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Chapter 15: Priest Lake




My dad carried the lantern into our tent where it cast huge, menacing shadows against the green walls. He hung it from a hook in the ceiling where it swayed with each gust of wind outside. Once we were in our flannel sleeping bags, he turned the gas off and the flame sputtered and dimmed until the tent was dark and silent. Sometimes I woke to flapping walls and shuddering poles as the entire tent seemed on the verge of collapse. My mom’s hands were splayed against the canvas, her face worried but determined to keep the walls up. I snuggled deeper into my warm bag and fell asleep.

My dad grew up camping around Puget Sound with his family, and when he met my mom he took her to his favorite spots on Dash Point and Fox Island. Even with two toddlers and a baby, my parents could still drive to nearby Lake Louise for a weekend canoeing and camping.

In the 1950s, camping was a great way for families to vacation together affordably and relatively comfortably, with the right gear. Public-funded campgrounds had picnic tables, shelters, clean water, bathrooms, designated campsites, and were free. After we moved to Spokane, the campgrounds at nearby Coeur d'Alene became so overcrowded it was difficult to get a site on a weekend. My family ventured further out, two hours away, to Priest Lake in the Idaho Panhandle. The Forest Service had built plenty of campsites around the nineteen-mile lake, including several on two large islands that could be accessed only by boat.

In 1965, my dad bought a Glastron Crestflite Stern Drive V-174 "runabout" speed boat made of the same fiberglass the military used for warships. My dad had loved boats since he was a kid, helping his father construct a wooden dinghy they used to fish around Puget Sound. His job at Johnny's Outboard Motors gave him knowledge and appreciation for boat engines, the faster the better. Glastron advertised its boats as “the smartest styled, most lavishly outfitted and smoothest riding 17-foot outboard afloat." News photos showed President Johnson driving a similar model at full throttle with Lady Bird and several glamorous friends beside him.

Like LBJ's model, our new boat was a creamy white trimmed with space-age brown chevrons on each side. The interior was also brown and cream with four full-size vinyl seats and two small rear seats at the back. It had a full windshield and chrome lights and it was built for speed.

Boat camping took a bit more preparation than car camping, and my dad had carved out an area in the garage for both the boat and the gear it required. Much of it was made by Coleman, which had become ubiquitous with outdoor recreation. We owned the latest Coleman suitcase style gas stove, globe lantern, insulated coolers and water jugs, and a large, cabin-style canvas tent that could easily fit a family of five, plus our Irish Setter.

Boxes were packed tight with spaghetti sauce and noodles, Bisquick pancake mix and Mrs. Buttersworth syrup, baked beans and Jimmy Dean sausage. My dad's stash of banana boxes were a source of deep satisfaction to him. Unlike most used boxes I saw in other people’s garages, Dad’s boxes were still firm and straight after years of use. The lids closed neatly over the bottoms, and the holes for the handles always matched up perfectly. They could be easily hoisted into the boat without fear of falling apart. Other people packed their boxes haphazardly so their contents shifted and rolled and occasionally spilled out of the top, but everything in Dad’s boxes nestled together like babies in their bunting.

He started by laying everything out in front of him and surveying the box size. He had a knack for estimating sizes, probably from years of creating advertising copy for Proctor and Gamble, and any wasted space meant repacking the entire box. He chose food boxes of the same size and lined them up together, then chose another box to lay sideways and take up the remaining two inches of space. It was a marvel to watch, had I been the least bit interested at the time. Instead, I fidgeted impatiently for us to be off to the lake while my parents loaded the boat and checked their lists.

We headed east on Highway 2 towards Newport at the border of Washington and Idaho, then hit Highway 57 north toward Priest Lake. Once we arrived at the Kalispell Bay Boat Launch, we swam nearby while my parents backed the boat in. My mom made sure we were far enough away to avoid being crushed beneath the wheel of either the car or the trailer. She then tied us into our orange life vests as though they were straight jackets, and would probably have used duct tape to strap us even more securely had it not been packed away in the bottom of one of the banana boxes. We held our collective breaths until the Evinrude motor sputtered to life and we started for Kalispell Island. The telltale sound of a dying motor meant my dad would take the cover off and spend what seemed like an unbearable amount of time tugging at hoses and bolts until he found the problem.

Selecting a campsite was the first task, and sometimes depended on what was available. Midway through our first summer we had met several other families and started a system of saving campsites for the weekend. One family would go to Priest Lake on Thursday before the weekend crowd and place a few boxes on the picnic tables and tent sites to save them for the rest of us. For their trouble, that family could choose a preferred site, with a large, protected area for the kitchen, a flat tent site, not too close or too far from the outhouse.

My parents kept a tidy campsite. The tent was secured with ropes, the kitchen covered by a large tarp, the dishes and food stored in boxes after each use. The stove was placed on a sturdy stand with the fuel cans a safe distance away, and only my dad was allowed to light it. He held his small wooden match to the burner and pumped the gas until it lit with a soft “whump." My mom boiled water for the noodles and heated tomato sauce while we set the table with aluminum plates and cups. Afterwards, she heated more water for the dishpan, and we washed and dried the dishes and returned them neatly in the box.

