Palouse Falls

The trail down into the canyon below Palouse Falls is loose talus, poison oak, stinging nettles, and rattlesnakes. But mostly, it’s steep, dropping quickly through a notch in the otherwise sheer basalt walls of the canyon. Still, WSU geologist Gary Webster, at 70 the oldest in our party, is the first to the bottom. In fact, he’s already fishing before the next one of us arrives.

Webster is the picture of contentment, not only because of the anticipated bass eyeing his fly. He is deep within his element. Although we’ve dropped barely 400 feet in elevation from the canyon’s edge, we’ve descended 12 million years in time.

The Palouse River at this point is about 60 feet across. The far bank is thick with willow. Above it is a shelf of prairie sage and arrowleaf balsamroot.

Upstream is a cloud of mist from the falls. The falls itself is still hidden around a bend, but the roar of the river falling 180 feet fills the canyon.

The falls has diminished somewhat from the earlier spring runoff. But even then, when it channels the melting snow and rain of the late-winter Palouse, the falls is an insignificant drip compared with the cataclysmic flow that created it, a mere 15,000 years ago.

In order to comprehend that extraordinary force, first consider the basalt.

Above the shelf of sage and balsamroot are the upper flows of the Columbia River basalts, the dense, black volcanic rock that underlies much of southeastern Washington. About 18 million years ago, says Webster between casts, the earth cracked, and great flows of lava erupted, spreading from vents in eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon, and Idaho across what is now the Columbia Plateau. (One of those vents is exposed below the dorms on the south end of the Pullman campus of Washington State University and can be traced all the way to Davenport.) A succession of seven flows continued over the next many million years. Some of these flows reached as far as the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the basalt bluffs of the Oregon coast originated from vents near Lewiston, Idaho. In some places, the basalt underlying the region is 5,000 feet thick.

Much of what we now understand about the region’s basalt is the work of geochemist Peter Hooper, who recently retired from WSU. He and Don Swanson ’60, a former student who moved on to the U.S. Geological Survey, mapped the basalts.

Webster’s expertise is the Cenozoic, that relatively brief geologic period that, beginning about 65 million years ago, overlaps with the existence of mammals and seed-bearing plants on Earth. Webster, with colleagues from Yakima, Eastern Washington University, and University of Washington, mapped the interstitial deposits, the gravels and soils, that cover the basalt of the Columbia Plateau. He drove virtually every road in this area, he says.

As fundamental and permanent as the basalt would now seem, Webster points out the cracks in the opposite canyon walls, the very existence of the canyon itself. We are deep within otherwise solid rock. What possibly could have carved this canyon?

It’s only recently that geologists broke out of the intellectual prison of uniformitarianism, the notion that geologic phenomena can always be explained by gradual, calmly fathomable events.

J Harlen Bretz started out within that camp. But years of contemplating the Channeled Scablands transformed him and Cenozoic geology.

A University of Chicago geologist who had become fascinated with Pacific Northwest geology as a high school biology teacher in Seattle, Bretz finally understood that the only thing that could have created the scablands was an unimaginably massive flood.

But the idea of a flood so cataclysmic that it ripped a scar down eastern Washington, scouring out the Grand Coulee, ripping through solid basalt to create the Palouse River canyon, was simply unfathomable to anyone who had not contemplated the scablands as Bretz had, particularly anyone comfortably ensconced in the sureness of uniformitarianism.

Webster recounts the story told him by former Geology chair Charles Campbell, who was at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1940 that was the turning point in the debate over the scablands’ origin. Sure as he was about the giant ripple marks and clearly defined channels, Bretz was plagued by a lingering question: What was the source of the water?

Then Joseph Pardee got up to talk about giant ripple marks in the bed of Glacial Lake Missoula-which could only have been created by a sudden outrush of water.

As soon as Pardee finished, Bretz leaped up. “There’s my water!” he said.

No one knows, says Webster, why Bretz had not yet connected his theory to Pardee’s work. Pardee had first published his observations more than 20 years earlier. Regardless, Bretz finally had his water, and the reluctant uniformitarians gradually gave in.

What Bretz had understood about the strange and beautiful scablands is what we now understand. Fifteen thousand years ago, chunks of glacial ice had formed a dam above Clark Fork, Idaho, backing up a 180-mile-long lake that contained as much water as today’s lakes Erie and Ontario combined.

When the dam collapsed, the water rushed westward at 45 miles per hour, scouring the landscape down to basalt, a flood so powerful it chewed into the volcanic basalt, following existing drainages as it could, then creating its own drainages when it overwhelmed them. One flow swept westward from Spokane, then down through the Quincy Basin, another down the Crab Creek drainage near Odessa. A third swept down through present-day Cheney, through Washtucna and Pasco. Near Pasco, the flows recombined at Wallula Gap, along the present-day course of the Columbia. Formed by bluffs only a mile apart, the Wallula Gap constricted the flow, forcing the water to back up behind it.

From there, it surged down the Columbia, still powerful enough when it reached the coast that it deposited huge granite boulders in the Willamette Valley it had carried, probably in chunks of ice, all the way from Idaho.

But this happened not just once, says Webster. It may have happened as many as 105 times.

A European landscape

The last person to reach the bottom of the canyon is Rich Old (’77, M.S. ’81, Ph.D. University of Idaho), distracted often on the way down by plants in general, weeds in particular.

