Talk Nerdy to Me
Jun. 1, 2010 9:07 pm
Updated: Jun. 4, 2010 7:15 am
I confirmed something last week: people aren't much interested in slides of the vacation. Kind of a universal truth, that.
A captive audience will, in fact, become openly hostile if, say, at the end of a work meeting, one that has already run long, you decide to present slides of the vacation.
What's more, you can compound the enmity of such people by also presenting your free-form companion lecture "Cataclysm and the Creation of Eastern Washington's Wine Country." To be fair, it is kind of a double bill.
And yet, what can I say? It is a fascinating story. Ultimately I think people would come to agree with me on that point if they could just get beyond their profound disinterest. I suspect that secretly they want to hear
this dramatic story of nature gone haywire. And so, here goes...
It wasn't even all that long ago, not in geological time anyway--about 17,000 years ago--when these mind-bogglingly massive, devastating floods tore through eastern Washington on their bruising, bashing, mauling way to the sea.
It was the end of the Ice Age. Over in Idaho and Montana, the retreating glaciers left an arm of super-thick ice stretching out across the wide valley of the Clark Fork river, an enormous lobe of ice that was essentially a 2,000-foot-tall dam, holding back
runoff from the melting glaciers. Over time, the deep, wide valley filled, and filled, and filled with water--which backed up and filled other valleys--creating an enormous lake, larger in volume than Lakes Eerie and Ontario combined.
Eventually the lake became too much for the ice to hold back. The water began to float the ice, which cracked and burst, unleashing a towering wall of water many hundreds of feet high.
The torrent came forth fast and furious, like a fire hose turned full-throttle against a flower garden, gouging, scouring and scooping away everything in its way: soil, trees, giant rocks, animals (including mastodons and very large beavers), and...humans?
Well, there's no evidence of humans living here at the time. But certainly if you had lived in the Spokane valley at the time, you would have heard something coming, and felt the rumble, and thought: "Uh-oh, that sounds like a locomotive barreling down on me.
Good thing I have no idea what a locomotive is."
Now, if you look at a map of Washington, you can see that from the eastern side of the state, there's only one way for water to drain out to the sea, and that's by taking the route that the Columbia river takes through the narrow cleft of the Horse Heaven Hills
at the Wallula Gap.
It's only about a mile wide. And yet all of this water had to pass through it at once. It couldn't, of course. It would be like trying to drain a swimming pool through a soda straw. And so the charging wall of water smashed into the gap, violently, and backed
up, violently, creating another massive lake, roiling and heaving, that stretched way back into Walla Walla and up into the Yakima Valley (two of Washington wine country's hot spots, as it turns out).
Standing out there recently, on a gentle slope of the Red Mountain, I couldn't help thinking about all this. Certainly there would have been times when I would not have wanted to be there without a 1,200-foot snorkel.
It would have taken about a week for that temporary lake (Lake Lewis) to drain through the gap. The amount of water surging through it each day would have been more than all the water that the rivers of the world drain on any given day. It was a tremendous
whole lotta water.
From the gap, the water surged onward to the next bottleneck further down the Columbia Gorge, a geological feature which, incidentally, it was busy carving out. And when the water backed up again, it created another temporary lake (this one called Lake Condon),
which would have easily topped SLS' and my tent there on Destiny Ridge.
It's hard to conceive of these floods: ice dams forming and bursting, reforming and bursting again, occurring over and over again with such force and drama. But sitting up in the vineyard on the top of the hill, you can begin to see the signs.
If you look at the pictures below, you can see the rocks and large boulders that have been gathered up recently from the vineyard and placed neatly in a row. Initially they were rafted in on icebergs (sections of the burst ice dam). When the water drained away,
the bergs, rocks, and boulders settled. That enormous sandbar you see in the river was also left by the flood, as were the huge ripples that show along the sides of the hills.
And it certainly is a great back story to mull over, as you sit among the vines, sipping the wine that cataclysm helped create, thinking about all the time between.
Rocks and sandy soils on Destiny Ridge
Destiny Ridge, Horse Heaven Hills
Vines and large boulders on Destiny Ridge
Tent among the vines on Destiny Ridge
my illegible chalkmap of WA, showing the columbia river, the flood route, gap, and walla walla