Our Northwest

Channeled scablands road trip

Monday, May 5, 2014by  Jon Osterberg

My fascination with Eastern Washington’s Ice Age floods led me through new scenic vistas April 25.
   After seeing the channeled scablands from the air in March, I decided to take a circuitous route home from Kennewick after talking to high school students about teen driving. I’ve lived in Washington my entire life, yet there are two-lane backroads and small towns I’ve always wanted to see yet never visited.
   In particular, I wanted to find evidence of gushing floodwaters along the Cheney-Palouse tract, carved 12,000 to 15,000 years ago when Glacial Lake Missoula burst forth through its ice dam many times.
   I left Burbank, Wash., in drizzle and drove east on State Route 124 through Prescott to Waitsburg, population 1,217, a charming Palouse town dating to 1859 that sits among wheat-covered hills. There I picked up U.S. 12 and drove 10 miles east to Dayton, population 2,525.
   Dayton has the oldest continually used county courthouse in Washington, dating to 1887. Lewis and Clark camped on the edge of town on their way home in 1806. I didn’t linger long and drove north, away from the Blue Mountains, on U.S. 12 to SR 261, where I turned west onto the wonderfully deserted road.
   There, above the meandering Tucannon River, I saw evidence of Ice Age floods: strandlines – former shorelines – etched into the basalt hills. This entire region of the state not only endured gushing floods, it was submerged under water when floodwater backed up behind Wallula Gap to the south, creating a vast lake. As it receded, telltale strandlines remained.
   Continuing west, I passed through tiny Starbuck – population 129, and no coffee to be found – and soon the Snake River appeared, much larger than I expected. There, spanning the Snake was the Lyons Ferry Bridge, which I’d last crossed in 1962. Only not here.
   The Lyons Ferry Bridge began life in 1927 as the Vantage Ferry Bridge, carrying traffic over the Columbia River via what later was designated as U.S. Highway 10. I crossed that bridge a few times when my family drove my sister to Whitworth College in Spokane, in 1961 and ’62. Before Wanapum Dam flooded the gorge, engineers dismantled the old Vantage bridge in 1963, stored it, and reassembled it over the Snake in 1968.
   This is a narrow bridge! No room for error. Just enough room for a vehicle, with a lone guardrail to keep you from plunging into the river far below.
   Just beyond the bridge and to the right, archaeologists in 1962 excavated the Marmes Rockshelter, a human settlement with remains carbon dated to 10,000 years ago.
   Climbing uphill, SR 261 parallels the 19th-century Mullan Road. April is a great time for scabland road trips. Everywhere I saw lush green spring growth that soon will turn brown under the scorching Eastern Washington sun.
   I turned right and drove a couple of miles to Palouse Falls, carved out of the major Cheney-Palouse flood tract.
   The falls that remain today are a small vestige of the torrent that cascaded over the cataract cliffs here eons ago, carving a huge plunge pool and downstream coulee.
   I’d heard stories from a work colleague about rattlesnakes being plentiful here. Happily, the only wildlife I saw were marmots that seemed to be accustomed to handouts from humans.
   I drove back to SR 261, then turned right on SR 260 and entered Washtucna Coulee. Even a layperson like me can drive up this long, straight chute and recognize it’s a dry water channel. Its floor is flat, rimmed by 250-foot basalt walls. The town of Washtucna, population 208, features some huge grain silos and an abandoned Chevrolet dealership.
   For some reason I didn’t take one photo of the coulee. Instead, I photographed a turkey strutting through downtown Washtucna with its tail plumage extended. From there I caught SR 26 and headed west toward George, Wash.
   NEXT: Frenchman Coulee and Echo Basin.

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