The Real New Deal

A closer look at Lake Roosevelt

Published in the May 2009 Issue May 2009 Feature

    Most of my life I've had some vague recollection of the Grand Coulee Dam. To be honest, I thought Coulee was the name of some deceased president, but then I remembered his name was Calvin Coolidge. But I felt that was probably close enough for "government work." 

When I conferred with Mr. Webster, I discovered "coulee" is a "ravine, deep gulley, or a steep-walled gorge." Okay, so the name didn't honor a dead president. I felt some credit should be awarded for knowing the dam's name.

For all of Bill Gates' money, I never could have guessed the name of the lake behind the Grand Coulee until recent years. This was sort of like playing, Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? When I discovered the lake was named in honor of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I wondered why he got water and President Herbert Clark Hoover got a dam in Nevada. Maybe they did Rock, Paper, Scissors to decide such lofty matters regarding names.

Seems like in school, you only learn the names of the Hudson and Mississippi Rivers and the Great Lakes and that's about it. Or maybe I was majoring in playground activities and later, learning the names of cheerleaders when other important water bodies were being discussed.

Forget the names. Here's the scary thing: I had never even met anyone that had boated on this lake. I had no idea of what to expect-the unknown made me feel a little anxious-like opening the mailbox and finding a letter from the IRS. Irregardless, with some much needed reference material in a plastic Wal-Mart bag, my wife Dawn, our two dogs Norm and Snickers, and our 26-foot pontoon christened the Mighty Mickers, followed MapQuest to Lake Roosevelt located in northeastern Washington.


Keller Ferry is located on Lake Roosevelt, 14 miles north of Wilbur, Wash., and a little over 15 miles east of the Grand Coulee Dam. The shape of Lake Roosevelt resembles a large letter "J" with the bottom horizontal curved piece covering about 35 miles and the vertical leg stretching north nearly 100 miles. 
Our reservation, with Roosevelt Recreation Enterprises (RRE) was for a 54-foot houseboat named Palus, parked in the Keller Ferry Marina. Best news about this new extravagant experience was the special after-season price. We were thrilled-the luxurious Palus was equipped with five sleeping quarters, water slide, living room, Jacuzzi, and a full kitchen with two refrigerators. Plus, out on the forward deck, a shiny stainless steel "man-sized" barbeque grill. This floating motel was only for our accommodations; there was no plan to drive her. 
"Just a few of the fishermen know we rent these houseboats in the off-season for less than a Four-Star hotel," explained Penny West, an RRE representative. RRE even moved a houseboat so we could moor the Mighty Mickers pontoon next to our buoyant Hilton suite. We were happier than clams at high tide. 


Almost 1.5 million people visit the Lake Roosevelt Recreation Area every year, which is a small number when stretched throughout the 12 months, over 155 miles of water, and along more than 630 miles of shoreline. This was our first visit; we were like a blank piece of paper-we had no predetermined expectations. 

We launched the Mighty Mickers and just outside the marina, paused to view the free ferry that connects Highway 21 with the Colville Indian Reservation. The ferry was hauling a school bus bound for Keller, a small Indian town located across the lake and 10 miles up the highway on the reservation. Later, Dawn and I learned from Paul, a native RRE employee, that the children attend school on the reservation until the 6th grade, then are bussed daily (which includes a ferry ride) off the reservation to Wilbur for school until graduation. 

We turned the bow west toward the Grand Coulee Dam, and then set the throttle at 4,000 rpm. The cool morning air was exaggerated by our speed, so Dawn and I both grabbed our light jackets. A smile crept across her face as she sipped her piping hot coffee, enjoying pleasure from its flavor and warmth. Soon, the sun's bright rays indicated the afternoon was going to be ideal. Plush, green fields of crops with small farms dotted the rolling hills along reservation land on the north shore and some fancy waterfront homes sporadically dotted the opposite shoreline. The lake's flat, blue surface was empty with only an occasional fishing boat chasing after the "big one." The number of houses increased as we neared the end of the lake, cruised around the bend and wham! There was the largest dam we have ever seen-the humongous Grand Coulee Dam. 


