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Eileen Apperson

Los Tulares: The Place of the Rushes

          While roaming through the Westward Expansion Museum in St. Louis I came upon a topographical map of the continental United States as prominent and impressive as the grizzly bear which stood near it. My eyes went directly toward the San Joaquin Valley, what I have always considered the most distinct feature on the map, no matter its size. But then, perhaps, it is natural when looking at a map to first find the place you are from, comforting to see familiar land formations when away from home. I was contemplating these two theories when a small boy next to me approached the map. Standing on tiptoes, he reached his hand high as his extended finger rubbed up and down the smooth valley. He turned to his mother, who replied, “That is California.”
          More distinct than the wide expanse of the Rocky Mountains or Midwest Plains, the San Joaquin Valley does grab the viewer's eye, pulling one west to the long, thin, vale. It is deeply carved and ceremoniously surrounded by equally defined mountain peaks; the impressive Sierra Nevada on its east, and completing the cradle, the Coast Range mountains to the west. It is a region that has suffered substantial alterations in a variably short amount of time, from its bountiful oak groves, wildflowers, and rivers to cattle ranches and wheat farming to dairies and fruit crops to industries and subdivisions.
          In spite of all these changes to the valley’s floor, a person looking at a map of the San Joaquin Valley, such as the one on the wall of the St. Louis museum, will see a smooth green valley. There are no implications of these changes, the miles of grid-patterned design consisting of barren canal banks and crop rows. They will not see the orange-colored roadsides full of sprayed grasses, the absence of oak trees, lack of native fauna, or spread of housing tracts and shopping malls. A topographical map such as this virtually looks the same as a map designed over one hundred years ago when the landscape was in its natural state, except for one distinct difference, the existence of Tulare Lake.
The lake's surface at one time covered a noticeably large section on the maps, including a pencil drawing my grandfather sketched of California when he was a schoolboy living close to the lake in the late nineteenth century. Today it is usually unacknowledged, a few maps faintly positioning the Tulare Lake Basin region. The waters of the Kings River, along with the Kern, White, and Tule, no longer complete their run to its shores. They are halted miles away as they now feed furrowed land. At peak times the thriving lake consumed nearly 700 square miles of valley floor during run-off. This gave the lake the distinction of being the largest fresh-water lake west of the Mississippi during wet months. Although the lake was, in great areas, only a foot deep, the middle of the lake was over forty feet in depth. Since the lake could go from 195 square miles, at its lowest, to 760 square miles, at its highest, many speculated that there was a subterranean passage from the lake to the ocean causing the escape of waters. However, the cause for this change in water levels was merely evaporation caused by the summer's sweltering heat. It would take much more to drain the lake entirely.
          From the river's entrance into the southern end of the valley, some 60 miles from its destination, the Kings meandered southwest through a varying landscape. These areas changed from riparian forest to savanna to marsh, moving east to west from the base of the Kings River's descent from the Sierra to the watery lands of Tulare Lake. The water of the river gave to the landscape its most obvious landmarks by nurturing the mixture of trees which lined the banks and asymmetrically tapered off into the level prairie. A tangle of deciduous oaks, Arizona and Oregon ash, California sycamore, willow, cottonwood, and walnut grew thick among wild berries, tules, and an assortment of native bunchgrasses to form a verdant maze in an otherwise arid land. A sanctuary was born as beavers, otters and mink harbored the waters and blue herons and cranes glided down its bending flow. The river and its trees wound through the valley floor's prairie region until their end at the marsh of the lake near the west side of the valley.
