Exploration Day 2: Coeur d’Alene Is Calling Out

Our explorations took us north today, into totally different country. That’s the cool thing about this place – you can be in so many different and varied environments with just a short ride. Also, the Panhandle is so narrow that you can go across three states and two time zones during a very short drive. The recreational possibilities are endless.

Indeed, recreation is the focus in the north. Where the Palouse was all about agriculture, Bonner and Boundary counties are a sportsman’s paradise. We found very little in the way of large-scale grain farms as we pushed north from Spokane on route 2. A few ranches with hay fields here and there where a plain opened up, but by and large the ride could easily have been a road trip through the Berkshires. There were lots of small communities along the road, or at least there were gas stations and small food stores. And espresso huts: every crossroads out here has at least one small shed or trailer set up as a drive-thru for lattes and espresso, and they are all busy. I’m surprised the people are as mellow as they seem with all the caffeine they ingest.

Riley Creek Campground on the Pend Oreille River
Riley Creek Campground on the Pend Oreille River

As route 2 bent to the east toward Idaho through the small town of Newport, Washington, more evidence of the lifeblood if the local economy became evident: logging. We started seeing log trucks heading to one of the several mills along the road, and someone had painted a mural depicting the region’s logging history on a long, low retaining wall next to the highway. Quite nice, actually, stretching back in time from present-day helicopter logging to yarders and skidders, back to river logging and Indian times. Very little sign of economic depression here – the mountains of logs at the mills were staggering, the rail cars of finished lumber kept moving out, and the towns seemed prosperous enough. We found a small National Park area back over on the Pend Oreille River in Idaho called Riley Creek, just behind a saw mill off route 2. A beautiful riverfront home was for sale for $875k, with taxes of $4k. Incredible.

Priest River itself was a cool little town. We stopped for lunch at a localĀ  joint, eschewing Subway to sample local fare. One of the best hamburgers I’ve ever had, and they had milkshakes and lemonade made with the local delicacy, huckleberries.

I found myself comparing Idaho towns to New England towns. Priest River is only about 1700 souls, while the town I grew up in is 8000 our so. Priest River is doing pretty well in terms of quality of life – there are plenty of stores, restaurants and hotels catering to sportsmen and the outdoor recreation scene, but still blessedly free of big-box stores and strip malls. Still, it has a much bigger town feel than its population would imply, at least based on my Yankee frame of reference. By contrast, my hometown is stale and seedy, without any sort of commercial growth in the 40 years that I’ve known it. I guess when grownups are in charge of a town, sustainable growth can happen, as opposed to the stagnation that happens in towns where old-line families are calling the shots in local politics.

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Yet another espresso hut, this one in downtown Sandpoint

We wound along the Priest as it expanded into Lake Pend Oreille (“Pond Oray” for the French impaired) and into Sandpoint, which is another cool little town, the likes of which I haven’t seen in New England. These towns all have downtown areas that look like they’re supposed to, and still function. The storefronts are by and large still active, and people still shop and work here. Downtowns like these are a testament to how big boxes have ripped the heart out of communities.

Don’t get me wrong – I like the convenience of Walmart and Depot, even if it means being forced to buy cheap China goods. But when the balloon goes up, and the container ships stop, the suburban strip malls are going to die, and the places with a strong community with a walkable downtown are going to fare much better. It won’t be all peaches and cream, but I’d rather take my chances in places like this. Kunstler may be a curmudgeon, but he’s right about the sustainability of smaller cities.

Lake Pend Oreille, just north of Clark Fork
Lake Pend Oreille, just north of Clark Fork

On a whim, we drove down route 200 along the eastern edge of Lake Pend Oreille into the town of Clark Fork. This is the fifth deepest lake in the US – so deep that there used to be a naval base at the southern tip where they did submarine training. If you notice I’m not describing the scenery, it’s because one can only process so much natural beauty. The mountains tumble right down into the lake, and the feeling is that everything is just so pristine, even though the lake is well used for recreation. I’d imagine it gets pretty crazy in the summer, but it was very peaceful.

We pressed on into Montana through Cabinet Gorge, checked out the dam and hydroelectric plant there, and crossed the river for the trip back into Idaho. The rickety one-lane bridge was a treat, as was the 20 mile drive on a narrow gravel road. Along the way we saw a lot of obvious retreats – some just gates at the road, others small clusters of cabins and trailers. Much more gardening here, plus some larger scale cattle and hay operations. The odd thing was that everyone we passed on that road waved to us, obvious foreigners though we were. Very friendly folk.

