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Priest Lake State Park

Nestled in the Selkirk mountains, about 30 miles from the Canadian border, is a body of water that some might argue is Idaho’s most beautiful lake.  You won’t get any argument from Lonnie Johnson on that point. He still remembers the first time he laid eyes on Priest Lake.

“Yes. It was like I’m in paradise,” said Johnson. “The mountains, the lake, the pine trees, yeah, I felt like I had just won the lottery.”

In fact, he worked hard to become the manager of Priest Lake State Park. “This has always been my dream park. When I came here in 1984, I got on a greyhound bus in Minnesota, came out here for the job interview, landed a job at $4.23 an hour, and I said some day I would love to be the park manager here. And through all those years of learning and experiences, my dream came true 26 years later.”

Priest Lake at sunset
Priest Lake at sunset

Priest Lake State Park consists of three different units, miles apart, much of it land once administered by the state’s Department of Lands. Dickensheet is the smallest unit, the first one you see as you drive to Priest lake, and it’s along Priest River.

More than 20 miles away, at the other end of Priest Lake, is the much larger Lionhead unit. This is where, almost a hundred years ago, the young actress Nell Shipman set up her film studio. She wanted to add realism to the Hollywood silent movie business. At Priest Lake she could focus on the themes that mattered most to her: her love of nature and wild animals.

The heroes in Shipman’s films were always women; and she loved filming “on location.”  She actually made a few movies here before discovering that the realism of Priest Lake was just a little too much for her and her menagerie of animals, and she was forced to return to civilization. 

But it is at Indian Creek, half way between Lionhead and Dickensheet where most of the people come to recreate. Here there’s a visitor center, 93 campsites -- twice as many as Lionhead -- and lots of activities. There’s even wi-fi, and a place for Fido unleashed.

“We take reservations nine months in advance,” said Johnson, “and out of all 30 parks in Idaho, Priest Lake reserves full first; so it pretty much becomes its own little town here. If I could sum this whole park up, it is full of memories. People come here, and they make memories.”

Nell Shipman [Courtesy Boise State University]
Nell Shipman [Courtesy Boise State University]

One of the reasons families feel connected to this park is because, even when things don’t go as planned, you always know someone has your back.  Take, for example, the freak wind storm in July of 2012. “It was instant, said Johnson. “We estimate the winds at over 60 miles an hour. Trees were coming down instantly left and right.

“The unique thing about park employees is when others are running from danger, we’re the ones to protect you, we’re the ones running in. So park staff instantly ran into the campground and notified all the campers.

“We had a full campground both at Indian Creek and Lion Head. I remember running in there informing as many campers as I could that you need to get to an open area right now. People were trying to put away lawn chairs and tie things down; and it was like, No, you need to leave now. Trees were coming down everywhere. People were crying and screaming. We got the camp ground emptied out; people went either to our beach area, or the headquarters at the park.

“I remember doing my last rounds, and I saw this van; and I could tell that the windows were fogged up, so I beat on the window, and it cracked down a bit, and there was a man in there. I said, ‘Sir you can’t be here. Trees are coming down.’ He goes, ‘but my van is blocked in, and I have three children.’

Lonnie Johnson Priest Lake State Park manager
Lonnie Johnson, Priest Lake State Park manager

“I said, you need to come with me right now. So he goes, ‘can you take one of my children?’ So I grabbed the child, and the mother and the father each grabbed a child. We headed right for the beach, and just by our beach is a large CXT bathroom; and there were people there yelling, ‘we’re here!’ So I passed them off to them as we kept running around making sure there wasn’t anybody else in the camp sites. And then we found the cars that had been smashed. So we’re looking in the cars and people would yell, ‘they’re not in there; they’re fine.’

“I don’t believe the wind lasted maybe a half hour, and it was over; but the destruction left was amazing. It was like a bomb just went off. We had a base up at our headquarters, where we could radio back and forth to make sure everyone was fine. We made every camper check in with us, to make sure everyone from their group was accounted for.

“The power was out, so we had visitors up to our office. We had a large barbeque grill and cooked food for people.  We thought campers would be leaving left and right, but we have the best campers in the Idaho Parks Department. They said, ‘we’re here on our vacation. What can we do?’

Windstorm of July 2012 [Courtesy Lonnie Johnson]
Windstorm of July 2012 [Courtesy Lonnie Johnson]

“We had people raking. We had people helping us run chain saws and hauling brush. It was amazing. In fact, through all of this, we still had people who informed us that they asked their children where did they want to have a vacation this year. Was it Disney Land or Priest Lake? And they said, ‘we want to go back to Priest Lake.’

“So even through all that, this is where people wanted to come.  It’s your basic blue collar working people, coming here to relax, to enjoy themselves, and to build their own memories here.”

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