The Ghost of Tulare Lake

I didn’t know Tulare Lake still existed, at least not as an actual body of water. It showed up empty on my map of California , not a drop of blue anywhere. I knew a bit about its past, that it had been the biggest basin of freshwater west of the Mississippi, that it had been home to four distinct tribes of Yokut Indians, that Chinese fishermen in the late 1800s worked its water for Tulare Lake terrapin that made the finest turtle soup in the fancy restaurants of San Francisco. At its best, a century and more ago, the lake had measured 700 square miles, the most dominant feature on the California map. If you know something about the state’s interior, you understand how remarkable it is to travel from Bakersfield to the San Francisco Bay on boat, hopping rivers and lakes. This was possible as late as the 1930s, before the dams stopped cold all the Sierra rivers, before the farmers dried up Tulare Lake and carved out the richest cotton patch in the world.

And so it came as some surprise that in the spring of 1998, after a heavy winter gave way to a super snowmelt, that I got a call from a friend telling me that “Tulare Lake has come back to life.”

A few days later, I hopped into my car and drove for miles and miles across a flat expanse of Kings County , past vineyards and almond orchards, past dairies and alfalfa fields, until the road suddenly quit at the base of a huge earthen wall. It was a dike not unlike the dikes of Holland . The air filled with the faint smell and sound of ocean. Climbing atop the muddy embankment, gaping at the lake’s big belly, I felt lost for a moment, dizzy with vertigo. Was this the heart of California cotton country or the New Jersey shore? The wind whipped whitecaps past telephone poles that displayed the high-water stains of past revivals. The lake was brown in parts and pure blue in others, and the speed with which nature had found its old self was a wonder to behold. The sun glinted off flocks of mud hens, pintail and mallard ducks, giant blue and white herons and pelicans scooping up catfish.

The lake, maybe 1/20th of its original size, had flooded a stretch of the San Joaquin Valley that now belonged to J.G. Boswell, the biggest farmer in America and the last of California ’s great land barons. He, and his uncle before him, had drained an inland sea and made the rivers run backward to build their cotton empire. Chased out of their native Georgia by the boll weevil, the Boswells and other Southern growers had brought the plantation to a corner of the West in the 1920s. It was a story of astonishing vision and will and the flouting of nature, not to mention a parade of hubris.

Dams and dikes not only thwarted the four rivers that fed into the basin. The rivers themselves were no longer rivers but rather precise bands of irrigation water. Along their straitjacketed banks, the cotton giants had planted massive pumps to make sure that no water flowed where they didn’t want it to flow. Even so, once every decade, and sometimes more often, a lavish snowmelt would shoot down the mountain and onto the plain, pushing past the contrivances of even Boswell. Near his hometown of Corcoran, a remnant of the old Yokut lake, a sea of ten million geese, would come back to life.

That summer, as the lake dried up once again, I heard about the old Yokut curse that went something like this: You surely drained our lake dry, but its mists will still rise up from the tule reeds and haunt you forever. That mist, the valley’s tule fog, was our curse from late November through late January, each winter causing untold accidents on the road.

Like the lake, the Yokut were gone. I found them only in books. I learned they had built tule rafts buoyant enough to carry an entire family for days at a time on the lake and haul hundreds of pounds of rainbow trout, perch, catfish, pike and salmon—caught with bare hands or speared through a hole in the bottom of the craft. The oyster-shaped sea was so shallow, two or three feet deep in many parts and never more than forty feet at its deepest, that a fierce northwest wind would whistle through the reeds and blow the waters another mile or two across the savanna. From the shore, the women would wade in, feeling with their toes as they scoured the lake bottom for clams, mussels and terrapin. It took no time at all to fill the conical baskets slung across their backs.

To describe their world, the Yokut found language in the throats of swans and the hooves of antelope. The billy owl gave out a tiny squeak when it bobbed its head, and the human imitation of this sound, peek-ook, became the world for billy owl. The word for ducks was the gabbling noise they made while feeding, wats-wats. Tulare lake was the Pah-ah-see, the pulse of its ebb and flow. It took something different, though, to capture the sound of the blue sky as it turned dark and deafening from the wings and cries of millions of native and migratory birds—Canadian geese, mallards, swans, pelicans, cranes, teal and curlews. How to mimic the sudden flight of flocks so immense they extinguished the sun? One of the first white men to camp along the lake could think of only one noise, the roar of the freight train, that compared with the takeoff of the birds. But the Native had no way of drawing on the railroad for inspiration. By the time the Southern Pacific arrived in the San Joaquin Valley, the land no longer belonged to the Yokut and their language had stopped breathing new words. So their word to describe the great honking sky of geese was no sound at all, but a number. Tow-so, tow-so. A thousand thousands.

This story can be found in the collection, “The Devil’s Punchbowl: A Cultural & Geographic Map of California Today.” Available on