Sunday, August 13, 2006

The jewel of Whitman County

Satellite image of Rock Lake from Google Maps.

These are some pictures I took yesterday of Rock Lake, in Whitman County, which is near the Idaho-Washington border. (I attend WSU which is in Pullman, about 45 minutes drive from Rock Lake. Pullman is about 80 miles south of Spokane, which is about 300 miles west of Seattle, and now you know where it is.) My buddy Jon and his wife Megan bought a raft and a trolling motor a couple of weeks ago. Last week we visited the far shore of the Snake, which I was familiar with, but I'd never been to Rock Lake. (If you guys like these pictures I'll post some of the Snake River ones.)

Rock Lake is an ancient and pristine lake, difficult to get to and pointless to visit without a boat. I suspect it is glacial in origin--it looks as though God's Excavator dug a four-mile trench through solid rock, and then He put water in it (I guess). It is surrounded by basalt cliffs. The bottom is broken rock or bare rock shelf, with a sudden drop into the abyss generally about four or five feet out. If that lake has a bottom, I am unaware of it. But there are startling exceptions. Bare rock shelves will often stretch out in a narrow "causeway" thirty or forty yards, and crop up in unexpected places. Sometimes you see what we called "lagoons", with bare rock forming a kind of underwater atoll. I imagine that power and sail boats would need to be very careful and slow. Which reminds me of the other danger, sudden winds. If you take a raft to avoid the rock, then you risk the winds. Most of our day was calm, but toward afternoon the wind did come up suddenly, and if we hadn't had a motor it was a long hard paddle back.

This is taken from the landing, facing north. It is very primitive. The land around the lake is all privately owned and the State leases this little bit for boat access. I hear local farmers are jealous of their property rights around the lake, which is understandable. It hardly matters as it is generally difficult to get to shore (but no trouble for rafts). This is the south end of the lake that empties into a creek, and it is called Slaughter Pen Bay. I'm kind of curious about the story behind that name. (Probably commemorates the tragic death of some fools on a raft--though judging from all the cattle I saw in that area the explanation is probably much less colorful.)

This was also taken at the landing, but facing east. You can clearly see the dropoff. The water was quite clear, visibility at least three or four feet.

This is typically what the shore looks like. If you want to get out of your boat, and you didn't tear out your bottom on the rock, you are out of luck unless you want to stand on the rock shelf in waist-deep water. Which you do, if you have sense, because it's hot.

This is the west side of the lake. The lake is a few hundred yards across.

This is the east side. You can see a abandoned railroad on this side. This railroad is the very same one that crosses the Columbia near my hometown. I had to look on a map to figure it out. There are no ties or rails on it. Although if you walk along it you will find spikes and cast iron plates and stuff. Once I found a cast-iron sphere which I was sure was a cannon ball (a military road had run that way in the 1860's or thereabouts) but my uncle explained that it was actually used to crush ore. Oh well.

This one was taken on the way back to Jon and Megan's house. They live way out in the country. I put it up because it kind of exemplifies the Palouse country. The water you see is the mighty Palouse River, which at this time of year is perfectly clear and all of four inches deep. In the spring, when we have rain and snow melt, it is a raging mud-colored flood which has a spectacular waterfall before it reaches the the Snake. The few trees you see are, on the Palouse, an uncommon concentration. This area is dry, and extensively given over to dryland wheat and lentils. Trees are found only in a) people's yards or b) on the lee sides of hills too difficult to plant and harvest. And the dirt-colored parts are of course plowed fields on hills, which are the truly dominant feature of the Palouse. In the spring it is lovely and green, but some time in June it all dries up.

As far as Rock Lake goes, trout fishing is good there, or so I hear, but my love is given to bass, and we weren't seriously fishing anyway--the occasional fishing pole you may see in the foreground is merely an excuse. (Which is not to say we came home empty-handed. We kept one 11-inch smallmouth, very fat and feisty, one of the finest I've ever caught in fact.) But rainbows and brown trout are what people go there for. I wouldn't know how to go about catching a trout--I get the impression that they are finicky compared to bass, which are essentially brainless angry stomachs with fins. I did catch a few pumpkinseeds and bluegills (on purpose, to see if they were there--my grubs for smallmouth won't fit in a bluegill's mouth, which is a great convenience). I imagine you'd find crappies too. It seems there is a lot of lake to explore and I am looking forward to spending what remains of summer on it.