Great Basin

Feeding Avocet on a drying lake in Lake County, Oregon

Avocets and Archaeology
in Lake County

In Oregon's Lake County, I Investigate the value of documenting travel during a pandemic. Includes an interview with Prehistoric Archaeologist Dennis Jenkins.

Above: American avocet feeding in the alkali flats of Lake County.

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am surprised when my son asks if we can return to Oregon’s Lake County—8,000 people living in 8,000 square miles of Southeastern Oregon sagebrush and salt flats. 

I had spent six months regaining my mobility after last year’s accident, during which I planned fastidiously for this year’s travels; promising to make up for all that couch time with a renewed travel schedule to begin in April 2020. When the 2020 pandemic arrived, I was a caged bird at the beginning of migration season, restless with zugunruhe.

With the pandemic came a global chorus about the end of travel, the repulsive word staycation was resurfacing in everyday language, and even among travel writers. A friend wrote me, and with glee announced that the pandemic had made the latest crop of travel influencers “suddenly seem irrelevant.” He added, “showing off one’s extravagant travels seems especially inappropriate right now...the pandemic is a great equalizer because everyone is affected.”

I was not singing this refrain, and I had already spent considerable time imagining the end of easy, carefree travel. When I last visited Southeastern Oregon, I was among the first to enter the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in nearby Harney County, which had been inaccessible for months during an armed occupation by out-of-state right-wing militants. During that trip, I considered my freedom to roam wild land and realized that there would never again be a time when travel was so effortless. I wrote, “The golden age of travel is the age in which travel is most free and open. When the world is at the fingertips of its travelers.”

But after visiting the Malheur refuge, I was not satisfied with my conclusion that we were living in the best age of travel. On a backpacking trip to the Olympic Peninsula's Shi Shi Beach, I asked myself what it might look like to be a traveler in a new dark age of travel. In such a dark age, I wrote, “In a world that would limit leisure airplane travel, my ambitions to one day visit the South Seas would be gone. My dreams of the orient, quashed.”

I interviewed experts who helped me paint the bleak picture of that region in a theoretical future in which Seattle riots cut me off from mainland Washington, in which emergency climate change policies drastically limited travel, and then I posed the question: would such a dark age of travel be so bad?

I wrote, “In such an age, getting to the Olympic Peninsula, and traveling in it, would become as far away to me as Greenland is today.  Perhaps an overstuffed train could take me as far as Olympia. But from there, I would need to rely on bicycle and foot.”

By the end of my trip, I had come to terms with a future of limited travel: “Everything about travel would change...a multi-day bicycle-trip to the coast or a walking trip to Hood River would be as grand an adventure as a visit to the Dolomites.”

So when my son asks if we can go back to the big empty landscape of Lake County, I am suddenly aware that my dark age of travel has already arrived— what am I waiting for, couch? Now, the Jeep windows are down, and we’ve just crossed through the Cascades, draped in fresh snow.

Fort Rock, Oregon

Fort Rock, towering 200 feet above the sagebrush flats of Lake County, is a key site in the archaeology of the New World.

Fort Rock and New Prehistoric Discoveries in Lake County

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e are walking on a trail in the interior of Fort Rock, a two-hundred foot tall circular rim of rock; the result of magma bubbling up in an ancient lake. Outside of Fort Rock is flat sagebrush scrub typical of much of the Great Basin. But the quiet, protected interior feels almost like the desert southwest, with its bounty of blooms, lizards and desert beetles scurrying through sand.

The last time we visited Lake County, Kellan found an arrowhead on the shore of a shallow lake, and we continued the conversation I began 15 years ago when my brother and I found a native multitool stone, and we asked ourselves if we could learn about Oregon’s native past, not through books, but through travel.

I tell Kellan that one of the most recognizable images of Oregon is an old black and white photo of sandals that were discovered in a Fort Rock cave in 1938. In 1951, those famous close-toed sandals became the oldest radiocarbon-dated footwear in the world; and that old, grainy photo was the world’s most recognizable image of the early peopling of the New World—evidence of people in Oregon as far back as nine-thousand to thirteen-thousand years. 

We walk out onto a flat ledge underneath a towering cave along the rim of Fort Rock. Kellan wants to know if those sandal-wearing people lived here, maybe on this overhang?

