Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Night 59° Clear
Sports >  Outdoors

Spokane paddler copes with self-distancing by circumnavigating North Idaho’s ‘Big Three’ lakes

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

While many people found themselves wandering in circles to get their bearings during the 2020 year of COVID-19, a Spokane retiree with a plastic kayak gave the pandemic a purpose.

Julie Goltz took protocols for self-distancing to a higher calling by linking short outings to circumnavigate lakes Pend Oreille and Coeur d’Alene.

The Spokane grandma wasn’t trying to set any records. Her goals were to cope and connect.

The seed had been planted in the 1990s when she paddled the shorelines of Priest and Upper Priest lakes. Last year, with the pandemic limiting their travel planning, Goltz was urged by her husband to shoot for bagging North Idaho’s “Big Three.”

With one down and two to go, she went for it, starting with Lake Pend Oreille in the summer and finishing Lake Coeur d’Alene in November and December.

The more she paddled, the more Goltz realized how little she knew about these local lakes until she muscled into no-name bays at a human-powered pace.

“You get to know the shoreline and the landmarks at a different level,” she said. “Each lake has its own character.”

The paddling quest hatched two decades ago during her frequent visits to family property at Priest Lake. At that time, she was working with the Selkirk Conservation Alliance on the expanding issue of Eurasian watermilfoil. She and others had volunteered to assist the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality in mapping the weed’s invasion in the lake’s clear waters.

Her two children were still at home and she had a job, so the most practical course was to link short segments of shoreline as opportunities arose.

“When I got an opening, and the weather was good, I’d get on the water around 6 in the morning and get off about 10 before the lake got really busy,” she said. “Whenever possible, I would nose the kayak up feeder streams, such as Soldier Creek, to get a taste of what they were like before turning back to the lake.”

At a paddler’s pace, she mapped milfoil infestations and noticed other details, such as the fuzzy algae on shoreline rocks indicating stretches of development that weren’t hooked up to the sewer system.

Priest Lake is nearly 20 miles long plus the 13-mile round trip to go up The Thorofare to the north end of Upper Priest Lake, her favorite paddling stretch. Adding her interest to paddle around the islands, she racked up about 90 miles in her first Priest Lake circumnavigation effort.

Then she did it again a few years later with her husband, Kent Larson. They parked their plastic boats, borrowed sleek fiberglass sea kayaks and paddled “the Priests” and the islands in a three-day camping trip.

“The lake wasn’t so busy two decades ago after Labor Day,” she said. “Our last night we were the only ones camping at Kalispell Island. We had glassy water the entire time and got off the lake just before a huge storm hit. Perfect.”

Those fond memories surfaced this summer as she sought to remain active while adhering to pandemic precautions. She decided to live large, first setting her sights on Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s biggest lake at 43 miles long with 111 miles of shoreline. (It’s also Idaho’s deepest, dipping to 1,158 feet.)

“We have a small cabin on Pend Oreille,” she said. “I’ve spent enough time there to see how the wind can whip up 4-foot waves. There are long stretches of undeveloped shoreline that’s so steep or rough you don’t have many options to pull out. The wind can come out of nowhere.”

She rallied her courage as she gave in to her longing for more intimacy with the lake, inspired by a New York Times story by a Swedish photojournalist who gained fame by jetting around the globe. When last year’s travel restrictions prompted him to check out the world close to home, he was amazed at what he’d been missing.

“He found rewards for applying a worldly level of curiosity and engagement on a local level,” Goltz said.

She generally planned her outings for good weather windows and avoided epic mileages. Her emphasis was on discovery rather times or distances.

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed,” she said. “I’m not trying to prove anything. I love being on the water.

“Often, I go alone. Sometimes, Kent will drop me off, drive to the designated take-out spot and paddle toward me so we can finish together. Sometimes, he would pick me up by boat at take-outs that were accessible only by water.”

She would track her excursions on a GPS app, logging the progress to her goal day by day. She packed along a phone, food, water and a dry bag with a change of clothing .

“I found myself learning something each time out, but also wishing I knew more, especially about geology. I need to know more about Pend Oreille and the Purcell Trench.”

She paddled about 5 hours to cover 18 miles from Idlewilde Bay north to Talache (Landing). “This was clearly one of the areas that attracted people trying to get outdoors and escape the COVID blues,” she said. “From my socially distant perspective on the water, I saw lots of people out having a good time around Farragut State Park as well as near Sandpoint and Hope.