Back in Sandpoint, we headed down 95 along the causeway over the lake and south to Coeur d’Alene. The striking thing about this ride, other than my wife getting stung by a bee that somehow hitched a ride, was the road construction. Highway 95 isn’t an interstate, but it’s pretty close to it. There was a small stretch south of Sandpoint that was just two lanes, but we ran into a project where they’re widening the road into four lanes by building a completely new roadbed to handle northbound traffic. Just south of that is a recently completed stretch going into CdA. The important thing about this is that there’s money to spend on road projects, and not just putting Band-Aids on existing roads or patching potholes – they’re building a completely new roadway. Also noteworthy is that there’s something behind the effort other than “shovel ready” pork. There were no signs touting the project, no list of local and state potentates to bow before in thanks for the largesse like there would be back east. There were just a bunch if guys building a really nice road that is going to earn its keep.

We took a detour to the west and approached Post Falls from the north. Post Falls is much larger – 28000 people – and is very much the sprawling suburban town. There were housing developments and condos stretched out over the plain, all brand new and quite nice for what they are. Plenty of strip malls and all the usual trappings of suburbia, all seemingly in support of the resort town of Coeur d’Alene.

Let me say up front that CdA is really spectacular, and very ritzy. The lake is just as pristine and the scenery as gorgeous as I was led to believe. The downtown area was very funky and alive – we had dinner at Capone’s Pub and Grille, which was featured on “Diners, Dive-Ins and Dives” on the Food Network a few years ago, and took a walk afterward to get the local feel.

Self expression, CdA style
Self expression, CdA style

But as rich with tourist dollars as the city is, something else must be going on here. The clientele in the restaurants, the people on the streets – everyone appeared to be in their mid 20s to early 30s. That’s primetime for establishing a career and starting a family, and rather than being elsewhere, these people were in CdA. Being a resort town, there must be a large service economy, but I doubt these people were getting along on wages from Wendy’s or the Verizon store. These people are adding more value than that. I don’t know what rents in CdA are like, or how much those Post Falls tract houses go for, but I know it’s more than a low wage job can support. Things are happening here that are attracting and retaining young professionals and tradespeople. And that’s a welcome change from the graying, ossifying, dying east. I can easily see my kids staying in north Idaho with cities like CdA to attract them.

Tomorrow, or rather today, as I’m writing this at 4AM, we’ll head back down to Moscow. I want to check out the Palouse more – those rolling hills and little buttes just speak to me, and I want to explore the area more. On Wednesday we’ll break camp in Spokane and head north to Bonners Ferry, then down into the Yak in Montana – Libby, Kalispell, the Flathead Lake region, and down into Bozeman for the night before reluctantly starting the push back east.

1 Comment


  1. A few things I’d like to touch on regarding this day’s journey – as you folks were going from Priest River to Sandpoint, you were actually on the Pend Oreille River, the Priest River itself flows south from Priest Lake to the town of PR and feeds into the POR , which is the east to west waterway paralleling Hwy 2/200.

    Next, while Sandpoint proper doesn’t have the box stores, HD and Wally World are just next door over in Ponderay as one heads north on 95 towards Bonners & Canada, as well as a large farm/ranch supply place called Big R. These guys are putting a hurtin’ on the small stores that you are fond of and I wonder how long the little guys will be able to hold on.

    There still is a US Navy submarine development base in Bayview, at the south end of Lake PO. The Acoustic Research Detachment http://www.navsea.navy.mil/nswc/carderock/pub/who/sites/bayview.aspx

    You didn’t see “stimulus self promotion” on the 95 project because it was in the works before “Obummer” got into office. Also, because Idaho is very much a “red state”. Being a “right to work” state as well, there isn’t as much union involvement/aggrandizement either.

    Jmtc on the ” something else must be going on here” re CDA. Post Falls was very aggressive over the last decade giving tax breaks to get companies to relocate or build new there. Buck Knives, Harper’s office furniture and Cabela’s as a few examples. Also, quite a bit of the younger folks work over in Washington, Liberty Lake & Spokane Valley, where the minimum wage is higher and there is more manufacturing, professional and technical jobs available. If it weren’t for those aspects, CDA would be a lot more like Sandpoint – “Poverty, with a great view”. There’s not a lot of “there” there in CDA besides the service jobs you mentioned, since the decline of the logging industry. One can only support so many banks and gas stations. The bursting of the housing bubble hit construction hard in the area, though that is starting to rebound a little.

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