Yet it is also an almost magical segment of free-flowing river lined with ancient willows and a sense of separation from the city it traverses in three sweeping arcs from Upriver Dam west of Argonne Road to Riverfront Park downtown.
"The way that it's rimmed with willow trees, it should be like a Victorian park scene with everybody in rowboats and fancy clothes, but nobody uses it. There was nobody on the river from Upriver Dam to downtown," says Alden Sherrodd of Spokane Valley.
Sherrodd is one of nearly 100 people who participated in at least one leg of an ambitious and eye-opening July expedition to paddle and raft the Spokane from its source in Lake Coeur d'Alene to its mouth at the Columbia River. He is, in fact, one of nine hardy souls to run the entire river on an expedition split into seven legs over two long weekends this month, and even though he has lived on the river for 11 years, Sherrodd says he came away as if knowing it for the first time.
"If this were K-through-12 education, we'd refer to this as experiential learning," says Andy Dunau of the nonprofit Spokane River Forum, which organized the trip.
Dunau is a cheerful arm-twister who wanted to take all the talk about the river, all the news of its disparate currents -- pollution, fish, whitewater recreation, aquifer mixing, hydropower, housing developments, regulation -- and offer forum participants a chance for total immersion.
He ended up convincing 93 people -- from city council members to people whose work revolves around the river to ordinary folks like Sherrodd -- to paddle at least one leg of the trip, which spanned the weekends of July 11-13 and July 18-21. He also lined up 24 speakers ranging from industry to environmental lawyers to offer brief remarks themed to each day's paddle.
"My point of view is people take care of what they care about, what they feel connected to," Dunau says. "And that is the piece we were trying to do with the river -- to reintroduce folks to the river."
In telephone interviews and e-mail exchanges, forum participants tell The Inlander that is precisely what happened.
"Being able to listen to speakers each day, whether it was (the state Department of) Ecology, or city wastewater or the Lands Council or the Spokane Tribe or residents of the Lake Spokane area -- it really grabbed me," says artist and graphic designer Rick Hosmer.
"We are talking now," he says, stressing the first word. "Things that would be discussed previously inside a city council chamber or an Avista board room or the county wastewater department are being dialogued outside now.
"I hope the people involved in this trip will get more vocal and ask more questions and hold groups accountable," Hosmer adds. "What happens to the river happens to us."
And what's happening to the river? Let's take a quick tour.
Their Own Private Idaho
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he first day of the paddle -- a nine-mile stretch from the North Idaho College beach in Coeur d'Alene to Q'Emiln Park in Post Falls on July 11 -- was a real eye-opener.
Every participant who spoke with The Inlander mentioned the stretch of McMansions lining the north bank of the river in Idaho, verdant lawns sweeping right down to the water's edge.
"I was shocked by the level of development along the banks of this beginning stretch, especially the north bank, where million-dollar homes seem to come standard with high-maintenance landscaping, a dock and jet skis," David Moore, a river cleanup specialist with the Washington Department of Ecology, writes in an e-mail. "It seems to me that the homes along the lake and river can afford to invest in sustainable landscaping techniques in order to reduce nutrients, especially phosphorus, that create favorable conditions for mobilizing (mining waste) metals from the sediments."
Moore may have a practiced eye, but he was not alone.
"I found it somewhat unbelievable to think that such lovely and expensive homes did not incorporate any kind of environmental safeguards ... It's not like they couldn't have afforded it," says Mike LaScoula of the Spokane Regional Health District.
New Liberty Lake resident Ella Rowan, in her first paddle down the Idaho part of the river, writes in an e-mail: "... We saw a man with a backpack of some chemical on his back and he was spraying around a house. This was less than 25 yards from the shoreline, and there was no vegetation aside from the shallow grass to have prevented that toxin from making its way to the river."
Participants say they were relieved the next day, paddling into Washington, to see greater setbacks and requirements for riparian zones to benefit fish, birds and amphibians.
Several participants say they find ironic the idea that the burst of housing development in Idaho is seen to be "cleaning up" old sawmill sites when really, in terms of nutrients reaching the river they say, "it's just something more bright and shiny."
Where the (blank) Hits the Fan
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & ong Lake, now officially known as Lake Spokane, was another stretch of river that caught paddlers' attention. It is the epicenter of the cleanup plan on phosphorous and other nutrients in the water. Nutrients invigorate plant and algae growth. When the plants and algae die, they consume oxygen, severely affecting the health of the river for fish and other life.
