By C. R. Orcutt
The West American Scientist
It was in August, 1884, that I first learned of the existence of lake Maquata. Leaving the forest for the piñone pine (Pinus Panyana), on the tale lands of northern Lower California, behind us, my father and I had descended the abrupt eastern slope of the mountains, into the great cantilles cañon, among thousands of lovely Blue palms and stately Washington palms that line the bottom of this famous cañon, which justly rivals the Yosemite in the beauty and grandeur of its scenery.
Near the mouth of the cañon, our Indian guide, Captain Jose, told us of the big lake beyond us where thousands of large fish might be had for the catching. He described the fish as fully two feet in length, and very good eating, but told us in Spanish it was a 'long ways' &endash; I think he said five leagues. We could to prevail upon this unusually intelligent Indian to accompany us to the shores of the lake, and rather reluctantly we retraced our steps from the land of the palms to the region of the pines.
It was in July, 1884, that the Colorado river floods inundated extensive portions of the New river district, and other sections of the great Colorado basin, or desert, as it is commonly called. Where the Colorado river mingles its was with the Gulf of California are many millions of acres of fertile, alluvial lands but slightly raised above sea level. With a high tide in the Gulf the Colorado river back-waters, and in seasons of unusually summer floods overflows its banks near its mouth for many miles. New river thus had its origin, the overflow forming a channel for itself from the banks of the Colorado, in a northerly direction, to the lowest portion of the great depressed basin, which at Salton, on the Southern Pacific railway, is two hundred and fifty feet below the level of the sea.
Laguna Maquata is a smaller depressed basin, within the area of territory known as the Colorado desert, its northern end lying perhaps ten miles south of the United States boundary, in the Mexican territory of Lower or Baja California between the Peninsula and Cocopah ranges of mountains. Its surface is doubtless below sea level, but sediment deposited by the muddy waters of the Colorado has created a permanent barrier between it and the gulf of California, whose waters in the pliocene age unquestionably rolled over the whole region for fully two hundred miles north of its present shores.
In January, and February, 1890, in explorations on horseback on the Colorado desert, I came several times into full view of a portion of Laguna Maquata, which on maps of Baja California is usually designated as muy salada &endash; very salt. At that time it was entirely dry, at least as far as my members of the party I was with could observe in closer inspection which they gave it. Probably in no place does the lake exceed a few&endash;say five&endash;miles in width, but in length, this then dry lagoon apparently extended to the southward for sixty or seventy miles, along the western base of the Cocopah mountains-a low range of barren hills of forbidding aspect. Along the shores of the dry lake were found numerous remains of the unfortunate fish, the former denizens of the defunct lagoon. All the skeletons observed were the mullet (Mugil Mexicanus), and of these the coyote, or desert wolf, had left but the barest evidence. Millions of fresh water snails and clam shells were strewn over the bed or along the former shores of the lake, sufficient evidence that it had once been filled with fresh water.
During the summer of 1890, apparently reliable reports reached me to the effect that the Colorado river had again overflowed it bank, inundating anew the New river country as in former years, and filling to the brim the laguna Maquata with water teeming with fish &endash; like unto the season of 1884. The barren, but naturally fertile, desert plains had been transformed &endash; so ran the reports &endash; into a jungle of tropical luxuriance, a Paradise for manor beasts. The mesquite trees were loaded with their crisp bean pods, the grass was growing as high as a horse's back, and all the sloughs and lagoons were full of water and delicious fish.
With the coming of cool autumn weather, early in October, I again entered the confines of the Colorado desert with a suitable outfit and an efficient companion. En route from San Diego we had received slightly conflicting reports from parties who claimed to have recently crossed the plains of the desert from Yuma, Arizona. Several white men affirmed that there was an abundance of fresh water both in the lagoons of New river and in Maquata lake. One aged Mexican, whose acquaintance I had previously made, kindly advised me to depend on the large cañons in the Peninsula range of mountains from water &endash; not on lake Maquata. I learned that a friend of mine, with nearly twenty years' experience in the region, came near perishing from not finding water at Las Posas de los indios &endash; Indian wells, while others reported an abundance of water in the adjacent lagoons. The water at Coyote wells, however, was universally condemned as unfit for man or beast, from being so strongly impregnated with the deadly alkali.
