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Priest Lake

Priest Lake The following reproduced article, "Heaven's Gate" appeared in the April 1989 edition of Pacific Northwest magazine.

In a world where space is considered
premium, Priest Lake offers seclusion for a song

Priest Lake could convince even the most cynical soul that there is a version of heaven on earth. "God's country," the natives around here call it, without worrying about hyperbole. The mystical, undiscovered west endures with dignity and solace in northern Idaho. Rugged mountains rise like distant mirages from the lake's shores, the changing sunlight lending them the ethereal quality of an impressionist painting.

Tucked away at the tip of Idaho's panhandle in the Selkirk Mountains, 30 miles south of Canada and 85 miles north of Spokane, the Priest Lake area is home to about 650 permanent residents. In the summer months the lake region hosts several thousand more vacationers who fill the 1,500 cabins, eight public campgrounds and four major lakeside resorts. Yet even then, people are outnumbered by the area's other inhabitants: white-tailed deer, black bears, blue heron, prize-winning mackinaw trout, a few moose, and woodland caribou and an occasional grizzly. Oh, and then there are the cougars. A few years back a cougar strolled down the beach, perched on a log and calmly watched Bruce Hunt's neighbors picnic. "You don't want him settin' on your steps," explains Hunt, a retired banker who, with his wife, now lives in a century-old cabin on the lake's east side.

An old-timer who traveled to Priest Lake nearly every summer throughout his life, Hunt moved here permanently 12 years ago. He is typical of many who've succumbed to Priest Lake's call: educated, environmentally concerned and victim to what Hunt calls "Priestitis". "You come here a couple of times, an there's no way you'll never come again," he says. Hunt's year-round Priest Lake address is cause for envy among others stricken with Priestitis. An admittedly unscientific survey of Priest Lake visitors revealed most vacationers had been to the lake at least once before. Many more grew up summering at the lake and now bring their own children.

They don't arrive looking for parties or expecting to discover kitschy shops or new resorts. The U.S. Postal Service delivers mail addressed to Coolin, Idaho, on the south end of the lake, but most of the 50 or so residents don't consider it a town. This lake's bait is the Great Outdoors: white sandy beaches and shimmering water, picturesque islands and majestic pine forests and the subtle sounds of rippling waves and flapping wings.

Actually two bodies of water, Priest Lake's 19-mile lower lake and three-mile upper lake are joined by a spectacular two-mile thoroughfare. Father Pierre Jean De Smet named the site when he came to northern Idaho in 1846, bringing the Word to the region's Indians. Tribes fished in the lake and hunted in the woods, both now part of the Kaniksu National Forest. ("Kaniksu" is derived from the Indian word for "black robe" or "priest") Originally, De Smet named the lake "Roothann" in honor of his Jesuit teacher J.P. Roothann, but before the turn of the century the designation was simplified to Roothann's calling.

As is typical of pioneer records, early history about the area is scanty at best. One immortalized chapter was its brief fling with Hollywood in the early '20s when silent-movie star Nell Shipman journeyed to the lake's north end to film The Grubstake. The weather was so severe that Shipman's crew had to rely on sled dogs to bring in provisions. Alas, fame is fleeting; with the demise of Shipman's production company, Priest Lake, too, sank into obscurity. The state now plans to commemorate the nearly forgotten event with a plaque at Lionhead State Park on the east shore.

The rest of the century saw the comings and goings of close to a dozen resorts. At one point, recalls George Hill of Priest Lake's mainstay Hill's Resort, the lake was ringed with 16 retreats, most of which depended upon Spokane for customers. But the remote location and short summers, combined with inadequate marketing efforts, put the majority out of business. With the advent of snowmobiling and cross-country skiing, however, lakeside companies now can count on year-round clients, easing the burden on resort and restaurant owners.

As with most other to-die-for locales, developers have talked about turning Priest Lake into a major destination resort. Lucky for us, economic constraints, environmental protests and the fact that the state and federal governments own almost 80 percent of the lake's shoreline have kept any changes to a minimum. The out-of-the-way location is discouraging as well. Two small airstrips nearby serve private planes, but the closest major airport is in Spokane, a two hour drive. Last year, Spokane-based developer Don Barbieri received the go-ahead to construct 35 homes on the lake's east shore. More controversial is his intention for the development, Huckleberry Bay, eventually to include 200 homes, an 80 room upscale resort and extensive recreational facilities. If built in its entirety, the 1,500- acre Huckleberry Bay would certainly change the character of Priest Lake, but the county's approval is by no means a sure thing.

So far, anyway, Priest Lake's of significant commercialism allows it to offer an unusual combination of comfort and solitude. In a world where space is considered a premium, Priest Lake offers it at a discount. There's always a place to call your own: an isolated beach, a secluded mountain lake or a shady picnic spot.

Look at the emphasis on cabin rentals and the availability of burgers to deduce that this is family country where fun is, for the most part, unabashedly wholesome: volleyball on the beach, canoeing into the upper lake, leisurely trolling the calm waters and, for lucky motorboat owners, water-skiing. Those who insist on more urban pastimes can practice service at Hill's Resort's two tennis courts or slice a few on the nine-hole golf course nearby.

At night, boaters can join resort-hoppers in cruising the lake, starting, perhaps, with a beer on the Showboat Lodge's deck in Coolin, progressing seven miles to appetizers at Hill's oyster bar (a subtle nod to the desires of some of the lake's more demanding visitors) and then dinner and dancing at Elkin's, six miles farther. To top the evening off, there are after-dinner drinks at the aptly named Grandview, less than a mile away.

