Reveal Meaning and Give Dimension to Each Desolation Lake.
Lakes are almost everywhere in our lives. When I think of large numbers of lakes, I remember that the state of Minnesota is called the land of 10,000 lakes. No reason to make a point of this — it’s just a factoid, a statement on a license plate. To the far west here in California, we have over 3,000 lakes and reservoirs. Two thousand of them are located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Numbers aside, I would hasten to say that it is not the quantity of lakes that is important but their quality.
By quality, I mean the unique aspects of attractiveness or beauty that set each Lake apart from others. Adding another essential degree of
quality to our lakes are their names. A lake with a name has an identity. A name can also confer prominence, individuality, and even personality onto a scenic body of water. In some cases, the lake name denotes ownership. In any mountain vista, lakes contribute mightily with their breathtaking
aesthetic impact on viewers — particularly when the lakes are seen with peaks and streams as part of the setting. Without a doubt, named lakes
contribute to a more profound, personally fulfilling wilderness experience. This is certainly true of the lakes of Desolation Wilderness. Within the
almost one hundred square miles of this wilderness, there are around 130 lakes (and streams). Nearly all have names with interesting background stories of how those names came about.
Most of the lakes in this wilderness were given names that go back in time when early explorers and settlers first laid eyes upon them. Many of
these early names appear on the Desolation Wilderness charts, maps, and TOPOs we use today.
However, the Indigenous Americans, the earliest inhabitants of the Sierra region had already bestowed names, in their languages, on the lakes they had encountered. Some of their old names survived. However, other names were lost to the sands of time, and others were changed to
mistranslated interpretations, or displaced altogether. As I began to hike more in the wilderness, learning about the origins of current Desolation Wilderness lake names became an early interest of mine. When I first looked at maps to become acquainted with the geography and the lake names, many puzzled me. Yes, I discovered the traditional names one would expect of women, men, people’s surnames, geological features, etc., but some defied explanation — at least not without some research.
I poured over guidebooks Forest Service documents, and I searched the internet. Early on, my attention was drawn to quite a few lakes (six, in
fact) with different-looking and strange-sounding names — each having only four letters. They were located in and near the Desolation Valley area of the wilderness, roughly located west-southwest of Lake Aloha. My continuing search began to yield results as I came across information on
such lakes as Ropi, Waca, and others. I learned that in the 1920’s a group of men formed what they called the Mount Ralston Fish Planting Club, or the MRFPC, for the purpose of stocking the many lakes in the Devil’s Valley area of the newly formed El Dorado National Forest. Later, this area would become known as the Desolation Valley Primitive Area when it received (additional) protection status in 1931.
Since most of the lakes they chose to stock with fish were unnamed, the men decided to name them after themselves. However, after a lengthy discussion, they decided that the lakes should have Native American-sounding names. To accomplish this, they decided to create a lake name by combining the first two letters from the first and last names of the members of the MRFPC. For example, Ropi Lake is named after Ross Pierce — RO-PI.
Other four-letter lake names you’ve seen on your map have the following origins: Gefo Lake – (George Foss), Frata Lake – (Frank Talbot), Jabu – (Jack Butler), Toem Lake – (Tom Emeral), and Waca Lake – (Walter Campbell). Another lake in the area, called Osma Lake, is believed to have been named after Oswald Maybeck although not all research is certain about this.
Another lake with a Native American-sounding name is Umpa Lake. However, this lake name is not from the combination of letters scheme. It comes from someone not being able to pronounce the word it should have been named! Umpa Lake was named by a young grandson of a Forest Service employee in the late 1920’s who wanted to name the lake “Grandpa Lake.” But when he tried to pronounce “grandpa,” it came out “umpa.” Henceforward the Lake was and is known as Umpa Lake!
Many of the lakes in Desolation Wilderness were named by other groups of people. Two of these groups were called the “Echo Lakes Gang” and “The Wright’s Lake Gang.” The membership of both groups was comprised of the cabin owners from their respective areas on either side of Desolation Wilderness. You can see on the map the lakes near both Echo and Wright’s Lakes reflect the names of people, things, geography, and flora.
In other parts of Desolation Wilderness, cattlemen, dairymen, and others had their say in the naming of many of the lakes. I found it interesting to learn why some of the west side lakes appear as numbered lakes, such as Lake Nr 5. In the 1800s, cows were driven up to the high meadows for summer grazing in the west-central area of what is now Desolation Wilderness. Cow camps were set up to support the cattlemen who were responsible for the cattle over the summer. Usually, the camps were near lakes. Perhaps for simplicity’s sake, the camps were assigned numbers, e.g., Cow Camp Nr 5, etc. Over time, these nearby lakes were given the number of the close cow camp, e.g. Lake Nr 5.
There is one lake name that challenges the norms of lake naming and that is Lake Aloha. Not only is Lake Aloha the largest Lake in Desolation Wilderness, it is also a reservoir for the Eldorado Irrigation District (EID). It is the headwaters for Pyramid Creek, which transports the Lake’s water to the South Fork of the American River.
The story of how glacial basin bodies of water became Lake Aloha of today is very much a part of the history of the Lake Tahoe Sierra Nevada mountain region. It is a story for another issue of Sierra REC magazine. Be sure and check it out when the next issue is published.