A WHOLE LOT of us, at one time or another, have tickled the midsection of one of the true wonders of our natural world without ever knowing it.
It happens on Highway 2, about halfway from Seattle to Spokane. Busting across the flat, wide Waterville Plateau in Douglas County, you’re interrupted from your reverie when the road plummets about 600 vertical feet down into a spectacular, sagebrush-festooned draw bounded by ominous basalt cliffs. Just as quickly, you climb the other side and the detour is forgotten.
Your loss. The few intrepid souls who hit the brakes in the middle of this massive gash and turn north or south into the desolate flats of Moses Coulee will quickly discover the magic of the grandest channel in Central Washington’s Channeled Scablands. A trip between the coulee’s steep walls is like poking around in the basement of time.
As in, time immemorial: the 17 million-year-old volcanic-rock surface here was carved to shreds in a relative instant by spectacular Ice Age floods that ended about 13,000 years ago. But Moses Coulee also holds stubbornly to fascinating bookmarks in the story of our own, briefer time in the region.
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That book of human history — at least the parts we can read — begins long after those mighty floods, when the region’s native people spread throughout what must have seemed a freshly shredded landscape. The story of those ancient people ends with the tale of the last generations, led by Chief Moses, the coulee’s namesake, failing in a valiant attempt to hang onto their ancestral homelands.
More recent chapters of human history in the coulee include tales that border on the bizarre: A firetruck-red fishing lake and an aw-shucks Chevy truck commercial. Ice falls and infernal heat. A concrete-teepee camp and a horse-racing track in the middle of nowhere. Pygmy rabbits, buffalo bones and bats.
A lot of stuff, in other words, that adds up to a unique charisma of place — the sort of canyon-enclosed, real-Washington buried treasure that, once uncovered, reminds most of us that this is why we live here.
TO SEE IT, of course, requires letting off the gas. A good way to explore the coulee — a French word for dry wash — is to start a half-dozen miles north of Highway 2, at the “head” — the entry point for the floodwaters that carved the great swath between here and the Quincy/Wenatchee area about 30 miles downstream to the southwest.
The coulee is one of many fascinating, little-visited scars of the floods that created Central Washington’s Channeled Scablands. The force at work in this dry place was water, pent up behind ice dams in massive ancient glacial Lake Missoula. There, periodic flood bursts through glaciers in the great Cordilleran ice sheet wrought havoc all the way to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The carnage is considered one of the most cataclysmic events in Earth’s geologic history.
Most tourists who view the effects do so to the east, in the Grand Coulee, at sites such as the Dry Falls overlook. Yet one drainage away, as the floodwaters flew, the mile-wide Moses Coulee sports its own jaw-dropping flood scars, most never seen.
That might change in coming years, once the National Park Service produces interpretive signs for an approved, but not yet implemented, Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail, snaking along highways between Montana and the Pacific. Some of the more-notable scars in the Moses Coulee surely will qualify as stops on that route.
But today, they sit unnoticed, delightfully lonesome. Even within sight of Highway 2, which drops into the coulee’s west side atop a massive gravel deposit created by a floodwater eddy, a visitor on almost any day can stand in the still air and experience an almost-unsettling silence.
AT THE head of this great battle scar lies the upper coulee’s only visible water, Grimes and Jameson lakes. Just 30 years ago, Jameson Lake was Moses Coulee’s star attraction. Its clear, cool waters proved perfect for cultivating planted rainbow trout fingerlings, which grew quickly and proved cooperatively hungry for anglers after the spring ice melt. In the 1960s, opening day of fishing season would bring as many as 5,000 people to Jameson Lake (including me, as a young boy) — a bizarre spectacle, given the location.
Today, the same fishing opener might attract several hundred. The culprit is an exploding algae bloom, caused by a high level of phosphates in the water. The algae forms a thick, stinky, sometimes blood-red mush that can make trolling for planted trout a sickening experience.
