On a cool, overcast Wednesday afternoon with dark clouds threatening rain, I'm at People's Park to meet Steve Faust of Friends of the Falls for a preview of the "passport tour" planned for RiverFest this Saturday. Visitors will get a "passport" which will be stamped at stops along the mile-long tour.
RiverFest, planned by the Friends of the Falls organization, is the event showcasing the Great Spokane River Gorge Project, which includes plans for a whitewater park, links to nearby trails, and restoration of the confluence area of Latah Creek and the Spokane River, the site of People's Park.
Swarms of caddis flies swirl over the vegetation on the bank of the Spokane River in the so-called confluence area, where Latah Creek and Spokane River meet. The confluence area has historical and cultural importance, too, as the place where the tribes of the Upper Columbia -- the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, Colville, Kalispel, and Kootenai -- used to gather and fish for salmon. The Spokane River was one of the richest salmon streams in the entire Columbia River system, with the number of fish reportedly approaching a million annually.
Here the new Sandifur Bridge stretches across the Spokane, laid directly over the piers of the old Great Northern High Bridge. Faust says this is where a small visitor center would likely be sited. Pointing to a small Tioga truck camper, he says it would be about that size, stressing the plan's call for low-impact use of the area. There would be restrooms, a kiosk with a trail map and maybe 20 parking spaces. The Spokane tribe may build a tribal history center in the confluence area, although Faust says they are also considering a downtown location.
Strolling across the bridge, we stop in the middle, and Faust points to the water below, where the proposed whitewater park would go. A double U-shaped structure there would channel the water for kayakers, who could be watched by passersby from the bridge and the nearby riverbanks. Whitewater parks have been highly successful in other cities -- and not just for the paddlers. Strollers and picnickers come to watch the paddlers too.
As we step off the bridge on the other side, we start up the newly paved path that curves up the small hill toward the abutment of the old High Bridge. At the top is the North Point Overlook on the passport tour.
Faust points to Siberian pea, milkweed, and lupine, growing in profusion all around. There are plans, he says, for restoration of native plants, to be planned in collaboration with the Spokane tribe.
The views from the overlook take in the entire confluence area, as well as the river stretching east back toward the city. The master plan calls for this area to be a trail hub with connections to Nine Mile, Riverside State Park, Coeur d'Alene, Pullman and Fish Lake.
Past the abutment, where the trail meets the road, we come to the sign for the Herbert Hamblen Conservation Area, named for the longtime member of the Parks Board. It is the Parks Board, which has been acquiring open space since the 1940s, whose "vision makes all of this possible," says Faust.
The goal of Friends of the Falls and the master plan for the Gorge project is "to make it easier for people to come down to use ... [it]," says Faust. Of course, the Gorge Project is really a case of everything old being new again. In 1908, the eminent landscape architects, the Olmsted Brothers, recommended to the city fathers that the Gorge be the centerpiece of the young city. Nearly a century later, Spokane is finally taking the advice.
Even beyond the obvious boon to recreation in Spokane, Faust and the Friends of the Falls see the Gorge project as an economic development tool because "businesses that can locate anywhere" will be drawn to a city that offers such attractions. And "how many cities have an amenity like this right in the middle of the city?" asks Faust.
Faust thinks this is the kind of recreation people are looking for now. People, he says, "want access to natural, open areas" in particular, which can offer diverse kinds of recreation to a broad range of people, from the hard-core competitive kayaker to the picnicker, who has no desire to get wet but is happy to watch others get dunked.
As we swing back across the bridge, the dark clouds finally make good on their threat, rain spits from the sky and the caddis flies dash and flit among the weeds. We take a quick look at High Bridge Park, which Faust thinks is unfamiliar even to many longtime Spokanites. The large pavilion, which will house the Friends of the Falls booth on Saturday, is surrounded by huge trees shading the lawn, which is tranquil and inviting. Faust points out the yellow-ringed disc golf baskets, part of the course that rings the park.
Trees, river, trails and Frisbee-throwing -- and all of it not five minutes from downtown. RiverFest planners are hoping you'll come out Saturday and see how it all could come together as the Great Gorge Park, just as the Olmsteds envisioned nearly a hundred years ago.
Spokane RiverFest takes place Saturday, June 11, from 9 am-5 pm at High Bridge Park. Free. Help pull weeds at 11 am at the Sandifur Bridge. Because of limited parking, you can bike, walk or bus and get a free water bottle from REI.
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