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  In Nature’s beautifully composed statements of mountains and water, they’re the exclamation points. Some were carved out of granite by glaciers; others eroded from the same rock by prehistoric floods; and still more were formed over thousands of years by the patient deposition of gravel and silt by rivers.

  These are the islands of North Idaho: The legacy of an ice age in which glaciers covered all but the tallest peaks in Canada with a frozen sheet and reached down into the Panhandle at their southernmost edge. It’s all about the glaciers.

  The vast ice sheet ended just south of where Lake Pend Oreille is today. The ice had moved south down the Purcell Trench – that wide valley that runs directly north from Sandpoint.
The Purcell Glacier followed the Trench until it opened up in a wide valley where Lake Pend Oreille is today. The ice continued its progress south, dividing into several lobes.

  One southeast-pointing lobe, more than 2,000 feet high, moved across the mouth of the Clark Fork River and created a ice dam that impounded more than 500 cubic miles of water
behind it – Glacial Lake Missoula.

  As the ice age ended and the climate warmed, this ice dam suddenly failed about 13,000 years ago and sent a wall of water 50 stories high across the Idaho Panhandle and on across Washington and Oregon to the sea. Most of the water rushed through the south end of Lake Pend Oreille, scouring the landscape flat to create the Rathdrum Prairie. The big lake itself was left impounded by a giant glacial moraine of gravel and rocks.

  A smaller branch of the flood ripped directly eastward through an ancient river valley, cutting a path for today’s Pend Oreille River. To the north, another, smaller glacier carved out Priest Lake along the horseshoe-shaped Newport Fault.

  The violence of the great flood left islands in Lake Pend Oreille, but never far from shore and not in its once-turbulent southern expanse. By contrast, Priest Lake’s islands were the remains of a glacier’s retreat that left several large islands in the south of that much-shallower lake.

  Lake Coeur d’Alene wasn’t scooped out by a glacier, but was created when a large deposit from the Purcell Glacier dammed the St. Joe River and flooded its valley. Lake Coeur d’Alene is devoid of islands, although several can be found along its tributary rivers.

  Nine islands are scattered across the southern two-thirds of Priest Lake. Most are included in the Kaniksu National Forest and are managed by the Priest Lake Ranger District for public use. The largest and most popular island is Kalispell, at 264 acres,

  Although it’s long been federal property, Kalispell Island once had a bunch of private cabins on leased sites. Beginning in the 1960s, the lease permits were not renewed, and the last of the cabin owners moved out in the 1980s. One of the old structures remains, and is used as a host cabin in the summer, staffed by volunteers.

  A 2.5-mile loop trail encircles Kalispell Island. The tooth-shaped island – a molar, actually, complete with curved roots – has 13 camping areas and two day-use areas, all located along the beaches and coves of the shoreline. Fees are charged for the overnight camping sites from June 15 to Sept. 1.

  There are 52 campsites in all, with a limit of 10 people per site. All sites are allotted on a first-come, first-served basis. The Cottonwood camping site on Kalispell is larger, and can be reserved for big groups by contacting the District office.

A view from Kalispell Island from the shore of Priest Lake

  There are rules, such as a two-week limit on stays and a “pack it in – pack it out” policy on garbage. Six of the sites have no vault toilets,
so campers are required to bring their own portable units, clearly labeled with the owner’s name, address, telephone number and driver’s license number.

  A mile and quarter to the south is a companion island, Bartoo, at 219 acres a little smaller than Kalispell. Bartoo Island has a large chunk of private property roughly in the middle and lacks a loop trail. Tiny, rocky Papoose Island sits midway between Kalispell and Bartoo.

  Camping fees are collected at the Kalispell Boat Launch, 1.5 miles east of Highway 57 on Priest Lake’s west shore, or can be paid at the island’s fee collection tubes. Open camp sites at both Kalispell and Bartoo islands can be checked at the boat launch, which also features
a handy “SCAT machine” that automatically empties and cleans portable toilets.

  Information on visiting Kalispell and Bartoo islands, as well as smaller islands and other lake side campgrounds in the area, can be found at the Priest Lake Ranger District’s Web site,

Priest Lake, or by calling

  Lake Pend Oreille has only one surface- water outlet – the Pend Oreille River that winds west to the Washington state line, then north into Canada, where it joins the mighty Columbia River just across the border.

  The native Kalipspell inhabited the area around Lake Pend Oreille and along the Pend Oreille River. Along with spots at the mouth of the Clark Fork River and Qapqape’ – where Sandpoint is today – one of their primary camps was Shwe wi, at the site of the present Albeni Falls Dam. (West of Priest River)

  Shwe wi was a unique spot, where the river necked-down to tumble between two rocky islands and several jagged outcroppings, creating powerful falls that attracted Kalispells, missionaries and white pioneers alike. If the islands ever had names, no chronicler ever recorded them.

