Jan 17, 2006

Today was chokka with business meetings, except one involved an hour's stroll through Spokane's impressive Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park, followed by a private tour of the Skyride. Amy and Andy – my newlywed friends – joined us, despite her fear of heights. They cuddled close, hands clasped, as the gondola lurched over the falls.

Native American Poet and Novelist Sherman Alexie calls it, “that place where ghosts of salmon jump.” A million fish would pool here, spawning amid the spray each year. The Spokane, Couer d' Alene, Colville, Kalispel, Nez Perce and other tribes gathered on the banks. But the dams stopped all that, long ago.

Chief of the Spokanes Alex Sherwood stood above the falls in 1973 and reminisced: "Indians from all over would gather every year for the annual salmon fishery. It was beautiful then, with thousands coming for many miles. You could hear the shouting welcomes as they arrived, the dancing, the singing, the trading, the games, the races, always the hearty hugs – and the fish! The fish sometimes so thick that it seemed that they filled the river. Sometimes, even now, I find a lonely spot where the river still runs wild.

"I find myself talking to it; "River, do you remember how it used to be – the game, the fish, the pure water, the roar of the falls, boats, canoes, fishing platforms? You fed and took care of our people then. For thousands of years we walked your banks and used your waters. You would always answer when our chiefs called to you with their prayer to the river spirit."

"Sometimes I stand and shout, "River, do you remember us?"
- Excerpt from The Spokane River, its Miles and its History, John Fahey with Robert Dellwo

Mute – despite its roar – the Spokane drops 60 feet here; the froth is suitably bridal this time of year. I ask if anyone's ever shot over the falls and survived. Everyone in the gondola looks askance. What? I'm just being a good journalist and asking the morbid question we all must be contemplating. How can you dangle in a lilac-colored car above a cataract and not wonder? Does confidence in Swedish engineering completely squash the imagination?

A later search reveals a 1927 attempt. After 20 minutes, Al Fausset emerged bleeding from a whirlpool. "They've got whiskers on 'em (the falls) an' they sure can give a feller an awful tossing," he told the Spokesman Review.

Fausset died 21 years later in Seattle, my hometown (more or less). According to the book Liquid Locomotive, his son Irv claimed the nursing home – not cancer – finished off the daredevil. "He couldn't stand the regimentation … It was the first time in his life someone told him what to do: when to turn off the light, when to go to bed. It got him down and he just couldn't take it.

"He lived three lives to most men's one. He got a lot of fun out of life. Funny thing was he never knew how to swim."


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