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Go west...the wild, wild west

david photo - wild animal in the westWhat started as a trip to see my eldest son graduate from Eastern Washington University and to visit with family turned into an epic siteseeing adventure. 

The eastern side of Washington state is a surprising collection of vistas that do not fit the usual state stereotypes of rain-drenched Seattle, Microsoft, Boeing and baristas aplenty.  

The eastern side of Washington State has hosted some of the most cataclysmic geological events in recent history, events older than the recent eruption of Mt. St. Helens, like flash floods that occurred 15-20,000 years ago. 

As glaciers came in from the north during the last ice age, water built up behind glaciers to form Glacial Lake Columbia and Lake Missoula.  At least three times during this ice age the water was dammed up so high by the glaciers that the glacier broke free and floated, releasing the water like a bathtub that lost its stopper. The resulting flash flood covered significant portions of Idaho, Montana and Washington within days. The water was 100 feet deep and moved at 65 mph. The third time this happened, the glacial ice did not block the draining of the lakes again. After thousands of years, the glaciers and floods created the areas now known as the Grand Coulee, Pelouse and Channeled Scablands of Washington.

The Palouse is 4,000 square miles of rolling hills and valleys, with soil so rich that it generates harvests that produce the highest tonnage per acre globally.  Loamy soil formed by glaciers pulverizing rock into tiny grains and goliath dust storms formed from dry lake beds after the glacier receded combined to form this rich tillable soil.   The soil is so soft, tractors have to use tank treads instead of wheels for working the fields to keep the tractors from sinking into the loam and becoming trapped.

The fields I saw were dominated by wheat still green and growing tall.  Canola flowers were easy to find by their bright yellow blooms.  The greens and the yellows contrasted by the earthy browns of the recently-harvested acres offered breathtaking vistas. I shot dozens of pictures to ensure I would have visual triggers to recall these landscapes in the future. Awesome does not begin to explain what I saw on the Palouse. 

Steptoe Butte State Park is the best place to see the bigger picture of the Palouse.  At 3,612 feet you can see 70 or more miles on a clear day, and there are a lot of clear days in this area of the country.  High humidity and haze are not daily weather events in the area. Be careful on the drive up to the peak because the road gets narrow and there are no guardrails in place for most of the trip – you do not want to take that plunge over the edge. Steptoe Butte requires a $10 admission fee if you do not have a state-issued Discover Pass.

After Steptoe we stopped to grab some lunch.  We dined at a place called the Top Notch Café in Colfax, Wash.  We chose this place for lunch because it had the most people in the front window and it looked locally-owned. Talk about a trip back in time – it was like a soda shop and diner combined.  I ordered the bacon cheeseburger and fries.  I swear it was the best hamburger ever: juicy, excellent beef flavor, cooked to perfection and large enough to satisfy my appetite.  Turns out, they grind their own meat. They sure picked the right pieces for that burger.  We were nearly in Idaho, so the fries were excellent too.  

My biggest surprise happened when I ordered a chocolate shake.  It seemed sinful to not have a shake with this burger.   The waitress apologized that she could not make a chocolate shake because they were out of chocolate ice cream.  I had to think about that one for a minute.  I had to get East Coast thoughts out of my mind and remain calm.   First, I was amazed that they actually made chocolate shakes out of chocolate ice cream.  Second, I was amazed they only made chocolate shakes using chocolate ice cream.  What a treat that would have been.  I suggested they use vanilla and some of the hot fudge topping if they were open to it.  Oh my goodness, what a sinful delight that was to sip on.   The shake was so large I had to share it.   It was just too good to waste.

A trip to the Palouse is not complete without a stop at Palouse Falls State Park to see the falls.  As you get closer to Palouse Falls, you notice the agriculture is not the same vibrant greens and yellows.  Before you know it, everything is brown and there is a canyon ahead where the road looks like it drops off the face of the earth.   That is the gorge cut out by the waters of Palouse Falls.

Palouse Falls is a part of the Palouse River which flows into the Snake River.   The falls are 198 feet tall and 370 feet deep.  The Palouse River winds through Channeled Scablands, some of Washington’s most austere and striking landscapes.  Channeled Scablands are bare earth, devoid of top soil. The area is pocked by buttes that rise up from earth, wind and water-scarred canyons, multiple coulees, and kolks that make for beautiful landscapes.

Coulees are nature’s water drainage system.  They look a lot like canyons and gorges, but in the world of agriculture they are called coulees.   One of the largest coulees in the country is Grand Coulee. Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942 just in time to aid in the war effort.  The dam provided the power to run the smelters that melt the aluminum for making airplanes.  Can anyone say Boeing? 

The dam is twice the height of Niagara Falls according to the evening laser light show emcee.   It is huge, but it makes me think that Niagara Falls is not as big as I imagined. The evening laser light show is impressive from a technology point of view.   The accompanying story did not flow from one topic to another very well.

While the Grand Coulee Dam provides an important function generating electricity, the story told at the light show trivialized the environmental and human costs that went into the dam’s placement and construction. There were also hardships put on the native populations when they were forced to move and environmental costs when the spawning grounds for salmon, steelhead and lampreys, which were the foundation of the native’s economy, were wiped out.

My last day of adventure was spent cruising the navigable portion of the shadowy St. Joe River in Idaho.  We left the dock in Thunder Bay on Lake Coeur d'Alene heading southeast across the white-capped lake. As we motored from Lake Coeur D’Alene into Hidden Lake and on to Catcolet Lake, the water got shallower and calmer as the shoreline started closing in.  A well-marked channel showed us the way to access the St. Joe River and our turn-around point of St. Maries, Idaho.  Osprey nests on man-made poles, much like the ones in the Chesapeake Bay area, were regularly spaced on one side of the river channel.  We saw Ospreys, Blue Herons, many kinds of Swifts and plenty of kids idling away on docks soaking up the sun.  This is not the portion of the shadowy St. Joe River famous for fly fishing.

At the saw mill in St. Maries we turned around and headed back to our origin. 

The week wound down quickly and Saturday found us on our way back home via Delta airlines.  Just like the flights out, the return flights were packed.   It was hot and humid when we left here and it was humid when we got back.  Everything was back to normal – hazy, hot, and humid.  I am going to miss the clear skies, the low humidity, the mid-70 temperatures that felt so refreshing and the awesome change of scenery.

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