For our day trip to Dry Falls, a geological marvel located 95 miles west of Spokane, we have the following ground rules:
•No hand-held gaming devices. No music-playing devices.
•Questions must be asked. Answers must be written down.
•A 5-cent fine will be levied each time the “b” word – boring – is uttered.
My great-nephews, Max Bergam, 10, and Adam Deutsch, 9, agree to the ground rules, even after I explain that this will be a fun-but-educational trip, designed to jumpstart their brains before school starts.
In these dog days of August, kids are ready for a little brain time, though they may never admit it. And many parents are burning out on summer fun and looking forward to the routine of school.
Choose any road leading out of Spokane, and you’ll find history lessons along the way.
One recent day, we chose U.S. Highway 2, the road to Dry Falls.
10 a.m. As we drive out of town, the boys take turns reading aloud from written material on Dry Falls. They learn that between 18,000 and 12,000 years ago, catastrophic floods raced through the Northwest as the Earth’s Ice Age began to thaw.
The flood waters began in present-day Missoula when an ice dam breached. Water raced at 65 miles an hour (flooding rivers roar at 7 mph) toward Spokane and beyond.
Multiple floods over thousands of years carved out the landscape Max and Adam were seeing out their windows and created Dry Falls, our destination.
Humans weren’t alive during the floods, I tell them, but if they were, they would have only been safe atop Mount Spokane.
A thunder-lightning storm kicks up, just as the boys grow tired of reading out loud. With some prodding, they write in their notebooks what the dramatic clouds look like.
Adam sees a poodle, Max a “skull on a rocket.”
10:45 a.m. The storm disappears quickly. Max utters the “b” word. Five cents, please.
My sister Janice says, “Play hangman,” a game requiring paper and pen only. The boys roll their eyes.
So we entertain them by reminiscing about road trips in our younger years. No air-conditioning, no seatbelts, no litter laws and our dad chain-smoked as he drove.
We yell “Hey,” startling the boys into looking at the hay in the fields, just as our dad once did.
I tell them that the flood waters carried enormous boulders and deposited them in fields throughout the Northwest. These are called “erratics.”
They kill some time looking out the window, in search of boulders.
“Erratics,” they repeat. They seem to like the sound of it.
11:15 a.m. We settle in for a picnic in the park at Wilbur, population about 900, located about 65 miles west of Spokane.
Signage in the park explains that Wild Goose Bill – Samuel Wilbur Condit – settled here in 1875. He operated a trading post and piloted a ferry across the Columbia River. He died in 1895, in a “gun duel over the affections of a young lady.”
We intend to visit the Big Bend Historical Society museum after lunch, so I tell the boys to think of questions for the museum guide.
They decide to ask: “What kind of gun did he have? Was the young lady hot or not?”
We finish our lunch. We drive through town to the museum. Closed.
Max and Adam both write in their notebooks: “The museum is only open on Saturdays. (Yes!)”
1 p.m. We arrive at Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park, just as the boys are on the verge of b-word violations. They jump out of the car into a 90-degree blast furnace.
But they don’t mind. Dry Falls is spectacular, like stumbling on a mini-Grand Canyon in the middle of nowhere.
During the floods, water crashed through here creating a waterfall three miles wide and 417 feet deep. Niagara Falls, in comparison, is less than a mile wide with a 165-foot drop.
So why is Niagara an international tourist destination, while many in Spokane have never even driven the 90 minutes to Dry Falls?
Water. Niagara has it. Dry Falls has been dry for centuries.
In the visitor’s center, the boys (with some prodding) read the flood story displays, and in a darkened mini-theater, they watch a video on the flood story.
They ask questions of Travis Liening, Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park employee.
What kind of fish swim in the lake that has formed at the bottom of Dry Falls? Trout.
Are those ducks in the lake below? Or are they rocks or turtles? Liening takes out his binoculars and lets the boys look through them. Definitely ducks.
Liening laments the fact that more school kids from the Spokane area (and school districts closer to Dry Falls) don’t take field trips here.
“There’s so much history in Eastern Washington,” he says.
2 p.m. Back in the car, headed east on Highway 2, toward home. It is so hot that we stop back in Wilbur for a swim.
Small towns throughout Eastern Washington boast vibrant but minimally crowded municipal pools. Wilbur is no exception. The boys swim alongside town kids, and they are amazed that the lifeguards know every kid by name.
Their question for the lifeguard Leha Bodeau: When was the pool built?
Bodeau, 17, doesn’t know, “but I used to swim here as a kid.”
Later in a phone interview, Virginia Piper, secretary of Big Bend Historical Society, answers some of the boy’s questions. Wild Goose Bill used a handgun in the duel, she says, and the gun is on display in the museum.
As to whether the lady dueled over was hot, Piper says “I don’t think she had that kind of reputation.”
4 p.m. Wheat fields give way to cityscape as we approach Spokane. Adam and Max play hangman. They yell “Hey!” They agree to go on some more fun-educational trips in the future.
Melanie Bell encourages parents to make the Dry Falls trek with their children. Bell is active in the Ice Age Floods Institute, a multistate effort to raise awareness about the flood story, and its Cheney-Spokane chapter.
She has 11 grandchildren. She has taken them on some of the chapter’s field trips.
“I meet people on the street all the time who don’t even know the Great Ice Age floods story,” Bell says.
“It’s important to understand these features that are all around us. There is no other place like this in the world.”
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