POCATELLO — The first annual Poky Portneuf Paddle event drew more than 500 people to a party at Centennial Park on Thursday and over 1,000 others who had just floated the Portneuf River in city limits.
It was a scene reminiscent of what tourism cities like Boise and Lava Hot Springs enjoy on a daily basis in the summer on the Boise River and Upper Portneuf River. And according to Hannah Sanger, event organizer and Pocatello science and environment administrator, those who floated the Portneuf in Pocatello on Thursday likely experienced a part of town not many have visited over the years.
“Most people have not been on the Portneuf in Pocatello,” Sanger said. “They’ve been to Lava Hot Springs, but they’ve never floated here. Even people who are super river enthusiasts. And it’s a whole different world down there. That’s the reason for doing this, because until you go down there it’s hard to imagine that Pocatello could be so different. And we don’t use it. Nobody is down there. It’s an undiscovered resource in Pocatello.”
Part of the reason not many people recreate on the Portneuf in Pocatello is that historically it hasn’t been safe. High bacteria counts, debris in river and overgrown vegetation along the banks of the river have contributed to the absence of people enjoying the Portneuf in Pocatello, Sanger said.
But the Portneuf’s flow through the Gate City has improved over the last several years, said Sanger, crediting benefits to Lava Hot Springs removing its wastewater treatment plant from the river and to the removal of many cattle feeding yards upstream of Pocatello. J.R Simplot has reduced phosphorus near its Don Plant west of Pocatello and Inkom is in the process of removing its treatment plant from the river, too, Sanger said.
“Bacteria counts are low here, which is great,” Sanger said. “And on the Upper Portneuf, the cutthroat trout fishery is coming back with all the fencing projects that have happened. From what I’ve heard, in the 1960s, this was not a pretty river, but it’s coming back. Though there is a lot of work still to be done.”
Floaters flocked to the Portneuf in droves Thursday, using inflatable tubes, paddleboards rented from a Barrie’s Ski and Sports booth at the event, kayaks and canoes, and even an inflatable chicken or two.
The event featured river put-ins at Edson Fichter Pond and Taysom Rotary Park with Centennial Park serving as the take-out. That’s also where hundreds gathered for a party afterward with music, food trucks and some booths.
“It’s about a 3-mile float from Edson Fichter Pond to Centennial Park and a half-mile from Taysom Rotary Park, which lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours,” Sanger said. “The river is slow, and easy. From Fichter it’s about a two or two-and-a-half hour float, or an hour and 30 minutes in a kayak.”
The Poky Portneuf Paddle event included awards for who was the most creative floater, who had the most creative flotilla, who earned the best sandal tan lines and the oldest floater — of which an 80-year-old woman took home the latter award.
As Sanger had hoped, the event brought out people who had never floated the Portneuf River in Pocatello before. In fact, some had never floated the Portneuf River anywhere before Thursday’s event.
“It was great fun for the family for sure. He loved it,” said Pocatello resident David Cockrell as he pointed to his life-jacketed and sopping wet 2-year-old son. “This was the first time I was able to go out with him on the river.”
His wife, Jennifer Cockrell, added, “This is our first time ever floating the Portneuf River, which we are excited about because we only live a few blocks away. We want to do it in our off-time, besides during an event like this. Can we grab a raft and do this all the time?”
The answer to her question, according to Sanger, is absolutely yes.
“You can come float the Portneuf in Pocatello anytime,” Sanger said. “State law gives you the right to float any stream that is navigable anytime you want. The city has put a prohibition on floating inside the concrete channel, but other than that the river is open for use.”
Another Pocatello resident, Mike Berberian, had floated the Portneuf near Lava Hot Springs, but never within city limits of the Gate City.
“It was sweet, some parts had some heavy moving water and other parts were super quiet, you couldn’t hear a thing,” Berberian said about his float on the Portneuf in Pocatello. “There were shady parts where trees in backyards formed a canopy over the river. It was really pleasant. A few spots are a little too slow, but the river is in better shape than I thought it was. There is still some work to do and it could get a little cleaner.”
A product of the Portneuf River Vision Study, Sanger said the Poky Portneuf Paddle is aimed at increasing community engagement on the river and was also used to figure out what type of work is needed to construct family-friendly recreation spots along the river’s banks.
“The vision was to have community events down on the river and to engage local residents in those events. This achieves that,” Sanger said. “We also want to get people down onto the river to have people experience what it could be and to receive feedback on what we should be doing with the river down in the concrete channel and elsewhere.”
Sanger continued, “This is a tremendous asset. You can walk out your back door put-in, float downtown and enjoy yourself. You can shuttle your cars later or whenever you want. It’s a super easy float that you can take your kids down and feel safe about it. The view south while you’re tubing and lounging on the river just watching the Portneuf Gap and Scout Mountain is beautiful. We saw an Osprey and signs of beaver and muskrat, and it’s just super peaceful.”
The river is about 95 cubic feet per second, said Sanger, adding that such flows make the river about 1 to 3 feet deep, with the occasional hole in the riverbed or a rock that exposes the water surface. But it’s easy if you get stuck or in trouble, you can just stand up or get to safety, she added.
Drawing a crowd of nearly 2,000 was an amazing outpouring of support and showed Sanger how much of a truly untapped asset Pocatello has in the Portneuf River. Now it’s just a matter of capitalizing on that asset in the future.
“This was all about getting in, floating the river and enjoying a party down at the takeout,” Sanger said. “It’s really a chance for the community to see what the Portneuf in Pocatello is like. To learn how to access it, find an easy way to float it and hopefully, everybody will come back and do it on their own.”