Getting away from it all in the Inland Northwest isn’t as easy as it used to be.
Just ask Sharon and Gene Bruce.
The Hayden couple are avid backcountry horse riders who moved to North Idaho 16 years ago to pursue their outdoor equestrian lifestyle.
They bought 10 acres on the Rathdrum Prairie, horses and a trailer. They toured the Selkirks, the Bitterroots and the Coeur d’Alene mountains by saddleback.
The scenery and solitude were tremendous.
But in the past several years, they’ve had to drive farther and ride harder to achieve the same experience they used to get just a few miles from home.
When they moved to Hayden, their neighbors were few and far between.
“Now look at it,” said Gene Bruce, indicating the surrounding prairie that sprouts new homes like tenacious thistles.
“Everybody feels the same way,” Sharon Bruce explained. “We moved here for the same reasons - the beauty of it all.”
Because of the traffic, they don’t ride their horses - calm appaloosas and quarter horses - along the prairie roads. Nor do they ride much anymore along the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.
“There’s too many people,” Gene Bruce said. Once, their pack mule was spooked “straight up a cliff” by motorcyclists coming the opposite direction. Other members of their party had to leap off their dancing steeds.
The cyclists had dismounted, moved off the trail, and done everything possible in the difficult terrain.
“They were really good,” Bruce said. “It’s just the horses are stupid.”
The Bruces aren’t the only outdoor lovers whose lifestyles have been crimped by the crowds.
To reserve a campsite on Priest Lake requires planning months in advance. To camp at some alpine lakes in the Selkirks may require a wilderness ethics dilemma - whether or not to trample sensitive lake-shore plants.
To use any trails near populated areas means having to share the path with all walks - or wheels - of life.
They come from next door and all over the globe. Not only has the region’s population grown dramatically in the past 15 years, but it’s reputation as an outdoor mecca has grown, too.
“We know that outdoor recreation is a primary draw to the state,” said Georgia Smith of the Idaho Department of Commerce.
Many outdoor tourists who come to visit, return to stay.
Since 1980, Kootenai County’s population has grown a whopping 60 percent. North Idaho’s population grew almost 37 percent from 1980 to 1996. It’s now home to more than 160,000 people.
In the same time period, Spokane County grew 19 percent, to an estimated 406,500 people in 1996.
Not surprisingly, the National Forest managers have seen an increased demand for campsites in the past several years.
The Colville National Forest hasn’t done the studies to find out exactly how much demand there is, but they know it outstrips the agency’s ability to keep up, said recreational planner Jan Bodie.
“It’s a tough thing to get a handle on,” she said. “You have a capacity on your campgrounds, and that capacity shows 100 percent full on the weekends during the summer and has been for five years. You’d have to monitor how many people are turned away.”
Even if they did know, it might not make much of a difference. With the agency facing severe budget cuts, there’s no money to expand campgrounds or build new ones.
“We’re in a stage of not only looking at our capacity, but possibly reducing it,” Bodie said.
Campers often are turned away from campgrounds around Sullivan Lake near the Canadian border, the Little Pend Oreille Lakes, and Pioneer and Panhandle campgrounds near Newport.
In Idaho, some of the hardest campsites to snag are around Priest Lake. Luby Bay Campground, for instance, had 337 reservations in 1995, 459 reservations in 1996, and, as of May 8 this year, had 291 reservations.
“We’ve seen growth over the last five years, and nobody knows where it’s headed,” said Debbie Wilkins, a recreation specialist on the Priest Lake Ranger District. “But, right now we’re not at a capacity where people can’t get away.”
The Panhandle National Forest recently enlarged Beaver Creek Campground at Priest Lake and Sam Owen Campground on Lake Pend Oreille. This summer will be a test to see if they’re large enough.
In the Coeur d’Alene area, Beauty Creek Campground often overflows with people. Just a short distance from Interstate 90’s Wolf Lodge Bay exit, it’s a popular campground for travelers.
“Beauty Creek was very busy last year, very busy,” said campground hostess Earlene Queen, who’s hosting at Bell Bay this year. “We just had to put people out in a field. They were happy just to put a tent up.”
Howardean Smelcer, 76, hosted at Kit Price Campground on the Coeur d’Alene River for 12 years.
“When we first went there in 1984, we’d have a full camp on the weekends, but very seldom,” she said. “But then all of the sudden people realized what a beautiful camp it is.”
Demand grew, and the Forest Service put all of the popular riverside campsites, except one, on the reservation system. Smelcer disapproved, because sometimes they’d get reserved but the campers wouldn’t show up, angering other campers.
“They love it on the river,” she said. “Boy, they’d scramble for that spot.”
While developed campgrounds have a tendency to fill up, those willing to venture a little farther still can find some solitude.
“I like to climb mountains, and there’s lots of mountains around here,” said Tim Ward, a backpacker from Coeur d’Alene. “I don’t run into people very often.”
Ward avoids some of the more popular mountain getaways on the weekends. When he does bump into people, usually they’re outdoor-loving folks like himself.
“It’s more troublesome mentally to find empty Coke cans, Snapple bottles and candy bar wrappers, than it is to run into half a dozen people out having a good time,” he said.
In the Selkirk Mountains, Harrison Lakes and the Trout Creek drainage are being loved a little too much.
“At Harrison Lakes, the more years I went, the more people there are, no question about that,” said long-time hiker Jack O’Brien of Hayden. “It’s gotten to the point where I don’t go there anymore. There aren’t many good, harmless campsites. Other people will come and camp anywhere.”
Managing increasing numbers of people in the back-country is a growing challenge for the Forest Service. Bonners Ferry Ranger District recently had to develop a plan to reduce the human impact on fragile alpine lakes up Trout Creek.
“There’s a couple of lakes you dare not walk barefoot around or you have to be careful swimming because of fishing hooks and fishing lines,” said David Siebanthaler, a backpacker from Boundary County.
Two years ago, the district limited group sizes and the length of time they could camp at the lakes. Campfires were discouraged and horse camping was prohibited at some lakes. A proposal to limit parking at the trailhead was postponed at the request of local county commissioners.
Despite the popularity of some pockets of the Selkirks, Siebanthaler still knows where to go to get away from it all.
“There are more and more people getting up here,” he said. “You have to go a ways to get away, but I don’t know how long that will last. You can certainly understand people wanting to go there.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color photos
MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.
Byline appeared only in the Spokane and Regional editions.
Byline appeared only in the Spokane and Regional editions.