Thursday, January 19, 2017

Steamboat Rock

Banks Lake fills the Grand Coulee
6 miles loop, 900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, due to rock scrambling and route finding
Access: Road to trailhead accessible to all vehicles, Washington State Discover Pass required for parking

The waters of Banks Lake viewed from atop Steamboat Rock are so calm today that it is almost impossible to imagine the violence of torrential floods tearing through this desert landscape. Yet those cataclysmic floods, initiated by the failure of huge glacial dams holding back ancient, long-gone lakes in past ice ages, are the very agents responsible for carving the steep-sided coulees in Eastern Washington. Steamboat Rock, a mesa rising out of the heart of the Grand Coulee, the most spectacular of these flood-carved canyons, is an extraordinary place to appreciate the role of water in creating the natural landscape; the Grand Coulee region is also a testament to the massive changes that humans have brought to the Columbia Plateau. The grasslands and sagebrush atop this isolated flattop mountain seem almost prehistoric and the rock's many cliffs provide stunning views of coulee country. Although very much out of the way for most people who don't live in Coulee City, Electric City, or Ephrata, I highly encourage you to make your way out here: this is one of the most interesting spots in Washington state.

There are no well-established trails on Steamboat Rock; there is a trail leading to its base and a narrow and steep path ascending to the notch between the two halves of the plateau, but the top of the plateau-like tops of each side of Steamboat Rock have only unmarked use paths that sometimes interconnect and often fade out into nothing. Route finding is not particularly difficult, as the hike is essentially just a circumnavigation of the top of the rock, but it is often easy to lose the paths themselves.

I hiked to Steamboat Rock on an overcast weekend, seeking out the desert of Eastern Washington as an escape from the neverending rain of Seattle. From Seattle, I followed I-90 east to Exit 151 at George and then took Highway 283 northeast until it joined with Highway 28, which I continued along past Ephrata to Soap Lake. At Soap Lake, I took the left turn for Highway 17 north, following Highway 17 along Lake Lenore through the lower reaches of the Grand Coulee to its junction with US Route 2 at the Dry Falls Dam. Here, I took the right turn onto US Route 2 east, passing through Coulee City, after which I made a turn left onto Highway 155 north through Grand Coulee along Banks Lake. The turnoff for Steamboat Rock State Park was clearly marked off to the left on Highway 155; however, before starting the hike, I continued along Highway 155 north to the Grand Coulee Dam.

Any effort to understand human interactions with the landscape of the Grand Coulee and the Columbia Basin must take into account the role of the Grand Coulee Dam. The dam, spanning the width of the Columbia River near the northern entrance to the Grand Coulee, was the largest concrete structure in the world when built and today retains that distinction within the United States; it is also the largest dam and generates more electricity than any other single power station in the nation. The Grand Coulee Dam's roles in both power generation and irrigation have been critical keys to the economic development in the Pacific Northwest; it generates 7 GW of renewable power for the Northwest and has decimated the salmon population in the Columbia River watershed. To some it is a miracle of renewable energy and an engine of economic progress; to others, an environmental catastrophe.

Grand Coulee Dam, the largest dam and hydropower station in the United States
The Grand Coulee Dam was built during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration as one of the crowning civil engineering achievements of the New Deal. The agricultural potential of the arid Columbia Basin had long been recognized but was unrealizable without a reliable source of water. Wanting to turn the sagebrush country into fields of wheat and acres of apples, European American settlers in the late 19th and early 20th century pushed for a construction of a dam along the Columbia to provide for irrigation. Some even proposed a dam a thousand feet tall that would cause the Columbia to flood the Grand Coulee directly- this plan, however, was never realized. Instead, as part of the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration funded a dam 550 feet tall that would span the Columbia, creating a reservoir stretching all the way to the Canadian border.

Water from the new reservoir, named after the president who pushed for the dam's construction, was pumped uphill into the Grand Coulee; an earthen dam was built near Coulee City to define the southern end of this second reservoir. Thus Banks Lake was born, flooding almost the entirety of Grand Coulee, and Steamboat Rock, which once rose above a canyon floor of sagebrush, almost became an island. Water from Banks Lake then fed canals by gravity flow, flowing south to irrigate the 670,000 acres of the Columbia Basin Project. Here, even today, acres upon acres of farmland from Ephrata to Moses Lake to Othello, all the way down to the Tri-Cities, are watered by the Columbia River, producing alfalfa, sugar beets, potatoes, and many other crops.

