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Loess is more in the Palouse

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

Despite the tranquil appearance of its rolling hills, southeastern Washington State has a tumultuous geologic history.

Cultivated fields of wheat north of Walla Walla. The wheat is planted along contour lines on the hills. Click on the photo to go to its location on our companion website—Iris Arts. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Although our backpacking trip to Utah was cancelled, the drive across southern Idaho, eastern Oregon, and Washington brought its own rewards. Leaving Boisé (French for "wooded") we noticed a lot of other French names on the Idaho map. Coeur d'Alene (French for "heart of the awl"), Lake Pend Oreille ("earring" Lake), Nez Percé (pierced nose) were but a few.

We stayed in La Grande, Oregon (short for "La Grande Ronde" or "big circle" in French) which is not far from Malheur ("misfortune" in French) Wildlife Refuge. and we were heading for the Palouse in southeastern Washington state.

Given the obvious influence of French Trappers who hunted here, together with my high-school level fluency in French, I fully expected to be seeing fairly level green grasslands ("la pelouse" meaning "lawn" in French).

That was not the case. The Palouse is spelled with an "A" not an "E" and although the name may have been misspelled when derived from French Trappers, the area is not a level landscape of green grass. Rather, the Palouse is a treeless landscape of rolling hills created by strong prevailing winds blowing enormous quantities of glacial silt (loess) into rounded, dune-like piles.

One of many granaries we passed in the loess-formed hills of the Palouse. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

How did all that glacial silt get here?

From massive floods unleashed when ice dams (which held back enormous glacial lakes) broke in past ice ages. These sudden, catastrophic floods occurred over and over again during the ice ages, scouring the land, creating massive waterfalls, and changing the course of rivers as the waters raced to the Pacific Ocean.

Grain elevator detail. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The rolling hills of the Palouse support the dry farming of wheat and the patchwork of cultivated and fallow fields is visually interesting. We photographed cultivated fields and grain elevators on our way to another feature of the massive ice age floods—Palouse Falls.



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