Drifting along in the wild

Restoration efforts at the Clark Fork Driftyard aim to aid wildlife habitat while offering year-round access

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

At the mouth of Lake Pend Oreille, where the Clark Fork River drains its clear water into a collection area carved out by a great glacial flood over 10,000 years ago, there lies a special area known as “the Driftyard.”

Serving both the useful purpose of collecting floating debris harmful to navigation, as well as providing a wetland habitat for dozens of native plants and animals, the Driftyard is also an important place in history for local Indigenous populations. Oral histories passed down from the Kalispel Tribes to Allen H. Smith in the early 1930s recounted fishing for bull trout — or “char” as they referred to them — from seine nets placed between canoes at night during spring flow. 

“They pull the net out onto the shore to empty it,” wrote Smith. “Then they warm themselves at the big bonfire because they get wet and cold and they give the fish time to come in again. Then they do it again; they do it about six times on one night. They work all night.”

During this two-week window in spring, Indigenous fishermen would redistribute the catch to families back at camp where it was consumed as an in-season staple, rather than smoke-cured and stored for winter needs.

In fall, tribal members would again fish the delta, this time using torches from canoes and spearing shoals of fish that made “flapping” noises close to shore, indicating they were possibly spawning. 

It is not surprising that soon after his arrival at Lake Pend Oreille in 1809, David Thompson established the North West Company’s Kullyspel House trading depot immediately north of Memaloose Island, which was in close proximity to an Upper Kalispel band’s winter village at Ellisport Bay. It was also a short canoe trip from Kullyspel House to the fishing grounds in the Clark Fork and Pack River deltas.

In 1853, George Suckley, an assistant surgeon to the U.S. Army’s exploration of the western states intending to find the most economical route to the Pacific Ocean, wrote about another method the Kalispel Tribe used to gather fish.

“Just above Lake Pend d’Oreille the Clark Fork river divides into three streams, which again unite, thus forming two or three large islands,” Suckley wrote. “One of these streams is wide, shallow and swift. Here the Indians annually construct a fence, which reaches across the stream, and guides the fish into a weir or rack, where they are caught in great numbers.”

Seasonally rich in necessary resources, the delta provided Kalispel people food, medicine, recreation and easy access to trade with neighboring communities who wintered in the Kootenai, Coeur d’Alene and Bitterroot valleys.

A fluctuating history

The modern era for Lake Pend Oreille began in the early 1950s, when construction began on the Albeni Falls Dam and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started regulating water levels on Lake Pend Oreille. Prior to the dam, the lake level was regulated by the seasonal melt water that flooded the 226 miles of shoreline that encompass Lake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River. 

A beach scene at the Driftyard. Photo by Lyndsie Kiebert.

Navigation before the dam was made easy because debris passed through the lake and river during high water season, and accumulated on the lakeshore when the waters receded. But after the dam created a new fluctuation of water levels, the lake level held higher in the summer following spring snowmelt, which caused floating debris to linger on the water surface longer, increasing navigational hazards for boaters.

Enter the Clark Fork Drift Facility in the Clark Fork Wildlife Management Area, a 1,300-acre parcel of land in the river delta that is home to meandering channels and marshy islands with pockets of wetlands, abundant cattails and extensive mudflats during drawdown. The site is just part of the more than 4,000 acres of land acquired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the Albeni Falls Dam construction.

According to Taylor Johnson, chief of Natural Resources with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “The WMA is managed to protect wildlife habitat and provide public access for hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreational pursuits.”

As part of its mission to help facilitate the best use of the land, the Corps outgranted — akin to a lease or easement — management of some parcels of land to the Idaho Fish and Game to manage several areas around the lake and river, including the Driftyard. Through their coordinated efforts, the Corps and IDFG maintain these public access areas for recreational use, at the same time protecting sensitive habitat areas for local wildlife.

On Feb. 1, IDFG announced that access to the Driftyard would be open year-round, marking a change in its long-standing policy of closing gates to the boat ramp and motorized access area during waterfowl season into late spring.

Evan DeHamer, staff biologist with IDFG, said previously the gates were locked to reduce wildlife disturbance, especially during nesting season for tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl that utilize the area each year.

“But it was also to make sure people weren’t mudbogging out through the wetlands,” DeHamer told the Reader. “I think where we stand now is that there aren’t any nesting species of concern in the springtime in that boat access area. … We don’t want people to go tromping around out there willy nilly, but we’ve also seen for the most part that people that use that area for recreation will drop a boat at the ramp and fish on the delta and do whatever they’re doing out there.”

DeHamer said there have been instances in the past where people have operated motorized vehicles past the gates on the mudflats — an activity Fish and Game frowns upon.

“That’s a disturbance we want to keep down,” he said. “Other gates we’ll keep closed in the springtime to avoid damage of those soft areas, but the straight shot into the boat ramp and that parking area will remain open for the rest of the year in order to provide additional access for folks.”

What goes on at the Driftyard

In 1954, the Corps began building a system of booms on the lower portion of the Clark Fork River that directed floating drift and debris into a holding facility where it could be contained without presenting navigational problems on the lake. The holding facility is what passing motorists on Highway 200 see as they look east toward the collection of driftwood nestled into the cattail-strewn wetlands and low-lying islands at the mouth of the Clark Fork River.

It is this position at the mouth of the river that also makes the area a great fishing hole.

Bonner County native Tyler Long told the Reader he’s been frequenting the area to fish with his family ever since moving to the east side of the county some years ago.

“We utilize that area off and on all year,” Long said. “Over the years I’ve hunted waterfowl out there, but most recently I’ve been pike fishing early, when the gate is closed. It made for a longer walk, but that didn’t slow us down because part of the adventure is getting there.”

