Palouse Falls, Washington.jpg

Palouse Falls, Washington

Fifteen thousand years ago, what is now western Montana, lay beneath a 2000-foot-deep lake formed from meltwaters that became impounded after exiting an ice sheet that covered large parts of North America. Twice a century for two millennia, an ice dam formed and then, under building pressure from rising water, periodically ruptured sending cataclysmic floods across parts of Idaho and Washington State into the Columbia River Gorge. Driving across southeastern Washington, I was surprised by an abrupt break in the landscape, verdant grasslands giving way to deeply eroded ‘scablands’ scoured by these ancient floods that washed away soil, created deep-walled canyons and carved a new course for the Palouse River.

The reverberations of crashing water reflect off hardened layers of volcanic rock encircling the falls as it dives into a deep pool. The river then courses through a winding chasm to its confluence with the Snake River. In 2009, Tyler Bradt set a world record for the longest plummet in a kayak. He followed a smooth “tongue” over the fall’s edge, dropped 189 feet into its plunge pool and emerged seconds later suffering only a sore wrist and a snapped oar.

- James Baker