          When water was low, during cool weather months, islands emerged in the shallow lake giving rest to wildlife who visited. In these waters, fish abounded. White sturgeon, Chinook salmon, and steelhead were able to spawn in the high water level areas. As with the river, the lake itself was a biome of species, diverse and plentiful. Tule reeds grew straight toward the cloudless skies of summer and through the low-lying fog of winter to protect and nourish all the lake's dependents. Three hundred species of birds including eagles, roadrunners, owls, valley quail and hundreds of songbirds shared space with the numerous waterfowl ranging from ducks and geese to shore birds.
 Every small creature from cottontail and squirrels to porcupines and skunk scattered and fed on the flat grassy floor which too had its transition. Away from the river and lake, the prairie supported perennial bunchgrasses, an assortment of needlegrasses, bluegrass and fescue. The damp winters brought peppergrass and plantain which remained green for that period, while the blistering summer grew tarweeds which were parched brown. During the short-lived spring months, the prairie took on the look of an artist's colorful palette. Flowering perennials which sprung up in the prairie included mariposa lily, wild onion, buttercups, goldfields, owl’s clover, and beardstongue, and were dominated by the vibrant orange of the California poppy. Just as the water levels of the lake changed with the seasons, so did the wildlife living around the lake and river. Antelope, mule deer, and tule elk covered the floor, grazing upon the grassy plains as they migrated from the snowy mountains. Grizzly and black bears, too, ventured as far as the lake to raise their young.
          The first white men to see this were renegades, Spanish soldiers who began deserting their posts along the coast and headed inland. They fled to the open wilderness, which, in its vastness, sheltered the men from discovery. The reason for their desertion is unknown, but what this act did was begin a long chain of events which led one group after another into California’s San Joaquin Valley; each looking for something different, something the land would provide again and again.
Spanish missionaries, Pedro Fages and Father Cabot, namely, looking for possible mission sites, were the next through this region. Their accounts were the first recorded, the consequences staggering in retrospect.
          The value of the written word has been the one constant in the progress and change of the valley floor. What these viewers did not know was that as they wrote they were recording for the last time the landscape they saw. After that the land was altered by the next visionary who read the writers' accounts and headed west. The descriptions of the valley and its resources made by Pedro Fages and Father Cabot led trappers and hunters to become the valley's next inhabitants.
          Jedidiah Smith, the first white man to enter the valley from a southern route, found trapping on Tulare Lake profitable. His accounts brought Joseph Walker and Ewing Young and contracts from the Hudson Bay Company. Grizzly Adams also hunted for pelts. Although as early as the 1850's Young reported the region "trapped-out". Once gold was discovered in the Sierra, California territory became of greater interest. John Fremont, Kit Carson along with geologists, William Brewer, namely, and naturalist and writer John James Audubon entered the region. Once again, their accounts of the San Joaquin Valley's landscape varied depending on season and intentions for its use. Where the Spaniards had searched for mission sites, the American easterner looked to cultivate the land into what they considered a civilized inhabitance. However, due to the valley’s many months of little or no rainfall many reports by white visitors about the valley still remained unfavorable. One such account was by Lieutenant George H. Derby, a topographical engineer for the United States Army looking for possible military outposts. He described the setting as a "horrible desert" with soil "generally dry, decomposed and incapable of cultivation." He concluded that the valley was

