The wise elders in families and communities help the younger ones connect past, present and future. They provide perspective and advice. Vic and Robbi Castleberry are wise elders for the Spokane River.
The Castleberrys are in their early 70s. They have canoed the Spokane River for almost 40 years. They also work on river education, safety and cleanup. At Plese Flats, a canoe and kayak launching area in Riverside State Park, the Castleberrys shared some of their collective river wisdom with Rebecca Nappi, editorial board member.
Q: How did you first fall in love with the Spokane River?
Robbi: That goes back aways. When Vic and I were first married in 1968, I had power-boated and Vic had sailed, and we sailed together, and we still sail. But the one thing we decided was the powerboat is kind of getting not so important to us anymore so let’s see about this canoeing thing. So we went to a show and they had aluminum canoes, Grumman canoes, on sale the last day of the show. So we bought the canoe and it turned out to be a river canoe rather than a lake canoe — a lake canoe would have had a keel — so we thought well, that must be a sign. We started with this aluminum canoe.
We became interested in the Spokane Canoe & Kayak Club and we joined them and learned much more about canoeing and in the ensuing time, we sold that canoe but I think through a series of canoes and canoes and canoes, I think we now have about eight of them hanging in different buildings. One for each event, like you see on the top of the car today this is for flat water and the river. And rivers just became a very important part of our life and it was at that point we began to realize what a wonderful resource the rivers are.
Vic: The river took on new significance when we joined the club and were instrumental in developing a rescue and training type thing. People could come with little knowledge of using a canoe and they could take a course where they learned about whitewater canoeing, now it’s called moving water canoeing. We were both instructors in that and worked on the Spokane River and found the river is such an ideal instrument in this area because it runs through the town. It has very little traffic on it and doesn’t have any motorized vehicles on it and it’s a source of opportunity for people to come with little knowledge and in a very short time they can feel very confident in doing river work. In that type of activity, you begin to notice wildlife and plants and other things along the riverside you’re just not aware of. And then maybe some friend is a geologist and you start seeing different types of rocks. It just puts you in areas that many people have no idea are there. It’s marvelous. We would like to keep it that way.
Q: Tell us about the club. What it does. How it got started.
Robbi: It started out and there were two clubs. Spokane Canoe Club. And the Kayak Club. For a number of years, they were separate. As the population grew and we began to understand more about running rivers, more of the canoeists were moving into whitewater areas that were the purview of the kayaks. So it was natural for us to ask them to accompany us, to ask if we could go with them and always send them down the rapid first because they are all decked over and they don’t get swamped.
So a relationship developed and finally the two clubs joined and the original club was just a social club where they met and went on rivers and camped overnight. As Vic was explaining earlier, in order for people to fall in love with the river, like we had, they had to be on there. And the only way to do that safely was for the Canoe & Kayak Club to give lessons, which they did. And then the two clubs joined and the lessons expanded across the board from racing to flat-water canoeing to whitewater canoeing to family canoeing, how to pack a canoe for a trip, then kayaking, those classes are there and now we have classes in sea kayaking which are becoming very, very popular.
Now the club is fulfilling a larger role. Along with that, the club is active in promoting the new whitewater park on the river, promoting new access areas along the rivers. It has become a really large focal point for the rivers in the area.
Q: How many members?
Robbi: There are, I believe, over 250.
Q: How would your characterize who the members are?
Vic: It’s a very diverse group. There are people there who do science work, computer technology work, who are working in trades, such as sheet metal workers. There are some engineers and doctors. It’s quite a diverse group. And they come together on, more or less, an equal playing ground.
Q: You’ve known and loved this river for a long time. If this river were a person, male or female, what five words would describe who this river is.
Robbi: This river is serene. This river is an intelligent part of our nature and environment. This river is a wonderful resource person. This river is a spiritual river.
Vic: I would add that this river is a historical site. It is moving water, therefore it has come from the sea and is going back to the sea. But it still carries memories of present and past events.
Q: What do you see as the biggest threat to the river right now?
Robbi: The biggest threat to this river, and it has moderated in the past few years, is a type of apathy. It’s a type of “OK, the river flows through Spokane, so great, we look at it when we go through Riverfront Park or if we walk on the Centennial Trail.” And I fear that this acceptance does not involve the care and the knowledge that there are many things we need to look at to correct problems in the river. If there is some way we can make more people aware that it is a beautiful resource. Let’s enhance it, no longer degrade it.
Vic: The river is a reflection of our aquifer. It is the other side of the coin of the Spokane Aquifer that is the sole drinking source for a half-million people. The greatest threat, therefore, to it is also the greatest threat to our aquifer. As populations increase, the old concept of using the rivers to rid yourself of pollutants has to be totally kicked out. You have to look at it as a pristine type of commodity that you do not mess with.
