North Idaho's waters of enchantment

A winter storm settles in on the pristine Priest Lake, where you can safely drink water straight from the lake.
A winter storm settles in on the pristine Priest Lake, where you can safely drink water straight from the lake. Joe Jaszewski / The Idaho Statesman

Priest Lake: The Jewel of Idaho

Priest Lake, the farthest north and most remote of the three North Idaho great lakes, is what people have in mind when they think of a pristine mountain lake. Its water is so clean you can drink it.

Reached by a dead-end road just a few air miles from Canada, Priest Lake is so still that the only sound for long intervals is the soft lapping of its waves. Its seven islands materialize through the November mist like sets in a fantasy film. Cedar, pine, fir and hemlock needles carpet its banks and scent its air.

But for boat docks and a few rustic buildings, almost nothing is man-made. A visit to Priest Lake in late autumn is like looking through the eyes of Lewis and Clark.

William Harrison moved to nearby Priest River last year because he "got fed up with the traffic in Coeur d'Alene. It's so still and beautiful on Priest Lake. You can stand on that shoreline and look at the most beautiful scenery you'll ever see — and no houses. It's almost totally undeveloped."

The lake's nickname is "the jewel of Idaho." Silent film legend Nell Shipman was so taken by it that she spent three years making films there in the 1920s. One of the best known was "Grub Stake," later renamed "The Golden Yukon." A photo in Priest Lake's log-cabin museum shows her standing siren-like in the lake, which doesn't look significantly different today.

Scott Hill has spent virtually all his life at the lake, where his grandfather built a family cabin in 1918. His father grew up there and began the family business, Hill's Resort, in 1946. Scott Hill and his siblings operate it today.

"One of the special things about Idaho," he says, "is that it's relatively unpopulated, and Priest Lake is one of the most unpopulated places in Idaho. It's not on the way to anywhere, and it's so out of the way you really have to want to get here."

Is it ever busy?

"Oh, yeah. We get people on summer weekends. And on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day, the cabins are actually full."

Visitors come for activities from rock climbing and snowmobiling to fishing and other water sports. The lake still holds the U.S. record for Mackinaw trout — 57 pounds, 8 ounces.

But the quality that makes Priest Lake special, as Hill and others see it, is "just the remoteness of it. If tranquility is what you want, this is the place."

Lake Pend Oreille: ‘Puget Sound without the whales' 

To get to their home, Larry and Karen Keith climb scores of wooden steps clinging to a wooded hillside overlooking downtown Hope, population 80.

Reaching the porch, Larry Keith opens the front door and reveals a million-dollar view. Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho's biggest body of water, fills his picture window.

"We bought this place a long time ago," Karen said. "We couldn't begin to afford it now."

Hope's part-time mayor, Larry Keith moved to the area 30 years ago because it reminded him of his native Puget Sound.

"The lake is big enough that it has a marine feel," he said. "I never tire of watching storms over it or the way it changes in the light."

The lake is so deep the Navy tests submarine prototypes there. The acoustics are similar to those of the open sea.

Tourism dominates the economy of both Hope and Sandpoint, 15 miles away. Charter fishing boats share the lake with other craft from kayaks to sailboats. Schweitzer Basin provides skiing and a panoramic view of the lake below. Sandpoint, population 8,100, offers upscale shops, restaurants and art galleries.

The quaint little city on the big lake is becoming a memory as Sandpoint grows. Travel articles have trumpeted it as one of the last best places, tony housing developments are going up, property values are skyrocketing.

"I paid $17,000 for six acres in 1991," Old Ice House Pizzeria owner Ed "Bear" Weiner said. "A year ago, I could have gotten a million dollars for it."

Like Keith, he prefers the simplicity of life in Hope.

"It's mellow here, there's almost no crime, no dress codes. And the lake is one of the most beautiful in the lower 48. It really is like living in a small town on the coast. It's Puget Sound without the whales."

Lake Coeur d'Alene: 'I can't imagine living anywhere else'

Coeur d'Alene used to be a gritty, blue-collar town on a beautiful lake. Now it's Idaho meets Monaco.

Mines and sawmills are fading memories. Seaplanes dock at a luxury resort that resembles a fantasyland castle.

The lake itself, however, hasn't changed.

"It's the most developed of the three big lakes in North Idaho, but not in comparison with lakes in other states," kayak guide Chip Dalvini said. "I've sailed and boated all over the U.S. This is one of the best kayaking lakes I've ever seen, and before 11 a.m. there's nobody on it."

Neither as large as Pend Oreille nor as pure as Priest Lake, Lake Coeur d'Alene's natural treasure is a shoreline with hundreds of bays.

"Each one is unique," Dalvini said. "Every time you go around a corner, you're looking at something completely different. And almost every bay has a mountain stream coming into it."

Anglers pursue quarry from trout and chinook salmon to northern pike. For the less sporting, there are cruise boats.

The lake and the streams around it have long been polluted by mine tailings, but millions have been spent on reclamation. Sandy Emerson, an appraiser who specializes in waterfront property and timberland, says the effort has brought "clear-flowing water and vegetation returning to the banks. Wildlife are coming back, and people are buying property in places that used to be badly polluted."

Emerson, 61, grew up in Coeur d'Alene and had his own boat by the time he was a junior high school student. Today, he has to count them. To live on Coeur d'Alene Lake is to be bewitched by water.

"There are more boat licenses in Kootenai County than anyplace else in Idaho," he said. "There are over 60 public docks and launch areas in Kootenai County, and over half of those are on Coeur d'Alene Lake. That's good and bad. The bad part is it can be an awfully busy place.

"The good part is that with all the bays, it's almost like being on the coast because there are so many places to go. It's been called one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and I agree. I can't imagine living anywhere else."

To offer story ideas or comments, contact reporter Tim Woodward at twoodward@idahostatesman.com or 377-6409.

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