barren, decomposed, no trace of vegetation but a few straggling artemisias . . . scorpions, centipedes and a small but extremely poisonous rattlesnake about eighteen inches long . . . which, with the gophers and ground rats are the only denizens of this unpleasant and uninhabitable spot.

          Twenty-five years after Lieutenant Derby wrote his account the first small acreage farmers, my great-grandparents included, were breaking their land. As they dug their ditches and diverted water from the rivers, it was quickly determined that Derby and his contemporaries were wrong.
          The soil here evolved from sedimentary sea-bottom to finally some of the richest earth in the world. In time the western edge of this sea had warped itself into the life-giving Sierra. Run-off from its deep snow pack brought a mixture of minerals which were trapped under the valley's impervious clay lens creating subterranean waters which foreshadowed eventual settlement patterns across the valley floor. The land, once irrigated, was indeed extremely fertile.

In my grandmother's photo album is a sepia photograph mounted on heavy cardboard that is rounded on the corners from the many years. It captures my grandmother's two oldest brothers standing on the edge of a newly planted field. On the other side of the camera are the first shoots of alfalfa, rising straight atop narrow rows, the patchwork of a newly arable land. Behind the men is the farmhouse, plain and square with a screened-in porch across the entire front, free from needless ornamentation. The men's overalls harbor dust in turned up cuffs and their hands display deep, dirt-filled lines.
 These families marked a path that so many followed into the next century. They came for the proven fertile land and for its never-ending supply of water. But as the water kept its promise, the landscape altered dramatically and became just a poor resemblance of its former existence.
          When my ancestors first arrived in the San Joaquin Valley, the landscape, except for want of wildlife, still looked much as it had for centuries. The foliage that had changed due to overgrazing was not evident to the newcomers’ eyes. My great-grandparents still saw a large amount of grassy plains although the native grasses had begun to be destroyed. Vernal pools formed in the small, usually unnoticeable, depressions across the valley floor. Collecting water during the cooler months, the flowers at the edges changed depending on the amount of rainfall. Isolated oaks still spread far into the horizon. This was wild landscape to them. Yet, these settlers sped the pace of change, altering what following generations would behold. A patchwork spread over the once sprawling canvas of the valley floor. Lines began to stitch their ways onto the frontier as acreage, roads, and communities created a new pattern on the land.
 By the time of my family’s arrivals in the valley, wheat constituted over ninety percent of the basin's cropland. Yet, alfalfa was soon found to grow well in the naturally alkali soil. Due to the area’s growing sheep ranching population in the Mussel Slough region, this crop would become equal in numbers to wheat. This was also known as the Lucerne district because of its dairies situated along with the irrigated alfalfa fields.
 My grandmother's family's eighty acres of alfalfa were situated in present Lemoore, which at the time of their move, in 1872, was, in wet years, located close to Tulare Lake’s north shore. This was the amount of land provided under the Homestead Act. Once three years of residence was past, full ownership was granted to the settler. Great amounts of this area were homesteaded. In just one generation this town became, thanks to the introduction of the railroads, the nation's largest wool shipping point. The valley was quickly proving itself as an economic threshold. However, where commerce would escalate, frontier would subside.
          Although hunting and trapping by this time was a bygone trade, fishermen could still fill their horse-drawn seines until their nets nearly exploded with fish. Anywhere from four to eight tons of fish, caught in these seines, could be captured in one haul.
          Before the practice of cutting trees in the Sierra, the large numbers of pines would slow the fast melting of snow and therefore the rivers that roamed through the valley stayed fuller, longer. This volume of water made navigation on these waterways possible. Navigation on the rivers, as well as the lake, had been important for both commerce and communication. In the southern region of the lake, the schooner, “Mose Andross,” transported hogs and cattle from Atwell Island (now the town of Alpaugh) to destinations around the lake—Atwell’s Landing on the north shore, Root Island on the south, and Gordon’s Point in the west. The Water Witch was the most well-known boat on the lake both for its massive trappings of terrapin, which was transported to San Francisco for use in soups and stews, and for its original life as The Alcatraz, a dispatch boat between San Francisco and Alcatraz Island. In addition to these schooners, steamers on the Kings and the lake took passengers, as well as freight, to the growing number of settlements and inklings of new towns. My grandmother's uncle, John, became a barge navigator on the lake and hauled lumber from Johnsondale, a large lumber mill site in the Sierra on the turbulent Kern River, the supply of good lumber in demand as the building of farmhouses, tank houses, barns, and businesses in the valley grew.
 In a few years' time the lake had diminished substantially as many more settlers began diverting water and transforming this once swampy land into cultivated fields. The rivers began to stop short of their original destinations. This seed of change was actually planted in 1852 with the passage of the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act. Once townships began to form, levees were built to protect them. Besides, the railroads that crossed the valley floor had taken over as a better form of moving people and produce around. At one point, the now small town of Goshen, 20 miles west of the lake, depending on the wetness of the year, had more trains passing through than there were entering New York’s Central Station. Travel became exclusive to the land and water vessels grounded themselves at the waters’ edge.
          In irregularly wet years the lake would once again fill, but there are very few existing photographs of this to show the citizens of the valley what a grand natural habitat used to be here. Picture an ocean, smooth and silent into the curved horizon. Drawings from over a century ago show large schooners skirting the shores to destinations such as Terrapin Bay, Atwell's Island, and Gordon's Point. The lake, however, was not always so serene. Sudden and sometimes rough storms fell upon it from the northwest making navigation difficult and causing several shipwrecks. The following is an account of such a storm by a sailor on the Water Witch:

Part of the time we flew before the wind, at a rate of eight or ten miles an hour, then the wind would lull and our speed would slacken a little. Part of the time the Water Witch kept ahead of the heaviest wind. Then came a lull, but soon the wind would catch us again, and away we went, dancing merrily over the troubled waters. It was splendid, exhilarating. Once in a while a larger wave than usual would dash over our sides, and many a time the boom of the mainsail dipped to leeward in the waves . . . .

