My Desert Adventure: Lake Abert

Medina Glenn

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Summer Lake Hot Springs

When we arrived at the rustic bathhouse in front of Summer Lake, pale dust clouds whirled across the bed as heat radiated onto the cracked earth and dried cheatgrass.

Once parking our truck near our camp spot, we decided to walk to the 15-mile-long alkali lake bed. As we approached the path, a juvenile Western rattlesnake slid past us carefully. Our dogs were curious, but we kept them away from the reptile, allowing it to pass through. The rattlesnake was a good reminder to stay watchful as we walked toward the lake bed.

We followed a small path, which descended from dirt mounds and dried washes. As we gazed toward the horizon, through the dusty haze, we could see the faint shimmer of water, but could not estimate how far away the lake began, as water scarcity changed its perimeter and threatened its ecosystem. The Summer Lake basin is a sacred place to local Indigenous tribes, and we began to feel the quiet majesty and a desire to conserve it, and precious water is at the heart of its survival.

That evening, we enjoyed a warm soak in the steaming pools until the first stars began to wink at us. The sparkle of single stars eventually transformed into the long glow of the Milky Way. During the night, we listened to a pack of coyotes as they traversed the dark land, greeting the cattle at a ranch a few miles away. Their playful yells called attention to nocturnal life—more to be appreciated. In the morning, we enjoyed coffee watching a peachy sunrise behind our tent, planning another soak in the hot springs before packing and heading down the highway to the little town of Paisley for a meal. We passed a large cattle ranch operation where herds were trekking through dust, congregating near piles of hay. The lack of pastures was a peculiar contrast to the greener regions in Central Oregon. We wondered, what was the true cost of cattle ranching on this land? How could we go deeper and understand the tenuous balance of this ecosystem?

Lake Abert and Abert Rim

Following our stop in Paisley, we transitioned north to Highway 395. Abert Rim loomed high above us as we sought a wider view of Lake Abert. The rim’s powerful presence was like a guard over the alkali lake. As we continued down the road, pungent, sulfurous air seeped into our vehicle. When we found a good place to park, stepped into this wilderness study area, and became fully engulfed in Lake Abert’s air–moist, alien and beguiling. But where was the wildlife? We’d read about brine shrimp drawing birds down from the Pacific Flyway, but it was so quiet. Maybe we needed to spend more time at the lakeside to notice more wildlife like hidden gems.

As we gazed across Lake Abert’s 15-mile length, we observed what little water was left in the lake bed. Its diminished beauty captivated us; we wanted to learn more about why both Summer Lake and Lake Abert were in peril. As we continued north on Highway 395, we took our short observations home with us. We began our research about the region and the fight for its conservation. We wanted to share our story with our community and bring this region to light. How could we encourage others to appreciate its vitality and significance? We continue to explore this question.

About the Author

Medina Glenn has been an Oregon Natural Desert Association member since 2017. During this time, she has learned a great deal about desert ecosystems and the importance of conservation work. And she says, “I continue to open my heart and mind to the health and wealth of the desert.”