Otherworldly sights along the new Ice Age Floods driving route tell a tale few of us know: how thundering walls of water shaped Central Washington.

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TRINIDAD, Grant County —

Brent Cunderla stands on a bluff high above the Columbia River, west of Quincy, and points across the chasm to what looks like a series of hilly ridges, four stories tall, on a gigantic gravel deposit known as West Bar.

“Ripple marks,” the Bureau of Land Management geologist says. Then he holds up two fingers, about an inch apart. “They’d be about that big on any beach.”

Then you see it, the scale of it all washes over you, and another mind is blown.

The scars were carved by cataclysmic floodwaters, 500 feet deep, moving at freeway speeds. It’s almost unimaginable. Like Mother Nature on steroids. But there it is.

That’s the sort of moment visitors will experience at dozens of stops along the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail, a 500-mile auto route from Montana to the Pacific Ocean that’s finally close to becoming reality.

When the first elements of the trail — a linked series of interpretive sites — appear in two or three years, it will finally offer the non-flood-geek public what flood geeks call “the greatest story left untold.”

It’s the tale of otherworldly flash floods that scoured these lands 15,000 years ago, draining an inland Montana sea in a matter of days and carving out much of the layout of the interior Northwest we know today.

You’ve probably already seen the bigger parts of it. You just don’t know it.

Many of us have driven through, boated upon, or hiked around pieces of the puzzle for years — a gigantic, freakish boulder here, a mysterious band of cliffs there — without the faintest clue of the big picture. The average Central Washington resident rubs up against an ice-age floods feature — from the Wenatchee airport to the Gorge Amphitheater — routinely without realizing it.

“I did — for years and years,” says Gary Kleinknecht, of Kennewick, a high-school teacher and president of the Ice Age Floods Institute, the group of flood enthusiasts who successfully pushed for federal recognition of the spectacle. “Right through Washtucna Coulee, I don’t know how many times.”

Hearing the flood story, he says, “changes your reality. You realize there’s a cause for this stuff. That this is a living planet. These things actually moved.”

Assembled from what’s best described as a bunch of mysterious geographical leftovers, the flood trail stretches from northwest Montana to the mouth of the Columbia.

Viewed individually, few of its attractions are “holy cow” impressive enough to pull little Johnny’s head away from the back-seat DVD screen. But linked together by signs and interpretive materials, the trail could finally put the interior Northwest on the world’s tourism map.

Even before the first roadside sign is posted, the trail’s features have been listed by the Smithsonian Institution as one of the nation’s top-10 geologic wonders, along with the likes of Mount St. Helens, the Yellowstone Caldera and the Grand Canyon.

The trail project was approved by Congress last year.

With only $12 million appropriated thus far, don’t expect any grand lodges or sprawling tourist centers. The trail will be marked by simple roadside displays, and might make use of technology — mobile phones, GPS units and other devices — to let visitors leap as deeply as they want into the topic.

The flood path spans 16,000 square miles in four states. With enough caffeine and determination, travelers could recreate the entire flood rush in a day or two. But smaller loop trips, designed to be driven in a single day by sane people, will be identified along the route — many on obscure, but scenic, country roads.

Massive ice dam

Whether the trail is followed for a few hours or a few weeks, the mental image is powerful once the story is absorbed: During the most recent ice age, which began about 18,000 years ago, ice pushed south into what’s now northern Idaho, damming the Clark Fork River drainage. Water backed up to form glacial Lake Missoula — 500 cubic miles of water in a lake 200 miles across and as much as 2,000 feet deep.

Over time, the immense water pressure broke through the ice, blasting the equivalent of the combined water of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario west toward the Pacific. Standing in the way was what we now call Washington state.

Scientists believe a thundering wall of water hundreds of feet high ripped through the region at 65 mph or more, draining the lake in as little as two days. With the pressure gone, the ice sheet would push south again, rebuild the dam, and the process would repeat itself — perhaps hundreds of times.

The torrents turned small streambeds into rivers hundreds of feet deep. Present-day Wenatchee, not far upstream from West Bar, sat beneath 900 feet of feet of roiling water.

