Into the Desert: Borax Lake and the Fish That Live There

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Two BLM intenrns and an ODFW biologist prepare traps to rescue Alvord Lake Chub from a shrinking pond in the Alvord Basin.

The two BLM interns from The Chicago Botanical Garden both had the look of someone who has been in the desert one day too long.

Their bloodshot eyes surveyed the bleak landscape in the way you’d expect someone who had seen the same featureless view every day for months and months.

I rode in the government truck with them down to a spot in the lower Alvord Basin just a few miles from the Nevada border. We stopped and opened a gate in a fence and drove off into the sage brush for a long distance, before a small, dark tree began to take shape in the distance.

It was a Russian olive, a pestilant invasive normally, but here the one source of shade for a tiny pond, the insignificant remnant of a once-large wetland that drained the Pueblo Mountains to the south of us.

Traps are left out overnight to capture a sustainable portion of the population.

There is a fish in this pond known as the Alvord Chub. A small, native minnow with a shiny complexion and not much else going for it.

With the wetlands drying up, the population of Alvord Chub in the little pond in the middle of a vast sage-brush flat are in danger of losing their last-remaining sanctuary to the merciless nature of evaporation.

So the BLM, with the help of the two interns and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife native fish biologist, is trapping the fish and bringing in heavy equipment to enlarge the spring-fed pond so that the cattails don’t take over completely and wipe the little fish out.

Rescued Alvord chub hang out in a cooler until their habitat is restored.

A night of trapping, using Wonder bread for bait, nets 40-or so chub, which get to live in a Yeti cooler with a small, life-giving pump attached for several hours while the excavator works.

After the pond is signifcantly enlarged, the small fish, enough to replenish the population, are poured back into the top of the pond where the fresh spring water gushes out into a cold, clear pool.

Several make a mad dash for the now muddy center of the pond, while biologists and interns frantically scoop them up and put them back in the clear water.

When you look up at the dry-as-bone basin around you, you have to wonder why they are doing this.

These fish are doomed.

Nature is relentless, the scope of time so profound that the first hominins to walk the earth would do so almost seven million years after the first basalt flows that formed the mountains around this basin were laid down.

Late in that history, but still far back in history from a human perspective, this is all a giant lake bed. This ancient Lake Alvord runs one hundred miles along the east face of Steens Mountain.

It is full of Alvord cutthroat trout that likely get fat on these Alvord minnows. As the lake fills and drops, fills and drops at the whims of the great ice sheets to the north, the streams cut the stone into deep canyons, and the winds erode the steep walls into fanciful shapes.

Eventually the great ice sheets disappear, and the basin begins to lose more water than it gains. The great mountain to the west blocks the rain, and the creeks pull back into the hills, where the Alvord cutthroat go to seek shelter.

Today only little pools like this pond remain with small populations of minnows that have lived here since before everything.

Borax Lake

To the north of the town of Fields, there is a geographical anomoly. A lake sits above the desert floor like a great bowl plunked down in the middle of the basin.

All around the lake the ground is eroded down into a fine, alkali powder. While the walls of the lake are hardened like rock. A sort of fresh-water coral built by tiny creatures that inhabit the warm waters. They break off occasionally and great torrents of lake water spill over and run down toward the basin below it.

Borax Lake Chub

This is Borax Lake.

Water temperatures in the lake vary from 60 to 300 degrees, and the lake sits on top of a large deposit of borax, a soap-like boron compound used in detergents and cosmetics.

A sign near the lake says the water contains high levels of arsenic. Twenty five times higher than the government recommends being exposed to.

Borax Lake Chub

And yet as I stand near a small outlet at the south end of the lake, I see hundreds of little minnows swimming in what amounts to poisonous hot water.

The Borax Lake Chub is related to the Alvord Chub, but it has adapted to hot water as the giant lake receded, leaving a poisonous hot springs atop a large depost of borax as the only viable option for a few of the many chub that inhabited the region.

These fish did not win the evolutionary lottery.

What strikes me in all this is the dichotomy between our ability to see and our desire to save these tiny creatures who have survived everything thrown at them since time immemorial, and our inability to see or save the planet from ourselves.

A stromatalite, a kind of fresh-water coral.

Are these fish a version of introspection, an insatiable desire for something bigger than us to save us? Or are they representative of our ability to care for even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant creatures knowing that we’re all connected in such a fine mosaic that to ignore them would be, could be catastrophic?

The desert is full of wonders. It’s so old, we miss the beauty of it by taking it for granted as we sweep our eyes over the seemingly empty landscape.

We zoom through it in trucks with ten-ply tires, as fast as dirt roads allow us to safely pass. We look over it and under it. We dig it up and bury it.

A hot springs on the basin floor below Steens Mountain

But we only ever scratch an alkali-covered surface even this close to rocks that were made somewhere near the center of it all before anything else was even possible.

And so a small fish living in a vanishing habitat here in a remote basin in Southeast Oregon is a bigger deal than I ever thought. Not because they are rare, they are, but because they are here at all.

So incredibly adaptable, that I see in their very presence a chance for us if we can’t turn the tide of our industrial lust away from self destruction.


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