Category Archives: Biology

Beneath Our Feet

This giant Palouse Earthworm was found on Paradise Ridge near Moscow, Idaho, on March 20, 2010. Photo by Karl Umiker of the University of Idaho. Courtesy of HistoryLink.org.

This Giant Palouse Earthworm was found on Paradise Ridge near Moscow, Idaho, on March 20, 2010. Photo by Karl Umiker of the University of Idaho. Courtesy of HistoryLink.org.

Soon after Washington State College opened at Pullman in 1892, the Washington State Agricultural Experiment Station kicked into gear under its auspices. Rennie Wilson Doane was appointed Assistant Zoologist. He began research on pests that were killing local sugar beets, gathering enough data that by 1900 he was able to publish a report identifying a new species of root lice, Pemphigus betae Doane, and he researched the use of large Atlantic oysters in the waters of Willapa Bay. His marriage in 1898 to Miss Elnora Cooper at McMinnville, Oregon, was front page news in the Pullman Herald.

Doane’s work kept him moving. As he followed country roads to farms and fields around Pullman, he began to notice what looked like the burrows of gigantic worms, sometimes fifteen to twenty feet down from the surface of hills sliced open by road cuts. Intrigued, he dug up several specimens of a huge earthworm, pickled them in alcohol and sent them to the nation’s leading earthworm expert, Frank Smith, a zoologist teaching at the University of Illinois. He assured Smith that the worms were abundant in the area.

While Smith admitted that Doane’s specimens seemed incomplete, he believed there was enough physical evidence to conclude that the giant earthworms represented a previously undiscovered creature, a giant earthworm. In a paper published in March of 1897 in The American Naturalist,  Smith announced the discovery of the worm he named Megascolides americanus. The name was meant to establish a somewhat sketchy connection between the Giant Palouse Earthworm and some truly immense worms from Australia. Continue reading

Then & Now

I published this photograph of the Lower Crab Creek Valley as viewed from the Taunton townsite in “Another Flood.” On a recent visit to the same spot I took the following photograph.

This summer I took a hurried trip through Eastern Washington, photographing sites I have written about. In this article I try to post old photographs alongside more recent ones. In some cases I have also provided views of places previously mentioned in my posts, although no older photographs are available to compare them to.

A view of the Lower Crab Creek Valley in 2012, more than fifty years after the previous photograph was taken, reveals the changing ecology of the formerly arid landscape. Irrigation and invasive species have radically altered the local habitat.

There is definitely an article to be written concerning the environmental changes that have taken place in the Lower Crab Creek Valley over Continue reading

Another Flood

“The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Ecology have completed an appraisal level study of potential Columbia River mainstem off-channel storage sites…The appraisal study determined that the Crab Creek site represents a potentially viable reservoir location. This site appears to be preferable to the Hawk Creek site based on both cost and technical feasibility criteria.” From Columbia River Basin Storage Options – Columbia River Mainstem, Department of Ecology web page.

A brief stop on a car tour of the Crab Creek Highway in the late 1940s. This is near the location where the Department of Ecology and the Bureau of Reclamation would like to place a dam 250 feet high and a mile and a half wide.

The government is back in the dam building business. This time it looks like they’re going to dam Crab Creek! There are only two sites currently under consideration for a new water storage (and possible power generation) facility off the main channel of the Columbia River in Washington State. The results of the preliminary study favor damming Lower Crab Creek to create a reservoir that inundates the entire valley, from an earth core dam 250 feet high near Beverly to high water shorelines near Taunton. If you’ve spent any time on this blog, you can be sure I have deep reservations about building such a dam and flooding what I consider to be unique historical, cultural and environmental landscapes.

My family is perhaps lucky in this situation. Although the new lake created by the Crab Creek Dam would cover our ancestral homestead and the ranch that succeeded it, the more recent Danielson spread appears to be right about at the shoreline. But when the new lake is created, other infrastructure will have to be altered. It looks as though a massive power line will cut down Danielson Road, looming over the house I grew up in.

This view of the Lower Crab Creek valley, taken in the early 1950s (as my father notes: before irrigation), shows what will be a lake if the dam is built.

