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The Spokane River slinks away from the northern tip of Lake Coeur d’Alene like an introverted guest at a party. Until I looked for it on a map, I hadn’t known exactly where it began. From shore, standing at the northwest corner of Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, there is no perceptible difference in how the water moves on the lake versus the river: It’s all flat and still. The only indication of change is a subtle narrowing of the shore on both sides, squeezing the lake into a lane the size of a suburban street. In this way, the river travels west for 13 miles, reaching a cul de sac at Post Falls Dam. Only once it is past the dam does the Spokane assume the likeness of a river.
I canoed this upper section of the river last spring with my friend Marit, who grew up in Spokane and returned to the city recently with her husband and daughter. She’s a former marketing executive who now works as a spiritual-regression therapist and spirit-release specialist. What I understand this to mean is that she helps people release difficult emotions by examining past lives and by clearing energy from physical spaces. In other words, she’s a ghostbuster.
Talking with her about this work has made me, at times, profoundly uncomfortable, as it requires me to accept as possible something that my mind considers delusional: that past lives are a thing, that we can communicate with some remanent of our past selves, and that we should. I have no reason to doubt that she considers her work real and beneficial. She is not a charlatan, nor does she take money for services unrendered. Her clients seek her out because they’re desperate to untether themselves from troubling emotional trauma, trauma that extends beyond their lifetime, and they cannot do it alone. They need a guide. I understand that this may be her clients’ truth, but nothing in my experience makes it true to me. What’s interesting is that she knows this. She knows her line of work freaks some people out. She knows that many people are sceptical of her beliefs and abilities, and as far as I can tell, she is able to joyfully live among people who aren’t sure what to think of her. And I kind of love her for that.
Still, it feels disingenuous to ask questions about her work when I’ve already closed my mind to it. We find plenty of other things to discuss. When we launched our canoe on the upper Spokane River that day, we talked about goose poop (there was a lot of it on the beach) and regional growth.
The north bank of the upper Spokane River (the bank to our right as we paddled downstream) has experienced a recent surge in commercial and residential development. In 2018, the City of Coeur d’Alene purchased 47-acres of waterfront from an old lumber mill and sold it to developers to build new houses (which, on that day, were in various stages of construction), restaurants, a marina, and a public park. Despite zoning laws that require a 25-foot setback to maintain riparian habitat on the riverbank or lakeshore, this development, like many others, appeared to be exempt from the law. Each of the new houses features a mown and fertilised lawn shored up by concrete bulwarks and a dock.
The south bank of the river, which we passed on our left, looks completely different. Because it’s harder to access, requiring a long drive downriver to a bridge and a long drive back upriver on a winding road, the left bank appears to be set in a different historical time period. On this bank we passed ramshackle cabins with big front porches and rocking chairs. Overgrown tea roses and gnarled cherry trees sat back from the bank where old rowboats and canoes hid behind the tall grass.
We paddled quietly down the middle of this rift in time, looking left at the past and right at the future. It gave me an eerie feeling to wander so freely in time. Between one set of ideals and another. The two sides of the river seemed at odds with each other, and paddling between them, they tugged at two sides of myself: the still and the strident; the listless and the ambitious; the has-been and the could-be.
Forgetting Marit’s career, I once asked whether she would rather spend seven days visiting a specific time in the past or in the future. It was a question I’d asked my kids at the dinner table, and I was thinking about my own response. I had said that I’d like to go backward in time. I was interested in revisiting a particularly hard time in my life, wondering if I could reframe it and potentially move past it. Predictably, Marit said she spends a lot of time in the past and would prefer to visit the future. She said it’s often hard to go back in time, painful even, and that the future might be more exciting.
It’s not that I think the past is so great. Rather, I find so much of the past unresolved. In the not-too-distant past, for example, the Coeur d’Alene area struggled to fend off a reputation as a haven for white supremacists. In the late 1980s, Richard Butler, an aerospace engineer and aspiring neo-Nazi, arrived in the area to build a “whites only” homeland, which he called the Aryan Nation. After two decades of nefarious activity, his property was seized and sold and demolished.
