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River's 'Owners' Say Rafters' Ride Ends Here

A group of backcountry residents insists that a 1925 court ruling makes a stretch of the Kettle private property, not a route for rowdy drifters.

September 29, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

ORIENT, Wash. — Can a person own a river? Harold Honeycutt, a tall, sinewy, hard-knuckled man of 72 years, scans the green swath of water running past his front yard and acts for all the world like someone who does.

"From that point," he says, aiming a crooked finger far upstream, then slowly turning the other way, "to that point over there, is mine."

Honeycutt is referring to the 2,500-foot stretch of the Kettle River that runs through his property in this remote northeast corner of the Pacific Northwest. The river, 180 miles long, loops back and forth across the Canadian border, then winds south through hundreds of privately owned lots, like Honeycutt's, before eventually spilling into Lake Roosevelt.

A handful of landowners, tired of the annual flotilla of rafts and inner-tubes floating past their homes, have invoked an obscure court ruling to do something that wouldn't occur to most people as possible: claim ownership of the river.

The landowners have barred the public from using "their" stretch of the Kettle, using no-trespassing signs, verbal threats and, police say, even gunshots to force their point.

Local authorities, responding to floaters' complaints of harassment, have tried to make it clear to landowners that people can't own rivers, not big ones anyway. They've threatened to cite or even arrest aggressive landowners. But eastern Washington being what it is, a sparsely populated frontier with scant police presence, conflicts can come and go before law enforcement arrives.

Similar conflicts have erupted all over the West as water sports have boomed in popularity and once-remote rivers have become crowded with people.

Many states have sided with floaters: Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and New Mexico go as far as allowing floaters to get out and pull crafts over shallow sections. California and Montana even allow floaters to stroll riverbanks up to the high-water mark. A Colorado court is in the midst of deciding the fate of the Gunnison River, where landowners have taken a stance similar to that of Honeycutt's.

Here in Ferry County, the conflict has reached a standoff, with both sides preparing for what will likely end up in a court battle. Legal experts say the odds favor the Ferry County prosecutor, but enforcing the law in this land of mavericks will be another matter.

The Sheriff's Department employs five officers to cover 2,200 square miles of thickly forested terrain, or one officer per 440 square miles. It can take an hour or a day for a deputy to respond to a complaint. By the time police hear about a confrontation in the river, one or both parties can be long gone, and many cases end up as one person's word against another.

"There ain't no law out here," says Honeycutt, who patrols his property with a .38-caliber revolver at his side. "That's why we moved here." He and his wife of 52 years, Myrtle, moved to Ferry County a dozen years ago to retire. Both are Washington natives. He worked power-line construction most of his life, and the couple ran the local tavern for a few years.

The plan was to settle into peace and quiet. Now the couple find themselves reluctant mouthpieces for other landowners who don't want to go public with their claims on the river.

Behind the Honeycutts' house, in a two-car garage converted into an ad-hoc living room, their son and daughter-in-law and three other landowners gather. They sit in a semicircle of mismatched chairs, sipping beer. All vow to keep trespassers out.

"By gun or by knuckle," Honeycutt says.

He grabs a beer, pulls up a chair and joins the gripe session.

One man, who wanted to be identified only as Frank, recalled an incident earlier in the summer in which six drunken rafters floated up to his property. "They were all naked," Frank says with disgust. "And shouting vulgarities." Frank says his 3-year-old daughter was there to witness it all. When Frank told them they were trespassing, he says they began swearing at him.

On a hot summer day, as many as several hundred people float the Kettle.

The landowners grouse about litter left on the banks, noise, vandalism. One woman in the group describes coming home one day to find a strange man eating her food and using her telephone.

All of the landowners have deeds showing they own the riverbed adjacent to their properties, and in fact Honeycutt keeps a copy of his deed handy just to show people. The basis of the deed was an unpublished 1925 court ruling in neighboring Stevens County that designated the Kettle as "non-navigable." The landowners' claims hinge entirely on this ruling.

Washington law says that if a river is navigable, or sufficiently deep and wide to provide passage for vessels, it cannot be privately owned. Landowners, however, can own streams and rivers that are non-navigable.

The key question, then, is whether the Kettle is navigable.

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