To the Walls of the Land

This is lower Grand Coulee – a canyon in central Washington mostly carved out by a series of ice age floods some 15,000 or so years ago. The upper portions of the coulee served both Native American tribes and white travelers as an easy highway north and south.

The earliest of the Europeans took note of this strange, dry canyon, often submitting their theories on how it was made. No stream or river ran through it, but they figured that water was somehow involved.

While travelers as early as 1814 gave their opinions on its origin, today we’ll focus upon an 1841 expedition undertaken by Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy.

First, we’ll hear from W. D. Brackenridge, a botanist enjoining himself to the Wilkes expedition.  In June of that year, he critiqued the common idea that it was formerly the Columbia River.

‘I could observe no feature whatever that could lead one to suppose confidently that the valley had ever been the course of the Columbia, as it bears no traces of a sweeping current having passed through it at any time. On the contrary it presents in many places a rolling surface, with several rotund bluffs to the height of 700 feet.

‘At the upper end of one of the lakes is a deep gap or hollow so that had water ever flowed through the Coulee this must have been the principal channel, and yet these rocks,  in place of being water worn or rounded off,  are angular and show their natural disposition.

‘The Coulee appeared to me to be like a seat of a former Lake or Sea, which by some convulsion or another had a gap formed in its banks by which its waters forced their way into the Columbia.’

That same year, the leader of the expedition chimed in with his own theories.

In 1841, Charles Wilkes was a couple of decades from being the famous Rear Admiral of the Union Navy. It was long before he made the fateful decision that nearly started a war with England during our own Civil War  – the Trent Affair. In the 1840s, Wilkes was in charge of the Navy’s Department of Charts and Instruments, and explored a ridiculous swath of the globe.

For our concern, however, his 1841 exploration of the Columbia River is the focus. In his official report, he stated:.

‘The common supposition relative to this remarkable geological phenomenon is that it has once been the bed of the Columbia, and this is what would strike every one at its first view; but, on consideration, it is seen that it is much too wide, and that its entrance is nearly choked up by the granite hills, that do not leave sufficient space for the river to flow through. The walls of the Coulee consist of basaltic cliffs, similar to those of the Palisades of the Hudson…

‘In places, the cliffs were broken, and appeared as though tributary valleys had been formed, in like manner, with perpendicular walls, though but of short extent.’

Like Brackenridge, Wilkes held that ‘if the Columbia had ever flowed through this channel, it must have worn the rocks, but they exhibit no signs of any such abrasion; and yet it seems remarkable, that the Coulee had extended from one point of the river to another, and, with the exception of its breadth, forming very much the same kind of trench as the Columbia would leave if it forsook its present channel.’

But Wilkes also visited the Lower Grand Coulee, likely standing near where this photo was taken.
Looking upon this spot, he was of a different opinion. There was, he wrote, ‘reason to believe that it was at one period the bed of the Columbia. The fact of there being large boulders of granite at its lower or south end, while there is no rock of similar kind except at its north end, would warrant the conclusion that they had been brought from the upper part of it. There were a great number of stones, having the appearance of being water-worn, lying in its bed, at the south end, as if they had been brought down by the current of a rapid stream.’
And thus, by 1841, scientists and fans of geology  were already piecing together the puzzle of the Ice Age Floods. 


‘To The Walls of the Land’

Camera: Zorki 4 (c1956)
Film: ORWO DP3 (x-1987); 3iso
Process: HC-110B; 6.5min

Lower Grand Coulee, Douglas & Grant Counties, Washington


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