Outdoor Idaho


Bruce Reichert, Host:
Its dramatic blue waters have been drawing us here for centuries.

Terry Allred, Angler:
Beautiful lake...great day to be out here.

This is Bear Lake.

More than a mile high, it glitters like an opal, startling newcomers, and rewarding those who have made this far southeastern part of Idaho their home.

Erma Stock, Fish Haven Resident:
It's a part of me that I love. I love this lake and I love this territory.

So did pioneers, who, anxious to make the area bloom, found a unique use for Bear Lake.

Some gave the ultimate sacrifice to make their dream come true.

Rock Holbrook, PacifiCorp:
They supposedly lost a man every mile of this project. And these two canals are over 15 miles each.

Their legacy lives on, but now politics muddies the waters.

Jim Kimball:
My whole career has been spent in natural resource management and it's really hard to ignore something that you really know is wrong.

"Outdoor Idaho" explores the complexity and the beauty of this forgotten corner of Idaho­­Bear Lake country.

When you think of the region's big lakes you naturally think of northern Idaho and Lake Pend Oreille, Coeur d'Alene and Priest Lake. You may be surprised to know that there's another big lake in Idaho, this one in the far southeastern corner of the state.

Hi, I'm Bruce Reichert and welcome to "Outdoor Idaho."

This is Bear Lake. It straddles the Idaho/Utah border and is a popular destination for folks along the Wasatch front.

Now if you've been to Bear Lake, you already know how unusual the water is. It seems to change color almost every day. In fact, we were challenged by someone who knows the lake to try to capture that color on videotape.

We figured that would be next to impossible, but that we'd try.


Set in the far southeast corner of Idaho, Bear Lake stretches some 20 miles long and 8 miles wide. Half the lake is in Idaho, half in Utah.

On one side rise forested mountain, the extension of the Wasatch front.

On the other side of the rain shadow are dry hills and the wide expanse of Wyoming.

Dick Scully, Idaho Department of Fish and Game:
To have a deep clear lake out in this sort of desert country really is unique. It's quite startling to people when they see it for the first time.

Part of the surprise is the lake's vivid blue tint.

Local promoters like to joke that they drain their beloved Bear Lake every year and paint it so that they can advertise it as "The Caribbean of the Rockies."

In reality, the lake's intense blue shades come from a more natural source.

Vince Lamarra, Ecosystems Research:
It just so happens that the particles that are in Bear Lake are essentially ground­up chalk, calcium carbonate. And it's from the limestone in the watershed.

And these solid particles, which are white, reflect the blue light that enters the lake and it gives it a myriad of blue colors. Very, very unique.

But at nearly 6,000 feet, Bear Lake's altitude guarantees weather that tempers that bright surface, weather more in line with the Rockies than the Caribbean.

Erma Stock, Fish Haven Resident:
You have a bad wind, you have a bad storm coming in, the lake will just roar. It will make a heavy noise.

Erma Stock has lived near the lake for 90 years.

The lake changes shades all the time.

If it's calm, like it is this morning, that will be an emerald blue, just a striking color.

The lake talks. It really talks.

It's been speaking to humans for centuries.

Native Americans were the first to make use of the area.

Melinda Dunford, Northwest Band of Shoshone:
They used to come through here, and they'd ride through on their way to Wind River. They also came in this area to hunt and fish and they also came here to play. They used to hold rendezvous at the south end of Bear Lake.

White trappers saw the same benefits of Bear Lake country, making it the site of two large trading fairs in the 1800's and giving the lake its name, after the number of bears nearby.

Pat Wilde, Local Historian:
To the trapper it was ideal; it was for two years there in 1827 and '28 it was considered to be the center of the fur trade business at the time.

Oregon Trail pioneers also passed through, guiding their wagons down the "big hill," one of the steepest slopes they had encountered so far.

But it wasn't until 1863 that permanent settlers arrived in numbers.

They were Mormons, encouraged by leader Brigham Young to expand north from Utah.

"There are many advantages in this country," he told his followers.

