Nevada History by John C. Evanoff

Visitreno.com is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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A Gem in the Desert

by John C. Evanoff
March, 2005

Northern Nevada is full of some of the most extraordinary geography in the world and nowhere is that more true than the high desert body of water called Pyramid Lake. Just thirty minutes north of Reno on State Highway 445, driving through Spanish Springs Valley and then Palomino Valley, you come to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation. The dark tan sagebrush encrusted mountainsides along the way parade against the glorious Nevada blue skies as bastions for a host of wildlife including mountain goat, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, mountain lion, sage grouse, red hawk, peregrine falcon and golden eagle. A little more than half the way to Pyramid, you might stop and visit the Bureau of Land Management Wild Horse corrals where as many as a thousand wild mustang and burrows can be viewed. It’s not very often you get a chance to see this many wild horses in one place. Further along on the left, you will drive by some unusual black monoliths. These are lava columns left from volcanoes whose outer husks were worn away by weather and water on the eastern edge of Tule Mountain. In fact, many of the table top mountains you see along the way are left over islands from a vast inland endorheic (watershed) lake called Lahontan. Thirteen thousand years ago, it spread over most of northwestern Nevada, almost eight thousand square miles at its crest. This lake was the result of melt from giant ice sheets a mile or more deep during the last ice ages advancing into North America. Then, it warmed up and about nine thousand years ago, only a few remnants remained, one being Pyramid Lake.

Further down the road, you will drive over a small rise just past a small store on your left. At the top, slow down. The view leaps upon your eyes from north to south a fifteen mile long and west to east eleven mile wide expanse of majestically blue-green water. No forest or fields; just three huge sagebrush covered mountain ranges surrounding an awe-inspiring splash of different hues of blue more than three hundred fifty feet deep. Stop just on the other side of the hill at the rest stop on the right overlooking the lake and get out of the car and take it all in. This is a magical canvas of shadows and vastness, and you feel like you’re looking at ethereal elements materializing into an abstract painting of some optical illusion or mirage. There is a sign there giving you more information about the lake. Along the mountain sides across the lake, you can see the shore lines of ancient Lake Lahontan, the highest and most jagged beaches, being as much as three thousand feet above the current water level. In the winter of 1844, Captain John C. Fremont, a band of volunteers and his trusty guide, Kit Carson, came across the hills north of the lake from your far left and were the first white men to see this body of water. John and Kit tasted the water but found it to be somewhat saline. Fremont was mapping the area for the government’s great expansion westward. With much trepidation, he traversed the cliffs now called Hell’s Kitchen along the northeast side and rested on a beach a couple days later overlooking a rock protruding from the water that reminded him of the great pyramid of Giza in Egypt. So, he decided to name the body of water Pyramid Lake. The Pyramid Rock is an immense tufa formation built from calcium carbonate and sediment welling up from hot water vents below. Many of these rocks can be found along the shores and roads lead to some of them for easy examination. You will see signs along the main road that point the way to some of them including Castle Rock, Indian Head and Popcorn. There are also many curious names of the beaches and points including Windless, LA Rock, Spider, Wino, Willows, Blockhouse, Rawhide, Cattle Guard, and Dago to name a few. Fremont met a friendly and thriving people at the south end of the lake near the present settlement of Nixon and was amazed at the size of the fish they fed him and his men next to the Truckee River that flowed into the lake. These were the Pyramid Lake Paiute Indians, very resourceful fishermen and hunters who have lived in the area for thousands of years. Caves high above the water’s edge have been excavated by archeologists and attest to ancient man traversing and living along the shores of Pyramid Lake for more than nine thousand years.

If you travel north on SR445 to Sutcliffe, a small village next to the lake, you should stop at the visitor center. The center has a small but interesting exhibit about the Indians and the history of the lake. Also, stop by Crosby’s Lodge to check out the walls of pictures and mounted Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. The world renowned trophy sized cutthroat trout are caught at Pyramid Lake between October 1st and June 30th. Summer is closed to fishing for the cutthroat trout to allow the fish to grow. The original Pyramid Lake Lahontan Cutthroat is no longer in existence but a species very near it that comes from a body of water that once was part of ancient Lake Lahontan is fairing extremely well in the lake. In recent years, fly fishermen from around the globe have traveled to the area to fish for these hard fighting and truly beautiful fish. Throughout the winter, you can go to the beaches below Sutcliffe and see as many as a hundred fishermen standing on ladders and whipping the lake with their weight forward lines in hopes of catching trophy sized fish. The fishing license is only seven dollars per day or fifty dollars per season. Boaters and lure fishermen also do well at the lake. Boaters must pay an additional fee. Boat docks are situated at Sutcliffe, Warrior Point, Pelican Point and Popcorn Rock. Camping is allowed and costs nine dollars per day.

