A raucous crow woke me on the last day of our paddling trip. I rolled out of my sleeping bag and looked at my watch. It was 5:30, which gave me plenty of time to join several others for a short, pre-breakfast hike.
We followed the crisscrossing tracks of field mice to the top of a hill, which provided a good view of the Spokane River stretching broad and flat toward the Columbia. Shortly after 8 a.m., we broke camp. Our takeout was 11 miles downstream, near the Two Rivers Casino.
Bill Matt Sr., our host the night before at Blue Creek on the Spokane Indian Reservation, had pointed out the long, undeveloped stretch of shoreline on the reservation.
“You notice that we have no buildings close to the water,” he said, adding that the tribe deliberately kept a natural shoreline. “It will be that way forever – except for the Two Rivers Casino,” Matt added, drawing chuckles.
The lower 29 miles of the Spokane River are also called the Spokane Arm of Lake Roosevelt, because water levels are controlled by the Grand Coulee Dam. Headwinds can be a challenge on this stretch of slackwater. We were lucky to have a tailwind pushing us along.
During our morning break, I picked up a jaunty turkey feather to tuck in my hatband. After four days of consecutive kayaking, I felt like my paddling rhythm and endurance were finally developing.
Stan Miller, who made the trip solo in a cedar canoe he built himself, had frequently razzed me for slacking off. My focus drifted while I was talking, he accurately noted.
Shortly before noon, we pulled up to the dock. “We accomplished our task,” trip organizer Andy Dunau said amid the chaos of loading kayaks onto trailers and getting two dozen people fed and packed for the trip home.
More than 80 people participated in various parts of the seven-leg trip along the 111-mile Spokane River, which took place over two long weekends. “That’s 80 people who now care more about the river and feel more connected to it,” said Dunau, executive director of the Spokane River Forum.
The nonprofit forum started this year with $150,000 from the state of Washington. Members include government, tribes, community and recreational groups, industry, and environmental organizations. The goal is to create a clearinghouse for river information.
An updated Web site, out this fall, will provide information on recreational, cleanup and educational opportunities. Dunau also is planning a two-day Spokane River conference in January.
As we packed into vans for the ride home, paddlers began to sort their impressions.
“Before the trip, my view of the river was snapshots – it was a picture-postcard view of Riverfront Park, or the falls, or the Bowl and Pitcher. I didn’t think of the river as a system and an interconnected part … of Eastern Washington and Idaho,” said Ken Brown, executive director of technology for Spokane Public Schools.
Portaging around the dams reminded Brown that “it really is a chopped-up river … Even with all that, it’s got beauty and things we take for granted. The river is both our sewer and our drinking water. It is fish habitat and a food source. It has industrial and residential uses. It’s a place of recreation and – as we learned from our friends at the Spokane Tribe – it’s also a spiritual place.”
Even as tremendous resources go into cleaning up the Spokane River, the water quality faces threats from residential development. Our paddling group saw many new homes on the shoreline, with green lawns stretching to the water. About 10 percent to 20 percent of the phosphorus in the river comes from septic tanks, sediment and runoff from lawn fertilizers, according to the Washington state Department of Ecology.
“I hadn’t realized there was so much development. The thing that disappointed me is that it was allowed so close to the river,” said Stan Miller, who retired several years ago from Spokane County’s water resources program. “When a guy has a lawn that goes right into Long Lake, don’t tell me that you’re not adding phosphorus, because I know that you’re fertilizing your lawn.”
Aside from motor boat and personal watercraft traffic on Long Lake and parts of the Upper Spokane, our group frequently had the river to ourselves. We talked about the desire for more people to become knowledgeable about the river through recreating on it. We also discussed the effects of human use, including litter and displaced wildlife.
“The thing that keeps bugging me is the balance part,” said Barbara Lawson, an occupational therapist in the West Valley School District. “How are we going to get it more utilized, but in a positive way? I’ve been camping and canoeing all my life. I’ve seen areas that were pristine become compromised when they were discovered.”
Alden Sherrodd thinks neighborhoods should adopt stretches of the river between Upriver Dam and downtown. “There’s such good access, and it’s really underutilized,” said Sherrodd, a retired mechanic from Greenacres. “It should look like those scenes you see in a Victorian park with everyone in rowboats. It would be a cool place to learn to canoe or use a rowboat. Someone should be out there renting them.”
The willow-lined stretches also could benefit from regular neighborhood cleanups. Sherrodd said he was startled to see so many shopping carts poking out of the water.
“They could grab a shopping cart out of the river, fill it full of garbage and wheel it to the street,” he said.
“We could start talking about what it means to be a steward of the river,” Lawson said. “It always bugs me that people wash their cars in the street and don’t realize that it goes straight into our drinking water. Everyone has to start thinking about what stewardship will mean in their daily life. … There are things I need to change, too. I want to be much more conscious of watering my garden. If we draw down the aquifer, we draw down the river.”