How Lake Abert Helped Us See the Past

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Lake Abert in the Ice Age


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.

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