Wocas

Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

Upper Klamath Lake’s 61,500 or so acres of surface area make it Oregon’s largest fresh-water lake and one of the largest in the United States. Although its area is large, it isn’t deep – 50 feet at most, with an average of 14. This natural lake’s drainage basin is 3,800 mountainous square miles. Klamath Lake is a remnant of ancient Lake Modoc that occupied all the basin during the Pleistocene. Lake Modoc extended from the present lake east through the Langell Valley, south to the Modoc lavalands. As climates and conditions changed, Lake Modoc receded. Except for Upper Klamath Lake, much of what is left has been drained, maimed, sumped and pumped. Farmland reclamation and irrigation have been important European enterprises since the beginning of the 20th century.

The Native Americans, the Klamaths and Modocs, had other enterprises at the lake. They fished in the tributaries, ate duck eggs in season, built mats and abodes from the tules, and collected wokas from the marsh. Wokas, known to us as western yellow pond-lily or Nuphar polysepalum was the Klamath’s major source of starch.

What we know of wokas and its preparation learned from the observations of Frederick Vernon Colville, Honorary Curator of Plants at the US National Herbarium. Colville spent several days in August 1896 and again in 1901 on the Klamath Indian Reservation.

Women of the tribe collected enormous quantities of pond-lily fruits in July and August then extracted seeds from fruits of different ages. Mature fruits naturally break open and expel seeds in a mucilaginous mess. Less mature fruits were piled to dry. Fruits on the outside dry. Fruits inside the pile rot. The women then extracted seeds from each pile, dried the seeds, ground them to loosen the seed coat, then winnowed the seeds by tossing in a breeze to blow away the chaff. Seeds were parched by heating in thick cast-iron skillets.

Colville thought fresh-parched wokas tasted delicious, like parched corn. I once had a student from Klamath Falls who learned how to make wokas. He brought me some ground meal. Much to my amazement, it was delicious. Better than any breakfast food I’ve ever tasted. Better, I suspect, than algae from the lake.

Klamath Lake is naturally rich in organic materials and nutrients that have accumulated in the lake for millennia. In addition, run-off from adjacent agricultural lands and pastures each year since the arrival of Europeans adds to the accumulation each year. Shallow, nutrient rich lakes like Klamath support enormous numbers of organisms. You may have already read on page 145 about Klamath’s little green bugs, midges, actually, that appear by the bijillions in the summer. And there are the lake’s famous algal blooms that turn parts of the lake into a stinking mess. The culprit is the blue-greenAmphanizomenon. Amphanizomenon numbers start out low in the spring, then build to as many as 30,000 filaments per milliliter. Then they die. Their decomposition uses up oxygen in the lake and fills the air with an altogether unpleasant aroma. Some forms of this blue-green also produce an endotoxin similar to the toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning. I wouldn’t eat the algae.

Because of the lake’s large size and natural inclinations, heroic cleanup efforts probably would be very expensive and not very effective. So, close your eyes, hold your nose, save your money, and don’t inhale midges. Do, however, enjoy the lake for what it is – an enormously productive aquatic ecosystem that supports lots of waterfowl, trophy trout and a rare delicious breakfast cereal.

— Dr. Frank Lang

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