I tell him that I could imagine people living inside Fort Rock’s walls, and I remind him that as we learned in our last trip, the climate of this region was wetter. Maybe there were trees dotting those scrublands? Maybe there were lots of people living here? The truth is, I don’t know, and I can’t picture it.

After our trip, I’ll ask the man who discovered the earliest evidence of people in the New World. Dr. Dennis Jenkins is a research archaeologist at the University of Oregon. He is sometimes referred to as Dr. Poop, because his discovery in the nearby Paisley Caves of the earliest known humans came via his discovery of coprolites, or fossilized feces. Once radiocarbon dated by several independent research labs, Jenkins’ discovery set the date of arrival of people in this hemisphere to between 14,000 and 15,000 years ago.

Flowers at Fort Rock, Oregon in Lake County

Spring blooms at Fort Rock, Oregon

Interview with Dr. Dennis Jenkins

Erik: You’ve had decades of experience operating field schools in the Great Basin desert; managing complex dig sites with large teams. I imagine there is the potential for hardship and danger working in these environments for so long. Do you have a story or two that exemplifies life in the field in the Oregon desert?

Dennis Jenkins: Honestly, life has generally been exceptionally good, and fun, and safe, and very rewarding. Otherwise I would have given it up long ago. It is exhausting for me, and has been hard on my marriage, being gone every summer when other people are normally making memories with their families. 

There have been a few times when it was scary and particularly stressful. Several students came down sick with what I believe was Norovirus in 2018. One ended up going to the hospital in Bend and two stayed in camp for the rest of the week while excavations continued. We isolated the patients, bleached every surface, all water containers, doubled up on the bleach in the dish washing station, put out hand sanitizers around the kitchen and dining area, lectured continually about cleanliness, and stopped the virus cold.

There have been the usual dangers as well. Rattlesnakes in the site which we caught and transported out to another location. Students and instructors cutting themselves with knives, sharpened shovel blades, and obsidian flakes driven into hands while learning to flint knap. A few car accidents, usually on weekends as students travel home and back to camp.

Erik: You are recognized as the archaeologist who discovered the earliest evidence of humans in the Western Hemisphere. The coprolites that you uncovered were radiocarbon dated to 14-15,000 years ago, pushing back concrete evidence of human habitation of the Americas by 1,000 to 2,000 years. But North America was very different back then. Wouldn’t there have been massive sheets of ice sheets just north of this area, making a southward migration to the Great Basin nearly impossible?

Dennis Jenkins: There is substantial debate about when the Ice Free Corridor in Canada opened. It is being pushed back further and radiocarbon dates on large mammals in the IFC are in excess of thirteen-thousand  years, but there is no evidence yet of people there at that time. The glaciers would have been well down into northern Washington fourteen-thousand years ago, making it difficult to get to Paisley, but not impossible.

Erik: If the ancestors of the people who lived here traveled along the coast, what might have brought them inland and over the Cascades?  

Dennis Jenkins: If they were ocean-goers, fishing and shoreline foraging folk, they probably followed salmon and sea mammals up the major rivers of the region —- the Columbia, Deschutes, John Day, Snake, Klamath, Pit River, into the interior where they adapted to a variety of environments, first along the rivers, lakes, and marshes, then deeper into the desert.

Summer Lake, Oregon

Miles of salt flats abound in Lake County.

Erik: People who traveled in boats along the coast might have been specialists in fishing and hunting sea mammals. How might such a people adapt to such a different environment?

Dennis Jenkins: They already had a working knowledge of terrestrial resources—seeds, roots, berries, nuts, small animals, large game—and adjusted their subsistence resources as they encountered different, but similar plants and animals.

Erik: Fort Rock, Summer Lake, Lake Abert - these are places that appear inhospitable today. How different was Southeastern Oregon 14,000 years ago?

Dennis Jenkins: The main difference was the huge lakes that filled many of the large wet basins, those with streams flowing into them from higher elevations like Steens Mountain and Winter Rim. Water would have been more easily obtained from what are today dry stream beds and playas. Trees would have been found in some places where they do not exist today.

Erik: You’ve collected data about the people who passed through this area, through DNA analysis, obsidian flakes and various artifacts. What do we know about these people based on that research? What were they doing at the Paisley Caves?

Dennis Jenkins: We know there were very few of them, and they frequently were on the move. They probably came to the Paisley Caves as a part of their annual subsistence rounds, but did not stay very long or they would have left more obsidian chips. Stone tools are exceptionally sharp, but dull and break easily, so that length of time and intensity of activity equals more flakes of stone and broken artifacts. 

