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Sandpoint, Idaho and Lake Pend Oreille…

Posted by on August 22, 2014
aquaman swimming

The Lodge at Sandpoint, Idaho. Seaplanes are common in the Northwest. Many popular fishing and hunting destinations are so remote that taking a small plane is the only way to get there.

AUGUST 22, 2014. Sandpoint, Idaho, an easy drive from Spokane, is a town on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s largest lake. It’s pronounced “Ponderay,” and that’s what the locals call it: Lake Ponderay. Rand McNally and USA Today have each given Sandpoint the distinction of being named the nation’s “Most Beautiful Small Town.” That’s good enough for me…we’re going to stay a few days and look around. Some of the areas near here are truly wilderness…unspoiled and far, far away from the beaten track. In fact, Idaho contains more wilderness acreage than any other state in the lower 48. The state’s peaks reach to almost 13,000 feet and its rivers provide more than 3,000 miles of white water. An astounding 22 million acres of the state’s total acreage remains forested. Idaho’s highly regarded former senator Frank Church once said, “I never knew a man who felt self-important in the morning after spending a night in the open on an Idaho mountainside.” We’re not planning to spend the night on a mountainside, mind you, but the landscape is so breathtakingly beautiful that if does put things in perspective.


Sandpoint, Idaho Train Depot. You know I love to cook and you know I’m a storm-watcher. But did you know that I’m also a “Rail Buff?” Yep, that’s what we call ourselves…”Rail Buffs” or “Railfan’s.”

IDAHO IS AN OUTDOORS KIND OF STATE, with a big game population that includes elk, moose, woodland caribou, mule and white-tailed deer, cougar, black and grizzly bear and bighorn sheep. The state’s elk, moose and deer hunting reputation is world-class, and opportunities abound to hunt waterfowl and upland birds. Hunting in Sandpoint occurs often on state or national forests. Because big game hunting here is typically on remote mountains…almost 3 million acres in Northern Idaho are within national forests…back country camping is often the key to harvest success.


The Whizpops…live and in person at the Bonner County Fair. Whoo-hoo!

I LOVE COUNTY FAIRS…especially the small ones like the Bonner County Fair in Sandpoint. Our visit to town was just in time…the Fair is closing Saturday after its grand finale: the Destruction Derby. This is the highlight of the year…the local have been eagerly anticipating it for months. Unfortunately, we’ll have to miss the Derby, but we did make it to the fair on a day when the top-billed local band was playing: “The Whizpops.” That’s right folks, we are now among the lucky few who’ve seen the “Pops” live on stage. Sorta’ like being in the audience at the Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles first came to America, right? Well, almost.

THIS TOWN IS A RAILFAN’S DREAM. For a train buff like me, this town is tops! It offers a unique blend of rail lore, spectacular scenery and one of the busiest mainline viewpoints for freight trains in the Northwest. Known in the railroad community as “The Funnel,” Sandpoint is at the convergence of four major rail lines. As many as 100 trains rumble through town every day. No matter where you are in Sandpoint, you’re sure to hear the haunting horns of the trains passing through the night. Sandpoint is truly a railfan’s town.

Vantage points for taking photos of the trains abound. Railroad crossings at little country roads, flanked by pine trees and meadows. Soaring hawks. Osprey circling the lake, hoping for fish. Deer quietly meandering about, seemingly oblivious to the steel giants crossing the trestle over the water. This is the landscape. This is where I’m going to attempt some blue ribbon photos. I’ll post them here once I’ve perfected and assembled them. If they’re good enough, perhaps I’ll enter a few of them in a photography contest at the next little county fair we attend!


Amtrak’s Empire Builder line across the country makes only one stop in Idaho…at the Sandpoint depot.

SANDPOINT’S AMTRAK STATION.  Passengers still use the original white tiled waiting room before boarding Amtrak’s Empire Builder to travel east to Chicago or west to Seattle or Portland. This is the only stop Amtrak makes in the state of Idaho. Pictured above, this station is the oldest depot of the former Northern Pacific Railway. Railroads stood to make money from tourism, so they promoted the creation of National Parks and built hotels and lodges along their routes to lure tourists to see the beauty of the west from the comfort of their luxuriously-appointed trains. The Northern Pacific railroad promoted Yellowstone National Park as a destination even before it became our first National Park on March 1, 1872. The station is flanked by new condominiums on one side and a major road on the other. The station stands as an island of history between these signs of increased traffic and population growth in town.


