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Respect These Healing Waters: Our Trip to Summer Lake

— By: The Team at Nau

We dispatched our pal Zachary Schomburg to Summer Lake with his partner Brandi Katherine Herrera—this is their story. 

About a month ago, my partner Brandi and I rescued a 1992 Mallard Sprinter motorhome from its adventureless retirement in a storage lot. For too long, we’ve held this nagging feeling that we’re living in the middle of so much beauty, but that we’ve only laid eyes on the most visible parts of it. In Portland, beauty is on our doorstep— sure, of course it is— but that’s too easy. Instead, we want to get out into it. Our sites were set on the outback of Oregon, Lake County, the high desert, a county with more square miles than official residents. So, we gave the old motorhome a name, Peaches Lee (it’s a good story), updated the interior with recycled tiles, new upholstery and few fresh coats of paint to make it our own, with these big plans to put a little more effort into seeking out the beauty in some of the less expected places in our vast and wild state.

To get there, Peaches Lee rumbled and climbed through the Fremont-Winema National Forest, where just 6 years earlier, the Barry Point fire burned 93,000 acres of pine, juniper and range land. There was a solemness to this blackened landscape. A vast majority of Lake County is federally managed, and the people there live daily with the impacts of climate change. Years of old growth logging and aggressive fire suppression have left them with greater risk for wildfire, while they’re also struggling with a third straight year of extreme drought in the valley. It’s dire, but there’s plenty evidence of people there fighting to unfuck their little corner of the state. The local ranching community is working directly with Natural Resource agencies and environmental groups to stabilize the steambanks of the Chewaucan river, enriching grazing conditions and revitalizing the trout habitat.

These kinds of efforts at renewal are encouraging, and because B and I came to Lake County, in part, to soak in the eco-friendly Summer Lake hot springs campground, we were equally fascinated by another kind of renewal. Maybe one of the more iconic structures in the area was on the property, an old ramshackle bath house made of corrugated metal. It fit it’s landscape, weathered from time and a harsh climate. Later we would learn from a few of the local residents of nearby Paisley, who were passing the time outside the Homestead Cafe there, about the days they’d bathe in that same bath house pool as kids. Back then, the local ranchers, they explained, used to come in for a bath and shave, and they’d remember soaking among the floating stubble and hair. But for us, there was no shaving ranchers and no floating hair. Inside the bathhouse was a warm respite from the cold bite in the early fall air outside— a steaming pool surrounded by dressing rooms and showers, the warm smell of mineral rich water. Above the pool was an old hand-painted sign that read “Respect These Healing Waters.”

The hot springs are currently owned by a kind and attentive host, Duane, who is committed to green building and design practices, and who’s greeting is almost always “how’s the water?” He has made many eco-friendly improvements to the lot, and keeps things operational and clean. It’s clear when we chat with Duane that he does respect these healing waters a great deal. We learn that not only does the water heal our bodies, but they heal in the county in other ways too.

Lake County sits on an enormous reservoir of geothermal energy, which is renewable energy. That same predictable and constant heat source that has supplied these hot springs with healing waters for millennia, makes steam that turns the turbines that makes electricity for the municipal buildings in the county. Geothermal energy is not only renewable, but it is clean, homegrown, and it also requires power plants, and power plants provide jobs and tax revenue to the local community. Geothermal energy also provides direct heating for the correctional facility, the hospital and the schools.

On our last early evening there, B and I meandered through a maze of trails through the sage brush to the playa, a hardened and white alkali flat bed lake. The moon was small and rising in the pink sky over the mountains. Peaches Lee silhouetted in the distance. When we stopped talking, we could hear nothing. That kind of true silence is a special treat that the high desert offers. We listened to it for a few minutes, then we got cold from not moving. So we wrapped tight in our down jackets and headed back through the brush to the pools for a little more renewal.

All photos courtesy of Zachary Schomburg and Brandi Katherine Herrera.