Tracking Ice Age people in Oregon

by Craig Childs

Wind-whipped rainclouds formed a low ceiling over the oceanic buttes and basins of south-central Oregon. The usually sundrenched sage darkened in the weather as I walked, my hood pulled up against the grass-bending tug of the northwest breeze. The air smelled richer than it usually does on the dry side of the Cascades, the sagebrush generously giving out scent in exchange for a little moisture. For a time-traveler in the West, stormy weather like this is best. Especially in the strange light before sunset, the landscape becomes spooky, ethereal. You swear you can glimpse the woolly hulks of mammoths grazing the vast, undulating steppe.

Of course, there wasn't any sage out here during the Ice Age. Instead, the now-treeless landscape held scattered groves of Pleistocene pines. You have to use your mind's eye to see both the trees and the mammoths.

The key to time travel is this: Practice wherever you are. Any landscape will do; you just need some idea of what was out there long ago. The Pleistocene is one of the easiest epochs to visit because remnants from that time are still abundant. You can retrace monumental late-Ice Age floods in the Scablands of eastern Washington, or poke along mammoth-crowded refugia in Colorado's Southern Rockies. (At least 13 mammoths were recently excavated near the town of Snowmass.) The main tool you need to carry is an eye for the past.

Rule #1 for would-be time-travelers:  Things didn't look quite the same as they do today.

I picked up a chunk of smoke-hearted obsidian. A piece of black volcanic glass with edges slightly chipped, it looked as if it had been shaped by a tool-making creature. I wasn't the first person to see it, or to hold it.

There were humans here at the tail end of the Ice Age. I began to imagine the gracile movements of people wearing animal skins and carrying spears. As I rubbed the slick, vitreous obsidian with my thumb, I scanned the gaping landscape through their eyes, distances trailing away over the curve of the globe.

Rule #2: Although much has changed, not everything has. Flora and fauna may be different, but the shape of the land is still recognizable.

In the tucks and rolls of topography, I could almost make out herds of wild, blunt-nosed horses, even camels. There would have been cheetahs among them, and ancient pronghorn. Bit by bit, an earlier world began to resolve into life around me.

On my most recent visit to the deep past, I started in the town of Paisley, Ore., population 200. The Pioneer Saloon, just down the road from the Forest Service office, serves Alaskan Amber, and the quesadillas aren't half bad. Photographs from as far back as the late 1800s crowd the walls, including a black-and-white one of men on horseback in front of this same saloon. There was even a faded shot of Kenny Rogers, who visited back in the '70s.

The picture I was interested in, however, was one of the most recent. It showed a man in a bandanna, sunhat and daypack. And it was signed: "Dr. Poop."

I went to the bar and asked if that was indeed a picture of the Dr. Poop -- Dr. Dennis Jenkins. A big-boned woman gave a smile, proud to know him personally.

"You just missed him," she said. "He was through here two days ago."

Senior staff archaeologist for the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon, Jenkins had been excavating paleo-sites in the high desert around Paisley. His controversial findings have reset the archaeological clock, putting original human occupation much further back than was previously thought.

Jenkins' recent work centered on a row of caves five miles north of town. Among thousands of years of human, animal and plant deposits, he found what appears to be a piece of human feces that radiocarbon dating puts at 14,300 years old. If he's correct, this is evidence of some of the first people on the continent, pre-dating the Clovis Culture, once thought to be the earliest settlers. The DNA in this feces carries haplogroups typical of Siberian genes, suggesting its owner came by the Bering Land Bridge.

Another woman and the man who served me my quesadilla heard Jenkins' name and joined the conversation. They told me how to find the caves in a lava-rock point five miles from town. The woman warned me that the alkali road was "slick as snot" in the rain, so I took the back way around the south end of Diablo Rim on a high-clearance, basalt-strewn track several miles east of the caves. I camped in the BLM Diablo Mountain Wilderness Study Area. That night, raindrops and sleet froze like jewels all over my tent, a little taste of the Ice Age.

Summer Lake, 10 miles north of Paisley, is blue-green and slightly kidney-shaped, surrounded by miles of crusty evaporation pans. It was once much larger. When the glaciers melted in the Cascades 10,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age, they pumped big rivers into this country, making it more like lake-country Minnesota than high-desert Oregon. Summer Lake has been shrinking ever since.

The caves, in a lone basalt outcrop, gaze across prehistoric Summer Lake, now an ocean of sage. All you can see of the lake is a silvery sheen in the distance. The sun was setting through rain that would slowly turn into light snow. I carried my pack around the north sweep of the outcrop and camped there, one of the caves looking down on me as long rollers of clouds spilled over the Cascade foothills.

As the sun broke through underneath the cloud-ceiling, a double rainbow balanced on the rocky point, curving toward the caves as if to make sure I noticed them.

Rule #3 for time-travelers: Notice everything, because everything is a sign.

I didn't go into the caves right away. Instead, I climbed a few hundred feet to the top of the point, where the two rainbows had landed, and surveyed a horizon of sage, trying to imagine what it used to be like.

Rule #4: Visit existing places similar to those you are trying to imagine.

The easiest place to get a sense of what the former shoreline was like is the Summer Lake State Wildlife Area, where the Ana River enters the lake from the north. It is a landscape of abundance, filled with mud-runners and mewing rails, ivory-statue egrets and the ungainly calls of gulls. Northern harriers skim the marshes. Terns plow into the water, come up with fish and then launch into the sky.

I transposed that wildlife area onto the front porch of my caves, picturing a sort of Ice Age paradise once rich with birds and fish. The easy pickings must have been a relief for Pleistocene nomads accustomed to tackling unfriendly megafauna, with wooden shafts and sharpened stones.

As I watched sunset rays plunge through rainsqualls, a coyote called with high whoops and whines.

Replace the coyote's yelp with the throaty howl of an extinct dire wolf, and the hair will perk on the back of your neck.

The next morning, I explored the caves. Facing into prevailing winds, they were well-suited for summer camps. I stood at the entrance of each one, looking out on sage that was once water. The original shoreline of Summer Lake would have been about a mile from here, instead of five miles. People would have camped in these shelters, but most of their time would have been spent out there, on the abundant shore.

Rule #5: Go wherever your eye lingers.

I left the caves and walked into miles of ancient shorelines, reading pebbles on the pages of long-vanished wave-washed beaches. Crackled hardpan became former marshland. I found broken arrowheads and obsidian scrapers, signs the shore was once in heavy use. I picked up each piece, studying its finely flaked edges before putting it back. This technology was, at most, 1,500 years old, not that of the oldest people. Still, 1,500 years is a very long time, and the artifacts told their own stories.

Rule #6: There is never just one time.

I found a broken obsidian arrowhead so translucent that when I held it to the sun, it looked like a sliver of ice. Peering through it, I looked back through thousands of years. A hunter moved along the edge of a slowly receding marsh. I heard the sounds of the birds and fishtails slapping against the reeds in that shallow water. Perhaps the arrowhead fell out of the hunter's pouch, or was carried off in the flesh of an animal that escaped.

I lowered my obsidian telescope and the ancient lake disappeared, replaced with Oregon sage, a fleeting landscape in itself. This is how you time travel, learning to see the era you live in differently, realizing you already live in the past.

© High Country News