There are very few in the bottom of the caves with the coprolites, so people could not have spent much time there. Also, drinking water was always an issue when the lake was not right at the site and important water loving plants like cattails, bulrush, and willow would have been further from the caves as the water receded.

Erik: Do we know what types of plants and animals they consumed? Maybe even how they hunted, fished and foraged?

Dennis Jenkins: We know they ate root plants such as lomatiums, and probably camas, and grass pollen and phytolithes are common on tools and in coprolites. They appear to have scavenged or hunted mammoth and horse, mountain sheep, deer, bison, and pronghorn antelope, and of course the ever present rabbits so popular with later Native Americans.

Erik: There are few people who have been as close to the artifacts of the early peopling of the Americas as you. Would you imagine that the people of this time were living marginal lives, merely surviving, or are there indications of thriving, robust culture? 

Dennis Jenkins: It was their home. They did well during most of the year, partly because there were few of them and therefore less competition for resources, but they were well adapted to their environment and were highly skilled at being at the right spot at the right time to enjoy the bounty of the land when it was available.

Erik: How do people from local tribes react to the new discoveries in Oregon’s Great Basin?’

Dennis Jenkins: Most of them enjoy hearing about how their ancestors lived and some have told me, “Dennis, you will find even older poop. We have always been here.”

Erik: If coprolites and cultural artifacts were found in Oregon’s Great Basin only because this region is extremely arid, do you think there are still major gaps in our knowledge of this time?

Dennis Jenkins: There are huge gaps in our knowledge. The more we know about this time, the more interesting and vital our questions become. For instance, how did they find mates on a nearly empty landscape. They must have gotten together somewhere in larger groups to do so. Where are those locations and what were the resources that made it possible? Where did they spend the winters and what foods got them through?

Erik: What is next for archaeology in Oregon’s Great Basin region?

Dennis Jenkins: We will learn to model the landscape and its resources with a better fit for the presence of lakes, marshes, streams, plants, and animals to predict where people would have been during certain periods of time. Then, we will need to interpret the geology of the region to predict where sediments of the right age, in the right location, would be preserved so that we can intercept the archaeology representing that time. It will take dedicated and innovative multi-disciplinary teams of archaeologists, geologists, chemists, faunal and floral analysts, and others to do it but we will continue to push the time of human arrival and successful colonization back in time.

Agapostemon Green Sweet Bee feeding on desert bloom

An Agapostemon Green Sweet Bee feeding on blooms near alkali flats in Lake County, Oregon.

Nesting Avocets on Summer Lake

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With the windows rolled down, we drive out on the road leading through Summer Lake marsh. It’s shorebird nesting season, and our plan is to spend up to six hours a day with the large wading shorebirds, photographing into the marsh along white alkali beaches.

It crosses my mind—-why does my twelve year old son want to be out here, photographing avocets? He doesn’t particularly care for what the kids call phat birbs. He even claims to not particularly like places that are sunny, or without snow. 

But what is it about being among wading shorebirds in a sunny place? One of the happiest moments in many people’s lives is when they return to a beach that yields old memories, their bare feet in the hot sand. The barren, clean and bright alkali flats with shorebirds approximates that old beach for me. When I ask Kellan why he wants to spend time out on the alkali flats, his answer isn’t really that different than mine: it’s relaxing to be out in the big quiet. 

And it’s hard not to find the simple joy of sitting, partially hidden, against the wheel of the Jeep on a narrow band of road and watching the American Avocets feeding in the shallow water. Like their closely related cousins, the stilts, avocets have evolved long slender legs, long slender necks, and long slender bills. Among all birds of the world, those avocets and stilts from the family Recurvirostridae are perhaps the most whimsically elegant.  

They will march along the shoreline, sweeping their upcurved bills in unison as a duet, foraging for invertebrates. 

During the early days of the pandemic, I had listened to a friend podcasting his laments of the dangers of social media to his audience; the global quest for likes, validation and attention can be summed up in the insincerity of pretty pictures. I can’t help but to hear the background chorus about travel, and wonder if photographing these extravagant avocets is as insincere and frivolous as some now suggest?


Duet of American Avocets feeding on alkali flats

An American Avocet duet feeding in alkali flats in Lake County's protected lands.

