All Over The Map: Mysterious handprints and footprints in ancient lava

Sep 2, 2022, 9:49 AM | Updated: Oct 25, 2022, 4:19 pm

A set of handprints and footprints are visible in 8,100-year old lava (now basalt) under the waters of Goose Lake, part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington. (Courtesy US Forest Service) Detail from a 1926 USGS map showing the location of Goose Lake on the edge of a geologic feature called Big Lava Bed. (USGS Archives) Detail from a 1953 USGS map showing location of Goose Lake near the Columbia River Gorge, not far from Stevenson, Washington. (USGS Archives)

Mysterious footprints and handprints in an ancient lava bed in southwest Washington near Mount Adams have inspired Indigenous origin stories for millennia and confounded settlers for more than a century.

The prints are in Goose Lake, near a campground that’s part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The lake is about a four-hour drive from Seattle, and not far from the Columbia River Gorge in the shadow of Mount Adams – one of Washington’s lesser-known, though no less majestic, volcanoes.

Though once on dryland, the prints are now almost always underwater. They consist of one set of human footprints and handprints in the old lava – now basalt – which were made in molten rock on the edge of a geologic feature known as Big Lava Bed. Geologists say the prints have been there for thousands of years, but it’s believed they were first noticed by settlers sometime in the 1890s. Magazine and newspaper articles about the prints began appearing every so often about 100 years ago, and their mysterious nature – and many decades underwater – have made them ideal content for the web.

Matthew Mawhirter, heritage program manager for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, says that when the Goose Lake prints are visible, it’s easy to speculate how they were made.

“What you would see is two feet, side by side, as if somebody was just standing there,” Mawhirter told KIRO Newsradio. “And then the two handprints are just a little ways in front of that as if, imagine jumping off a rock and landing on your feet, but having too much momentum, and you fall forward and you put your hands down on the ground to catch yourself, and then you pushed up to try to stand back up.”

Accessibility and visibility vary from year to year and season to season, depending on the water level at Goose Lake, which depends on the weather.

A century ago – when those magazine and newspaper articles were first appearing – the prints were routinely above the waterline at Goose Lake and easily accessible to tourists and scientists. Thus, they were studied and photographed, and a few specific facts about the prints have become generally accepted by Forest Service archaeologists and other experts.

One fact is that, based on their size, they’re believed to have been made by a woman or a teenage girl. A second fact is the age of the prints: Big Lava Bed was formed by molten rock roughly 8,100 years ago, so this is truly ancient history, inadvertently documenting a specific (and perhaps traumatic) moment for a human inhabitant in what is now the Evergreen State. Also, the feet appear to have been clad in what would be described as moccasins (though that word is from an Indigenous language in the eastern United States) – or simple footwear made from animal hide.

Beyond these basics – which are few by which are still pretty tantalizing – the rest of the story all gets pretty mysterious.

“You have perfect foot and hand prints, but then there’s nothing,” Mawhirter said. “You don’t see footprints running off, you don’t see anything – and it’s not like it’s right on the edge of the lava, either, of that lava flow.”

“I’m not a volcanologist, but I can imagine that for rock to still be pliable it’s still got to be hot enough that you would not want to put your bare skin on it, let alone stand on it,” Mawhirter said.

“So it’s not clear how they made those imprints there,” Mawhirter continued. “Was that just a soft spot [in the lava] and the rest of it was already hard? It’s one of the mysteries.”

Though not a mystery, Mawhirter says that the water level – and the visibility of the prints – at Goose Lake is hard to predict. Unlike most lakes which drain via creeks or rivers, Goose Lake drains through an old volcanic vent in the middle of the lake bed – so when it does drain, it’s more like a bathtub.

Settlers tried for decades to intentionally plug the volcanic vent so that Goose Lake would get deeper and larger. In 1963, when the vent finally did become plugged, the prints in the lava were covered with several feet of water and were pretty much lost for about 30 years.

Fast-forward to 1991, and a man from Portland named Larry King (no, not that Larry King) did a thorough search using snorkel gear, an underwater camera and a grid marked out with a sighting compass. King found the prints again, though they’d been obscured by algae and sediment. He also built a cofferdam around them and made a plaster cast – a copy of which is on display at the nearby Trout Lake Ranger Station.

Mawhirter says that stories about the prints go far back beyond the arrival of settlers. The Indigenous people who lived in that area since time immemorial are associated with the Yakama Nation, which is not too far east of Goose Lake. Over the years, the Forest Service has collected Indigenous origin stories about the prints, including one about a young maiden leaping from a mountain top to escape an evil spirit. Forest Service files say “the prints are referred to as ‘Wa tikch’,’ which in [the Indigenous language] Sahaptin means ‘tracks.’”

For those interested in seeing the prints in person, Matthew Mawhirter of the Forest Service says they were visible last year – for those willing to waded out into the water, and as long as the water didn’t get too stirred up with sediment.

“I was up there a week ago and the water’s been coming down pretty quick with all the heat,” Mawhirter said. “So this could be another year where it gets [to a] pretty low water mark and you can see them.”

Once the Northwest rains return and the Goose Lake ‘bathtub’ fills up again, there’s no telling how long it will be until the mysterious prints are accessible and visible once again.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or questions, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Mysterious handprints and footprints in ancient lava