After six years of paddling over 200 tires, kayaker, volunteers clean them up

Most of the tires on the thin strip of rocks and sand on the Spokane River were dredged one dive at a time, with a shovel and a wet suit.

"Tire heaven," as kayaker John McKee jokingly calls it, was as recently as a few weeks ago covered by several feet of water and became the site of almost 200 tires stranded on the beach.

Most of the tires are usually far too deep for McKee to drag to the surface alone, but lower water levels finally put them in reach of McKee and volunteers looking to clean up the river.

McKee said he's paddled over those tires in his kayak for six years. Avista's repairs on the Nine Mile Dam finally gave him and the Spokane Riverkeepers the chance to clear them out. McKee and other volunteers only had a few weeks to haul away the tires, before the water levels return to normal and the beach ceases to exist.

Avista is drawing down the water level in the Nine Mile Reservoir 12 feet from Sept. 21 to mid-November due to maintenance on the Nine Mile Dam. All of the Spokane River isn't affected, but the areas near the dam saw significantly lower water levels for most of the fall.

"It's so time-bound to be able to do this," McKee said. "You wouldn't do this for just one tire, but if you can get 200 tires, all the sudden it's a satisfying project."

McKee, who calls himself a "recreational engineer," moved to Spokane from Clarkston several years ago. His career was in papermaking, but most of his time now is spent engineering ways to enjoy the outdoors.

On Saturday, McKee and 28 volunteers from the Spokane Riverkeepers and Spokane Mountaineers hauled away 20 tires and 20 bags of trash, such as abandoned clothing, a compressed gas cylinder and an ancient railroad spittoon. McKee said the volunteers completed the beach cleanup in 1 1/2 hours.

"It was nice to see all the people that wanted to make this happen, and they did a great job," McKee said.

The newly cleaned beach is across the river from the McLellan Trailhead and west of Sun Dance Golf Course in the Nine Mile Falls area.

Jule Schultz, technical lead for the Spokane Riverkeepers, said the tires are likely part of Spokane's legacy of using its river as a dump. While that practice is no longer common, the riverkeepers are still finding thousands of pounds of garbage in the river. This year alone, the riverkeepers have collected 15,000 pounds of trash, and Schultz anticipates the tires will put the group over 20,000 pounds of garbage collected.

"In the five years that I've been doing this, I would say we're getting much less garbage in the river," he said. "I think, in part, that's because of the attitudes toward the river are changing,"

Schultz said it is common to find tires in the river, though not usually hundreds at a time. Another place the riverkeepers have helped dispose of a similar amount of tires is the Sullivan Park area in Spokane Valley.

Schultz said the Department of Ecology will dispose of the tires, but many appeared to have deteriorated too far to be recycled and might end up in a landfill.

Parks staff weren't aware of the true magnitude of tires deposited around that beach until water levels dropped, Danny Murphy, a program assistant for the Inland Northwest Area division of the Washington State Parks Department, said.

"There's always a chance for tires and debris in the river, but that was a shock to us," Murphy said.

He said most of the tires were probably dumped in the river upstream, were caught on the sand bar and became stuck at the tight bend. The parks department brought several staff members and provided trucks to help volunteers transport the tires from the river down a two-track road through the woods.

Once the work on the dam is finished, and the bend and beach can only be accessed from a kayak, McKee said he looks forward to showing his friends and family what the river can be.

"It'll be great to look down and not be embarrassed by what you see in the river," McKee said. "It's our river and I feel like it reflects us. If it's bad, you should do something about it."