Archive for the ‘Wetlands’ Category

Washington’s Channeled Scablands   5 comments

A very calm dawn at Hutchinson Lake in eastern Washington's Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

A very calm dawn at Hutchinson Lake in eastern Washington’s Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

Several recent posts have highlighted eastern Washington, a region I visited the last week or so of May to scout and photograph.  While the Palouse in the southeast is quite famous as a landscape photography destination, I made a point to visit an area that is just as famous but with a different group of people altogether.  The Channeled Scablands cover a rather large region in central Washington with spectacular erosional features.  It’s unusual geography records the largest flood we know of in earth history.  For this reason the Scablands are on most geologists’ bucket lists.

In springtime, Drumheller Channels in eastern Washington is a paradise for wildlife because of the numerous wetlands formed in a normally dry area.

In springtime, Drumheller Channels in eastern Washington is a paradise for wildlife because of the numerous wetlands formed in a normally dry area.

GEOLOGIC SUMMARY

The Missoula Floods came racing down through this area towards the end of the last ice age.  The last one happened about 12,000 years ago, but there were dozens of similar deluges stretching back thousands of years before that.  The floods were triggered when an ice dam across the Clark Fork River in western Montana burst and the enormous Lake Missoula drained catastrophically.  The water cascaded down through what is now eastern Washington, down the Columbia River to what is now Oregon, and on to the coast.  Some of the larger floods equaled more than 10 times the annual flow of all the rivers in the world.

The Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington are a maze of canyons cut into thick columnar basalt lava rock.

The Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington are a maze of canyons cut into thick columnar basalt lava rock.

As you might expect with that much water, the evidence of its passing is still around.  Now it seems obvious of course, but it was not until a geologist named J. Harlan Bretz studied the area in detail in the early 20th century that the story was uncovered.  Initially, Bretz’s interpretation was rejected by the “titans” of the science of the time.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  Eventually one of the more powerful geologists of the day, Thomas Crowder Chamberlin, visited the scablands and came around to Bretz’s point of view.  It helped that the source lake, glacial Lake Missoula (which Bretz originally did not identify) was identified from ancient shorelines in Montana.

A quiet evening descends at Drumheller Channels in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Washington.

A quiet evening descends at Drumheller Channels in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Washington.

IF YOU VISIT

Over the whole length of the floods, across 4 states, there is abundant evidence that any visitor to the region can see.  In recent times the area has been receiving more attention of the tourist variety, but it is still very lightly traveled.  There is a great non-profit, called the Ice Age Floods Institute, who pushed congress to establish the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail in 2009.  The Institute runs great field trips, so if you’re planning to visit this region check out their website in the link above.  Most field trips run in spring and summer.

The Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington were carved by massive ice-age floods.

The Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington were carved by massive ice-age floods.

I visited a small portion of the scablands.  Traveling west from the Palouse I passed through Othello, visited the Drumheller Channels, and moved on to the Columbia River near Quincy.  The Potholes lies between these two.  With spring’s high water, I found superb wetlands and wildlife (especially birds) all through this area.  But Drumheller Channels was perhaps my favorite, because of its manageable scale and beautiful terrain.  It is part of the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

Despite the harsh name, Washington's Channeled Scablands are full of wetlands and beautiful at sunset.

Despite the harsh name, Washington’s Channeled Scablands are full of wetlands and beautiful at sunset.

GEOLOGIC FEATURES

      • Coulees.  The most obvious terrain feature through the scablands is the coulee.  The word comes from the French (to flow) and describes any drainage that is intermittently dry and wet.  In the Channeled Scablands the coulees take on a variety of sizes, and were all carved by the Missoula Floods.  Because the bedrock here is all Columbia River Basalt (a very hard lava rock formed 17 million years ago), the coulees are typically steep-sided.  Grand Coulee (site of the large dam), Frenchman’s Coulee, and Moses Coulee are among the largest.
Columnar basalt is found throughout eastern Washington.

Columnar basalt is found throughout eastern Washington.

      • Giant Ripples.  Amazing features that are much rarer than coulees but also testify to the catastrophe are giant current ripples.  When you walk along a tidal flat or beach area, you often encounter those small ridges in the mud or sand.  They are only an inch or two high.  Giant current ripples were formed in a like manner (water currents) but on a huge scale.  They can reach 20 meters (66 feet) high!  They occur near the town of Quincy on the west bank of the Columbia River, across from the resort of Crescent Bar (see image).
Giant current ripples formed during the ice-age Missoula Floods are found along the Columbia River in eastern Washington.

Giant current ripples formed during the ice-age Missoula Floods are found along the Columbia River in eastern Washington.

