John Spellman knows the secret of Lake Coeur d’Alene, as do many local fishermen.
And he teaches it to his grandson Chris: Get up before the sun and drive like hell.
That might not guarantee a cooler full of silvers or perch, but it will get you a spot to park your boat trailer in most of the launches around the lake.
Unless it’s July Fourth or any other holiday weekend, when Spellman and most seasoned lake users know the secret is to just stay home.
“If you are here at daylight, about 4:30 a.m., it’s no problem,” Spellman said Thursday while tying down the rods and tackle boxes in his 20-foot Hewes Craft. It was 9:30 a.m., and Spellman and his grandson were heading home for lunch.
But he knows other people struggle with clogged boat ramps, no parking and few places to safely swim. “We always could use more access, more parking,” Spellman said.
That’s why the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Kootenai County are continually looking at ways to buy more waterfront land for residents and the thousands of tourists who visit each year. With Kootenai County’s soaring population, which increased by nearly 56 percent during the 1990s to 108,685 people, there’s more demand than ever for access to the lake and Spokane River.
About 5 percent of Lake Coeur d’Alene’s shoreline is publicly owned, which is a large jump from 12 years ago when only about 2 percent was open to public use, said Eric Thomson, the BLM’s field manager in Coeur d’Alene.
Blackwell Island and a wildlife sanctuary on Cougar Bay are the most recent additions to the public waterfront, and the agency is working with Kootenai County to buy 108 acres near Harrison. Coeur d’Alene is getting 1,000 feet of sandy beach along the Spokane River thanks to the developers of a new waterfront subdivision.
The water and the area’s natural beauty have drawn people for thousands of years. But now, instead of Native Americans, trappers, missionaries, homesteaders and miners, there are retirees and affluent families who want to escape crowded cities.
“The place has obviously been discovered,” Thomson said. “And people want to have instant access to the lake.”
Even though the government agencies are slowly adding public shores, they can’t keep up with the influx of newcomers who want to use the waterways. Adding even more pressure, lake users are bringing bigger boats, meaning existing launches are becoming too small and boat trailer parking is scarce.
Avista Utilities recently released a study about recreational use on the waters within a 100-mile radius, stretching from the Coeur d’Alene River to Long Lake in Spokane County. The study is a required part of Avista’s federal dam-relicensing process. The report shows that most of the 2,271 people interviewed or surveyed by mail are satisfied with the number of recreation sites in the region.
Yet a desire for more boat launches and dock space was often mentioned.
On Lake Coeur d’Alene, people wanted more recreational opportunities such as swimming, camping, hiking and kayaking. They also asked for additional services such as gas docks and boat-accessible dining. More restrooms and better maintenance of toilets were also common responses.
The BLM and county are familiar with these requests. The problem is scrounging up enough cash to buy more public shoreline and then finding large enough chunks of waterfront to turn into boat launches with spacious parking areas.
Newcomers moving to the area are willing to pay large sums for water frontage. Since January, the average sales price for the 73 waterfront properties that sold, including all the lakes and rivers in Kootenai County, was $413,377, according to the Coeur d’Alene Association of Realtors. President Anne Anderson said it’s difficult to find anything, even a tiny lot, for less than $250,000.
But the cost isn’t slowing people from quickly developing the shoreline with expansive homes, which means few large stretches of beachfront are left for sale.
The BLM anticipated this. So in 1989, when people rallied for more access, the agency got busy. Often using conservation dollars, trading and partnering with the county, the BLM has given the public at least five new spots where they can enjoy the water.
“We knew there would be a window in time that a public agency would be able to have the budget and capacity to obtain some of these very high value parcels,” Thomson said. “We figured we had about 10 years.”
In that decade, Thomson said, BLM was able to secure some crucial waterfront. Perhaps the most prominent is Blackwell Island, which opened last year and took some pressure off the crowded Third Street Boat Launch downtown. The launch includes 130 vehicle and trailer parking spaces, picnic areas and a wetland wildlife observation trail.
Along with Higgens Point, these launches are the epicenter of most boating activity on the north end of the lake – and the entire state.
The county and BLM also are working to buy 108 acres in Browns Bay, on the west side of the lake across from Harrison. The mix of mountain meadows and sparse forest, including 6,200 feet of waterfront, is owned by Bob and Jack Buell. Jack Buell is a longtime Benewah County commissioner.