Here is what Ecology's Moore, who is newly in charge of the cleanup plan involving phosphorous and dissolved oxygen, writes in an e-mail: "Day 5: I've really wanted to float down Lake Spokane since this is the focus of the effort to improve dissolved oxygen by controlling phosphorus from wastewater treatment plants and other sources.
"The homes along the bank are not nearly as dense and garish along this stretch as they were in Idaho. Unlike the Idaho homes, however, many along Lake Spokane would have to wade through the thick beds of aquatic plants to run their boats. My kayak partner, Ecology public information officer Jani Gilbert, and I paddled through several sections of the lake that have an overabundance of aquatic vegetation like milfoil and lily pads. I recently read that the plant growth in this area has increased by an average of 130 percent due to excess nutrients."
Despite the nutrient-loading issues below, this stretch was pretty on the surface.
"The Long Lake portion was like a resort atmosphere with all the houses and all the water skiers and the sound of all the lawn mowers going," Sherrodd says.
Wild... Except Not Really
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he segment of river from Long Lake Dam past Little Falls Dam and into the Spokane Indian Reservation drew keen interest because it is fairly remote from road access.
LaScoula describes one moment below Little Falls Dam. "We were all wading in a little pool and an osprey came down and picked up a fish right in front of us. It was kind of a good omen."
It was also a funny moment, he says. "A fellow from parks and rec had us doing stretching exercises when an alarm on the dam went off -- it was a low, school bell kind of ring -- and our quiet pool turned into a moving riffle."
There was no scary rush of water, but it was one of many reminders the Spokane is not a wild river, even though the scenery in places makes it resemble one.
Sherrodd agrees, especially the final miles to the Columbia.
"When you get to what they call the Spokane Arm of Lake Roosevelt you start to get that wilderness impression. The landscape is on such a large scale it makes you feel small. Huge gravel and sand banks come up from the water, and there are mountains and hills."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & "I & lt;/span & can't help but share my experience with friends and co-workers," says LaScoula.
His enthusiasm is just what organizer Dunau is hoping for.
"We got a lot of interest groups to come and speak to us, but I wanted people to come to terms with the river on their own and see what they see," Dunau says. "We ended up with 24 presentations up and down the river, and what captured my imagination was the intensity of the dialogue around river and water issues -- what can or should be done -- was really remarkable because it happened without any interest groups telling people what to say."
Almost all of the 93 people who participated in at least one leg of the journey started out as strangers to each other and, in varying degrees, to the river. They ended on more familiar terms.
Graphic designer Hosmer, to the casual eye, knows all about the river. He has kayaked the Bowl and Pitcher, prepared materials about the river for any number of clients at his Klunt Hosmer design firm, including the Northwest Museum of Arts and Cultures and Avista Utilities.
But, Hosmer says, that was all on someone else's dime and from someone else's point of view.
"I've done work from a hydropower perspective for Avista, and from a cultural perspective for the MAC. But gosh, I've written about the river and drawn about the river and created signage about the river. When I got the e-mail about this trip, I wanted to experience it first-hand," Hosmer says. "That's why I said yes to it: It exposed me to the outdoor environment of the river so I was able to appreciate the beauty as well as be exposed to some of the real downsides of how we manage the river."
"I am going to have to do something to get involved a little more," Sherrodd, the Valley homeowner, says. "One guy told me he has no use for attorneys, but I rode for a long way with an attorney and I think, when it comes to the whole sewer overflow thing, the city would never have done anything until they were forced to."
Sherrodd says he is convinced the people he met on the trip, and the speakers, "have a real sincere sense of duty to do something good with the river. Of course they butt heads because there are different ways of going about things."
Dunau, who was expecting maybe 20 people for this unusual excursion, counts all the "aha!" moments as a success.
"Next year I want at least 500 folks out there," he says. "What we want is to create river docents -- to have folks out there who can talk about the river and what it means and what the history is. From what I saw, all the participants felt this river is a great experience and they want to figure out how to get more people out there for protection and restoration."
And, simply, for enjoyment.
From Liberty Lake's Ella Rowan:
List of species encountered today:
Sounds heard today: motor boats, motors on jet skis, motor from a plane, swooshing of water behind motor boats, the slap of water from my paddle, human voices.
What I would have seen were there no development along the river: 20-plus species of birds, otters, muskrat, mink, turtles, habitat for frogs, salamanders, and reptiles, hundreds of insect species including butterflies and dragonflies.
I would have heard the buzzing of insects, the songs of birds, the wind in the trees and the rustle of vegetation on the shore ... .