BY MARIE KOLTCHAK
As I roll slowly north on Palisades Road, near East Wenatchee, cutting through the Moses Coulee, I turn my face upward toward the sun. I commune with my inner lizard by soaking up the last of the real summer heat.
I imagine a dinosaur might thrust his scaly head, nostrils flaring, out through a jagged hole in a towering cliff, and fix a beady eye on me – his personal, rolling snack (a dramatic chase scene would then ensue).
With a little effort, you can pedal your bicycle until it morphs into a time machine, and in seconds, propel yourself waaay back in time. You can meander through the outcome wrought by millions of years of planetary geological events without being vaporized by molten rock, rudely shoved along by chunks of glacial moraine, or swept up, washed and spit out by floods onto the great Gravel Bar of the Moses Coulee.
Marveling at the variation in stone in the canyon, I’ve learned that successive eruptions of igneous rock (basically our melting planet) more than 250 million years ago flowed across parts of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The successive layers of basalt lava formed the Columbia River Basalt Group, giving the Moses Coulee its remarkable stair-step landscape. The jagged and cracked canyon walls show these layers of lava, and the movement of glaciers and glacial erratics (not my cold, distant relatives, but rocks transported by glaciers). This helps explain the many different rocks. How can they sit so close together and yet sometimes look so different from one another?
Two million years ago, glaciers advanced, scouring and gouging grooves in the rock – making way for glacial lakes. Ice dams blocked waterways and produced reservoirs. Ultimately massive floods cut loose, forming sinuous channels that separated and reconnected, carving into the basalt, leaving coulees, among other formations. Currents with an estimated magnitude of 15 cubic miles per hour carved the lands now called the Channeled Scablands. The Moses Coulee (French for pour or flow) formed in the northwest corner of the Columbia River Plateau.
While we ride, the canyon walls bathe their slopes in crisp blacks and red-brown shadows. But on the horizon, the shadow (a trick of light absorption) drape the canyon walls with massive flat, blue-slate shadows. I’ve never seen anything like it. For a moment, it seems to morph into Allosaurus, the bipedal carnivorous dinosaur. The region is known for successive basalt floods dating back 250 million years, and my bike turns back into a time machine, through which lunges my giant predator with lunch on his mind, and saliva dripping from his long, yellow fangs.
Dazzling in the noon sun, white-yellow bunch grasses blanket the canyon floor. Grey-blue green sage and other plants dot the shrub-steppe – grasslands that survive with small amounts of rainfall. Spiny branches, baked to within an inch of their lives, twist towards the sky, like Theodore Geisel’s (Dr. Seuss) grickle grass.
The scent of warm apples floats in the hot air and tree branches droop, heavy with fruit. Fact: Wenatchee is called the “Apple Capital of the World.” We pass many orchards, irrigated by water from the Columbia River and its tributaries. Sprinklers spit backlit water that refracts light in great white arcs onto lush lawns and fields, in stark contrast to the abutting dry, golden grasses.
“It’s so hot. It’s so hoooooot!” groan my biking buddies, as they stop at a nearby school and take advantage of its sprinklers. We soak our shirts before putting them back on, becoming in effect, rolling dryers.
“Midnight at the oh-ay-sis…” we sing, although the sun burns bright in the noon day sky.
The Allosaurus, rather than shearing off my tires with a merciless, dirt-caked claw, skulks in the orchards, peering behind fruit trees, biding his time, gorging on fruit. As I pedal, the creature begins to evolve, his limbs shrinking until they dissolve into his body, torso elongating like rolled clay. He slumps to the ground, the tip of his tail forming a frantic maraca.
With the warning, he gives me a sideways glance and slithers away. Lest you think lethal fauna lurk only in the folds of my brain, the canyon walls enclose a myriad of wildlife, including the rattlesnake, which paleontologists believe first appeared 10 million years ago. A local fellow advises us to think twice before sitting on or near warm rocks in the shade, for a rattler might have the same idea. Little ones have been known to climb sage brush.
With or without a time machine, when you roll through this canyon you will soak up the sun and enjoy dramatic scenery.
During our ride in early September the few cars we saw gave us lots of space. Roughly 16 miles in, the paved road becomes hard-packed gravel. I imagine it can get hotter than H-E-double-hockey-sticks in the canyon, but we had lots of water. According to “Just Get Out” (wenatcheeoutdoors.org) cyclists can ride this road most of the year, even in winter. In summer, the website recommends early morning or late afternoon rides.
Marie Koltchak grew up in New York and lives on Vashon Island. She works for The Seattle Times as a resale and permissions specialist. She loves riding her bike and thinks canyons rock.
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