Cold Water in the Northern Desert

For those of us who love to contemplate Ice Age North America and long for a glimpse of the Great Basin when it was a land of lakes, south-central Oregon fulfills many wishes. Lake Abert is an especially stark beauty, stretching vast and empty towards the arid waves of the sagebrush sea to the west and shadowed by the massive cliffs of Abert Rim to the east. It feels enormous, though it is only a small remnant of Pleistocene Lake Chewaucan.

Like most such Great Basin lakes with no outlet save evaporation, Lake Abert is extremely salty. When I visited on a very cold December morning, ice was trying in vain to form in the salt water, but gentle waves of half-frozen slush were lapping at the shore, hissing softly in the silent dawn.

Lake Abert’s environs are also notable for holding one of the oldest archaeological sites in North America, Paisley Caves. The caves contain evidence of human presence here as early as 13-14,000 years ago.

Climbing up the steep slopes through sparse junipers towards Abert Rim, one can’t help but think of those earliest Americans, exploring inland from the coast past glacier-bound mountains to find an inland paradise full of water and birds.

The water may be far less than it once was, but on a stormy winter evening or icy morning this land still seems to lie dreaming of its Ice Age past.

2 thoughts on “Cold Water in the Northern Desert

    • Thank you! Highway 395 is actually in a couple of these images between the lake and the scarp, so it’s not deep wilderness. But nevertheless, the signs of humanity feel very swallowed up out there.

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