Landmarks: Turnbull refuge established in ’37

Research shows rock shelters occupied in prehistoric times

Within the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge six miles south of Cheney are three natural structures that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places – the two Upper Kepple Rock Shelters and the single Turnbull Pines Rock Shelter. Their significance, and hence their listing on the register, has to do with their potential as sources of information about the region’s history.

The Upper Kepple sites are just west of Upper Kepple Lake in the northeast corner of the refuge. Formed by hydraulic erosion during the Pleistocene Epoch, they face north and sit 40 feet apart below 15-foot-high basalt cliffs. The westernmost one faces into an entirely enclosed circular basin measuring 200 feet across, and the second is in a U-shaped depression that is 100 feet wide, opening toward a small lake to the east. They penetrate some 30 feet into the cliffs, with the rear portion of the westernmost shelter dropping 12 feet below the entrance, while the other has a relatively even floor.

Two miles to the northwest, the crescent-shaped Turnbull Pines Rock Shelter is at the base of a 20-foot-high cliff and measures 60 feet wide at the entrance, is 18 feet high and extends 20 feet back into the basalt bedrock. Findley Lake is a short distance to the south.

These are not caves, but rather naturally formed shelters under overhanging rocks, explains Dan Matiatos, Turnbull manager. And they remain in pretty pristine condition because they are located in an area of the refuge closed to the public.

“Our first priority here is the wildlife, and while we welcome visitors in the open areas, we have concern that traffic in the more sensitive areas can bring in invasive species,” he said. However, Turnbull staff can sometimes guide groups in to see the rock shelters if special arrangements are made.

The Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1937 by an executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt, is a 16,000-acre section set aside in the Channeled Scablands, which themselves were created by the great Missoula Floods of the last Ice Age. It contains 3,036 acres of wetlands, some of the last quality breeding habitat for waterfowl in Eastern Washington. Indeed, it is the home or resting place of more than 200 kinds of birds. Seen throughout as well are camas, balsamroot, wild onion, carrot, cattail, rushes and some wild berries, along with ponderosa pines, aspen, hawthorns, birch and wild rose.

The rock shelters were examined in the 1980s by Archaeological and Historical Services at Eastern Washington University, which noted that little research has been done in sites like these – that is, in upland areas away from major streams. AHS excavated a small test pit, which they subsequently backfilled, in the Upper Kepple site and issued a report in which they concluded that “a sufficient amount of cultural material already had been found to confirm that this site had been occupied by Native Americans in prehistoric times.” They found a pestle, a quartzite knife, fish vertebrae and other small items. They also discovered that some relic collecting had taken place many years ago, likely before the refuge was created, but that it had a minimal impact on the cultural deposits there.

The rock shelters sit quietly inside the refuge right now, and their status on the register gives them a margin of safety from relic hunters. As one report noted, they should be preserved for what they could yield, someday: “… knowledge to be gained of the lifestyle of the prehistoric people who most likely inhabited the shelters prior to historic times.”

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