Field trip to Lake Roosevelt

Like a river flows and adapts, so too can our perception and connection to that river. This and more from my field trip up north last week.

In the book, The Riverkeepers by John Cronin and Robert F. Kennedy Jr, Cronin tells a story about his once constant connection to the Hudson River and how it faded over time; and how upon being back to visit it later his coming to terms that it just felt different.  He said, “At that time, the Hudson was not a destination but another point in the circle of our lives.  It was of our neighborhood and family.”

I couldn’t get that quote out of my head last Thursday on the drive back to Spokane after having spent the entire day up north on the lower section of the Spokane River as well as surrounding areas of concern.

Called the Spokane Arm of Lake Roosevelt, the last 29 miles of the Spokane River is a vast, 2,400-square mile river basin that empties in to Franklin Delano Roosevelt Lake, the massive reservoir created by the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River.  Flat and vast, and resembling a river very little, this stretch, like many others on the 111-mile Spokane River look nothing like they did before the dams went in.  A thought that held different meanings prior to my trip on Thursday

Keith Keiffer is a Ranger with the Spokane Tribal Police.  Last Thursday he graciously transported a group of us up the Spokane River from the Two Rivers Marina.  Included on the Tribal Police’s sleek looking speed boat were myself, the Center’s communication guru and trip photographer Tim Connor, Terri Anderson, a volunteer with the SHAWL Society which is a Spokane Indian Reservation advocacy group focusing on mining issues in the area, and Clyde Lynn, a wise local tribal resident with decades of knowledge of this stretch of the river.

Keith had us out on the water for just a few hours, which ended up being more than ideal as Thursday’s strong winds started picking up when we returned to the marina.  In that time I was struck by a thought that had never crossed my mind.  For all of the problems that Keith and/or Clyde could have gave about the river’s dams or ecological destruction, it was the cultural decomposition that we talked most about.   And never was it more powerful than the moment that Keith guided our boat over an otherwise unassuming section of river recalling that the spot now covered with river water, the spot many a wake board spill and engine throttle increase occurred, was once a tribal village location.

Yes, before Little Falls Dam and Grand Coulee Dam, the last 29 miles of the Spokane River was a river in the traditional sense of the word – with visible river rock and currents.  And salmon, food for the tribe that lived along the banks.

No more though.  The dams choked off the salmon runs, and flooded land that was rich with history, rich with culture.  Keith and Clyde told us of stories about burials becoming uncovered when the river is drawn down in the winter months, and artifacts washing up year after year.  It’s true that the dams changed the physical landscape more than we could probably ever imagine, but it changed the cultural make up of this area FAR more than we could ever dream.

Hearing from Clyde and Keith, and experiencing the Spokane River through their vantage point gave me a far deeper appreciation and understanding of a river that touches all of us.  And it definitely reaffirms what I learned earlier this month about the Spokane River truly being something different for all of us.  For as this stretch is very much a destination for many in the northwest, it is certainly an integral point in the lives and history of Keith, Clyde and all of the Spokane Tribe.

Tomorrow I’ll write more on the second leg of the roadtrip, our visit to the Midnite Mine; an old uranium mine and the problems it poses for the Spokane River.

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