Lake Abert: A Beautiful Desert Lake
Lake Abert is a large, shallow, alkaline, endorheic lake in southern Oregon. The lake is located 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) northwest of the unincorporated community of Valley Falls, in the Great Basin, and 30 miles North of Lakeview. Lake Abert is very beautiful desert lake, sitting in a broad treeless basin. During the summer, the cloudless sky looks like it’s one with the lake.
Geography and Hydrography
Lake Abert has a total length of 15 miles (24 kilometers) and a maximum width of 7 miles (11 kilometers). It has an elongated triangular shape, and covers a total area of 57 square miles (148 square kilometers). Even though the lake is quite large, its maximum depth only reaches 11 feet (3.4 meters) and averages 7 feet (2.1 meters).
Lake Abert is endorheic, which means that it doesn’t have any outflows. The lake is actually a remnant of Lake Chewaucan, which covered the basin of Lake Abert and that of nearby Summer Lake during most of the late Pleistocene. Lake Chewaucan was formed during the end of the last ice age by runoff from melting snow, and had an area of 461 square miles (1,190 square kilometers), reaching a maximum depth of 375 feet (114 meters). At the end of the Pleistocene Lake Chewaucan began to shrink, and Lake Abert and Summer Lake are its only remnants. Lake Abert occupies the eastern section of the former Lake Chewaucan.
A steep escarpment more than 2,500 feet (760 meters) in height called Abert Rim is located to the East of Lake Abert. Coglan Buttes, a long ridge is located to the West of the lake, while the Coleman Hills are located to the North of the lake.
Abert Lake’s most important inflow is the Chewaucan River, which enters the lake at its southern tip. The catchment area of the lake covers about 820 square miles (2,100 square kilometers). Because the area around the lake is semi-arid, most of the water in the area is provided by snowfall during winter months. Other water sources include summer thunderstorms which contribute with a small amount of runoff from the Abert Rim.
The endorheic nature of the lake has led to high concentrations of common salt, alkali, and sodium carbonates in its water. The lake shore is dotted with crystallized mineral crusts that can be several inches thick.
Etymology and History
The lake was named by the explorer John C. Fremont in honor of Colonel John James Abert, during Fremont’s mapping expedition in Central Oregon in 1843. Fremont described the lake as a "handsome sheet of water", and noticed it was "closely bordered by the high black ridge which walled it in by a precipitous face".
Some evidence of human habitation in the area was discovered by Luther Cressman in the 1930s in the Paisley Caves. It was estimated that humans began occupying the area 11,000 years ago. Dennis Jenkins did further excavations at the site starting with 2002, and there is evidence that human occupation in the area started 14,300 years ago.
John Work, who was the leader of Hudson’s Bay Company fur trapping expedition, made the first written record of the lake on October 16th, 1832. Work initially called the lake Salt Lake, and implied in his journal that other trappers might have visited the lake before him.
A large wildfire ignited on the west side of Lake Abert in 1986, burning 9,853 acres (39.88 square kilometers) of land. After the fire, crested wheatgrass was seeded along the shoreline on 800 acres (3.2 square kilometers) of land.
Wildlife is abundant at Lake Abert, especially birds. Fish can’t survive in the alkaline waters of the lake, but a large population of brine shrimp lives in the lake, supporting birds as well. Abert Lake is an important stop for the birds which fly along the Pacific flyway migration route. Daily counts sometimes reach an incredible 300,000 birds.
The lake is a habitat for snowy plovers. During migrations you will see many species of birds here, including eared grebes, red-necked phalaropes, Wilson's phalaropes, killdeer, northern shovelers, and American avocets. During the summer months, birds here include Forster’s terns, black terns, white-faced ibis, black-necked stilts, Clark’s grebes, Ross’ geese, snow geese, Canada geese, sage grouse, and burrowing owls. Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and ferruginous hawks hunt in the area as well.
Human Activity and Recreation
A grazing allotment that covers 6,866 acres (27.87 square kilometers) can be found on the southwestern shore of the lake, a semi-arid area that has bluebunch wheatgrass, big sagebrush, and cheatgrass. In 1979, a brine shrimp collection enterprise started here, with a relatively small shrimp harvest.
The lake’s extreme alkalinity makes it less popular among outdoor enthusiasts. Extended contact with the lake’s water is harmful to people. However, the lake is popular among bird watchers, because of the many and diverse species of birds that inhabit the area. U.S. Route 395 runs along almost the entire length of the lake on its eastern shore.