Photo by Joanna Bastian Lake Chelan pictographs are clearly visible above the water's surface.

Photo by Joanna Bastian
Lake Chelan pictographs are clearly visible above the water’s surface.

By Joanna Bastian

I once heard someone say, “Drawing is in our DNA.” The original written languages were drawings. All around the world, stories are painted and carved into rock surfaces — a tantalizing message board providing a glimpse into the lives of people who lived in that very spot long before we stumbled across the same path.

The Pacific Northwest is a hotbed of pictographs, usually found along the waterways. One very detailed set of pictographs can be found only by kayak on the north end of Lake Chelan. A steep rock projection ends in a dramatic cliff face rising out of the lake.

Years ago, our family came across them while kayaking. Seeing the cliffs across the lake, we paddled over for a closer look. My brother-in-law urged us to hold his kayak while he climbed the cliff face and then leapt into the waters for a swim. While we bobbed in the water next to the cliff, we noticed many detailed drawings of elk, bear, people and numerical slash marks. Ever since, we’ve been speculating on how the landscape at that time may have allowed access to the rock face.

Recently, George Woo told me about an 1899 report of the United States Geological Survey that included a detailed study of this region. A geologist by the name of Martin W. Gorman covered the eastern part of Washington state. It is interesting for the topographical descriptions of glacial erosion and varying water levels throughout the formation of the Chelan and Methow valleys.

One surprising detail in the Gorman report solved the mystery of the Lake Chelan pictographs. Gorman’s observations were strictly limited to landscapes, and contain very little mention of people. He uses the pictographs to illustrate how Lake Chelan water levels changed over time.

Gorman noted that the location of the painting showed, “there has been a lowering of the water level of the lake even in recent times.” When Gorman surveyed the area he noted the pictographs were “fully 25 feet above the present level of the lake.” He brushed aside the idea that the artist was lowered from above because, “the painting is a rather extensive one, I do not think such an explanation tenable.”

The National Park Service website contains notes from Lt. Col. Henry Clay Merriam, who viewed the pictographs in 1880, nearly 20 years before Gorman. Merriam provided an exaggerated description of the pictographs, stating that the drawings were “several hundred feet above the water’s edge.” The NPS concedes that Merriam “may have stretched things a bit.”

Shortly after Gorman completed his report in 1899, construction began on the present-day dam on the Chelan river. Completed in 1903, the dam raised the water level 17 feet. The pictographs now hover several feet above the surface of the lake and can be easily viewed from a kayak.


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