Wandering with Sam
Whiskey Rock
Oct 22, 2001, 08:03

(After being raised in Seattle, Spokane, and North Idaho, Sam Woodbury graduated from Bonners Ferry High School in 1988. After four years with the U.S. Navy in Florida, California and Virginia, he moved back to the Northwest to attend college in the Palouse area and graduated from Washington State University in 1996. He has traveled extensively throughout Idaho, Washington, Oregon as well as other parts of the United States, Canada, Panama, Australia, China, England, and Iceland. Currently he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is working on a Master of Arts degree in English Literature at Portland State University)

A sailboat on Lake Pend Orielle
The largest and most spectacular lake in Northern Idaho is without doubt Lake Pend Orielle near Sandpoint. And my favorite part of this massive lake is the remote eastern shore, particularly where steep mountain ridges drop down to the lake near the Whiskey Rock area.

Although rampant building of convenience stores, lodges and summer cabins has impacted the lake closer to Sandpoint, the lakeís eastern shore retains a decidedly wild atmosphere because of its fairly extreme sense of remoteness. This is no accident because Highway 95, North Idahoís primary north-south artery, parallels the western side of the lake, allowing for easy access to fairly well populated locations like Bottle Bay, Farragut State Park, and the community of Bayview.
The old Clark Fork bridge

The eastern shore is accessible by road as well, but the drive is a rather lengthy journey over three passes along single lane dirt roads cut into the side of steep mountain canyons. Whiskey Rock is an hourís drive south from the mountain valley town of Clark Fork or an hourís drive to the northeast of Bayview. Both routes primarily involve single lane roads that were barely passable by a minivan and the route from Clark Fork also involves a narrow old dilapidated bridge over the swirling Clark Fork River. And this is summer time access. During the winter with several feet of snow and a frozen lake, a trip out here might require a boat, a snowmobile or cross-country skis.

In July, 2001, my father and I paddled his red Coleman canoe along the rocky outcroppings of Lake Pend Orielleís eastern shore, trying to keep a straight course despite the heavy waves and the blustery wind. We had launched our canoe at the Whiskey Rock campground and had planned on spending the afternoon exploring the wild eastern shore.
Overlooking Lake Pend Orielle

The waves really werenít all that bad since we are talking about a lake. I made mention of this to my father as the two foot high waves rocked our canoe, threatening us with an unwanted swim at times. I made mention of sea-stories from my Navy days about thirty-foot swells in the North Atlantic that would wash over the bow of a destroyer or a frigate and my dad countered this with his first hand memories of up to ten-foot swells in this lake when he was growing up. Ten foot swells? Iíve never seen the thirty-foot North Atlantic swells from the sea stories that Iíve heard and the only time Iíve seen anything close to ten-foot high waves was in Virginia Beach when Hurricane Hugo was pounding South Carolina in 1989. I couldnít possibly believe that this landlocked lake could be so rough that it would rival the Atlantic Ocean at times.

The sun shined on the blustery white-capped waves that broke against the rocky base of a steep forest covered ridge dotted with primitive A-frame cabins connected to the lake by makeshift ladders and flimsy docks made of rusty castaway pieces of iron and driftwood. These cabins suggested the residence of an ecological or religious hermit rather than a summer cabin for a well-to-do accountant or dentist from Spokane. I never saw any boats tied along these rickety docks, but I donít think that a boat could survive being tossed against the steep rocky incline. I guess the residents tied their boats at a centralized dock and walked back to their cabins by way of a footpath. Often the makeshift docks below the cabins were only accessible by climbing down the steep face of a rock. Some of the cabin owners accommodated this by hanging a rope ladder down the side of the cliff or by building a makeshift set of stairs. I could imagine a summer spent in one of these cabins reading St. Augustineís Confessions or maybe Thoreauís Walden Pond. A person who thrives on solitary existence would not be disappointed residing here because none of these ramshackle old cabins seemed to invite a lot of visitors.

