January 14, 1996

Getting Away From It All Looking For An Escape From The Traffic And Crowds? Then Head For The High Ground Above Priest Lake

Graham Vink Travel Editor
 

The only sounds are a soft ticking as my snowmobile’s engine cools and the gentle hiss of a breeze sliding over snow-covered slopes.

We are high above Priest Lake on a winter afternoon, and during an hour-long run over the logging roads that cut through the Selkirk Mountains, we see and hear nobody else.

In summer, Priest Lake teems with campers, hikers, boaters, cyclists and RVs; in winter, the jewel of North Idaho’s lakes is a much more private place.

“You’re out in the middle of nowhere. There’s nobody here,” says Erin Bell, who is visiting from Gresham, Ore.

“It’s so amazing,” says her husband, Ed. “It’s so wide open.”

The Bells have been snowmobiling since morning when I meet them in early afternoon with my sister and our guide, Tony Petek, a United Airlines mechanic in San Francisco who is hoping to grow his Coolin Sports shop into a full-time business. Because of light snowfall this winter (normally, the area gets six feet), he must truck our machines from his shop at Coolin, at the lake’s south end, to snow level in the mountains. But once we are high enough, there is plenty of white stuff for high-speed runs on straight sections and controlled skids on the turns.

It helps, however, to remember to turn, something that my sister Jeanie - a city slicker from Washington, D.C. - forgets. Over the embankment she careens, disappearing from view. I stop and rush to the edge, worried about both her and the brand-new Yamaha snowmobile that she is renting.

Fortunately, both are fine. My sister escapes with two bruised legs, and the Yamaha is pulled back up the hill - Ed and I pushing, Petek towing - none the worse for wear.

The snowmobiles are, in fact, remarkably easy to ride, even for a first-timer. My sunglasses keep fogging up, but it finally occurs to me to duck below the windshield. And this machine even has warmers built into the handlebars - quite luxurious.

We continue our ride, looping across ridge lines, curving below a lonely fire lookout, finally stopping for a break near an almost-frozen stream.

Petek goes off-road with his machine, climbing near the stream bed and disappearing from view. Then, suddenly, we can no longer hear his engine.

“I got stuck up there earlier,” says Ed. “I wonder if he did, too?”

We wait a few minutes, wondering if a second rescue will be necessary. But Petek soon reappears and we continue down the hillside, through stands of evergreens tinted white by frost.

Far below, Priest Lake itself is shrouded in a grey blanket. But at our altitude, the light is clear, yet soft, as an orange sun fades into the horizon.

By the time we reach our pickup point, the headlights on our snowmobiles are almost necessary.

Not all of Priest Lake is this empty in winter. Where the paved roads end at the northern end of the lake, dozens of snowmobilers come out to play together (in fact, when we drove north of Nordman, our group was shooed off by snowmobilers who claimed that the road was closed to cars).

The lake, however, stretches more than 19 miles, which means that it’s easy to get away from crowds.

And whether you prefer socializing or solitude, working up a sweat or relaxing by a fire, you’ll find just what you need at Priest Lake in winter.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Lodging Priest Lake has limited lodging facilities any time of the year, but it’s much easier to find a place to stay in winter than in summer. Hill’s Resort, on the east side of Priest Lake on Luby Bay, features either rustic cabins (with kitchens) or motel-type units. Rates range from $80 to $225. Call (208) 443-2551. Elkins, farther north on Reeder Bay, has 28 cabins from $75 to $195. Call (208) 443-2432. Grandview Resort, also at Reeder Bay, has lodge rooms, cabins and suites from $59 to $145. (208) 443-2433. The area’s newest motel, the Inn at Priest Lake, opened last year at Coolin, near the lake’s southern tip, which makes it easy to access both sides of the lake. Winter rates range from $54 to $125 per night; suites with kitchens and spas are available. (208) 443-2121.

Rentals Many of the motels and resorts offer combination packages that include snowmobiling or cross-country skiing. Ask when you make reservations. Other sources: Coolin Sports has snowmobile rentals from $85 to $95 and also may offer cross-country ski rentals later this winter. The store also offers a package snowmobile deal with the Inn at Priest Lake. (208) 443-7303. Four Seasons Rental, Priest Lake, offers snowmobile and clothing rentals. Typical snowmobile prices are $85 to $95 per day. (208) 443-3883. Indian Creek Rentals offers snowmobiles from $70 to $130, depending upon the machine and the day. (208) 443-2292. Priest Lake Guide Service offers cross-country skiing and wagon/sleigh rides. (800) 453-7547 or (208) 443-2956.

For more information Priest Lake Chamber of Commerce, (208) 443-3191. Priest Lake Ranger Station, (208) 443-2512. Priest Lake State Park, (208) 443-2200.

This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Lodging Priest Lake has limited lodging facilities any time of the year, but it’s much easier to find a place to stay in winter than in summer. Hill’s Resort, on the east side of Priest Lake on Luby Bay, features either rustic cabins (with kitchens) or motel-type units. Rates range from $80 to $225. Call (208) 443-2551. Elkins, farther north on Reeder Bay, has 28 cabins from $75 to $195. Call (208) 443-2432. Grandview Resort, also at Reeder Bay, has lodge rooms, cabins and suites from $59 to $145. (208) 443-2433. The area’s newest motel, the Inn at Priest Lake, opened last year at Coolin, near the lake’s southern tip, which makes it easy to access both sides of the lake. Winter rates range from $54 to $125 per night; suites with kitchens and spas are available. (208) 443-2121.

Rentals Many of the motels and resorts offer combination packages that include snowmobiling or cross-country skiing. Ask when you make reservations. Other sources: Coolin Sports has snowmobile rentals from $85 to $95 and also may offer cross-country ski rentals later this winter. The store also offers a package snowmobile deal with the Inn at Priest Lake. (208) 443-7303. Four Seasons Rental, Priest Lake, offers snowmobile and clothing rentals. Typical snowmobile prices are $85 to $95 per day. (208) 443-3883. Indian Creek Rentals offers snowmobiles from $70 to $130, depending upon the machine and the day. (208) 443-2292. Priest Lake Guide Service offers cross-country skiing and wagon/sleigh rides. (800) 453-7547 or (208) 443-2956.

For more information Priest Lake Chamber of Commerce, (208) 443-3191. Priest Lake Ranger Station, (208) 443-2512. Priest Lake State Park, (208) 443-2200.

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