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Monthly Archives: August 2004

Sandpoint A Norman Rockwell meets Ansel Adams classic. USA Today

Sure, it looks idyllic now …

SANDPOINT, Idaho — It’s a Norman Rockwell-meets-Ansel Adams classic, brought to life every summer: the warm sunshine, the clear reaches of Sand Creek and the whoops of young boys swinging from a rope strung high in a nearby cottonwood tree.

The surrounding region, laced with “rugged mountains, dense forests (and) wide, empty rivers,” is “far more beautiful than I had dreamed. People laugh easily, and the laughter whispers out through the pines and over the still water,” gushes Hollywood game-show host and frequent visitor Ben Stein in a recent issue of American Spectator magazine.

Throw in a thriving arts scene, a top-rated but low-key ski area 11 miles from town, and outdoor restaurant decks filled with tourists schmoozing over huckleberry daiquiris and appetizers of ancho chili and espresso-encrusted tuna, and no wonder this eclectic enclave, some 75 miles east of Spokane, Wash., in northern Idaho’s Panhandle, is being touted as the Next Great Place.

Sunset magazine recently voted Sandpoint “best small town in the West,” the August issue of Outside crowned it one of 20 “dream towns,” and September’s National Geographic Adventure includes it among 10 “great adventure towns.” Now, its 7,500 residents are bracing for changes that many fear will not be for the better. (Related story: If you go …)

Founded as a lumber and railroad town at the turn of the 20th century, Sandpoint sits between the Cabinet and Selkirk mountains on the northwestern banks of Lake Pend Oreille (pond-dor-RAY).

One of the West’s largest bodies of water, Pend Oreille also is among the deepest and most pristine. The Navy has conducted sonar research more than 1,000 feet below the surface, and more than two-thirds of its 111-mile shoreline is publicly owned. Fishermen, kayakers, sailors and water skiers flock here during the summer, and reflections of golden birches, cottonwoods and larches draw leaf peepers from September to mid-October.

Most first-time Sandpoint visitors arrive by crossing a 2-mile span where the Pend Oreille River meets the lake, and the euphoria that inevitably follows is dubbed the Long Bridge Syndrome.

(Some of the besotted go on to sign up for the annual Long Bridge Swim; rumor had it part-time resident Viggo Mortensen may be a contestant in Saturday’s race.)

Until a few years ago, the community’s biggest draws were the lake, nearby Schweitzer Mountain ski area and the hometown store of Coldwater Creek, a women’s clothing company that served as de facto chamber of commerce for city slickers in search of the Northwoods nirvana they’d glimpsed through the company’s catalogs.

But to the chagrin of some old-timers and the delight of Sandpoint’s 175-plus real estate agents (many of whom moved here in the late ’60s or early ’70s, lived out “back to the land” fantasies and are now driving Cadillac Escalades), poring over “for sale” signs is becoming an increasingly popular tourist attraction. One glossy brochure describes a community “on the verge of discovery,” and demand for vacation and retirement homes is surging: Waterfront property that sold for $2,000 a foot last spring has more than doubled in value over the past year, with one Pend Oreille island on the market for $16 million. Linda Mitchell, co-owner of the Sandpoint-based Shawnodese tour boat, bemoans the fact that she’s seen more lakefront construction this summer than in the past 20 years combined.

“What we really need is a good, hard winter to flush (the newer arrivals) out,” jokes Kathy Borders, a Portland, Ore., refugee who built a lakeside home near Sandpoint eight years ago.

But truth be told, she confides over sips of Cougar Crest Viognier on the Shawnodese’s recent sunset wine-tasting/bald-eagle-watching cruise, she can’t wait for the temperature to plummet. Despite icy, unplowed roads and long stretches of leaden skies, there’s nothing better than watching a live evening performance at the Panida Theater (a 1927 Spanish Mission Revival landmark restored through community donations), then strolling through snow flurries for a chat with friends and neighbors.

“It’s like a scene out of It’s a Wonderful Life,” says Borders, “and it never wears off.”

She’s not the only devotee to link Sandpoint with mythical Bedford Falls.

Dann Hall, 56, a photographer and owner of Hallan’s Gallery, describes himself as a “remigrant” — a homegrown kid who struck out for distant horizons but found himself drawn back to Sandpoint’s spectacular scenery and “honest, veneer-free people.” Today, he sells prints of the evocative black-and-white photographs taken by his late father, Ross Hall. The best seller is a portrait of downtown Sandpoint on a snowy winter’s night in 1934. The title: It’s a Wonderful Life.


Jimmy Stewart might have felt at home here, but so does another celebrity with a more tarnished image. Former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman moved to Sandpoint after the O.J. Simpson trial, joining a large contingent of other officers. Fuhrman’s presence exacerbated Northern Idaho’s reputation as a haven for racists and extremists: Aryan Nations founder Richard Butler lives in Hayden Lake, about 40 miles south of Sandpoint, and the 1992 shootout at white separatist Randy Weaver’s Ruby Ridge compound took place north of town, near Bonner’s Ferry.

But along with self-deprecating jokes (“How do you know it’s springtime in Sandpoint? Mark Fuhrman is out planting gloves”), many Sandpoint residents work hard to dispel the stereotypes. The Web site of Church Street House, a B&B in town, links to that of the Bonner County Human Rights Commission. Popular bumper stickers, meanwhile, include “Diversity Is Natural” and “Idaho Is Too Great For Hate.”

Community activism takes other high-profile forms in Sandpoint. The Shawnodese is stocked with brochures for the Rock Creek Alliance, a non-profit group trying to block a proposed Montana silver and copper mine 25 miles upstream from Lake Pend Oreille. And downtown shoppers browsing for fleece jackets or cannabis incense sticks can’t miss the windows plastered with full-page newspaper ads taken out by opponents of the Sand Creek Byway.

The three-year project would divert lumber trucks and other commercial traffic away from Sandpoint’s increasingly noisy, congested downtown — already saddled with an average of 60 trains a day, thanks to the convergence of several freight lines in the area. But the bypass also would fill in part of Sand Creek, the setting for those Norman Rockwell-esque whoops on summer afternoons.

Some longtime residents fear the worst. “I want to protect my little corner of the world,” sighs Panida Theater executive director Karen Bowers. “But it’s inevitable that we’ll become another small town that’s turned into a place for the rich and the people who can’t afford to live there anymore.”

Others, like Hidden Lakes Golf Resort owner Richard Villelli, are convinced Sandpoint can still avoid the fate of such places as Aspen, Colo., and Jackson, Wyo.

“We are what they used to be,” says Villeli, whose fairways boast eight resident moose. “But we’re not going to be what they’ve become.”

For now, anyway, the small pleasures of Sandpoint prevail. Little girls tackle a faded hopscotch court in front of the Great Stuff gift shop, and Eichardt’s pub pours $1 microbrews on Thursday nights. On the picnic grounds at the annual Festival at Sandpoint, a resident osprey making a victory lap with a fish in its mouth will draw as much applause as the performers (who have included the likes of Judy Collins, B.B. King and Tony Bennett).

And at the Beyond Hope RV Resort, a half-hour drive away along the shore of Lake Pend Oreille, families who’ve been returning every summer for the past three decades still listen for the satisfying thwack of a spring-loaded wooden screen door. It is the sound of their past — and, they hope, of their future.

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