Wallowa Lake

September 12 might have been my last swim of 2022. The next swim will be January 1, 2023; it won’t really be a swim, but a plunge, a group of holiday enthusiasts getting in and out of Wallowa Lake as quickly as possible on New Year’s Day.

Although in my mind the water has been unusually warm this July, August and into September, Wallowa Lake has a reputation for cold in summers. Many lifelong residents swear they had one swim and that was enough, and although the New Year’s Day plunge attracts scores of young and old, new people and family groups, most of those cold-water believers sit it out.

I’ve lived near Wallowa Lake now for most of my life—5/8 of it, with me soon turning 80. For the last 30 years my house sits within a mile of it. But my earliest memories of the lake are actually of walking and skating on it in winter. I remember fish frozen in the ice, a big bonfire on New Year’s Eve with a cardboard box of hand-me-down and mismatched skates that were traded back and forth by the fire as we sipped brandy and whiskey. There were lanterns on the ice, and Malcolm Dawson talked about someone falling through the ice years before. We couldn’t have had a polar plunge that year without breaking ice.

The interpretive sign talking about the most perfect lateral moraines in North America has always been here, in my time. It talks about glaciers and the lake’s depth—almost 300 feet. The lake is about four miles long and a half to three-quarters miles across. (I swam it with some friends at the narrowest place some years ago.) Standing there, at the interpretive sign, or, alternatively at the head of the lake, the East Moraine looks as though someone carved it. Natural forces are powerful, and their leavings are often as regular and beautiful as anything an artist or architect can create.

At the foot of the lake there is another sign at the Indian cemetery that is now called the “Old Chief Joseph Gravesite.” There is a tall monument honoring Chief Old Joseph—Tiwi teqis—and there is a tree next to the monument where visitors hang pieces of cloth, drawings and notes, ribbons and what-nots as acknowledgements to the Nez Perce leader who was reburied there in 1926. Or maybe they are hanging their own dreams there, asking the old chief for a favor. (I’ve seen these ribbons and notes on burial monuments across Turkey and the Middle East. In one place I remember women asked for fertility.)

Next to the Joseph monument is a fountain that has not worked in my time, but I know now that a power ram in the river as it runs from the lake used to pump water up to a cistern on a hill above the gravesite which then fed the drinking fountain. Probably irrigation for the grass around the monument as well. In the late 30s and early 40s, an all-Indian Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crew from the Umatilla Reservation built that water system. (Did you know that there were five all-Indian CCC crews in Oregon?) They also built a stone wall along the highway, and strung lights on the top of the wall. The wall is still there, crumbling in places, and if you look carefully, you can see the remnants of the electrical system. The cistern on the hill is gone, with no explanation of how lake water once reached the now orphaned fountain and the gravesite’s visitors.

From the boat dock at the foot of the lake, looking west, you can see the dam that holds back its waters. You can look to the opposite shores and to the beach just to your right and see the scour marks of 132 years of artificially raised water levels. The first dam, a wooden one, was built in 1890 to divert irrigation water. A concrete dam followed, and then was built taller. Now, the top few feet of the dam are condemned, and a reinvigorated group of young farmers and ranchers is negotiating with state agencies and Nez Perce Tribal Fisheries to rebuild the dam and provide fish passage.

Fish passage for sockeye salmon, the reason the walwa ma band of the Nez Perce Indians camped at the lake in summer for millennia. They caught, ate, dried, and preserved sockeye, that peculiar and tastiest of salmon that needs a fresh water lake for rests for the adults on the way to spawning and smolts on their way back to the sea.

Early settlers didn’t know that, and didn’t ask the Indians. Or didn’t listen. They built their dams and fished the lake with horse-drawn seins, salted and barreled fish for markets in La Grande, and reportedly used them for hog feed.

The “redfish” that are now spawning in the inlets at the head of the lake are called kokanee, land-locked salmon. When they were fished heavily, the state arranged for plants from other lakes. And once a kind of fresh water shrimp was planted in the lake, which resulted in world-class kokanee fishing and world records a few years ago.

Our human fiddling with Wallowa Lake seems to know no ends. But now we are trying—as we are trying to do in so many places, to imitate nature as it once was. I hope the sockeye revival is successful—there are discussions now about finding brood stock.

I have a different hope. I ask everyone i hear talk about the lake’s kokanee and the possible rebirth of a sockeye run if any of the kokanee might have memory for the sea. The usual answer is puzzlement, but a Nez Perce elder named Si told me that he didn’t know, but that he would start with those fish hovering at the dam, looking like they want to get out.

My hope is that whatever happens with the redfish in Wallowa Lake, Si is right, and that a few ancient sockeye genes resurface and refocus on their own runs to the sea.

I like to think of this as “listening to the fish.”

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