Reaching the ruins of the old Rock house, on the Summit station on the old Ft. Yuma and San Diego state line, we filled our cans with pure water from the mountain springs-a solitary spring in the solid granite, really about half way between the desert plains and the summit of the first barren mountain ridge. The 'nine miles' from here to Coyote wells, through a deep, rocky cañon and over a sandy plain, proves to be fifteen long and weary ones. At Coyote wells the dark-colored, repulsive pool of water would have been a delight to the thrifty New England housewife, since, with it, she could easily dispense with her ash barrel and lye! Two small mesquite trees alone mark the vicinity of Coyote wells, the old adobe stage being completely razed to the ground, and the alkali plains are otherwise almost destitute of vegetation. A little patch of salt grass (Distichlis maritima) grew in the vicinity of one of the mesquie trees, and here my former acquaintance with the region stood me in good stead, for I knew that comparatively good water could be obtained in this vicinity. Cleaning out a small hole near the tree, by the moonlight (we had reached the place just at dusk), I had the pleasure the following morning of finding a limited supply of water, sufficient for our needs. It was very suspiciously sweet at first (alkali water is sweet to the taste) and we had to use it sparingly, but after a while it became sufficiently pure for us to drink with impunity, after we had dipped it dry a dozen times or more.
The first night our horses were without hay, and had only a feed of grain. Of necessity we hitched them to one of the mesquites, and by morning we found they had gnawed off all the bark on the trunk of the tree that they could conveniently reach, and eaten the twigs and leaves that were in reach also. The day after our arrival we traveled to the southward over the desert for two or three miles and cut a supply of hay with our picks! The only true grass in this arid region of agricultural value is a very rigid species, that grows in scattering clumps, one to three or four feet high and generally called gietta (Hilaria rigida). This grass is very nutritious, rich in the starch elements, and very brittle. It is not specially attractive at first to horses or cattle, but they soon learn to eat it with avidity, and a single cluster is often sufficient for an animal for a night. A short grubbing hoe is the best implement for the haymaker when harvesting gietta, but a pick is almost equally useful, or in the absence of either it can be easily broken off with the foot &endash; but the foot needs to be well protected by a heavy boot in the latter case!
Leaving Coyote wells early the following morning, after we had completed our haying, we traveled to the southward over a but little traveled natural road, sandy and gravelly or stony in places, toward Signal mountain &endash; the northern end of the Cocopah range. We came in sight of the Maquata basin early in the afternoon, the lake being some thirty miles from Coyote wells, and became convinced that reports of water in the lake were true, a long and narrow strip of water being plainly visible along the western base of the Cocopah range and glistening in the sunlight. Evidently only a portion of the lake bed, however, was thus covered with water, but as we approached the shores of the lake our anticipations rose higher and higher.
As we approached the shores of the lagoon we traversed broad sandy arroyos in which numerous ironwood trees (Olneya Tesota) were growing. Nearer the lake were a few shrubby clusters of mesquite, but only occasionally was a bean pod visible. Arrow weed (Pluchea Corealis) and mock willow, and a few other plants usually considered good indications of fresh water, were soon observed. These plants grew in considerable luxuriance, and fresh water may almost invariably be obtained by sinking wells in their vicinity at less than twenty feet depth.
Leaving the belt of mock willows we drove into the hard sunbaked bed of Launa Maquata proper and struck out straight for the nearest visible water. A mile was traveled in silence, yet another mile, and still a third, and then the truth burst upon us. We were following the deceitful wiles of the ever alluring, ever delusive mirage! We were still, apparently, as far from the edge of the water, which at first appeared scarce half a mile distant, as when we started, and when we stopped our team in disgust; the beautiful phenomenon revealed itself to us fully.
Gradually, like a bank of fog, it receded to the southward, and rose above the surrounding banks of the lake. Fantastically shaped rocks seemed to rise up in the background, and a vision of a city in the desert might well have been imagined. Many a time before had I seen this interesting phenomenon and equally as inviting, mythical lakes of water, but never before had I been so deceived by such a deception, though in rational acquainted with death by the region would not be thus cruelly defrauded.
The surface of the lake bottom was bare of vegetation, but strewn with fragments of fish bones and fresh water snail shells in countless millions. Now and then a coyote could be seen leisurely trotting along on his way home from dining out, or perhaps in search of his supper&endash;or both.
Driving to the westward toward the peninsula range, we soon left the bed of the lake behind us, and entered a series of sand dunes like those on our ocean beaches, that seemed to border the western shores of the lake far to the southward. Among these sand hills absolutely no vegetation was observed, but now and then fragments of salt water clams or snail shells were found, particularly of the genera venus and cerithidea &endash; probably the last organic vestiges of the former dominion of the sea over this region. Beyond these sand dunes we reached a mesa like formation, resembling the famous citrus lands of Southern California. Here on a little rise or prominence, near a patch of luxurious gietta grass we decided to camp for the night, and leaving my companion to prepare our evening meal, I started to search for water in the cañon a few miles distant.
It was a little after three in the afternoon when I left the wagon on my self-imposed quest. If water was not found I knew that in the morning we should have to retrace our steps to Coyote wells, as our water supply would by that time be exhausted. As we left the bed of the lake we had seen what appeared like water in the same direction as at first observed, but after our experience with the mirage we were naturally skeptical. Near the summit of the Peninsula range, in one of the long cañon on its abrupt eastern slope, we had also observed what was unquestionably pure running water, but it was too far away to be practically available for our needs, except in dire necessity.
