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Emphasizing access

Paddlers try to keep public in touch with Spokane River

The Spokane Canoe & Kayak Club is reviving a paddling event of fun and competition to help refocus community attention on the importance of recreational access to the Spokane River.

The Spokane River Classic is set for Aug. 23 on a stretch of the river from the Don Kardong Bridge near Gonzaga University downstream to the Division Street Bridge and back.

Formerly the Spokane River Canoe Classic, the name change helps reflect the evolution of paddling sports, said club president Stan Mrzygod.

“Look out on the water nowadays and you’ll see more kayaks and stand-up paddle boards than canoes, and we want to see them all included in the event,” he said.

Participants in the new classic can choose from the 1.3-mile citizens event or a 5.4-mile endurance division, both of which include a short buoy course to test paddling skills.

“The water is slow moving and warm in that section so it should be fun for everyone,” Mrzygod said.

All participants will be eligible for the $1,000 in prizes. Post-event food and a beer garden will be available.

While getting people on the water is a motive, the event also seeks to keep the public tuned in to river access issues.

Classic participants will turn back upstream at the Division Street Bridge, where paddlers likely would have lost a traditional river access to development if they had not rallied public comment last year on city plans to expand the Spokane Convention Center.

In 2013, voters approved the $65 million expansion, funded by extending sales tax and hotel room taxes through 2043. But initial plans presented by the Spokane Public Facilities District would have shut paddlers off from the Division Street access, where County Parks kayak trips, commercial outfitters and private groups used to pull out after evening tours. The outings often ended with dinner or drinks at the former Shenanigan’s.

The city heard the concerns of paddlers and adjustments were made in the convention center design, said Andy Dunau of the Spokane River Forum and a member of the city Parks Board.

“The expansion design is complete and depending on how permitting goes, construction could begin this fall,” he said. “We’re pleased with the (provision for boaters), which includes a turnabout for car access and a ramp for carrying car-top boats right to the river at Division Street.”

Paddling and rafting groups also were instrumental in preventing loss of boater access during the recent Barker Bridge project.

Dunau says there’s momentum for developing more access under a Spokane River Water Trail plan he’s been promoting. For instance:

• The Washington Department of Transportation and other agencies worked with boaters to provide a river access that opened this year after completion of the stateline bridge construction project.

• Avista Utilities is creating a paddler take-out just upstream from Nine Mile Dam.

And the Spokane River Classic participants will launch from the relatively new McKinstry River Access Site southwest of the Trent-Hamilton intersection behind the former Habitat for Humanity store.

The McKinstry and Division Street access points keep paddling sports viable in the river upstream from Riverfront Park. The river downstream of Division Street to Maple Street bridge area is closed to avoid danger presented by hydropower operations and Spokane Falls.

This emphasis on public access fits into the Spokane Canoe & Kayak Club’s history.

The revived Spokane River Classic is being dedicated to the memory of Robbi Castleberry – a club founder and civic activist for paddling, horse riding, the Centennial Trail, Palisades Park and other public recreation. Castleberry died last year.

“We’ve been standing up for paddling since Robbi and (her husband) Vic helped start the club in 1971,” Mrzygod said.

Castleberry also spearheaded the first Spokane River canoe classic, which at one time was among the country’s most prestigious endurance paddling races.

The competitive edge of the race peaked in 1989, when $16,000 in prizes attracted professional paddlers to race 43 miles through chilling June runoff and rapids from Coeur d’Alene City Beach to Spokane’s Riverfront Park.

The race at that time required racers to sprint with their boats in a 1.2-mile portage around Post Falls Dam.

The event was called the U.S. West Canoe Classic that year and it was headlined by the entry of Greg Barton, who’d won two Olympic canoeing gold medals the previous summer in Seoul.

But local grit and savvy prevailed as Nick Bauer of Spokane and partner Normand Mainguy of Quebec handily beat Barton and his brother and edged out professional paddlers Serge Corbin – the top name in marathon canoe racing at the time – and Solomon Carriere.

Over the years, the classic was scaled down. The event was sponsored by Mountain Gear, starting at Corbin Park in Post Falls and finishing 13 miles downstream at Plante’s Ferry Park, but even that course had to be altered in years of heavy runoff for safety reasons.

Public interest declined in the years when the river was raging and the race had to be relocated to the flatwater of Liberty Lake or Lake Spokane, Mrzygod said. The classic was not held last year.

“We’re reviving the event as a fun activity that paddlers of virtually any level can enjoy,” Mrzygod said.

“The river is warmer and safer in August. This is the perfect excuse to bring that kayak down from the garage rafters, get the canoe in the back yard off the saw horses or test the new stand-up paddle board.

“We want everyone to enjoy the river and realize that we all lose if the public is locked out of it.”

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