More than a mile long and enough concrete to circle the equator twice with a four-foot wide sidewalk four inches thick-the Grand Coulee Dam will tax your peripheral vision. None of the photographs I had seen prepared me for the immensity of this dam-it was a monster! Other dams were like comparing a two-holed outhouse to the Houston Astrodome. You could drop all the pyramids at Giza within its base. Grand Coulee generates the most electricity in the U.S. and is the fourth largest producer of hydroelectricity in the world. 

President Roosevelt with his "New Deal" program authorized construction in 1933. Eleven communities of about 3,000 people each had to be evacuated and structures demolished in preparation for the new lake. Over 8,000 people were employed and the dam was completed in 1942. A dam expansion program pushed the length over the mile marker in 1974 to add a third powerhouse. Using the dam as a massive screen, a popular laser light show entertains Lake Roosevelt Recreation Area visitors every night from May through September.

Our return trip home was warm and pleasant, as the Mighty Mickers purred like a spoiled kitten in the calm water. She felt pampered when we parked her next to our houseboat. Everything warmed to golden hues as the sun was concluding its trip for the day. 

Beavers had established households under the docks and entertained us when dusk crept in. A huge male, probably "daddy beaver," would slap the water loudly with his tail like a thick mud-flap to warn other family members when our dogs were too near. This startled our yellow Labrador, Norm, and he dropped his beaver curiosity like a hot tamale.



Giant, beautiful bald eagles ate fish for breakfast shortly after sunrise near the marina. These regal creatures fascinated us with their beauty and grace. And we chuckled as we watched the deer graze on the grass in the campground-probably not what the National Park Service had in mind when they planted the grass seed. 

Fishing boats of varying color, size and style, paraded past our floating penthouse. Equipped with only a camera and lunch provisions, the Mighty Mickers soon followed their wakes. We were making a beeline for Hawk Creek to check out some "must see" scenery per the RRE folks. From Keller Ferry, the lake headed east, passing patches of some wonderful lake-view homes and a couple of the lake's 22 public boat launches and 26 campgrounds. Tree numbers increased until forests soon lined the lake's banks as the landscape became more mountainous. A couple of pit stops were made for the dogs at some nice beaches with driftwood arranged in various art forms, something we would witness on all of our Roosevelt water excursions. It seemed to reflect a human need to leave a mark in this vast wilderness. 

At these stops, Norm happily swam, but the water temperature was too invigorating for Dawn, Snickers and I. A down lake breeze carried the crisp, sweet, pine fragrance-the peacefulness was intoxicating. You didn't have to be John Muir to appreciate this pristine country while at the same time, respecting its wildness. Thick woods and steep mountains spoke volumes of the ruggedness and the wildlife. Sometimes we traveled many miles before we saw another human. 

Just before we entered Hawk Creek, the boat population exploded, indicating a great fishing spot. Because of the dams, the salmon have vanished, but walleye, rainbow trout, kokanee, and smallmouth bass are popular catches in Lake Roosevelt. Later, we passed dozens of fishing boats in the bay while on our way to the steep-walled, narrow and winding waterway. Eye-popping scenery greeted us at every bend as we slowly motored toward the mouth of Hawk Creek, revealing a boat launch with a small campground. Hawk Creek's beauty paid big dividends for our exploration. As we exited Hawk Creek we headed north for our next stop, the historic Fort Spokane, 30 miles from our home base at Keller Ferry.


An empty dock on the Spokane River arm welcomed us to Fort Spokane. We secured the Mighty Mickers, allowed the dogs to stretch their legs, and then searched for the shortest trail to the Fort's hilltop location.

One of the last frontier forts built, Fort Spokane was responsible to keep the peace between the new settlers and the Indians. Benefiting from a strategic location at the confluence of the Columbia and Spokane Rivers, this fort, built in 1880, served as home for over 300 soldiers and their families. Some relatively peaceful times were enjoyed until 1898 when most of the soldiers were transferred to fight in the Spanish-American War. 

