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…
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.