Historical Lows

Banks Lake with 'normal' waterline visible on the rock; Steamboat Rock in the background.

During the holiday weekend we decided to check out Banks Lake, a man-mad reservoir in the Columbia Basin Irrigation District as the lake levels were dropped to facilitate maintenance.  Since the 1940’s when the lake was filled, it has been a meca for tourists and recreational enthusiasts.  This summer it was announced that the end of the irrigation season would see the lake levels dropped, supposedly thirty feet by the end of October.  I am not sure it is fully thirty feet lower, but it is impressive none-the-less.  We were wishing for an airplane to get a birds-eye view of the scene.

When the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam was on-going during the 1930’s, the national media found this happy subject to buoy the spirits of American citizens.  1942 saw the completion of the dam and the reservoir.  Today, about seventy years later, the change in the level of this incredible landmark didn’t even ripple past the local newspapers.  Are we so jaded we do not recognize the awe inspiring engineering behind this vast body of water?  My husband and I take all visitors on a journey up the Coulee Corridor as it is magnificent!  Ok, I love rocks, water, and being outdoors, so maybe I am biased.  But, wow, this is an amazing sight.

Coulee City Marina - from the north side.
Coulee City picnic area view into the (missing) lake.

Coulee City, half an hour north of us, is at the south end of Banks Lake.  The marina and swimming area are dry; the water still present in very low spots only.  I love the pattern in the mud as it dries.  We drove out on the furthest points the roads were open to snap some pictures.  Maybe some local citizens will take up the cause and move the biggest rocks out of the swimming area so that when the water returns swimmers will not hurt themselves.  I must admit, I really like this swimming area.  But I didn’t grow up with lakes, so I have this notion that there is always something green growing at the bottom of the swimming areas.  To my delight, this swimming area is totally free of vegetation!  You will know where to find me when the weather turns hot again.

Banks Lake, looking from Coulee City Park toward the southern dam - the 'secondary' dam is visible.

My husband used to take his kids here to fish when they were little.  Instead of fish tales, he told me about broken propellers when he would find shallow spots without warning.  Looking at the ridges visible and the secondary dam north of the main barrier, it is clear why!

Steamboat Rock State Park, Mule Deer grazing at the edge of the campground.
Steamboat Rock State Park, geese rising from the 'swimming area'.

From Coulee City we went to Steamboat Rock, a place I am quite familiar with since my field trips in college.  This monstrous Basalt structure defied the Missoula Floods and stands as a monolith within Banks Lake even at its highest water levels.  Campgrounds, hunting grounds, hiking trails, boat launches and swimming areas dominate the State Park and surrounding lands.  It isn’t an island, there is a wide swath of land that is always dry connecting the recreation areas to the main highway.  During this quiet season, we encountered deer grazing in the campground.  The hunters we saw before we entered the park would probably have loved to see them – smart deer.  There were loads of geese in the lake bed; I disturbed them when I walked through the camping area toward them.

Buoy designating the outer swimming area, looking back at the driftwood tree at the shore.

As we beach combed through the lake bed we found pull tabs – they were 1960-1970’s era from soda and beer cans.  I have an old golf ball that was nearly buried in the sand and lots of pennies!  Why pennies, didn’t anyone carry larger change on their boats?  It was fun to explore and stand on dry land that will be beneath several feet of water come the spring again.  Some of our cool finds:

At the edge of Banks Lake, ripple marks in the sand.
Ripplemarks in the sand, the south edge of the swimming area off of Steamboat Rock.
Banks Lake: clams on the lake bed. Where did they come from originally?
Driftwood tree, usually covered by water, on the lake bed.
Banks Lake at Electric City.

At the very north end of the reservoir we stopped for pictures.  Elesctric City has a lovely park that is typically right on the water.  We were on the northern dam for this picture, water is usually covering the sand on the left.  Crazy to think that this once-in-a-lifetime event is quietly going to pass and very few people will have realized it.  The museum at Grand Coulee will have to add a new display to share this part of history with visitors.

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