Originally printed in the Sept.18, 2002 edition of the Illinois Valley News
The part of Oregon east of the Cascade Mountains is a complex mixture of geological treasures. In the NE corner are the Wallowa Mountains which are geologically similar to the Siskiyou’s. Between the Cascades and the Wallowas is an area known as the Columbia Plateau. It is made mostly of old lava flows which have piled on top of one another, now dissected by many canyons and gullies.
The region east of Klamath Falls in the southern part of the state is part of the Basin and Range geologic province which continues south into Nevada. The mountains are generally oriented north to south and have been created by earthquakes which have pushed up blocks of the crust into the air. The basins in between the ranges are chunks of the crust which dropped. These basins sank below the surrounding land making it impossible for rainfall to drain creating saline lakes.
Just north of Lakeview on Highway 395 is one of the highest scarps (steep cliffs created by earthquakes) found in the United States. It is called Abert Rim and is composed of a purple volcanic rock with large crystals. At the base of Abert Rim on the west side of Highway 395 is Abert Lake, the third largest saline lake in the United States. It has one river going into the lake but none coming out, therefore the water evaporates but the salts accumulate in the water. Abert Rim and Abert Lake were discovered by John C. Fremont in 1843 and named for John James Abert, who was at that time Chief of the U.S. Topographical Bureau which had commissioned Fremont’s expedition.
Abert, born Sept. 17, 1788 in Virginia, graduated from West Point but resigned to become a lawyer. In 1814 he rejoined the army as a topographical engineer. Later as Chief of the Topographical Bureau he organized a number of expeditions to map and explore the West. This included Fremont’s first three expeditions as well as other groups sent out to map possible transcontinental railroad routes.
In 1843 the second Fremont party was not planned as a military expedition but purely for scientific and exploration purposes. However Fremont took a small cannon along and Abert wrote to him to return rather than face military conflicts. Somehow Jessie Fremont, his wife, intercepted the order and informed Fremont to proceed without telling him of the change in orders. During the trip Fremont entered both California and the Oregon area claimed by Britain, as a military leader and not just an explorer. This of course lead to some controversy with those governments as well as his own leaders when he returned.
In a different expedition organized by Abert and led by Samuel Woodhouse into the SW part of the United States, the Tassel-eared Squirrel, Sciurus aberti, was discovered. “Sciurus” is the Latin word for squirrel. It is unique because of pointed tassels on its ears. Its also different because its tail is pure white in the areas north of Grand Canyon but black and white, like a skunk, in the places where it lives south of Grand Canyon. Many scientists think it should be classified as two separate species.
John James Abert also helped to organize several scientific societies including the National Institute of Science which later merged into the Smithsonian Institute. He was not a well known person but played an important role in the mapping and exploration of the western United States.