Hydroelectric power stations at the dam would create plentiful and cheap electricity throughout the Pacific Northwest- power that made possible the aluminum smelting plants at Vancouver, Wenatchee, Spokane, and elsewhere in Washington State that were critical to the manufacturing of Allied planes and warships during World War II. Power from the Grand Coulee Dam was key to the decision to locate the first plutonium enrichment reactors of the Manhattan Project at Hanford: it was the hydropower of the Columbia that fueled the fissile material responsible for the radioactive Alamogordo glass at the Trinity Site and the deaths, both immediate and agonizingly drawn-out, of the people of Nagasaki on and after August 9, 1945. It is power from the Grand Coulee Dam that today makes the Pacific Northwest one of the few regions of the country that relies on majority renewable power.

Yet the economic, environmental, and cultural costs of the project have been correspondingly high. The Columbia Basin Project was originally meant to benefit small farms in the Columbia Basin and envisioned as cost-neutral as farmers would reimburse the Bureau of Reclamation for its expenditures on the project. However, the costs of turning Columbia Basin loess into fertile farmland blossomed as decades dragged on, turning the project into a money sink for the federal government. Small farms were taken over by large agricultural corporations, which today still farm in a land that would otherwise be too arid for cultivation because of the effectively government-subsidized water of the Columbia Basin Project.

No organism is as strongly identified with the Columbia River as salmon. When Lewis and Clark arrived in the Columbia River watershed, they noted the extraordinary abundance of the fish in the Northwest. These anadromous fish spend most of their lives in saltwater, but they are born in freshwater mountain streams and return to these same streams at the end of their lives to mate and die. Dams impose a physical obstacle for salmon returning upstream: they are unable to continue upstream when they encounter one, unless fish ladders have been built to allow them to transit. At 550 feet in height, the Grand Coulee Dam is too tall for a fish ladder. The Chinook, sockeye, pink, and coho salmon that reach this barrier are unable to continue any further up the Columbia. This is a critical loss for the ecology of the Rocky Mountains upstream of the Grand Coulee Dam: salmon returning from the ocean serve as a food source for inland omnivores and carnivores and returning salmon contribute vital nutrients to inland ecosystems.

The loss of salmon is not only environmental. For the Colville People, the salmon runs at Kettle Falls, a set of rapids upstream of the dam along the Columbia, were a key element of their culture and their livelihood. The inundation of Kettle Falls and the end of the salmon runs ended a defining cultural aspect for not only the Colville, but many other regional peoples. To many Americans of non-native descent in Eastern Washington, Native American complaints about the salmon are viewed as trivial or impediments to economic progress. It must be recognized that concerns over destroyed salmon runs are no less existential than concerns over shuttered aluminum smelters in Wenatchee and Ferndale and that to some of the Colville, the loss of salmon has more or less been the loss of their culture.

The Grand Coulee Dam is not any one of its facets; it is all of them. It is simultaneously constructive and destructive, a tragedy and a triumph; few arguments claiming it to be purely good or bad take into consideration the multitude of perspectives surrounding it.

Back to the Steamboat Rock hike: after turning onto the road for Steamboat Rock State Park, I drove up the peninsula into the park, passing the entrance station and the turnoff to the right for the first loop of the campground. At the turnoff for the second campground loop, I made a right turn and parked next to the bathrooms; I then crossed the road to the clearly-marked Steamboat Rock Trailhead. There is no parking directly next to the trailhead.

Steamboat Rock viewed from Highway 155
From the trailhead, I followed a wide dirt trail gradually uphill through sagebrush for about a third of a mile to a junction with a small loop on a gravel road; I headed straight here, picking up the trail again at the other side of the loop and continuing to walk directly towards the base of the rock.

Steamboat Rock, viewed from its base
Looking at the layers of columnar basalt rising above me, I spotted the trail heading up the rock. Arriving at the rock's base, I left the wide gravel trail and started up the narrow trail built into the loose rock slopes of the lowest exposed layer of Steamboat Rock. The trail was not very stable here, so it was necessary to use my hands as I scrambled up the trail and through a tight switchback until I reached more stable terrain on a mid-layer plateau between the two parts of Steamboat Rock. From here, I followed the trail uphill as it climbed steadily towards the base of the northern rock. The trail ascended until reaching a T-intersection; here, I took a left to continue ascending towards the saddle between the two sides of the rock. Soon afterwards, I arrived at the gap and veered off to the left to follow a use path up to the top of the southern rock through a break in the cliffs, reaching the level top of the rock about three quarters of a mile from the trailhead.

