Pend Oreille Country By bruce reichert, outdoor idaho host

"Pend Oreille Country," an Outdoor Idaho Special, will air Thursday, March 7th, at 8pm on Idaho Public Television.

In Idaho there may be no magnet more powerful than Lake Pend Oreille. It influences so much of the Idaho Panhandle, drawing people from Spokane and, increasingly, from all over the world.

Pend Oreille at dusk. Photo by Kathy Zimmerman

The lake is to Panhandle residents what the Sawtooth Mountains are to some of us in southern Idaho.

This lake is complex. Some call it an inland sea: 43 miles long, and more than 1,000 feet deep. It's large enough to produce powerful storms capable of capsizing even good-sized boats.

Storm on the lake. Photo by Ross Hall, courtesy of Dann Hall.

It was with some trepidation that we tackled the topic of “Pend Oreille Country.” A tall order, any way you cut it.

We decided to concentrate on the geology and the fishery, the history and the threats to the quality of life, as well as the culture that has grown up around towns like Sandpoint.

At first it seemed like a bizarre idea... that an apocalyptic flood had blasted through the Panhandle 18,000 years ago, gouging out Lake Pend Oreille, tearing huge rocks out of mountains and stripping away the soil in what we know today as the channeled scablands of eastern Washington.

Channeled scablands of eastern Washington. Photo by Geologist/Author Bruce Bjornstad.

How was that even possible? It would take a huge dam, a colossal lake behind that dam, and a cataclysmic flood with water traveling at least 50 miles an hour to reshape the landscape like that. It would take an Armageddon.

But geologists say that's exactly what happened. A massive ice dam near present-day Clark Fork River caused water to back up 200 miles into Montana. Centuries later, when the ice dam broke, flood water blasted through the Clark Fork gorge, draining Glacial Lake Missoula in a matter of hours.

Ice dam graphic, courtesy of Tom Davis, GLM Wine Co.

I've heard scientists say the wall of water was taller than the Empire State Building, that its power was ten times that of all the rivers of the world combined.

And the really amazing thing: there's evidence that this catastrophe repeated itself dozens of times... maybe 40 times. No wonder Lake Pend Oreille is so deep. In fact, some have suggested that if you removed the debris from the bottom of the lake, it would be the deepest lake in North America.


Above the Clark Fork River, once the scene of the ice dam. Photo by Terry Lee.

There was a time when everyone seemed happy with the bounty of Lake Pend Oreille. Lots of small-sized kokanee for the regular Joes.

Ice fishing for kokanee in the 1950's. Photo by Ross Hall, courtesy of Dann Hall.

And lots of big Kamloops rainbow trout and bull trout for the sports fisherman. In fact, the lake once held the world record for Kamloops and still holds the world record for bull trout.

A Pend Oreille postcard

But two key management mistakes over the span of half a century -- the introduction of lake trout in the 1920's and freshwater mysis shrimp in the 1960's -- finally caught up with the fishery. By 2000 pretty much everyone was calling Lake Pend Oreille a "dead sea."

Neither of those "mistakes" seemed like mistakes at the time, and were actually advocated by anglers. Today there seems to be no easy answers, except to declare all-out war on one species of fish -- the lake trout -- which tends to dominate any lake it inhabits.

Commercial netters catch lake trout, send headless fish to local food bank. Photo by Terry Lee.

A citizen task force, working with Fish & Game, came up with a radical two-pronged attack. First, use commercial netters to capture lake trout with huge 2-mile long nets and give the fish to the local food bank. Second, make local anglers a part of the solution by putting a bounty on the lake trout. Both parts of the plan are financed by mitigation dollars from Albeni Falls and Cabinet Gorge dams.

Part of the plan to limit the number of lake trout in Pend Oreille.

One interesting sidenote is the "Judas" fish. Biologists put tiny transmitters in a mature lake trout, which then goes back to where other lake trout are congregating. It has allowed the commercial netters to trace exactly where the fish are, making netting them a lot easier. When caught, the lake trout lose their heads. Other fish caught in the nets -- like the Kamloops rainbow and the bull trout -- get a pass and are returned to the lake.

Kokanee, a land-locked salmon, spawning in nearby creek. Courtesy of Idaho Fish & Game.

Studies show that the plan has reduced the numbers of lake trout by more than 60%, allowing kokanee to make a comeback.

That's good news for native cutthroat and bull trout, and for the famous, hard-fighting, highly prized Kamloops rainbow.

Angler with 26 pound Kamloops rainbow trout. Photo courtesy Idaho Fish & Game.

But wait, another predator has recently entered the fray, traveling down the Clark Fork River from Montana. The illegally introduced walleye is a fast-growing, voracious eater of kokanee. And its numbers have quadrupled in just a few years. Sounds like it could be deja vu all over again!

