(State 40/50) “Who knew Idaho could look so good?” my friend Lawrence remarked in response to a picture. He wasn’t alone with this reaction. “That’s so much prettier than I would have thought for Idaho,” another friend said of a sunset photo. I had no idea the state wasn’t widely regarded as scenic; searching for someone or something to blame, I landed on the potato. After all, could a state known for brown, odd-shaped tubers be worth a damn?
I hadn’t visited Idaho since a 1993 family vacation and, I’ll admit, my takeaway also had nothing to do with the views…
Driving up from Salt Lake, we had only one Elvis cassette tape (a small, rectangular object that played music, which you had to rewind) that we played ad nauseam. By the time we reached Pocatello, ID, my parents were scanning the dial for anything. But, in search of variety, they landed on “Louie Louie Radio.” To our confusion and delight the station declared that it played “all Louie, all the time” and that you were “never more than two minutes away from Louie Louie!” We listened to slow versions, classical takes, harder tracks and, of course, the original 1963 jam by The Kingsmen. To this day, I can’t think of Idaho without hearing that song.
Twenty-four years later, I drove into the panhandle of the state, just below Canada and far from Pocatello. Rain cleansed the air of the smoky haze, which had plagued the western skies for weeks. When I arrived at Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced Pon-der-ray), the air was cool and fresh, though still cloudy. Not for long.
The moment I launched onto the Clark Fork River, the sun tore through the atmosphere and set the land aglow. Under this new light, I paddled into the wide, calm, turning channel. The current carried me past poplar trees, high grass and towards a steep mountainside, framed by conifer trees and low vegetation, turning red and orange. I passed swimming beavers, patrolling osprey and a single, attentive doe. The evening sun, unhampered by smoke, enriched all it touched to the most vibrant degree. The clouds, the cattails, the cottonwood trees, the rock faces, the clinging evergreens, the reddish coat of the deer, all appeared lit from within.
After two miles, I left the river delta and canoed onto the lake. I rounded a narrow strip of trees separating the river’s end and the lake’s beginning. There, on Long Beach, I pulled the boat up onto the polished stones and made camp in a small clearing between the trees.
I cracked a beer and met the only other person out there — a guy named Drew with a collection of dogs and a boat anchored on the river side. Drew was a native Idahoan, who had spent time in Texas, stationed at Fort Hood back in the 90’s. For almost an hour, we talked Texas and its important subsets, including bass fishing, tornadoes, brisket and salsa. After the sun set, Drew returned to his boat and I returned to mine for a twilight canoe out on the lake.
Lake Pend Oreille is a large, deep* lake prone to dangerous swell-producing weather. Therefore, I didn’t plan to stray far from shore. I watched the fading light, beyond the distant black mountains and between the mostly cloudy sky. Bats flitted and flew sporadically through the air, still sharp against the dusk sky. Laying back, I let the wind push me further out into the great lake. I drifted towards the tip of the nearby mountainside, which tilted at 45 degrees into the water. Silhouetted pines grew against the sky. Miles beyond, another mountain slope, carved by glaciers, fell, curving into the lake. I could have been in Norway.
Soon, the trees above camp were tiny as I drew even with the jutting mountain point, at the threshold of the grand lake. Trying to about face, I turned the bow to the left, but the small waves and a fierce wind, which had propelled me out, now worked against my plans; I was unable to turn on the first attempt. Not wanting to end up in the middle of the lake at dark, I dropped to my knees in the center of the boat and fought the winds. Cutting against the wind and the waves, I stroked back at what felt like ten mph.
Safe on the beach, I took in the night sky. To the west was a patch of light pollution, courtesy of the town of Sand Point, across the lake and over the low mountain. To the north was a thunderstorm, flashing with lightning every five seconds. Dark patches of star-studded sky lay between clouds. Between the openings was a single large cloud, which blotted out all light and celestial objects. It looked like a huge zeppelin, tethered to earth by an unseen rope. No, that’s not it, I thought. It was the bottom of a fishing boat and I was dozens of feet below an ocean, looking up at the hull. Indeed, it was a strange sky, worth the prolonged study and pointless, imaginary debates. I was thankful to oblige in both.