Randy Weaver, himself a white separatist, lived a bit further north in the Idaho panhandle in his Ruby Ridge compound, which was seized by Federal Marshals who ended up killing his wife and son in an 11-day standoff in 1992. For a while it seemed as if the white separatist movement left the area. But then Washington State representative Matt Shea carried the neo-Nazi baton over the state line into Washington. His presence suggests that intolerance is not disappearing from North Idaho, but spreading. It’s not a part of the country to get lost in the woods.
The thing is, North Idaho is composed almost entirely of woods. Except for a few populated areas, the landscape is beautiful: lower-elevation pine forests, wetlands, and lakes of all sizes give way to higher elevation larch and fir forests, granite peaks, and tumbling mountain streams. It’s the kind of place you want to get lost in, or fish, or hike, or just sit quietly in a camp chair by a lake. Camping options abound, as most of the land is designated national forest or managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which makes it a haven for anyone with a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a tent. While the area attracts its share of motorheads who shoot rounds of ammunition through highway signs and leave beer cans in parking pullouts, it also hosts an astounding number of summer camps (of the Bible variety), backpackers, and wilderness lovers.
Lake Coeur d’Alene is considered one of the gems of North Idaho. It is a natural lake, kept unnaturally full in summer by the Post Falls Dam. The lake is surrounded on all sides by rich green forests that rise toward a big open sky. Because of all the intricate folds of land around it, the lake is pleated into 135 miles of shoreline. A boat can travel 25 miles south from the city of Coeur d’Alene and not quite reach the end of it.
At the end of the lake is Indian Country. The Salish-speaking people who first considered the lake home were named Coeur d’Alene by French fur traders who thought highly of the tribe’s aptitude for trading. These natives once occupied about five million acres of lands surrounding the lake, where the still water, forests, and rivers would have provided bountiful food sources. White settlers arrived in the area in the early 1800s and began encroaching on tribal land along the Spokane River corridor to the west. The tribe negotiated a treaty with the US Army in 1873, which ceded all but 600,000 of the more than five million acres of traditional Coeur d’Alene territory to the United States. Included in the 600,000 acres was all of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
The US government reneged on the treaty by refusing to sign it until 1885, at which time silver had been discovered in the Coeur d’Alene river valley upstream from the lake, and the northern half of the lake was seized for development. The Post Falls Dam, originally built to power a lumber mill, was repurposed to support the mining enterprise. Decades of loosely regulated mining and smelting ensued, cursing the lake and the river valley below with environmental damage that continues to this day. Now, a thick blanket of heavy metals covers the bottom of the lake – some 75 million tons of sediment laced with lead, zinc, and cadmium. And every day still the Silver Valley, now a federally-designated Superfund Site, leaches trace metals into the Coeur d’Alene River, where they tumble down the river, into the lake, and out the Spokane River.
When the metals settle into the lake and river floor, they remain more-or-less inert, like ticking time bombs. One must be careful not to stir them. Signage all along the lake warns visitors not to stray off the paved trails or dig in the sand or dirt along the lake unless the soil has been remediated, but some of us are better than others at reading signs. Migrating tundra swans who dip their long necks in the sediment to feed inadvertently poison themselves by the hundreds every April and May.
