Don’t go down to the river. Generations of local kids heard that warning. Parents didn’t want their children playing on the Spokane River’s polluted banks.
Chris Donley’s dad was one of them.
“I can remember it,” said Donley, a Cheney native. “I was a teenager, looking to burn up all of his gas and catch all the trout I could reach in less than a day’s drive. But we weren’t encouraged to fish the Spokane River.”
Donley’s dad had his reasons. Once the source of life-sustaining salmon runs for Native people, the river had become a foul place.
Until the late 1950s, the city of Spokane pumped raw sewage directly into the river. Its slack waters were repositories for heavy metals and other industrial pollutants. Some stretches smelled so bad that homes were built far back on the bank.
The 80-pound chinooks – known as June hogs – had disappeared decades earlier. Dams without fish ladders stopped the salmon runs.
“In the hurry to make money and build houses, under the guise of economic development, we forgot about the river,” said Donley, now a district fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It was a slow but sure deterioration from neglect.”
The river is cleaner now. And it’s starting to regain its cultural prominence.
People want to live on it, fish on it, kayak and raft it. No longer a sewer, the river is the centerpiece of the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau’s “Near Nature, Near Perfect” campaign to attract tourists and keep locals recreating at home.
People feel protective of the river, too. In a Robinson Research survey last year, nearly 80 percent of respondents rated cleaning up or protecting the river as “very important.” The survey of 600 Spokane, Stevens and Lincoln county residents was paid for by the Center for Justice, a public interest law firm in Spokane.
“As a culture, we’re in the process of rediscovering this river,” said Andy Dunau, executive director of the nonprofit Spokane River Forum, a clearinghouse for river-related issues.
Yet Dunau still detects echoes of the “don’t go down to the river” mentality. Many residents are simply unfamiliar with long stretches of the river, he said. To re-engage people, Dunau organized a paddling expedition that will cover the Spokane River’s entire length.
On Friday, 21 people launched canoes and kayaks at North Idaho College’s beach in Coeur d’Alene. It was the first leg of the seven-day trip taking place over two long weekends. On July 21, the paddlers will arrive at the Spokane River’s confluence with the Columbia. More than 100 people will participate in various parts of the trip.
In addition to recreation, the outing is a chance to explore how far the Spokane River has come, and the critical challenges it still faces:
•As the population grows, more water is pumped from the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, leading to lower flows in the river.
•Thirty years after efforts to curb phosphorus in the river began, algae blooms remain a problem in Long Lake, a Spokane River reservoir that’s also known as Lake Spokane.
•Upstream mines no longer dump tailings into the river, but toxic chemicals wash off urban streets and flow into the river during heavy rains.
•In some stretches of the river, the fish are unsafe to eat.
“If we really want to do right by the river, we have to think about the whole thing,” Dunau said. “There’s something mysterious about the river. It goes through all these different settings … but people only have experiences with different pieces of it.”
A 2,400-square-mile watershed
Most of the region is connected to the Spokane River. Its watershed drains 2,400 square miles, including three Idaho counties – Kootenai, Bonner and Benewah – and parts of five Washington counties: Spokane, Stevens, Lincoln, Pend Oreille and Whitman. The watershed encompasses mountains and wheat fields, urban areas and rural areas.
The river itself is relatively short – 111 miles. But as it flows from Lake Coeur d’Alene to the Columbia River, it passes through at least six cities. Archeological evidence suggests that people have lived along the Spokane River for thousands of years.
Pauline Flett, a native speaker of the Spokane language, told Garrison Keillor a story of the river’s origins during a 1998 taping of the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion” at the Spokane Opera House.
An earthquake ravaged the land, followed by a terrible flood. A boy and a girl took shelter on Mount Spokane. When the flood passed, they saw a flowing stream with beautiful waterfalls and rapids.
“What is crawling in the river? It’s a salmon,” the girl cried.
The discovery of salmon gave hope to the people, who became three bands: the Upper, Middle and Lower Spokanes, based on where they lived along the river.
Today, about 600,000 people live within an hour’s drive of the river. Many seldom even see it.
“It’s a hidden river,” said Judy Kaufman, an angler from Liberty Lake. “Unless you’re going across a bridge or walking on the Centennial Trail, you don’t really get to see it.”
Even real estate development on the water neglects the river. Cabela’s sits on a bluff above the Spokane River, but the giant sporting-goods store turns a blank, concrete wall to the rapids below. Good places for viewing many of the river’s most scenic spots are rare.
“If you want the best view of the gorge below Monroe Street, go to the top of the River Park Square parking garage and look through the chain-link fence,” Dunau said.
The lack of familiarity with the river hampers community activism, Dunau said. If people don’t know the river, it’s difficult for them to judge how plans for minimum stream flows or shoreline development or wastewater discharges will affect beaches, fishing holes or scenic views.
“I think if the community recreated more on it they’d have more of a feeling for it – instead of just the complexities and that’s it’s polluted and you can’t eat the fish,” Kaufman said.
Purging old images of the river from the community’s collective memory will take time.
“It’s hard for me to get that image out of my memory,” said Donley, the Cheney native, “of watching toilet paper float by.”