Cruising Lake Pend Oreille with Bald Eagles and Specialty Cheeses

DSC_0084For nineteen years, the Shawnodese has been getting its hull wet on long summer nights in the waters of Lake Pend Oreille. For nineteen long years, it’s been slicing through waters at sunset, zipping around inlets, sharing northern Idaho’s natural world and glimpses of the majestic wings of bald eagles; and for nineteen years, it’s been born again and again, with old parts giving way to new parts. But it wasn’t always here, in this lake, in this pastoral, even-tempered lake village in the Idaho panhandle, just miles from the Canadian border.

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Like me, this ship has had quite the journey to get here. Like me, it’s somewhat of an Idaho newbie, a transplant brought here because of someone else’s deep and abiding love for the area (though, unlike the boat, I wasn’t bought for parts). Like me, it has found love here, been lucky enough to have found a family that spends its summers here on the lakes scattered throughout the lush, green region.

The Shawnodese was originally built in 1966 in San Diego and commissioned as a charter boat from the mainland to Coronado Island. Then, it was sold and sent to Lake Mead as a tour and fishing boat, where it carried families and their loved ones around the lake for a few years until it was sold, again, to a company in San Francisco. After a brief stint in the Bay Area, where it spent its days transporting crew personnel out to larger ships, it was finally stripped and shipped up to Idaho as part of a settlement in the early 1980s. And then it sat. And waited. And waited.

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The ship sat for ten long years, waiting for the owner to refurbish it, give it life again, lets its rudder touch the water and show it the clear, cool waters of northern Idaho’s great lakes. Fifteen tons of aluminum, wood, and metal sat, rusting and waiting.

That’s when Curtis and Linda found it.

As they tell it, the couple bought it for just the price of the hull, hauled it home to their Sandpoint home on a makeshift trailer, and started coming up with designs and renovations that the U.S. Coast Guard would approve. Six to eight months later, they received the approval they had been waiting for, and took the next two years completing the renovations themselves. They put in a new engine (a diesel) and out-drive for better steering capabilities, and they installed new plumbing. They constructed a fully-enclosed lower deck to complement the open-air upper deck, and they added a mahogany interior to give a softer, less sterile feel to the aluminum casing.

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So in 1995, nearly thirty years after its first journey, the Shawnodese touched water again. Nineteen years later, we are here on a dessert cruise, sitting with perhaps twenty or so eclectic bird-lovers with binoculars poised by their eyes and bird-watching guidebooks in their laps.

The cruise, which is only one of the many they offer throughout the summer months, includes a two-hour ride around Lake Pend Oreille with live narration and unobtrusive stops at bird-watching hotspots (there is a 90% success rate seeing bald eagles, and after having gone on this trip and seen over ten of them, I can fully attest to their statistic!). While Linda shares her extensive knowledge of the birds’ lives, loves, and eccentricities, the staff brings around either appetizers—we chose the crackers and cheese plate—or sweets such as ice cream, cheesecake, brownies. They also offer a for-sale beverage menu, including local beers from microbreweries in the region, sodas, water, and juices.

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Though I’ve never really been a bird enthusiast and the average age of the participant is definitely a few decades our senior, my husband Ryan and I are excited to learn more about the nesting, hunting, and family lives of bald eagles.

As the boat departs and moves into the clear waters, we see so many cabins of varying architectural styles, from traditional log cabin to hyper-modern (and yes, you’ll even drive by a real live castle). Not minutes after we hit open waters, Linda starts pointing out spots in the trees where bald eagles are nesting, sitting, sleeping, and caring for their babies. She points to one waddling around down by the shore, and another majestically flying through the sky, its wings outstretched and caught perfectly in the wind. All of the guests are turning their heads with each one Linda points out, exchanging binoculars, hurriedly enjoying their appetizer or dessert, and talking excitedly about mating rituals, babies, and nesting habits of these beautiful creatures. It’s an infectious space, as everyone here is a bonafide bird lover, lovingly connected, in some way, to nature’s great animals. Ryan and I strike up conversations with our seated neighbors, and we talk about our relationship to Idaho, share our travels around the world, debate our favorite national and state parks, and exchange advice for viewing animals in nature. Up here in the panhandle, it’s not just bald eagles aplenty: there are deer, moose, mountain lions, critters, and other small animals.

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And as I mentioned, I felt a certain kinship with this ship, the well-traveled Shawnodese. Our journeys were long to get here, and we’re now here out of someone’s love. Though it hasn’t yet been nineteen years, this evening just so happens to be my husband’s and my one-year wedding anniversary. Exactly one year ago, we were getting married in San Diego, where, just like the ship we’re cruising back into the harbor on, our journey started, too.

In fact, at the moment we said our vows, the sun was just beginning to set over the Pacific Ocean, just minutes away from where the boat we’re on now was once crossing the harbors to Coronado.

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The cruise we took, the summer Sunset Dessert & Eagle Watching Cruise, which costs $27 per person ($25 for seniors and $22 for children) runs from 6:30-8:30 p.m. June through August 16th and 6:00-8:00 p.m. August 18th  through early September. However, there are plenty of other cruises you can take throughout the year–check their website to find one that interests you! To contact Lake Pend Oreille Cruises or make your own reservation, you can call them at (208) 255- LAKE. Summer cruises depart from the marina at Sandpoint City Beach. We stayed the night at Talus Rock Retreat–just a mile from downtown Sandpoint and a few miles from the dock–and loved every minute of it.

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Article and all photographs by Kristin Winet.

A special thanks to Lake Pend Oreille Cruises for hosting our cruise.

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