Allison Roskelley’s ankles were swollen from standing on a water-borne “plank” 12 to 15 hours per day, four days in a row. Jed Conklin was suffering occasional spasms in his back. Grace Robison’s left knee was scabbed with scratches from a thorny vine she’d snagged while trying to avoid a lush patch of poison ivy.
But the 112 miles of paddling, portages, glee and suffering was behind them as they cheered and raised their paddles to the sky in blistered hands at the confluence with the Columbia River, west of Spokane.
The trio had become, as far as they know, the first adventurers to run the entire length of the Spokane River on stand-up paddleboards.
“We had a discussion today on how we might have made this more fun,” Conklin said, recounting the seven portages, including six hydropower projects. “Six days instead of four would be more leisurely.”
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They might have gone in late July before the skies were choked with wildfire smoke, before daytime temperatures spiked into the 90s, and while the river had more water to cover the boulder gardens.
But standing up to all the facets of the river was never going to be easy.
Unlike kayakers, the SUPers would be standing up like a sail into headwinds.
“When I first came up with the idea for this trip, I tried to figure out how many miles I could go per day,” said Conklin, 40, a Spokane photographer and property manager. The deciding factor: “One of my good buddy’s house is 28 miles from our start at the City Beach (park) in Coeur d’Alene, and another buddy was exactly 28 miles down the river on Long Lake (Lake Spokane). It worked out perfectly!”
Conklin cached food and gear at both of those houses before the trip and the paddlers would carry overnight essentials on their boards, plus sleeping bags and freeze-dried food they’d need for one or possibly two nights on the Spokane Arm of Lake Roosevelt.
But they moved down the river smoothly, making 29 miles the third day, camping on the Spokane Arm and paddling 27 miles the fourth day to the confluence of the Spokane and Columbia rivers near Fort Spokane.
Conklin was joined by two fit partners up to the challenge: Robison, 24, of Coeur d’Alene, a former SUP instructor and a dental assistant aspiring to be a firefighter, and Roskelley, 30, a marketing specialist and fitness center bike spinning coach.
The first day on the river was the hardest, they agreed. The portage around Post Falls Dam wasn’t that bad, but they were buffeted by headwinds and stressed by numerous tedious stretches of skinny water full of board-grabbing rocks.
It was after 7 p.m. when they floated under the Barker Road Bridge and entered Flora Rapids where it was impossible to avoid bumping boulders. They picked their way through, sometimes stepping onto a boulder with one foot and pushing forward as though the SUP was a scooter.
The Spokane Valley portion of the River is heavily used by floaters seeking refuge from summer heat. “Between Barker and Sullivan roads, I saw a plethora of full beer cans on the river bottom, indicating some costly capsizes, I suspect,” Conklin said.
Using headlamps, they paddled under the Argonne Road Bridge in the dark and beached at a friend’s house shortly before 10 p.m. “Cheeseburger, beer, crash,” Conklin said.
The next day started on the peaceful morning flatwater over the reservoir backed up behind Upriver Dam.
Roskelley was on a wider, longer heavier SUP. “It’s made for stability and doing yoga,” she said. “It tracked well on flatwater but sometimes it was hard maneuvering through the rocks.”
Robison’s board was shorter and more maneuverable. “It was good in the boulders on the flowing water, but being a foot shorter that Allison’s, I struggled a little to keep up on the flatwater,” she said.
Conklin’s board was shorter than Roskelley’s and longer than Robison’s. His NRS Thrive, at 10-feet, 3-inches and 25 pounds is designed as an all-around vessel.
“It worked as well as you can expect,” he said. “But anything is a compromise somewhere, sometime on the Spokane River.”
They portaged around Upriver Dam, up through thorn bushes and down through tricky rip-rap boulders swaddled in poison ivy.
They saw some vagrant camps and rubble in the river from the era of using the river as a dump in this industrial stretch.
“Then we made a pit stop at No-Li Brewhouse,” Conklin said. “It’s one of the pleasures of paddling through the city. I used my cell phone to call in our order so we could just pull our boards up from the river, have brunch on their deck - nachos, wings and a beer - and then we kept moving.”
They paddled a total of 28 miles on Day 2, with rapids and four portages.
