We gazed in stunned silence at what remained of Rattlesnake Lake. Our shoes sank into the silty mud, some of the first to touch this ground in a century. The byline of the Seattle Times article that brought my friend Lisa and I here on another disturbingly hot October day in 2015 still weighed on my mind.
I’d read the article a few days before, my mouth spreading wide into a grin and a grimace.
A sky blue mirror nestled beneath the evergreen foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range, Rattlesnake Lake spreads across 111 acres of mud flats. Located thirty five miles east of Seattle, the lake usually draws enormous summer crowds for swimming, fishing, and boating. Fifty feet at its deepest, and twenty on average, the twenty nine foot drop in water level would be dramatic.
Despite the ominousness of that much water disappearing, I was excited by the opportunity to walk through some recently exposed history. Massive stumps that hadn’t seen oxygen in a century. The remains of an old logging and railroad town uncovered. I had to go see for myself. So I called my friend Lisa, another local comic who shared my love of the outdoors. A few days later we pulled into the parking lot above Rattlesnake Lake, uncertain of what we’d find.
If you were standing on the shore of Rattlesnake Lake in years past, this is what you’d see.
However, 2015 had been a historically disastrous year for Washington State. The unnaturally mild winter had come and gone as an afterthought, leaving behind a minuscule snowpack in the mountains and a bunch of panicked ski resort owners. From there, the record-breaking heat had crept its way past spring and summer into the early fall. In its wake, farmers in the east scrambled to save their parched land, cities went up in flames, and a million acres of forest burned, including the wettest rainforest in the contiguous United States. For days the cremated remains of ancient Hemlock, Spruce, and Douglas Fir coated the skies, bathing Seattle in an eerie orange sunlight.
I’d watched all this happen throughout 2015, because I am an anxious, climate-change-obsessed 33 year old. So I shouldn’t have been surprised at what Lisa and I saw as we walked through the bushes surrounding Rattlesnake Lake’s parking lot and down the gravel incline to the mud flats.
Instead, we froze. The difference was staggering.
Our footprints crisscrossed the mud, walking on what used to be streets that ran between what used to be homes that all used to be underwater. Adding to the spookiness, the spongy lakebed absorbed the sound, giving our surroundings the muted atmosphere of a cemetery. The bark of dogs as they chased balls in the mud and the excited shrieks of children playing in the streambeds trickling into the lake were distant and low.
We began circling the lake, passing beneath well-preserved stumps of Cedar and Douglas Fir. Without oxygen to feed the rot, they stood like temple columns decapitated by a conquering army. We climbed on top of them and monkeyed over them, unable to contain the giddiness that comes when looking at something so gargantuan its ridiculous.
As we got over the sheer size of the trunks, they began to take on individual personalities. With their exposed roots splayed out like tentacles in the soil, they resembled beached cephalopods scurrying back into the water after a strong wave. The notches cut out of the trunks for the loggers’ springboards became eyes, watching people walk past for the first time since World War I began.
The loggers that cut these notches were some of the first settlers of the town that was once here. Balanced atop the lumber planks sticking out of the carved slots, they felled this tree with axes and saws, then moved on to the next.
By 1906 they’d cleared this stand of old growth and used it to build the town of Moncton, Washington on the north shore of the lake. From there, the town grew up steadily around the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Rail line that ran through the Cedar River watershed a half mile south.
By May, 1915, Moncton was home to dozens of families of rail, lumber, and water workers. Visitors could stay in the local hotel, eat at several restaurants, or drink in the saloon after a shave in the barber shop.
Unbeknownst to the 200 citizens that May, their town had only weeks to exist.
Rain pattered onto the muddy streets from the grey skies, as it had every spring since the town’s founding nine years before. The purple Camas Lilies that surrounded the lake had already bloomed. Now their seed pods shook in the wind like a rattlesnake’s tail, which gave the lake its name. Mothers cleaned their homes or shopped for supplies in the few stores while their children walked their younger siblings to the schoolhouse on the north end of town. The teenagers rode horses to the nearest high school, seven miles away.
The only recent change was the construction of a masonry dam upriver the year before. Contracted by the Seattle government, it fed electric power into the thriving port city thirty five miles to the west. Between the rainy fall of 1914 and the equally rainy winter and spring of 1915, the dam’s reservoir had filled to capacity. However, the Pacific Northwest’s famously damp weather continued overfilling it. Billions of raindrops tapped onto the surface, exposing the flaw in the construction. Beneath months of steady pressure, the water squeezed through the dam’s porous base of glacial moraine and began tunneling desperately toward the nearest exit.
The first signs of the coming flood confounded Moncton. Shoes sank into marshy streets. Puddles formed even beneath the infrequent clear skies. The lake’s waterline began creeping over its banks to lap against the nearest houses.
Within days, the water found its exit. Geysers burst from the clear cut hillsides above the town, carving a path through the soil into the lake. At first, the residents tried to ignore it, hoping it would stop soon. Reality gradually set in as they woke each day to find the lake waters a foot higher than the morning before.
The reservoir began to empty faster and faster as 4.2 million gallons drained daily through the base into the lake. Caught in this slow motion deluge, houses popped off their foundations, bobbing like corks in the center of the growing lake.
Over the summer, families began to evacuate, desperately rowing from their homes with the few possessions they could salvage.
By the fall of 1915, all the citizens had relocated. When the seasonal rains returned, they no longer fell atop the streets of Moncton. The town lay beneath the waters of Rattlesnake Lake, slowly breaking apart.
When the waters briefly receded, the homes that couldn’t be moved or salvaged were torn apart, doused in kerosene, and burnt to ash. Soon after, the lake flooded back over the streets.
One hundred years later these were the remains of Moncton.
A century seems like ancient history in America. The trans-continental railroads were only decades old when when the first settlers of Moncton entered this pristine forest armed with axes and bandsaws. When the city disappeared, the Lusitania had just been sunk and America began to reconsider its isolationist stance in the world. And yet, in 2015, this dry lakebed resembled the quiet aftermath of a recent disaster.
Lisa and I continued through this wasteland of bleached stumps surrounded by evergreens browning in the heat. In the newly exposed space, hobbyists flew their drones and couples chatted as they explored the site hand in hand. The odd beer can and plastic bag stuck out of the damp silt, tossed off inflatable rafts and innertubes by past summer crowds as they floated above. In any other year, Rainbow Trout would be swimming past where we strolled. It was hard to fathom how much water had disappeared.
And standing in that bare mud among toppled cedar columns and the rubble of houses beneath a disturbingly hot autumn day, I had the oddest sensation. While gazing at these exposed relics, I was also staring into the future of Rattlesnake Lake. This drought would happen again. These disastrous summer temperatures would one day be considered normal. The stumps, mud, and crumbled foundations would eventually replace where Rattlesnake Lake used to be.
Then I got dumped via text message, which didn’t exactly raise my spirits.
By the end of the walk, I was worn out from all the foreboding. My friend Lisa was not, because she is not an anxious, climate-change-obsessed 33-year-old. Her obsessions are Legend of Zelda and anime, which makes for a much lighter worldview. Either way, it was time to go. Our footprints led back across the silty mud to the gravel incline of the parking lot.
Just before walking through the bushes, I gazed back one last time, taking it all in. By October, 1915, this town had disappeared beneath the lake. A century later, scientists had declared that this was the hottest year on record.
I wonder the citizens of Moncton would appreciate the irony of how we’ll soon be praying for more water here.
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Uncredited photos by Paul Barach and Lisa Wallen