A new jetboat tour of the Pend Oreille River reveals the rich mining history that gave this town its name.
Drive up the state highways along the river and you might conclude the only mining in the area consisted of the quarry for the abandoned cement plant in Metaline Falls.
Take the Z Canyon Jetboat Tour at the Box Canyon Resort, between Ione and Metaline, and you’ll soon be cruising past numerous abandoned mines and even the remnants of a turn-of-the-century prospector’s cabin.
Pilot Dick Zimmerman will explain that the cabin, like many of the mines, is next to the river because riverboats provided the only access when miners first came to the area for silver, gold, lead and zinc. Even now, the nine-mile section between Metaline Falls and Boundary Dam has road access at only one point.
Tailings from the old Bella May Mine spilled out into the river near Metaline at the mouth of a mile-long tunnel. A “pretty good-sized lake” formed in a vertical air vent that got plugged up, Zimmerman told a dozen passengers on a recent cruise.
Occasionally, the plug breaks and water gushes through the mine tunnel and shoots out into the river, Zimmerman said.
Metaline was established as a post-Civil War mining camp in 1865, he continued as the town came into view.
“Fifteen years after it was founded, a big flood came down and wiped it out and they rebuilt it.”
This year’s flood was nowhere near that bad, but the town’s riverfront park was under water earlier this month.
Pointing to the picnic shelter, Zimmerman said, “Last week I could park my boat under it.”
There are a lot of pauses for closeup views: an eagle’s nest, old mining equipment, waterfalls, caves, dams, a rock that resembles an elephant.
Each 2- to 2-1/2-hour tour begins with a dash upstream to nearby Box Canyon Dam after an obligatory look at the boat’s twin 302-cubic-inch Ford engines. The engines can propel the 27-foot launch at 50 mph downstream with up to 18 people aboard.
Zimmerman and his father, Leon, and their wives, Jody and Patricia, and Dick’s sister, Julie Haltness, bought the Box Canyon Resort in May 1995 and added the boat last month. Since then, they’ve been selling tours of the 18-mile section of river between Box Canyon Dam and Boundary Dam, near the Canadian border.
The family keeps busy. Dick, 36, is a utility district lineman and Leon, 58, operates a landscaping business. He was a logger most of his life.
“Logging has kind of gone the way of a lot of jobs, so we decided to try something different,” he said.
Dick Zimmerman has been running the river for 17 years - ever since he graduated from Selkirk High School in 1979. He pumped old-timers, dam workers and others for the history, geology, technical trivia and anecdotes that spice each tour.
An old powerhouse pasted on the wall of a sheer cliff near Metaline Falls still was providing electricity for the Pend Oreille Mine when Box Canyon Dam was completed in 1956, Zimmerman told his passengers.
Where a big overhead water pipe spans the river like a suspension bridge, Zimmerman noted that the Pend Oreille Mine, idle since the late 1970s, had operations on both sides of the river. Trucks could drive through a tunnel under the river.
In several places, Zimmerman pointed out prominent fault lines in the cliffs as evidence of long-ago earthquakes.
“Where’s a geologist?” passenger Mark Macklenberg of Spokane joked.
Zimmerman responded, “I’ve got two geology groups coming this summer. I’ll learn more about it.”
Circling the pool behind Boundary Dam, he said the 340-foot-tall structure is one of fewer than a dozen dams in the world to gain its strength from “thin-arch” construction. It is 32 feet thick at the base and only 8 feet thick at the top.
“The guys working here told me it actually moved that dam 6 to 8 inches when they flooded it,” Zimmerman said.
Where Beaver Creek and Three-mile Creek tumble into the river from opposite banks, Zimmerman joked that “this one on the left is so powerful it comes back up on the other side.”
And where a gnarled snag of a tree grew upside down on a vertical rock wall, he told passengers, “I had a logger aboard last week and he wanted to bring a skidder down here and get it …”
“I can get you as wet as you want,” he volunteered at the approximately 200-foot-tall Peewee Falls, one of the tour’s highlights.
“I’ll bet that water would take the smile off your face it’s so cold,” Mike Johnson remarked as Zimmerman maneuvered the boat so close passengers could feel the spray while they snapped pictures.
Johnson, like several others on the trip, lives at the Riverbend subdivision 34 miles south of Metaline. They heard about the tour by word of mouth.
“We’ve had real good local support,” Leon Zimmerman said, adding that tours have been averaging 10 passengers apiece.
Tours are offered at noon and 2:30 on Saturdays and Sundays through October. The Zimmermans plan to try some winter runs, too, if the river doesn’t freeze. They may add weekday runs if there is enough demand.
The fare is $24 each this year for adults. Children 6 to 12 pay half, and those 5 and under are free.
For more information, call (800) 676-8883.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Map: Pend Oreille River boat tour
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