Nobody’s sure what’s causing it, but people have suspicions. One of them is a bio-sludge project that spreads treated human feces as fertilizer on wheat fields across the Waterville Plateau above. But the science isn’t there to make that connection, and the bloom may just be a cyclical natural phenomenon.
What is certain, says Travis Maitland, a state Fish and Wildlife Department biologist, is that proposed fixes — treating the lake with alum, or installing shoreline liquid oxygen tanks — are expensive, and no funding exists. As a result, trout fingerling plants here have dropped from a high of about 400,000 in the lake’s more productive years to 120,000.
While that’s a rough turn for owners of nearby Jack’s Resort, which thrives on fishing customers, the algae bloom hasn’t discouraged non-angling visitors — some of whom would prefer the place remained a secret. Spokane writer Jack Nisbet, author of “Visible Bones” and other works about the intersection of geology and humanity in the Northwest, is a man with a keen eye for the otherworldly parts of the Northwest topography. And he has noticed the difference.
“I’ve been coming here for years as a sort of spiritual retreat,” he says.
On a recent bluebird wintry day, with a half foot of snow lying on the coulee floor, Nisbet is out with a local geologist, exploring the coulee’s crannies. It’s tough not to notice one of the main attractions: A couple miles south of frozen-over Jameson Lake, Dutch Henry Falls, which in spring and summer trickles down the coulee’s imposing west wall, is frozen into a single, massive icicle. When conditions are right, the formation attracts ice climbers.
In warmer days, cool mist from the falls brings out the most-plentiful mammal species in the coulee: bats. In test nettings here, biologists have documented 13 of the state’s 15 known species, including the rare spotted bat. The large numbers and diversity of species have earned the upper coulee, which supports ample bat-house fissures in its sheer basalt cliffs, the nickname “bat heaven.”
But in winter, the silence here is interrupted only by the occasional groaning of ice. Dutch Henry Falls looks, like much of the rest of this coulee, foreboding and almost prehistoric.
THOSE LOOKS can be deceiving. While the coulee terrain seems deserted and barren, it is very much alive. Some scientists say the “shrub-steppe” habitat found here is as critical to this dry environment as old-growth forests are to rainy-side ecology. And in the past half-century, shrub-steppe has been shrinking at alarming rates, as more and more land is turned to agricultural production.
Shrub-steppe used to cover more than 12 million acres in the region, says Chuck Warner, a Wenatchee-based program director for the Nature Conservancy, which in the past two decades has acquired about 30,000 acres of the habitat within Moses Coulee for conservation. About two-thirds has been lost. Of what remains, most is in poor shape, due to invasive plant species and mismanagement, he adds.
Land ownership here is mostly divided between the Bureau of Land Management, the Nature Conservancy, state Fish and Wildlife, and private owners. A critical mass of lands owned by government or private groups focused on conservation has rendered the coulee an important living laboratory.
Scientists are using coulee lands to reintroduce the endangered pygmy rabbit, from captive stock bred after the critters vanished in the wild. Other research includes long-running geologic experimentation; tests on new biological treatments to block the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species; and ongoing work to assist other longtime coulee inhabitants, such as the threatened sage grouse.
The land also is home to free-roaming coyotes, a diverse mix of song and game birds, and a healthy herd of mule deer. Much of the Nature Conservancy land, including the Beezley Hills reserve near the heart of the coulee, is open to public wandering, and most visitors come during the wildflower season, which usually peaks in May. Deer hunting is allowed in season. The conservancy runs a popular hunter-stewardship program that trades hunting access for about 50 hunters a year for volunteer hours on conservation projects.
The coulee once was home to bigger game. Excavation to build Highway 2 through the belly of the coulee unearthed what’s believed to be a game-jump site, where natives herded animals off a bluff to kill them. Bones from buffalo and bighorn sheep were among the remains.