"We shall extend our settlements up and down the shores of this beautiful lake of water."

Brigham Young was quite a brilliant man really. He knew that they were going to have some kind of a free land program. He was sitting down in Salt Lake with about 48,000 Mormon converts and he had to scatter them out someplace.

Despite the harsh climate, the Mormons soon developed the land, building cooperatives to share the meat, grain, cheese, and fruit they raised.

The settlers realized, though, that to have enough water for their growing communities, they needed to harness the Bear River, which carves through much of the area.

Enterprising engineers came up with the answer­­Bear Lake.

By diverting the Bear River into the lake and holding the water until the dry season, irrigators could create a liquid bank.

The water could also be used to generate electricity.

In 1902, a power company began digging canals to bring Bear River in and out of the lake.

Rock Holbrook, PacifiCorp:
They supposedly lost a man every mile of this project. And these two canals are over 15 miles each. So they lost a lot of men, a lot of teams of horses falling through the ice.

Ten years later, the canals were finally finished, and Bear Lake had effectively been turned into Bear Lake Reservoir.

The river has literally been stopped in its bed and turned, so that it now flows into the lake.

Spring runoff is held there until it's needed and then is sent back through this canal to farm fields and power plants all the way to Utah.

At the hub is the Lifton Pumping Plant, which regulates the flow of millions of gallons of water.

Even today, the project is considered innovative.

Rock Holbrook, the system's manager, has to carefully measure the lake's level so that it doesn't overfill.

It's just a real juggling match. I don't know of any other natural lakes that are used as reservoirs.

Farmers like Marc Gibbs, who lives 50 miles from Bear Lake, depend on the storage capacity that the project provides.

Marcus Gibbs, Last Chance Canal Co.:
About two out of every three years we use storage water out of Bear Lake on these crops.

And without the storage water we wouldn't be able to get these crops mature to the point that we're ready to harvest them.

But with the Bear River water comes Bear River mud.

The river is degraded for much of its 500 miles with silt from eroded banks, as well as industrial farm and municipal waste.

Eulalie Langford, Love Bear Lake:
It's wrong to put that muddy water into this beautiful lake.

Since the 1950's, Eulalie Langford has been disturbed by the mud, an estimated 108 tons of which flows into the lake each day.

One hundred eight tons a day. If we were to see several dump trucks pulling up every day and dumping that much mud off the boat dock over at North Beach State Park, we would be upset. That's what's happening. Bear River is carrying it in.

Carly Burton, PacifiCorp Hydrologist:
I can understand their concerns but you have to recognize that Utah Power/Pacificorp has operated this lake for over 80 years and the water quality figures that I see on this lake are no different than they were 20­25 years ago. The lake has a great ability to heal itself.

Others, though, have concerns about the system.

Football star and actor Merlin Olsen has a home on the lake.

Merlin Olsen, Bear Lake Watch:
I have great love for this lake. And it became apparent that it needed some protection and it needed some help.

Olsen had become alarmed when, during a drought in the early 90's, the lake dropped so low, homes and docks were left far from the water.

At the same time, he felt farmers were wasting Bear Lake water.

We were driving through the area on the Lower Bear River and found stubble fields flooded with water.

When the power company starting dredging a channel to take even more water out of the lake, Olsen and others sued.

Jim Kimball, a retired Forest Service official, joined the fight.

Jim Kimball, Bear Lake Watch:
My whole career has been spent in natural resource management and it's really hard to ignore something that you really know is wrong.

The parties settled out of court, and now no water can be drawn from the lake once it reaches a certain level.

We will not waste water in the future and we'll make every effort to make the best beneficial use of irrigation water and storage water out of Bear Lake.

And homeowners say now that they have a place at the bargaining table, they'll make sure the issues of water quantity and quality are not forgotten.

We're not going to go away; you know, the problem is still there. And we'll have to continue to press the issues. And the issues are far more than just what meets the surface of the eyes.

There's a lot more beneath the surface here, too.

This is Bear Lake marsh, a remnant of what was once a much larger Bear Lake.