Q: That leads to my wastewater question. Wastewater is a big issue here and will continue to be. Where should we put our wastewater? Give me your thoughts on the wastewater debate.
Robbi: The first thought is that when you canoe by the present wastewater treatment plant (in Spokane) it is a pretty fast trip because it’s kind of smelly up there. I think it is a very serious problem. It needs to be looked at very carefully. There have been a number of proposals from pumping it up away from the river to holding ponds.
I think the main point I would personally like to see the best science applied that we can find. It may be expensive, but we have to weigh that against what we are doing with this resource. We will continue to have people moving here. We ourselves produce children and grandchildren. We need to be very, very careful that we pick the best route we can to handle that population and that wastewater. If we can put someone on the moon, we can figure out how to handle this wastewater in the proper manner, not degrade our resource, the Spokane River, and not degrade the area we play in.
Vic: I was reading in the New York Times that in this current century, another 75 years or so, this whole country could become a billion people, like China. That’s a terrible thought. What would happen to the river in the course of that change? We have to figure out what to do with wastewater and runoff water and it could go back into the river if there were technology to put it back in pure H20 form. But as long as it’s carrying possible contaminants, PCBs and all that type of thing, our society is challenged to understand what to do with it.
Whether it becomes something that can be shipped elsewhere for use on the farms, there has to be a lot of different options looked at before it’s turned back into the river. It’s especially true if you are dumping sewage or runoff water above the city. That’s even more astounding that would be considered. It’s tricky to do it out here when you are north of the city and sort of out of sight. Of course you do have Lake Spokane below us and lots of residential folks down there. Wastewater has to go down the river and it has to be in a form that won’t totally destroy that environment. I don’t know if that answered your question what to do with it. I’m not sure anyone has that answer.
Q: Speaking of residential stresses on the river, about 15 years ago I met a woman who had moved here from the East and she commented how trashy some of the homes were on the Spokane River. She said, “You’d never find that in the East.” I always saw those homes as a guarantee the river would never get too elitist. I worry now, when I see the deluxe high-rise condos along the river and those million-to-half-million dollar homes going up. Your thoughts on that.
Robbi: I have to agree with you. I think 15 years ago, a lot of the homes on certain parts of the river were just ordinary homes. Well, what I consider an ordinary home is no longer ordinary. When you watch what is going up. These homes have three and four stories. They have turrets. They have three-car garages and the big push is to put them in a view or on water. So consequently is what we are seeing over the last few years is continued development along those open spaces on the river and also redevelopment of homes that were, like in Peaceful Valley. Suddenly, you are having large homes developed there, prices going up, no longer do you have median income on these waterfront lots. It’s just a fact of development.
Vic: I remember 15 years ago, going down some of the river, particularly by Argonne Bridge and you’d see homes where there had been attempts to create docks and destabilize banks by creating beaches. Those were disconcerting. I think they were probably illegal. I’m sure they are. What’s happened in the past 15 years, I agree there has been a lot of development with larger, expensive houses and condos and where does it go from there?
Robbi: Can I insert one thing? In all of this, one of the great attributes that has developed along the river and that prevented a large encroachment and lack of space of public for the public to get to the river has been the development of the Centennial Trail. We’ve preserved that portion which will remain there and we have to be very thankful for that.
Q: You live in the Rimrock area (west of Spokane) and you’ve placed your 16-acre property under an easement with the Inland Northwest Land Trust. This means that land will be maintained forever in its rural state. What would you say to landowners along the Spokane River who might also have this conservation option?
Robbi: I would suggest to them that it is a very good idea. If you are predisposed, as Vic and I were, to want to see this open space maintained. In our case, it was close to Palisades Park. We know the animals move back and forth between Palisades and Riverside State Park and that the city is moving out that way and using up every little bit of basalt outcropping that they can. We thought we would take a little time here and look at preserving an open space so that it will always be there.
Everybody who drives by on either road will look at that as an open space and the deer can continue to have their fawns there, the coyotes can continue to hunt for ground squirrels and ground hogs and the birds and the hawks can feed on either one if they wish. If you are disposed to that way of thinking, and you like the open space, seriously consider doing that.
Vic: I think it becomes a conflict between people who want more in their estate or want to develop and see more assets created out of a piece of land that they have versus the individual who decides that this is really nice, we want to keep it this way, we want to see it that way even after we’re gone, regardless of what some distant nephew or cousin would like to do with it. It gets down to a choice that a person has to make based on their feeling about nature and about life and open spaces.
Q: You had some input in Avista’s dam relicensing process. What did you think of the process?
