April 28, 2022
Amid the clutter on my desk is a small plastic container that once held a roll of 35-millimeter film. Now when I remove the plastic cap and look inside I see about a dozen fragments of shiny black obsidian, nearly all of similar size and shape. I found them one evening in the dust around a fire pit at Little Lava Lake, Oregon.
My camp was only a stone’s throw from the place where water eases gracefully over the edge of the lake and springs instantly to life as the infant Deschutes River, then starts its long dramatic fall from the high Cascades hundreds of miles north to its union with the Columbia River, thence finally to the sea. It’s one of the most beautiful and inviting campsites I’ve ever seen.
I’d had a good day of fishing and just finished a satisfying dinner when my shoe kicked up the first obsidian fragment. It caught my eye, so I picked it up and recognized immediately what it was; it had the unmistakable marks of having been worked by a stone or bone tool. I’d seen these many times in museums and photographs, just because I’m interested in such things.
That started me sifting through the dust, and other fragments soon came to light. I knew then I was sitting where, perhaps a millennium before, a Native American had sat, chipping flakes from a chunk of obsidian to fashion an arrowhead or spear point. As Little Lava Lake’s name suggests, there’s plenty of obsidian to be found nearby.
I wasn’t sure why, but I felt compelled to keep these little fragments from the past, even though it was probably the wrong thing to do. Archaeologists and anthropologists constantly warn people that if they find things like this they should leave them alone until a scientist has a chance to examine them. But I also knew this site had been compromised long before, that in the ages since my prehistoric friend—as I was now beginning to think of him—sat here to chip and shape his chunk of obsidian, hundreds if not thousands of other people also had camped here, a few at a time; there wasn’t room enough for more. The fire pit itself was proof that many people had been here before me.
Maybe some earlier visitors also had helped themselves to the flakes scattered about the pit. They were there long before the Deschutes was blocked by dams, denying passage to the great salmon and steelhead runs that once ascended the river, perhaps all the way here to its cold, clear source in Little Lava Lake. Maybe my silent prehistoric friend had been trying to make a spear to capture one of those great returning fish.
Now, of course, they are long gone. But it had been only a few years since my son, Randy, and I had fished just downstream from this spot. Randy was sixteen then, still learning the finer points of fly fishing, and we fished in the evening with small dry flies and caught and released many small rainbow and brook trout, each bright as a Christmas tree ornament. Brook trout would not have been here when my ancient friend occupied the Little Lava campsite; it would be a long time before they were transplanted from their native Eastern waters. But the rainbows would have been here then.
I remember that evening mainly for two reasons. One was the mosquitoes, which were as numerous and vicious as any I’ve ever encountered. The other was that when I tried to change flies in the fading light, it took at least five minutes to thread the leader tippet through my fly’s tiny eye, while the mosquitoes enjoyed making a banquet of me. That was when I surrendered to the reality that I’d reached the age when I needed eyeglasses for close work.
I’ve visited many other parts of the Deschutes over its long passage, fishing some of its tributaries and hiking some of the trails along the river’s edge. Downstream from Warm Springs I’ve enjoyed hooking amazingly strong Deschutes rainbow trout—some people call them redband trout—during the great annual hatch of big stoneflies. The trout were in close, rising noisily for naturals falling from bankside willows and alders, and they took my floating imitation and ran far out into the river, adding the full force of its current to their own impressive strength. I’ve also prospected with mixed results for fall-run steelhead below the dams in the sometimes enigmatic water around the isolated little town of Maupin.
But I most remember several trips up the lower river, where the Deschutes makes its climactic entrance into the Columbia River near The Dalles. Most especially I recall the first trip, when Alan Pratt and I settled ourselves on a bow seat in Dan Stair’s jet boat while he gunned the engine and started us flying upstream through some of the most hair-raising rapids I’ve ever seen. It was long before breakfast and the day’s promise was only a faint gleam in the east, but Al and I each had a beer in hand and howled with glee as we pounded through the rapids and the wind sucked beer foam from the bottles and blew it into our faces. Even before 5:30 A.M. it tasted good.
We got out and fished several spots without result until Dan finally dropped us at a long run a dozen miles upstream in the river’s spectacular canyon, where we got out to wade and fish again. I quickly hooked a steelhead that ran long and far, causing my old Hardy Zenith to issue a greater volume of sound than I’d ever heard from it before, and finally landed the fish after a long sprint downstream.
During two days on the river we each caught steelhead, and I remember they were among the strongest and wildest I’ve ever hooked. One ran straight toward me and went right between my legs, the only time that’s ever happened. Somehow I made an awkward pirouette in my waders to free the line and finally landed the kamikaze fish.
So my acquaintance with the Deschutes ranges all the way from one end to the other, which is probably more of it than my prehistoric friend ever got to see. I’m also sure he never experienced anything quite like our early morning beer-spattered ascent of the river, but then he probably had some experiences I couldn’t imagine, either.
Before global warming, the snow at Little Lava Lake remained deep into June, so it probably would have been summer when my friend deposited those shiny obsidian shards by the fireside. When fall came, he would have started down the mountain trails to seek seasonal shelter in the warmer valleys below.
At the time I really didn’t know why I felt compelled to pick up and keep those fragments, but over the years since I’ve begun to understand the reason. Those little chips of volcanic glass are probably the only tangible evidence my prehistoric friend ever lived or walked this earth, so I now keep them as sort of a private little memorial to someone who lived, hunted, and fished in a different time. Small as they are, they still tell me something about him—that he was a skilled and patient craftsman, adept at making spear or arrow points; that he knew a great campsite when he saw one, with good water, trout, and plenty of shade from the hot summer sun; that he surely was as familiar with the scent of a pinewood campfire as I am. I’d like to think we had a lot in common.
I suppose each of us leaves behind some fragments of our existence in this world, but not many endure as long as those little obsidian chips in my old film canister. They’ll be safe with me, for as long as I’m around.
Steve Raymond is author of Rivers of the Heart, Nervous Water, The Year of the Trout, and most recently Sixty Seasons: Notes from a Fly-Fishing Life (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018). He was the winner of the Roderick Haig-Brown Award for significant contributions to angling literature, and he is a former editor of The Flyfisher and Fly Fishing in Salt Waters. After a 30-year career as editor and manager at The Seattle Times, he retired and now lives in Clinton, Washington.