Mysterious Fish Slough

In 1888, a man named Philip Keough carved his name on a rock by the old stagecoach stop at the north end of Fish Slough valley. Fish Slough is located in a Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Area, ten miles north of the little town of Bishop, California in the heart of the Eastern Sierra. It lies in a low spot at 4,000 feet in elevation in the high desert of the Volcanic Tableland that was formed by a hot ash flow eons ago.

At the same time that Keough carved his name, the native Paiute people were camped nearby hunting and gathering seeds that they would grind in metates and bedrock mortars. It was a strange sight for both the people in the wagons and the Indians in their desert camps to see each other-a culture shock.

Over ten thousand years of time, the Paiute people and those that preceded them found everything they needed to survive in Fish Slough. The creek that runs through the sloughs in the valley provided the people with a riparian environment, fresh water mussels and abundant waterfowl. Many remnants of shells can be discovered at the archeological sites that abound in the area.

It was no problem for the natives to set up camp on the Volcanic Tableland. They erected a small hut similar to a dome tent and placed rocks around the base to hold it up in the wind. Then they found a nice metate (grinding dish) and mano (hand stone) to grind up some nuts and seeds that were a large part of their diet. To get out of the nasty weather and wind, they had many rock shelters to retreat to. The shelters are fascinating glimpses back in time with fire scarred ceilings, petroglyphs and pictographs (rock paintings) on the walls. When they broke camp, the rock rings were left and remain all over the country to this day. The native people’s beautiful but harsh way of life ended when overgrazing by cattle and sheep wiped out the seed plants they existed on.

Things were far different in Fish Slough at different times in history. In colder times like the “Little Ice Age” there was more snow, and water ran late into the spring in many of the drainages that look like desert today. That was a time when the Indians flourished along many of the washes where seed plants grew in incredible abundance. Underground streams flowed down from Casa Diablo Mt. and ended up in the Fish Slough basin. You can still hear them every winter after a rain in certain washes where the air escapes through fissures in the rock producing a loud, hissing sound. Old timers say they have seen water actually springing up from the ground in different spots years ago. There were also important waterholes in drier years that were used by the native people and later by stockmen. In the early 1900’s some wayfarer carved the names of “Soup Pot” and “God with Us” on the wall near an important waterhole. Right alongside are petroglyphs from centuries ago.

In rare years flowers bloom in the Fish Slough area and on the Tableland in such profusion that one cannot walk without stepping on them. Death Valley wildflower displays have nothing on this parade of color.

Wildlife is in abundance in Fish Slough, although you would never know it. Most animals cruise around at night but are sometimes observed in the day when searching for food like the Burrowing Owls. The most unique creatures are the spiders that attach small pumice stones to strands of web that are suspended from the ceilings of small alcoves. The little rocks sway back and forth in the wind to catch their prey like deadly wind chimes. These spiders exhibit an intelligence rarely seen in the animal world. In the little creek and ponds that drain Fish Slough are tiny Pupfish left over from prehistoric times that are cousins to the last surviving ones in Death Valley.

Most people drive by Fish Slough and the Volcanic Tableland and never venture out there. It looks too desertified and stark to the untrained eye. But for the person who likes to explore desert ecosystems at their finest, Fish Slough offers many new and exciting discoveries.

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One Response to “Mysterious Fish Slough”

  1. Ken F. Says:

    We have been all over the tableland, and there are few areas as beautiful, you have to drive through Red Rock canyon, and if you are real observant, you may see the old miner carved in the rock, this canyon is a must see….Casa Diablo mountain is a must, the road into Bishop from Casa has awesome views of the Sierras and the Whites……

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