Great Basin

Ancient Lake Chewaucan

Learning Lake Chewaucan

On a road trip to Lake Abert, we discover arrowheads, obsidian, and ancient Lake Chewaucan

Above: Summer Lake and Lake Abert were once part of massive Lake Chewaucan.

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he bigger bugs splatting against the windshield are getting names.  The windshield wipers just won’t do the trick on the dragonfly, so we coin him Rubaway Jim.  Like the Phish song about a runaway dog.

I had a bug. His name was Jim
(Rubaway, rubaway, rubaway)
Took all of my old windshield with him.
(Rubaway, rubaway, rubaway)

I needed to get out and stretch my legs, feel the sun before Oregon starts to go dark.  My ten-year old son got wind of these last minute plans, and before I could say, but you have school, he made sure his entire class knew how excited he was to be headed out to the Oregon outback.  Teacher knew of his plans before I did.

We stop for gas in La Pine, a U.S. Route 97 outpost south of Bend.  Here, we can look at the grille, a constellation of insects.  I’ve always told Kel that when you’re on the road, look at what’s in front of you, not what you hope to see, because that’s where all the best surprises are.

There are flies, and dragonflies, but also moths and large bugs we can’t relate to anything we know.  None of these are insects we had ever seen.  “It makes sense, because most of these hit us after we crossed Mount Hood.  These are desert insects,” I say, referring to the Mountain rain shadow which creates a stark line between the green and wet Northwest, and the arid khaki interior.  

Just south of La Pine is Route 31, which points south towards California.  As soon as you hit the 31, the tenor of the Eastern Oregon landscape shifts abruptly.  Big, empty, wild, isolated.  

Kel asks if there are arrowheads out here, and if there are, can we look for them?  

Tualatin River

California Spreadwing Damselfly, found in an obsidian chip field near Paisley, Oregon.

Arrowheads in the Marshes

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had assumed arrowheads would be found up in the ranges and ridges, like Winter Ridge and Abert Rim, but when we arrive in Silver Lake, locals mention that Native Americans spent a lot of time in the marshes, hunting ducks.  “Look for areas where the lake has just dried up.  Sometimes, they surface in those types of areas, especially after the water dries up.”

We drive out on the long, nearly nine mile refuge road through the northern part of Summer Lake.  It’s autumn, and you can feel it by the enormous amount of birds. Summer shorebird numbers are dwindling, but the ponds and lakes are filling up with winter ducks.

That’s the reason these wetlands make a plausible place to look for arrowheads.  Paiutes survived the harsh Great Basin by building their tribes around lakes and marshes.  Natives, including those who preceded the Paiute, would have used these waters for hundreds of years as backyard hunting grounds, likely firing off arrows into the marshes on a daily basis.

Locals say that the delicate and narrow arrow-tips are called ‘bird points’ because they were designed for bird hunting.  But archaeologists have no evidence that the size of the arrowhead determines its prey, and hunters have proven that bird points were effective with larger prey like deer and elk.

Rather, the size and style of the the tips more likely signifies which age it was created in.  A thinner arrow-tip, rather than a fatter one with a large notch at its base, is actually a better indicator that the arrowhead is indeed the head of an arrow.  

A larger tip might have been more likely attached to an atlatl projectile, a dart or a spear.  Arrowhead size is kind of like the ape to man chart; they evolve from something big and burly, down to something elegant and fragile.  

At the far point of the Summer Lake marshes, where the road is just a thin, straight line with water on either side, I tell Kel that we can try looking for arrowheads in the dried alkali mud between the road and the water.

We walk along the edge of the marsh, littered with shotgun shells, goose poop and the distinctively sharp smell of algae drying in the wind.  Kel finds no stones that would resemble an ancient projectile point, and he quickly grows discouraged.

“People spend years looking for these things.  You don’t just find one right away,” I say.  “Remember when I told you to look at what’s in front of you?  This is a good example of that.  In a place like this, there are so many things to look at and find.  Always look for arrowheads, but if you’re looking for other things too…”

As I lecture Kel, he says, “Papa, look at this.”


American White Pelicans in the marsh of Summer Lake

American White Pelicans prepare to roost at Summer Lake, Oregon.

Tiny Arrowhead with Delicate Pressure Flaking

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e puts a small piece of obsidian in my hand.  It has a pattern of delicate pressure flaking on both sides, clearly sculpted by a human into a triangular shape.  The tip is broken off.

Obsidian was used for all sorts of tools in Oregon, from fishing tools to hide scrapers to general all-purpose multi-tools like the one my brother and I stumbled on near the Owyhee River.  But this was a good match for a Paiute bird point, meaning it had been attached to the arrow of a paiute hunter.

