Saturday, May 25, 2013
THE MYSTERIOUS CRACKS IN ALKALI LAKE
Day one of the Cedarville, Burns, Winnemucca Tour
First in a series…
The west is vast. For those of us living in the urbanized valley, the west begins somewhere east of the Sierra. Like up on the Modoc.
Towns like Adin, Canby, Bieber and Likely harken back to the era when a trip to town was an occurrence rather than a daily deal; when one left home with an empty buckboard and came home with a full one; when folks knew the few everyones passed along the way, assured that they’d help out in the event of a swollen stream crossing or a busted wagon axle.
After a day’s journey up the Feather River Canyon, past Almanor and across the lip of the Modoc Plateau we arrived at the J n R Hotel. Located in the heart of Cedarville, California, I’d made reservations, as I figured rooms might be limited. Upon calling, the hotelier asked about my business for visiting the area. “To hike to the northeast corner of the state and find the Von Schmidt marker.” “Oh,” she replied. “I’ve never done that.”
Sure enough, upon arrival, a No Vacancy sign hung in front of the hotel. “How many other folks staying here tonight?” my travelling partner, John, asked at the counter. “Just you guys,” responded the desk clerk/house maid/bottle washer/owner. “We’re headin’ out of town day after tomorrow. Not sure we needed the stress of a full house.” She asked again about the reason for our visit and responded “Oh, yes,” when we began to explain. “I’ve contacted the area reporter for the Record. She’d like to interview you about that. I’ll give her a call and tell her you’re here. You can meet her at the Country Hearth next door. Go get some dinner.”
John and I looked at each other: the west.
Although both of us spent decades in public education, our undergraduate degrees, coincidentally, were in Geography. Twenty-some years ago, when we’d been introduced, that major created a connection. This, however, would be our first field experience together.
As we finished dinner, a slender silver-haired woman pressed through the door, identified us as not from these parts, pulled a chair from the table and sat down. John explained our mission, filling her in on the history of the Von Schmidt marker including the fact that it wasn’t located at the actual corner of the state (42 degrees north, 120 degrees west.) This error created off and on tensions between Nevada and California until being resolved by the US Supreme Court in the 1970s. Using his new-fangled iPhone’s global positioning application, we would walk from the marker to the real corner.
At this point the interview changed course. “You want to go for a walk tonight?” the reporter asked. A mile or two east of town, a playa called Middle Alkali Lake serves as a pleasant place for area types to walk for exercise: flat, quiet, views in all directions and substantial but soft footing. “About a week ago, some big cracks showed up out there, the likes of which nobody’d ever seen before. I’ve wanted the BLM Ranger to come out and take a look, maybe measure them, but he doesn’t seem to have time. You suppose you could come out and take a look. I mean, it is Geography, now isn’t it?”
The sun’s westward descent offered slanting light and shadow, nicely accentuating this weird phenomenon. A tiny canyon, consistently about four inches deep and six inches wide reached northward across the playa.
We took a GPS reading, degree, minute and second, and paced northward. It stretched for over 1000 feet. Mark.
Surveying the land, she spotted another one – one she hadn’t seen before – beginning about fifty feet further on. While John waited in order to give us a point for orientation, we paced the new find off.
“What do you suppose caused this?” she asked. “Running water?” I suggested. “Hasn’t rained in weeks.” “Shrinkage due to drying?” “That’d create smaller cracks like these little ones.” She pointed. “Maybe the aquifer is depleting and the lakebed is settling.” “Don’t know.”
Five minutes – time not distance – north, the new little canyon split into several directions. We gave up taking measurements and hiked back.
Standing in the middle of State Route 299 at dusk, she thanked us. Then she pointed to an arête on the rim of the Warners to the west. “Beautiful cirque lake right up there at the base of that crag. You should check it out.” Then focusing to the east: “Where the highway curves east there’s a road that leads to a geyser out that way.” Making a circular motion with her hand she added, “Then there’s the Barrel Springs scenic loop.” For a good spell, standing in the highway, she ticked off and pointed out points of interest we should know about in the Surprise Valley area.
The darkness gathered and the first of a billion stars began to twinkle. Parting, she took our hands and hoped we might report back what we had found on tomorrow’s adventure to the Von Schmidt marker. But, it seemed to us, the adventure had already begun.
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