Family Rafting on the Spokane River

Family Rafting on the Spokane River Terry Bain IF YOU’RE ANYTHING like me, you look at Spokane River downtown and think, “Oh, nice river.” You take out-of-town visitors to Riverfront or Riverside State Park, and they take pictures. How often do you actually interact with the river? Most of us probably spend a scant few minutes even thinking about the river, much less actively seeking out its waters. And I admit to being the worst offender in this category.

I tend to see the Spokane River as inaccessible, RAFTING WITH KIDS ON THE UPPER SPOKANE RIVER. // PHOTO BY TERRY BAIN loaded with traps and warning signs and dams. If I made a map of Spokane, I might tag the boundaries of the river with the line “here there be monsters,” hoping nobody would ever ask me what was really to be found there. I adhere to the Avista “Stay Out, Stay Alive” warning signs a little too severely, stretching the warning from the river’s beginnings at Lake Coeur d’Alene to its endings at Lake Roosevelt.

But a better question than “how often do I interact with the river” might be “How often does the river interact with me?” Do I drink water? Do I use electricity? Do I read the newspaper? Does the river not then interact with me almost every moment of every day? Should I not then be paying just a little more attention to that very important body of water? Furthermore, shouldn’t I teach my kids not to carry around the same disinformation (fear) that I do?

Luckily, not everybody is ignoring the river as much as I am. Spokane Parks and Recreation, for instance, runs a series of recreational activities on the Spokane River (and on other area rivers as well) all summer long, some of them available to both kids and adults. Which is how my eight-year-old son and I ended up climbing into a wet raft on a wet day at Harvard Park on the wet Spokane River.

We parked at Plante’s Ferry Park, and the Parks Department drove us upstream about five miles to Harvard Park, to put-in and float back to our cars. The trip takes about an hour and a half, appropriately called a “leisurely float,” most of it drifting near the center of the very high river. A few mild rapids (level 2, which means you get a little wet) kept it interesting, and we got to feel important every time our guide (Zach) asked us to all “row forward” (which is river guide language for “row forward”). Mostly we were rowing to gain a little speed into the rapids, to make them a little more interesting.

After we put-in (and after a few awkward moments of “how do I sit properly in this thing,” and “am I really going to get as wet as I already am?”), I surprised myself. Because I am a chicken. When it comes to water, I’m generally certain that I will drown. Shallow creek with slippery banks? I will drown. Calm lake in a three-man boat? I will drown.

Kitchen sink just full enough to wash the dishes? I will easily drown. So as far as rivers go, the upper Spokane is just about my speed, though even now, after I’ve been out and I’m sitting at home, writing about it, my heart beats a little faster, and I have to remind myself that I’m miles from anything deeper than a puddle, and the bathtub is already drained and squeegeed. I imagined that I would spend most of my time on the river gripping the rope and praying not to be thrown into the brink. But I didn’t do that. Once afloat, the experience was more reflective. Even in the midst of a downpour, I found myself wondering what else happens in and around the river. People live on the river. They do actually participate in activities on the river. They float or kayak or swim or fish.What hidden pockets of activity exist that I know nothing about? Should I worry about chemicals in the water? Is there arsenic in my teeth, or naphthalene in my hair? If humans were to disappear from the earth today, how long before the river would be wild again? How long before the fish would be edible?

Of course the trip isn’t long enough to spend much time on thoughts like these. But it is long enough to get them bubbling. And long enough to admire the wildlife (Canadian Geese, mostly, and cyclists on the Centennial Trail). Fellow travelers are busy asking questions and learning river guide terms like “strainer” and “eddie.” The greatest value of a trip like this might just be what happens after landing.You’ve seen where the wildlife and the people are along the river. Where they interact. You’ve seen what might cause a river to be contaminated. A stranded shopping cart on the river bank. A derelict structure of unknown use that comes right down and enters the river. You. You are on the river. How does your experience with the river change it? Your experience may just change how, and how often, you interact with the river in the future. To keep our river alive, we might all just have to jump in once in awhile.

By Terry Bain

Look for Terry Bain’s new book, We Are the Cat: Life through the Eyes of the Royal Feline in bookstores at the end of August.

For more information on Spokane area water recreation, contact the following: Spokane Parks & Recreation at (509) 625-6200 or

RiverCity River Runners at (509) 844-5934 or

Kayak CdA at (208) 676-1533 or

Flow Adventures at 509-242-8699 or

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