KQED Perspective aired August 2003
By Michael Ellis
In the 1840’s Colonel John C. Fremont, also known as the Pathfinder was trying find the fabled Buenaventure River. This imaginary and hoped for waterway was thought to drain the unexplored lands of Nevada and Utah and flow west to the Pacific. This would make it very easy for settlers to get to California where those pesky Mexicans were living. Alas every drainage he followed flowed into low spots and created inland seas – the largest of which is the Great Salt Lake. Fremont correctly named this huge region the Great Basin.
In December of 1844 he was making his way down from Oregon on the east side the Sierra. “we continued our way up the hollow, intending to see what lay beyond the mountain…. Beyond, a defile between the mountains descended rapidly about two thousand feet; and, filling up all the lower space, was a sheet of green water, some twenty miles broad. It broke upon our eyes like the ocean.”
Fremont was the first white man to describe Pyramid Lake, the most beautiful desert lake I have ever seen. He camped that night by a gigantic tufa tower over 400 feet high which to him resembled the great pyramids of Egypt. This magnificent body of water, shimmering in the treeless Nevada desert is where the Truckee River, draining Lake Tahoe, goes to die. It is now the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation.
This peaceful group had lived off the resources of the Lake for centuries…thriving on the abundant cutthroat trout and unique cui-ui fish that grow to magnificent size there. The white settlers saw nothing of value in the stark area and granted the Indians a large reservation in 1874. That was the good news; the bad news is there was no guarantee that the Truckee River, the lifeblood of the Lake, would continue to flow. Starting in 1906 a large portion of the River has been diverted to help white farmers make the desert bloom. The lake dropped the fish and the Paiutes became endangered.
But there is some good news – a few years of good snowmelt, improved irrigation ditches and some favorable court decisions have given Pyramid Lake a reprieve and a rising lake level. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.