SPOKANE WAS NOT UNLIKE hundreds of other cities and towns at the time that discovered the rivers that ran through them were a tremendous source of waterpower.
Now, despite the efforts to harness the river-which Avista Utilities and its predecessor Washington Water Power did a thorough job of by placing a half-dozen dams along its course-the Spokane still has a handful of untamed reaches that are unlike any other river, anywhere!
That prompted internationally-renowned “green” architect William McDonough to call the Spokane, “the most beautiful urban river in the world.” It only takes getting onto the river in one way or another to understand that McDonough is very much right.
“People come away from one of our trips totally amazed that a river like the Spokane is so close to them; that they don’t have to drive three hours,” said Jeff Bray, co-owner of outfitter River City River Runners.
Sure, the Spokane does have serious problems with heavy metal pollution, and a storm drain overflow system that at times can- and still does-dump raw sewage. Relicensing of the six Avista dams, minimum flows and other usage issues have, and continue to be, the focus of numerous groups that attempt to come to resolutions.
There are many other regional rivers much better known for thrilling whitewater and scenery-the Lochsa, Salmon and Wenatchee to scratch just the surface-but not one that flows through a metropolitan area of several hundred thousand people.
The Spokane is indeed a diverse and quite unique piece of water that the community tends to flock to. Some do it just for fun, bobbing along in inner tubes in the summer. Others are a bit more serious with their equipment and float the river in kayaks, rafts and those twin-tube hybrids called catarafts. And yet another user group are a handful of new professional outfitters that have recently begun to safely escort clients on sections of the river.
The Spokane offers several stretches of river that cater to a variety of levels of paddling experience. Rivers are rated on a difficulty scale in the United States ranging from Class I (easy) to Class VI (deadly). Such ratings are very subjective as in one boater’s mind a certain Class III drop is another’s Class IV, or visa-versa.
And the river has most all of them as it flows out of Lake Coeur d’Alene at Post Falls dam on its way to mixing with the Columbia River in Lake Roosevelt, over 100 miles away.
From the whitewater standpoint, the Spokane has two distinct sections. OK, three if you count the falls. In between are some sections of reservoir created by Upriver and Upper Falls dams.
Snowpack in the mountains that feeds the Spokane is at about 120 percent of normal in 2008. Compare that to about a year ago when that number was just 80 percent. This means that not only will the Spokane flow longer, but likely higher, faster and colder.
The Spokane is run at a variety of levels. Depending of boat size and experience, one can float the river anywhere from a slow and rocky 1,000 cubic feet per second, up to a fast and furious flush of 40,000 cfs.
It’s interesting-and important -when trying to put “cfs” into an understandable perspective. One of the best came from a paddling club on the East Coast of the United States.
To best understand the forces at work in a flowing stream, it is helpful to visualize how many elephants it would take to equal a similar weight of water rushing by a given point every second.
For illustration purposes, a cubic foot of water equals 7.5 gallons and weighs 62.5 pounds. An average mature bull elephant weighs 10,000 pounds (5 tons).
So at a mere 1,000 cubic feet per second, the flows that might be found in the Spokane River in late summer are about equal to the combined weight of six elephants. Imagine the crushing power of having six elephants sit on you and you have an idea of the power contained in water.
The following shows a variety of ways to enjoy the river, and do it safely.
THE UPPER: BEGIN CONQUERING THE LEARNING CURVE HERE
The Spokane has its beginnings in Lake Coeur d’Alene, which in turn is fed by the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe Rivers. It turns from lake to river as it exits pounding through the picturesque gorge below the Post Falls Dam.
The “Upper,” as many regular river users often refer to it, is a Class II section that travels through the Spokane Valley and is a great beginner whitewater run.
Notable rapids on this section, Flora and Sullivan, tend to be straightforward-not necessarily easy in some flows mind you-but consequences of a tip or flip generally mean just a swim. Of course that is with a personal flotation device (PFD) which are required by law on all sections of the river. Failing to have one not only risks injury or death but an approximately $100 ticket issued by deputies who frequently paddle the river.
This section can be accessed at a variety of points such as Corbin Park near Post Falls, near the Stateline weigh station and at the Harvard Road Bridge. Popular takeouts are both above and below Sullivan bridge; Mirabeau Park, a mile downstream from Sullivan on river left and at Plante’s Ferry Park at the base of towering basalt cliffs and topped by the Riblet Mansion which houses Arbor Crest winery.
A handful of kayaker “play waves” are found along this section of river. They include the Corbin Park wave, Dead Dog Hole under the old highway bridge at the state line, as well as the Surf Wave just upstream from Sullivan Road.
Normally, another access point is Barker Road, but come this summer, construction of new bridge will not only potentially close that access for up to two years, but may also close the river itself. Work is ongoing with City of the Spokane Valley officials-and eventually the contractor -to see what can be done to keep passage open during what possibly could be a record year for flows.
Upriver Dam backs up the river into a reservoir near the city limits and extends about four miles to just Plante’s Ferry Park. From Upriver to just below Division Street begins with a mix of riffles and turns into another stretch of slackwater created by Upper Falls dams.
