Sometimes Joe Peak and his neighbors wonder if it’s possible to love a river to death.
On Friday he counted 120 cars parked near a one-lane bridge over the Coeur d’Alene River north of Kingston – a low number for a river-floating hotspot where 600 floaters can come through in a hot afternoon.
“That’s a lot for a four-mile stretch of river,” said Peak, who owns the Enaville Resort just up the street.
In the past few years, inflatable boat traffic on the lazy and beautiful stretch of water has increased dramatically, leaving many residents and local law enforcement concerned about the area’s future.
“The bottom of the river is starting to look like a dump,” said Peak.
Beccy Hiatt, who’s been coming from her home in Kellogg to float the north fork of the Coeur d’Alene for most of her 49 years, said she’s observed the same thing.
“Some days its looks like you could just walk across the river on floats, it’s so thick,” she said, while waiting to pick up floaters near a popular access point.
On a sunny weekend, Hiatt can see why the float is so popular.
“It’s a good way to blow a day … it’s pretty much enforced relaxation,” she said.
But some say there has also been an increasing problem with people getting a little too relaxed.
Nudity, public urination, and the negative effects of drinking beer for five hours have become more common, according to Hiatt and people who live on the river.
“By the time they get out, it’s not a condition you want to drive this road in,” Hiatt said.
So far this summer, there have been three motorcycle accidents and one traffic death, and five people have driven into that stretch of the river, said Shoshone County Sheriff Chuck Reynalds.
“We’re going to take back the river,” Reynalds said of increased emphasis on the area that started two years ago. Six deputies now patrol the area on an average weekend.
“Zero tolerance,” is the order for officers who see drunken driving, speeding, littering, trespassing or anything else illegal on the Coeur d’Alene.
Last weekend, the result of that policy was 18 arrests and about 120 traffic citations in the area, Reynalds said. On their busiest weekend this summer, he said, they netted more than 220 citations and arrested about 70 people.
Duane Williams’ family has lived on 90 or more acres on the river since before Woodrow Wilson signed the deed for it nearly 100 years ago.
Williams said floating has always been a part of summer on the river, but in the last two years the number of floaters has jumped.
“It only takes a few of them to screw it up for the ones who do it right,” he said.
On Saturday, just after he explained how he picks up two or three bags of garbage off his waterfront on a busy weekend, a pickup loaded with rafts pulled into his driveway.
Seeing Williams, a woman asked him if she could launch from his property, and he said it was fine as long as they didn’t leave any trash.
“It’s nice when they ask,” he said.
But others aren’t as thoughtful.
Duane and Paula Williams said they think everyone has a right to use and enjoy the river, but lately people have been treating their land like a public restroom right in front of their family.
“You’ve got to draw the line” she said.
Land along the popular floating stretch is almost all private with no public bathrooms. But “I don’t go to their house and potty on their front yard,” Paula Williams said.
They emphasized that most floaters are respectful. They are fearful, though, that the actions of a few people could lead to eventual restrictions on floating, fishing and other uses of the river that people have enjoyed for decades, they said.
“We’re getting a lot more inconsiderate jerks,” said Cori Freed, 27, of Post Falls as she floated with a group of people who said they’ve used the river since high school.
All of their beer cans make it back into coolers, they said. And they expressed the same disdain for increased litter as the landowners; they pointed out trash on the river bottom where the deepening water turns from golden to dark turquoise.
“It’s starting to lose its beauty,” said Katie Waechter, who, with her husband, owns the land next to where Freed was floating. Recently they have even talked about moving because of the floater traffic, she said.
About 30 to 50 acres of campsites have been approved next to the river in the last two years, said the county’s planning and zoning administrator, Jeff Legg, which could explain some of the increased use.
Many who frequent the river, though, fear that more people enjoying the river has come at a cost.
“Everyone’s finding out that we have a beautiful spot, and it’s going away,” Waechter said.
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