Bait fishing is not allowed because of a regulated size slot limit. Only flies and lures are allowed. You may only keep two fish and only in the order I outline here. Two can be kept between sixteen and nineteen inches or one can be kept between sixteen and nineteen inches and the other one more than twenty-four inches. Only one fish can be kept over twenty-four inches. All other fish must be released back into the lake. Be sure to be careful with the fish that you release back into the water so they may grow to the sizes most appreciated by fishermen of these stout and colorful land locked salmon family trout. If you catch a fish over ten pounds, you can register it with the State of Nevada Fish and Game Department to receive a trophy fish certificate. You can also drop by Crosby’s Lodge or the Visitor Center to have them take a picture of it and put it on the walls there. Just recently, in February of 2005, a twenty-four pound cutthroat was caught by a fly fisherman at the “nets” near Sutcliffe using a dark colored fly called a wooly bugger or wooly worm. The fly imitates the large dragon fly nymph prevalent to this high desert water. The largest Lahontan Cutthroat trout caught at the lake and still the world record was forty-one pounds, caught in 1938, but that was the original Pyramid Lake Lahontan Cutthroat. Still, the fish here grow very large and the Indians believe that one day, fishermen will catch thirty pound trout again. Lure fishermen also do well using large multi-colored spoons imitating the tui chub and cui-ui that also live in the lake. The cui-ui, a bottom sucker fish noted as a living fossil left over from eons ago, is an endangered species and protected by the Indians and the government. It is currently being revived and in the spring, you can sometimes see hundreds of them (most more than five pounds each) at the Truckee River inlet trying to make their way up to spawn. The tui chub is a bottom white fish that grows to two pounds and during the summer can be seen in schools of thousands along the banks of the lake. I’ve caught a half dozen cutthroat over ten pounds, the biggest being thirteen pounds, on flies and lures. But I’ve also caught thousands of one to eight pound fish and carefully released them back into the lake after perhaps snapping a picture to remind me of their stunning appearance and colors. When I was young, my father and I used to catch Steelhead, Sacramento Perch, Cutbows and Bowcuts all around the lake when the Nevada Fish and Game Department tried to restock it with anything that could handle the alkalinity. All the experimental game fish died off except for the Sacramento Perch, which can still be fished off the rocky points in the warmer months with floating poppers and flies. Speaking of warmer months, summertime brings a host of activities. Many people in the region love Pyramid for it’s warm almost tropical feel in July and August and thousands of them water ski, boat, swim and enjoy other water sports throughout the hottest days. A beach picnic with friends and family is a must at least once a summer at Pyramid.

Looking north from Sutcliffe, you can see needle rocks sticking up out of the water. These are more tufa formations that stand as much as a hundred feet high. To the right of them, Fox Bay extends for some seven miles to the cliffs of Hells Kitchen and Anderson Bay. This entire area is sealed off from off-roaders to protect the hot springs and unusual structures there. In the middle of the lake sits Anahoe Island, the largest tufa formation on the lake, which is home to one of the country’s largest colonies of American White Pelicans. In the late spring, flocks of pelicans, seagulls, loons, double-crested cormorants, egret, ibis, grebes and other waterfowl, begin to migrate to Pyramid Lake to take advantage of the vast amounts of food and the island’s protection from man and animals. Bird watchers love to visit the area in the summer to view all of them nesting and feeding, but the island is protected and you are not allowed to land on it. It might not be such a good idea anyway because there is a large population of rattlesnakes that inhabit the island also. One of the most magnificent experiences you can view is the fall flights of young pelicans all along the shores. In some flights, you may see as many as two hundred pelicans in enormous lines skimming the top of the water from Anahoe Island all the way south to where the river runs into the lake.

Traveling south on SR446, you will drive past Popcorn Rock, the Truckee river inlet and come to the junction of SR447. Just a few hundred yards prior to the junction on the left just past the Pyramid Lake High School is the Pyramid Lake Museum. You can spend an hour or two examining and studying the exhibits there including the story of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the many events that make this area and the people that inhabited it, historically inspiring. One of those stories concern the legend of the Stone Mother which I write more about a little later. After you take a left at the junction and proceed north on SR447 in the direction of Gerlach, you will cross the Truckee River and pass through the town of Nixon. Nixon is a settlement very near where Fremont first met the Indians at the south end of the lake and it is the cultural and government center for the reservation. Further down the road around a corner at Marble Bluff, another tufa formation, gives you a wonderful view of the west side of the lake. At one time, there was a slough from the Truckee River and Pyramid Lake that flowed to Winnemucca Lake east of the lake. Winnemucca Lake dried up in the 1930’s because of the construction of Derby Dam diverting water to Fallon and Fernley and heavy upstream water use by Sparks and Reno. If you go a bit further past the sand dune hills and Duck Pass, you will reach a turnoff to the left that you can drive all the way to the Pyramid rock. Although, you could take a two wheel car, it would be better if you had a SUV or four wheel drive truck or van to make the trip. It takes about thirty carefully driven minutes. There are plenty of places to stop and take pictures but the bay close to the Pyramid holds the most notable views and camera shots. From this vantage point, you can see across the lake to Tule Mountain on the right and Monte Cristo on the left. You can also better see the old western shores high on the hillsides of this once much larger body of water. Since you are closer to Anahoe Island, you may also see much more bird life. Around the bay, you will see many tufa rocks and one called the Stone Mother, a large tufa outcrop shaped like an Indian Mother with a basket at her side. The story of this unusual tufa rock is a fascinating legend passed down through the ages in tribal folklore and can be read at this website: http://www.pyramidlake.us/index.html under the heading Stone Mother.

I’ve known many of the Pyramid Lake Indian families throughout my life and have fond memories of many of my friends and fishing buddies over the last six decades there. I even lived at the lake in a trailer at Sutcliffe in 1987-88 with my wife between homes in Reno. The area around the lake is perfect for hiking and sightseeing. There are many roads and trails to discover and the views are always awesome. Take a picnic basket and enjoy the trip. Stay on the roads, be safe and always have fun. It doesn’t matter how many times you visit, because of the seasons, the sky, the water and weather, Pyramid Lake looks different every time.


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