Saturday, August 4, 2012
Post 057 - The Grand Coulee
Day 50 - Continued
The Columbia River spills out of Canada near the Washington/Idaho border. It picks up other rivers and streams (principally the Snake) on its circuitous route south, until it turns west toward the Pacific Ocean. It’s the largest river in the Northwest and the 4th largest in the United States. During the Depression the Roosevelt Administration agreed to a local plan for a dam to control flooding, provide irrigation, and generate electricity. It was considered a boondoggle and much derided. When Hitler and Hirohito started appropriating territories by force, it was the Grand Coulee Dam’s electricity that provided the United States with enough power to build a nearly endless supply of bombers. Many historians credit the Coulee’s electricity with the Axis powers defeat.
The Grand Coulee Dam and Lake Roosevelt behind it, lie on the line between two geologic worlds. North is the rugged mountainous world shaped by uplift and ice. South is a washed out, scraped out world formed by flooding of truly Biblical proportions over a relatively short period. These are the Scablands.
This is a region of the United States I’ve always wanted to explore. The vast channel created by the floods gives my motorbike journey its name. Among the many ‘must see’ places on this trip, the Grand Coulee, this scab land, was paramount.
So I rolled across the plain from Wilbur to the town of Grand Coulee, a distance of about 20 miles. It had warmed up. I wore a windbreaker and gloves, but no balaclava. Wind battered me as I drove.
The lake and its gorge are not beautiful. They are not aesthetically pleasing. They are not ugly either. They simply are there in a light brown and gray landscape. From my approach I curved around and came to the dam from an oblique angle. Although it is a large edifice, the Grand Coulee Dam does not overly impress. I do not experience its scale when I see it. It is too broad and low. Nevertheless, I am not disappointed. I came for the Scablands, not the engineering.
In the visitor’s center I watch a movie about the devastating end to native people’s salmon fishing and way of life with the coming of the dam. I can do nothing but feel guilt assuaged by pity. Next, a movie on the geologic shaping of the area is shown. It’s very well done. The geologic events and a scientific understanding of them are succinctly explained. I am excited to leave the dam area and head out into the Scablands.
I ask a Ranger for a ‘photo-op’ spot, a large sign or a spectacular vista that sys, “This is the Grand Coulee.” To my surprise he doesn’t have one. With the aid of another Ranger we settle on a viewing point in the hills about eight miles from the dam.
I drive up to the viewing point for a photo and then will head south into the Scablands. As I drive, a noise I heard earlier seems more pronounced. It’s a click or a rattle that seems related to but not completely in sync with the rpms of the engine. I cannot locate where it is coming from. At higher rpms it seems to disappear. I’m aware and concerned, but don’t know what to do besides observe.
I drive south out of Grand Coulee along Banks Lake through the heart of the Scablands. I aim for the town of Moses Lake and plan to stop and camp at the first appealing spot I find. Camping areas I pass and inspect are perfect for their locations, but my Eastern sensibility keeps pushing me on, looking for trees and shade.
The landscape is primeval. It is raw, jagged, untamed rock. Across narrow Banks Lake 800 feet high cliffs run down its length. I pass Steamboat Rock and the State Park surrounding it. The roadway glides smoothly along at water level only rising once, about 400 feet higher, then back down to the water. At the south end of the lake, 30 miles from Grand Coulee, is the town of Coulee City. It is smaller than its name implies. There is a community park with camping next to the dam.
I decide this is where I will stay. My plan is to spend the rest of the day doing mechanical work on the bike. I go in search of an auto parts store. There is one. It seems to be attached to the only repair shop in town. Its focus is cars and farm machinery. They have no motorcycle experience and none with scooters. I decide I will have better luck in Moses Lake, so I change my plans and continue pushing south.
Just south of Coulee City on Route 17 is Dry Falls. It is ten times the size of Niagara Falls. Why haven’t you heard about it? There is no water falling over the cliff. It’s dry. The last ice age and spectacular flooding changed the course of everything here. Today, Dry Falls is a 400 foot water carved depression in ancient bedrock. Standing on the upper plateau, trying to imagine the mile high wall of water that coursed down the coulee when the ice dam broke, was an exciting exercise for me. There are few terrestrial things you can visualize happening that are far beyond human scale. This geologic event is one. Being there energized me.
I would be energized for another 12 miles.
Posted by John Fabian