The 18,000 acre wetland on the north end of the lake provides critical habitat for more than 160 types of birds.

In 1968, Congress recognized its special attributes by declaring it a national wildlife refuge.

Dick Sjostrom, Refuge Manager:
It's a unique area because of its size. It's very large. There are not that many wetlands like this left.

Dick Sjostrom is the refuge manager.

He uses a jet boat to check on his charges, which include ducks, ibis, and sandhill cranes.

The refuge not only provides nesting areas, but also refueling stops for the birds on their long migrations.

Pretty good hatch.

The ibis colony is one of the larger ibis colonies in the Western United States, around 4,000 birds or so.

We've got some young ibis that have just hatched a few weeks ago. Right now the adults are kept really busy, you know bringing them food and stuff.

They grow quickly and I'm always surprised how quickly they can learn how to fly.

It's a good thing, because sometimes the nests are swamped in high water.

That's because the refuge rises and falls with the amount of Bear River water coming into the lake for irrigation storage.

The key is to bring this water level up early before nesting season gets underway for let's say, the canada goose, keeping it stable. And then you kind of go into a normal slow drawdown during the summer period, which is normal for a wetland.

The marsh is also the first line of defense against all the silt and pollutants that enter from Bear River.

It provides a very important function in this valley in filtering and cleaning the water before it moves downstream.

Still, whatever is brought in with the mud seems to have little effect on the thriving wildlife.

There's so much wildlife out here in this marsh that, you know, I'm always amazed at what you do see.

I've been around marshes in the Fish and Wildlife Service for 25 years now and I'm always seeing things that I haven't seen before out here.

Marsha Wilson would agree. It's become almost a daily ritual for this schoolteacher to bike down to the refuge and see what she can find.

Marsha Wilson, Birdwatcher:
Mostly I like to look for the same birds that return every year, because that is a sort of a security to me, that they are returning to the same place again and again.

For Wilson and for the birds she loves, Bear Lake Marsh provides a sanctuary.

I come down here to the bird refuge when I feel like I need to get away from the noise and the commotion of everyday life.

And there is just such a peaceful quiet feeling and it helps me get more in tune with nature and with what I really believe in.

Terry Allred, Angler:
These fish today have got lockjaw!

If searching for creatures under the water is more your speed, Bear Lake offers many challenges.

It's just an adrenaline rush. A lot of people get their adrenaline rush from something else. But I get it from fishing, and I enjoy it.

For 50-year old Terry Allred, who took early retirement, each day is just another day to try to outsmart the fish of Bear Lake.

Just trying to hold her at 50 feet. I've had good luck with these macks. They've been holding right at 50 feet of water.

Mackinaw, or lake trout, have been stocked in Bear Lake since the 1930's.

They're the largest fish in the lake--in part because they eat the native fish, including cutthroat trout.

And that frustrates Terry.

`Cause the state record came out of this lake on the cutthroat and that was I believe was right close to 20 pounds.

The biggest fish, cutthroat, you can catch now is probably 5 pounds.

Several times a year, workers with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, which manages half the lake, take stock of what's down below.

Biologist Bryce Nielsen argues that because the mackinaw aren't reproducing in the lake, they're not a big threat to the cutthroat.

Bryce Nielsen, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources:
All of the data that we have basically obtained over this last period of time indicates that both fish can exist in concert.

We want to maintain a fishery on Bear Lake for Utah anglers. This body of water on the southeastern corner of Idaho is maybe not as important as many other big waters in the state. It is very important to us here in Utah.

On the Idaho side of the lake, Fish and Game Biologist Dick Scully is still trying to help the cutthroat.

The agency fenced off this stream to keep cattle away from potential spawning beds.

And here, a ladder was built so the trout can get from the lake to those streams.

Dick Scully, Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game:
Eight inch cutthroat.

Scully and his workers use snorkels to check the results.

The numbers are still discouraging.

You stock several hundred thousand, by the time they mature and are ready to spawn their numbers are down to less than a thousand. So there's a fairly high mortality going on out in the lake.

I'd hate to lose this one.