Will it happen? I don’t know. In this day of budget crisis funding may be difficult to pry out of the government. But who knows whether a Roosevelt-style public works program might not use the dam project as a solution to the economic slump. It’s the type of program that stands a chance of succeeding: employment of a vast range of professional and working types, new power generation, new irrigation storage, amelioration of a certain habitat (albeit at the cost of destroying other more unique habitat), benefits to local industries and those further afield. It might even help to restore the aquifer depleted by injudicious permission to pump water for irrigation circles. Continue reading

A Visitor

It was a glorious morning, the type of day that reminds me of why I so love living here. For so long the weather has continued to act like Winter: fog cloaking the hills, rain flowing down our driveway like a babbling brook. And it seems only days  ago that the last of the snow disappeared from the slopes of Anderson Mountain. Continue reading

In the Upper Woods

For some reason this has been an exceptionally busy winter. Not that I’ve gone anywhere, or even that I have much to point to as evidence of my activity.

One exceptional thing that I did a couple of months back, in the midst of a warm December. I took my son and a friend of his on a hike up the logging roads behind our place, onto the southern spur of Lookout Mountain. Since moving here, I’ve made a point of exploring the trails in this area–it makes a good run for the dogs. When I first began doing this, my wife and I named a few landmarks along the way for easy reference. There’s the Beaver Pond, where some beavers have thrown a dam across a stream and created a large marshy area with a fine forest pond in the middle; a little further up was Post Card, where you had a nice view of Mount Baker (until the trees grew up and blocked the view). About halfway up a steep climb was a ridge where we used to stop for picnics, looking down on Cain Lake and out at the peaks. That earned the moniker of Picnic Ridge. Continue reading

To The Cliffs and Beyond

My grandfather first climbed to the cliffs on Saddle Mountain in the 1920s. He was not the first visitor to a high ledge where soft sandstone is sandwiched between layers of black basalt. Names were carved into the soft rock, dated, gouged deeper on subsequent visits. My father, whose first visit to the cliffs must have been when he was a youngster in the 1920s, introduced the site to his children. Our first visits were made by motor vehicles. Rough trails still exist that can be followed by a truck with high suspension…not that I recommend the method of access. You miss so much when you’re trapped in metal.

My favorite route to the cliffs followed the Milwaukee Road tracks for a mile or so, then veered up the fenceline separating private cultivated land from the BLM sections. After you leave the railroad tracks you start a relentless climb, like going on foot up a mile-long stairway. First you traverse massive slopes of yellow clay, silt that precipitated out of the flood when the waters struck the mountain, slowed and diverted to the east and the west. These banks are composed of countless thin layers. In some places you can find petrified bones, usually blackened vertebrae of fish or small animals. We also found turtle shells and I keep a broken bison bone in my classroom, orange and yellow and imperfectly petrified. Continue reading

The Five Mile Slide

Smyrna Canyon from the old shoreline on Saddle Mountain

Imagine, if you will (to paraphrase Rod Serling), standing on the peak of this range one day nearly twelve thousand years ago. Below, you look out over a grassy plain with a gentle creek flowing between ancient canyon walls. The events that are about to take place have occurred repeatedly dozens of times, but for you, those canyons hold no evidence of the disaster that is about to strike. On this day, the sun feels pleasantly warm. You have left the other members of your band camped on the edge of the creek while you climb the peaks looking for small prey.

You begin to notice a steady rumbling sound, something that began almost imperceptibly, but that persists and even grows. Wondering what it is, you look to the northeast. There is a strange haze in the distance. Perhaps it is something to do with the tremendous fields of ice that rim that edge of your world. But as you watch it seems to grow, to convulse as it consumes the horizon.

Then the earth begins to quiver. A blast of air strikes you, driving dust that blinds you as you struggle to watch. The shuddering intensifies, and you fall to the ground in fear. A rumble fills your ears, growing into a roar as you clap your hands over them to quell the pain of the noise. In a few moments your view of the peaceful waterways to the north are effaced by a cloud of dust kicked up by the sudden ferocious wind. You cover your ears to protect them from the roar, but the sound is nearly unbearable.

It is the sound of disaster: the crash of sudden rivers striking against the mountain you are clinging to. Beneath you, nothing but murk. The sky itself has turned brown with clouds of dust driven by the wind that precedes the flood. It is a flood unlike anything you could ever have imagined. Continue reading