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Falling in Love with Life on the Selkirk Loop

A husband and wife reconnect on a road trip through North Idaho

Story by Engrid Barnett

Photo courtesy of ISL property

When my husband, Gene, first came to me with the travel guide about the International Selkirk Loop in Northern Idaho—280 miles of scenic highway chock full of gorgeous landscapes and abundant wildlife—I told him he was crazy. Or, more precisely, “We don’t have time for this. What about Stacey’s baby shower? What about helping her get the nursery ready? What about visiting Calvin?”

“We’ll be back in time for Stacey’s shower. And Calvin is like every other college kid… ready for a little independence.” His statement was true, and that’s why it stung. He continued, “Besides we need this.” Gene said this last phrase with a firmness that caught my attention.

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An Extraordinary Sight

Photo courtesy of ISL property

Of course, I wouldn’t understand just how right Gene was until we stood in the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, west of Bonners Ferry, breathlessly watching a moose cow wander by.

Yes, the travel guide said moose might be here, but to actually see one in the wild? I wanted to pinch myself. This was no wildlife documentary or rerun of Northern Exposure. I was seeing this big, beautiful, brown mammal with my own eyes.

Giddy with excitement, I whispered, “A moose? Can you believe it, Gene?” Once the moose picked her way gingerly through the meadow and disappeared into the forest beyond, I wrapped my arms around Gene’s neck, planting an unexpected kiss on his cheek.

“See?” he replied smiling sheepishly, “We need this!”

As we walked back to our pickup, he took my hand. How long had it been since we held hands? How long had it been since we just existed in the moment? The moose sighting proved just one of many unforgettable experiences awaiting us in Idaho.

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Living in the moment

Photo courtesy of Tom Koerner USFWS

Formed in 1999, the International Selkirk Loop encompasses two states, Washington and Idaho, and two countries, the US and Canada. The Canadian side travels through the province of British Columbia, making it America’s only multinational scenic drive.

Despite my initial reservations about the road trip, Gene planned it out meticulously, focusing on the Northern Idaho portion of the loop. This proved easily accessible from our suburban residence near Spokane, Washington.

While I was excited for the trip, I felt afraid to exit the rat race, to sit quietly and do nothing. Somewhere along the way, I had mistaken doing for being. But enthralled by the wildness of Idaho, I started living in the moment.

But enthralled by the wildness of Idaho, I started living in the moment.
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First glimpses of Northern Idaho

Photo courtesy of ISL property

A few days before the moose sighting, my first glimpses of Northern Idaho came along the Panhandle Historic Rivers Passage Scenic Byway beginning at the Washington state line and following the Pend Oreille River’s northern shore. Sure, I’d driven through Idaho before, but I’d never given this sacred, breathtaking land the time it deserved.

As we traveled the loop, the quaintness of small-town America came to vibrant life in places like Oldtown and Priest River. We spent a few nights in Sandpoint, voted the “Most Beautiful Small Town” by Rand McNally and USA Today in 2011, and home to the Festival at Sandpoint, a renowned summer concert series. Besides the Selkirk Loop, Sandpoint is also located on two State Scenic Byways, Wild Horse Trail and Pend Oreille Scenic Byway.

It sits along the banks of sprawling Lake Pend Oreille, which measures 43 miles long, six miles wide and 1,150 feet deep. This makes Pend Oreille the largest lake in Idaho and the second largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. The ancestral home of the Salish tribes including the Kootenai and the Kalispel, the lake takes its name from the ear pendants or “pend oreille” (in French) that members of the Kalispel tribe traditionally wore.

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Mountains to climb

Photo courtesy of ISL property

The remote, pristine peaks of the Selkirk mountain range cut straight through the loop. The range spans across eastern Washington, the northern portion of the Idaho Panhandle, and southeastern British Columbia. Named for Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, the Earl worked tirelessly to relocate impoverished Scottish Highlander families to Canada during the Scottish Clearances. He also explored Western Canada.

Gene and I decided on an afternoon hike just outside of Sandpoint on the Mickinnik Trail. While I used to be an avid hiker, the more than 2,000 feet in elevation gain proved too much for my lungs and legs. I found a nice resting place and told Gene he should continue on.

As I sat there, I felt flooded with emotion, namely anger. I felt angry at my body for giving up. I felt angry at Gene for bringing me here and then leaving me, although I had “selflessly” urged him to go on. I felt angry at time for going by so quickly and even angry at my kids for growing up and moving out. I also felt guilty for not doing more and being more—for letting life pass me by without savoring each excruciatingly beautiful moment.

Then, it hit me…

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Choosing this moment

Photo courtesy of ISL property

I had a choice. I could sit here in bitterness, anger and guilt, ironically surrounded by the most magnificent wilderness I had ever seen. Or, I could start living in the moment. I could open my eyes to the magic of everyday and my heart to the all-encompassing wonder of Idaho.

Sitting there waiting for Gene to come back down the trail, my anger and guilt melted away. I realized that I still had more mountains to climb. It wasn’t all downhill now that our kids were grown. In fact, the adventure was just beginning. That is, if I was willing to take up the challenge. This could be a new beginning for Gene and I. My husband’s words rang in my head, “We need this.”    

On our walk back, we caught a glimpse of a lone pica’s darling antics. The pica confirmed everything I’d been thinking about. Each day is filled with endless beauty and surprises, if we’re willing to open our eyes and take the time to look around.

I could open my eyes to the magic of everyday and my heart to the all-encompassing wonder of Idaho.
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Stargazing in Idaho

Photo courtesy of Ted McGrath

Perhaps my favorite memory of Northern Idaho proved stargazing from our campsite on one of the last nights of our trip. Gene and I sat in the back of our pickup truck wrapped up in a thick wool blanket letting the silence and awesomeness of the night sky absorb us completely.

Cuddled up next to him, my thoughts wandered to the tribes of the Great Plains and their custom of using a courting blanket at the start of a relationship. In a funny and wonderful way, Northern Idaho represented our courting blanket, bringing Gene and I closer together than we’d been in many years.   

At the beginning of our trip, I had so many bottled up feelings that I refused to acknowledge, let alone express. I was dissatisfied watching time slip through my fingers but didn’t know how to stop it. In the process, I was taking so many blessings for granted. Now as I looked up at the husband sitting next to me, I recognized those boyish good looks that had originally made my heart skip a beat.

Surrounded by the pristine beauty of this place, swathes of impossibly bright stars pinpointing the sky, nature began the process of knitting my soul back together, giving me a newfound reverence and opening my heart to future journeys. I only wished we had even more time to explore Northern Idaho, but I knew we’d be back very soon.

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