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pixieland: an edgy, vanished amusement park

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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Massive mud puddle flummoxed Oregon Trail pioneers

A dry year caused a massive Eastern Oregon lake to dry up; the next year, pioneers stared bewildered at earlier tracks, which led straight into the lake.

The emigrants, coming west on the Applegate Trail to Oregon in the 1870s, were puzzled. The trail was, of course, a seemingly unending set of wagon-wheel ruts stretching from the jumping-off points in the Midwest over deserts and mountains and all sorts of obstacles that seemed insurmountable, but weren’t.

But this one seemed impossible. Had the wagons before them really plunged directly into the enormous lake that lay before them? The ruts led directly into the water, and there was no sign of them having come out again.

It was miles across – the other side lay almost invisible on the horizon, much too far to float a caulked wagon. And yes, it was deep – far too deep to ford.

There was nothing for it but a trip around the lake, since the western sky lay on the other side. And so, around they went – making a detour of something like 100 miles.

On the other side, they found the wagon ruts again. They emerged from the water and headed on westward toward the Cascades. Once arrived at the West Coast, none of the previous emigrants knew anything about any lake there.

It remained a mystery until, several years later, a drought struck and the lake dried up again.

Today, the lake is back. Now known as Goose Lake, it’s an arrowhead-shaped patch of water straddling the Oregon-California state line, just south of Lakeview, at an elevation of 4,700 feet. There’s a campground and park there at Goose Lake State Recreation Area, which is on the east side of the lake – with hot showers, something those puzzled emigrants 140 years ago would likely have enjoyed. But don’t bother trying to reserve a campsite on the Internet: The place is so far away from everything –nearly 400 miles from both Portland and San Francisco, 282 miles from Eugene, 300 from Baker City and 190 from Medford – that campers just don’t have to worry about the place filling up.

Like hundreds of other high-desert lakes large and small in the area, it drains nowhere. It’s largely filled by rainwater – the area gets about 10 inches a year – and it sits there baking in the summer sun until all the water has evaporated away. So, it’s basically Oregon’s largest mud puddle. The boat-launch ramp at the park is something of a joke; boaters basically have to carry their vessels out to wherever the water happens to be on any given day, and it’s almost never at the ramp.

It’s also a magnificent place to go experience the great waterfowl migration mid-April is the time to do it. Goose Lake is on the flyway. Millions of geese, ducks and other migratory birds blacken the sky there every spring and fall.

For a high-desert destination, the place is astonishingly green, perhaps thanks to springs that help feed the lake.

Recently, Goose Lake has been shrinking – the springs and creeks that help the rain feed it have been diverted for irrigation. Never particularly fresh to start with, the lake has been getting saltier too, which is starting to stress the fish populations that somehow manage to still be there despite its periodic dryings-up.

In the surrounding countryside, you can still see the abandoned shells of sodbusters’ cabins from the turn of the 20th century. These shells are the skeletal remains of settlers’ dreams – homes of folks who fell for land swindlers’ claims that “rain follows the plow,” that once a fellow had gouged up the land and sprinkled some wheat grains on it, the skies would open up and the 20 or so inches of rain a year needed for dry-land farming would appear. This worked about as well as you might expect it would. Today, you’ll see very few farms in the high desert country, and those you’ll see are irrigated.

(Sources: Gulick, Bill. Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula, MT: Mountain, 1991; Oregon State Parks brochure, Goose Lake State Recreation Area; Bannan, Jan Gumprecht. Oregon State Parks: A Complete Recreation Guide. Seattle: Mountaineers, 2002.)

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