As much as he'd like to see more cutthroat, Terry gets as excited as anyone when he hooks a mackinaw.

Oh he feels like a pretty good one.

Boy that's work.


ere he's coming up now.

Bring him up real slow again.

You got a nice fish here people.

This is very respectable for Bear Lake.

This is what it's all about right here people.

Catch `em about 18 pounds.

That's why we like Bear Lake.


It's a love affair that spans the decades.

Whether touring its waters in pleasure boats, or lounging by the shore, Bear Lake has provided entertainment since the turn of the century.

Everybody loved to come to the lake. They come to the lake to swim. They come to the lake to get their batteries recharged.

At one point you could find somewhere to dance 5 days a week.

And people used to dance then. They don't dance anymore. They jig a little bit!

Back then, for 3 dollars a day, you could rent a

lakefront cabin for your family and friends.

Now upscale developments and vacation homes dot the shoreline and crowds often pack the beaches.

Biologist Bryce Nielsen is also the mayor of Garden City Utah, where most of the growth is occuring.

People are discovering Bear Lake. It's sort of one of these kind of places that you don't see them in the travel brochures and all of the sudden you come up over US 89 and come up over the top and "boom," the whole valley's filled with this big beautiful lake.

But that beauty could be compromised by the very people who enjoy it.

It's developing rather rapidly. However we are hopefully prepared for it. We want to make sure that we don't pollute the one thing that people come up here to see.

Male Voice:
It's kind of a long walk over here.

Female Voice:
No it isn't!

Increasingly, tourists are also finding their way into the surrounding high country.

At over 8,000 feet, Bloomington Lake is nestled in a glacial cirque.

It provides a stunning backdrop for both anglers and hikers.

Male Voice:
"I got spurs that jingle jangle jingle as I go riding merrily along."

Just over the ridge from Bloomington, a group of friends is enjoying a brilliant fall day.

For 50 years, the Bear Lake Rangers have been exploring the peaks and valleys of the Caribou National Forest on the west side of Bear Lake.

Ray Law, Bear Lake Rangers:
I know all of the high country up here. Some of the low country I'm not really familiar with. But the high country, I know it all.

The group was originally formed to improve the breeding stock of local horses and to provide the sheriff with an informal posse.

Nowadays, it's a social club for folks who love the beauty and solitude of the high country.

Jim Hillier, Bear Lake Rangers:
When I'm up here I can be alone. I just like the country and riding much better than I would prefer being down on the beach with thousands of people.

The trails here rise gently, making the trips accessible for all ages and abilities.

Of course, it's often the oldtimers, like 87-year old Ben Kelsey, who set the pace.

Ben Kelsey, Bear Lake Rangers:
Well it's the country, and the scenery, the association with the members that all of us enjoy.

The club was originally for men, and as far as Kelsey's concerned:

Still is.

Always will be.

That was news to Leisha Brower, a club member.

Leisha Brower, Bear Lake Rangers:
Oh, I was laughing.

No it isn't.

Brower says having the oldtimers along gives her a window on the past.

Talking to some of these guys that have been in there for a while, that's really interesting and fascinating.

One of the prime destinations for the group is the Highline Trail, which runs for 55 miles along the top of the Bear Lake range.

It's really unique. You can see all the country around here for miles and miles and it really fascinates me.

There's a few of the guys that I've been with, that you couldn't get `em down to the edge to look over and see really what it looked like. They'll stand back and look from a little distance.

Elzo Poulsen, Bear Lake Rangers:
We get out of the brush, get out of the high timber, so we can see both sides of the ridge. That old brown horse of mine, we like to get on the high ridges.

It's neat that you can ride up so fast into a country on horses.

I love to hear the wind in the treetops when you get on the very top.

It's just breathtaking.

A lot of people here in Bear Lake Country have enjoyed living in Idaho's forgotten corner. But now that development is increasing around the lake, as the demand for recreation grows, as the lake's water becomes ever more valuable, it is even more important that people find intriguing and successful ways to guarantee that this area remains healthy.

Thanks for watching. We'll see you next time.