Sometimes summer has a hard time getting started. It will be hot one minute and pouring down rain with cool gusts of wind the next. As a boater you can’t always be sure what you’re going to get.
We put our boat in at the protected waters of Black Rock Marina in Rockford Bay where the cement slab ramp is a little on the steep side and has a bit of a curve. Neither are problems if you are experienced at launching a boat and you have a spotter. We have both and are in the water and on our way to our destination up the Saint Joe River to St. Maries, Idaho.
As we motor out of the bay, I note the sky and the rather large clouds that were forming. The wind is calm, the water even calmer and when the sun pokes out from behind the clouds the temperature reaches into the 70s.
We have to travel about 12 miles to the mouth of the St Joe and wanting to spend most of our time on the river we go along at a good pace.
Traveling southeast, we pass Windy Bay, a 3-mile-long inlet fed by Lake Creek. The water in the center of the lake is a little choppy with the only real boat-rocking waves coming from the wake of the passing St. Joe River Boat. The happy travelers raise their glasses and wave to us from the upper and lower decks.
In the distance on the east shore I can see Harrison at the entrance to the Coeur d’Alene River. A former lumber town and one-time red-light district, Harrison still has a sort of late 1800’s charm and is a great stop on a boat trip.
But not today, the river calls.
We continue on, passing about 14 named bays, four points and four lakes — Hidden, Round, Chatcolet and Benewah — as we come to the entrance to the St. Joe River channel.
A sign says it’s 7 miles to St. Maries. Another sign says “St. Joe River” with an arrow pointing down and to the left to help boaters find the river channel. The channel, you see, is a river within a lake.
According to “Paddle Routes of the Inland Northwest,” by Rich Landers and Dan Hansen, “Construction of Post Falls Dam in 1906 backed water through Lake Coeur d’Alene and raised the level of Chatcolet Lake to merge it with Round and Benewah Lakes.” However, the banks of the river that have not yet been eroded by the wakes of big boats still rise up to form a natural tree-lined levee that defines the channel.
Depending on the lake level, the sign helps boaters avoid missing the channel to the south and ending up in Chatcolet Lake or veering north into Round Lake. The flats outside the channel can be shallow, a notorious trap for stray sailboats.
Lining the entrance to the river are several platforms on top of pilings ready for osprey to nest. Many are empty but we continue on and count four occupied nests including one that has a lot of squawking going on but we can’t see the source.
The water smoothes out, the shoreline closes in and the world changes as we enter the river channel. The mountains covered in evergreens and the hillside homes that characterize Lake Coeur d’Alene give way to flatter grassy lands and tall stands of sweet smelling cottonwoods and poplars.
As we travel slowly up the river, the clouds part with less regularity and the temperature drops slightly. A large flock of geese resting in the water 15 or so yards off shore huddle close together but aren’t bothered by our passing.
The homes along the river at first are modest summer cabins but as we progress they become larger with more elaborate designs and landscaping.
In front of a newer log home children play on the porch, the grass grows to the river’s edge and is cut off by the flow of the water exposing roots and dirt in places. Cattails have gone to seed and are puffed out in white where they grow in the marshier parts of the river.
The river turns sharply at Cherry Bend Park where we find a bumper-lined dock and grassy picnic area with tables and barbecues. We take note for a possible future trip and continue on to St. Maries.
The wind picks up and spreads thousands of cottonwood seeds across the water leaving it dotted white. The texture of the water changes ahead making it look like bubble wrap, and we feel the first drops of rain.
We stop the boat and quickly put up the cover just in time for a cloudburst. Through the rain running off the windshield the river takes on the look of a Monet painting. The weeping willows and aspen blur together.
The rain stops as quickly as it started, we lower the cover and the sun shines hot again.
We arrive at St. Maries and tie up to the dock at the city park where we find a well-maintained two-ramp boat launch, ample parking and picnic areas.
Just beyond the park are two tugboats and groups of logs roped together floating in the water waiting to be taken up the conveyor belts that reach to the river’s edge. While not the thriving logging community it was a century ago, you can still find a good hamburger, stretch your legs and enjoy a picnic in the park at St. Maries
The trip back proved to be a little wetter with periodic showers and gusts of wind mixed with moments of warm calm. We stopped the motor for one last look back up the river. The rustle of leaves from the quaking aspen and the songs of numerous birds I can’t see fill the silence.
The trees and brush lean toward the slow moving water and for an instant it seems we are lost in time.