A week camping near a lake, lava tubes, a mountain of chunks of beautiful black obsidian and volcanic tufa resulted in this carving…
I never liked walking, so any time friends asked me to go hiking, I’d say no. But when my friend Bee, who lived all the way across the world from me, said she was coming to visit and would I go hiking up in Tule Lake, it sounded so fascinating I had to go.
And we walked. And walked and walked — and I even liked it! Turned out walking with her turned what I normally thought of as physical pain and duress into a fun and interesting adventure. At the end of our week there, I was sad to go home.
Tule Lake (pronounced TOO-lee) and Glass Mountain are up at the north eastern border of California and Oregon. It’s the ancestral home of the Modoc Indian Nation.
It’s a fairly large lake, with ancient cliff carvings and petroglyphs over on the eastern side. The cliff wall shoots up abruptly out of the sandy plain, which is flat all the way to the mountain.
We were told that during spring and fall migration times, there used to be so many birds of all kinds flying in to take a break at the lake that the sky would turn black.
I wish I could have seen that!
The best thing about staying there was the miles and miles of underground lava tubes you can explore. ‘Underground’ might sound obvious, but a few were open on top.
Each one was distinctly different from the others. I was amazed — I mean, a tube is a tube, right?
Wrong! Every tube had a different shape — round, oval, round with flat bottom, narrow sides with hard-to-walk-in rock-covered floor, wide easy-to-walk-in ones, stubby short ones, long skinny ones you had to crouch down in — some of them even branched off into multitudes of tubes within them.
I almost got lost in one.
I had somehow lost Bee, wandering far away from the sound of her voice. All at once, deep under the earth, my flashlight dimming, all I could see was a dark tunnel entrance to my left, dark tunnel entrance to my right, and a dark tunnel behind me. Which one to take???
I don’t panic easily, but you can be sure my heart was pounding a little faster than was fun!
I finally figured out that the way to find the way out is to remember almost all of them slope down, so just head up, and you’re fine. I was so grateful when at last I saw the light blooming around the corner at the end of the main tunnel!
One of the tubes was vertical, rather than horizontal.
There was a sneaky tube that you climb into a hole to get into. A rickety ladder goes straight down 40 or 50 feet.
Scared me to death, that ladder — I knew it must be safe, because it was a well-maintained national campground, but I just had this awful creepy feeling it would be me it would give way on.
When I finally reached the bottom, there was a wide expanse of slippery grey ice that hadn’t melted in thousands of years. Hard to fathom.
I was so relieved to get down to the bottom safely — I had to wait until my breathing got back to normal again before heading back up.
We got to try making arrowheads!
We set up at the campground a short distance from Glass Mountain. I couldn’t wait to climb up and see what was at the top!
I had thought it might have a vent hole, or be a bowl-like crater, but no — the mountain is really just a big pile of volcanic glass, otherwise known as obsidian. Most of it was a deep black or a rich dark grey. I particularly liked the pieces that were striped clear and black.
When you hike up on the mountain, you could collect a few small pieces (update — not anymore) and try your hand at making arrow-heads. Wear long pants, though, and take a piece of leather to cover your lap! If you hold the obsidian on your legs without protection, as you chip the little flakes away, they pop off and shred your skin to pieces.
The chips are so sharp you don’t know you’re getting cut!
I was wearing shorts because it was so hot — mistake! I sat there playing with making stuff for an hour, and when I got up was shocked to see blood steaming down my thighs, knees and shins — mini-cuts made by the chips flying around.
I had been so embroiled in the chipping that I hadn’t noticed I was becoming a sitting blood bath. It didn’t hurt until I washed the blood off and put antiseptic on it.
And to top it off, my arrowheads really sucked.
Tule Mama is made out of some of the tufa — congealed, spongy-looking volcanic ash. I grabbed a few hunks of it, thinking it looked easy and fun to shape into something.
I was so disappointed to find that, although it looked spongy, it was actually hard as glass — harder than I had the proper tools for. So after making Tule Mama and two other smaller pieces from it, I ended up taking what was left back to the mountain the next time I was up there.
1. A bit of history — Tule Lake became the largest of the 10 War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps when it was converted to a high-security Segregation Center in 1943, during WWII. There is now a visitor center there.
2. According to the National Park Service, the Indian Well Campground is located 1/2 mile (0.8 km) from the visitor center and cave loop. There are 43 sites available on a first-come, first serve basis. Sites can accommodate tents, pickup campers, small trailers and motor homes up to 30 feet (not all sites can accommodate motor homes).
3. It’s been thirty years since I was there. If you go, check to see if you can still go up Glass Mountain.
4. You are now prohibited from collecting obsidian there, so you can take a wee trip up to Glass Butte, which is purported to be the best place in Oregon to find high-quality obsidian. It is is considered the largest obsidian deposit in the world. No permits are required to collect “reasonable” daily amount of minerals for personal use.
Thanks for reading my story! I hope you enjoyed it, and my artwork. My main gig in life is to add beauty, and remind us all of the simple fact of love. I hope I have succeeded in that here.
Image: Tule Mama
© Angela Treat Lyon 1995
Story: Tule Mama
© Angela Treat Lyon 2023