Once atop the flat summit of the rock, I began wandering along use paths on a clockwise circumnavigation of the top of the rock. Reaching the rim of the rock, I came to magnificent views of Banks Lake below and the cliffs of the Grand Coulee around me.

Cliffs of the Grand Coulee rise above Banks Lake
Views were particularly impressive at the southwestern tip of the rock, where I gazed directly down into the very blue waters of Bank Lake and south down the cut of the Grand Coulee, which continued as far as my eye could see.

Grand Coulee viewed from the south end of Steamboat Rock
Having done most of a loop around the southern rock, I dropped back down to the gap between the rocks at the spot where I found a break in the cliffs and bushwhacked until I found a use path that took me back to the saddle point between the two rocks. This time, I ascended up the northern rock and began to follow a use path atop that plateau for a loop around the rim of the northern rock. The southern portion of the rock was much smaller than the northern portion: going around the southern rock was only about a mile of hiking, but doing the full loop around the rim of the northern rock summed to over three and a half miles.

Steamboat Rock
When I came back to the western rim of the rock, I enjoyed constant and incredible views of Banks Lake and the sheer cliffs of the rock dropping almost down to the lake itself.

Banks Lake and the Grand Coulee
The extraordinary scenery is the result of an extraordinary natural history. The many-layered cliffs, which at times seem almost remniscent of the sedimentary layers of the Grand Canyon, were formed here by igneous rather than sedimentary processes. In fact, these layers of columnar basalt were formed by huge eruptions in which low-silica lava spread out over much of the Columbia River Basin, forming flood basalts. Repeated eruption events created multiple, distinct layers of columnar basalt. The cause of these eruptions is still not fully understood, although one theory links the flood basalt eruptions to early activity on the Yellowstone Hot Spot.

The layers of rock in the coulee wall were formed by massive eruptions, but the coulees themselves were formed instead by massive floods. When geologist J Harlen Bretz proposed in the 1920s a theory that occasional catastrophic floods of volumes never-before observed sculpted out the coulee landscape, he was dismissed by colleagues who held fast to Charles Lyell's principle of uniformitarianism. Besides, they asked, what could provide a source for these massive floods he claimed carved the coulees? Yet Bretz was sure he was right: at Potholes Coulee and at what is now recognized as Dry Falls, he recognized tell-tale geological signs that these locations were shaped by massive waterfalls greater than Niagara and not simply by the low-flow seasonal streams now present.

From later research into the geological past of the Clark Fork watershed in the Rocky Mountains emerged a startling revelation: a geological bathtub ring high on the mountains in the watershed indicated that in the past, a large lake had been present, formed when advancing glaciers during Ice Ages dammed the Clark Fork River. This prehistoric lake, known as Lake Missoula, would have had an unstable existence similar to glacier-dammed lakes that sometimes occur today at Russell Fjord with the Hubbard Glacier in Alaska or at Lago Argentino with the Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia. In other words, the ice dam would likely have failed from time to time due to increasing water pressure: these dam failures would have then provided the catastrophic floods across the Columbia Basin to carve the coulees. Bretz was validated.

I continued along the rim of the rock, making an extended stop at the northern tip for views of both the snowy Cascades in the west and the Okanogan Highlands in the north.

The Cascades rise to the west of the Grand Coulee
Okanogan Highlands rise beyond the north end of Banks Lake
Wrapping around the north end of the rock, I started coming down the eastern rim, where I was afforded a good view into Northrup Canyon, a side canyon carved into the Grand Coulee. In a flat, brushy landscape, one thing literally stuck out from Northrup Canyon: a forest. In fact, the pines along the floor and walls of Northrup Canyon are the only naturally occurring forest in Grant County, which encompasses a large portion of the Columbia Basin.

View of Northrup Canyon from Steamboat Rock
While hiking above the eastern rim, I also saw a large herd of deer grazing on the wide grasslands that formed the top of Steamboat Rock. I was surprised to see so many deer here, considering the difficulty of all paths leading up to the top of the rock, but I suppose the rock's isolation also serves to protect these deer from predators.

Deer atop the grasslands of Steamboat Rock
I made a final turn that brought me along a south-facing aspect of the rock, hiking along it until I came to an unmarked but clear trail that cut through a break in the cliffs to the left and descended rapidly. I took this trail, following it down from the top of the northern rock until I came to the T-intersection which I had encountered on my way up. From here, I made a left turn and descended down the steep scramble route back to the wide gravel trail at the rock's base and walked back to the trailhead.

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