I slept well, waking to a sun-warmed tent. I stepped out into daylight and ran into Drew, walking through the path between the brush. “Come grab some coffee! I know what it’s like to live off of the instant stuff.” He told me. We walked the dock with his dogs, drank real coffee and watched the sea planes fly in and out of the Clark Fork valley.
Back at camp, the wind now blew across the wide lake, creating sizable waves. They rolled and crashed along the steep bank piled with some of the most ideal skipping rocks imaginable. I cooked breakfast at a picnic table as my mind wandered towards salsa and tortillas — good salsa and tortillas, from Texas. I missed them. You realize when you leave for a long trip you’ll miss your friends, family and girlfriend. But, it’s not until in the midst of the trip do you start missing the unsung heroes of normal life — Tex-Mex, cooking in a kitchen and walking a mile, pounding shitty, warming beers on the way to a Rangers game. I often missed our summer pool hangouts. Here I was, on some of the most spectacular waterways our nation has to offer, and I sometimes longed to be at a generic apartment pool in Plano, TX… Conversely, I didn’t miss checking work emails, stressing over my old job or watching hours of bad TV. All of it, I decided, would be there when I made it back. For the moment, I had a mountain lake before me and a hot plate of eggs and sausage to devour strait from a dirty pan.
After testing my canoeing skills on the rough lake, I loaded up my gear and launched from the dock on the river side, next to Drew’s boat. He gave me a cold bottle of water and wished me luck as I paddled up the river delta.
I still have much of the state left to explore. And yet, I know this — basing your thoughts of Idaho on the southern agricultural flatlands is about like viewing California through the lens of the hot, flat, Central Valley. Yes, Idaho does grow potatoes (which as a nation run on French fries and potato chips, we should all be grateful), but what makes it worth a visit are the remote northern Rockies, valleys, peaks, forests, rivers and lakes that look as much like Scandinavia as they do America. Pend Oreille is just one spectacular piece of the potato pie. Now, I have something else to add to my childhood memories. Though, to be honest, a small town radio station devoted to the many incarnations of Louie Louie will always come first.
*The Lake is 1150 feet deep (5th deepest in nation) and is notable for the Navy conducted acoustic underwater submarine research during World War II, when it was the 2nd largest Naval training ground in the country.
Lake Stats and Fun Facts:
- Lake Pend Oreille/Fort Clark River, Idaho
- Dates Canoed: 8-13/14-2017
- Miles Canoed: 4
- Weather: Smoke cleared from rain, partly cloudy and warm, windy in the morning
- Elevation: 2066 feet above sea level
- Launch/Takeout Point: Public boat launch (48.138949, -116.228761)
- Campsite: Army Core Campsite on sand spit (48.149095, -116.249889)
- Songs Sung on River: I can’t recall, though I hope it was Louie, Louie
- Big Thanks to Drew for the coffee, cold water and good conversation. Thanks to Cynthia with Going Green for info about where to canoe and camp!
- Birds: Bald eagle, 3 osprey, vultures, crows, ducks, loon or diving duck
- Mammals: White tail deer, 2 beavers, many bats at nightfall, 2 Boston Terriers named Duke and Sally and one stump that looked just like a silhouette of a beaver, that fooled me several times and Sally kept barking at it.
- Noted Species: Black Bear, Mountain Goat and Lynx
- Dominant Vegetation: Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock, Black Cottonwood, Western Paper Bark
- Ecoregion: Northern Rockies, (15u) Inland Maritime Foothills and Valleys and (15o) Coeur’d Alene Metasedimentary Zone (what a name!)
- Current Threats: Stormwater runoff and pollution from local communities. Potential spills from rail traffic carrying coal and oil (there was a coal train derailed up stream on the Clark River the day I canoed). Aquatic invasive plants species such as Eurasian watermilfoil and Flowering rush are also threats to the great ecosystem. Additionally, Lake Trout threaten the existence of native species.
- Trash collected: beer cans, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and
- Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3367 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign