By Don Snow
The first time I saw Wallula Gap, I saw it in the way most people do nowadays – through the windows of a speeding automobile. I admit that I have only a fuzzy recollection of that moment – or series of moments – when I first beheld the remarkable notch, a vast absence in a vast ridgeline, where the Columbia River, called N?’í wana in the Sahaptin language of Mid-Columbia Plateau tribes, makes its dramatic and final bend to the west. I was a new resident of eastern Washington then, having recently arrived for a teaching job in Walla Walla, but even as a newcomer, I could sense the significance of the gap.
Many years earlier, while living in Missoula, Montana, I accidentally ran across a book titled Cataclysms on the Columbia, a fascinating account of the geologist J Harlen Bretz and his iconoclastic theories about the mammoth Ice Age floods that had shaped the face of eastern Washington. First writing in the 1920s, Bretz had been a catastrophist within a field dominated by uniformitarian theories of geology. His flood theory struck many of his geological brethren as Biblical diluvian nonsense, but Bretz persisted, and the evidence mounted. Ultimately, the idea of repeated ice-dam floods originating from Glacial Lake Missoula achieved acceptance.
As I drove along U.S. Highway 12 for the first time, nearing Wallula Gap, I remember letting out a little gasp. Here, at last, I thought: the Missoula-Wallula connection! Mine was the sort of visceral reaction a nonscientist often experiences when a rather dry scientific concept, encountered only in the abstract, leaps from the pages of a book and lands with the force of a story, or a picture.
Looking at the gap, I could suddenly see what Bretz had been talking about. A wall of icy water, traveling about as fast as my Buick, had encountered this narrowest-possible neck at the bottom of the 20,000-square-mile jug we now call the Mid-Columbia Basin. The water could not exit through the gap quickly enough to keep pace with the super-fast flow that had drained Glacial Lake Missoula hundreds of miles away, a body of water about the size of Lake Erie. Wallula Gap had formed a temporary hydraulic dam, partially stoppering the largest floods the planet has ever seen and causing a massive backup, until the suddenly formed, ice-cold reservoir – we now call it Lake Lewis – had in places overtopped the thousand-foot-high Horse Heaven Hills. Something like this had happened not once but dozens of times, over thousands of years. After the waters receded, crashing through the Columbia Gorge at interstate highway speeds, the Mid-Columbia Basin lay changed.
What had been mildly undulating prairie was now, over vast areas, scoured down to bedrock – the Channeled Scabland. Places where the waters slowed and backed up in huge eddies, dropping mind-numbing quantities of silt, were now massive pillows of lush soil – the Touchet Beds. And here and there, across much of the Mid-Columbia Basin, the floodwaters had deposited huge chunks of granite that had hitched a ride atop icebergs carried from northern Idaho. These rocks – granitic erratics, as geologists call them – were the first clues that had led J Harlen Bretz to his earth-rattling theory of catastrophic floods. Bretz had helped revise his field, much as the floods he described had revised the face of eastern Washington.
The West is so full of dramatic landscapes and massive vistas that we who live here often take them for granted. Traveling as we do, most of the time by motorcar, we tend to encounter the very wonders of the world as a highly generalized landscape, a blur of geography, geology, biota and cultural artifact. Perhaps we forget what the combination of velocity and comfort does to our perceptions. Inside the climate-controlled chamber of a Toyota or a Buick, it’s easy to overlook the fact that landscape is as much an event as it is a portrait. The speed of the car works a bit like the shutter of a camera, giving us a sort of snapshot of a given place, but that “picture,” even if we continue to hold it in memory, tends to mask more than it reveals.
As the book you are now holding in your hands surely attests, places like Wallula Gap help us to expand our sense of space and time, and the chapters herein can really enhance the imagination, for these five writers reveal dimensions of the place that simply cannot be seen through the windows of a speeding automobile.
Think of the difference it would make if we were to approach Wallula Gap not on the plush cushions of a Detroit Barcalounger doing 65, but rather on foot or horseback, as thousands of westward travelers did on their way to the lush valleys of coastal Oregon Territory. Or from the hard seats of a wooden canoe, a trim but heavy boat made in the old Nez Perce way, as Lewis and Clark learned, by carefully burning the heart out of the trunk of a fat yellow pine. Think of what you would see, smell, hear, fear, even taste if you approached the gap at pedestrian speed, the approximate speed of the river itself, undammed. Nothing would flash past your eyes, bypass your nose, or fail to land upon your ears. Nothing would devolve into the two-dimensional motion picture we perceive as “landscape” through the shatterproof glass of a hurtling automobile.
