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Palouse Falls can prove powerful in telling of ice age floods

The Palouse Falls, located 100 miles southwest of Spokane, spills from a height of 180 feet. It was created by ice age floods.  (File)
The Palouse Falls, located 100 miles southwest of Spokane, spills from a height of 180 feet. It was created by ice age floods. (File)

Road trip takes you 100 miles southwest of Spokane

About 100 miles southwest of Spokane, Palouse Falls plunges into the river below. The waterfall looks transplanted from an exotic, lush jungle.

It cascades from a height of 180 feet, as steep as a drop from a 20-story building. Palouse Falls was created in prehistoric times during ice age floods.

Never seen nor heard of Palouse Falls? Or the floods that created them? You’re not alone.

“Our slogan for years was: ‘It’s the greatest story left untold,’ ” says Gary Kleinknecht, president of the Ice Age Floods Institute. “We’ve been trying to tell the heck out of it.”

I’m trying to tell my great-nephews, Adam and Max, about this heck of a story. Last summer, we traveled to Dry Falls, which is bigger than Niagara Falls, except the falls dried up once the floods ceased. This summer, it’s Palouse Falls.

Telling the ice age flood story to a wide audience has proved difficult – for many reasons. Sometimes, the story is best told by experiencing parts of it, as Adam, 10, and Max, 11, did on this recent road trip.

10:30 a.m.: We leave Spokane. Max reads aloud from a Washington State Parks handout:

“Palouse Falls State Park is a 105-acre camping park with a unique geology and history. The park offers a dramatic view of one of the state’s most beautiful waterfalls.”

Soon, the boys grow bored with the reading materials. “I’m tired,” Max writes in his reporter’s notebook.

Kleinknecht, who teaches at Kamiakin High School in Kennewick, says the flood story is sometimes lost on young people, though he tries his best.

“I taught Washington history for many, many years,” he says in an interview after our journey. “I tell kids at the beginning of the unit on the great floods: ‘I want to make you a terrible driver. I want you to appreciate the land as you drive down the highway. There are forces that shaped the land you live on.’ ”

11:30 a.m.: We stop in Ritzville and buy sandwiches for our picnic, because sandwich-buying options diminish as the road to Palouse Falls continues.

11:45 a.m.: We drive out of Ritzville and turn south onto Washington State Route 261. We drive through Ralston.

Adam writes in his notebook: “Ghost town. Scary movie.”

Wheat fields surround us. Some of the land lies fallow, and the warm sun blanches everything of its color, giving the road a “Twilight Zone” feel. In the 30 minutes on State Route 261, we pass just five cars.

The rules for our ice age flood trips: No electronics. And the boys must ask the adults questions. (My sister Janice, Max’s grandma, is with us.)

Max asks us: “Did you ever almost die?” The question seems perfect for the landscape.

12:15 p.m.: We stop at a cute store/café in Washtucna and ask directions. We fear we’ve missed the turn off to Palouse Falls, but we just need to continue for a few blocks outside of town and then take a left for 17 more miles.

In 2001, the National Park Service conceived a grand plan for a geologic trail that would tell the flood story along its four-state path. Uniformly designed signs would point people to landmarks, including Palouse Falls.

“The trail is like a string of pearls,” Kleinknecht explains. “Palouse Falls is on that string.”

In 2009, Congress authorized the trail, but no funding. And that’s only one complication.

“The features aren’t owned by a single entity,” explained Daniel R. Brown of the National Park Service. “Some are on public lands, some on private lands and some on tribal lands. It will be an extraordinary challenge to pull it all together.”

In 1992, Brown – then assigned to the Coulee Dam National Recreation Area – was one of the people who introduced me to the flood story, igniting my passion for it. He spearheaded an education outreach, including a 30-minute slide show.

Brown hasn’t given up on the trail of pearls.

“It can be done,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “And hopefully, it will be done.”

12:40 p.m.: We arrive in the park. We spread out a picnic on a table in a small campground. We can’t see the falls yet, but we can hear them, roaring.

We walk a short distance through the campground to the lookout and glimpse the falls for the first time.

Picture an incandescent bridal veil worn by a giant river goddess. Corny? Sure, but that’s my best description for something you must see to really believe.

We stare at the falls for about 10 minutes, speechless. We walk a short path to a higher lookout. Still speechless.

If we had our hiking boots, we might hike down to the Palouse River below. But perhaps Palouse Falls should be experienced in small doses. Its beauty overwhelms.

2 p.m.: Adam and Max, notebooks in hand, interview Laura and Barbara, camp hosts.

The women know a few facts about Palouse Falls, but they are mostly unfamiliar with the flood story. It’s not their fault. They are doing a month-long volunteer gig in their RV and will move to another park soon. The signs posted around Palouse Falls tell a bit of the flood story, too, but not in much depth.

3 p.m.: We drive out of the park and back to Washtucna, hoping to swim in its adorable pool nestled among basalt rock formations. But it’s Monday, and the pool’s closed. So we go to the town hall. Closed, too.

Lucky for us, Mayor Syd Sullivan sees us, opens the door and invites us in.

Adam asks: “How many people live here?”

Sullivan says: “We only have about 225 people now.”

A ceremonial, oversize check for $762,000, signed by George W. Bush, rests against a wall.

Max asks: “What’s that check for?”

“It’s a grant we got from the federal government for building a new water system,” Sullivan explains.

“Did you use it all?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Sullivan says.

If the ice age flood trail ever becomes a reality, it would pump some money into the coffers of towns such as Washtucna.

Montana Outdoors magazine, citing a University of Montana study, estimates that Missoula would reap between $733,000 and $3.9 million in flood-story tourism. And the economic effect would ripple along the path of the ancient floods, all the way to Spokane – and beyond.

3:30 p.m.: We’re on the road back home. The boys are exhausted. They’ve exercised their imaginations.

Imagine, I say, the entire landscape we see out the car window underneath roiling flood waters.

Imagine a Palouse Falls visitor’s center, interpretive signs and park workers paid to know the flood story inside and out.

Imagine that Shakespeare is spinning his magnificent stories in a state park near Washtucna, but only a dozen people travel there a day to listen to him.

That’s how unknown and unappreciated Palouse Falls feels to me as our Monday journey ends. (On weekends, however, the park is often packed with visitors, Kleinknecht later assures me.)

Like the best Shakespearian plays, the great flood story lingers in the imagination.

The Park Service’s Brown has worked in several other national parks throughout the country, since our flood-story interview nearly 20 years ago. He’s now superintendent of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and is inundated with media calls, due to the Gulf oil spill.

But he happily took time the other day to reminisce about the ice age floods.

“I’ve heard many other stories as I’ve moved onto other parks, but that one has stayed with me, for sure,” Brown says. “I still get excited when I tell people about it.”

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