Lightning Creek: A North Idaho Adventure

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  • Icy water flows down beside snow and ice-covered rocks at Char Falls. (Photo by CHRIS CELENTANO)

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    Jason Wilmoth paddles a kayak through whitewater at Lightning Creek. (Photo by CHRIS CELENTANO)

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    A view of Lightning Creek in winter. (Photo by CHRIS CELENTANO)

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    A root ball sits exposed in Lightning Creek, still clutching the rocks in which the roots grew into. (Photo by JASON WILMOTH)

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    Ice crystals formed on boulders along Lightning Creek. (Photo by JASON WILMOTH)

  • Icy water flows down beside snow and ice-covered rocks at Char Falls. (Photo by CHRIS CELENTANO)

  • 1

    Jason Wilmoth paddles a kayak through whitewater at Lightning Creek. (Photo by CHRIS CELENTANO)

  • 2

    A view of Lightning Creek in winter. (Photo by CHRIS CELENTANO)

  • 3

    A root ball sits exposed in Lightning Creek, still clutching the rocks in which the roots grew into. (Photo by JASON WILMOTH)

  • 4

    Ice crystals formed on boulders along Lightning Creek. (Photo by JASON WILMOTH)

By JASON WILMOTH

Coeur Voice Writer

I’ve often wondered why it’s called Lightning Creek instead of Lightning River. For much of the year, this body of water doesn’t really fit the description of a “creek,” instead flowing wide and fast.

In the dry months, however, it’s normal to drive across the bridge in Clark Fork and wonder where all the water went. The surface flow all but disappears, going underground, flowing through the cobbles and boulders. Perhaps that’s why it couldn’t achieve “river” status.

To those who are familiar with Lightning Creek, though, there’s no doubt where the name “Lightning” comes from. This creek can go from a trickle to a torrent overnight, and has done so, often, since I first discovered it.

The Lightning Creek drainage is the rainiest in Idaho. The steep terrain, geology and amount of precipitation received by this valley in the Cabinet Mountains, combine to make Lightning a very aggressive creek that regularly devours its banks, chews new channels and abandons old ones. What’s really spectacular though, is the speed at which this happens.

The worst of the flooding events are caused by heavy rains and quickly melting deep snows that almost instantly shed from the mountains.

One flood event, in December 2015, saw flows on Lightning Creek surge from 150 cubic feet per second (cfs), to roughly 7,000 cfs within 24 hours. Due to these unique characteristics, keeping access open to this beautiful drainage is a constant challenge for the U.S. Forest Service.

A friend first introduced me to Lightning Creek by taking me whitewater kayaking on its freight train waters.

Though I had read the description of Lightning Creek before going, I was unprepared for the reality of what I was paddling. That first time down I held on for dear life and prayed to the river gods that I didn’t swim and lose my kayak in the process. I had never before been kayaking on a river where you could hear the boulders rolling underneath you, and rarely have I experienced this anywhere else.

The dull explosions of boulders rolling down the creek bed travel through the water, and upon reaching your kayak, now a plastic drum, rattle your bones.

Since Lightning Creek is most often only runnable during the winter and spring, you are exposed to a ruggedness and remoteness that seem to belong somewhere else, Glacier National Park, or the Alps maybe.

You paddle past avalanche chutes from where you can gaze to mountain summits, thousands of feet over your head.

In deep winter these chutes terminate in blue ice walls, outlined by dark green cedar trees that hang heavy over the creek, their gnarled roots exposed at the water’s edge.

In the lower reaches, once the velocity of the creek has slowed, you feel as if you are paddling through a valley that has suffered a destruction similar to that which was inflicted upon the Toutle River after Mount St. Helens erupted. Trees lay strewn haphazardly across the valley floor, remnants of past floods.

After paddling this creek for many years, I decided to try exploring on foot. I was not disappointed.

There are several trails in the valley that lead to high mountain lakes, hidden canyons, or seldom visited waterfalls. I have often seen moose in the cedar forests bordering the creek, and evidence of bear on the mountain sides. Elk inhabit the lower sections of the valley and it’s common to see them as you head upstream from Clark Fork.

Several years ago, the Forest Service replaced a bridge that had been wiped by one of the “lightning” floods. A friend and professional photographer, Chris Celentano, and I were finally able to reach a waterfall in the upper reaches of Lightning Creek, one that had achieved a sort of mythical status for us.

Char Falls. We knew it was up there, but until the new bridge was installed, the only way to reach it was a very long drive up Trestle Creek.

We returned to Char falls that winter and practiced ice climbing, enjoying the quiet that snow brings, as well as the absolute beauty of the valley deep in a cold embrace. We talked about recreating that adventure the following winter, but a high snowpack kept us at bay.

By the time the snows receded enough that we thought we could make it to Char Falls again, we discovered that winter floods had wiped out the road just a few miles upstream of the new bridge that had briefly allowed us access to the valley above.

Plans are now in place to fix the road this summer and Chris and I are eagerly awaiting the chance to further explore what has become one of our favorite North Idaho adventure destinations.

I have yet to discover all adventures possible in this unique drainage.

To get there

From Sandpoint head east on Highway 200 to the town of Clark Fork, about 26 miles. Turn left on Main Street, and just outside of town, turn left onto Lightning Creek Road. The first washout is at roughly eight miles, leaving plentiful access to the creek. Once the road damage has been repaired, Char Falls and much more will again be accessible by this route.

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