Robbi: I thought the alternative licensing was a very good idea. It’s worked on other dams and we had hoped it would work on this set of relicensing. It was a good process, very good. Both Vic and I felt that we got to know a lot of people, from agencies, to the sportsmen, to the homeowners, to the tribal people and began to understand how concerned every single one of the stakeholders was about the river. And it wasn’t necessarily a selfish, just-me (concern.) But it was to try to fit all of these needs together, and we became so aware of other needs besides ours, which was recreational, and trying to make sure there were access sites for people coming down and use the river, picnic by it. But to also understand the needs and desires of the other stakeholders.
Q: You also wrote a letter to FERC, the federal agency. How would you characterize what you put in that letter?
Robbi: Kind of late in the process, after two years of time, after the rec work group we were in had set up studies they wanted done and set the values for what they were looking for, those studies were done and completed and returned to the work group so that we could then use those to decide what projects we thought needed to be addressed along the river as relicensing occurred.
Stepping late into the process was one of the environmental groups and they had written to FERC objecting to many of the things the rec group had talked over, talked about, spent much, much time of a three-year period hashing out between groups, what does this group need, what does that group need, what needs precede the recreational needs. We all gave a little and took a little and to try to arrive at a set of improvements to the river that we thought would benefit the river and benefit the most people and the most stakeholders.
They stepped into the process and began to find flaws with all of those thoughts. They wrote FERC that it was not a good process. We felt it was a good process and we had tried as best we could over that three-year period to find a compromise that would work for all groups, fisheries and all.
The one problem that came up was the Post Falls Dam. But we worked on all other things and got sufficient agreement and consensus to move ahead, which we did. My letter to FERC pointed out this was a latecomer to the process and that the other 70 in these groups that met constantly over this three-year period had worked out an agreement to what we felt was to the best interest to the most people and that’s what the letter contained.
Q: Where on the river have you done most of your canoeing? And what are your favorite spots?
Vic: We began canoeing at the Sullivan rapids, a set of rapids between Barker Road and Sullivan Bridge. And then with the canoe race, the favorite place for putting in was Corbin Park at Mile 2 in Idaho. And the trip down the river can go all the way to Plante’s Ferry or stop higher up at Barker. It depends on what your skill levels are. It allows you to have people who enjoy the river but aren’t capable of rapids. Or those who want to try the rapids. Those are favorite spots. Later on, when we advanced a little more in skills, we found that open canoeing the Bowl and Pitcher, Devil’s Toenail, offered a little more excitement. And it helped us keep the kayakers out of trouble, I say facetiously.
Q: Robbi, do you have any additional ones?
Robbi: Oh no, I think those two — Sullivan Rapids and the Bowl and Pitcher for whitewater canoeing. And then, for flat water canoeing, of course, the Plese Flats area or coming out of below the dam in Idaho and boating down. You know places like Donkey Island. Things like that were kind of an unknown.
Q: Where is Donkey Island?
Robbi: The Centennial Trail parking lot down by the rocks on Upriver Drive — it’s just below that. It’s a gorgeous area. We started a canoe race there when the river was too high. It’s just those kind of hidden little spots you can find that are really neat.
Vic: One memorable paddle was in the evening about 5. We were coming from Upriver Dam to Shenanigans. The sun was setting. We were facing the sun. There was a misty rain that occurred and just looking at raindrops with the background of a setting sun was just one of those unforgettable things.
Robbi: They were like diamonds coming up in front of you, all the way down the river.
Vic: And they have these various bridges. You could be on the Po River in Italy or someplace.
Q: What can people learn about the Spokane River at the canoe level that they cannot learn anywhere else?
Robbi: I’d like to not restrict it just to canoe. What we are seeing now are a lot of sit-on-tops, a kind of inflatable kayak kind of thing. Because the canoe requires some skill level, it’s easier for more people to use the sit-on-tops, possibly the kayaks. The ways people can now get on the river, and enjoy it, and not spend so much time learning how to balance a canoe and turn it and all that kind of thing.
The perspective that you can see from being on the river and looking to the shore, or watch that osprey that just flew by here, or a heron sitting on a rock looking for whatever is moving on the water or the eagle. To see that from the river, from that environment. Many times you can come down to the river and there will be a deer, getting a drink. That’s a whole different perspective than driving by and the deer’s running away from you and all you see is the flopping tail. So the river gives you a different perspective of the environment that you live in and how beautiful it really is if you just take the time.
Vic: One of the things you learn about the rivers by boating that you can’t learn in other ways is the significance of eddy lines. An eddy line is water going its normal course down the river but something, like a rock underneath, creates a situation in which water is suddenly going upriver. This creates a line and it can be extremely strong or hardly anything. We were boating in Alaska one time and these guys were playing on an eddy and it was a nothing river and that’s all their skill could handle. It was just a nothing river, but they said that was as good as their skill could handle.