Kel is ecstatic.  We walk down the lonely, quiet road.  It’s nearly night, and the birds of the marsh are moving. Night-herons are beginning to hunt, and egrets, ibises and the splendid American White Pelicans are in flight to find their night-time roosts.  To our south, on the dry playa portion of the lake, a massive dust storm appears.

It is hard to imagine how people survived in this scrubby, cold desert.  The names the different tribes called each other may help explain it.  The Paiute of nearby Malheur Lake were known as the Grass-seed Eaters. The Paiute tribes of Northern Nevada were the Wild Onion Eaters and the Pine nut Eaters.  There were the Ground Squirrel Eaters, and the Alkali Eaters and the Brine Fly Eaters of Northern California.

In nearby Owyhee, the Paiute were known as the Root Tube Eaters.  To survive, the Paiute needed to specialize in a consistent staple.

Kel and I are surviving out of the cooler in the back of the Jeep.  Keeping a cooler cold, organized and fresh so we always have breakfast, lunch and dinner is definitely a modern problem, but it is still one I struggle with.  We head to Summer Lake’s only store, the darkly lit convenience store, gas station and munitions supply to pick up some missing items for dinner.

Kel is holding a can of Spam.  “Please, papa, can I try?”

“No,” I say.

He reads the ingredients. “Pork with ham, water, potato starch.  That doesn’t sound as bad as people make it out to be.  Please, papa!”

I go to the counter to pay.  A group of local hunters have joined the cashier behind the counter, nursing beers.  They notice the can of Spam on the counter.  “That’s not food, you know,” one says to Kel.  “That’s not from planet Earth,” another warns.

“I guess he’s from the Spam Eater Tribe,” I tell them, and pay.

After we eat our dinner in the Jeep, watching the avocets working the water, Kellan opens the can of Spam and places his spork in it, giving me the gross face. Lesson learned.

Summer Lake, Oregon

Looking for arrowheads between the marsh and the playa of Summer Lake.

Paisley and the Pre-Clovis Native Americans

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he next morning, we head out, south around the Summer Lake playa, and then southeast, in the direction of Paisley, population 243.  

Paisley, which is three times the population of Summer Lake, hardly rings a bell in the rest of the northwest.  But it’s known among archaeologists as the site of four caves which have produced the earliest direct evidence of humans in North America in the form of DNA and radiocarboned artifacts.

The Paisley caves help move back the timeline for the populating of North America beyond the Clovis era, helping to solidify the idea that people were moving into and through North America by 14,000 B.C.  

If we had just found an arrowhead that was likely less than 500 years old, now we’re at the center of an area which hints at a much grander timeline of human history than the Paiutes.  In this timeline, found ‘arrowheads’ could be 10-inch long mastadon spear points.

We follow a lead from a local in Summer Lake to mile marker 113, an hour east.  As we approach the marker, the sand begins to glisten.  This mile marker signifies the end of private lands, so we veer off the road onto a smooth, sandy track and ramble towards a spot that shines like shattered mirror.

Kel races out of the Jeep, sinking his knees into the sand, sifting through the small black rock chips.  This shiny field of broken obsidian had settled at the bottom of a massive ice age lake.  “These aren’t arrowheads,” I tell Kel.  “But this was probably a source of obsidian.  They would come here to manufacture tools and arrowheads.”

Our view out here consists only of scrubby desert and ridges in the distance.  But there is one familiar man-made sight, littered throughout the obsidian fields.  Shotgun shells, and they’re everywhere.  Shotgun shells litter the environment throughout Eastern Oregon.  

Unlike arrowheads, these modern projectile points are not a part of the natural environment, and they are filling up the deserts at a much faster rate, as the ammo of modern sport hunters outnumbers the reusable arrows of native hunters by a multiplier of thousands.  

Great Basin tribes were tiny, often numbering in the dozens over a range of hundreds of miles.  The natural litter of ancient hunters played out over thousands of years. But a single hunting season can yield ten-thousand spent shells in a square mile: plastic day-glo colors and rusting steel.

Leaving shotgun shells in the wild is littering, and illegal.  But we have this way in the states of giving special treatment to hunters, or perhaps gun owners in general.  It may be simply out of fear.  How do you tell an armed stranger to kindly pick up his trash?

