After the Floods

Unraveling the mystery behind the Northwest's channeled scablands

  • Dry Falls, near Coulee City, Washington, where Ice Age floodwaters ran up to 250 feet deep.

    Eleanor Lee
  • Palouse Falls spills into a giant plunge pool.

    Eleanor Lee
  • Giant current ripples were created when floodwaters scoured through what today is Kittitas County, Washington.

  • A large granite boulder that the Ice Age Floods deposited in today's Tri-Cities area.

    Eleanor Lee
 

Updated Nov. 24, 2009

The view from State Route 281, a few miles south of Quincy, Wash., doesn't seem like one of the world's more dramatic landscapes. Not to me, anyway. This is country to be endured (better yet, slept through) on the way to other, more captivating environments. The topography here is mostly flat, and whatever isn't paved is russet or beige or an irrigated green. But Gary Kleinknecht is doing his best to show off the region's subtle charms.

"So where we're standing, we'd be under, oh," -- he takes his bearings -- "probably 800 feet of water."

We are in the midst of the Channeled Scablands, a braided maze of buttes and canyons scoured out by massive floods thousands of years ago, and now blended into the workaday scenery of eastern Washington. A few miles north of us are the Frenchman Hills; the Saddle Mountains are to the south. Kleinknecht explains that the area they bracket, the Quincy Basin, was at one time under a huge temporary lake, Lake Lewis, which also covered the nearby Pasco Basin and the Yakima Valley. The lake only existed for a week or so, but in places it was nearly 1,000 feet deep -- transforming today's mountains into small islands, or submerging them completely. Then it drained swiftly away, leaving behind raw earth.

"We're surrounded by some of the most fascinating geology on Earth," Kleinknecht says, as a semi rumbles past, followed by an antsy string of cars. He watches them go. "And the people who drive past this stuff every day, they just don't have a clue."

Kleinknecht's quest, as president of the Richland, Wash.-based Ice Age Floods Institute, is to give them a clue. Last March, Congress made his job easier when it passed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, which included a bill for the formal designation of the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail. Scheduled to be completed by 2016, the trail will lead amateur geologists and their longsuffering kin along nearly 1,000 miles of roads, from the floods' origins in Montana to their exit on the Oregon coast.

"Now we can really start getting the story out," Kleinknecht says. "And it's a helluva story."

But it's a story that presents unique challenges in the telling. Most geological parks focus on contained, stationary features. This trail, the first of its kind, will be something else -- an attempt to put rock in motion, to give it narrative, a start and a finish. All of which raises the question: How exactly do you get people to see movement in something as permanent-seeming as stone?

Here's the no-frills version: About 15,000 years ago near the end of the last ice age, a lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, which covered much of Alaska and western Canada, stretched south to what is now Sandpoint, Idaho, blocking the Clark Fork River with an ice dam over 2,000 feet tall and 2,200 feet thick. The backed-up river formed an enormous lake, called Glacial Lake Missoula, which held over 500 cubic miles of water -- more than is held by Lakes Erie and Ontario combined. Over the decades, the water wormed its way through minute cracks in the ice, probing and wearing away at the base of the dam as only water can until the entire structure became critically unstable. When at last it failed, it did so spectacularly. A towering wall of water blasted out and rampaged across Idaho and eastern Washington at up to 80 miles per hour. Over 3,000 square miles of land were covered to a depth of 1,000 feet. The torrents peeled off columns of rock and boiled up at choke points along the Columbia Gorge, back-flooding so furiously that the Snake River ran in reverse. The waters rumbled on to present-day Portland, still hundreds of feet deep, backing up again at the narrows near Kalama, Ore., and forming another temporary lake in the Willamette Valley, before roaring on, past Astoria, another 100 miles or so to the edge of the Pleistocene coast, and then into the Pacific, spewing sediments out along the ocean floor as far south as California.

Glacial Lake Missoula took only two days to drain; the floods probably lasted two weeks. After they subsided, the ice dam started to re-form. Then, after 30 to 50 years, it failed again. The process repeated itself, perhaps more than 100 times over the next 3,000 years, before the Earth warmed and the Pleistocene Epoch ended. According to geologists, the Ice Age Floods, as they eventually became known, may have been the largest floods the Earth has ever experienced.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...