Lake Abert's vast size and the prehistoric look of its surrounding landscape caught our attention first.
Our second observation, upon rolling down the windows, was the smell.
A dense, salty aroma filled our nostrils as we emerged from the car at a scenic lookout. It smelled like a cannery on the Oregon Coast, but instead of viewing endless ocean, we saw a lake surrounded by barren hills and Abert Rim. The lake, located about 30 miles north of Lakeview in southeastern Oregon, has a surface area of approximately 60 square miles and is at an elevation of about 4,300 feet.
The ocean-like smell results from high concentrations of sodium carbonates and salt in the lake. With no outlet for water, Lake Abert relies solely on evaporation, which creates visible alkaline deposits, according to SouthernOregon .com's directory and guide.
Several friends and one dog, Tipper, traveled in two jeeps for the three-hour drive from Bend along U.S. Highway 20 east and then along U.S. Highway 395 south. As I drove along the lake, my friend's jeep pulled off to the side to watch a herd of bighorn sheep. According to the Southern Oregon Web site, the sheep, which meander around the rim and near the lake, are descendants of bighorn sheep originally released in the 1970s from nearby Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.
Lake Abert and Abert Rim, though remote, produced a strangely beautiful scene. The intriguing stark landscape appeared in vibrant colors and unusual physical manifestations around the lake.
Crystallized alkali deposits along the lakeshore varied from soft and easily crumbled to hard, slightly spiky and a couple inches thick.
Salt deposits also were evident on the boulders from fluctuating levels of water throughout time. White rings surround the base of the rocks and gradually develop into darker shades of gray near the top.
It reminded me of a biblical landscape, with desert plains, mountains and a lake that resembles the composition of the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea, located in Israel and Jordan, is similar to Lake Abert in that it has a high salinity content and no water outlet. After visiting both landmarks, I noticed that smell of Lake Abert in the Oregon desert, and the Dead Sea in the Middle Eastern desert, was strangely similar.
Lake Abert was originally part of 461-square-mile Lake Chewaucan. About 12,000 years ago, Lake Chewaucan dried up and its remnants are now held in Lake Abert and Summer Lake.
Abert Rim and Lake Abert were first mapped in 1843 by John C. Frémont. Frémont named the lake and the adjacent rim after his first commanding officer, John James Abert, according to the Southern Oregon Web site.
Abert Rim is one of the longest exposed fault scarps in North America. It rises 2,000 feet above the lake and runs for about 30 miles. The rim was formed during the Miocene Epoch period, about 23 million to 5 million years ago, according to Jimmy Leal, fish biologist with the Bureau of Land Management's Lakeview office.
On the winter day when we ventured into southeastern Oregon, Abert Rim was sparsely covered with snow along the slopes that rose to a flat top.
Because there is no trail around the lake, we walked down a haphazard path that ended at the shoreline.
Salt deposits created multiple patterns on the ground close to the muddy lake water. Tipper, the dog, enjoyed running through the wind and nearby weeds, but decided not to explore the smelly water, and we thought it was a smart idea.
Dead brine shrimp, which look like masses of brown, burned shag carpet, covered the ground near the lake. The hearty shrimp, also known as sea monkeys, are able to live in the lake due to their tenacity to survive under difficult conditions. They can withstand temperatures below freezing and have a high tolerance for salinity, according to BLM's Leal, but they have a short life span of about one year.
Although we did not see many other types of wildlife, Leal said the brine shrimp and surrounding environment attract birds such as seagulls, snowy plovers, killdeer, northern shovelers, Canada geese, ibis, black-necked stilts and American avocets. Fish cannot survive in the lake because of the high salinity content.
As rain began to accompany strong wind, we gathered our cameras and deserted the beautiful and desolate landscape of the lake in favor of a warm cafe in Lakeview. Our caravan continued on a loop back to Bend, through Summer Lake and Silver Lake, on state Highway 31 to U.S. Highway 97.
Winter, and as a result, the early hour of darkness kept us from stopping at other destinations on our return trip.
Driving back to Bend in the dark, we realized it would have been more relaxing to spend the weekend in the area to explore other nearby sights, such as a handful of petroglyphs on Abert Rim and around the areas of Summer Lake, Alkali Lake and even Fort Rock.
Rooms and cabins are available at The Lodge at Summer Lake. Motels and restaurants also are located in Lakeview and Paisley. Dispersed camping is available on Bureau of Land Management ground.
When I kicked off my shoes at the end of the day, I found remnants of the day's adventures, in the form of white salt, crusted against the soles. There was the proof: We had been somewhere far away from Central Oregon. Somewhere that was still captivatingly beautiful, but in its own way.