The Columbia River changes where it bends closest to Spokane.
The hills are drier and the pine forests thinner than farther north. Rattlesnakes are more common than bears.
The water in Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir formed by Grand Coulee Dam, heats slightly as the Columbia is joined by the Spokane River, which typically runs 7 to 8 degrees warmer than the larger waterway. The big river changes course, bending west after having flowed south for 400 miles, the last 100 in Washington.
The biggest change is the number of people on the water. National Park Service officials say recreational use of Lake Roosevelt jumped 26 percent last year and probably will rise that much this year. Most of those people go to the Fort Spokane area, a 90-minute drive from the city.
On more remote portions of the reservoir, the midweek voyager sees few other boats on blustery spring days.
But at Fort Spokane, boats dot the water even in bad weather and nearly cover it on sunny weekends.
Parking spaces at the launch can be rarer than they are downtown at Christmastime.
Terri Ray is among the boaters most weekends, weaving her Boston Whaler around the sportier Sun Runners and SeaRays and Bayliners.
Let the others wear shorts and pale bare skin; Ray covers her compact body in heavy green jeans and - always while on the water - a life jacket with “Park Ranger” stenciled on the back. A .357 Magnum hangs from her hip, a duffel bag of supplies lies at her feet, a supply of fishing and boating regulations is close at hand.
A registered nurse, her first national park job was waiting tables in Yellowstone. Ray joined the National Park Service, which oversees Coulee Dam National Recreation Area, to share her enthusiasm for the outdoors. Now she writes more tickets than trail reports.
“It can be a mess out there, jampacked with boaters, and we go from one violation to another,” says the 30-year-old Indiana native. “We’ve already made more arrests this year than we did all last summer.”
Speedsters, bow-riders, fish hogs and party animals beware.
“Have you trained with the Coast Guard? You’re as bad as they are,” says a 70-year-old walleye fisherman, part of a party of three from Port Townsend, Wash.
Ray inspects the grumbling trio’s boat, squeezing the life jackets to listen for leaks, shaking the fire extinguisher, checking the registration and offering safety tips. The retirees remind her they’ve boated since before she was born.
The men become indignant, railing against fishing regulations and the government when Ray fines one of them $95 for keeping a 19-inch fish. Walleye between 16 and 20 inches must be released because they’re the most likely to spawn, she explains.
“It’s no wonder the American taxpayer is ticked off, my dear,” says the 70-year-old. “You don’t need a Boston Whaler. That’s the most expensive boat there is.”
“Enjoy the fishing,” Ray says calmly.
Ray suspects the men would have given a male ranger a tougher time. That’s the advantage of her gender; the disadvantage is keeping an air of authority when older couples want to hug her and men try to bully her.
“Hi ya, honey,” a 30-something camper pushing a pot belly shouts when the ranger beaches the boat at the Porcupine Bay campground. The man’s friends laugh. Ray either doesn’t hear or ignores the comment.
Later, Ray pulls beside Ron Banka’s Bayliner for a safety inspection.
Banka cheerfully complies with each Ray request, and jokes about his lousy fishing luck. He promises to buy extra life jackets and wishes Ray a good day as she pulls away.
Banka is typical of most boaters and campers she meets, Ray says. But only once in two years has anyone told her, “I’m sorry. I screwed up,” as she was writing a ticket.
Still, she can’t think of anything she’d rather do. And she’ll head for her favorite crowded playground, Yellowstone, for vacation this year.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Two Photos, One Color; One Map: Fort Spokane