VANTAGE — That enormous expanse of drying, cracking, unexplored, awe-inspiring mud.
It’s been a magnet drawing fascinated onlookers to the Columbia River shoreline exposed since March 4 by the 26-foot emergency drawdown behind Wanapum Dam.
And that’s created a challenge for county and state law-enforcement officials.
They’re faced with the delicate task of telling a public accustomed to virtually free access to Columbia River shoreline that it’s off limits until the water comes back up, and that could be several months or more.
“You guys collecting stuff today?” state Fish and Wildlife officer Will Smith asked Talena Hunter Wednesday and she, her son and daughter walked back to their car with a plastic bag containing fresh-water clams and golf balls they’d collected along the water’s edge.
“We started out collecting golf balls,” Hunter said, explaining that she thought the “off limits” sign posted along the road just applied to vehicle access. The family, who’d driven in from Ellensburg, had left their car at the road block and walked to the river.
“The issue of why this is closed, is for safety,” Smith said, taking the clams away, which are illegal to remove from the shoreline without a permit. He let them keep the golf balls.
“We had no idea,” Hunter said later. “Through work I’d heard how low the water is. They said, ‘You should go and see it. It’s so cool.’”
The eroding shoreline and mudflats are deceptively unstable. Three people walking far below the normal high-water mark have already become stuck in the muck and had to be rescued.
Trespassers on the now-closed shoreline, which is between Wanapum and Rock Island dams, could face fines of up to $1,000 and 90 days in jail. Disturbing the shoreline by collecting Indian artifacts is punishable under federal law. Last week walkers discovered two human skeletons, judged to be very old, by Crescent Bar.
“The first weekend was an absolute zoo,” said Smith. “We made contact with people who were aggressive, challenging. The PUD. has the right to restrict access for safety or to protect resources.”
Officials understand that the public is curious, but that doesn’t mean they won’t cite a violator, even for a first offense, Smith said.
They’re working with the sheriffs’ offices from Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Kittitas counties to patrol the shoreline. The Grant County PUD, with help from members of the Wanapum Tribe, are patrolling the reservoir by boat and land and paying the other agencies for the extra patrols. The PUD owns and operates Wanapum Dam.
Many of the people Smith approached for shoreline violations on a beautiful, spring-like Wednesday had nostalgic story to tell and took Smith’s warning good-naturedly.
“I used to come down here in college,” said Leslie Johnson, of Tri Cities, who Smith spotted taking photos of Sand Hollow from a parking area just beyond a barricade. “We used to park in that parking lot and go boating. I wasn’t going to go down to the river in these shoes!”
Phil Copenhaver of Moses Lake remembers picnicking as a boy with his grandmother at the same popular beach spot, which is on the Columbia’s eastern shore, just south of the Interstate 90 bridge at Vantage.
“It was before the water came up. She collected a little cactus plant that day, and it’s still growing today,” he said. “It’s very interesting to see the water way down.”
Looting of artifacts from cultural sites around the basin has been an on-going problem, even before the water went down.
Law enforcement is now on heightened alert.
“It’s just disgusting,” Smith said of the looters. “They leave craters everywhere they go. One guy was arrested and spent time in jail, but then his friends started going out.”
The Wanapum and PUD archaeologists who are recording new and once-submerged discoveries, make a point to keep the sites secret.
“Everything there was put there for a reason,” said Michael Squeochs, a member of the Wanapum band.
His ancestors have lived and traded for centuries along that stretch of the Columbia and farther south into Oregon.
A hydro maintenance assistant for Grant PUD, Squeochs was out patrolling by pickup off the Old Vantage Highway, which now ends at the river on the eastern shore.
“To take something is, basically, like thievery,” he said. “What isn’t yours, leave it there. It would be like my coming to your place and taking something that I like.”
Since the water lowered, he and other members of the Wanapum have visited long-submerged, secret sites.
“We know where all these areas are. We know what they’re called in our language. We know the markers,” he said. It’s looks exactly the way it was explained to us. It’s all our oral history.”