Let’s run our first trip to Wallula Gap again but this time in slow motion, pedestrian motion.
Approaching the gap from the Washington side, you would see along the Horse Heaven Hills mechanical proof of the most notable and noted meteorological feature of the place: wind. More than 450 electrical turbines stand along that eolian spine, where wind velocities average 16 mph to 18 mph year-round. The three adjacent wind farms here – Stateline, Vansycle and Combine Hills – constitute the largest wind-electrical site on the planet and make a bold nod to the angels of alternative energy. Yet, the wind is also a demon at Wallula Gap. As G. Thomas Edwards’ chapter on 19th century history in this book informs us, people have always cursed the Wallula wind. It blows grit into one’s pancakes, hurts the eyes of livestock, forms massive dunes in the little canyons that feed into the gap. That someone might be ingenious enough to profit from today’s Wallula Gap wind is a fact that would have astonished the residents of yore. Pay attention to Lawrence L. Dodd’s chapter on the evolving economies of the Wallula Gap region in the 20th century, and you’ll get a sense of how tenuous and difficult the matter of making a living here has always been.
Slow down even more. Take out your binoculars and watch the birds. Depending on the season, you’re likely to see an astonishing assembly of waterbirds. Whimbrels and wigeons, long-billed curlews, western sandpipers, greater and lesser yellowlegs, white pelicans – these and many other species can be found cruising the wave tops and edges of N?’í wana, while several species of swifts and swallows, rock wrens, falcons, and great soaring hawks populate the cliffs, walls and banks of the gap. All of this and more are nicely documented in Mike Denny’s chapter on biology herein, “Seasons in the Sun.” Besides birds, I have seen bighorn sheep, mule deer and badgers (well, one badger) in the Juniper Canyon section of the gap. The Wallula area – the gap itself, the side canyons and wetlands where the Walla Walla River empties into the Columbia – represents one portion of eastern Washington where wildlife remains abundant enough to ease my pining for Montana, my home for 25 years.
Stop and think about the prehistoric human occupation of the area over the slow march of time – not the 200 years that Euro-Americans have inhabited this region of stark cliffs and silty soils, but the thousands of years of occupancy and use that preceded our quaint idea of “settlement.” The name “Wallula” apparently derives from “Walúulapam,” one of the Native American bands who lived in the fertile valley of the Walla Walla River. It is not known how long human beings have occupied the harsh and difficult landscapes of the Mid-Columbia, in part because the floods that occurred around the end of the Pleistocene – 15,000 years ago – wiped out the evidence archaeologists use to identify material culture. As Catherine Dickson carefully documents here, the several tribes who best knew the Wallula Gap were at first seminomadic people who were clever and strong enough to kill the now-extinct woolly mammoth and remained dependent on the rich runs of Columbia River salmon long after the mammoth was gone.
Wallula Gap is a place where our sense of time can feel as palpable, as ambient, as the air and water that course through the canyon. Bob Carson’s chapter on geology, “Fire and Flood along the Columbia,” will bend your mind with astonishing images of time, scale and the very plasticity of the earth. Think of flood basalts burbling up from gigantic fissures in the planet’s crust. Think of the resulting rock as frozen magma, miles deep. Think of volcanic ejecta from Cascade volcanoes falling in blizzards of superfine ash over thousands of square miles. Think of a dramatic landscape in southeastern Washington composed in no small part of materials delivered by water from Montana.
The river through the gap is a river no more; it is a reservoir now, as is most of the entire Columbia. The foaming rapids and dancing riffles are gone, and the thought of Columbia River floods is now a mere chimera of imagination. Yet the vibrancy and vividness of the place remain, obdurate as basalt. You can feel it in the wind, smell it in the rock and sand, almost hear it in the faint echoes of time. With the help of these five authors, you can see Wallula Gap in multiple dimensions, similar to how I first beheld this impressive slot in the rock and was able finally to see what J Harlen Bretz had taught. It’s a desert place – shocking to some, inspiring to others – and it is a place worth knowing. Do your homework; go see it; let your imagination do the rest.
Nonfiction. 240 pages,