Confused yet? Suffice it to say, Pend Oreille currently grows huge 20+ pound rainbow trout… about the size of your pet dog. And when you hook into one of these remarkable fish, plan on spending the next half hour trying to reel it in. No wonder anglers are starting to return to a lake that only two decades earlier was declared a dead sea.

Kamloops rainbow trout from Lake Pend Oreille. Photo by Rich Lindsey.

Water quality can be a real problem when an area has been “discovered.” Invasive weeds are now in the lake. One thing that hasn’t arrived… yet… is the infamous freshwater mussel. Serious efforts are being made to keep the zebra and quagga mussels out of the lake. There is no known ‘cure’ for this invasive species. Millions and millions of them can make beaches unusable, can gum up the valves of power plants, affecting boats and even the fishery. It's already happened in the lakes around Michigan and Wisconsin.

Mussels on shore of Great Lakes. Courtesy Bugwood Center.

The state of Idaho has so far been successful with its boat inspection program. Hopefully, that will continue, because this little creature can cost taxpayers millions of dollars and make life miserable for all of us.

Inspecting a boat headed for the lake. Photo by Jay Krajic.

The human history of the Pend Oreille country begins with the aboriginal tribe, the Kalispel. In 1809 they greeted explorer David Thompson, the first white man to venture into the region. The fortunes and numbers of the Kalispel declined precipitously after that encounter, in part because of disease and displacement brought on by a cascade of trappers, gold seekers, land speculators, adventurers of all stripes.

Rock engravings depicting bear paws, likely created by Kalispel Indians. Photo by Jay Krajic.

In the 1880's the "iron horse" changed things forever. Even today Sandpoint is known as the quintessential train town. Fifty trains rumble through town on a daily basis. You really can't escape them.

Train on the tressle. Photo by Annie Pflueger.

The trains often carry oil and coal, which is concerning to the members of the Sandpoint city council. In 2017 there were four train derailments, none involving hazardous materials. There's a proposal afoot to dramatically increase railroad bridge and infrastructure, which would increase train traffic in the future.

Many Idahoans don't realize that, in the 1940's, Idaho's largest town was located along the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. It sprang up almost overnight, as a response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The U.S. Navy needed a place to train sailors, someplace that wouldn't get bombed by the Japanese. They chose land near the deepest part of the lake and called it Farragut, after a famous naval hero. It quickly became the second largest naval training center in the world.

Farragut naval training station in the 1940's.

In its heyday, this training facility housed 50,000 people, mostly young men, whose average age was 17. They spent about six weeks learning to become sailors. Many of them had never seen the ocean before they were shipped out to fight the enemy in the Pacific. In the span of 30 months the base produced 300,000 sailors.

Farragut is now a state park, but the Navy never really left. Because of the deepness of the lake, the Acoustic Research Detachment at Bayview continues to be the premier testing ground for acoustic development of the Navy's submarines. Their mission is to help provide the Navy with a quiet-running submarine for the least amount of money.

Model-sized submarine used by the Navy on Lake Pend Oreille. Photo by Jay Krajic.

But the question is... do these submarines upset the lake's monster, the Pend Oreille "Paddler"? That's just one of the rumors surrounding the Navy's secretive unmanned mini subs.

Culture was not something Sandpoint cared about in the 1880's. One writer called it “this wretched hole… where shooting scrapes and hanging bees were common events." He went on to write that "Sandpoint, known also as Hangtown, could hold its own for depravity.”

Schweitzer ski resort above the lake. Photo by Annie Pflueger.

Today Sandpoint finds itself on most of those "Best Places to Live" lists that crop up all too often. The “hippie movement” of the 1960’s still lingers and gives Sandpoint a decidedly laid-back feel. Artist shops and music festivals continue to make Sandpoint one of the state's most visited small towns.

On the tour boat, the Shawnodese. Photo by Bruce Reichert.

It's silly to think one could do justice -- in an hour's time -- to an area so rich in natural resources, in history, in recreational activities. I almost feel we should apologize for even trying. But our small crew has definitely worked hard to give viewers a sense of the grandeur of Pend Oreille country.

Moose in winter. Photo by Steve Jamsa.

Residents of the Panhandle tend to see themselves as just a bit different from the rest of the state. And it's not only because they are on Pacific Time while the rest of us are on Mountain Time.

In 1878, upset that they were being ignored by politicians in Boise, 96% of northern Idaho voters chose to connect the Panhandle to the state of Washington. The measure actually passed the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Only a pocket veto by President Grover Cleveland kept Idaho whole.

Mountain goat on top of Scotchman Peak, above Lake Pend Oreille. Photo by Tim Tower.

Maybe after watching “Pend Oreille Country,” you’ll get a sense of why folks refer to themselves, not as residents of northern Idaho, but as residents of North Idaho. The difference is one of perception.

(Cover photo by Jay Krajic.)

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