Posted by: bkivey | 13 October 2020

2020 Vacation: 24 September

The plan for the day was to drive north on US-97 from Chelan to the Omak/Okanogan area. Although the rail line of interest ran (and still runs) to Oroville, about 10 miles south of the Canadian border, my hobby interest did not extend that far. The railroad content is here.

It has been a bad fire season in the West, and there have been some large fires close enough to where I live to where we had about a week of thick smoke, and air worse than any city in China. The last time we had smoke this bad was three years ago when an idiot kid set the Columbia Gorge on fire, and we had ashfall. This summer the smoke was thicker and lasted longer. Maybe the only time masks may have been useful.  It finally rained enough to wash the smoke out of the air.

I had not checked the fire map for central Washington, but if you look, there are two big red blobs in the middle of the state. There are few forests here, but dry grass burns just fine. The fires were mostly extinguished in the area when I was there, but not completely, and some fires had not been out long. The first evidence was not far north of Chelan where the east bank of the Columbia had burned over.

The first stop was Pateros, which has little of interest outside agriculture and railroads. I wanted to look at the railroad bridge over the Methow River. WA 153 climbs west up the river valley, and there are resorts along the way. Most of the way north between Pateros and Okanogan, fire had burned all the way across the road to the river. A grass fire may lack the intensity of a forest fire, but leaves blackened landscape just the same. Occasionally you would see burned-out farm equipment, resting on the rims in a field; a field which wasn’t going to produce this year. Not very many burned structures, though. I think I’d choose the house over the tractor, too.

Outside of Brewster, there is some hilltop agriculture:

When in Toppenish last year, I noticed that agriculture is adapting to places that were previously uncultivable. You don’t advance civilization by marching in the streets: you do it by figuring things out, and then doing them.

A few miles north of Brewster along US-97 and across the river is this:

A good-sized radio telescope was an odd thing to see out here, as there are no universities within hours. It turns out this is one of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) antennas and, I assume, support equipment to the right. I had heard of the VLBA, but had not seen an antenna. The link will tell you about it, and I thought it was cool. A local newspaper has an article on visiting the telescope, and the operators used to offer tours if you showed up, but I suspect that is no longer the case. I would wager, though, that almost nobody shows up who was looking for the thing.

Another 30 miles north gets you to Okanogan, which along with Omak about 8 miles up the road, grows a lot of apples. And cattle. There is much open range in this part of the state. I’ve had experience with cattle taking advantage of open range in other places, and I will let them be. They weigh half as much as the car, and an angry bull can do a whole lot of damage in a very short time.

We learn that George Washington Slept Here (sort of):

I like the mention of the ‘horde of yellow jackets”, or, as the contemporary convention may have had it: “We were Followed and Much Disturbed by a Horde of Yellow Jakets”.

For some reason I was at the Okanogan airport; but thought the sign interesting. I surely hope the project is complete.

Okanogan and Omak are relatively close, but Omak is the commercial center, with Okanogan functioning as a sort of bedroom community (Pop: ~2500) to Omak (Pop: ~4800). The semi-rural North Carolina town (Pop: ~5000) where I attended high school had a similar relationship with surrounding communities.

Omak, WA:

What do you mean, where?

I looked at some railroad things in town, then followed Omak Riverside East Side Road north along the railroad for a bit. That’s the actual name of the road, and I don’t know what the residents call it. “River Road”?

Cliffs along the Okanogan River north of Omak. The river is in the gap between the hills.

The visit to Omak fulfilled the motivating mission requirements, so cast about for things to do. The Grand Coulee dam was only about 70 miles away, so, sure. I’d last visited in 1996 when moving from St. Petersburg, FL, to Seattle. But, I was sort of in the neighborhood, and had nothing else to do. The plan was to take US-97S toward Brewster, then take WA 17 south to WA 174E, then on to the dam.

Heading south on US 97 between Omak and Okanogan. You can see everything to the east is burned, and the ground still smoking.

WA 17S between Brewster and Bridgeport. Those aren’t clouds ahead, but, as the Sanford Townsend Band had it; smoke from a distant fire.

There were just miles and miles of smoking ground. Along with a pandemic, rioting in the cities, a fractured economy, and half the country figuratively at the throats of the other. I should have been driving a Ford Falcon XB GT with a dingo in the left seat.

Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River, or what was visible through the smoke. There was fire here. 

A fire-ravaged tree and the Visitor Center on the right. The Center was closed. 

The Chief Joseph Bridge just downstream of the dam.

The official West side viewpoint for the Grand Coulee Dam is Crown Point, and there is good road to it. It’s free. There is also an unofficial viewpoint, marked by a hand-written sign. There is a sort-of trail off the road, and an open gate. I am not adverse to taking road cars off-road, and the trail looked navigable. My main concern was setting fire to the grass from the exhaust. After a few dozen yards, nothing was burning, so I continued. 

The nearest farm to the trail, so probably their land. 


Looking back down the trail. It’s more defined in person. 

The view from as far as I cared to go. The trail continues around the ridge to the left, but I needed a more capable vehicle to attempt that. 

Overview of the Crown Point facilities, looking North. The dam is to the right. 

The sign needs updating, as Three Gorges Dam has been the largest concrete structure since opening in 2003. 

I was last here in 1996, and the dam hasn’t gotten smaller. You can’t see the whole thing in one view, so I pieced together a panorama. Grand Coulee on the left; Electric City on the right. The structure is 550 feet high, and just under a mile long. 

Grand Coulee is also home to what looks like a giant pile of sand:

The view West and downstream:

I went around and had a look at the back side. There are parking lots here. 

Looking upstream and the anti-torpedo debris booms:

Alongside the road there is this sign. You can see in the background where the road starts down what turns out to be a steep grade to the bridge. In the Northeast, you could just put ‘Watch For ’33”. 

Avoiding rolling rocks, and Rolling Rock, there is a pull-out where you can get a closer look at the dam:

I took WA 155N back to Okanogan, and it was a nice break from the basalt badlands.

If a bit smoky.

I stayed at the Quality Inn in Okanogan, which I believe was under $65 for the night. Under more normal circumstances, I would have stayed in Omak, as there is more to do after-hours. Like, anything. But, because I didn’t plan on going out, I opted for the least-expensive room. And it was close to WA 20, which I planned to drive west the next day. 

You can see the burned land across the road from the hotel. Also, nice to know there are ‘Good Farms’ in the area. 





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