A drive to Frenchman Coulee from our home should take around three hours. Leaving at 5am, most folks would have been there by 8am. But with the backroads, stops, and wanderings, we didn’t make it there until after 11.
A quick explanation – The coulees of Washington are long canyons formed, not by rivers over the course of 17 million years (like the Grand Canyon) but by a series of giant floods 15,000ish years ago. The floods came from a glacier lake in Montana giving way. It seems hard to believe that such a thing could cause what seem to be eons-old canyons, but it’s a fact.
Frenchman Coulee is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it’s one of the more breath-taking coulees that we’ve been to. Also, it’s really short. While Grand Coulee is about sixty miles long, Frenchman is only three. It’s also got several small waterfalls and a couple of gigantic sand dunes.
We first stopped on the north rim of the coulee – a place we had never been before. After parking and walking to the edge, we were surprised to be right on top of the waterfall that we’ve admired from the other side. It seems so huge and magnificent from afar, but being next to it, it was more like a little stream. Smartz took some shots of the blooming wildflowers, while I tried to figure out why my camera lens was foggy (turns out that some of the liquid I used to clean it got under it. I had to do without for an hour, while it dried.
Circling around the edge, we drove down the Old Vantage Highway towards the Columbia, arriving on the eastern ferry landing. We sat a bit, contemplating whether to walk to the sand dunes, like we had planned. Distance is a strange thing in the desert. What seems nearby, isn’t. We looked at the dunes and nearly didn’t make the tramp.
Thankfully, we set aside our reservations and went for it. As it turned out, it was only a mile or so. Distance can play with your head out here. It seemed a lot farther. This time, it wasn’t. On the path through the sagebrush, we saw, high up on the cliffs, scores of climbers. Some come to Frenchman Coulee for the hiking, but most come for the climbing.
“So, you just climb up a rock while people look at your butt?” asked Smartz. “Yes, that’s about it,” I replied. Clearly, we’re not climbers. But when we got to the dunes, we had tons of fun. Somehow, even though it was a hot spring weekend, we had them all to ourselves. We split up, Smartz heading up the steep slope, while I pretended to be Luke Skywalker on Tatooine. “The Jundland Wastes are not to be traveled lightly,” or so I’ve been told, and the whole time, I was on the look out for rattlesnakes and Tusken Raiders. I saw neither.
When I found Smartz, she was beat. During my absence, she decided to keep on trudging up the steep slope of sand. Somehow, she made it to the top. I just made it across a couple hills. She wins.
Having completely exhausted ourselves with the sand (it’s not easy to walk around on, you know), we decided to head back to the car and continue on our way. As I was exploring the dunes, I noticed a small band of hardened gray dust. The sand was yellow, while this was almost white in comparison.
Walking away from the dunes, we saw it again. I mentioned it and bend down to feel it. “Could it be ash from Mt. Saint Helens?” asks Smartz. And sure enough, when I scooped up a little, it felt like ash. It wasn’t sand or dirt, but a fine powder. When Mt. Saint Helens erupted in 1980, ash was sent billowing twelve miles into the air. At Frenchman Coulee, as well as most of the state, two to three inches fell. While towns and cities could clear it away, there was no reason to do so here. And so buried beneath a couple of inches of sand is a small layer of ash from the eruption.
Minds thoroughly blown, we continued to the cars. But first we needed to stop at a cluster of glacial erratics. This might take some explanation. Glacial erratics are huge rocks carried by glaciers during the previous ice age. The ice flow would pick up the rocks and bring them along until, at the end of the ice age, the glaciers would recede and drop the boulders. Some of these are incredibly huge.
“But!,” you exclaim, “everyone knows that the Cordilleran Ice Sheet never got as far south as Frenchman Coulee during the Pleistocene epoch!”
That’s exactly what I thought! Exactly! So how in the devil did this gigantic glacier erratics find their way to the Columbia River? For that, we’ll turn back to the Missoula Floods. The volume of water was so powerful that it swept up boulders and dropped them here and there making them doubly erratic. Frenchman Coulee was probably under 300ish feet of rushing water. Wikipedia has a fine map here.
Many erratics are “boulder” size (whatever that is), but the one we targeted seemed bigger. Just how big is demonstrated by Smartz. Minds blown once again, we cut across the field of sage brush to the car. After a few photos of the coulee, we were on our way.
Part Three will be posted very shortly! Stay tuned…