Editor’s note: “Pend Oreille Country” is an Idaho Public Television production for Outdoor Idaho and will air on Thursday. The Idaho Press is proud to present the following introduction to the show in collaboration with Outdoor Idaho.
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 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.
Lake Pend Oreille is the most impressive body of water in Idaho.
It’s hard not to deal in superlatives when talking about Lake Pend Oreille. The Pend Oreille is the product of an Ice Age flood of biblical proportions. It’s also a place you go to catch rainbow trout the size of your dog.
It was intimidating to try to tell the story of a region of the state that is so different from the rest of Idaho.
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.
But that’s what “Outdoor Idaho” is known for, telling Idaho’s stories in a way that is both interesting and in-depth. In December, the crew tackled “The Land of the Lost River Range,” near the towns of Mackay, Challis and Arco. The hour-long program explored Idaho’s tallest mountain range, where the effects of the 1983 earthquake are still evident.
Home to a naval training center
Here’s a trick question that confounds most Idahoans: what was Idaho’s largest town in the early 1940s? No, it wasn’t Boise. It was Farragut, with a population of 55,000.
When America was thrust into World War II, the Navy needed some place safe to teach 17 year olds how to become sailors. With a depth of 1,100 feet, Lake Pend Oreille was the perfect place to establish a naval training center; it was inland and unlikely to be the target of enemy aircraft.
Young men trained at Farragut for about six weeks, before being deployed to fight in the Pacific. More than 300,000 youths came through the training center. Today, little remains of that original site, but the area is now one of Idaho’s largest state parks.
But the Navy didn’t completely leave the area. It is now using the tremendous depth of Lake Pend Oreille to test submarine acoustics.
“We utilize large-scale models to provide a cost effective form of testing,” said Alan Griffitts, who runs the Acoustic Research Detachment near Bayview, Idaho. “We don’t need the full scale submarines out here to be able to test the technologies.”
Griffitts said the testing facility is all underwater, and is “about the size of your favorite professional football stadium. Nothing like it in the world.”
How Lake Pend Orielle was formed
The geologic forces that helped create Idaho’s deepest lake may require a scientific leap of faith for many of us. But most geologists have now accepted the notion that an apocalyptic flood 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, you ask? During the last Ice Age, a massive ice dam near present day Clark Fork River caused water to back up 200 miles into Montana. The town of Missoula would have been almost 1,000 feet underwater.
Centuries later, when the ice dam broke, flood water blasted through the Clark Fork gorge at 60 miles an hour, draining Glacial Lake Missoula in a matter of days. Scientists say the wall of water was as tall as the Empire State Building, with 10 times the force of all the rivers of the world combined. And this Armageddon didn’t occur just once, but perhaps dozens of times.
You can still see the effects of that epic flood in places like the channeled scab lands of eastern Washington, and, of course, in the depth of Lake Pend Oreille.
Idaho’s train town
Sandpoint is the largest of a handful of towns around the 43 mile long Lake Pend Oreille and is Idaho’s quintessential “train town.” Literally, dozens of trains rumble across Sandpoint’s train trestle and through town every day.
It was the railroads that helped shape the economic landscape of the region. “That’s what started the town of Sandpoint,” said local historian Nancy Renk. “Lumber companies needed the transportation in order to get their product out to the markets.”
Today, trains are both a blessing and a curse, said Sandpoint City Council President Shannon Williamson. “We have about 50 to 60 trains a day that pass through here. Many of them are carrying hazardous goods that if they derailed into the water or had an accident along the water’s edge, it could create a complete disaster.”
But the fear of a train wreck has not stopped anglers from heading to Lake Pend Oreille to catch a glitzy Kamloops rainbow trout. This non-native fish is the sport fish of choice, said Captain Ken Hayes, who has been outfitting on the lake for 20 years. “That thing will fight like a son of a gun,” said Hayes. “What it’s all about is having a rainbow pick up your bait and pull 800 feet of string off that reel in a heartbeat. And then you know why we’re here and why we’re doing this,” he said.
The fishery in Idaho’s largest lake is perhaps the most complicated in the northwest. Fishing may be good today, but two decades ago folks were referring to it as a “dead sea,” said regional supervisor Chip Corsi of the Idaho Fish and Game Department. “It has been a challenging fishery to manage and people are pretty passionate about it,” Corsi said.
Several management decisions decades earlier — the introduction of the non-native lake trout, as well as the fresh-water mysis shrimp — eventually led to the decline of the small kokanee, which is the prey base for the lake.
It took a two-pronged attack on the predatory lake trout to turn things around, said Corsi. Today, anglers can earn $15 for every lake trout they catch, and money from the Bonneville Power Administration is also supporting a netting program that has cut into the lake trout population.
It also took the help of a “Judas fish” to begin to dramatically reduce the numbers of lake trout. Biologists implant small transmitters in adult lake trout.
“We’ve coined that the Judas fish approach,” said Andy Dux, regional fishery manager with IDFG. “We follow these mature lake trout back to their spawning areas. Since 2006 we’ve reduced the lake trout population by about 60 percent and that’s been sufficient to reduce predation and allow kokanee to come roaring back,” Dux said. And that has meant bigger trophy rainbow trout.
North — but still Idaho
The residents of the Panhandle have always seen themselves as a bit separate from the rest of the state. 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.
“Pend Oreille Country” is part of Idaho Public Television’s annual pledge drive, a two-week period in March when the station seeks help to defer the costs of local and national programming.