A century ago it took three days to travel from Spokane, Washington to Eightmile Island in Priest Lake, Idaho—first by train, then by horse-drawn buckboard, then by either rowboat or the steamer that carried supplies to the Diamond Match Company loggers’ campsites. Today, it’s an easy two-hour drive that takes you through the Kalispel Reservation and past a “Quality Chainsaw Carvings” shop as well as eateries named “Rest & Rant” and “Thick & Thin Meats & More.” The route is otherwise blessedly unchanged with long stretches of forest, farmland and watershed along Routes 2 East and 57 North.
Priest Lake itself remains similarly pristine, lying within the bounds of the Kaniksu National Forest and cradled by the Selkirk Mountains. It’s a cool, still body that shimmers chartreuse to jade green near the shoreline, and is ringed by Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs and tamaracks that serve as aromatic posts for crowning osprey nests. The “priest” in the name is a reference to the Jesuit missionaries who took up residence in the area; “Kaniksu” is a Kalispel Indian word for their black robes.
Eightmile is a 100-acre gem within the cool, clean water, accessible only by boat. It was originally owned by two brothers by the name of Crenshaw who in 1897 built its homestead cabin by hand, hewing each log, purlin and shake. The brothers were there to mine the Deer Trail Lode mine; when its mineral riches eluded them, they sold the island to the Anders family, who then sold it, after a failed pioneering attempt, to cousins from the Vinther and Nelson families.
The cabin is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and in an uncommon private citizen-government agreement (following a 15-year negotiation) is Federal Forest property that allows the Vinther and Nelson descendants its exclusive use for their own pleasure as long as they conduct tours on certain days in the summer for whoever paddles or powers up to its shore or dock.
As the island’s permanent caretakers and custodians, the family members will give you a tour of the tiny museum inside the cabin and show you their nine-hole golf course with its tuna can cups and Douglas fir root hazards. Look for the initials of various lumberjacks, trappers and miners hammered into the cabin’s endbeams, using 22-gauge shell casings to form the letters. There’s also a two-holer outhouse named Aunt Fanny (with “drops” in two sizes to accommodate both child- and adult-sized bottoms).
On last visit, the local newspaper, the Gem State Miner, included pieces on lawnmower races, the illegality of hunting bear with dogs and local produce being sold by the “lug”—bigger than a peck, and smaller than a bushel. The area remains an uncomplicated escape destination, full of friendly people, crisp clean water, and air that’s perfumed by the sun baking the pines.
Know Before You Go
Eightmile Island is located approximately eight miles (surprise!) from the south end of Priest Lake along the eastern shore. There's a US Forest Service public launch on the west side of the lake called Kalispell Bay Boat Launch that is technically the closest departure spot.