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Washington Voices

Keep your eyes – and your mind – open and you just might learn something

Thu., May 8, 2014, midnight

I drive over to Seattle a lot. When I was there in March, it occurred to me that as many times as I’ve made the trek across Interstate 90, there are things I’ve seen so often along the way that I’ve actually stopped seeing them.

So when I went over in April, I decided I’d stay tuned in and select a few things in my line of vision and make a point of learning about them. Of course, it’s hard to do research at 70 miles per hour, so the learning about part of the exercise had to wait until my return. I report some of the results now.

First, Sprague Lake. When I first saw it decades ago, I thought how incongruous to find such a long body of water in what appeared to me to be pretty much the driest place on the planet (I’d just arrived from Miami, land of broad-leaf vegetation and 60-plus inches of rain a year) and why I’d see fishing boats but never any sailboats on such a lovely and accessible lake. And then I pretty much stopped even noticing the lake, except on the way back, when I used it as a marker for the last rest stop before Spokane.

I learned some years back that the 6-mile-long Sprague Lake was formed, along with all the channeled scabland lakes, during the ancient Lake Missoula flooding events some 12,000 years ago.

And if you ever want to read a fascinating creation story, check out how the 2,000-foot-tall ice dams on the Clark Fork River broke in repeated cycles causing cataclysmic flooding that carved out the Columbia River gorge and shaped the geography of our region.

But to find out a little more about Sprague Lake specifically, I turned to Bob Quinn, professor of geography at Eastern Washington University. The lake is very shallow, he said, with depths averaging from 6 to 15 feet, which creates great feed for fish and results in rapid growth of trout, bass and pan fish.

As for why there are seldom sailboats on the lake, apparently it’s because the lake is known for sudden and high winds, mostly coming from the southwest (the lake lies southwest to northeast). If you’ve launched your sailboat from the southwest public access point and the winds from that direction get too strong, it can be difficult to get back. The lake is long but not that wide in many places, which can make tacking back and forth across the wind a little challenging. So – fishing good, sailing maybe not so much.

Next is Mount Stuart. Around Cle Elum and before you begin the ascent into Snoqualmie Pass, you drive over Elk Heights, at the top of which is a sign pointing out Mount Stuart in the distance. The view west into the rugged central Washington Cascades is quite spectacular and indeed there is one peak that is taller than the rest, but why, I wondered, did Mount Stuart – not famous for any particular reason that I knew of – deserve its own marker sign on an interstate highway?

Seems this mountain has its own claim to fame as it stands at the western end of a group of peaks in the Stuart Range. At 9,416-feet, it is the second highest nonvolcanic peak in Washington and the 10th highest overall, but the distinguishing feature making it sign-worthy is that it is the single greatest mass of exposed granite in the entire United States. Now that’s worth special mention.

There’s some debate about who first climbed the mountain, but it is recorded that a stick at the summit was found bearing the name of Angus McPherson and the date 1873. It is also noted in assorted references that Native Americans likely reached the top of the mountain earlier. The mountain has three glaciers – Stuart, Ice Cliff and Sherpa by name – on the north and northeast sides, but they have been receding in recent years.

Also intriguing is who gave the mountain its name. In 1853 it was named for a James Stuart by an Army Corps of Engineers surveyor who was seeking possible railroad routes in the area. That engineer was George McClellan, who had attended West Point with Stuart and had become close friends with the Southern aristocrat. McClellan later went to work for the Illinois Central Railroad where he did some work with an attorney named Abraham Lincoln. McClellan would go on to organize the famous Army of the Potomac and lead campaigns, not always with good result, in Lincoln’s Union Army during the Civil War. He later ran unsuccessfully for president and did serve a term as governor of New Jersey.

I spotted several other sites and places on my April trip and am still looking up information about them. You’re never too old to learn something new if only you keep eyes and your mind open. And, Washington is a darn interesting state in which to do that.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at

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