This was my first trip to Idaho's "Crown Jewel." I'd spent the better part of several years in Idaho, learning to love the trails of central Idaho (Sawtooths, White Clouds, Salmon River Range, Frank Church and the River of No Return; Lakes Alturas and Pettite and Redfish and Payette - these are the places I came to love), but I'd never come this far north. For Kerri, this trip marked a return to her roots, to summers long before, to swimming in Priest's clear cold water and sunning on hard wooden docks. We'd a long holiday weekend over the 4th, and saw the opportunity to make the trip without missing work. As Kerri wrote that first day, the 4th: "So much has changed. This isn't the Priest I want to show Matt, but it's the only one left."
We went in search of her memories, she remembering and I discovering. We'd both forgotten how wild Idaho is, how inhospitable she can be - and the breathtaking beauty of that isolation and wildness. A Ford Focus limited the places we could play, and still we found wildness; unable to drive the last few miles to Gisborne Lookout, we found another unmarked dirt road on which to play. We walked under a rich canopy, slats of light breaking through unevenly, illuminating rocks and weeds and infrequent use. A creek rushed by - the last of alpine spring disappearing into summer.
I'd seen pictures of Priest Lake, many of them aerial. I knew how the lake spread out, all fingers and toes, an octopus spotted with islands, the result of glacially carved gashes in the land. I'd seen pictures of the Selkirks, which flank the lake to the north and east. Still, at first glance, the land didn't seem like the rugged Idaho I'd come to expect, was not quite akin the central Idaho I remember so fondly. And then we went in search of the trails we'd picked out, the trails our Ford Focus gave us access to.
Even sections of the Lakeview Mountain Trail (#269) - which starts on the shoulder of Highway 57 - felt remote. We started early, but still: Within the first mile, I ran into a black bear. I saw another several miles later, as I returned from a few miles on the Kalispell - Reader Bay Trail (#365). With the addition of prehistoric-sized mosquitoes, which swarmed us at each stop, and frequent moose tracks and scat, it truly felt as if we'd run into another age, era, epoch. (No, this was simply wild Idaho.) Though at most 1500' above the lake, the trail felt high; the southern third of the lake - all fingers - spread below us, and Kalispell Island rose before us as a gem from the deep. Ploughboy Mountain Trail (#295) required some finding, and though we'd intended it next, we realized a) it definitely wasn't maintained, b) we were in grizzly country, and c) we were tired, hot, and, having already dealt with two black bears, didn't really want to deal with a grizzly. Navigation Trail (#291) it was, then, followed by the icing of tired legs in the Thorofare (yes, that's the correct spelling), sitting on the bank beside each other as holiday traffic sped (in the no-wake zone) carelessly by.
By the sixth, it was quiet we craved. Peace from the mosquitoes, and solitude from other people. Starting gently, we eased our legs into the soft, springy trail at Hannah Flats, marveling at nineteen acres of virgin forest. Though the trail twice spills out - once onto a gravel road and once on an access ski trail - when in the forest, it speaks of a lost world. Hemlocks and cedars stand proud, stately, as the world did before logging, and the cool, damp forest floor feels prehistoric. As the loop is short, though, we logged a few laps, then moved on to the Shoreline Trail (#294). On rolling trail - occasionally mucky, but mostly soft - I ran beside the lake, past shoreline campsites and across bridge-spanned, burbling streams; Kerri found a secluded beach at which to swim. It was a beautiful day, and though it was a well-maintained trail, clearly well-used, it still felt secluded. In ten miles, I saw four hikers; Kerri saw no one in her hour at the beach. Such is the beauty of being so close to the wild, of Idaho, I think.
Still, even if the trails weren't crowded, the lake was. Limited by the Focus' (lack of) clearance, we were unable to escape to the truly wild places, as we'd have liked, unable to disappear to the places that remain less changed by the years. The busy weekend made me ache for what I imagine Priest Lake used to be, the Priest Lake I imagine from Kerri's stories. But this is the nature of progress: more people aware of Priest Lake's beauty means more people at the lake, means more people pressing on those wild margins. Access to wild places is a wonderful thing just as it is a dangerous thing - finding balance is something Kerri and I will continue to struggle with, just as land managers have struggled for years and years. How do you introduce larger populations to wild areas while also striving to keep that wildness intact? This is a conversation we'll continue to have, and we'd love to hear your thoughts.
When you go:
If you're planning on spending any time in the backcountry, inform yourselves ahead of time, and be thorough. Know what sort of conditions to expect, what roads you'll need to get there, and what wildlife to expect. This especially means make sure you have the maps and supplies you need, including bear protection of some sort if you're venturing into grizzly country. Finding such information once in the Priest Lake area can be difficult, if not impossible. Be ready for surprises. This is wild Idaho.
Where to stay:
There are plenty of campsites in the area, from developed forest service sites all along the lake to primitive beach sites to fire ring pull-outs off the side of poorly maintained gravel roads. If you choose to camp, make sure you know best practices for that site - and practice your Leave No Trace ethics. These woods have seen plenty of abuse from less-enlightened visitors, and they'll be grateful for your less intrusive presence. And, if camping's not your thing - if you really need that hot shower after a hard day of play - there are plenty of resorts and private cabin rentals. <--- I think we should probably add some specific recommendations, with links. I can help with that! :)
Where to eat:
Normally, we're all about the campstove and our cheesy avocado hashbrowns. This trip, though, we ended up grabbing food on the go much more often. A couple of quick recommendations:
* Cavanaugh Bay has great fish tacos, good pizza, a stellar peanut butter bacon cheeseburger - in addition to a good view of the lake and some great people-watching to boot. In addition, there's two outdoor seating areas (an upper and lower deck) and service is good. We ended up eating there twice simply because the food was so good.
* The Nickelplate in Nordman offers pretty good diner fare, and their toast is light and airy, courtesy their homemade bread. (Full disclosure: we tried buying a loaf to bring home, but they'd already sold out at 9am. The guy next to us was also drinking an MGD. In other words, they're not about to judge you at the Nickelplate. They even pretended not to notice how much we stank after a couple of days of running trails.)
Other places of note:
There are several good art galleries around the lake. Entree and Autumn's Loft were the two we visited; both afforded us the opportunity to stock up on thank you cards and gifts for friends at reasonable prices.
Call for comments:
* How do we preserve wild areas while also allowing access? What strategies do you use in approaching wild areas to limit your impact, and where do you think current practices can be improved?
* What are your favorite places around Priest Lake? Recommendations for future visits?