Lately, employees outnumber customers at Lake Pend Oreille’s Bottle Bay Resort. Quacking ducks make more passes through Sandpoint Marina than do sputtering power boats.
Thanks to flood waters, tons of floating debris and a half-mile no-wake zone from every shoreline, the usual bustling Lake Pend Oreille has turned into a dead sea.
Boaters and tourists are scarce, leaving businesses around the 43-mile-long lake struggling to stay afloat financially.
“This has taken a bite out of us and our season, that’s for sure,” said Bottle Bay Resort owner John High, looking out at his submerged beach and boat ramp. His lakefront restaurant has 36 boats slips that typically are filled by the end of May. The slips are all reserved and paid for, but only two boats bob in the high water.
“I have people who bought brand new boats and are dying to put them in but are afraid to expose them to the debris in the lake right now,” High said.
By Memorial Day, marinas usually are full of boats pulled from winter storage, and locals and tourists are out cruising the lake. High depends on that traffic because about 80 percent of his diners and drinkers arrive by boat.
“Any business on the lake is suffering right now from a lack of people. It’s been a slow start for the boating season and a really fast start for the floating log season,” he joked.
Most lakeshore residents still have docks underwater, if they weren’t ripped off the pilings by rising water and wind. That means hundreds of people have nowhere to moor their boats.
Some boats were put in marina slips early in the spring but the owners asked they be pulled out when the lake hit flood stage last month, said Jamie Miller, owner of Sandpoint Marine Sales and Service.
“If this high water lasts much longer, some people will be making the decision not to put their boat in at all,” he said, adding some renters already have tried to get refunds on their slips.
“People are bummed. They want to get out and ski and tube. People are tired of working in their yards and want to go play on the water. We want them to go play on the water too,” Miller said.
He and other lake businesses have spent a month trying to literally keep their heads and buildings above water.
Miller was forced to relocate his store, which sits next to Sand Creek. The creek spilled its bank and a sandbag wall, flooding the shop and closing the parking lot for several weeks.
“We are starting to dry out but you still find mud puddles on the floor, he said.
Miller also operates a gas dock for boaters, employing students to staff the pumps. He hasn’t been able to put anyone to work yet.
“Until we have people on the lake, I don’t have anything for them to do,” he said. “It’s the trickle-down theory and this is affecting more than just business on the lake.”
At Jeb and Margaret’s Trailer Haven near Hope, the regulars who rent space for the summer haven’t shown up. About five boats sit in the 50 slips.
“That’s quite a big difference from a normal year,” said manager Roger Best. “‘People are slow in coming because they are waiting for the water to go down. It’s no doubt affected our bottom line.”
People aren’t paying for boat dock rentals, buying propane or shopping for groceries. Best’s neighbors, the Idaho Country Resort, had to close more than 50 trailer spaces because of the high water.
The lake crested more than three feet above normal level this month, washing trees, driftwood and other junk into the lake. The high water made access difficult if not impossible to many boat ramps.
“We are usually busier than all get-out this time of year but people just don’t want to gamble taking their boats out right now,” said Bonner County marine deputy, Sgt. Larry Schulze. “Other than towing logs and rescuing docks we haven’t seen much activity.”
The county imposed a slower boat speed a half-mile from all shorelines and closed the Pend Oreille River to boats altogether. The idea is to keep waves from damaging waterfront property. Priest Lake had the same no-wake zone but it was removed a week ago when the water receded.
Lake Pend Oreille is steadily dropping now, Schultz said, but he doesn’t expect the no-wake zone to be lifted until the first week of July. “This is the worst start we have had in the nine years I’ve owned the resort,” said High. “I think Mother Nature just wanted to show us who is boss.”
Businesses on the lake are praying for a hot July and August to make up some of the cash they lost this month.
“It won’t be a gangbuster season, but if we can get some sunny weekends it might make it a reasonable season,” High said.
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