When driving north from Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley today, you will experience a variety of sights from oil rigs to vineyards, dairy barns to orchards, and ultimately croplands stretching to the horizon. The primary impression here is flat, dry and hot. It is surprising to learn that this waterless landscape was once the largest body of water west of the Great Lakes. And not that long ago.
I traveled to Lemoore, California, recently, researching background for my next novel. My interest lay with the Yokut people who inhabit the region and indeed have done so for the past 10,000 years. To that end, I planned to stay at the Tachi palace, the casino owned and operated by the Tachi band of Yokuts. First, however, I set out to see if I could find any remnants of Tulare Lake, that huge body of fresh water that once sustained the Yokuts.
My map showed a large grey area south of the Santa Rosa Rancheria named “Buena Vista Lakebed (dry)”, which seemed to occupy an area inside the boundaries historically ascribed to Tulare Lake. I would go there. Seeing that the Kern National Wildlife Refuge was along the way, I whimsically decided to stop there as well.
The road to the refuge off the main highway lay north straight as an arrow and dry as a bone, with sage brush and semi-arid plant growth where the land was not irrigated. On my left, I became aware of a raised roadbed paralleling my route. But I saw no sign of trees or more verdant growth one expects to find in a wildlife refuge.
The entrance sign appeared out of nowhere, and I turned in. A group of small buildings huddled together a short distance from the entrance. An official looking building closest to the parking spaces was cordoned off with yellow tape. I would find no information there today. I read several informative signs, describing species of wild fowl that were not apparent. But a map outlined several driving tours and I set out to follow one of them.
Beyond the buildings, to my amazement, was a great body of water surrounded by lush marsh growth and speckled with hundreds of waterfowl, the nearest of which rose in a body with a great flapping of wings at my approach. I was awestruck. Here was the exact remnant of the historical lake of my imaginings. It is protected today by dikes which segment the water into multiple bodies that can be raised or lowered by pumps as the season demands. Here, hundreds of species of migratory birds can find refuge on their seasonal flights, just as they have always done.
An official for the Refuge found me when I made a wrong turn onto a restricted road. I asked him about the dry lakebed described on my map. “That’s all privately owned,” he said, “and all plowed over for crops.” I would see nothing there. But here, before me, was a vista of the great lake just as the Yokuts must have known it, fringed with tulare (reeds), full of wildlife, cooled by breezes across the water. Happy with my accidental find, I drove on to the Santa Rosa Rancheria and the Tachi Palace to find the Yokut people themselves.