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hen I remember the old photo of the sandals, it reminds me that travel photography is your first-step into a yet unknown facet of the world. It doesn’t tell you what to think, nor does it lead you toward any one opinion. But it can lead you in any number of directions.

Where would a picture of an American Avocet lead you? You might ask, where is this? Why are these birds here? If you would pursue those questions, you would learn that these birds are here because the desert wetlands of Southeastern Oregon are protected by a system of federal lands: Lake County and topologically similar Harney County, just east of here, together are comprised almost entirely of Bureau of Land Management lands; these lands balance wetland habitat conservation with other land uses, like ranching and outdoor recreation.

From there you may learn about the Occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a smaller pocket of protected land managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which is even more specifically designed to protect Great Basin wildlife.

And then, you'll learn about what the Malheur refuge has become most famous for, and you'll ask: Why did out-of-state, far-right armed extremists take over the headquarters of a refuge known for its wading shorebirds?

You would learn that these Malheur occupants believed that the mixed-use nature of public lands, including the protections of native shorebirds in these Great Basin wetlands, was illegal federal overreach.

If you took the natural next step from there, you might want to learn about the strange showdown between the Malheur occupants and the FBI, who, by February 2016, had surrounded the occupants with agents and heavy-duty military equipment.

You might then pick up the 2018 book Shadowlands: Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff by Poet Anthony McCann, who documented the standoff in intimate detail.

McCann proposed that the juxtaposition of the twisted case the Malheur occupants made for liberty with the other trending case for liberty being made by Black Lives Matter proponents was the defining moment of the incomprehensible insanity that was awaiting us around the corner: the Trump era.

You might notice, while reading Shadowlands, that McCann often references the occupants' use of social media, often putting the most rugged, bearded and photogenic occupant in front of journalists as a form of propaganda for their cause.

Then, perhaps you'll see how often photography is used to get a specific reaction out of its audience. Most photography we engage with was used to sell something.

That's why travel photography, in this strange era, is of more value than ever. It doesn't tell you what to think. It begs you to take your own first step, to find your own way.

Summer Lake Pond

Pond near our motel, Lake County, Oregon

Christmas Valley Liberty

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As soon as we enter Lake County, the pandemic masks are gone. To some extent, this makes sense—-in big open ranch country where social interaction often takes place outdoors, the ubiquitous mask-wearing we see in Portland is unnecessary. 

But in Christmas Valley, an alfalfa farming town that serves as a hub for desert offroading tourism, there is not a mask to be seen, even among people packed close together.

As we start to explore the town’s many long desert backroads, I start seeing the signs: “No Masks Allowed”, “The Mask Will Not Be My Muzzle”, “Liberty! No Masks! No Restrictions!”

The theme of liberty is a persistent one in Oregon’s desert communities. But how did this particularly dangerous call to liberty happen so quickly in isolated rural communities like this? It was only a month ago that masks became the central theme in suppressing the virus. Where did the anti-mask fervor come from and how did it distribute itself so cleanly across rural lands?

This thought reminds me of the lyrics to the song ‘Liberty’, the title track of a Robert Hunter album from 1988. Robert Hunter designed his songs so that Jerry Garcia could sing the story of the narrator differently each night, one night sympathetic to the narrator, the other viewing the narrator as wicked or doomed.

I witnessed the Grateful Dead debut of Liberty at the Oakland Coliseum in 1993. In Jerry Garcia’s Liberty, we see the two sides of the American’s quest for liberty—stubborn old patriotic coot on one hand, idiot on the other. In his failing health, Garcia employed a cracked, broken and prematurely aged voice to full effect.

If I was an eagle, I'd dress like a duck
Crawl like a lizard and honk like a truck
If I get a notion I'll climb this tree
Or chop it down and you can't stop me

Robert Hunter penned Liberty with inspiration from Walt Whitman, who saw the desire for liberty as both a bulwark against enslavement by the state, and as the foil of the meek. Whitman recognized that liberty could only come with a belief in responsibility to your fellow man, and ultimately, to law.

“The shallow, as intimated, consider liberty a release from all law, from every constraint. The wise see in it, on the contrary, the potent Law of Laws.”

On our last day of pandemic travel, I notice Kellan watching a pair of boys fishing outside our small motel. He asks me if he could catch one with his hands, or craft a spear. I prod him to follow me to the lonely convenience store, where we purchase 3 fishing hooks and a line. We make simple poles from sticks, and spend the rest of the day without a bite.