Fort Spokane was then decommissioned as an army post and became a boarding school for Indian children in 1900 with the enrollment growing to 229 students by 1902. Separation of the children from their families for nine straight months proved to be as successful as raising a buffalo in a crystal store. The school closed its doors in 1914, and the Fort spent the next 15 years as a hospital before its final closure. Only four of the original 46 buildings still stand, but it was well worth our half-mile hike from the boat dock. 


"Quack, quack, quack." Our local neighbors with webbed feet gently woke us from our slumber the next morning. I think they were grocery shopping for more bread from Dawn. 

Running almost due north into the Colville Indian Reservation is the Sanpoil River. We traveled the first nine miles, which is navigable, but it continues almost 50 miles beyond Keller, the community where many of the native RRE employees reside. This relaxing excursion allowed us to view some reservation farms, ranches and horses grazing near the water. We beached our red and white pontoon in some soft sand, while we enjoyed our lunch and watched the dogs play. 

Later, as we headed south, several Native Americans were engaged in some serious fishing from their boats, but studied the Mighty Mickers as we motored down river. I hoped we had not committed some social faux pas to offend them. Maybe they wondered why we weren't fishing. Most of their children stay in the area and, like their ancestors, live near the waterway that has supported their people for centuries. 


Evidence reflects humans have inhabited the Columbia River Basin for over 15,000 years. Many different Native American tribes lived near the river they called Wimahl (Big River) where, for hundreds of years, salmon was the staple in their diet. American Captain Robert Gray was the first white explorer to enter the river, which he named after his ship, Columbia Rediviva, in 1792. Explorers Lewis and Clark canoed on the lower Columbia during their overland expedition from 1803 to 1805.

Soon, the Hudson Bay Company and its rival, the North West Company, were trading goods with the Indians for pelts. A $6 rifle could be exchanged for 20 beaver skins, worth $50 each. "We made an enormous profit on the Indian trade," reported a Hudson Bay official in 1832. 

Missionaries followed the trappers to the upper Columbia region. But the real white man stampede started in 1854 when gold was discovered near Kettle Falls. This gold rush created small communities and businesses to support the miners. Chinese workers also populated the area and numbered in the hundreds by the mid-1860's.

Completion of the railroads followed and brought an even greater wave of settlers. Only a small amount of gold was mined, but the new residents discovered that the Columbia River was a great resource for commerce.


Probably not as well known as other major rivers because it only touches the states of Washington and Oregon, the Columbia River begins its 1,243-mile journey to the Pacific Ocean from the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, Canada. In terms of "volume flow" in the United States, it ranks fourth behind the Mississippi, St. Lawrence and the Ohio Rivers. Due to a large elevation drop over a relatively short distance, it is the largest hydroelectric power-producing river in North America. 

Parts of the Columbia River gorge were grossly enlarged by the ice age floods from Lake Missoula when 400-foot walls of water-blazing at speeds approaching 80 miles per hour-raced toward the West Coast. These horrific floods, the most severe in the history of our planet, devoured and destroyed every earth feature in their path, dramatically changing the landscape forever.


It was sad to leave our floating hotel and sadder still to say good bye to Lake Roosevelt. She had been on her best behavior and dressed in her finest weather. Sandy beaches with thick, emerald, enchanting forests climbing up from the water to the mountain tops, plus some glorious sunsets, had dazzled our visual senses. The lake's beauty, complemented by the pristine and rugged wilderness, beckons boaters passionate about the great outdoors.

In our minds, stunning Lake Roosevelt will no longer stand in anonymity behind the colossal Grand Coulee Dam. This magnificent lake had exceeded all of our expectations and touched our lives forever. 

I'd like to say, soaring eagles delivered words of wisdom from the ancient native spirits to fill our "blank sheet of paper." But the "wise ones" no longer employ the eagles or use smoke signals. BlackBerry is now the texting method they use the most, a service that makes our cell phone seem as primitive as two cans and a wire.   

Dawn was already planning our return boating trip as we climbed up steep Highway 21, out of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, and toward Wilbur. Sky blue Lake Roosevelt, with her wondrous wilderness backdrop, is truly the real "New Deal."

  • Like what you read?

    Want to know when we have important news, updates or interviews?

  • Join our newsletter today!

    Sign Up
You Might Also Be Interested In...

Send to your friends!