HUMANS have lived in the region for more than 10,000 years. The natives still occupying the land when whites arrived were the Sinkiuse-Columbia tribe, led by Chief Moses, an English-speaking leader of various tribes who resisted assignment to reservations. Moses in 1879 persuaded the Rutherford B. Hayes administration to establish a sprawling new Moses Reservation in much of current north-central Washington. But within a year, the government, pressured by miners and homesteaders, reneged, sending Moses and most of his people to the Colville Reservation.
White settlement quickly followed. The coulee became largely a transportation corridor. Cattle were driven north, bound for mining towns in the Okanogan and British Columbia. Wagon trails used the route, establishing the first roads. A railroad reached into southern parts of the coulee, and a stagecoach line connected Waterville with Coulee City.
Because the land was unsuitable for most farming, permanent inhabitants then, as now, were ranchers. But the coulee’s unique vibe has attracted a range of other speculators. Most notable was one company’s grandiose 1960s scheme of building a resort community in the central coulee: the Palm Springs of Douglas County. Developers sketched out thousands of home lots, built a large swimming pool, clubhouse and tennis center, and even installed a horse-racing track, complete with massive grandstands. Plans called for a narrow-gauge railway to shuttle visitors to a camp of concrete teepees.
The project fell into bankruptcy. But the grandstands still exist at what’s now a private cattle ranch. And the scaled-back resort remains. It’s called Rimrock Meadows, and it creates the jarring spectacle of a seemingly deserted terrain dotted by the occasional travel trailer or Home Depot wooden tool shed.
For the interested investor, shack-sized lots can be had for less than $5,000.
ON MANY occasions, cattle rancher Dave Billingsley, on horseback, chasing down some wayward beef on leased grazing land, has stumbled upon a new road or recently placed trailer on those scattered Rimrock sites. It sort of makes him shake his head.
“It confuses the landscape,” says the 72-year-old patriarch of the Billingsley clan, which has occupied a ranch at the base of the spectacular Three Devils Grade for 85 years.
The land has been in family hands since 1929, when David L. Billingsley, Dave’s father, traveling between Wenatchee and Ephrata, happened upon the Three Devils and called it home. He and his siblings moved Dave’s grandparents, placeholders, into a cabin at the site — “40 acres of sagebrush,” Dave says. They began assembling land into what’s now the largest local cattle ranch. Today, meat from the Billingsleys’ 500-head herd is sold through a Northwest ranchers’ co-op, Country Natural Beef, which delivers to PCC and other markets around Puget Sound.
Dave Billingsley grew up here and after attending college in California, settled on the ranch with wife Charlotte in 1967. Today, his son, Brent, and grandson, Justin, 9, help tend the cattle.
“Lots of times, it’s been a struggle,” Billingsley says. Charlotte’s employment at the school in tiny Palisades, just down the coulee, made ends meet when the ranch did not. But the magic of the place has always kept the Billingsleys clinging to the Three Devils rock. Dave has spent enough saddle time here to ponder why.
“It grows on you,” Dave says. “There’s nothing quite like it.” The spectacular cliffs “are kind of a protection,” he explains, “a basis for where you are, without feeling claustrophobic, like in timber country.”
It is a place of extremes. The yawning canyon walls hold in both heat and cold. The ranch sees temperatures as hot as 110; Billingsley recalls hitting the sack some nights at 11 p.m., with the thermometer still reading triple digits. In the winter, it can dip to 10 below.
The spectacularly rugged setting has proved irresistible to Hollywood location scouts. A scene from the Richard Dreyfuss/Holly Hunter fire-jumper drama “Always” was shot on a bluff above the Billingsley Ranch. And this past June, a Chevy trucks commercial captured scenes of the ranch, many visible on the country-music video “Strong,” by Will Hoge.
While the coulee’s topography is an eye-opener for newcomers, old-timers sometimes still feel the sense of ancient mystery that boggles the mind in the best of ways.
Even today, Billingsley might be riding his horse up one of the dozens of narrow canyons or ravines in this Badlands landscape and suddenly pull up the reins, look around, and feel the eerie chill that makes Moses Coulee unique.
“I’ll think, ‘You know, I wonder if anybody else has ever been here.’ ”
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.