THE FALLS: NO MAN’S LAND
Below the Division Street-or Sen. Sam Guess Memorial Bridge- to Monroe Street the river is closed, and for good reason. It’s here the river crashes through the spectacular Spokane Falls. Remember those Class VI rapids? These are the ones. Not only is it generally considered to be foolhardy to be in this mile of tumbling and frothy wild water which drops an easy 100 feet or more, it’s also expensive. Fines from law enforcement are $500 for entering the river here.
There are those who first tempted fate, and later the law, by trying to run this section. Dr. Dan Schaffer, an avid Spokane river runner, once wrote about Al Faussett, a logger-and daredevil-from Monroe, Wash., who on June 1, 1927, and at a harrowing flow of move than 20,000 cubic feet per second tried to ride a hollowed out spruce log, “the Skykomish Queen,” down the falls.
Faussett survived, ending up circulating in an eddy below what is now Anthony’s Homeport Restaurant. Later, as Faussett was being transported to a hospital to treat minor injuries, the “boat” caught the current, went over the Monroe Street dam and into the crushing currents and whirlpools below. After being smashed into a bridge pier, Schaffer noted, the largest piece of the boat that was found measured just four inches wide and five feet long.
During Spokane’s Expo 74, another thrill-seeker, Terry Brauner of Kettle Falls, connected three large inner tubes together and dropped into the river. He too got hung up in the same eddy as Faussett, was plucked from the water by rescuers as several thousand people looked on one cold rainy Saturday in May. Brauner’s exploits forced the city to initiate it’s “fool’s fine” for being in this part of the river.
And rumor has it that since, an unnamed boater in an inflatable kayak has successfully run the drop.
THE LOWER: INDEED, THE WORLD’S MOST UNIQUE URBAN RIVER
Below the falls begins, perhaps, the most scenic section of the river. From an access point on the west end of Water Street to the T.J. Meenach Bridge is a delightful six-mile Class I to II run. Below Meenach is an approximately seven-mile section with the biggest and most difficult rapids-other than the falls of course-on the river.
It’s here that tree-lined shores camouflage most signs of civilization and give the Spokane its real appeal.
The Water Street access sits in the midst of the Peaceful Valley neighborhood, just downstream from the towering Maple Street Bridge. Check a map on which way is best for you to reach this launch. Also be courteous to not park in front of homes, and especially to not litter.
Not much more than a mile downstream from the launch, and in the distance is the Sandifur Bridge that carries the Centennial Trail over the river. This will also be the site of Spokane’s much-anticipated whitewater park, now set for completion in 2009. The old bridge piers are what remains of the tall Union Pacific trestle that was dismantled in the early 1970s, and can pose a serious hazard to inexperienced boaters.
Around the corner from the bridge, Latah Creek dumps its muddy water into the Spokane, and within the next couple of miles one passes the former Natatorium Amusement Park, now a trailer park with one of the best views around.
The next notable landmark will be the Meenach bridge which provides either a put-in for experienced river users, or a take-out for those not wanting to tempt fate by being over their heads, for entering the potentially troubled waters that lie ahead in the Bowl and Pitcher and Devil’s Toenail in Riverside State Park.
The only real blight-and it seems to be an ironic one-along this portion of the river above the Bowl and Pitcher is Spokane’s municipal sewage treatment plant. You can’t miss either the site along the right side of the river, nor the “aroma” of the methane gas that emanates.
But having it is better than the alternative. Amazing enough, it was not until 1958 that the city installed its first water treatment plant, before that opting to use the river itself as a treatment plant.
Pretty much no matter the water level, this section of the river is best navigated by experienced river users. If there is one word for the wise when running these rapids, it’s “right.” The safest run for both rapids is river right. Each rapid is easily scouted either at the Bowl and Pitcher suspension bridge, or via a trail that descends to “the Toenail.”
Low water in summer makes each drop a technical rock dodge. High flows create wild waves and tricky hydraulics.
A couple of quick reminders about this portion of the river can never be stressed enough. There is NO river access, nor a boat takeout within the area of the Bowl and Pitcher. Even beaching a boat can bring down the wrath or the rangers who are concerned about both safety concerns and bank erosion.
Oh, yes, reminder two: REMEMBER your PFD, no matter what!
The prescribed takeout is at Plese Flats, a little more than a mile below the Devil’s Toenail. Plese was upgraded about 10 years ago with the help of Avista Utilities. Gone, the bumpy, often dusty and rutted unimproved access road and steep boat takeout. In its place, a paved drive, picnic and restroom facilities, plus a more friendly pull-out for boats on the downstream end of the area.
From Please basically on down to the mouth, the Spokane is tamed by three more dams-9-Mile, Long Lake and Little Falls -and calmed, for the most part, under reservoirs, giving way to other forms of recreation.
CLUBS: MAKING IT SAFE ON THE RIVER
It is likely that unfamiliarity with the river and its power has already claimed its first victim of 2008. Kiernan Norman was missing after he capsized a canoe in the Devil’s Toenail on April 19. Norman was reportedly not wearing his PFD and disappeared in the rapids as a friend watched.
