While eagles, and those who love watching them, may flock to Lake Coeur d’Alene this winter, there is another, quieter venue to observe the majestic birds of prey: the eastern shores of Lake Pend Oreille.
Searching for this quieter experience, I traveled to Pend Oreille to watch the eagles congregate on a recent late-November day.
I was guided by Captain Wes Jones, who runs the Bayview Shuttle Service. For Jones, this was just another day on the job. As the captain of the mail boat on Lake Pend Oreille, he spends most of his days on the sparsely inhabited eastern shore of the lake.
The eastern shore of Lake Pend Oreille stretches from Bayview to Clark Fork, nearly all of it forest service land. Tucked in between the mountains and the nearly 1,200 foot deep lake are several small settlements. Some, like Lakeview, have a history of mining for silver in the surrounding mountains, or the limestone which became the concrete used to build Spokane. Others are just small congregations of summer homes perched on rocks overlooking the lake, mostly empty during the winter.
The roads to these small communities are impassable in the winter.
So, in the winter Jones connects year-round residents with the outside world. He brings the Sunday newspaper, delivers groceries from the Bayview Mercantile or, as on this visit, picks up a pack of cigars. The cigars, he said, serve as a form of payment.
Somewhere along the way, Jones decided to share this beautiful lake with the outside world, so he started the Bayview Shuttle Service. He takes passengers across the lake to Lakeview where they can stay at the Gold Creek Resort, formerly known as the Happy Hermit. He also ferries people across the lake so they can mountain bike on the forest roads, climb granite cliffs right off the bow of the boat, paddle sea kayaks, or just enjoy the solitude of this 43-mile-long lake that sees few boats this time of year.
As winter approaches, kokanee salmon begin spawning in the creeks that empty into the mountains east of the lake. Migrating bald eagles arrive and fill the skies. When we arrived at Granite Creek, I counted 25 to 30 eagles circling overhead, with another 15 sitting on the sunny beach and many more in the trees overlooking the creek. Efforts by Idaho Fish and Game to improve kokanee spawning on Lake Pend Oreille have succeeded and eagles are stopping off in places such as Granite Creek or Buttonhook Bay before heading south to Lake Coeur d’Alene and beyond.
To share this spectacular sight, Jones conducts “Eagle Cruises” and will take up to six people out to see the eagles on the lake on his enclosed cabin boat. On your return trip you can also swing by the cliffs south of Bayview and look for the mountain goats. These goats spend their lives vertically, roaming the sheer faces of the mountains at Pend Oreille’s southern end. The best time to catch them is in the winter. Though sometimes hard to distinguish against a backdrop of snow, the mountain goats are an awesome sight.
On the cruise Jones goes all out. He will set you up on the bow of the boat, cover you in blankets and play music on the stereo as he slowly cruises underneath the cliffs.
Pend Oreille still has the remote feel of a lake far from the homes that crowd its northern shore near Sandpoint. Even Lake Coeur d’Alene feels crowded. During eagle season, the roads around Wolf Lodge are jammed with cars and people walking the trails near Higgens Point to catch a glimpse of the birds. However, on my recent visit to Pend Oreille I saw only one other boat.
I stood on the beach at Granite Creek, alone except for the eagles and paused for just a moment, looked out across the lake and said “Wow.”
The eagles will spend the winter on the lakes of North Idaho, and by mid-January they will move south.