However you ponder it, Grand Coulee Dam is big. It generates more electricity than any other facility in the United Sates, and it's the largest concrete structure in North America. Its hydraulic height of 380 feet is more than twice that of Niagara Falls, and the concrete used in its construction could have built an eight-foot-wide sidewalk around the world. Its reservoir, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Lake, is more than a mile long, and its water irrigates more than one million acres of farmland.
The first signs we're approaching the dam area are the hundreds of power lines that soar up the cliff side from the valley below and the tall steel towers that support them. As I round a sharp turn on Washington's Hwy 174, the glossy surface of the Columbia River appears, and my eye naturally follows the waterway to the vast concrete wall that tames it. That this broad, swollen waterway should be here, in the middle of the parched badlands of eastern Washington seems incongruous; but for much of its journey from the Rocky Mountain Trench in British Columbia to its confluence with the Snake, where it slices through the Cascade Range en route to the sea, the Columbia's copious flow roils in stark contrast to the still desert that surrounds it.
Grand Coulee, the city, was created to house the dam's construction and maintenance workers. On the west bank, Engineers' Town provided better accommodations for the engineers, project managers and administrative staff, while the construction workers lived in Mason City on the east bank. Both settlements are now part of the City of Coulee Dam. The dam area belongs to the Bureau of Reclamation, and the city of Grand Coulee is a mile or so south. Further along Banks Lake you have Electric City and Coulee City too. Confusing, eh?
My riding buddy Geoff and I are staying in Coulee Dam at the Columbia River Inn, a cozy, charming chalet-style hotel just steps from the river. Route 174 fires us into Grand Coulee and we swing along the broad highway down into Coulee Dam, noting the overt presence of police cars and security staff. Like many high-profile installations in the U.S., Coulee Dam is presumed a terrorist target and enjoys a commensurate level of protection. We scrupulously observe the 30-mph speed limit…
Motorcycle & Gear
As rivers have always done, the Columbia has cut its path along the line of least resistance, in this case circuitously. To the north of Coulee Dam, the Columbia skirts the rugged high ground of the Colville Indian Reservation. On its south bank there are the flat fertile plains of central Washington and the Palouse plateau. Our plan for our four-day ride is to explore the lesser traveled roads on the reservation, venturing into the foothills of the Monashee Mountains near the Canadian border to spend a day riding through the Palouse and another day in the high country close to the Cascades Mountains. I'm riding a Moto Guzzi Norge sport-touring motorcycle kindly loaned by British-Italian Motorcycles in Vancouver, BC, and Geoff has his BMW 1200GS Adventure.
It's two miles uphill to Grand Coulee, several hundred feet above the Columbia, from our hotel, but we leave the bikes parked. The walk takes us along the cliffs overlooking Banks Lake. Not originally part of the Columbia system, the lake now stores water for times of high electricity demand. As we hike along the bank, a coyote senses our approach and slinks into the bushes, and a young white-tailed deer bounces down the slope toward the lake. The abundance of wildlife is reassuring: being able to see something else living in the area that exists on a human scale is comforting when confronted with the vast brooding presence of the dam spillway and the omnipresent hum from the powerhouse.
Day 1: The road that wasn't there
Our first objective the next day is Dry Falls, an ice-age rock formation at the foot of Banks Lake. Dark clouds scurry across the sky and the road is damp as we ride out through Electric City. Based on the level of activity around the rambling, clapboard houses, the City's voltage must be set to "Low." Named for the dam's Chief Construction Engineer, Frank A. Banks, the lake spreads over a broad valley lined with vertical bluffs, the most dramatic of which is Steamboat Rock, a huge mesa on the opposite bank.
At the Dry Falls Overlook, a few shallow patches of dark water are the only evidence of the torrent that raged during the ice age. It was the repeated formation and failure of a huge ice dam on the Clark Fork River in Idaho that sent a vast surge of mud, ice and water across Eastern Washington, scouring out its coulees and canyons. At Dry Falls, water flooded the high plain and cascaded into Grand Coulee across falls that would dwarf Niagara. Informative signboards tell the Falls' fascinating story in pictures. Fortunately, the signs are waterproof, because a persistent drizzle is starting.
Over a restorative breakfast at the Country Deli in Coulee City, we consider the next part of our route. Geoff's GPS and my map differ on whether the road around Jameson Lake is paved, and I'm not keen to take my brand-new borrowed Norge off-highway. "It's paved except for a mile or two," a senior gent in suspenders and a ball cap says. So we decide to go for it. The tarmac turns to pea-gravel right away, and all is well for a while. But after five miles or so, the gravel coarsens, slickened by the rain. The Norge starts to buck and weave on its wide street tires, and we decide to head back to US 2.