What does it take to make a four-day descent of the Spokane River on a Stand-Up Paddleboard (SUP)? An adventurous spirit, a lifejacket and helmet, and the gumption to paddle 25-30 miles a day, come smoke or low water.
Jed Conklin, Allison Roskelley, and Grace Robison set out at the mouth of the Spokane River on Lake Coeur d’ Alene and paddled four consecutive days (August 4-7, 2017) to the confluence of the Spokane and Columbia Rivers in Two Rivers, Washington. While Conklin had some experience riding a SUP as a rescue swimmer at Ironman competitions, and Roskelley had used a SUP a handful of times for leisure, they both had room to learn. The trio faced the late-August challenge of thick wildfire smoke and low water levels.
“I truly had no idea what I was getting into, which was both empowering and absolutely terrifying,” says Roskelley. “I experienced many moments of ‘I can’t do this,’ and ‘What the hell am I doing out here?!’ I had to actively fight through those thoughts because I wasn’t going to let myself quit.”
The see-it-through mentality paid off as Roskelley and her SUP pals got to experience the diversity of the Spokane River, from the calm and meditative waters through Spokane Valley to the rough whitewater near Riverside State Park.
“We’re fortunate having the Spokane River right here,” says Conklin. “The first night we were paddling in the dark with headlamps through rapids. And the smoke sucked. The dams were a real pain, too. But not everyone can just jump on a paddleboard and go 112 miles.”
As the trio set out in the dead of summer, they took only the essentials. Jed had a puffy jacket, board shorts, some food and beer, and a toothbrush. The crew spread sleeping bags on their paddleboards and slept on land. They used a small Jetboil stove to cook backpack dinners. Conklin says it was similar to packing ultra-light for an overnight backpacking trip; things just went into a dry bag instead of a pack.
Despite being an “urban” adventure, as Roskelley puts it, where they paddled through civilization, the crew came up against some challenges.
“I didn’t think I needed [a helmet], which definitely stemmed from my own ignorance and lack of experience,” says Roskelley. “I will never go on a long-distance paddle again without a helmet. I ended up having my in-laws meet me at a section of the river before the Bowl and Pitcher rapids to drop it off, and I was so thankful. I had a pretty big topple through a set of whitewater thereafter.”
When the water level gets low in late summer, the fast-moving and shallow water creates a risk of injury from falling on rocks. The challenging whitewater turned out to be Conklin’s favorite stretch of the trip.
“We did have to portage around the Devil’s Toenail. It was un-runnable. That whole section of Riverside State Park, the Bowl and Pitcher area, was just killer. If you had to narrow it down to one point, that section was the most fun. High adrenaline and super fast. It was cool,” says Conklin.
Conklin and Roskelley both recommend going minimal in terms of gear. Roskelley recommends first aid for yourself and your board, a few layers of clothing, and a water purification system.
During the trip, she especially enjoyed the MSR TrailShot Microfilter, as it allowed her to drink straight from the river. She also recommends a pair of polarized sunglasses attached to a pair of floatable Croakies, and a pair of water shoes that are sturdy enough to trek over rough land.
The best way to adventure, according to Roskelley, is to give it a shot with the knowledge that you’ll be better prepared next time: “I always say you start each new adventure with something called a ‘suffer bucket.’ At the end of each adventure, that suffer bucket grows, and then it’s at a larger capacity to start the next adventure, to move you on to something greater.”//
Lisa Laughlin is a long-distance runner who also likes paddleboarding. She wrote about trail running in the April issue.
Feature photo: White knuckling Spokane River whitewater. // Jed Conklin
Originally published in the May 2018 print edition of Out There Outdoors under the title “Backyard Paddling Adventure on the Spokane River.”