The Parting of the Waters

The shattered remains of a bison leg bone, found in a bulldozer tailing near the Milwaukee tracks at Taunton. Fossil animal remains from this area are typically severely broken and disjointed.

Recently I acquired Bruce Bjornstad’s guidebook to the Ice Age Floods of Eastern Washington, On the Trail of the Ice Age Floods (Keokee Books, 2006). In fact I’ve been carrying it around in my briefcase and using it to fill in odd moments when I’m waiting for my son to finish his Jazz Band practice or to get out of school. It’s about time an interpretive tour guide like this was published! Because of the immensity of the subject, this book is a field guide only to a truncated rectangle of curious flood features in the Mid-Columbia Basin. But it is rich in detail and information. This year, Bjornstad published a second volume focusing on the northern landscapes where the flood began through the Mid-Columbia. He presumably plans to follow the water through to its eventual mixing with the sea.

An amateur only (have I ever made that completely clear?), I was excited to see that scientists had actually taken time to study the area I’ve been writing about. That gigantic landslide I mentioned in my post The Five Mile Slide actually has a name, quite logically the Corfu Slide…although it stretches from Taunton on the east to Corfu on the west. Bjornstad’s book spends a couple of chapters explaining the mechanisms that allowed the flood to create such a variety of unusual landscapes. The hummocky surface of this landslide had always seemed mysterious to me, but his book details precisely how the original topography slumped away in successive wedges. The feature I refer to as Column Crevice in my post To the Cliffs and Beyond appears to be one of the cracks in the earth where a landslide was developing, left exposed at the end of the flood, a landslide frozen in time. In fact a hike across this landscape would reveal successive events in the process of the collapse of the northern slope of Saddle Mountain.

And I was touched to see that Bjornstad refers to what locals around Othello refer to as The Bench has been named Parting of the Waters. The blunt triangle of northward-facing clay just to the east of our farm was the place where flood waters veered off to the west and Sentinel Gap or to the east and the Othello Channels. If I read my geology correctly, The Bench itself is a remnant of the same lake sediments that formed the White Bluffs, but the flood chewed away at it, leaving rubble and clay behind. And other things. As the waters slowed and churned, backed up by the hillsides at Taunton, whatever they had accumulated in their rush across Eastern Washington had a chance to drop out.

Othello teacher Bill Hanson excavated trenches on the top of The Bench near Taunton. Although his methods were scientific, I've never seen a published report on his findings. He claimed to have found only broken animal bones.

I discovered my high school history teacher digging trenches in the clay where I liked to roam on my hikes not far from Taunton one summer day. You can imagine my dismay. My teacher…my wilderness…intrusion. But Mr. Hanson was congenial about it. He was plotting out a dig, arranging grids with stakes and strings, excavating blocks of soil. My family and I visited his site over the next several summers, hoping to be in on a major discovery, but all the while giggling about the fact that we always found our fossils and relics elsewhere. Hanson reported finding only animal bones, and none of them intact.

None of them intact. When the flood lapped over the hills at Taunton it must have left behind portions of the mangled and ground up remains of creatures from every peaceful creek bottom, every verdant prairie and lakeside from Montana to Saddle Mountain. Nothing would have been able to outrun the flood waters. Violently churning water, clashes with bedrock, icebergs, tumbling stones and forests of uprooted trees would have torn the creatures apart in minutes. Bits of their bodies would have been left stranded on the high water line as the flood waters receded. Their bones would be covered in sand and soil and volcanic ash. Eventually, the Danielson boys would have picked them up as they weathered out of the clay. Petrified bones were so commonplace to us that we would fill Mason jars with them: shattered rodent bones, fish vertebrae, turtle shells, camel, bison, horse. We have no way of knowing what creatures we collected as we stooped in the dry rivulets along the Taunton bench.

My most prized find came easily, as I strolled along the bulldozed firebreak the Milwaukee Road renewed every now and then. I spotted an odd orange shape sticking out of the heap of soil left behind by the machine, something that might have been an odd electrical insulator. But when I pulled it free I held a freshly broken petrified leg joint from some large animal. Although I searched for more, there’s no telling how far the bulldozer tumbled that bone. Later I showed my find to a paleontologist at Central Washington State College (now Central Washington University), who identified it as coming from a bison. I pull it out of my cupboard in my classroom these days as I teach fifth graders about geology and fossils.

The interior structure of the bison bone.

Parting of the Waters is a deceptively peaceful name. It evokes for me the year I spent in Ireland working with children from warring neighborhoods in Belfast. I see green valleys and sparkling lakes, Iron Age hill forts and ruined cottages. As I grew up in the desert heat and searing dust of my home place I often longed for a drop of cold water. It would have been hard to imagine those few days at the end of the Ice Age when a gigantic lake of glacial water slammed into the hills above us, splitting into two separate torrents, bringing down the mountain as it passed, and leaving the carnage of an entire ecosystem to rot and petrify on a desert hillside.

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