Those dependent upon more conventional means of travel can drive to any of the aforementioned resorts, or maybe motor into "downtown" to order a pizza at Frizzy O'Leary's or spice up the evening with home-cooked Mexican meals at Millie's. Ads for the latter put it in "the heart of downtown Priest Lake", which means it's located on Route 57 across from an unimposing log structure housing the four establishments that make up Priest Lake Mall. Culture come in the form or the Entree Gallery, a showcase and gift shop for northern Idaho artists and craftspeople. Locals will tell you the gallery is located two miles north of Nordman, a grocery store and tavern that has earned a spot on the map because it has a post office.

It's true that people here may pronounce creek "crick", but don't dismiss Priest Lake as a place for backcountry bumpkins. There's certainly no shortage of money -- average homes go for upward of $100,000. Nor is there any lack of sophistication, despite what the limited night life might suggest. Summers find Priest Lake disproportionately populated with lawyers, doctors, academics and other professionals. If asked why they come here, they'll say they've seen the rest of the world and eschew the commercialism of other tourist spots for Priest Lake's understated class.

The resorts are small and welcoming, tastefully decorated and, to their credit, camouflaged so as to be almost invisible when viewed from the water. With peak summer rates around $500 weekly for a six-person cabin, top-of-the-line lodgings are downright affordable. The Showboat Lodge's nine rooms each go for less than $50 a night.

Campers can choose from among eight developed campgrounds around the lake; true Robinson Crusoe types can pitch a tent on three of Priest Lake's seven islands, a fine idea for those with motorboats but not such a good suggestion if it means rowing ashore for groceries mistakenly left behind. The largest island, Kalispell, has five U.S. Forest Service campsites dotted around its sandy shores. On Eight Mile Island stands the Vinther-Nelson home, an authentic log cabin built during the late 1800s. Ask nicely and the Vinther family might allow a quick tour. Camping is prohibited on Eight Mile Island, though it's permitted on the lake's other islands. Even those who decide not to rough it shouldn't pass up a picnic on one of their white beaches, the strands closest to paradise north of Mazatlan.

Of course, nothing's worse than finding a great weekend getaway and then returning home to hear you've missed the best part. With that in mind -- and skipping the most obvious activities of swimming, fishing and lying on the shore like a beached whale -- here are a few suggestions for your stay.

Without a doubt, a trip to the upper lake tops the list. A designated scenic area, the upper lake is accessible only by boat or foot. Water-skiing is prohibited, which happily limits sightseers to the truly sincere. By far the best way to get to this tranquil spot is to canoe up the two-mile thoroughfare (boats available at several resorts) that ends in an abrupt expanse of water, sky and mountain peaks as the view opens onto the upper lake. Put in at either Beaver Creek on the west side or Lionhead campground on the east shore. One word of caution if you set off before June: make sure the spring runoff has slowed to a manageable level or face the prospect of paddling into exhaustive oblivion.

The alternative to boating is to hike to the upper lake along a shady, pleasant three-mile trail on the river's west side. More ambitious hikers can continue to the opposite end of the lake, a worthwhile effort because every view seems to offer a new window on this scene of perfection. Bring a picnic and make a day of it, or camp for a stressless night and a dawn of chill serenity.

Hikers, in fact, will find no end of trails to explore at Priest Lake. Hard-core enthusiasts will want to try the challenging but rewarding trail to Hunt Lake, in the mountains to the east. For an easier but nearly as spectacular alternative, try walking to Standard Lake, also on the east side. Less ambitious but equally well-intentioned folks should head off to the Roosevelt Grove of ancient cedars. A one-mile trail loops through two stands of forests whose trees are notable not only for their impressive heights and diameters, but also for their advanced ages -- up to 1,000 years by some estimates. These giants stimulate the imagination to ponder what life was like when these cedars were seedlings and the white man hadn't even dreamed of a land such as this.

It's doubtful that anyone could come and go and escape huckleberries, which the residents serve up in every conceivable form -- pie, syrup, jam, even daiquiris. (Hill's huckleberry pie is particularly renowned.) Whether of not these reddish and rather tart relatives of the blueberry deserve the fuss is a matter of opinion. Still, do-it-yourselfers will be pleased to learn that huckleberries grow in abundance all around the lake. With the caveat that the best places to pick vary from year to year, try the Lamb Creek and Petit Lake areas on the west side and Camel's Prairie on the east shore. Maps are available at the ranger station on Route 57, as well as at resorts and stores.

Priest Lake summers, like passionate love affairs, are brief. Even June isn't dependable, but holding out is worth the wait. July and August days are almost perpetually sunny and hot, with crisp, restful nights. Most people consider Labor Day the signal of summer's end, but don't write off the rest of the year, which brings visitors with other passions.

With autumn comes color. Larches and mountain maples lend splotches of yellow and red to the landscapes lush green carpet. Winter lures outdoor types who appreciate the muffled challenge of five-plus feet of snow and single digit temperatures. Snowmobilers revel in more than 300 miles of groomed trails that encircle the lake. Snowmobiles become the main mode of transportation on the lake's north end, which remains unplowed from mid-December through February.

Cross-country skiers can choose between groomed trails at Chipmunk Rapids or Hanna Flats on the west side and a short course at Priest Lake State Park on the east side. Hill's also grooms paths between the resort and the golf course. Skiers interested in breaking new ground need only lead the way. Each January, sled dogs and their mushers bring a touch of the Yukon to northern Idaho with races at the local airstrip. Other winter activities include weekend snowshoe-softball tournaments and ice fishing.

Spring brings pleasures of its own -- that damp, incubating smell of beginnings, a few small wildflowers and streams teeming with energy. And as Bruce Hunt explains it, Priest Lake is more than just picture-perfect views and recreational playgrounds. Hunt is legally blind, a result of age, and cannot admire with his eyes the beauty that surrounds him. "But it doesn't bother me," he says. "I smell it, I feel it, I know it's there."

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