanner, chief deputy director of operations for the California State Park System in Sacramento, said that the Salton Sea park has a high turnover rate for employees. There are three positions currently unfilled in the park. "We find we have a higher percentage of vacancies there than elsewhere in the system," he said.
Although the job bulletin describes pleasant aspects of life at the Salton Sea--balmy winter temperatures and a variety of birds and animals--a prospective ranger who asks around might be deterred by the flip side of the job:
Wives and young children, imprisoned inside their air-conditioned trailers, become slightly crazed by the time Dad, the ranger, comes home, also grumbling about the heat. Aside from the ever-present sulfur smell created by algae in the sea, there is a periodic stench caused by a naturally occurring fish die-off. At those times park employees must truck loads of dead fish from the beaches up to the hills to be buried.
In the winter, peripatetic retired people and other seekers of warmth flock to the Salton Sea for the sun. Eighty percent of the visitors come from Los Angeles and San Diego. The seashore is not such a bad place to be at that time of year; some people even call it beautiful.
At the height of summer, however, the only visitors are a few fishermen who come for the corvina. Park rangers--who like to share their knowledge of an area by talking with visitors, and giving interpretive talks--have no audience.
Cultural and recreational amenities, too, are lacking. The North Shore Motel, normally a hub of activity in the area, was abandoned on a recent Monday. On the off-chance that a guest would arrive, the desk clerk stuck to her post in the air-conditioned office. Even her dog would not go outside.
It's too hot to jog or to play tennis on the court at the North Shore Motel--the net is in poor shape anyway, said Imhoff, a jogger and tennis player.
Most of the restaurants and small businesses that dot the shore are closed in summer. There's no place for the park rangers to go out to eat.
Park employees do have their own beach, Sneaker Beach, just a short stroll from the residence area. But the water in the sea is hot--as much as 100 degrees in summer--and thick. It leaves a slimy film on the skin. There are vicious barnacles that slice the bare feet of waders. A female ranger did jump in the water and swim last year to rescue some boaters; other than that, no one does much swimming.
The Salton Sea park staff have something in common with the birds, reptiles, fish and fauna that inhabit this harsh region: They adapt.
On what seemed to a visitor to be an unbearably hot morning at the park, ranger Imhoff seemed to be enjoying his job. The boiling air outside the entrance station was throbbing with the shrieks of cicadas as Imhoff set out on patrol. Imhoff pointed out the empty cicada cocoons dotting the bottom of a park display board. With the cicadas just hatched, he said, soon he'd be watching the fly catchers and dusty phoebes chase after the insects.
His fascination with desert creatures takes Imhoff's mind off the temperature. Just the other night, he said, he spotted a pink-skinned, lizard-like creature called a desert gecko for the first time.
Imhoff has become attached to the toads that sit around the entrance station "like a bunch of old men," gobbling bugs from the air, and to the gopher snakes that mimic the coiled posture and waving tail of rattlesnakes when cornered. A snake called a red racer has made its home under Imhoff's trailer. "I've been told by old-timers they'll bite you until they don't have any teeth, and then they'll gum you," Imhoff said with a grin.
Imhoff, 42, grew up in the little town of Rio Vista on the Sacramento River, where he learned to love fishing for catfish and striped bass. Although the Salton Sea is thought by some to have the best fishing in the state, Imhoff hasn't been fishing here. The California Department of Health Services has posted warnings saying the fish contain levels of selenium potentially harmful to humans.