As we paddled by, we noticed that one of the docks had a lone dog standing on it. Since the cliffs surrounding the makeshift dock of plywood supported by rusty iron pieces were extremely steep, I couldnít imagine this poor creature climbing down to the dock by himself. He stood in the center of the platform as the waves sloshed around him impatiently waiting for something. Eventually, a small sputtering motorboat materialized out of nowhere and stopped at the dock to let the poor creature on board. Could they have forgotten their dog? That seemed unlikely so maybe this was their way of allowing him to run around while they remained in the boat, but that made no sense because dog really had no where to run here. This was just one of those little questions of life that we probably will never have answered, nor really need to have answered.
Pend Orielle Marine Railway

We paddled along the shore quite a ways to the north. Since paddling in this choppy water against the wind was uncomfortable, we eventually gave up and turned back for the beach at Whiskey Rock. However this was not before we passed a fairly isolated community along a more level part of the shore. I could see several houses that were larger than the lakeside cabins. One of them had itís own ten foot long marine railway constructed of rusty iron rails (poles), ties, and boat trailers with tireless wheels that rolled on the rails. This was merely a means of pulling watercraft out of the water and onto the narrow beach that could not accommodate a vehicle. This town (if we can be that generous to a small cluster of houses and docks) seemed to have a sense of community that was defined by a half constructed central building that had potential as a restaurant or lodge.

I couldnít imagine anyone living here all year. Winter-time travel would mean either an icy cruise across the lake from Bayview (provided that the lake was free of ice) or a long overland trek over the three passes on a most likely unplowed road. I try to imagine wintering over in a place like this, but unfortunately all I can think of is the Torrance family up at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen Kingís The Shining.

The Whiskey Rock campground (I was never able to figure out which of the rugged granite rocky outcrops that rose out of the lake was actually Whiskey Rock) was populated with a handful of four-wheel-drive vehicles over this Fourth of July weekend, but I could see several empty campsites in this more isolated section of Pend Orielle Lake. My Dad reminisced about a resort and restaurant that used to be located at Whiskey Rock during the post-war years and I thought of how rampant development has eliminated the wildness of other sections of this lake. However, here at Whiskey Rock, the forested ridges and alpine meadows have reclaimed a portion of development, since the restaurant burned down several years ago and was never replaced.

I tried to imagine my grandparents crossing the lake from Bayview in their powerboat to enjoy a fine dining steak dinner in this remote location, far from a civilized America of the 1950ís or 1960ís. People still cross the lake in their powerboats, but maybe the watercraft of todayís era is more capable of jetting back to Bayview or even Sandpoint for a sophisticated dinner while the more frail craft of yesteryear had to lay up for a while after crossing this vast lake. And what better way to allow your boatís engine to rest than enjoying a dinner in a remote but highly civilized establishment.

My dad theorizes that such resort establishments in isolated locales like Whiskey Rock have fallen somewhat out of fashion as people are either more inclined to stay at resorts in tourist population centers with more sophisticated services, or experience these remote locations by living close to nature by sleeping in a tent.

Eventually we got bored (or tired of fighting the waves) and returned to our landing site at Whiskey rock Campground. The campsite was active with a couple groups of boaters who decided to dock at Whiskey Rock so they could enjoy the beach for a while. The crowd that was currently there when we arrived included a couple of thirty to forty-year old men and three younger girls, appearing to range from fourteen to twenty. They were either lying on towels enjoying the sun or they were throwing rocks into the surf of the Lake. After a while, they packed up their towels and coolers and departed in their speedboats, leaving the narrow beach and cool water for us. We sat in the cool shade away from the heated beach enjoying Black Butte Porter beer from Bend, Oregon and watched the rougher than average waves wash up on the gravelly shore and rock the rickety dock where the visiting speedboats had tied up.

After our meager supply of sandwiches, fruit, and beer was gone, we loaded the canoe back onto the van and commenced the two-hour trek over single lane dirt roads back to civilization. This excursion was truly a relaxing North Idaho experience.

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