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Outdoor Idaho explores state’s ‘inland sea,’ a massive lake with big history, bigger fish

Outdoor Idaho: Pend Oreille Country trailer

Idaho Public Television's Outdoor Idaho crew explores some of the history, the attractions and the issues surrounding the Panhandle's "Pend Oreille Country." The show premieres on IPTV March 7, 2019, at 8 p.m.
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Idaho Public Television's Outdoor Idaho crew explores some of the history, the attractions and the issues surrounding the Panhandle's "Pend Oreille Country." The show premieres on IPTV March 7, 2019, at 8 p.m.

“Pend Oreille Country,” an Outdoor Idaho Special, debuted Thursday, March 7th, on Idaho Public Television.

In Idaho there are strong magnets that draw people to the state. Lake Pend Oreille is one of them. It influences so much of the Idaho Panhandle, drawing people from nearby cities like Spokane and, increasingly, from all over the world.

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

I’ve heard it referred to as an inland sea, and understandably so. It’s 43 miles long, more than 1,000 feet deep and large enough to produce storms capable of capsizing even good-sized boats. That is one powerful, complex lake!

So it was with some trepidation that we approached the story 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.

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Lake Pend Oreille has a storied history. Learn more by watching “Pend Oreille Country” on Idaho Public Television, March 7 at 8 p.m. Bruce Reichert Outdoor Idaho

How the massive Idaho lake formed

At first it seemed like a bizarre idea, that an apocalyptic flood had blasted through the Panhandle nearly 18,000 years ago, gouging out Lake Pend Oreille, tearing huge rocks out of mountains and stripping away the soil as it barreled toward the ocean.

How was that even possible? To re-shape a landscape like that, 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. 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. Present-day Missoula would have been almost 1,000 feet underwater.

Centuries later, when the ice dam broke, flood water blasted through the Clark Fork gorge, draining Glacial Lake Missoula in a matter of days. You can see the effects of that epic power in places like the channeled scablands of eastern Washington.

Scientists think the wall of water may have been 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 sediment from the bottom of the lake, it would be the deepest lake in North America.

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A float in the 1946 Labor Day Parade in Sandpoint, Idaho, celebrates Lake Pend Oreille’s massive rainbow trout. Al Filson Courtesy of the Bonner County Museum.

Large fish lurk in Lake Pend Oreille

There was a time when everyone seemed happy with the bounty of Lake Pend Oreille. Lots of small-sized kokanee for the regular Joes. And lots of big Kamloops rainbow trout and bull trout for the sport fisherman.

In fact, the lake once held the world record for Kamloops and still holds the world record for bull trout. But two management mistakes over the span of half a century — the introduction of lake trout in the 1920s and freshwater mysis shrimp in the 1960s — 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 comes to dominate any lake it inhabits.

A citizens task force, working with the Idaho Department of Fish and 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. Catch a lake trout, earn $15. Both parts of the plan are financed by mitigation dollars from Albeni Falls and Cabinet Gorge dams.

To assist in the capture of the lake trout, biologists rely upon the “Judas” fish. Tiny transmitters placed in a mature lake trout take the netters to where the lake trout are congregating. This makes netting them a lot easier. Once caught, the lake trout lose their heads. Other fish caught in the nets — like the Kamloops rainbow and protected bull trout — get a pass and are returned to the lake.

Studies show that the plan has reduced the numbers of lake trout by more than 60 percent, allowing kokanee to make a comeback. That’s good news for native cutthroat and bull trout, and for the famously hard-fighting, highly prized Kamloops rainbow.

But wait, another predator that loves to dine on kokanee 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!

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An angler poses with a massive Kamloops rainbow trout caught on Lake Pend Oreille. Rich Lindsey

Confused yet? Suffice it to say, Pend Oreille currently grows huge 20-plus 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.

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.

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.

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Ice fishing for kokanee in the 1950s on Lake Pend Oreille. Ross Hall Courtesy Dann Hall.

Human history in Pend Oreille country

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 and other adventurers of all stripes.

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The Kalispel were the first inhabitants of Pend Oreille Country in North Idaho. Their numbers declined dramatically after white settlers came to the area, bringing disease and displacing the native population. Courtesy of the Kalispel Tribe

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.

The trains often carry oil and coal, which concerns members of the Sandpoint City Council. A train derailment could adversely affect water quality. In fact, train derailments are not uncommon; however, to date, none have involved hazardous materials. There’s a proposal afoot to beef up rail infrastructure, to allow even more train traffic in the area.

Many Idahoans don’t realize that for a few years in the 1940s, 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.

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Aerial view of Farragut naval training station in the 1940s. Courtesy of Farragut State Park

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 even 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 the area. 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.

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.

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Knot training at Farragut in the 1940s. Courtesy of Farragut State Park

North Idaho now

Culture was not something Sandpoint cared about in the 1880s. 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.”

Today Sandpoint finds itself on most of those “Best Places to Live” lists that crop up all too often. The “hippie movement” of the 1960s 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.

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.

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 percent 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.

Maybe after watching Idaho Public Television’s “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.

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Nicole Blanchard is the Idaho Statesman’s outdoors and insight reporter. She grew up in Idaho, graduated from Idaho State University and Northwestern University and frequents the trails around Boise as much as she can.

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