NAME: The Clearwater and Lochsa rivers, which are part of the Clearwater National Forest.
LOCATION: From the imposing peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains in the east to the deep river canyons and soft hills of the Palouse Prairie in the west.
SIZE: The national forest encompasses 1.8 million acres.
WHAT TO SEE: Miles of intense white water dotted with quiet stretches that are home to migratory birds and native fish. Evergreen mountains thick with elk, whitetail and mule deer, black bear, moose, gray wolves, mountain goats, cougar and an assortment of smaller forest animals. Steelhead-fishing hot spots along the Middle Fork of the Clearwater and the engineering wonder of Dworshak Reservoir, both in Orofino. A handful of historical viewpoints, including places where Lewis and Clark stopped during their legendary exploration of the West, and the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.
HOW TO SEE IT: For the best steelhead fishing in the continental United States, take U.S. 12 from Kooskia to Orofino. Nestled in the downtown area, the historic Helgeson Hotel is a favorite haunt of hunters and anglers, and the desk clerks are always happy to play tour guide or chat about local goings-on (476-5729, www.helgesonhotel.com). Call The Guide Shop and book a steelhead trip on the Clearwater. The guides are experienced and fun, and the fish are legendary (476-3531, www.theguideshop.com). For rustic luxury along the Lochsa, check into Three Rivers Resort. It sits right next to the confluence of three major rivers, and the year-round facility includes cozy cabins, outfitting services, jacuzzis, a restaurant/bar and more (926-4430, www.threeriversresort.com).
HOURS/SEASONS: Hunting, fishing and white-water seasons vary, but the highways along both rivers are maintained all year. For specific information on regulations, licensing and seasonal schedules, visit www.fishandgame.idaho.gov or www.fs.fed.us/r1/clearwater.
THINGS TO DO: Fish, hunt, hike, raft, kayak, camp, backpack, hot spring, drive the scenic byway in a car or hit the backcountry on an all-terrain vehicle.
ACCESSIBILITY: Forest campgrounds abound, and several take reservations. Hotel and motel accommodations also are available in any of the small towns along the rivers.
HISTORY: On Sept. 15, 1805, William Clark looked out at what is now the Clearwater National Forest and said, "From this mountain I could observe high rugged mountains in every direction as far as I could see." His party then made an 86-mile trek across the Bitterroot Mountains, and historic points from this journey are accessible from the highways running by the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers.
INFORMATION: Call the North Fork Ranger Station (476-4541) or visit the U.S. Forest Service Web site at www.fs.fed.us/r1/clearwater.
DID YOU KNOW?
Turkey takeover: Mike Smith of Three Rivers Resort in Lowell explained that he and his wife are partially responsible for the dense population of wild turkeys in North Central Idaho. When Idaho Fish and Game did away with the early spring bear hunt and cut the elk season, the Smiths needed an alternate source of revenue to support the resort. They suggested planting turkeys as a way to supplement the slow spring, but Fish and Game told them the environment couldn't sustain the birds. "Basically, we went to the Henny Penny and bought 50 birds a year for eight years," Smith said. They raised them, made sure they were clean and healthy and turned them loose. Now, turkey hunting is a big source of revenue for the area, and motorists are privy to frequent sightings on the highway.
THE WONDER OF THE WONDER: The confluence. Lowell is home to the spot where the Selway, Lochsa and Clearwater rivers meet, and the view is spectacular. Three arms of dynamic water weave beneath shadowed peaks and the open sky. Even in muted winter light, it's something to behold.
SMALL TOWNS, GOOD EATS: For a simple feast after a day on the river, try The Woodlot Tavern in Orofino. The "Lumberjack Burger" comes with curly fries for $6.50. The menu says, "All the nutrition you could need to fill a truck full of firewood" (476-4320). For a tasty Chinese meal in the middle of nowhere, stop by Kooskia's China Cafe. The building's exterior still bears the marks of a small-town bar, but the food inside is authentic. Chef/owner Ben Lam makes a mean vegetarian special called "Buddha's Delight" (926-4800).