Our Daily Sykes #100 – The Twin Sisters of Wallula Gap

When the Rev. Theodore Erdman Dorpat (T.E.D.) approached Pasco from Spokane on his way to ministerial meetings in Portland he prepared to choose between driving his Plymouth (until a rocket-nosed Studebaker replaced it in 1951) to Portland through the Wallula Gap or take a short-cut – and he loved them – directly over the dwindling Horse Heaven hills south of Pasco.  With his shortcut he – and sometimes we  – would reach the Columbia River on the Washington side at Umatilla, and at the site of the McNary Dam.   It was not much of a short cut.  Only a few miles were “saved” by not following the Columbia River where it takes its big bend to the west.  Dad left it up to the family, which way to go.  We picked the Gap.

Here Horace Sykes has climbed about 100 feet above the highway to look southwest through the Wallula Gap.  He chose his prospect in order to include the “Twin Sisters,” basalt pillars that stand side-by-side.  There own slender day-lighted gap between them cannot be seen from Horace’s position nor in the “general delivery” of Google Earth.  (While it is too slender for Google’s topo-computer, those “blue-dot” real photos contributed by many sensitive users show it several times.  One of these dots is set on the Washington side of the Gap but it looks across the river to show the Twin Sisters in their unique position.  You might wish to go looking for it and the rest of them.)

At least once the Dorpats stopped by the side of Highway 730 to study the Twins, although we thought of them then as captains: the Two Captains.  The Lewis and Clark expedition camped about two miles downstream from these basalt pillars on Oct. 18, 1805.  They camped on an island near Spring Gulch, and their island may well be the island showing in the river behind the intruding ground cover in Sykes’ Kodachrome.  (Including a plant as a close-up in a landscape is very typical of Horace, and like most of his this composition is almost certainly “studied” from top-to-bottom and side-to-side.)  Remember to CLICK TO ENLARGE.

Horace certainly recorded this look over the shoulders of the twins before McNary Dam was completed in 1953 when its big locks began lifting ships – mostly tugs pulling or pushing barges carrying wheat – 340 feet above tidewater into the 68 miles of slack water named Lake Wallula.  Horace’s recording, then, shows the last of the unimpeded primeval river moving through a gap (between the Horse Heaven Hills and the Blue Mountains) begun millions of years earlier and then suddenly “improved” with the series of floods that followed the sudden release of sea-sized lakes – most of them in Montana – filled with the melting contributions of the most recent ice age.

By different accounts there were between 40 and 100 of these floods crashing through here with about thirty years between them, with the last one scouring the gap and the gorge beyond it a mere 13,000 years ago.  (The top of the Twin Sisters is about 660 feet above sea level and so about 320 feet above Lake Wallula, which is an easy way of visualize how much of a drop it is from the maintained lake to the ocean.  McNary Dam lifted the river about 90 feet above the Columbia’s old altitude at the dam site, which is about twenty miles down stream from Horace and the Twins.)

Horace’s, my, and perhaps your attraction to the sisters was anticipated by Coyote’s.  Three sisters – not two – worked hard here at building a trap on the river for salmon, and at night the often too playful trickster did what he probably considered a prank or tease and destroyed their work.  But when Coyote saw the sisters crying for want of food, he was touched and proposed to them that he would build a trap for them if they consented to marry him.  They agreed and lived happily together for a very long time, but not forever.  Eventually Coyote grew tired of his three wives.  He then changed two of them into these pillars, and made a cave of the third wife on the opposite side of the river.  From there he kept an eye on them all, until he too turned to stone.

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