“Beyond those areas, the lake was amazingly quiet. I was taken by how little I was affected by boat traffic, even during summer.”

But from her kayak she had some fine uninterrupted critter company, including three playful otters frolicking in Martin Bay. Dozens of Western grebes entertained her with their diving in Denton Slough, where she also visited the bear paw petroglyphs.

Loons in four places on the big lake mesmerized her with their songs.

“The call of a loon hearkens back to my childhood in northern Minnesota,” she said. “It’s visceral to me. At the south end of Lake Pend Oreille near Echo Bay, two loons put on quite a show, as though they were showing off.”

Despite cherry-picking good-weather paddling days, Goltz recalls the stiff wind she encountered heading north around Cape Horn.

“Wind takes on new meaning when you’re along a shoreline where it’s not easy to pull out in an emergency,” she said. “I had a little wind battle going there for a while. Kent and I had set Maiden Rock as a bail-out option, but it let up farther north and I said to myself, ‘I can do this.’ ”

Navigating shorelines isn’t always straightforward, especially on Pend Oreille, where Goltz paddled a few extra miles finding designated take-out spots in areas such as Pack River Flat. The leg from Trestle Creek through the Clark Fork Delta ran up to 21 miles as she negotiated dead-end channels among the islands.

“Some people in a small fishing boat were leaving the delta and they said they recognized I was disoriented because they’d had the same experience hitting dead ends. They led me out of the maze and got me to the right channel.”

One of her most memorable views on Pend Oreille came as she circled Memaloose Island south of Hope.

“I could look northwest to the Selkirk Mountains and southwest to the southern end of the lake,” she said. “Just a fabulous long view.”

But it was the east side of Lake Pend Oreille that captured Goltz’s heart.

“I love the dramatic, steep shoreline along the Green Monarch Ridge downlake to Graham Point,” she said. “The whole east side is so dramatic. I’m awed by being in a kayak there and feeling so small.”

In contrast to the sunny, warm days of paddling Lake Pend Oreille during summer, Goltz zeroed in on Lake Coeur d’Alene in the chill of November and December, after the annual fall drawdown. She found herself temporarily stuck in the mud while trying to paddle out of Mica Bay and had to alter routes in December to avoid areas locked in ice.

But winter rewarded her with solitude on a lake that can buzz with watercraft traffic during summer.

“It was magical,” she said. “One day I saw hundreds and hundreds of geese, but no boats.

“I was conservative. I don’t have all the techy gear like a dry suit or a fast kayak.” Dressed in clothes she might wear skiing on a cold day, she found comfort in the exertion of paddling icy winter waters. Sometimes, however, she wondered …

“I had to push myself on the ice for a bit out of Kidd Island Bay until it started to break up and I could use my paddle more effectively breaking through the ice, then the slush until open water,” she said.

“That was my shortest paddle day, on into Cougar Bay and out by North Idaho College. It was also one of the days the wind picked up, changing to white caps, so I was grateful to tuck in and paddle behind the docks at Hagadone’s marina.”

Lake Coeur d’Alene, which has the least public land of the Big Three and the highest ratio of gigantic shoreline homes, is 26 miles long but about 135 miles of shoreline owing to several extensive bays such as Windy, Mica and Wolf Lodge .

“Kent became an expert in navigating the backroads around Coeur d’Alene, where a lot of roads dead end at private property,” Goltz said.

Goltz learned to reroute because of lake ice.

“Some of the shorelines simply weren’t accessible in December,” she said.

Goltz doesn’t wear ear buds to listen to recordings as she solo paddles, preferring to hear the music of the wind and waterfowl. But she enjoyed the musician she heard drumming on two different occasions, once near Tubbs Hill and once in Cougar Bay.

“The drumming was an unexpected treat,” she said.

She also fondly recalls an encounter with a waterfowl hunter on her last day of paddling and detouring around ice. As she passed his boat-blind set up in the middle of a channel, the friendly man helped her verify which of two distant features was Beedle Point, the official south end of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

On her return, she greeted the hunter again.

“Then my back was to him as I paddled east to touch the other shore before returning to Conkling Marina for the take-out,” she said. “I was quite surprised to see him continuing to row up-lake, passing the marina.

“I’m not sure why he wasn’t using his outboard motor, but it was a beautiful scene to see the distant rower on that glassy flat December water.”

It was just another encounter to add to her awareness of her immediate world.

“I found out there’s so much right here and we don’t know it,” she said. “We live in an extraordinary area, but we have to push ourselves to experience it.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the sports newsletter

Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.