A Lake Ran Through It



A talk by geologist Norm Smyers led to an investigation of this prehistoric phenomenon. Schmid discovered that there are no fossil records of any sort of fish in the giant lake, nor any records of human habitation despite the fact that the first immigrants to North America had already crossed the Bering land bridge. Our reporter also found out about the huge flood which scoured the Columbia River valley all the way through Oregon and

In the late August heat, Norm Smyers and I stand at the edge of the gravel parking lot on the north end of the University of Montana campus next to the Madison Street Bridge. We shade our eyes and study the upper reaches of Mount Jumbo, which is brown with dried grass and knapweed, trying to spot the shoreline formed by Glacial Lake Missoula.

Smyers expresses disappointment at the fact that we can't make out even a hint of the waves left by the prehistoric water body on the walls of Hellgate Canyon.

But they are there as certainly as 15,000 years ago the whole of the Missoula Valley, from Thompson Falls to almost Deer Lodge, was covered with a lake nearly 2,000 feet deep at its deepest point. And looking up, it's possible to imagine that the glacial lake lapped at the hillsides while the earliest American settlers, the Indians, trapped game on the banks.

Smyers is a geologist with the Lolo National Forest, an unassuming middle-aged man with glasses, a neatly trimmed mustache and a quiet but undeniable passion for the prehistoric lake, something he's felt since 1992.

Gazing up the mountain and imagining the whole valley filled with freezing water, I feel tiny and insignificant. Smyers apparently appreciates the feeling. "Seeing the lines brings up questions that lead to concepts, such as wind and waves and the size they would have to be to make such marks," he explains in an excited rush reflecting the direction his mind travels in.

Smyers describes what the lake would have looked like from on top of nearby Mount Sentinel-iceberg-laden, cloudy water extending for miles beyond what the eye could register. It covered Evaro Hill, the Rattlesnake, Pattee Canyon and Blue Mountain, with the tops of the Missions forming an island chain and a field of open water stretching to Lookout Pass.

"Go up to Snowbowl on a winter's day. If the valley is fogged in, you'll have a good image of how it looked," he says.

If you go back further in time, and picture yourself as a person here about 15,000 years ago, you might have seen the beginning of the glacial lake forming at the tail end of the last Ice Age. Woolly mammoths roamed other parts of the Rockies, travelers traversed the Siberian Ice Bridge and nomadic bands of cave people populated Europe and Africa.

As the mountains of British Columbia shed their glaciers, Smyers explains, the ground grew wet and the bowl that is the Missoula Valley formed a perfect pool for the soon to be dammed up Clark Fork River. After 60 years, not only did the milky, turquoise liquid cover the ground, it had risen to just above where the "M" on Mount Sentinel sits today-nearly 4,200 feet above sea level, or about 900 feet above the valley floor.

More than 100 people crowded into the Boone & Crockett Club at Missoula's Milwaukee Station last week to view slides and learn more about Glacial Lake Missoula. Smyers stood next to the screen, armed with a pointer and an unhalting stream of information. While the lake was largely the topic of conversation, what happened when the ice wall broke has long been a bone of contention in the geologic community.

As he talked, Smyers described mysterious land features that baffled scientists and citizens alike for decades. "How could boulders the size of houses, giant ripple marks in rocks the size of three story buildings near Perma, Montana, the channeled scablands in central Washington, the lines on Jumbo and Sentinel-how could that be explained? Well, it was a flood of cataclysmic proportions."

Thus Glacial Lake Missoula shaped the landscape as it has the minds of students and scientists over decades as the subject of countless term papers, literary excursions, geologist dreams and Average Joe speculation.

Although no fossil evidence exists to suggest the presence of humans in the region that long ago, Western Montanans have long been fascinated by the ancient lake. Perhaps the reason comes from the same place that Hollywood's obsession with the idea of the world does-the horrifying idea of humanity brought to its knees by a natural disaster. Maybe it's our culture's natural anxiety as we approach the close of the millennium, a sense of impending doom marked by concerns over the End Times and widespread extinction.

Whatever the cause, dwellers in what was once the bottom of a giant inland sea have been seeking more information.

Right now, in fact, Glacial Lake Missoula is a hot topic, interesting more than just the rock jocks. David Alt, a University of Montana geology professor, is just finishing a book on the lake to be published next year by Mountain Press in Missoula. KSPS, the public television station out of Spokane, meanwhile will air a documentary about the floods next May. This documentary is the work of Alison Kartevold, who filmed When Sleeping Giants Wake, the critically-acclaimed account of the 1980 Mount Saint Helen's eruption.

Attendees at last Thursday's slideshow oohed, aahed and gasped as Smyers unveiled the dramatic history of the catastrophic flood which occurred about 15,000 years ago, carving at its peak a gouge measuring 50 cubic miles and sending it hurling into the Pacific Ocean. A dam formed near Sandpoint at the end of the last Ice Age, Smyers explained, when the ice that covered all but the highest peaks of British Columbia began drifting south, filling the Flathead, Seeley-Swan and Mission valleys, until it finally crossed the path of the Clark Fork River.

Water gradually backed up and flooded the deep valleys of Western Montana repeatedly, something Smyers estimates continued over nearly 3,000 years. The ultimate result was Glacial Lake Missoula, a body of water deeper than Crater Lake, which measures 1,932 feet, and larger than Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined, and the ensuing flood.

The dimensions of the lake were stunning. Smyers says it extended to the Thompson Falls area, down to Darby, nearly to Deer Lodge in the east, and "played tag" with the Flathead Valley. Only the tops of mountains were visible.