His battered canoe-a non-whitewater boat that contained no flotation and is not capable of running flows of nearly 11,000 cfs that were present that day-was later recovered near Plese Flats that day but there was no sign of Norman.
Another recent accident also involved a canoe during high water flow. A young boy died a few years ago when the canoe in which he was riding in with his dad and two others capsized. The youngster was trapped as the canoe pinned him to a bridge pier and died months later.
Ironically, trying to educate the public about such incidents as Norman’s were the subject of discussion among some river experts earlier in the afternoon at the Spokane River Kickoff held near Post Falls.
The kickoff was an event that brought those interested, both the experienced and the newbies, out to Corbin Park in Post Falls to demo boats, practice safety techniques and more.
Two of the sponsoring groups of the event were the Northwest Whitewater Association (www.northwestwhitewater.org) and the Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club (www.sckc.ws). Both groups have been fixtures in the area for some 20 years and each strives to foster both safety, education, as well as river access and conservation. NWA and SCKC offer member floats on rivers and streams across the northwest, led by experienced people. The floats help familiarize people not only with the river but boating techniques.
OUTFITTERS: WHEN DO-IT-YOURSELF JUST DOESN’T DO IT
It wasn’t until recently that professional guides and outfitters re-discovered the Spokane River. But in the last few years, a handful of companies have begun operations on various sections of the Spokane.
Being a dam-controlled river, flows on the Spokane are regulated and controlled. With a good snowpack, that means a longer season.
Early projections from Avista call for a 2008 season with sufficient water to allow commercial trips into mid-to-late July.
All of that depends on the right combination of temperature and spring precipitation to control what outfitters hope is a slow melt, rather than a fast flush.
Unfortunately, as water levels drop, so can some of the excitement of the splashy waves. Opinons may vary but flows of 7,000 to 15,000 cfs seem to offer some the best waves. Regardless, scenery along the river that can include many types of wildlife is still worth the trip.
While each company seems to have a different niche or specialty, the bottom line for each is to get the average citizen out on the river and discover what the river has to offer.
Jon Wilmot operates FLOW ADVENTURES (www. flow-adventures.com) and said, “The best thing about rafting the Spokane is you get class 2 and 3 water with the opportunities for urban evening activities.” Spokane’s “Near Nature, Near Perfect” tourism slogan seems to be right up Flow Adventure’s alley-or down one of their favorite rivers.
PANGAEA RIVER RAFTING’S (www. leaveboringbehind.com) David Lawrence said, “Beauty, proximity and family friendly accessibility make the Spokane River a “destination” river.” Pangaea also operates trips on Montana’s Clark Fork and the Blackfoot. “As the Doubletree Hotel quipped, ‘Spokane is on the corner of civilization and nature,'” Lawrence says.
“Five minutes out of town and you feel like you are away from population,” said Ryan Kerrigan of PEAK7 (www.peak7.org). Kerrigan,’s non-profit organization provides free and low cost trips to at-risk and underprivileged youth. “We talk to the kids about the river and nature and why it is important to conserve them,” Kerrigan says.
RIVER CITY RIVER RUNNERS’ (www.rivercityriverrunners.com) Bray is fond of one of his company’s slogans when he talks about running trips on the Spokane. “We tell people that in order to really experience the Spokane River it needs to be from “see level,'” Bray said of his company whose guides have experience on the river going back to the early 1980’s.
For WILEY E. WATERS’ Kyle Brock, “The best thing about rafting the Spokane River is the location of this beautiful river.” Brock went on to say, “It winds its way through downtown Spokane, and in a matter of minutes finds urban scenery with fun rapids, all within a 10 minute drive from Spokane.”
Indeed! Something that is special and still only found on the Spokane River.
KAYAKING: GETTING TO BE ONE-ON-ONE WITH THE RIVER
Rafting is one way to get to really see the river. But to have a totally different perspective, kayaking might be what you desire.
While the out of pocket investment for kayaking is less than taking up rafting, the investment in time to master this craft-both the boat and the technique-is more.
Ask people in the know and they’ll likely tell you Flow Adventures out of Spokane (509-242-8699 or www.flow-adventures.com) is the place to get ready to roll- literally-in this form of whitewater boating. You may also sign up at Mountain Goat Outfitters at 12 W Sprague, Spokane too for Flow Adventures classes.
Jon Wilmot and the instructors at Flow Adventures will work you through the paces. From learning the basic strokes, braces and body mechanics, to knowledge about the proper equipment and technique. Using American Canoe Association (ACA) curriculum, the classes move from the Class II upper Spokane River to the lower featuring the Bowl and Pitcher and Devil’s Toenail.
And once you’ve got the instruction under your belt, it’s time to practice, practice, practice. And the Spokane river offers some of the best places around for that. Places like Corbin Park, Dead Dog Hole and the Sullivan playwave are all popular places to get out and practice your moves. //
Paul Delaney has spent some 30 years as a river rafter. He’s a board member of the Northwest Whitewater Association and a co-owner of
River City River Runners. Paul is a reporter for the Cheney Free Press when he’s not on the river somewhere.