Waiting for snow to melt is about as fun as watching paint dry, viewing infomercials on TV or sitting in a doctor’s waiting room reading 5-year-old issues of Ladies’ Home Journal.
It’s mid-March. Each day I root for the thermometer to top the 30-degree mark, then 40, then 50. I am getting a serious case of cabin fever.
My article for Walla Walla Lifestyles is scheduled to be published May 1, but my writing deadline is March 15, and I want my pictures to look like spring, not Antarctica.
Finally, deadline looming, snow lingering, spring wardrobe still in the closet, I hit the road for my third in a series of dam tours.
I’m relatively new to the Walla Walla area, having lived for 20 years just over the Blue Mountains in Cove, Oregon. So exploring five dams — McNary on the Columbia River and Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite on the Snake River — is something new and different for me. It might be fun for you, too.
Thankfully, the pavement is bare. However, the fields, rolling hills and Blue Mountains are snow-covered as I drive east through Waitsburg and Dayton on route to Lower Monumental Dam.
Beyond Dayton, the road has more of a roller coaster feel. In one hollow, I spot an old pickup, possibly from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. A bush has grown up in its bed, giving the pickup the look of a spiky hedgehog.
On the hillsides, ring-necked pheasants stride across fields like soldiers marching to battle, then flush. They fly overhead, crossing the valley at nearly 40 mph.
I go slightly faster in the Prius, up U.S. Highway 12 to a turnoff onto less busy state Route 261. I follow the Tucannon River northwest toward Starbuck. A flock of wild turkeys forages in the fields, poised to find salad amid the snow patches. A blue heron just downstream hunts frogs, snakes, insects and mice. Another blue heron flies upriver, on slow wing beats, seeking a good fishing hole.
I pull over at Starbuck, a quiet town of about 130 people, and have a look around. I admire the large, brick school building built in 1910. According to Wikipedia, the bank failed in 1929, and the high school shut down in 1956, a year before I was born. The town still serves school children through eighth grade.
Things are looking up now with the four-building, 140,000-square foot Columbia Pulp LLC straw plant being built a few miles down the road toward the Snake River.
Beyond the plant, I reach Lyons Ferry Marina and turn off to have a look. A few boaters are out and about, as the Marina comes out of hibernation.
Across the river is Lyons Ferry State Park. The gate is closed, but I stop and have a look around. Ice still covers part of the bay, near where the Palouse River dumps into the Snake. Robins have the park nearly to themselves, except for a couple of mule deer who awake from dozing and groggily trot when a hiker approaches.
Several miles north, I turn off to Palouse Falls State Park. It’s a bumpy drive, a muddy obstacle course where rigs bogged down as the snow melted, yet in a couple miles I reach the nearly empty parking lot, unscathed. Several people are paying homage to Washington’s official state waterfall. Snow clings to the basalt cliffs as the melt-fueled cataract dives into the abyss.
Beyond Palouse Falls, the curvy road undulates through ranch country. In one hollow, freshly minted Hereford calves are just learning to frolic.
I soon reach state Route 260 and turn toward Kahlotus. The road is straight as a ruler and boasts a 65 mph speed limit. Nothing to see here, apparently. I go 55 and see very little until I reach the one-horse town, if indeed there are any horses living within the city limits. There are 190 people in this community — motto: Less Quiet than Starbuck — fueled by dryland farming and jobs with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Connell prison. The K-12 school reportedly has never had a graduating class larger than 12 students — but it does have wireless internet connectivity and a student-teacher ratio of 7:1.
I reach Lower Monumental Dam, 6 miles south of Kahlotus, enjoying a drive through basalt formations that call to mind the terrain of southern Utah. I’m 43 miles north of Walla Walla as the crow flies, if a crow had reason to fly this route.
According to Wikipedia, Lake Herbert G. West, the reservoir behind Lower Monumental Dam, extends 28 miles upstream to the base of Little Goose Dam. Lake Sacajawea, formed by Ice Harbor Dam, runs 22 miles southwest, downstream.
Beyond the dam, I drive to Windust Park, several miles downstream on Lake Sacajawea. The gates are still closed for the season, so I park and walk and am treated to a herd of deer too busy grazing to pay much notice and a bickering Canada goose couple who agitatedly dodge the paparazzi and fly off to a safer distance on the Snake River.
I dodge their leavings on a dock (geese are not known for etiquette) and then spot a bald eagle in a treetop. It’s sleeping and probably thinking more about fish than celebrating 237 years as the nation’s symbol and emblem.
The drive back toward Pasco, the slightly longer way on Kahlotus Road, is like going through North Dakota on steroids. The hills roll, and views are only limited by the eyesight of the beholder. Being snow covered probably improves its appearance significantly.
Still, I enjoy the rolling hills and lack of traffic until I reach Highway 12 once again just east of Pasco. I turn southeast, joining a stream of traffic, and cross the Snake and Walla Walla rivers. The drivers are in a hurry. Despite going faster than the speed limit, I get passed — twice. At Touchet, I turn onto roads less traveled and head a quieter way toward home — and spring.
All told, it’s a 205-mile loop that can be enjoyed any time of year ... when Mother Nature cooperates.