Clearwater and Lochsa rivers: 'You can get to nowhere from here'

The Lochsa River along U.S. Highway 12. Winter brings calm to the powerful currents of the Lochsa, which winds its way from Montana to the green vistas of North Central Idaho. Travelers who wander the banks will be in the company of mossy rocks, thick forest canyons and water so clear you can see the outline of every rock.
The Lochsa River along U.S. Highway 12. Winter brings calm to the powerful currents of the Lochsa, which winds its way from Montana to the green vistas of North Central Idaho. Travelers who wander the banks will be in the company of mossy rocks, thick forest canyons and water so clear you can see the outline of every rock. Shawn Raecke / Idaho Statesman

Steelhead Country

about five hours from Boise, a terraced logging town called Orofino unfolds next to the Clearwater River. Big rigs strapped with cedar roll by from time to time, but there's no question the lifeblood of this place is not in the hills. It's in the water.

Record-breaking steelhead swarm below the surface twice a year, and anglers willing to brave the maddening cold are rewarded with trophy fish that fight like backhoes and fill a camera lens with 1,000 words of fish story — only this one's true.

Evelyn Kaide's pulse still hammers when she feels the rubber-band pull of a fish on.

"It's just a feeling you can't even explain," she said.

Kaide owns and operates The Guide Shop and Clearwater Drifters, a pair of riverside businesses in Orofino that have been getting tourists into steelhead for 14 years.

In that time, the view hasn't changed much. Neither has the thrill of throwing a line in at first light.

"The river stays the same. The mountains stay the same," Kaide said. "We have people coming here from everywhere, and they're all here for the same thing."

That thing is the taste of hot coffee before the sun comes up with 800 horsepower screaming your jet boat to the best steelhead honey holes in the nation.

Kip Fry has been guiding for so many years in the wet-cold he can no longer feel his hands. They are thick and brown and quick to bait a hook with a handful of hot-pink roe.

He is one of Kaide's veterans and has an arsenal of industry "bits" like, "A jerk on one end of the line waits for a jerk on the other." But it's easy to see past the routine to a quiet man who'd be happy with just a drift boat, original Coors and the company of angry fish. If you ask him what the secret is, he'll say, "Just patience."

Life at the confluence

Patience — and the staggeringly beautiful scenery — saw Mike and Marie Smith through their first year running the Three Rivers Resort, a collection of rustic cabins and taxidermy at the confluence in Lowell where the Selway and Lochsa rivers join the Clearwater.

"It's the tip of the wilderness. It really is. You can get to nowhere from here," Mike said.

For more than 30 years, he and his wife have lived on the edge of that picturesque nowhere, welcoming hunters, fishermen, whitewater nuts and famous travelers like Bill Clinton and Hank Williams Jr.

But things were not always so glamorous. When the Smiths bought the resort in 1972, the former schoolteachers were unprepared for what came next. They were handed the keys to a restaurant/bar, laundromat/dry cleaning service, butcher/smoke shop and pool/maintenance business in addition to the motel, and the previous owners didn't stick around to show them how to butcher wild game or press a suit or shoo cougars from the lobby. Undaunted, they celebrated with a bottle of champagne, woke up at 5 a.m. to open the restaurant and haven't stopped since.

The intensity of the experience, Marie joked, "was like taking a drink from a fire hose."

Despite the initial challenges, her family took to the wilderness like the imported turkeys that dominate the underbrush. The Smiths own 180 acres just outside of Kooskia, and three generations share in the bounty.

The Smiths' two grown sons, Mike Jr. and Marty, live on the mountain above Three Rivers, literally a stone's throw from their parents. Both boys grew up in the wilderness, went off to the Ivy Leagues and came back for the unique lifestyle of a small river town. Marty and his long-time girlfriend, Diane, run raft trips on the back-to-back class III and IV rapids of the Lochsa and the calmer waters of the Selway. Mike Jr. and his wife, Lara, help with the family business while keeping up with their three young daughters.

Martha, 4, and Luella, 2, spin across the bluff overlooking the confluence with the speed and familiarity of Steller's jays diving for huckleberries. Ruth, 7 months, sits in her grandfather Mike's arms, reflecting the look in his clear blue eyes that there is no better place to be.

"We know what we have," he said. "We are not complacent in any way. Every day we see this and we do not take it for granted."

"It's so beautiful," Lara said. "I like the small town. I like the feeling of knowing your neighbors. I like being able to go outside and there are eagles flying, deer in your backyard."

Looking out into that vast backyard, the cradle of mountains wrapped in clouds, Marie took a deep breath.

"It's like a dream," she said.

The Gateway

Steve Pankey has lived that dream nearly every day of his life. His family settled in Kooskia long ago, and he and his brother, Jim, grew deep roots. They took over their father's grocery store in their early 20s and have owned it on and off for almost four decades. Steve recently sold his share to open a real estate business, but it's right across the street.

The skin around his eyes crinkles when he talks about his childhood, panning for gold and arrowheads in the shallows of the river and running wild between the trees.

"I love our valley — the rivers and the mountains. You can go into literally un-trod country, meander the wilderness in a matter of minutes," Steve said. "It's real, rugged, true wilderness, right on the edge of the largest contiguous public land chunk in the lower 48."

He spends his time fending off big land developers and catching the occasional cutthroat at his tiny cabin on the Selway. Apparently, even people who live in towns of less than 500 people need a place to get away from it all. In fact, Pankey is so used to the quality of life on the river that he rarely leaves.

"It scares me almost, the city now," he said. "There's too much traffic and too many people, like a bunch of ants."

Likewise, city folk who move to Kooskia hoping for peace and quiet often find that quiet oppressive.

"This solitude isn't for everybody," said Pankey. "People come here and hunt and fish for a while and then miss the city, the hustle and bustle. They've had it all their lives, and they miss it.

"Home's home. I don't think you ever get it out of your blood."

Small-town people often are born and buried in the same place. Not due to convenience or coincidence, but a bond immediate as a first breath. The permanence of the Clearwater and the Lochsa forms unusually strong bonds, even with those who are still discovering them.

You can hear it in the jolly voice of Ben Lam, a Hong Kong-born Kooskian who owns the only Chinese restaurant from New Meadows to Lewiston. You can see it in the youthful face and electric tangerine lipstick of Zoie Mclean, whose 20 years in Orofino have made her a plucky and entirely independent 102. And you can feel it when you ask Evelyn Kaide what the river means to her, and she can't find words.

It is endless forests and fierce people and water that will rush on long after they are gone. It is, as Steve Pankey said, in their blood.

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