Early on in our friendship, I asked Marit to describe exactly what it means to “clear” a physical space. As if describing something as routine and mysterious as installing a cable modem and router, she told me what a “clearing” involves and then walked me through a recent job she was asked to do. Most of what she explained challenged my grip on reality, but the gist was something like this: A person had moved into a house and discovered that it was haunted. I can’t remember if she explained how her client knew the house was haunted, but in my memory, the haunting was conventional: flickering lights, moving furniture, unusual noises. The homeowners consulted the internet, where they found Marit’s website and phone number. Over the phone, Marit assured her client she would do her best to expel the ghost. And, at some appointed date, Marit made herself into what she calls a Lightbody – which she said is difficult because she has to scramble her signal so the spirit cannot trace her back to her current life – and asked the spirit (very nicely) to leave. (Marit says she believes it is important to be kind to spirits because they are almost always suffering, and one of the things that makes her good at her job is the compassion she brings to it. This part rings true to me. Marit is a very kind and compassionate person.) As the gears in my brain tried to make sense of the information she had just told me, Marit carried on with the story. Something about how the spirit was unable to leave because it was being manipulated by a dark force that had infiltrated the space, making this job particularly complicated. To clear the space, she had to wipe the dark energy from phone lines, electrical outlets, and cable internet (which, after all, are a home’s energy conductors). The clearing took a long time. Addressing the past and healing the space was exhausting, but ultimately cathartic. The spirit was allowed to leave, released from its own suffering and the suffering it was causing.
When she finished, I could not think of a single thing to say.
On the river, we passed a guy on the right bank, mowing his lawn. It was a nice lawn, free of weeds, well-trimmed. Michael Pollan, who once wrote an essay about our country’s tyrannical obsession over lawns, would have called it an American lawn. The carpet of grass made me think of phosphorus, which is an ingredient in lawn fertiliser and which derives from the Greek word phosphoros meaning bringer of light. Its Latin equivalent is lucifer. It is a chemical element, invisible, and glows faintly green when exposed to oxygen. Phosphorus is abundantly available in soil and a common ingredient in many household items like pesticides, detergents, and (as mentioned) fertilisers. What many people fail to realise or accept is that phosphorus can wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems.
Phosphorus levels in Lake Coeur d’Alene have doubled since the 1990s, trickling in from upstream logging and agricultural operations, leaching out of septic tanks and fertilised lawns, and seeping in from soils disturbed by new development. I wondered if the guy mowing his lawn knew this. And, if he did, whether it bothered him.
Lakes that absorb phosphorus tend to grow algae, floating green stuff, which can cover the lake in unappealing muck. This is a bad enough outcome for swimmers who want to cool off in clean water. But it is only the first domino. Algae blocks sunlight from reaching the lake floor, which in turn makes it impossible for native underwater plants to photosynthesise and make oxygen. When algae die at the end of the summer and sink to the lake floor, they are decomposed by bacteria that require oxygen to live. But because of the native plants that failed to photosynthesise and because of the longer and hotter summers we’ve been having, the average level of dissolved oxygen in Lake Coeur d’Alene has been dropping steadily since the 1990s. It is currently somewhere in the range of six to eight milligrams per litre. When dissolved oxygen drops below about two milligrams per litre, water can become hypoxic, causing organisms living in the water to suffocate. Eventually, water can become anoxic, devoid of oxygen, which is actually happening in some small parts of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Oxygen, so essential to life, plays a critical secondary role in the lake. It covers the heavy metals sitting on the lake floor. Like a blanket, oxygen keeps the lead and cadmium and zinc from floating up and circulating in the water column. When and if oxygen levels drop low enough, the cover will come off the metals. And the metals will rise, zombie-like, from the lake bottom, slowly poisoning everything in the lake and river outlet: plankton, fish, birds, humans, and all.
On the day of the paddle, it was hard to imagine any of this happening. It seemed far-fetched to believe that one person’s building project or lawn fertiliser could change the chemistry of a huge, shimmering lake, surrounded by woods, in the middle of Idaho. But I remember looking up at the blue sky from the unnaturally placid river and feeling a humming tension between the two sides of the river, between the past and the future. It felt that the present moment could snap.
We arrive in the world already tainted by the actions of our ancestors. We are not to blame for their errors, but we are not without responsibility for them either. Go to any river and you will find rainwater and spring water mixed with effluent from sewage treatment plants, agricultural run-off, stormwater, and/or street runoff in a single hydrologic composition. No river is entirely pure. My generation did not build the mines that polluted this lake, but we continue to use the copper and silver they extract. We did not start polluting Lake Coeur d’Alene, but we have not found a way to stop either. We haven’t even considered reparations for native peoples.
