Drove 3 hours from Spokane to Walla Walla today. I saw a bunch of things that I thought were interesting enough that they tickled my muse.
Sunrise over the high plateaus of the channeled scablands.
The picture really doesn’t do this justice. It was really breathtaking.
But there is another thing about these pictures, other than the inherent blurriness caused by taking them as I was be-bopping down the road at 70, and that is how flat and barren the land is.
These are wheat fields that I’m driving by, with a coat of frost on them (hence the light color). To the untrained eye, it might look like I’m in Kansas, not Washington, but a common misconception about Washington is that it is green, rainy, and covered in trees.
It’s called the Evergreen State, for goodness sake, so I’ll forgive your ignorance
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The Eastern half of the state is affected by what is known as a rain shadow. A rain shadow is caused by mountains, forcing heavy, laden clouds to drop all of their moisture on the windward side, so that by the time they get to the leeward side, there is none left. What this means to our state is that on one side, it is lush, rainy, and green, while on the other side, there is honest-to-goodness, no kidding sage brush desert. This mean that on the west side, Washington contains the only rainforests that exist in the lower 48 states, while on the East side, we’ve got climates varying from highland steppes, to lowland desert, to high alpine, to ponderosa forests like Northern California.
The very middle of the Columbia Basin is flat, almost like Kansas. The only real difference is that our flatlands are pock marked and torn by the channeled scablands.
This is Palouse Falls. I drove right by this this morning.
The channeled scablands have an interesting history. The channels, also known as coulees, were created by water flowing through the area. Lots of water. The water came from a series of several floods caused by Lake Missoula emptying itself several times over the course of thousands of years at the end of the last Ice Age.
Not anymore, there isn’t. But back in the day, Lake Missoula was a huge lake that covered parts of Northern Idaho and most of Western Montana. It was huge.
The lake was formed when glaciers created an ice dam and allowed the Clark Fork River, one of the larger tributaries of the Columbia River, back up behind it. You can still see the beachlines in the high hills in parts of Montana, where there are lines of beach rock ringing the hills.
See the beachlines?
As you can imagine, even during an ice age, a dam made of ice holding back that much water is not exactly the most permanent of structures. No one is quite sure how many times the dam let loose over the years, but let loose, it did, with catastrophic effect.
Walls of water hundreds of feet high, moving hundreds of miles an hour roared through the Columbia basin. They scoured out new channels, changed the route of the Columbia river, and denuded the scablands areas of all of their topsoil. The scablands area is a strange place. There are levels of lava bedrock from back when the Yellowstone Hotspot was under eastern Washington and was erupting lava instead of geysers as it does today. These have been scoured out to create deep chasms and high table grounds, producing some of the strangest and most difficult to navigate terrain I’ve ever seen. I do a lot of pheasant hunting in the scablands, so I’ve grown to love them.
Yeah, that's a waterfall, folks
The largest waterfall on Earth existed for a short time during these floods. It now exists as Dry Falls State Park. I’ve been there, and I can tell you first hand, if that fall ever had water going over it, it was an absolutely spectacular site to see.
Strangely enough, while this destroyed the scablands as fertile ground, it created one of the most fertile places on Earth – the Palouse region in south eastern Washington. The scoured topsoil collected in backwaters, and then unprotected, and with no vegetation to stabilize it, the topsoils blew on the winds and collected on the Palouse. The windblown loess soil in the Palouse is as deep as 40 feet. It creates very steep, rolling hills that are some of the best dryland wheat, rape, lentil, pea, and chick pea growing areas anywhere on Earth. The quality of the soil is such that despite the dry conditions, no irrigation is needed. I went to college in the Palouse (GO COUGS!) and largely grew up there, since most of my extended family is from that region.
I crossed the Snake River twice today. I miss that river. I really need to get my boat out.