In the morning it was dad's turn to cook, and his specialty, just like at home, was pancakes. The Coleman griddle that fit on the stove only held two medium size pancakes, and we waited in line with our aluminum plates while each slowly turned brown. I had a particular love for pancakes and an unusual ability to eat more than most children my size, so it was difficult to wait for my two pancakes, then go to the end of the line for my next helping. Even in my frenzy I felt guilty as I watched Dad patiently dropping spoonfuls of batter on the griddle. If he hoped I would fill up and let him off the hook, he never let on.

The days were spent swimming and jumping off plastic mattresses while we waited our turn to water ski. My dad had cut down a pair of skis for beginners, but the learning curve was still steep. I remember a long, frustrating day bobbing in the water while my dad positioned the boat and waited for me to say "ready." He then jammed the boat into drive and I tried to remain upright while the skis flopped in opposite directions. Falling meant the spotter needed to reel in the rope while my dad circled close enough for them to throw it to me. I waited in the chilly water until I could catch the rope and get the skis back on and try again. I was easily frustrated with failure and sure that everyone in the boat was tired of my efforts, but my dad loved driving the boat so much he didn't really mind spending hours circling around a whining child. By the end of the day, every one of us managed to stay upright for one short turn around the bay, and my dad wrote our name and date on the skis.

When the sun went down on the island, families returned to their campsites as the light faded, the small glows from stoves and lanterns creating little pockets of warmth. The occasional night storm would be gone by the morning, leaving only the soft dripping of rain from the tent. But there were weekends when the storm settled in and we spent the morning underneath the tarp with the steady patter of rain above us. The men stood on the beach and watched the rolling waves toss the boats they had tied offshore the night before. They studied the sky, and looked across the lake toward the small town of Coolin. If they saw any brightening sky, they announced it was "clearing in Coolin" while the women laughed and shook their heads. If they were wrong we played cards in the tent and watched the wind beat at the island.

Coolin was one of several marinas on Priest Lake we visited when we needed gas or supplies or my dad just wanted to open up the throttle and speed across the lake. I always hoped the marina we chose would have a small store with candy and comic books. I had a large and growing collection of Archie comic books at home and was always on the lookout for a new issue. Usually the aisles would only be half full of dusty fishing lures, cans of spaghetti and baked beans, a few bottles of aspirin and shampoos, but sometimes there would be a rotating rack of comic books in the back of the store, and I searched through the Marvel superhero issues until I found the familiar faces of Archie, Veronica and Betty. My mom just sighed and gave me the dime to buy it.

Bad weather could spoil a weekend, but there were worse risks, and my mom knew them all. Drowning was always foremost in her mind, and we knew we should always swim within her sight. We had all taken swim lessons as soon as we reached the minimum age, and one of the most useful skills was treading water. I easily grasped the technique of using just enough energy to stay afloat, and could tread water for a long time without tiring. I never had the opportunity to find out the point in which I became tired. The instructor blew the whistle to indicate I had passed the minimum time, though I felt just as full of energy as when I started. But my mom, not a strong swimmer herself, was a vigilant presence on the beach, her eyes constantly scanning the water and counting heads.

When our youngest cousin Kari had her turn for a week at Priest Lake, we noticed while we were unloading the boat that she was missing. My mom's vigilance turned to panic as she raced up and down the beach calling her name until she walked down the trail after visiting the outhouse, confused at our relief. Her mom, my aunt, was not a worrier, which irritated my mom. She told me how when her younger son got sick, my aunt delayed taking him to the doctor, then found out he had meningitis. My mom resented her for having avoided what could have been a tragedy through luck rather than vigilance.

One weekend, when we were camping by ourselves, a black bear found its way onto the island. My mom looked up from preparing lunch to see its lumbering presence circling the same outhouse my sister was using. My mom shouted down the beach to my dad, and he grabbed an oar out of the boat and walked swiftly up towards the outhouse. His oar held in front of him like a bayonet, my dad walked closer to the outhouse where the bear was sniffing the bottom and told her to stay where she was until he told her to run. I remember my sister's quavering voice say ok, then there was a moment of silence while my dad watched the bear's movements. As soon as the bear ambled off, he told her to run as fast as she could toward the beach. The sight of her skinny body flailing itself towards us made me laugh, though my parents found nothing funny about it at all. They no doubt spent the rest of the weekend nervously watching the woods and monitoring our trips to the outhouse until it was finally time to leave.


Our family kept such a clean camp that on the last day, the only things left to do were roll up our sleeping bags, deflate our air mattresses, and take down the tent. The sight of a tent sagging morosely to the ground still strikes me as a particularly tragic image. And once the tent and sleeping bags were stowed in the boat, nestled between the banana boxes of leftover food and newly-washed dishes, the sight of our empty campsite was another poignant reminder the weekend was over. All that remained were soft indentations in the ground of our footprints, the legs of the campstove, the square lines from our boxes, and the flattened area of our tent.

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