Where Smyers is staid and bureaucratic, the author Alt is entirely loquacious and somewhat cynical. Offering a theory of the flood's triggering event, Alt suggests that maybe the ice wall was lifted by the force of the lake. "Ice cubes in whiskey sink, but in water, they float," Alt explains. "When the water reached nine-tenths the height of the ice dam, it came unstuck and floated."

The liquid wall followed the glacier chunks as they plowed across northern Idaho and eastern and central Washington, stripping away 200 feet of topsoil and surging through the Columbia River Gorge. If such a flood happened at this weekend's Steve Miller Band concert in George, Washington, you wouldn't need a jet airliner to carry you too far away-you'd need a surfboard. Smyers says the strength and speed with which the flood moved was 10 times the force of all of the modern world's rivers combined.

The flood devastated much of the land. The water knocked everything in its path along the Columbia into the Pacific Ocean, nearly 800 miles away. A series of natural hydraulic dams that formed in Oregon temporarily slowed the flood's progress, but the saturated hillsides collapsed, a situation Smyers compares to 2,000 people trying to fit through a single exit at a packed Griz game. "There was more volume than could possibly get through," Smyers says.

The runoff-shaped land in the Columbia Gorge would seem more appropriate in space than off I-90-at first glance it's hard to believe it could be the same planet as the Idaho panhandle or the Bitterroot divide. The topography is that of an area devoid of fertile soil. From high above, the terrain seems to be a pocked, red Mars-scape, and is referred to by geologists as being part of the ominous sounding "Channeled Scablands."

Closer to home, the flood's leftovers can be seen on a more manageable level. Gulch fills-the boulders and coarse gravel which litter the Flathead River and Clark Fork River drainages-are flood deposits. "When you're digging in your garden in the South Hills and you come across boulders, that's the result of glacial melt-off deposits," Smyers says.

Even with all the stunning physical evidence to back them up, the first theories of catastrophic flooding were fervently denounced and ridiculed by the geology establishment.

Initially proposed in 1923 by the late University of Chicago scientist J. Harlan Bretz, the idea that some huge pool had burst its natural dam and washed over hundreds of miles seemed out of this world early in the century. That skeptism was compounded by Bretz's personality; the pioneering geologist is described by both Alt and Smyers as a crotchety, unpleasant individual.

"He thought he had all the answers and he was gruff," Smyers says. "He didn't garner much support."

Alt agrees, but also points out that geologists tend to discount catastrophic explanations for landscapes as being too radical. At a 1927 conference in Washington D.C., audience members castigated Bretz and shot his work down. Another problem may have been that Bretz's theory concerned only the scablands of central Washington, according to local geologists. While he used a huge flood as the reason for the unusual terrain, he couldn't explain where the water came from.

For this reason, both Smyers and Alt consider another geologist, the late Joseph Pardee, to be the primary hero of the story of the Ice Age floods. It doesn't hurt Pardee's popularity today that he grew up in Granite and retired in Phillipsburg. Pardee wrote the first article about Glacial Lake Missoula in 1910, and after Bretz's speech his interest was renewed.

He was in the audience of the 1927 meeting with Bretz, but he didn't voice his own findings for fear of being fired from his job with the U.S. Geological Survey. "His bosses were against Bretz, so he couldn't speak up. This was during the Depression, and there was no workplace protection," Smyers says.

He identified the features and events connected to its flooding and draining in 1942, but his ideas have only gained mainstream acceptance in the last 30 years. Alt says it took a new generation of geologists to dust off the original theory and popularize it. "The old farts had to die off," he says.

Smyers has been hitting the pavement in an attempt to rally support for a local visitor's center that would serve as headquarters for a network of interpretive sites stretching from Missoula to Oregon, highlighting some of the features that would appeal most to laypersons. Six of them are in Western Montana.

"We'd like to make a small guide book and a travel brochure integrating the human history with lay terms. We're trying to make it attractive to the community," Smyers says.

Kim Latrielle, CEO of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, says she's just starting a dialogue with Smyers and his peers, and that the chamber is interested. "Anytime there is one more draw to Missoula, it's good for the whole community," she says.

"It's heading somewhere, but I don't know where."

Smyers estimates the cost of such an endeavor would start at $60,000 for simply construction and materials. Partnerships with local businesses and institutes have been proposed, but the community would also be expected to supply some funding. Given last week's Glacial Lake Missoula slideshow attendance, interest in town is hardly waning.

After about a 45 minute presentation, Smyers stayed to answer questions. As one hand after another shot into the air, he finally called the evening quits. When I left 15 minutes after that, he was still patiently answering a few last questions.

"I think it's a neat story, it has a great fascination to people. It would have been a kick to have had a raft and floated down it," Smyers says.

Glacial Lake Missoula and its irreperable flooding have left scars still visible thousands of years later, but consider the age of the rocks that hold them-between 800 million and 1.5 billion years old. Looking at the earth sometimes leaves you with a sense that maybe depite all the ways humanity has shaped its surroundings, people really are no more than a blip on the planet's surface.

So build your bomb shelter and stockpile cans of chipped beef. The mountains and the rivers will continue to bear witness.

Scientists surmise that 15,000 years ago an enormous lake covered Western Montana stretching hundreds of square miles from the Flathead Valley to the Bitterroot Valley, and from the townsites.

Photo Courtesy U.S.F.S.

The Camas Prairie near Perma is characterized by ripple marks-some as tall as 30 feet-formed by a flood of cataclysmic proportions that washed through the whole Columbia basin from Montana

Photo Courtesy U.S.F.S.

Norm Smyers indicates on a newly generated composite map where the Cordilleran glacier butted up against the Bitterroot

Photo by Lisa Thompson

Mount Jumbo's shape still reflects the effect of Glacial Lake Missoula, where vast waves carved them.

Photo Courtesy U.S.F.S


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