by Tina Wynecoop
Near Peaceful Valley, below Spokane Falls, a tributary joins the Spokane River. And thirty-three humans and one very polite dog named ‘Dug’ joined on this cool spring morning to follow our favorite naturalist/historian guide, Jack Nisbet, on yet another wonderful excursion to explore in depth our region’s varied wonders.
Overheard while waiting for the group to assemble, one octogenarian-minus mentioned to another octogenarianplus that his parents had kept a trailer at this very spot by Sandifur Bridge fifty years ago. The other elder, a Spokan Indian, countered, ‘Well, 150 years ago, my people lived here.’ (And they had for uncountable generations.)
After a brisk uphill walk we looked down at the confluence of Hangman Creek and the Spokane River. Coolish weather earlier in the week had slowed the creek’s meltwater considerably (from 20,000cfs the previous Monday
to 8,000cfs on this day.)
This is a spectacular drone photo (courtesy of Cutboard Studio) of the confluence was published by The Inlander in mid-April showing a vast stream of mud flowing from Latah Creek and running parallel with and infringing on the green flow of the big river. One could be dismayed at the enormous sediment being dumped by Latah into the Spokane unless given a different perspective by Jack who said that the indigenous people living upstream along this creek which begins in Idaho and washes through the Palouse always called themselves ‘The muddy creek people.’ The sediment flow is not a new phenomenon. For sure the creek has been heavily impacted by agricultural and forestry practices in the last century and half but certainly, too, the creek is/was prone to changing its colors as the seasons changed.
Clouds of serviceberry shrubs and golden current bushes – both in full bloom – made the landscape more beautiful. In late April our region is fashionably dressed in white as the serviceberry bush blooms en masse and then quietly drops its petals. Just look up the slopes of Five Mile Prairie and see the hillsides in astonishing beauty each spring. Wherever there is undisturbed land, perhaps in your own yards or community these shrubs put on a show. Members of the wild carrot family -perennial herbs named Lomatiums, dotted the ground like yellow umbrellas. Jack explained that plants of this family range from highly edible to deadly toxic. The Interior Salish Indians valued varieties of this plant and relied on certain of its species for consumption while avoiding the toxic ones. We were cautioned that our own plant identification skills were probably insufficient to become gatherers of these subsistence foods.
As our group walked upstream on the west side of the creek we heard the first Yellow warblers of the year singing in the riparian vegetation along the creek. They had just arrived from their long northern migration from Central America to establish nesting territory, mate, and raise their young. (To listen to their melodious calls google ‘Yellow warbler’ and touch the musical note to play recordings of their song(s) and calls. Just upland from the riparian zone tall ponderosa pines anchored the soil.
Most enchanting were the skirts of white flowers surrounding the base of some of the trees: Claytonia (also called Indian potato, Spring Beauty) spread their white flowers. These plants were an important source of carbohydrates for the Interior native people. When cooked the corms taste like potatoes.
We saw the White-throated swifts darting underneath the high bridge decks which cross the creek. Again, it was their calls, a long series of descending notes, that drew our attention (worth listening to by googling their name.) The creek’s character has been altered significantly. Salmon no longer swim upstream to spawn. Most of the beaver are gone. New (invasive) vegetation has planted itself firmly in the soil. Many of the native plants survive. Jack reminds us again not to despair for what has been lost. He compares the changes to the massive repeated impacts of the Ice Age Floods and reminds us that the creek is still here. We must look deeper into the story being told about the landscape.
Crossing a little bridge over the creek we walked back to People’s Park on the east side of Latah Creek. Poison ivy, with its odd berried bushes, was pointed out. One man in the group says he just has to breathe and he gets the effect of their poison. Glad to learn about and avoid that plant’s presence! Mounds of Buckwheat plants lined the base of the hillside below the south Hill’s High Drive. These plants were sure signs that this creek side is a ‘butterfly heaven.’ A sharp-eyed member of the group (not Dug the Dog) found a Sarah’s Orange-tip butterfly which had just emerged from its cocoon and was resting in low grasses.
On this hike were adventurers, a botanist, a horsewoman, an organic gardener, a trails expert, and many more interesting attendees. The man my husband walked with had his own river story: In June 1971, he and several others swam and and/or walked the Spokane River below Post Falls all the way to the Bowl and Pitcher for a fund-raiser on behalf of what is now called the Special Olympics. The small group of adventurers wearing full wetsuits, were able to keep their heads and chests above water as they navigated the river. Below the spillway at Upriver Dam the men were caught in the white water and nearly drowned. Boats or bodies don’t float in 50% oxygenated water. Jim recalls there was enough current to help him claw his way down on the river’s floor and finally emerge above water. He said it was the longest time he has gone without breathing. He remembers walking downtown around the Spokane Falls dam in his wetsuit (that must have been a sight!) and reentering the Spokane River and floating past the confluence of Latah Creek and on downstream to the Bowl and Pitcher, where he crawled out after eight hours in the river (without lunch). He rested on the south bank for quite a while. Jim Ellis is one of the founders of FLSRV and its trail system. After learning about his long ago adventure I keep thinking, ‘What would we have done without him?’ And, added to that question, ‘What other stories could/should be shared of adventure and bravery and danger and discovery by other hikers in our group?’
We ALWAYS, all ways, learn so much from our leader on these annual hikes. If you missed this hike remember that Jack has a website which lists upcoming events. His tours are calendared there, as are the titles of the books he has written. His current book will be published in October 2018 about a Swedish immigrant and botanist named John Leiberg (1853-1913) who collected plant specimens in the very area we toured with Jack. Each book Jack writes is a tour de force – which is defined by my dictionary as ‘an impressive achievement that has been accomplished with great skill’ – we all could say, that this Sunday’s hike along Latah/Hangman Creek was a tour de force as well.
Thank you, Jack Nisbet, for enriching our world, opening our eyes, and for writing so knowledgeably about our region (including his monthly essays in ‘The North Columbia Monthly’ magazine which is available for free at Auntie’s, Huckleberry’s, the downtown library, and online at NCMonthly.com.
Jack’s essay about Spokane House is included in the April 2018 publication of the book edited by EWU’s Professor Paul Lindholdt, titled The Spokane River. A reviewer says, ‘Running the gamut from loving impressions to far more sobering treatments by scientists, engineers, archeologists, historians, and notably by members of the Spokane Tribe, this is as complete a treatment of the river as we could hope to find in one highly readable volume, ‘ – John Keeble. The Friends of the Little Spokane River Valley’s winter 2018/2019 Newsletter www.flsrv.org will announce next spring’s seventh annual hike led by Jack Nisbet. Wonder where we will go? What new things we will learn? Looking forward to it! Aren’t we all. And! special thanks to our FLSRV board of directors ‘glue’ – Harla Jean Biever – who coordinates these hikes.