A friend met them at Division Street with a vehicle for the portage around Riverfront Park to a Peaceful Valley put-in below Spokane Falls.
“This was our favorite stretch all the way down to Nine Mile Dam,” Conklin said.
“You’re right in the city, but it feels natural,” Roskelley said. “We met a lot of nice people using the river and had some interesting water. The time flew by.
The first good dose of pucker factor came at the Bowl and Pitcher area of Riverside State Park, where they had to paddle through the swift but shallow rocky riffles of the Devil’s Punchbowl. Technically challenging, but no problem. They all rode through standing up.
Downstream, Conklin scouted Devil’s Toenail Rapid and determined it was too rocky and dangerous on an SUP. They climbed up the slope through poison ivy, hauling their boards into the pines. The sun was beating down and the temp was 94 degrees.
Lugging her pack on her back and putting the board on her head, Roskelley focused like a tennis champ preparing to serve before taking the fist step on a dangerous slope of rocks.
“OK, let’s do this,” she said.
Nine Mile Dam was their last portage of the day, made with the help of another friend and a vehicle-assist. “We appreciated the lift on the paved roads, but there’s no easy way down to the river right below the dam,” Conklin said. “You have to take it easy, be careful, and we were tired.”
They finished Day 2 in near darkness, leaving the flowing river behind and paddling through the lily pads to a friend’s house near the top end of Lake Spokane.
“One of the many things that impressed me about the river was the different moods it has,” Roskelley said. “For instance, the water is super creepy below the dams. The water boils and looks rather tame from a distance but up close the hydraulics are incredibly powerful and moving in all directions.
Day 3 started on the other end of the spectrum with a mentally challenging flatwater paddle down Lake Spokane to Long Lake Dam.
“We had to work at breaking the monotony,” Roskelley said. “There was the in-your-face wind, and every time we went around a bend, there was another bend.”
“I started thinking about fishing,” Conklin said. “I missed my fishing rod all through the trip. I’d seen a huge, I mean HUGE northern pike near Mission Bridge.”
They faced a long portage around Long Lake Dam so asked for a ride from some folks on a beach to the dam outflow.
Mention of the four-mile flatwater stretch from the dam to Little Falls Dam brought a smile to Robison’s face. “Sweet,” she said.
“Like another world,” Roskelley said. “Another place I’d want to show friends.”
But they had paddled 25 miles into the evening when they arrived at Little Falls Dam.
“The portage sucked,” Conklin said. “But we felt a big sense of relief when we got around it. That was the last portage of the trip. We were in the home stretch - just 29 miles to go!”
They paddled a few miles before pulling out to camp on a small, sandy beach on the Spokane Arm of Lake Roosevelt. They boiled water for their freeze-dried meals. Under the smokey orange full moon they savored cold beers Conklin had cached in a soft cooler near the dam before they had started the trip.
Using the inflatable SUPs as mattresses, they slept hard after three long days of paddling.
“The planet could have burned up around me and I wouldn’t have woken,” Roskelley said.
Day 4 was an unknown as the river widened into a reservoir. A wind might hammer their pace to a crawl and force them to camp out another night.
“We just got after it, keeping our spirits up,” Conklin said.
“Jed coached us on bird identification,” Roskelley said.
“I saw things on this trip I’ve never seen in all my time outdoors,” Conklin said. “I’ve seen osprey dive before, but one osprey on this trip dove into rocky rapids 10 yards in front of my board and came up out of frothing whitewater with a fish. I don’t know how the bird didn’t break its neck.”
The trio raised their paddles whooped with joy upon reaching their goal at the Columbia and paddling back to take out at Two Rivers Marina.
“Jed was the motivator who kept things moving and we all stayed positive and looked out for each other,” Roskelley said.
“People have a reluctance or even a fear of trying new things,” she said, noting that the Spokane River from beginning to end was certainly new to her, and that she puckered up more than once along the way.
“But when you get yourself out there into something new, your suffer bucket just gets bigger. You find yourself being more confident and dreaming of other possibilities and even bigger things.”
“I’m swollen, starved, blistered and I’m so stoked for the next one, whatever it is, and adding new people and places to our adventures.”
But she’s not over this Spokane River trip quite yet.
“When I was in the shower with my eyes closed washing my hair this morning, I felt myself being on the board rocking with the waves.”