CHAPTER IV. Flamingo Lake

The Parinacochas Basin is at an elevation of between 11,500 and 12,000 feet above sea level. It is about 150 miles northwest of Arequipa and 170 miles southwest of Cuzco, and enjoys a fair amount of rainfall. The lake is fed by springs and small streams. In past geological times the lake, then very much larger, had an outlet not far from the town of Puyusca. At present Parinacochas has no visible outlet. It is possible that the large springs which we noticed as we came up the valley by Puyusca may be fed from the lake. On the other hand, we found numerous small springs on the very borders of the lake, generally occurring in swampy hillocks - built up perhaps by mineral deposits - three or four feet higher than the surrounding plain. There are very old beach marks well above the shore. The natives told us that in the wet season the lake was considerably higher than at present, although we could find no recent evidence to indicate that it had been much more than a foot above its present level. Nevertheless a rise of a foot would enlarge the area of the lake considerably.

When making preparations in New Haven for the "bathymetric survey of Lake Parinacochas," suggested by Sir Clements Markham, we found it impossible to discover any indication in geographical literature as to whether the depth of the lake might be ten feet or ten thousand feet. We decided to take a chance on its not being more than ten hundred feet. With the kind assistance of Mr. George Bassett, I secured a thousand feet of stout fish line, known to anglers as "24 thread," wound on a large wooden reel for convenience in handling. While we were at Chuquibamba Mr. Watkins had spent many weary hours inserting one hundred and sixty-six white and red cloth markers at six-foot intervals in the strands of this heavy line, so that we might be able more rapidly to determine the result in fathoms.

Arrived at a low peninsula on the north shore of the lake, Tucker and I pitched our camp, sent our mules back to Puyusca for fodder, and set up the Acme folding boat, which we had brought so many miles on muleback, for the sounding operations. The "Acme" proved easy to assemble, although this was our first experience with it. Its lightness enabled it to be floated at the edge of the lake even in very shallow water, and its rigidity was much appreciated in the late afternoon when the high winds raised a vicious little "sea." Rowing out on waters which we were told by the natives had never before been navigated by craft of any kind, I began to take soundings. Lake Titicaca is over nine hundred feet deep. It would be aggravating if Lake Parinacochas should prove to be over a thousand, for I had brought no extra line. Even nine hundred feet would make sounding slow work, and the lake covered an area of over seventy square miles.

It was with mixed feelings of trepidation and expectation that I rowed out five miles from shore and made a sounding. Holding the large reel firmly in both hands, I cast the lead overboard. The reel gave a turn or two and stopped. Something was wrong. The line did not run out. Was the reel stuck? No, the apparatus was in perfect running order. Then what was the matter? The bottom was too near! Alas for all the pains that Mr. Bassett had taken to put a thousand feet of the best strong 24-thread line on one reel! Alas for Mr. Watkins and his patient insertion of one hundred and sixty-six "fathom-markers"! The bottom of the lake was only four feet away from the bottom of my boat! After three or four days of strenuous rowing up and down the eighteen miles of the lake's length, and back and forth across the seventeen miles of its width, I never succeeded in wetting Watkins's first marker! Several hundred soundings failed to show more than five feet of water anywhere. Possibly if we had come in the rainy season we might at least have wet one marker, but at the time of our visit (November, 1911), the lake had a maximum depth of 4 1/2 feet. The satisfaction of making this slight contribution to geographic knowledge was, I fear, lost in the chagrin of not finding a really noteworthy body of water.

Who would have thought that so long a lake could be so shallow? However, my feelings were soothed by remembering the story of the captain of a man-of-war who was once told that the salt lake near one of the red hills between Honolulu and Pearl Harbor was reported by the natives to be "bottomless." He ordered one of the ship's heavy boats to be carried from the shore several miles inland to the salt lake, at great expenditure of strength and labor. The story told me in my boyhood does not say how much sounding line was brought. Anyhow, they found this "fathomless" body of water to be not more than fifteen feet deep.