While Kel sifts through the obsidian, I think about ways we could curb shotgun shell litter.  The first idea comes from basic economics supply and demand. When patrolling for a certain behavior is prohibitively costly, increase the penalty by leaps and bounds.  If it’s nearly impossible to enforce for shotgun shell litter, you’ll be sure to change the behavior if the penalty is ten years in jail.  All you need is a few stakeouts around the nation each year, and you deter the behavior at minimal expense.

The most obvious deterrent would be the free market itself.  Get the hunting community to take shotgun shell litter seriously, to essentially let the culture self patrol.  But how likely would that happen when gun culture has been deteriorating so rapidly?  Look through a modern gun or hunting magazine and you’ll see a politicized culture that has no ambition for such a thing.

Alkali shore on Lake Abert, Oregon

Alkali flats on the southern shore of Lake Abert, Oregon.

Lake Abert in the Ice Age

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magine a national law in which each round of ammo was marked to its owner.  A tiny code threaded in the plastic of the shotgun shell.  You find a shell in the wild, and you bring it in to the local police station.  They run a scan, and the owner’s name pops up.  He’s caught red-handed, and he has two choices.  A year in jail, or pick up 100,000 shotgun shells.  Invariably, he’ll choose option 2.  Most hunters could use the exercise anyway.  

Kel’s search for arrowheads ends when he spots a damselfly with brilliant blue eyes, hanging onto a scrub in the wind.  “Much better to see them this way,” I say.

“Poor Jim,” Kel says.

We drive southeast, through Paisley and Valley Falls, connecting with the route north to Lake Abert.  We park on the side of the road at the southern tip of the the fifteen-mile lake, and look out.  The glass surface of the lake mirrors the clouds, and to our backs is a giant rim, rising 2,500 feet from the desert.  

This giant fault rim explains our entire trajectory on Route 31.  For one, it forms the barrier that makes this lake possible.  But it also forms the barrier that made a much more massive lake possible.  

When those first native Oregonians settled in this part of Oregon, they would have been living on a massive ice age lake, 480 miles long, made possible by those massive ridges we see in Summer Lake and here in Lake Abert.

The climate of Southeastern Oregon in that ice age era was wetter, and biologically richer.  Imagine trees, and marshes, and wide sandy beaches.  Imagine great numbers of waterfowl, reeds, fishes. Those pre-Clovis caves found in Paisley make sense in that context.  They were wave-formed caves at the edge of an inland sea.

Hardly anybody visits all of Southeastern Oregon, mainly, they say, because there is nothing here.  We set out without much of an agenda, but our whims led us to think about arrowheads, and even find one.  In one sense, arrowheads are the most surface-level story of our native history.  But because they are actually out there, you can hold them in your hand, and have some concrete view into our past.

But start with a simple arrowhead, and let it take you places.  The place our little bird point took us was to the edge of a massive, ancient lake.  

14,000 years ago sounds unfathomably old, but when you hold an arrowhead that is 500 years old, you can imagine that maybe next, you’ll uncover a dart point that is 3,000 years old, and after that, a spear point like the ones found in those Paisley Caves, 12 or 13 thousand years old.

Holding our history in our hands can make the geology come alive, and I feel like, for a moment, at the southern tip of Lake Abert, I see the bigger lake that dried up in a timeline that has just become more comprehensible.

When the Trump Administration pulled out of the Paris Accord earlier this year, I started to think more about how little so many understand about the role of our climate in our history.  I realized that it’s not enough to focus on those rabid climate change deniers; it’s really more about the people who don’t have the context, who have never viewed history informed by the space around us. The people whose views might be informed by editorials, but not by the outdoors.

Alkali Flies on Lake Abert, Oregon

Alkali flies along the edge of Lake Abert.

Salty Shores of Lake Abert, and seeing Evidence of Climate Change

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o grasp climate change, and to teach climate change, it’s not enough to start them out with an article from the Scientific American.  We need them to see climate change as something tactile and visible.  A lot of folks out there see the world through those editorials and those television talking heads.  

Hold an arrowhead, know the age that created it, and climate change is no longer something you need to take sides on.

Kel and I walk out onto the white Alkali shore of Lake Abert. There are no other footprints, but our own.  The salty shore is a reminder of why no natives lived near the shore of Lake Abert in the past thousand years.  As the global climate warmed, Lake Chewaucan’s saline and alkaline substances became concentrated, making the lake an effective dead zone to most life.

I show Kel the millions of alkali flies that cover the edge of the alkali flats. “Some native groups actually ate these flies as their staple, because that’s really the only thing that can survive in this environment.  Just shrimp, flies and a few birds!”

But Kel has just discovered the joy of seeing a million alkali flies in a state of panic, and he’s chasing them down the pure white beach.