He seems disturbed by the fact that a plant that he had hoped to find today, Phacelia ramosissima, is not yet in flower. But he’s dazzled by the Thelypodium, lovely long-stemmed flower stalks growing out of the sheer cliffs. “It’s incredible,” he says, “not only that they’re established there, but the seed rain it takes to get them there.” The only way the seeds could have landed in the cracks of the basalt would be to have been carried by the fierce winds that sweep through the canyon.

Old, who is probably the leading expert on the plant life of the scablands, is also the creator of the most comprehensive weed identification guide ever written.

“The reason I’m into weeds,” he says, “is I hate what they do to our native [plants].”

Old has been my guide through the scablands over the last couple of years. With him, I have tasted red ants (sour from formic acid) and dog lichen (tastes like bubblegum). I have learned that the flower stalk of mullein was burned by the local Indians to treat hemorrhoids and respiratory problems. Old’s knowledge of the area’s plants and ecology is encyclopedic. He seems to thrive on sharing his knowledge and excitement. He has taught survival classes for Army ROTC and poisonous plant identification to WSU veterinary students. He’s a born teacher, though a little too straightforward and independent for academe. Though not didactic, he is demanding. Once he identifies something for you, he expects you to remember, no matter how many syllables.

Lomatium, Antennaria, Erodium. Camas, miner’s lettuce, baby blue-lips.

Bromus tectorum. That’s one I can remember. Cheatgrass: scourge and transformer of the arid West. But here’s another one, even worse. Taeniatherum caput-medusae-Medusa head. Not many plant names send shivers up the spine. But this plant is truly diabolical in its survival strategy and persistence.

“See how it falls down and forms a thick litter layer,” says Old. “It doesn’t biodegrade.” In fact, it builds up year after year, choking out everything else. But here’s the truly ingenious adaptation. The seeds extend their radical down through the litter into the ground. Nothing else can do that, says Old.

And then there’s fire. Fire was part of the scablands ecology, says Old. But the fires did not burn very hot. Natives such as bluebunch wheatgrass would come right back. But Medusa head, with its litter build-up, burns explosively, killing off everything else. Except for its own seeds.

Like Webster, though obviously within a different time-frame, Old tends to look at things in terms of the past. “When we’re talking about vegetation in eastern Washington,” he says, “we’re talking about history, about the way things used to be.”

Pristine scabland looks bare, says Old. “If you were here a hundred years ago, it would look like a bunch and a bunch and bare ground,” he says, referring to the native bunchgrass. “But it’s not bare at all. It’s got a solid skin of mosses and lichens. That’s what held this together.”

That fragile skin was largely destroyed by the trampling of cattle, as well as by pocket gophers, driven down into the scabland from the more hospitable loess by tillage. Gophers churn the ground up, again destroying the crust. And once that thin but protective skin is gone, the “original scabland” is history. As John Thompson, formerly of Botany and Zoology, and Dick Mack, Botany, have argued, the ground of eastern Washington is so fragile because it was never grazed by large ungulates. Native plants had never adapted to such treatment, and exotics, some carried intentionally, some not, by European settlers, rushed in to take the natives’ place.

“You could take a piece of ground and write out your species composition,” says Old of the scablands today, “and you could be standing in southern Europe.”

Hidden from view

That the scablands is a different world is illustrated by the tiny Lomatium gormanii. Old follows a ritual of venturing out on New Year’s Day to find the first spring flower. Lomatium gormanii grows in exposed basalt faces, which absorb the heat even of the late-December sun. Last year Old found the first bloom on December 20.

That Old found the scabland flower in Pullman makes no difference. Although the great floods did not sweep over Pullman, the scabland species find their way out of the coulees and canyons of the scabland proper.

The effects of the great floods reach from the mouth of the Clark Fork River in Idaho to the Pacific Ocean. But because the corridor between Cheney and Pasco had no high hills or bluffs to contain the water, it spread over 2,500 square miles.

Much of that area is private land. The advantage of trekking with Old is he’s fifth-generation to the area. He knows who owns what, who to ask. And so one day last spring we tramped through an area of the scablands that few people ever get to see, the canyon where Rock Creek flows into Rock Lake. Bounded by the lake and a series of waterfalls, it is a magical place, despite Old’s regret.

“When I was first taking botany,” says Old, “I found Blepharipappus here. I’ve been back yearly, but haven’t seen it since.”

Equally magical-and open to the public-is the Escure Ranch. Downstream from Rock Lake on Rock Creek, and purchased by the Bureau of Land Management in 1999, the Escure Ranch is classic scabland. An easy hike takes the visitor into one of the loveliest waterfalls in the Northwest. A large lake is another couple miles in. Although the plant life suffers badly from overgrazing, some natives persist.

Old leads us up a mesa, identifying plants as we go and decrying the invasion of pocket gophers from the wheatfields above us. The arrowleaf balsamroots have withered slightly from a late harsh frost the night before. North of us is another, much larger mesa that was formed by the floods, which scoured the sides and top of the basalt outcrop. Except for meadowlarks, the occasional raven flying over the valley, and our Latin-laden conversation, there is absolute quiet.

Like many of the flood’s hidden channels, the 13,000-acre ranch is a harsh Eden within the monotony of the wheatfields, an exquisite scar through what Zane Grey called the desert of wheat, refuge to mule deer and badger, cliff swallows and ferruginous hawks, sage, bunchgrass, Jacob’s ladder, and blue-eyed Mary. In spite of the European invasives, the ancient catastrophic beauty of the area prevails. In spite of the loss that he sees, Old is smiling the whole time.

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Gallery: Washington’s Channeled Scablands  (Photos by Robert Hubner)