What our history forgets, the earth remembers.
The wind picked up, and the sky went dark. We had to fight hard to make headway. We settled into an unsteady rhythm, each of us making contingency plans in our heads in case we were late to pick up our kids from school.
Just as my shoulder began to ache, still several miles from our takeout, we came around a corner and beheld a mansion on the bank to the right. This was a house that looked like it ate and swallowed at least ten of the neighbouring houses, squeezed itself into a poufy party dress and set out a swimming pool, tennis court, pond, and putting green for dinner. So unsettled were we by the mansion’s otherworldly existence, especially there in North Idaho, we gawked in mute wonder as it came into view. What is that? we murmured to each other, so as not to awaken it. Internet research informed us later that the house indeed contains 28,000 square feet of living space with 13 bedrooms and 13 bathrooms and a 10-car garage and two boat slips. It had been built by a founder of Amway, the cleaning-supply pyramid scheme, and was on sale for $8.5 million (down from $16 million, in a part of the country where the median home price is $332,000). But what made our experience of the house even more surreal was that just as we feasted on the spectacle of the mansion on our right, our ears picked up the mournful note of a tenor saxophone coming from our left. Tearing our eyes off the mansion, we found on the opposite shore a man about our age wearing a black cowboy hat, sitting on an old cantilevered wooden deck in front of a ramshackle cabin. He was pouring his soul into a brass saxophone, which had been hooked into an amplifier that itself was plugged into a long extension cord that draped over the decking and disappeared inside the cabin. The wind began to howl and carry away the desperate notes.
The music seemed to summon the past from the water below us, a past that muted the birds and the distant rumble of the highway and spilled like fog into the present. The mansion hovered like a dystopian future, an inescapable beckoning I had no desire to follow. The water grew choppier and we dug with our paddles to make forward progress. For the last two miles, we said nothing.
We pulled out of the river just above the south channel of the Post Falls Dam where we’d left Marit’s car. There, we left the canoe on a patch of grass and drove back to the start of our paddle in Coeur d’Alene to fetch my truck. I wondered to myself if it would be possible for Marit to reconcile us with our collective past, to leave the ghosts that haunt us behind, bid them farewell and Godspeed. But then I remembered that she can’t release ghosts who still have work to do, and I also remembered that I didn’t believe in ghosts.
We are taught to leave the past behind, to let it go, move on. But sometimes the past won’t leave us alone; sometimes it prevents us from moving forward. Damages from the previous century’s mining activity continue to harm wildlife and threaten the lake’s health. But the two parties assigned with the task of avoiding a possible water quality disaster in the lake: The Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the state of Idaho disagree over possible solutions, timelines, and funding. They’ve reached an impasse. Rather, they’ve reached some unresolved place in the past. The State doesn’t want to stop logging, agriculture, or development. The tribe doesn’t trust the state.
They can’t escape the past. And they can’t envision the future.
Ghosts are embedded in the landscape. They are carved into riverbank, they sit at the bottom of the lake, they hover in the air over difficult meetings between the state and the tribe. I don’t need past-life regression analysis to see this. I only need to pay attention. Sometimes we are so careful not to stir up the past that we fail to acknowledge it; we forget it exists or relegate it to another lifetime. But this is our mistake. The past and the future will forever be at odds until we know the past and take responsibility for it in the present, even if it’s painful, even if it’s not our fault. I think it’s the only way to envision a different future. I wish, for the sake of Lake Coeur d’Alene, we had someone to guide us, some Marit-equivalent, who is kind and compassionate and knows how to turn herself into a Lightbody to remove heavy metals and phosphorus from the lake, to release us from our suffering. But we don’t. Instead we have each other, our shared past, and our collective urge to move forward.
Heidi Lasher (she/her) is a graduate of the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. Her most recent work has been published in Griffel, the Inlander, and OutThere Outdoors. She currently lives in Eastern Washington, near the Spokane River.