  In 1886, a young French Canadian named Albeni Poirier built a cabin on the spot and operated a series of businesses built around the falls, including a small farm, ferry, hotel – and, of course, a saloon. By this time, Shwe wi was popularly known as “Albeni Falls.”

  The falls were spectacular, but the constriction caused winter and spring flooding far upstream in high-water years. Plans for a hydroelectric dam at Albeni Falls had been proposed since the 1920s. Opposition to the dam was strong in Sandpoint and Bonner County, where politicians, business people and farmers joined in protest. They believed the dam would flood homes and ruin farmland.

  Pushed by World War II concerns of electrical power and food shortages, new dams were seen as vital to the national interest and showpieces of American know-how. The Albeni Falls project got the go-ahead, but not in time to contribute to the war effort.

  Construction began in January of 1951. Plans called for the dam’s power house to extend from the north bank of the river to the northern “Rock Island,” which remains as part of the complex. The second, southern island had to go, to make room for the dam itself.

  On March 19, 1951, three tons of dynamite obliterated the island in a single blast that impressed even longtime demolition workers. No trace of the doomed island can be seen today, although its ponderous chunks never were removed and are somewhere downstream of the dam in the deep, narrow channel of the Pend Oreille River.

  The dam began regulating the level of Lake Pend Oreille in June 1952, although it would be nearly three more years until the first generator would turn and start producing electricity. The lake now is set at around 2,062.5 feet for maximum
summer level, and is drawn-down in the winter to allow for spring runoff. This reversed the natural pattern of the lake, which typically saw high water in late winter and spring, and lowered during the summer and fall.

  Excess water flows under the 90-foot-high dam, beneath 10 gigantic gates raised and lowered by a rail-mounted crane. A unique tunnel-and-flume log chute, used only briefly in the dam’s early days, remains and could be resurrected as a fish ladder.

  Today, the controversy that once surrounded Albeni Falls Dam is almost forgotten. Annual electrical power generation is equal to 4.9 million barrels of oil, which at current world prices amounts to more than $36 million – more than 10 times the dam’s original $34 million cost.

Albeni Falls Dam today     

   Explosives are laid to make room for Albeni Falls Dam

The Twin Islands, Cottage & Pearl

  There’s a Visitor Center, with four, 45-minute, drop-in tours available each day, June through August. Schools and other groups can schedule tours by calling

  A dozen or so islands dot Lake Pend Oreille’s eastern and northern shores. All are private property. There are no islands in the entire
southern half of the lake, where the ancient flood of Glacial Lake Missoula washed everything away and the bottom slopes steeply to a depth of more than 1,200 feet.

  A group of four wooded islands near Hope – Warren, Cottage, Pearl and Memaloose – define for most people what Lake Pend Oreille islands should look like. A lucky few actually get to set foot on these rocky wonders: even fewer call them home.

  Cottage Island is a private place, and Douglas Bopp wants it to stay that way. He became the owner of the 8.25-acre property on his birthday in October 1980.

Over the years, the island had passed through several buyers since the original owner, the railroad, sold it for a rumored $500. Today, the island actually belongs to Bopp’s three sons via a trust.

  Boaters looking for a party place or a camping spot are warned not to land by several large signs. Bopp family members are on the island most days of the week. They visit and stay on the island year-round, as the surrounding
deep water stays ice-free.

  “It’s absolutely private,” Bopp says. “I hate ‘no trespassing signs,’ but we had to do it, because it was just starting to get overrun by people when there was nobody living on it.”

  Cottage Island is about two-thirds of a mile from the nearest mainland shore, Hope Point. Nearby Pearl Island is to the west, another half-mile further out. Similar in size to Cottage Island, Pearl also is privately owned, but currently is set aside as an eagle sanctuary.

  Several structures are on Cottage Island. A concrete block shop building is right down on the water – “You couldn’t even think of doing that today,” Bopp says – as well as an old cottage, chicken coops and a float house that broke loose in a 1948 flood and now sits high and dry there.

  Most of the current structures will be removed, perhaps someday to be replaced by a new small house and a pavilion for weddings and other family events. Currently, there’s no electrical service to the island and no septic system, just an old-fashioned outhouse.

  “We worry about fire, more than anything else,” Bopp says. “Reducing the fire hazard, that’s our big trip right now. Lightning strikes that place quite often, and the fire danger’s always present.”

  Islands in the 10-acre size range and convenient to civilization can sell for $12 million or more, but the future won’t bring many changes to the look, feel or ownership of Cottage Island, as long as Douglas Bopp has a voice in the matter.

  “We really don’t care what it’s worth or what we paid for it or anything,” he says. It’s going to stay in our family and we feel very blessed and fortunate to have it. We’re just gonna take care of it.”

A peak at Cottage Island

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