The sun catches the water in a jade explosion of resting pools and tumbling sluiceways. Just a few miles back, in the shadows covering the single-track trail into the Selkirks, a gangly black bear raced across an overgrown logging road. Nuthatches twirled songs just above our heads. Squadrons of yellow jackets dive-bombed our sweaty bodies.
Mark Sprengel plops down in the sun, chugs some water and chews on trail mix.
"It's a special spot," he says. "My wife insists that I get people on this trail, and I'm torn, really, between keeping it little-known and getting more people to see exactly what we have up here."
For three decades, Sprengel has worked almost ever angle of conservation, environmentalism and wildlife advocacy as forestry advisor and now executive director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance.
"I honestly think I could die now with a sense of gratitude that I lived my life doing what I've wanted to do by receiving these incredible gifts in nature," says the 58-year-old ex-Michiganite.
Sprengel ended up in Priest River 30 years ago on a whim, trying to find a remote piece of land for building a cabin and getting into nature. It took him less than a year to rally around the cry for conservation of Priest Lake, the Selkirks and the little-known woodland caribou that forage through the region.
Sprengel's line of work, however, is fraught with detractors, who see the Selkirks -- also home to grizzlies, Canada lynx, wolverine, fisher, bull trout, wolves, bighorn sheep and coastal and boreal plants -- as prime for intensive logging, resort development, road building and off-road motorized recreation.
To some of his neighbors, his work gets whittled down to one simple descriptor -- filer of lawsuits.
But there's more to it than that. Sprengel has to keep board members informed, he has to raise money to keep his effort going -- and he has to work with the Idaho Department of Lands and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as resort owners and groups that really don't like his work, like the Idaho State Snowmobile Association.
Occasionally, things get personal. In business meetings, in the local press and during one-on-one public encounters with business owners and with those he labels as "motorheads," Sprengel's been cussed at and his physical well-being threatened. But he hasn't shrunk from the fight yet, and the battle has only intensified.
"The Selkirks are under assault from all sides," Sprengel says. "As Aldo Leopold said, the real obstacle to protecting wild country is 'the still unlovely human mind.' The schemes of developers will never end until we are willing to question and challenge the philosophical premises of our society. This is an integral component of our mission."
And SCA has inserted itself into a wide range of issues, from protecting woodland caribou to attempting to ban jet skis from Priest Lake.
The Selkirk/Priest Lake area represents a rarity in the lower 48 states -- it has the same species of wildlife and flora that Lewis and Clark encountered 200 years ago, including the woodland caribou.
Sprengel himself, along with several biologists and pilots, have spotted woodland caribou trekking through this area over the years. The caribou's apparitional character propels it into an area for a few years of calving and feeding, and then the herd moves on. Most sightings have taken place from a prop-driven plane.
The beauty of this particular herd -- hooked into the Selkirk range covering northeastern Washington, North Idaho and southeastern British Columbia -- is its tenacity in holding on despite a dwindling range. Sprengel and others, however, don't think they'll be able to beat the odds for long. Based on the reports, three dozen caribou are hanging by a hoof in the Selkirk Caribou Recovery Area.
On our hike, we continue up a little-known area toward an alpine lake. We encounter variations of species of sedge, arrow-leaved groundsel, lupine, arnica, Indian hellebore, western pasqueflower, white marsh marigold and paintbrush dazzle.
We're going to visit one of SCA's recent success stories. State officials agreed with the SCA to block off snowmobile access to this trail leading high up to where caribou, moose, grizzly bear, lynx and native bull trout spend their lives.
We move quickly up a hard-going trail, and -- lo and behold -- even with the double-layered gauntlets of concrete barriers across the trailhead four miles behind us -- we encounter fresh motorcycle tracks.
"You have to give it to this guy for his tenacity," Sprengel says of the rogue motorcyclist while showing me a washed-out section of soil and a slide into critical cutthroat trout breeding areas of Two-Mouth Creek.
Because of the woodland caribou's less-than-complex constitution, the winter diet puts caribou in a precarious balancing act of living on a little. Females are gestating or calving during part of the winter, so human intrusions on snowmobiles can do great harm to mother and calf, Sprengel says.
And recently federal judge Robert Whaley agreed, banning snowmobiling in the Woodland Caribou Recovery Area of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.
Mucking for Milfoil
Later, we make our way along the west side of Priest Lake for a rendezvous at Granite Creek Marina, where resort co-owner Melissa Quilter has donated time, a power boat and gasoline for milfoil monitoring of more than a dozen parts of the lake.
Along the way, Sprengel discusses the struggle environmentalists have when they face the all-growth-is-good mentality of a place like Priest River. When the discussion shifts to Eurasian milfoil, Sprengel says it has, surprisingly, become a bridge-builder between the SCA and local resort owners.
"No one is for milfoil," he says with a laugh.
SCA's volunteers, the Idaho Eurasian Milfoil Taskforce and resort operators like Melissa Quilter and her husband Mike are motivated to stop the spread of the aquatic plant, which was first found in the Pacific Northwest in 1965 in a lake near Seattle. Waterfront property owners and others living near Priest Lake are forming coalitions to combat the invasive weed, which can upset the ecological balance of a lake.
Using herbicides such as 2,4-D or Sonar is one controversial method to try to combat the weed -- state and local officials started using herbicides to treat milfoil on Lake Pend Oreille this past summer.
While we spend hours on the lake carefully raking and diving for samples, it becomes clear that even a noxious weed that everyone hates may stir up even more controversy. While we pull up samples of Eurasian milfoil at places like Bear Creek Bay and near Kaniksu Resort, and after hitting other locations such as public boat launches at Cavanaugh Bay and Indian Creek State Park, it appears to us that one way milfoil gets churned up and spread is by jet skis and wave runners.
Quilter says she would like to see restrictions placed on how many and where personal watercrafts are allowed on the lake; Sprengel would like to see them banned altogether on Priest Lake.
Grappling With Growth
Sprengel has calibrated almost every aspect of the land he hikes.
"I wanted to learn how to build a house using hand tools," he says of his first project. That was 28 years ago, and the primitive place he built has been expanded after he tied the knot seven years ago with Deborah, a surgical nurse who commutes to Sandpoint from their Hoodoo Mountain retreat. After more than 28 years, the house now has flush toilets, hot water and a propane stove -- but no electricity.
In addition, Sprengel has worked in factories and as a ranch hand, logger and carpenter. But he still laments the fact that he still can't go into a room of loggers and fit in.
"You're outed immediately," he says, adding that he agrees with them more often than anyone would think and sympathizes with them always. He also thinks everyone who has lived in the area for very long is asking the same questions about all the growth that is coming into the Priest Lake/Selkirk area.
Sprengel says more and more people are questioning what has been conventional wisdom for years, that "growth is inevitable ... any kind of growth is good for the economy ... humans selling, renting, fixing and renting snowmobiles trump any kind of wildlife or science supporting it."
That, of course, puts Sprengel on a collision course with developers and business groups who want more land for trophy homes and sprawling lakeside subdivisions.
While he disagrees with the inevitable social, cultural and environmental impacts of all these people moving into the Priest Lake area, he can still muster sympathy for loggers -- some of whom have come to him saying they'd love to make their living demolishing old lumber roads.
"I look at the guy with three kids to feed, a wife, a car payment, and you have to take what you can from him," Sprengel says. "Not many choices exist for him."
He hopes bridges can be built, but he's pragmatic and sanguine, too.
"As a culture, we've lost touch with our bodies," Sprengel says. "We don't know what good pain is -- what marching up a steep hillside feels like. We need to start speaking forcefully, no matter who we offend."