The Water Witch, which was launched from the Kings River twenty miles before the lake, finally wrecked just three miles southeast of the mouth of the river.

          Paths cross often from generation to generation, especially when a family lives in a region over a span of one hundred years or more. After my sister, Kim, graduated from college with a degree in fisheries biology, she worked for a time as a private consultant. One job led her to what was left of Tulare Lake. In the fall of 1983 through the summer of 1984, the year of El Nino and the heavy rains it brought, Tulare Lake was beyond the capacity of its man-made borders. It flooded acres of the corporate farming land of Salyer and Boswell, transforming it into twenty feet of muck. Eager to have this portion of land back into production, they wanted to pump water from the lake into the San Joaquin River system. However, the fear was that the white bass which existed in Tulare Lake would get into the San Joaquin, compete with its natural salmon and striped bass and would eventually ruin fishing in the Delta, a large industry. The Tulare Reclamation District hired my sister to collect data on the white bass in the lake and research their spawning history. During her fieldwork she boated across road signs with their tops just above water level and the corrugated roofs of sheds. Waterfowl had returned and the fish population exploded in the succulent drowned farmland. For a brief time the lake reclaimed some of its grandeur.
          The lake was eventually rotenoned not long after she left, poisoning all wildlife existing there. Later that year this mighty corporate farm, which after so much wheeling and dealing to get its land back into production, was subsidized by the government to not plant crops.

          My father joined me one spring Sunday morning in my sudden determination to find Tulare Lake, and a remnant of what this region of the valley once resembled. We tried to follow the course of the Kings River from near our farm to the lake. It is a green oasis as it winds its way through the valley, from Piedra near Pine Flat Dam on down to the Lemoore area. The river breaks up the mundane grid-patterned map of the valley with its uniform rows of fruit trees, grapevines, and parallel roads. The often dry river bottom sinks and rises, oaks stand majestic, and roads we traveled dead-ended or were forced to make turns. The closer my dad and I ventured toward the lake, the more this setting changed. The farther south, the darker, richer, the soil. A maze of large canals divide the land which at the time was freshly plowed, no crops, no buildings, no homes, nothing, just bare opaque ground into the wavering horizon.
          By process of elimination we found the road to the lake and ignored the "No Trespassing" sign of a corporate farm. The dirt road we were on was like so many others in the vicinity. It doubled as a levee. A wide swift canal ran on one side of this road which sat far above the cultivated land. A man discing a field waved. With some hesitation we waved back, hoping our pickup truck would make us inconspicuous. Still miles from the lake a mirage formed making the distance shimmer an eerie reflection of lifelessness. "Surreal," my father said after miles of silence. Finally one waving illusion transformed into water. Six massive rectangle holding ponds were broken up by yet more levees. The earth at the edges of the water is white from salinization which is a concern for much of the soil in this southeastern region. Much of the land here looks as if it were dusted with snow, a problem caused when irrigated water and the natural clay soil mix. The land is no longer viable. I walked to the caked edge and stood amazed at what a once vast lake had become. Immediately south of what is left of the lake is a wide stretch of unplanted soil. Unplowed, I could now visualize what this region resembled at the time that this lake was in its greatness. Tall shoots of tules covered the open ground. Short grasses were sprung up between the tules, leaving me to wonder if these were some of the bunchgrasses I had read of but had never seen. Small birds landed ever-so gently on the end of the tules, making them bow slightly. I wanted to stay, watch for wildlife, fast-forward to see how the plant-life and colors changed with each season, as I had also read. I imagine grandparents on buckboard traversing this plain, coming to the edge of the lake, and pausing there with me.