But money is tight, so Kootenai County Waterways Director Kurtis Robinson said the county is still hoping for at least $5.5 million in state and federal grants. He said the property could provide overnight camping, a new boat launch, more public docks, a swimming area, RV camping, trails and possibly a public marina.
Yet people don’t just want boat launches and swimming holes; they also are interested in protecting wetlands. The county and BLM hashed out a quirky deal in April 2003 to create a 155-acre wildlife and wetland preservation area at Cougar Bay.
The county and BLM agreed to pay the owner, 85-year-old John Pointner, $5,000 a month until he dies. After that, Pointner forgives the debt. Pointner said the most important part of the agreement is that it’s named the John Pointner Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary and that his body will be buried on the property.
The Coeur d’Alene native has already paid to have a 3-foot stone memorial that will read “Dead people and live animals permitted.”
Now the BLM is getting ready to again ask the public what the agency’s role should be when it comes to public land. This fall the agency will begin the three-year process of rewriting its land-use plan, which is a blueprint for managing and acquiring public land and covers a range of issues, including recreation, timber harvesting, mineral use and water quality. Thomson said the public hearings have yet to be scheduled.
Not everyone thinks more public access to the lake is needed.
“The lake’s already crowded,” said a Post Falls man loading his aluminum boat on a trailer at Higgens Point. The man, who didn’t want to give his name, said more launches would result in more congestion. “If you want to get on the lake, you need to get up in the morning.”
Post Falls Parks and Recreation Director Dave Fair agreed that there’s adequate access. He said crowding only occurs on holiday weekends such as July Fourth and Labor Day.
“Ninety-five percent of the time, it’s more than sufficient,” he said.
Lake access has long sparked spirited discussions, which Coeur d’Alene leaders witnessed this spring when hundreds of residents demanded that the city forever preserve access to a 500-foot strip of Sanders Beach as a condition of the Hagadone Corp. annexation.
Local businessman Duane Hagadone asked the city to include 273 acres, including the Coeur d’Alene Resort Golf Course and Silver Beach, in the city limits so city services would be available to his proposed hotel and townhouse project.
Hagadone also owns the pebbly stretch of Sanders Beach that runs from the southeast corner of the city’s Jewett House to the rock outcropping next to the golf course. The state requires him to let the public use the beach as part of his lease with the Land Board for the golf course’s trademark floating 14th hole. The green is anchored on state-owned waters.
People lined up to tell the City Council how important it is for the public, especially those citizens who can’t afford waterfront property, to have easy access to the lake.
Laborers came to say they often jump in the lake every summer night to cool off. Mothers said a trip to the beach helps soothe hot toddlers. And grandparents told stories of growing up on Sanders Beach, when the homeowners along the shore never minded if locals lounged in the sun or splashed around.
But Hagadone’s representative argued that it’s private property and out of line for the city to request perpetual access to the beach.
In April, the council voted to allow annexation with no mention of Sanders Beach. The city also waived $150,000 in annexation fees.
Local attorney Scott Reed said it’s a common story.
“It’s a wonderful summer recreation system,” he said sarcastically. “People are either suing each other or fencing each other out.”
With more development along the lake, people can no longer use many old swimming holes off private land. He said that’s the situation with Sanders Beach.
Before the 1960s, when the town was smaller, everyone knew one another and lakefront property owners didn’t mind people using the beach. Now those properties have new owners, more people use the beach and often make too much noise and leave garbage.
“The civility has gone away,” Reed said. “But there are legitimate arguments on both sides.”
Post Falls Parks Director Doug Eastwood said he believes there’s never enough public access to the area’s waterfronts. The tremendous cost of waterfront property forces the city to get creative and work with other agencies such as the county, BLM and state.
The city recently scored when the developers of the former Crown Pacific mill site on the Spokane River, along Seltice Way, agreed to give Coeur d’Alene 1,000 feet of shoreline for a sandy beach. The developers have said the beach will enhance the homes planned in the Sanders Beach-style neighborhood. Eastwood visualizes something similar to City Park downtown where people can swim and picnic.
He’s also heard that a developer buying waterfront property at Riverstone, another former mill site, might offer some river shoreline to the city for public use.
Yet Eastwood said most waterfront developers aren’t so generous.
“I can’t say that developers are getting more involved,” he said. “We should see more of that happening.”