Potholes & Erratics.  Another type of flood feature to look out for are the abundant pothole lakes and ponds.  These depression, now havens for migrating birds and other wildlife, were either scoured out by the floods or formed when giant icebergs (torn from the ice dam and floated down by the floodwaters) grounded and then melted, leaving a depression.  Large rocks carried within these icebergs, rocks like granite that occur in the Rockies but nowhere near this area, were simply dropped on the landscape when the floods receded.  Now they stick out like a sore thumb, in fields and along gentle hillsides.  They are called glacial erratics.  You’ll see them along the Frenchman Hills road just west of Potholes Reservoir, among other places.

A glacial erratic dropped from an iceberg rafted down by a giant ice-age flood sits incongruously in a central Washington farm field.

A glacial erratic dropped from an iceberg rafted down by a giant ice-age flood sits incongruously in a central Washington farm field.

      • Steptoes.  Underlying part of the Palouse is terrain similar to the Scablands.  The floods formed three main channels, and the eastern-most carved into the Palouse, eroding away much of the rich soil.  Fortunately for us, the floods were no bigger than they were.  Otherwise all of the rich loess soils of the Palouse would have been carried away.  Underlying all of this are the lava floods of the Columbia River Basalts, one of the world’s great lava provinces.  But poking up in a few places (particularly in the Palouse) are small islands of older rock.

Both Kamiak and Steptoe Buttes in the Palouse are made of seafloor sedimentary rock that is much older than the surrounding sea of basalt.  A bit of geo-trivia: a steptoe is the name that geologists use for this formation, where older rock pokes up island-like through younger rocks.  The name comes from the town and butte of the same name in eastern Washington’s Palouse.  Palouse Falls, described in a previous post, is a great place to get a feel for the power and scale of the floods.

The Potholes area in eastern Washington's Channeled Scablands is filled with wildlife-rich wetlands in springtime.

The Potholes area in eastern Washington’s Channeled Scablands is filled with wildlife-rich wetlands in springtime.

I know I will return to the Channeled Scablands for further exploration, and you should do the same if you’re ever passing through the area.  If you’re interested in any of these images simply click on them to go to the high-resolution versions.  Then click “add this image to cart” to get price information (it will not be added to your cart until you make a choice).  Being copyrighted, the images are not available for free download, sorry.  Please contact me with any questions.  Thanks for reading.

The Upper Columbia River in eastern Washington is full of water during spring's heavy snow-melt in the Rockies where the big river originates.

The Upper Columbia River in eastern Washington is full of water during spring’s heavy snow-melt in the Rockies where the big river originates.

Okavango Delta   Leave a comment

Botswana’s Okavango Delta is a beautiful and rich water-world.

During my recent trip to Africa, I had been going back and forth about visiting Botswana’s famous Okavango Delta.  It has a reputation for being expensive, so I was hesitant, worrying that I might blow my budget.  But I listened to my inner self, which had direct access to those many dreams of Africa, where I floated in a dugout canoe past prides of lion and herds of elephant and giraffe.  Finally giving in to this voice, I headed there from Livingstone (Victoria Falls) in Zambia.  It is a short bus trip from here over to Kasane, in the northeast corner of Botswana.  The river here is superb for watching wildlife.  Elephant and crocs (image above) grow to enormous sizes on the rich watered grasslands.  So after doing a boat cruise on the Chobe, I flew to Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta.

I learned when I visited that one does not have to empty her wallet when she visits Botswana.  There are few budget options compared with other places, but a few turned out to be more than enough.  I did end up spending more than I wanted, primarily because I decided to rent a 4×4 and head off on my own for a week.  But that still cost me much less than a guided trip through the same areas would have cost me.  I will focus on the Delta in this post, than branch out into nearby sights next time.

A bull African elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta begins a short charge, just to make sure we are paying attention.

In the above image, I was in a boat on one of the many channels through the Delta.  The elephant suddenly became annoyed at our close presence, so he false-charged.  We actually got splashed by him, as the guide quickly gunned the motor to add some distance.  All of these images are available to download (for license or printing yourself), or you can purchase directly from my website (just click an image).  You can buy a beautiful, large print, either framed or unframed, made with high-quality archival papers and inks.  These are all high quality images as you can see, made by a pro.  If on any of my blog posts you click on an image and it doesn’t take you to my website, that means you are welcome to use those images, but for personal use only please.  Thanks a bunch, and enjoy the rest of the article below!

Maun & The Okavango

“It’s the Maun magic” said the young bush pilot simply, and drained the rest of his beer in one gulp. I peered more closely at his profile as he tilted the glass. I doubted that he was old enough to drink, let alone fly a bush plane. He had offered the catchy phrase when I brought up the fact that my planned departure from Maun kept being delayed by one thing after another.   Now here I was in the same bar I had landed on my first night here, having spent the past week and a half exploring the Okavango Delta by boat and the Central Kalahari & Savute by rented 4×4.  Shaking my  head, I wondered how yet another day had passed while doing absolutely nothing about leaving.   The pilot’s words began to make sense.  There did seem to be a magnetic quality to this town in northern Botswana.

