When I paused my travelogue last week, ol’ Nevah, Canby and May Bea Handy, and I were at the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State. The Grand Coulee Dam was the first hydro-electric dam built on the Columbia River back in the Great Depression. It’s purpose wuz two-fold: one, provide electricity for the Pacific Northwest, and two, eventually provide irrigation water for the massive Columbia River Basin Project directly south and running from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains on the west to the volcanic scablands to the east and ending near the Tri-Cities region where the Snake River and the Columbia River come together not far from the Oregon border.
Those two purposes — irrigation and electricity — have met dramatic success in the ensuing decades, but I have to add two negative consequences of the dam were the end of the chinook salmon migrations up the Columbia to spawn and the near-total displacement of the Colville Indian Nation.
Now, back to the travelogue and history/geography lesson. To irrigate the Columbia Basin, water is pumped through 12 massive pipes up out of Lake Roosevelt, over the headlands to the south, and into Banks Lake — a man-made lake that runs at least 20 miles south and provided all the irrigation water. From Banks Lake, throughout “The Project,” irrigation water runs through a complex series of diversions and irrigation channels downhill all the way to the Tri-Cities.
A myriad of crops are grown in “The Basin” wheat, barley, field corn, sweet corn, potatoes, onions, carrots, green peas, the full scope of vegetable beans (both green and dry), alfalfa, timothy hay, a wide variety of grapes, apples, cherries, pears, peaches, plums, mint, a few hops, ornamental plants, vegetable seeds, and I’m sure I’ve left out a few crops. In addition, the dairy industry has migrated into the Basin in a big time manner.
But, before we ventured into The Basin, our vacationing party went east into the Wenatchee Valley, home of a gigantic fruit industry, all of which is nurtured with water pulled directly from the Wenatchee and Columbia Rivers. It was in Wenatchee that we stopped at a family-owned fruit stand to buy some ripe Bing and Rainier cherries when I wryly mentioned to the owner that ol’ Nevah and May Bea wanted to earn a little vacation spending money by hiring on to pick cherries for the rest of the day. The owner agreed to hire them, but the ladies almost cuffed me around the ears for the mere mention of such fruit-picking labor.
We took a side trip up the Wenatchee River to Leavenworth, Wash., to take in the German influence of that touristy town and enjoy the beauty of the fruit industry enroute.
The next day we headed southeast into the heart of “The Basin” to visit old friend Alice Demintour who irrigates alfalfa on her farm near Royal City. Alice informed us that nearly all the alfalfa hay produced in The Basin is first baled in big square bales, then squeezed much more tightly at a commercial compress plant, and exported to the Far East. That fact surprised me.
The big treat at Royal City was Alice’s arranging an impromptu tour of a mint still operating within eyesight of her home. That was educational. Here’s a brief explanation. The commercial product of raising spearmint and peppermint plants is distilled mint oil, which is sold in metal drums or larger containers.
To get the mint oil, the mint plants are first cut and windrowed, then after wilting, the windrows are chopped like silage and blown into metal wagons that can be sealed air tight. The wagons are taken to the still which has a huge boiler producing steam. Steam pipes are hooked to the wagons and a vacuum pulls the steam through the wagonload of chopped mint plants and the heat evaporates the oil from the plant, which is pulled by the vacuum to condensers which cool the steam and turn the mint vapor into mint oil. It’s basically like making “mint moonshine whiskey.”
After a lunch of fine Mexican food with Alice, we said “goodbye” and headed to the Tri-Cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland where The Basin Project ends where the Snake and Columbia rivers join — a spot where the historic Lewis and Clark expedition camped on it’s way to the Pacific. In Richland we hooked up with friend and former colleague Larry Vinoguru, an expert on the Washington wine industry via the personal experience of his taste buds, and his lovely better half Evie.
Larry took us on a historic tour of Richland and its connection to the nearby Hanford Project, the ultra secret government facility that produced the nuclear fuel for the atomic and hydrogen bombs used in WWII and through the Cold War. He also escorted us west to Prosser to the WSU Irrigation Research Center where we saw a field of growing hops and we all hoped the hops crop is a bumper one because none of us wanted to give up drinking our favorite malted beverage anytime soon.
To me it’s amazing how the grape industry has grown in Washington in the past 40 years from the experimental stage to today’s status as the No. 1 state in the nation for production of crushing grapes and now also the home to nearly 150 homegrown wineries.
Our final stop in the Tri-Cities wuz at the Sacajawea State Park where we learned a lot about the history of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the crucial role the Native Americans played in its success — much to their ancestors chagrin, I suppose, in the decades that followed their hospitality.
We then headed to Pendleton, Ore., where we saw the historic Pendleton Rodeo Grounds, browsed the retail store of the famous Pendleton Woolen Mill, and dropped a few bucks at a nearby casino.
Our final day of touring northeast Oregon took us east to Elgin, Enterprise, Joseph, and to Wallawa Lake, the old winter stomping grounds of the Nez Perce Native Americans. We saw the burial site of old Chief Joseph, then took the steep and long tram ride to the top of Mt. Howard where we could look upon the snowy peaks of the Wallawa Wilderness area. Pretty awe-inspiring stuff.
We then made our way south (s-l-o-w-l-y) over a narrow and dangerous two-lane asphalt rode — what I called the “Road to Hell” — to the southern overlook into Hells Canyon, a gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon, and quite a sight. Little-known-fact: the Snake River flows north through Hells Canyon for almost 200 miles.
We exited Oregon back into Idaho across one of the upper Hells Canyon hydro-dams and made our way to Payette for pizza supper and finally back to Boise, where we overnighted and flew back the next morning with a lay-over in Phoenix, Ariz. It was on that leg of the flight that I happened to look down just as the cloud cover broke and I got an unobstructed 30,000-foot view straight down into the Grand Canyon — a fitting and final grand view to end a fitting and grand vacation with great friends adding to the experience all the way.
As an aside, in last week’s column I failed to mention a side-trip to the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River where we survived a once-over from Homeland Security Forces and got to see the salmon coming up the fish ladder enroute to their spawning grounds in Idaho.
Just telling about this vacation makes me tired. So, I’ll close with these words of wisdom about travel from some dude named Moslih Eddie Saadi who said, “A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.” Have a good ’un. ❖