AUGUST 30, 2014. LET’S GO TRAIN-WATCHING. I’m becoming quite a train-enthusiast…a “train buff” or “railfan” if you will. So, instead of train-watching I might say: “Lets go railfanning.” Anyhow, if you like trains Sandpoint is the place to be. This morning seemed like a good time to go looking for trains, so I grabbed a camp chair, my camera and a cigar and jumped into the Jeep. I headed across the road to one of Idaho’s ever-so-popular drive-through coffee shacks on the corner. Just a few minutes later, armed with a tall Americano, I turned off the highway and drove about 5 miles to a spot I decided would be a good vantage point. I pulled off the road near the tracks, lit my cigar and sat down to wait. If I’d had a morning paper I’d have read it. But I didn’t. And anyhow, the local paper…the “Bonner County Daily Bee” wouldn’t have occupied me for long.  I’ve read it…it’s a fun read but not very substantive. Typical small town paper.

trainclipartTWO REQUIREMENTS. Now, here’s the thing about train-watching. First, you must have good ears. If you can’t hear an approaching train from quite a distance, you don’t have time to set your camera before it’s too late… and the train’s upon you. Remember, a “Kodak moment” when shooting a moving train doesn’t last nearly a moment! Fortunately I’m blessed with great hearing, so the first requirement is not a problem. Second, you must be patient. This one’s a little tougher for me. Hence the one-hour-length cigar. I figure if I’ve not “scored” by the time I’ve finished the smoke, it’s just not meant to be for that particular outing.

I SCORED! Fortunately, just as I was getting ready to pack up the Jeep, I heard that old familiar train whistle in the distance…probably two or three miles away. I’m good. This takes training and practice. You can’t expect to just go out train-watching on your first day and hear ’em that far away. Just keep practicing and one day you’ll get good at it like I am.  Unfortunately, the approaching train was not traveling in the direction best suited for my intended photo, but hey, you take what you get, right? So, here are my photos, taken as the train screeched by on the steel rails before picking up speed as it left town. And yes, you guessed it. I gave the engineer the universal “pulled fist signal” and he obliged by offering an extra-long blast on the horn. I love it. This retirement business is great…I can act like a kid all over again and passers-by just assume that at my age I’m a bit senile. Oh my gosh, I wonder…


Here it is!


Here it comes!










SEPTEMBER 1, 2014.


The road to the National Wildlife Reserve.

NATIONAL WILDLIFE RESERVE. Today we drove about 35 miles north from Sandpoint to the little town of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. It’s just a bit south of the Canadian border. We stopped with our picnic lunch at a boat ramp area overlooking the river and enjoyed watching some fishermen returning from their day’s outing. One guy was complaining because he only caught eight fish. I guess he’s never fished anywhere I’ve been fishing. Eight fish in a day would be a record for me! I’d have been thrilled.

Signs announcing a National Wildlife Reserve caught our attention  and away we went, about 5 miles down an almost one-lane road until we came to this vast meadow-like area punctuated by a winding river and surrounded by a heavily wooded forest. There were no buildings other than a ranger station. Not a bad place to go to work every day, I’d say. The good news is that the area is beautiful and we enjoyed taking pictures there. The not-so-good news is that other than some large waterbirds too quick for me to photograph, we didn’t see any wildlife. For that matter we didn’t even see any domestic animals on this trip. Not a dog, cat or even a cow. I’m assured by those in the know that there are elk, moose, deer and about 25 other types of mammals roaming freely in the meadow area and surrounding woods. Must be true…we say lots of signs near the huckleberry bushes which stated: “Fruit reserved for animals.” No kidding. I guess we were there on an “off day.” Oh, well. I haven’t given up. Certainly somewhere along the way I’ll get some pictures of an honest-to-goodness wildlife specimen. We’ve got so much of this country left to explore that I’m not worried at all. If they’re out there, I’ll find ’em.

A PEEK AT MONTANA. Another 20 miles on the road and we crossed into the state of Montana. We stopped while Florence took pictures of some waterfalls on the river and while she was doing that I spoke with the girl at the information kiosk. I asked about bears. Here’s what I learned and what I didn’t learn. In this area there are both grizzley and black bears. In fact, I was told that anywhere in the stare of Montana when you see a wooded area…and that’s about the entire state…be assured that bears live there.


A view from the road at the Wildlife Reserve.

ENCOUNTERING A BEAR. Fooled you, didn’t I? You thought I encountered a bear. No such luck. But back to the girl at the information booth. I asked her what one should do if you encounter a bear on the trail or in the woods. Here were her tips…and I think this gal knows her stuff. First, if you see a cub, quietly lie down and play dead. Make not a peep and count silently to 800. If by then you’ve not been eaten, it’s safe to assume that mama bear assumed you were not a threat and she and her cub just kept on meandering down the path. Second, the rules are a bit different if you encounter either a black bear or a grizzley. With one type, you raise your arms and try to look as large as possible. With the other, you do just the opposite…you hunch your shoulders and look timid. Problem is I don’t remember which you should do with which type of bear. Further, I don’t know how to distinguish between a grizzley and a black bear…I’m told they can look almost identical. So I think I’ll just plan to make every effort not to come upon a bear. However, if my blog posts abruptly stop…


See the herd of Elk way out there in the distance? Nope, I didn’t either. All we saw all afternoon were water birds. I’m determined to see some elk, moose and bears. I’ll just keep looking…we’ve got all the time in the world.


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