On the other hand, if you go to the Colorado or the Clark Fork over at the Alberton Gorge. Some of the eddy lines are extremely swift. So it tests your skills. The other thing is ledges. Just recently a friend of ours who is a very good kayaker had an experience with a ledge in which his boat sort of caught. These are teaching and learning experiences that you can’t learn without being there.
Q: What is your feeling about the future of the river — optimistic, pessimistic, somewhere in between?
Robbi: I want to be very optimistic and I’m sort of in-between. I’m not really that depressed about it. Go back 13 years when we interviewed before, so much awareness of the river has been built over that time. There is much more public input, even though sometimes agencies and government don’t care for that. Citizens are more empowered to express their opinions in public meetings and in public hearings or just writing letters. I’m very positive about that.
But I think, still, there is that apathy, “Well I ride along the river on the Centennial Trail and it’s a nice river.” But are you involved in keeping it that way? Or “I go to school and I might learn about a wastewater treatment plant.” But can you set it up so that those people involved in maintaining this river and keeping it in the best quality we possibly can? I still think that’s my major concern. Don’t just drive over the river or bike along it. Become involved in maintaining it and, if at all possible, improving it.
Vic: I’m optimistic about it. Rivers in general throughout the United States, there has been a lot of improvement and cleanup of these rivers and Spokane River is part of that, too. If you look back in the 20th century, it was more of a dump than it is now. And participating in the Avista relicensing, I saw so many stakeholders come with so many issues. This issues were all pertinent to anyone who loves this river.
Some were oriented toward development. Most of them were oriented toward preserving water quality, fishing quality, the recreational use of the river so there is more flow at certain times of the year where kayakers and boaters can enjoy it. There were interests and studies to help understand aesthetic values of the river. So that if you are downtown in the park, you can certainly enjoy water flowing from the lower dam there. There are a lot of things going on that tell me people, and commercial interests, want to keep it in a good state of preservation.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Robbi: The river is unique. It’s unique for our area because it flows right through downtown. I don’t know how many other cities have a pristine river, fairly pristine, with the falls which are gorgeous in the springtime. In the fall and late summer, you see what makes those falls because there’s less water coming through, so it’s a dynamic, changing thing. It’s real in its own way. It’s such a wonderful resource for all of us that I just want to encourage everybody to do all they can to protect it.
Vic: I hope people will continue to think like the Olmsted Brothers who came out and thought of a park going from town to People’s Park. And there’s People’s Park that has a unique position in regard to the Sandifur Bridge and Centennial Trail. I know when we ride horseback in that area we can look down and just imagine the days when the Native Americans had thousands of salmon and came to this place as a gathering place. Those histories need to be respected and we need to see development along the lines of what would bring some of that culture back.
Questions from Colin Mulvany, videographer.
Q: Can you tell me what it’s like when you get the canoe off your rig, you get it in the water and you finally get it in the water and start to paddle.
Robbi: Well, that’s a really special feeling. When you develop a confidence that you and this boat are one, that you and this boat can go wherever you want to go, then it’s like opening the page of a very special book. Then, you can just float down the river, look at the rocks, see if there is any fish moving, any other type of wildlife. I think I see a deer off the side. If you boat at night in a full moon, that is another whole beautiful experience and that is the feeling you get when you step into the boat. All those messages on the phone, all of those things that need to be done today or tomorrow is all in the background. And all that is there is you and the river.
Vic: I think the only panic I get is, did I bring the keys for the shuttle, do I have my lifejacket? And by the way, if you float this river, it’s illegal to float it without a lifejacket. I think pushing off into the river gives you a certain amount of escape. There’s truly a romantic escape that goes on.
Q: Have you ever had a magic moment on the river?
Robbi: One on the Rogue River when some otters were swimming and one of the otters caught a pretty good sized salmon. Then the game began. Chase the one with the fish. They would chase it in the water, up on the rocks, jump from rock to rock. Someone else would grab the fish. They played for the longest time. That was really, really a special moment.
Vic: It was like touch football.
Robbi: Another one occurred on the north fork of the Clearwater, when osprey flew by and they were just chirping and the fellow who was an English professor was boating with us and he began to quote a poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins having to do with kestrels. The flight of the kestrels. And these two, this environment, go together. (Editor’s note: Poem is “The Windhover.”)
Vic: Another time we were boating on Bonnie Lake. There were a couple of eagles that had caught a reasonable size fish. And they were protecting that and they looked very threatened if you came near their fish That was kind of fun to see that.
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