Above Cougar Bay on this cold spring morning, clouds are chasing the sun and a gang of gulls is chasing a bald eagle.
A moment before, the eagle had harassed one of the gulls. State biologist Chip Corsi chuckles at the sight of the predator turning tail.
“The nation’s proud symbol,” he says from the back of his canoe.
It’s an unusual sight in an unusual place.
Cougar Bay is alive with wildlife, including an incredible variety of birds. Yet, it’s not an official refuge or sanctuary. It is part of North Idaho’s busiest lake, wedged between its biggest city and a major highway.
People who cherish the bay worry the wildlife might disappear as more houses consume the hillsides to the west. They wonder if owners of forest land to the south also plan to subdivide.
They’re watching carefully as the federal Bureau of Land Management decides what to do with the 12-acre strip of land between U.S. Highway 95 and the bay’s western shore.
“I’d like them to leave it like it is,” says Don Van Kleeck, who lives next to the property.
Van Kleeck moved here 38 years ago, looking for what people still come seeking: a wild place close to town.
“We used to have deer in the yard all the time. We’ve had bear here, coyotes, moose, elk, foxes.”
Elk still haunt the nearby hills, and the occasional cougar still visits Cougar Bay. But wildlife numbers have dropped over the last few years, Van Kleeck says. He blames the increasing number of human visitors, up to 60 a day on the BLM land.
Birds use the bushes and trees there to nest, hide and scan the water for fish.
The BLM might put a wide trail here, might even build a dock for fishing and canoe-launching. Or the agency might do nothing with the land except battle the spotted knapweed. Or, it might build a wildlife viewing site and parking lot off the highway.
Ed Muehle thinks parking is a great idea. It’s needed for the increasing numbers of sportsmen and wildlife-watchers who use the area, he says. Now, people who don’t arrive by boat park along the highway.
Muehle’s been coming here for 30 years, since he was 8.
“The huntin’s good, the fishin’s good, it’s close to town. I have a logging truck. I might go out in the morning and work for a couple of hours, and then go to Cougar Bay.”
On this workday, there is one pike fisherman trying his luck from the shoreline. It’s 6:20 a.m. Corsi launches the canoe nearby and glides into a world of birds.
“There’s a bald eagle on that piling, about 1 o’clock,” Corsi says. “Can you see what he’s eating, or is he just preening himself?” Twenty or 30 coots paddle in tight formation not far from shore.
A flock of songbirds rises. Their wings glitter against the dark green of the forested southern shore.
Corsi points out mergansers and wigeons.
“This is an open enough bay that you get divers. The wetland edge area is pretty good for the diving ducks,” he says, aiming the canoe toward the marshy southwestern edge of the bay.
“There’s a swan, dead ahead, right at the end of the channel.”
The big white bird makes an ungainly takeoff against the wind, then recaptures its grace and heads out across open water.
The canoe soon follows, bound for the log booms that separate much of Cougar Bay from the main lake. The Coeur d’Alene Resort rises in the distance. A church bell in town peals eight times. A workman’s hammer beats out a rhythm from the end of a Yacht Club dock.
A half-dozen blue herons circle, not far from where sailboats under blue tarps sit waiting for summer.
Corsi spies a big bird at the top of a piling, and raises his binoculars. Another eagle? No, an osprey. The first he’s seen this season.
“I’ll bet he wishes he’d stayed south awhile longer,” Corsi says as the chilly wind picks up.
Ospreys nearly disappeared from the region because the pesticide DDT fatally thinned the shells of their eggs. Gertie Hanson remembers returning to Coeur d’Alene after an absence 20 years ago and finding that the ospreys were coming back, too.
“Each year there’s more,” she says. “It’s exciting.”
Hanson lives on Blackwell Hill, high above the bay. On some quiet spring mornings she can hear the cry of a loon floating up from the water.
“For us to have anything that close to Coeur d’Alene where people can go for a little bit of spiritual uplift. … We’re so fortunate to have Cougar Bay.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Map of area.
MEMO: The Bureau of Land Management is taking public comment on development of its land through April 19. A public meeting, and second comment period, will occur this summer. For more information, call 208-765-1511.