'Diamond in the rough' Bear Lake in northern Spokane County set to receive slate of upgrades

Feb. 11—Jennifer Goff believes Bear Lake Regional Park, nestled off U.S. Highway 2 just north of Chattaroy, might be one of the best-kept secrets in Spokane County.

Goff had never visited until a friend who grew up nearby took her there to show it off. The Mount Spokane resident now visits frequently, with her two young children and dog in tow, to walk the lakeside paved pathway, to monkey-around on the aging playground and to skip rocks on the glossy surface of the spring-fed lake.

"It's just beautiful," Goff said. "It's like a little diamond in the rough. It makes you feel like you're still deep in the woods even though it's not far from the city."

The 166-acre, county-owned park will undergo extensive renovations this summer to make the property more enjoyable for Goff's family and the thousands of other hikers, bikers, swimmers and anglers who visit each year.

Spokane County Parks and Recreation will break ground later this spring on an extensive project that will enhance the lake's most popular uses by adding three new fishing piers, a gravel launch ramp for nonmotorized boats and a proper beachfront area. The roughly milelong paved pathway around the lake will be repaired in its most jagged spots, and the potholed dirt roadways and parking lots will be paved, according to preliminary design plans.

The county has more than $3.4 million earmarked for the revitalization, and the contract for the first phase of construction has been awarded to Spokane Valley-based contractor MJ Takisaki. The park will be closed this summer as work is expected to stretch into November.

It will be the most extensive work conducted at the park in decades. The county purchased the property in 1974 for $205,000, with about 75% of the funding provided by state and federal grants, as reported by The Spokesman-Review. Previous owner Bob Mast ran a resort on the property and sold it to the county with the condition that it be turned into a park.

Julie Neff, landscape architect for the county parks department, told the Spokane County Board of Commissioners last month that she looks forward to the improvements they'll be making to the lake's waterfront. The rock-filled gabion baskets that support the land at the shoreline that were installed in the '90s are failing, she said. A temporary fence was installed in recent years to protect visitors from the crumbling shoreline.

Bear Lake has long served as a swimming hole on hot summer days, but for years, the only way to enjoy the water was by making your way down one of four sets of concrete stairs in between the grassy areas on the west end of the lake. The stairs will be replaced by sandy banks with boulder retaining walls to support the tall pines that border the lake. An additional beach area will be added to the northeast corner of the lake.

Most visitors to the park in the off-season come to enjoy the paved pathway around the lake and the network of trails that branch off of it. Gina Davenport, who lives close enough to walk into the park, said she looks forward to the much-needed repairs to the paved pathways her young children ride their bikes on.

"It's just really quiet and serene in the winter," Davenport said. "You'll see a couple of people on the trails, hiking or walking their dogs, but really it's just you and nature."

The lake is stocked annually with largemouth bass, yellow perch and rainbow trout, and periodically with channel catfish. The Washington Department of Wildlife has given it a special designation where only those younger than 15, seniors or anglers with a disability are able to fish the lake, which leads to a typically less crowded environment than other fishing spots in the area.

The lake has long attracted eager anglers. Shortly after it opened in 1975, an estimated 2,000 people came with poles in hand in a single weekend, disregarding the juvenile, senior and disabled designation, leading to a months long halt on any fishing of the lake.

"They were taking the perch out in 5-gallon cans," then-Parks Director Sam Angrove told the Spokane Daily Chronicle. "I'm sure they would have fished the lake out in a few weeks."

The fish, and other residents of the lake like water fowl and painted turtles, will see habitat improvements and restorations this summer, Neff said at the meeting.

Accessibility is at the forefront of the plans for the park, in line with when it was first developed by the county in the 1970s. The Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that the original playground equipment installed in 1977 was designed to serve children of all abilities, a feature Angrove was especially proud of.

The county's plans include a paved ramp allowing for easy access to the new, northeast beachfront, lowered railing slots on the new fishing piers and accessible parking spots on both sides of the lake.

County Commissioner Josh Kerns said the county has been working toward revitalizing the lake for years, but thought it would have to be a piecemeal project. He thanked county staff for their work to secure the federal Land & Water Conservation Fund grant that allowed the county to do most of the construction all at once.

He said he's always appreciated the park as a lifelong Mead resident and a father to a young son and daughter. He looks forward to the next chapter of the park's story.

"The renderings that we've been seeing of what it's going to look like after the construction, that's just going to take it to the next level," Kerns said. "If it looks half as good as the artist's renderings, it'll be incredible."