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?