From Winter Ridge to Summer Lake—Fremont’s Discovery of the Chewaucan Basin

John C. Fremont, an early Oregon explorer, first looked down on Summer Lake from a nearby ridge called Winter Ridge.  He is credited with naming both the lake and the ridge.  It is the springs and snow melt from the Winter Ridge that form the headwaters for the scattered small fresh water creeks that drain into Summer Lake.  The lake is much too alkaline to support native trout, but it does provide a habitat that is popular for many migrating birds.

The creeks; however, flow with cool, clear, fresh water.  Even though they are small in size they support populations of Redband trout.  Unfortunately these Redband trout have been hybridized with the Rainbow trout that have been planted in so many streams of the west.

Yet, one overlooked creek remains—supporting and sustaining its unique finned natives with tenacity.  The beautiful native Chewaucan Redband trout still persists in making its presence known with each successful completion of its life cycle.

Perhaps John C. Fremont’s words would best describe the environment where these trout make their home:

December 16, 1843—We travelled this morning through snow about three feet deep, which, being crusted, very much cut the feet of our animals. The mountain still gradually rose; we crossed several spring heads covered with quaking asp; otherwise it was all pine forest. The air was dark with falling snow, which every where weighed down the trees. The depths of the forest were profoundly still; and below, we scarce felt a breath of the wind which whirled the snow through their branches. . . . Towards noon the forest looked clear ahead, appearing suddenly to terminate; and beyond a certain point we could see no trees.  Riding rapidly ahead to this spot, we found ourselves on the verge of a vertical and rocky wall of the mountain. At our feet—more than a thousand feet below—we looked into a green prairie country, in which a beautiful lake, some twenty miles in length, was spread along the foot of the mountains, its shores bordered with green grass.

Just then the sun broke out among the clouds, and illuminated the country below, while around us the storm raged fiercely.  Not a particle of ice was to be seen on the lake, or snow on its borders, and all was like summer or spring. The glow of the sun in the valley below brightened up our hearts with sudden pleasure; and we made the woods ring with joyful shouts to the unexpected scene. Shivering on snow three feet deep, and stiffening in a cold north wind, we exclaimed at once that the names of Summer Lake and Winter Ridge should be applied to these two proximate places of such sudden and violent contrast.

We were now immediately on the verge of the forest land, in which we had been travelling so many days; and, looking forward to the east, scarce a tree was to be seen . . . immediately below us, were the first waters of that Great Interior Basin which has the Wahsatch and Bear river mountains for its eastern, and the Sierra Nevada for its western rim; and the edge of which we had entered upwards, of three months before at the Great Salt lake.

When we had sufficiently admired the scene below, we began to think about descending, which here was impossible, and we turned towards the north, travelling always along the rocky wall. We continued on for four or five miles, making ineffectual attempts at several places; and at length succeeded in getting down at one which was extremely difficult of descent . . . It delayed us until near noon the next day to recover ourselves and put everything in order; and we made only a short camp along the western shore of the lake, which, in the summer temperature we enjoyed to-day, justified the name we had given it. Our course would have taken us to the other shore, and over the highlands beyond; but I distrusted the appearance of the country, and decided to follow a plainly beaten Indian trail leading along the side of the lake. We were now in a country where the scarcity of water and of grass makes travelling dangerous, and great caution was necessary.

December 18, 1843—We continued on the trail along the narrow strip of land between the lake and the high rocky wall, from which we had looked down two days before. Almost every half mile we crossed a little spring, or stream of pure cold water; and the grass was certainly as fresh and green as in the early spring. From the white efflorescence along the shore of the lake, we were enabled to judge that the water was impure, like that of lakes we subsequently found; but the mud prevented us from approaching it. We encamped near the eastern point of the lake, where there appeared between the hills a broad and low connecting hollow with the country beyond. . . .

The Expeditions of John Charles Fremont, Volume I—Travels from 1838-1844, edited by Donald Jackson and Mary Lee Spence, pp. 591-594.

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