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Canoeing on Oregon’s lava lakes

Beach your canoe onthe west side of UpperCow Lake in easternOregon and hike thelava rock.Beach your canoe on
the west side of Upper
Cow Lake in eastern
Oregon and hike the
lava rock.

A unique paddling adventure unfolds at the high-desert lakes of Oregon in the United States.

OUR rig bounced over the rock-hard dirt roads along the high desert of eastern Oregon, and the canoe shifted and rattled on our Subaru’s roof racks.

Nothing looks stranger than a canoe in the middle of sagebrush country, but we were hunting for what we thought would be a great paddling adventure in the remote wildlands.

As we approached Lower Cow Lake about 30km from Jordan Valley, Oregon, our hopes of paddling sunk. How about mud flats hiking? The lower lake looked about one-third full, and there were a hundred metres of dried mud flats before you could even get to the water.

But we weren’t ready to give up. My wife, Julie, and I continued up the road, hoping for the best at Upper Cow Lake. Water! Just what you need for paddling. Whew! There may just be a canoeing story after all.

We launched at the boat ramp, loaded the dog in the canoe and headed west. We decided to keep close to the shoreline in case those nasty afternoon desert winds whipped up.

Our canoe moved slowly along the rocky, sagebrush shoreline, and in places, it looked like any old reservoir in eastern Oregon, like a giant puddle in the desert. The fascinating thing about Cow Lakes is that they were naturally formed by volcanic activity.

Evidence of that was readily apparent with the unique basalt formations jutting from the lake’s shore and spiced with orange, rust and green lichen.

Remnants ofancient lava flows withtheir black and grayswirls, trenches andpinnacles at the edgeof Oregon’s Cow Lakelook like meltedlicorice frozen by time.Remnants of
ancient lava flows with
their black and gray
swirls, trenches and
pinnacles at the edge
of Oregon’s Cow Lake
look like melted
licorice frozen by time.

A family of otters popped up like periscopes on the glassy surface and started swimming toward us. Grunting sounds came from the critters, and we had to steady our retriever to keep from flipping the canoe and sinking right there.

It isn’t every day you paddle along with a family of otters watching your every move. It was a sign of surprises to come. A unique paddling adventure was unfolding.

This wasn’t any ordinary desert reservoir. It was a rare glimpse at the world surrounding a lava lake. Behind us, at the far eastern end of the lake, a huge flock of snow geese corkscrewed down and landed on the water. Off to the north side of the lake, mergansers flew a few feet off the water.

Nearby, Canada geese aggressively honked on their nesting sites even though we were a hundred yards away. Wildlife is skittish out here. Apparently, they don’t see that many people.

It was getting tricky switching from paddles to binoculars and back. A yellow-bellied marmot jumped up on a rock on the rimrock to see what was going on.

It kept getting better. We continued to paddle toward the western tip of the lake, and we were soon surprised by ancient lava flows with their black and gray swirls, trenches and pinnacles at the edge of the water.

It looked like melted licorice frozen by time. The black rock splashed with the colours of lichen extended out of the lake and continued over the horizon. Little points resembling mountain lions, towers and bears could be seen on the rock formation’s skyline.

We beached the canoe and stumbled upon the south-eastern end of massive lava flows in the Jordan Craters natural area. Whoa! This was turning out to be some kind of adventure.

After we landed the canoe, we started another adventure – hiking across the lava flow. This is when you appreciate wearing hiking boots while canoeing instead of paddling shoes. It takes stout boots for walking across the sharp lava rock.

The hike really makes you appreciate this land of fascinating sights and sounds. We heard the croaking of sandhill cranes. The birds were grazing on vegetation at the edge of the lake.

You never know what you’re going to see out there, and a lot depends on the season and migration patterns. There can be thousands of waterfowl and hundreds of shorebirds in the area during good water years.

The high-desert lakes are amazing and strange, but in a beautiful way. Although they have dams, the lakes are not reservoirs. They are playa lakes, formed when the Jordan Craters lava flow blocked stream flows thousands of years ago.

The geology of this area is mind-boggling. Deep volcanic deposits of basalt and rhyolite cover the landscape.

Another fascinating feature of the lakes is that there is a five-metre elevation difference between them, even though they’re right next to each other. When the lakes are brim full, there is a connecting channel called The Narrows.

We continued paddling and poking around in the coves of the lake. As we approached the boat ramp, a huge flock of snow geese flew over, apparently joining the others already on the lake.

It was a perfect closing for a day of birdwatching, hiking and canoeing. – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Tips on Cow Lakes

·Season: Temperatures are best in the spring. It’s hot in the summer. Fall is another good time, but the lake level is expected to be very low.

·Camping: It’s free; 10% rustic, shadeless, dirt campsites are available along with outhouses, fire pits, picnic tables and a rough concrete boat ramp.

·Canoeing or kayaking: It’s about 12km to follow the entire shoreline of Upper Cow Lake. Or, you can just paddle to shorter destinations for wildlife watching and hiking. The lake is open to motorised boating too.

·Fishing: The upper lake is known for crappie fishing in good water years. It also has trout and bass.

·Hiking: You can spend an entire day hiking around the lava flows of the Jordan Craters.

·Mountain biking: You can explore area dirt roads on your bike. Obey private property signs.

Information: blm.gov/or/districts/vale.