Tyler Long and his two boys enjoy a sunny day of fishing at the Clark Fork Driftyard. Photo courtesy Tyler Long.

Long said he’s caught some big 20-pound pikes out there in the channels, and always appreciates the area because it’s easy to find your own place to recreate. 

Of course, like any public access area, he has noticed the usual droppings from human hands (and other body parts). With more than 19,000 visitors to the Driftyard in fiscal year 2020, it certainly sees its share of traffic.

“Some people abuse it,” he said. “They’ll run motorized equipment behind the gates and stuff, and people leave garbage down there. … Last year with COVID stuff, people were just getting out more. … We went out on a Saturday after the gate had just opened and we fished all day until dark — there were already piles of human shit in the parking lot and beer bottles. But we pick up garbage everywhere we go. It’s a sad deal to have to do that, but we do it.”

While it’s a perfect location for anglers, the Driftyard also provides excellent kayak access to the meandering islands of the delta, where great blue heron wade in wetlands, bald eagles and ospreys hunt the shallow water and countless small mammals like river otters and beavers do their bidding undisturbed.

In drawdown, old-growth tree stumps emerge on the shoreline, resembling some type of crawling creatures frozen in time. As the water rises and summer nears, the delta is alive with birdsong, with the wind blowing dry cattail fluff into the marshes. Sharp-eyed bird watchers can spot owls, hawks, bald and golden eagles, osprey, blue heron, ducks, geese and sometimes swans to name a few. 

Land mammals also frequent the area, including black bear, elk, moose, mule and white-tail deer, mountain goat and bighorn sheep.

Holding the line

In the late 1980s, it was noticed that there was a net wildlife loss due to the construction of the Albeni Falls Dam due to fluctuating water levels affecting the shoreline. By 2008, a partnership was formed between IDFG and Avista Corporation, Ducks Unlimited and others to initiate a pilot restoration project in the Pack River Flats area to help positively impact local wildlife habitats.

In 2014, the Bureau of Land Management and other cooperating agencies began a large restoration project in the Clark Fork River delta that “proposes to protect, improve and restore key riparian, aquatic and wetland habitats, improving their ecological functions in the Clark Fork River delta by increasing sediment deposition, increasing emergency wetland habitats, capturing woody debris and reducing bank erosion,” according to the Corps’ Master Plan.

Divided into phases to meet this goal, the restoration project had two main focuses: first, to protect existing areas within the delta from further erosion using environmentally compatible stabilization methods; and, second, to restore and enhance the edge and interior areas, promoting diverse native riparian vegetation growth such as black cottonwood, dogwood and willow, and reducing non-native invasive reed canary grass.

Phase 1 was completed in 2015, with Phase 2 seeing significant work in early 2019, as well as upgrades to the Johnson Creek Access site in Clark Fork.

“Phase 2 was the main construction accomplished a year ago,” DeHamer said. “The main shoreline protection came from building the breakwaters, which are constructed of riprap and smaller rock, gravel, also integrating willow and dogwood into those structures.”

A successful day’s catch of a couple of pike at the Driftyard. Photo by Lyndsie Kiebert.

The idea is that when these woody plants mature, the roots will hold the rocks together on the breakwater, staving off some erosion from the prevalent southwest winds that buffet the shoreline.

DeHamer said the highlight of Phase 2 was when the Northwest Youth Conservation Corps group came out and helped him plant 8,000 sedge and rush plugs, which are grassy plants native to this region that also help bolster the shoreline against further erosion.

“Once established, they’ll help outcompete reed canary grass — a bad invasive wetland grass that is all over the Pacific Northwest,” DeHamer said. 

“Restoring that lost habitat is the whole purpose of this restoration project,” he added. “The goal is to stop existing erosion and then from there, help reestablish areas of wetland vegetation so that tens of thousands of waterfowl that use it can have a little bit more available habitat. Every species that uses that area will benefit.”

DeHamer emphasized that Lake Pend Oreille is a very important stopover twice a year for migrating birds of all kinds.

“You see all kinds of species going through,” he said. 

A 2018 survey conducted by the Intermountain Bird Observatory through Boise State University detected 91 total species in the delta area alone, including dozens of different songbirds migrating through the region.

DeHamer said IDFG hopes to enter Phase 3 in winter 2021-2022, “but we have a lot of planning that needs to happen first,” he said.

The next stage of restoration will continue shoreline mitigation and construction in the Driftyard area, as well as the island directly south of the access ramp, which includes building more breakwaters.

“It’ll be a lot more of the same efforts trying to shore up those banks that have been eroding the last 60 years now, maintaining what still exists there and trying to improve what we can. It costs a lot of money to move that much dirt and rock, and we’re trying to do it in the most cost-effective way. We also need to remove about seven acres of reed canary grass and plant all that area back with a mix of native species. We’ll be doing a couple of little features to help out recreational access there, too. We know a lot of people use it for fishing, for taking kayaks out and wildlife watching and such. We want to try to facilitate some of that activity.

A glorious sunset as seen from one of the islands inside the Clark Fork River delta. Photo by Ben Olson.

“Bottom line, besides being extremely important cultural areas for local Indigenous nations, the Clark Fork and Pack River deltas are very valuable and unique habitats for the wildlife that makes North Idaho a special place to live,” he continued. “We’re doing our best to keep those areas viable for generations to come.”

For fisherman Tyler Long, as well as countless others in the region, these efforts are much-appreciated as they help ensure the Driftyard and the greater delta area continues to be a place to recreate outdoors in North Idaho.

“I follow a lot of the Fish and Game issues,” Long told the Reader. “I’m guessing working with those agencies, they’ve got a pretty tough job to balance everything and keep everybody happy. Overall, most of my experiences are positive there at the delta. I just hope the general public can respect it enough so we can all keep using it.”

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