A common bird along Africa’s waterways, the darter is also known as the “snake bird” because of its sinuous neck.

Of course, there are real, non-magical reasons to linger a bit longer in Maun.  Simply put, this town and its surroundings are too dynamic and fun, its inhabitants too fascinating, to pass through in a rush. From boating and camping in the Okavango Delta, to flightseeing over herds of elephant and zebra, to hiking amongst world-renowned rock art in the Tsodilo Hills, Maun offers itself up as Southern Africa’s base camp par excellence.  And because of its location on the doorstep of some of Africa’s most pristine and beautiful safari country, Maun attracts more than its share of intriguing and entertaining characters from all over the world. I thought it might be this last fact as much as the natural wonders that was keeping me here much longer than I had planned.

The bush pilot sitting next to me in the bar was a perfect example of Maun’s dynamic population.  For such a young guy he had some great stories to tell. Maun has one of the world’s busiest bush plane airfields, and its pilots are some of the world’s youngest.  Most of them are from South Africa, which in part explains their hard-drinking, wise-cracking swagger.  This delay in Maun, I decided, was not at all a waste of time. In fact, it was a treat, not in small part because I love being an observer of human behavior.

I listened as the pilot told of landing his plane and as he tried to taxi having a large bull elephant emerge from the bush to express its displeasure at the intrusion.  Throughout his story the young man’s eyes drifted over to make sure a certain blonde tourist from Germany was listening.  I was reminded of my days in Alaska, when I too was barely 20 and eager to test myself in a similarly wild and often dangerous land.

There are numerous tour companies in Maun which are happy to arrange well-priced, escorted safaris to the road-accessible destinations such as Moremi Game Reserve and Nxai Pan (the x in words here signifies the characteristic click in the language of local San people).  The lodges, which are strung out along the river west of the airport, can either offer trips of their own or arrange one with a local operator.  As always, it pays to shop around, not only for price, but also to find the best group size, length of trip and departure day, among other things.

In the Okavango, roads are nearly nonexistent, except where the Moremi Reserve touches the Delta in the southeast.  Thus choices are limited to the expensive but excellent all-inclusive camps accessible by air, or the few budget-oriented camping safaris which use boats to transport tourists into the Delta.  I chose the latter, I don’t mind saying for reasons of budget.  But during the trip I saw some of the tour boats belonging to the big, expensive lodges.  These were bigger craft, in some cases relatively crowded, tourists with drinks in hand – that is definitely not my style.

Arguably the most beautiful of the many kingfishers found in the Okavango Delta is the tiny malachite kingfisher.

I preferred our small group of 4, including the guide/boatman.  Our boat, being smaller, was able to drift into places the bigger boats couldn’t maneuver into.  In one case we glided right up on a tiny brilliant-blue malachite kingfisher (image left).  One thing to consider when deciding on a trip is what you give up at lodges in return for the obvious comforts. One night I woke sometime after 2 a.m., and poked my head out of the tent to see a glorious moon-set.  I felt relatively safe from animals, with our closely-spaced tents circling a still-glowing campfire.  So I set up my tripod just outside the tent, capturing a magical interplay of moonlight and clouds, all the while listening to the mysterious sounds of the African bush at night.  The picture is below.

Something like this may be possible in a lodge environment, but when you’re camping these sorts of experiences are a given.   In the end, you will have a great experience whichever type of trip you decide upon.  It’s worth remembering there is a choice, and your own style and preferences (not just budget) should always dictate which way you go.  Think carefully whether you actually need the luxury of an expensive lodge.  Often people assume that they will get a better safari experience if they spend the money on a high-end lodge or camp.  They are convinced they will see more animals, get closer to them, etc.  Nearly always, it is not this you are paying extra for, but that fluffy towel, the comfy chairs and onsite restaurant.

Here in Botswana, like elsewhere in the world, budget-friendly trips (which often involve camping) are usually an option.  But they are not generally advertised in travel magazines, or even on the internet.  And so you must be willing to do some digging, or simply wait until you arrive to arrange things.  Talking to other travelers is the best way to get info. of course, and this can be done beforehand on the internet.  But it is much more reliable to speak to people who have just been to the place you are interested in.  They can give you first-hand information and unvarnished opinions.

The middle of the night in Botswana’s Okavango Delta is mysteriously beautiful in the light of a setting moon.

The Okavango Delta is an immensely beautiful landscape, a waterworld where you can boat and camp, take a mokoro (dugout canoe) ride, visit villages and even party in Maun.  It has an energy all its own, and you will most certainly experience the “magic” of Maun and the Okavango if you choose to come this way.  I am certainly happy that I did.  The picture below is of another beautiful red sunset, taken from a boat in the Okavango heading back to camp.

Birds return to their roosts as the sun goes down over the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

%d bloggers like this: