The Middleton Stream has another true story to share from western forestry scientist and new friend Arthur McKee who writes of different waters than seen here.  We have no playas.*

Water Closet for 9-20-13 Ducks as Guardrails

In August of 1983, several profs and grad students from Oregon State University convoyed in OSU vans to the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Four grad students and I gave presentations around noon on the last day of the meeting, and then loaded into the last van to head home.  We rolled out of Fort Collins in mid-afternoon.

We zipped north to I-80 and turned west.  While crossing Wyoming, the grad students asked if we could drive past Great Salt Lake.  They’d like to experience the Lake, even if it meant wading around in the dark as it would be close to midnight when we got there.  I was comfortable with their wish, so we decided to continue west on I-80 through Salt Lake City, and stop somewhere to “test the waters”.

The early 1980s was a very wet period in the West and it turned out that the Great Salt Lake was so high that it was threatening I-80, which ran along its south shore.  There were sections of the Interstate that were temporarily protected by hastily built dikes and other sections that had been quickly elevated and roughly paved.  The wind had apparently been out of the northwest during the previous few days and rafts of rotting algae were piled along the dikes and Interstate’s edge.  Any enthusiasm for wading in the Lake vanished as we found ourselves breathing what seemed like toxic fumes and struggling not to vomit.  Even with the windows shut tight and the AC set on inside-air, the putrid odor was overpowering.

We drove past the Lake as quickly as possible and sped on to Winnemucca, Nevada, then headed  north on US 95.  I was driving and enjoying the unfolding dawn as we rolled along through the Great Basin’s mountains and plains.  We came to the state highway that headed west toward Oregon just as the sun was rising and turned onto it.  We drove a few miles, went over a low rise and some of my fellow travelers commented on the beauty of the landscape in that low morning light.  As we descended a long gentle grade onto a playa we realized that things in the distance looked very, very strange.  It soon became apparent that we were approaching a big lake, which flooded the highway and the playa as far as we could see to the north and south.  Holy smoke!  The highway just went straight into the lake and there were huge flocks of wading birds and ducks all over the place.  The rain and snowmelt of the current wet cycle had filled the playa’s basin with water.  It was time to come up with plan B!

We spread out the maps and were discussing alternate routes when someone said, “Is that a boat or a truck or what?” and pointed off to the west.  We could see something moving towards us, but it was miles away.  The low sun was reflecting off what seemed to be a bow wave that shimmered and pulsed, and aimed straight towards us.  We quickly found someone’s binoculars and saw that it was a pickup truck, a big 4×4, moving slowly but steadily across the lake.  It progressed in a stately manner, slowly getting larger, and we finally could see three people on the bench seat.

The pickup pulled out of the lake and stopped beside our Oregon State van.  The rancher driving the truck had a big smile on his face as he tipped his Stetson toward us through his open window.  We were speechlessly staring at him, his wife, and teen-aged daughter as he casually told us they were headed to Winnemucca to go shopping.  I had my window down and stupidly exclaimed, “You just drove across that lake!”

“Yup!” was his reply as he pointed back across the playa, “And you can too if you want.  The water’s never more than about a foot deep on the road.  Your van is high enough.  Just go slowly, maybe around 10 miles per hour.  You won’t have any problem.”  He sat there and grinned as did his wife and daughter.

I was still recovering from the astonishment of what we’d just seen and the rancher seemed to realize my confusion.  He just sat there politely with a friendly smile.  I finally shook off my bewilderment and asked, “How do you know where the road is?  The water’s really muddy and you can’t see the pavement.”  He motioned back toward the lake and said, “Just drive between the ducks.”  “Huh?!?  Drive between the ducks?”

He smiled even more broadly and pointing back again and said, “Take a look.  See how the ducks are lined up?  They swim and feed in the ditches on either side of the road, that’s where the deep water that they prefer is located.  Notice it’s the waders that are the ones scattered everywhere out on the playa.  Just key in on the rows of ducks and drive slowly half-way between ‘em.”’

We all looked and, sure enough, almost all the ducks were lined up in two rows about 25 feet apart.  It was just a straggler here and there that was out among the wading birds.  As this was slowly sinking in, the rancher laughingly wished us luck and drove off.  You could see the three of them were really getting a kick out of their conversation with the “university types” in the Oregon State van.  We debated and then I decided, what the hell! — let’s try driving between the ducks!  And we did!

One of the grad students was adamantly opposed to this plan and loudly voiced her displeasure at my decision, berating me during most of our drive across the lake.  It was a long, slow trip taking over a half hour, so she had plenty of time to let us know how foolish the whole idea was.  She quieted down as it became clear we were probably going to make it OK.  As we pulled out on the west shore she grumped into a silence that lasted most of the morning.  When we stopped for lunch, her attitude had mellowed a lot and she had decided it had actually been a great adventure.  She didn’t thank the ducks. I quietly did.

I had been worried that we’d encounter another playa on our chosen route, one we couldn’t cross.  But, that fear proved waterless.  The day turned out to be clear and sunny, but cooler than normal for mid-August, and we all enjoyed the rest of the drive home.

*  The flat-floored bottom of an undrained desert basin.


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