Taking my bearings in relation to the ore prominent landmarks afforded by the mountains surrounding the vast amphitheatre in which we were encamped, I started in a direct line for a huge finger rock that rose perhaps a thousand feet above the plains, near the mouth of one of the great cañons that rise in the pine country on the top of the Peninsula range. In light walking trim, with only a small canteen partially filled with water, and my light pick, which answered well for a cane, it took me to nearly seven o'clock before I had reached the foot of the mountain range. After traversing the plains for two or three miles I had struck the fresh trail of five or six deer, which greatly encouraged me as they were traveling in the same direction as I had planned to follow, and were evidently going to water. I consequently followed this trail as long as daylight lasted, but lost it before the stars came out distinctly.
About this time, when daylight vanished, I realized the fact that I had not dined. During the whole day I had felt not the slightest inclination to drink, but having left water behind me I felt an insufferable thirst, as if I could have easily emptied a gallon canteen. But a little water remained in my canteen and this I decided to husband in case I should be unable to return to the wagon in the dark before morning. Fortunately, however, I just then run against a tall cactus belonging to the genus Echinocatus, and by the aid of my pick I cut a generous slice out of its top, and removing the spines and skin I found a refreshing repast at my hand. The crisp, fleshy pulp of this cactus will quickly allay thirst and is an important article of food with the Indians. The Mexicans make a preserve of it similar to the citron of commerce. It is juicy and tender, and the first taste was as grateful to me as an apple would have been, and after satisfying myself, I put a chunk in my pocket for future use if desired.
Thinking that I must be near to water, I ventured on by the starlight (the moon I knew would not rise before morning), but after stumbling over huge bolwders and crossing a ravine where I had to descent a nearly perpendicular bank, twelve or fifteen feet in hight, I decided that it was unwise to continue my exploration for water. Following down one of the sandy arroyos till I came to the open plain, I took my bearings the best I could from the stars-the mountains, which I had at first depended upon as landmarks, having disappeared or become unrecognizable in the dark, and was soon making a bee line for camp.
Once I stumbled against a dead cactus which had been washed down from some of the cañons I had left behind, and from the persistence of the spines, which quickly developed an attachment for my leg, I was made rather painfully aware that it belonged to the genus Opuntia-which I always detested. Fortunately the open plains of the desert which I had traversed were nearly destitute of cactus growth or this experience might have been repeated oftener than agreeable. Once a diminutive fox crossed my path, and followed me for a ways a few steps behind me, but no other sign of animal life was encountered.
About eleven o'clock I caught sight of the light of a lantern on my wagon, nearly a mile away, and directly in line with the star which I had been using as a guide for several hours past, and I soon joined my companion and we had turned in together for the night-or for what remained of it.
After sunset my friend and I had both observed that there really was water in the lake, as the phenomena of mirage are visible only by sunlight. I had, however, previously decided that the mirage had doubly fooled us, and had led us away from the genuine water. Early the following morning, therefore, we again faced the water, and in an hour had approached as near the edge of the lagoon as the muddy margin along the water would permit with a team. Approaching nearer on foot I finally reached the water, which at the outer edge was scarce a quarter of an inch deep. Digging a hole in the mud and allowing the water to accumulate I was able to dip up a little in my hands and to taste. One taste was enough. The Mexican maps were correct &endash; it was muy salada, in fact, as salt as ordinary brine is usually made, rendered much saltier by evaporation than the water of the ocean.
On the further bank of the lagoon, which was probably considerably deeper than the shore I visited, there was a flock of birds resembling sea gulls, but at the distance of perhaps half a mile or a mile (so deceitful are the distances) I could not positively identify them. We spread not our net for the wary fish in this dead sea of the new world, we tried not a shot, we cast not a line, but silently and quickly we turned our faces in the direction of the north star, and made the best time practicable back to Coyote wells. Brilliantly shone the sun above our heads and sent the thermometer in the bottom of our grub box above 100û F. Old Boreas, as if to celebrate our return gathered from far and near, and concentrating his forces around Coyote wells succeeded well in diverting our minds from the ignominious end of our fishing (or rather, botanical) excursion to the land of Laguna Maquata. My companion could not light his fire, and we went supperless to be-he could not even light his pipe, and consolation there was none.
The next morning, after a day of fasting in the wilderness in good earnest, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast and set our faces into the west where lies San Diego. That night we camped at Dos Cabesas springs, which proved to be the manufacturing and distributing center of winds and cyclones for the Pacific coast. A little stout hut of stones proved a very agreeable place of refuge from the wind and rain which succeeded the typical sandstorm of the desert, while the pure mountain water which flowed from the granite cliffs somewhat reconciled us to our fortune. Thus ended a visit to Laguna Maquata.