Talk Nerdy To Me - Lightly Toasted: Chronicles of the Friday Night Cocktail Club Blog at - 178222

Lightly Toasted: Chronicles of the Friday Night Cocktail Club

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.
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Rocks and sandy soils on Destiny Ridge
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Destiny Ridge, Horse Heaven Hills
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Vines and large boulders on Destiny Ridge
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Tent among the vines on Destiny Ridge
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my illegible chalkmap of WA, showing the columbia river, the flood route, gap, and walla walla
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Jun. 2, 2010 12:41 am
Excellent blog, very interesting read!
Jun. 2, 2010 4:04 pm
Well told. Water, like fire, tamed is great, but unleashed in all it's fury (their furies), pretty scary stuff.
Jun. 2, 2010 4:19 pm
Moving to Walla Walla in my 7th grade year, we learned about this and the history and formation of the Columbia Valley. I found it interesting then and do now, still. But then, I've always liked science and am nerdy that way. Even more interesting you really can see the different layers of rock and the stories it tells in the upper end of the Columbia basin near George as well as all along the river in the gorge. Thanks for sharing, and talk nerdy to me anytime :)
Jun. 2, 2010 6:43 pm
You actually make nerdy interesting!
Jun. 4, 2010 7:15 am
Love history and I love your blog. Very nicely done!
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About Me
My wife and I and our two devilish kittens live on Capitol Hill in Seattle. A few years ago, I got a masters in gastronomy. I'm a food/wine writer. I’m also blogging about cocktails.
My favorite things to cook
We cook fairly simple dishes using fresh local ingredients that we pick up at the Seattle farmers market. My favorite thing is making a nice slow-braised or long-roasted something on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I like cooking with wine (in the dish and in the glass...and in the cook).
My favorite family cooking traditions
My mom never liked to cook, but she did well despite herself. Her mother, my omi, was from Munich and made delicious rouladen, sauerbraten and other traditional German and American dishes. Always bins and bins of home-baked cookies at Christmas. Wonderful rye bread. And beer. Opa would say, "Brotzeit ist die beste zeit."
My cooking triumphs
We’ve made the signature timpano dish from The Big Night a couple times. And for Thanksgiving 2007, we made Turducken. My wife and I are always volunteering to cook the big holiday meals with the family. We mix a signature cocktail, and get down to it.
My cooking tragedies
I made Thanksgiving Dinner for myself once when I was snowed-in in Denver. I nearly burned down the neighborhood.
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