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White water in the heart of Spokane

Wed., July 16, 2008

Rafters put in just below falls for a taste of the river’s wilder side

‘Listen,” said our rafting guide, “that’s the Devil’s Toenail.”

The rapids were still out of sight, around a bend in the Spokane River. But we could hear the chaotic crash and churn of the water echoing from the canyon’s walls.

I was about to head through rapids with Class IV characteristics. To my surprise, the experience was taking place within 10 miles of downtown Spokane.

On Sunday morning, our group gathered at the Water Street access area in the Peaceful Valley neighborhood, just upstream from the Maple Street Bridge. We were headed to Plese Flats in Riverside State Park. The 10-mile float would take us through the river’s most difficult rapids – the Bowl and Pitcher and the Devil’s Toenail.

We traveled this segment of the Spokane River out of sequence to take advantage of high flows. The river was running at 4,100 cubic feet per second – impressive to a novice rafter like me, but way down from the river’s 16,500 cubic feet per second at the end of June. With the hot temperatures, our guides weren’t sure the flows would last another week.

A bald eagle gliding over the water interrupted our prerafting safety instructions. We gawked, pointed and took pictures like tourists.

This part of the river, with its regal basalt cliffs, was new to me. Nearly a century earlier, the Olmsted Brothers – who designed Spokane’s city parks – envisioned a “Great Gorge” greenbelt stretching from downtown to Fort George Wright, with connecting parks.

In 1997, the nonprofit Friends of the Falls formed to revive that vision.

“This gorge area is right in the heart of downtown,” said Steve Faust, Friends of the Falls executive director. “But it doesn’t feel like you’re in the middle of a city … . You’re in a canyon, and you have this sense of being isolated.”

A master plan calls for trails, viewing platforms and other recreational opportunities in the gorge.

Shortly after we launched, we drifted past the site of the first proposed project: a white-water park near the TJ Meenach pedestrian bridge.

“It’s sort of like a skateboard park for kayakers,” Faust explained. “It creates the waves to do flips and spins.”

The $1 million white-water park is a joint project of Friends of the Falls and the city of Spokane’s Parks and Recreation Department. A design will be unveiled this month. Proponents hope to start construction next year.

This part of the river looks pristine, with its dark rock, big pines and alternating stretches of calm and fast-flowing water. Part of the area is bordered by Riverside State Park. Houses, when they appeared, were distant.

Deer trekked up hillsides, and osprey were plentiful.

Osprey populations have rebounded since 1972, when the insecticide DDT was banned. The migratory birds return to nest along the Spokane River in early April. In fall, they leave for wintering grounds in California and Mexico.

The birds’ theatrical, feet-first dives into the water are fun to watch. One osprey caught its fish Sunday and flew its meal from tree to tree.

“Those fish must taste better seasoned,” said Alden Sherrodd.

Sherrodd, who is retired and lives along the upper stretch of the Spokane River, was in my raft Sunday. My other partners were Brian Crossley, a fish biologist with the Spokane Tribe; Scott Thompson, manager of the Spokane Boat Show; and Jeff Bray, co-owner of River City River Runners.

I had ended up with a bunch of thrill-seekers. Bray cheerfully taunted the other rafting guides. He promised us a wild ride – but first, we had to prove ourselves with practice drills.

Rafting is a sideline for Bray, who works full-time as a carpet salesman at Great Floors. About five years ago, he and Paul Delaney started River City River Runners. The company is one of several offering guided rafting tours on the Spokane River.

As we approached the Devil’s Toenail, the other rafts stayed to the right. Bray kept his promise to give us a frenzied ride on the rapid’s more challenging left side. We followed his instructions to “Dig, dig, dig!” with deep, fast paddle strokes. I took a blast of water to the face. The raft made a graceful turn as it dropped. There was an airborne feeling.

Bray later deconstructed the ride for me: “We set up on river left … . We pillowed sideways into a rock. The water pushed us backwards into a big, gnarly hole. We came out clean.”

Contact Becky Kramer at (208) 765-7122, or by e-mail at

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