In straight stretches through the Grand Coulee, the water ripped through layers of crumbly volcanic rock and made magic, forming a massive, crescent-shaped waterfall about 400 feet high and four times wider than Niagara.

Today, that cataract, Dry Falls, about 20 miles south of Grand Coulee Dam, is partially visible from Highway 2 near Coulee City. Tens of thousands of travelers pass by a free state-parks interpretive center there every year and never bother to stop and look at the broad cliff bands. It’s barren desert now, but you can see the channels where the water once flowed, and small lakes at the bottom offer evidence of the ancient splash pools.

The floods caused existing rivers, such as the Snake, to temporarily flow backward. Anything alive in the flood path — archaeological evidence suggests woolly mammoths and native people hunting them might have lived along the flood routes — would have been whisked away instantly.

Thousands of “erratics,” house-sized boulders once bound up in the glaciers in Montana, rafted their way into Washington on floating icebergs, landing in random, incongruous places.

The water coalesced at a singe choke point, Wallula Gap, near the present-day Tri-Cities, to form an unimaginable torrent, then rocketed west at speeds up to 90 mph to scour out the walls of the Columbia River Gorge. The devastation stretched all the way south to Eugene, Ore., and left what’s now Portland under 400 feet of muddy water.

Near the end of the flood cycle, separate but similar floods from another source — glacial Lake Columbia — also blasted through the area, forming still-visible features such as the ripples at West Bar.

The floods ceased when the ice retreated about 12,000 years ago, leaving only the battle scars. In places, the flood-ravaged “scablands” appear so alien today that engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have used them to test Mars rovers.

Theory scorned at first

In the 1920s, J. Harlan Bretz, a former Seattle high-school biology teacher, poked around in the sagebrush and rock cliffs, measured the ripple marks, and concluded that they could have been made only by sudden, cataclysmic floods. One problem: Where in the world would all that water come from? Colleagues branded him a quack.

Only much later, when his work was combined with emerging evidence of a glacial Lake Missoula, did the picture become clear. By the 1960s, Bretz was redeemed as a visionary.

In the decades that followed, Bretz’s vision has been fleshed out by scientists and passionate volunteers with the Ice Age Floods Institute, which spearheaded the movement for federal recognition.

It’s not clear when the public will see a finished trail. The Park Service, now conducting map studies and other planning, has said it might take five years, but Kleinknecht said the hope is that roadway signs, at least, will start to appear in 2013.

The region’s geology buffs plan to keep pressure on Congress — and encourage the general public to do the same — to ensure the project doesn’t fall through the cracks in a time of uncertain financing.

“We’ve been telling the hell out of it,” Kleinknecht said. “But we’re a limited group. We’ve got 700 or 800 members. Most of us work at something else that gets us paychecks. But we’re pretty avid about it.”

Supporters hope the new trail will boost tourism along the flood path. A Park Service study suggests a string of interior “gateway communities” along the trail — including Spokane, Wenatchee, Yakima, Ellensburg, Longview and Ilwaco, Pacific County — will have an opportunity to capitalize.

“It’s got a lot of ‘wow’ factor,” says Ken Lacy, founder of the Wenatchee Valley Erratics chapter of the Ice Age Floods Institute. “This stuff is so spectacular, it literally has to be seen to be believed. We think it’s going to be bigger than the wine tours.”

He might be a bit optimistic. You have to be, to sing the praises of flood scars for much of your life.

Still, at least one tourism agency, the Wenatchee Valley Visitors Bureau, already has published a self-guiding map of flood remnants in the area — some among the most spectacular on the entire trail.

It’s a good starting point for Washingtonians, who don’t have to wait for the federal government to do anything to take in what remains of the great floods.

The scars may not all be marked by signs, but they’re still out there — small pieces of a picture almost too big to comprehend. That’s what makes the flood trail unique: It’s a monument more to what was than what is. All the signs and displays in the world wouldn’t work without one key ingredient — a little imagination.

For that, you’re on your own.

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

Judd, a third-generation Washingtonian, scours the Northwest for stories about its people, places, traditions and endangered icons.