“Idaho – More Than Potato”
by Lakshman Ratnapala, BATW International Consultant
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A globe-trotter for most of my life, I have visited 42 of the 50 states that make up the United States, but Idaho had missed my radar. In my mind’s eye, it was all farmland where potatoes came from. In hindsight, now I know that is as further from the truth as potato is from tomato.
My interest in “indigenous tourism” had zeroed on a native American Indian tribe called the Coeur d’Alene (pronounced core duh-lane), which live on a 350,000-acre reservation south of the resort town of the same name, on the shores of a glacial lake, also of the same name. A product of the Ice Age, the lake is listed by the National Geographic as one of the world’s five most beautiful. With an appointment to meet the tribal elders, in September, 2011, I took a two-hour flight from San Francisco northeast to Spokane and drove a half-hour east to Coeur d’Alene Resort.
The story of the tribe is one of outstanding success in parlaying tribal assets of land and water for creating wealth for their self-governance and welfare, including education, health care, employment, police and natural resource management. I asked the Tribal Chief why they did not promote tourism to their powwow, the annual tribal festival of ancient Indian songs, dances and games. He answered simply, “Tourism pollutes.” Their ingenuity was why they were called Coeur d’Alene, in the first place. It appears they were too shrewd to swap valuable furs for cheap trinkets offered by early French fur traders who decided they had les coeurs d’aliens — hearts of awls. Even today, they have lost nothing of that shrewdness. In their own language, they are the Schitsu’ umsh or “those who are found here.”
The name “Idaho,” itself, means absolutely nothing. When the new territory was to be named, an eccentric lobbyist (supported by some U.S. senators) claimed it came from the native Indian Shoshone words e-dah-hoe, “gem of the mountains.” In fact, that is utter balderdash—and the name’s origin remains a mystery.
Idaho wears several different geographic faces, dominated by the thousand-miles-long Snake River, rising on the Continental Divide and slicing through Hells Canyon. Its southern region of arid lava beds gives way to irrigated semi-desert in the west. The far north is lush forest surrounding deep lakes. The center is rugged wilderness of high mountains and swift rivers.
The core of Idaho’s history lies with three culturally diverse features. First, the native tribes: the Shoshones and the Bannocks of the south, separated from the Nez Perce, north of the Salmon River. Next in historical perspective is the Lewis and Clark Expedition, named for the first white men to pass through the region in 1805, with 19-year-old Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian girl who was kidnapped at 12 and enslaved by the Sioux Indians until bought at 18 by the expedition’s French interpreter, who married her. She played a key role in easing tensions between the white intruders and hostile native tribes. The third cog in the wheel of history is the Oregon Trail, the principal path for over 50,000 early Americans who headed to the “promised lands” of the West. The 1,900- mile, seven-month ordeal against mountains and plains, Indian attacks, buffalo stampedes, violent storms, accidents and illness is the stuff of legend and Hollywood movies.
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I am also a history buff and an adventurer. A couple of days enjoying the magnificent scenery around the Coeur d’Alene Resort, and a two-hour sunset dinner cruise with a shimmering full moon floating over Coeur d’Alene Lake, whetted my appetite for more of Idaho. Sensing an opportunity to taste both history and adventure, I headed south from the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, on a two-hour drive along Route 95 to Lewiston, an old gold rush town that’s now a blue-collar city. Located 740 feet above sea level, at the confluence of Snake and Clearwater Rivers, it’s the lowest point in Idaho. Nearly 500 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the Port of Lewiston is the most inland port in the western U.S., exporting everything from wheat, lentils and barley to jet boats, machinery and lumber.
My primary target, however, was shooting the rapids along the Snake River in a jet boat, through Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in America, over 2000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon. The 100-mile, round-trip boat ride was exhilarating, with sightings of wildlife and ancient Indian petroglyphs etched in rocks dating back 5,000 years.
In addition to history and adventure, I also sampled a bit of Idaho’s thrust toward economic development, luring new industries as well as nurturing old ones. Buck Knives, the famous hunting-knife manufacturer, has recently moved from San Diego to Post Falls in Idaho. Lewiston is home to ATK, the world’s largest manufacturer of military and sport shooting ammunition. Custom Weld, an aluminum boat manufacturer is marketing in Europe and Asia, while Stan-Craft Wooden Boats is a third-generation firm, handcrafting boats with African mahogany and powered by fuel-injected engines, just for millionaires and billionaires.
The prehistoric geography of the Ice Age, medieval history of tribes and explorers, and modern lifestyles of outdoor sports and family recreation, all combine to make Idaho, nicknamed the Gem State, a place where travelers can indulge in just about every adventure or relaxation one could possibly desire. Twenty-five million visitors enjoy Idaho’s unique hospitality every year. Whichever part of the magnificent state visitors choose to discover, they will find mesmerizing landscapes, fun things to delight the senses, and friendly, unhurried, unassuming people. Linger awhile and you’ll discover Idaho is more than potato.