By John Tapley
For many scuba divers looking to explore the Pacific Coast, Idaho is a gateway: a place to pass through between home and destination. Landlocked within the northwestern United States, Idaho, at first glance, doesn’t have a lot to offer in comparison to other states, but a further inspection leads to some unique diving off the beaten path: as rivers converge with pools, streams and ponds, possibilities open up – especially for divers who enjoy other watersports. The state best known for spuds and springs, as we will discover, is replete with opportunities for scuba aficionados who are willing to give it a chance.
“I wouldn’t call it a dive destination state, but we’re blessed to be able to splash. Like I tell my students, who are going to places with 80 degrees and 100-foot visibility, ‘Diving in Idaho isn’t easy. We wear drysuits and have to do altitude adjustments for all our diving because everything is over 1,000 feet. But it’s worth it. If you can dive here, you’re a really good diver – you can do pretty much anything.” – Paul Melni
Fascinated by the ocean, Paul Melni, owner of AWOL Scuba and Kayak (a new watersports center located in Twin Falls) has carried his love of the sport to Idaho, where he showcases the state’s many offerings.
Idaho is dotted with series of quarries, lakes, reservoirs, and springs; and while often small in scope, these places are ideal for convenience. And when this isn’t enough to sate Idahoan divers, nearby Wyoming features plenty of choice opportunities in warmer waters: many of which are found near Yellowstone National Park and the Shoshone National Forest.
Many of the most treasured dives in the state known for tubers and mountains are located well off the beaten path, which has given Idaho diving a reputation for being rough and rugged. Sites located in higher elevations, which often exceed 3,000 feet, can be a difficult adventure for scuba explorers who aren’t accustomed to hiking, and carrying gear over an extended period of time can challenge the heartiest of aqua explorers. Still, being accompanied by a convoy of people aiming for the same thrills heightens the spirit of camaraderie, which carries into the dive itself.
The physical activity demanded by Idaho’s mountainous terrain isn’t the only concern divers should consider before venturing to the state, and it is critical divers understand how to adjust for higher elevations to avoid perilous situations.
Charlie Sterling, who owns full-service dive center Boise Scuba Center in Meridian, enjoys the mentoring aspect of scuba, and has been enthralled with diving since he first encountered 007’s Bahaman adventures in Thunderball. He shares some of his expertise on preparing for high altitude scuba:
“With high altitude diving you have to account for decreased pressure, and you would have to have a high-altitude dive chart and acclimate to it for a certain amount of time. With a computer, you’d need a pre-programmed setting. It’s recommended to only do two dives a day, limit your depth, and make your ascent rate to at least one foot every two seconds. And when going home for the day, you’d have to also account for the elevation of the pass: some can be 8,000 feet.”
While out in the wild, divers often take advantage of the occasion by connecting other watersports and interests to their primary goal. For scuba instructor Jenny Dennis, of Dive Magic (a dive business with two locations in Boise), the joy of scuba is in its sense of freedom from the hustle and grind of every day life, and a multi-layered approach (especially among friends) is a big appeal. She, along with her sister Mary, were introduced to scuba through their father: a hobby, which turned into a career for both. For her, Idaho’s dive destinations are well worth the cost of admission:
“It’s the adventure getting to dive sites – sometimes people will travel great distances, and the walk can be intense. A lot of our lakes are tucked into the mountains, and many go camping when they [explore] them. We have a lot of cross-over: we’ll get kayakers, paddlers, and white-water rafting. We get people who want to see what it’s like to dive at altitude or cold-water diving. If someone gives us notice, we try to find them something different to offer than in other places.”
Nestled roughly six miles north of Twin Falls, Dierkes Lake is a beloved scuba diving attraction, largely because of its interesting geographic features. Sitting in Snake River Canyon along the Snake River, down to about 485 feet, the lake is surrounded by a separate inner wall, which divers follow to 250 feet to the river below.
Before the early 1900s, Dierkes Lake was considered part of a high desert area; following the Water Reclamation Act in 1902, which dammed sections of southern Idaho, water tables rose, and in turn morphed the arid landscape into a verdant agricultural zone. Today, Mulni takes his friends to this area: not just because of its efficiency in training, but its interesting sights that have remained for over a century.
“The whole area used to be apple and peach orchards – there’s no remnants of the [farm] house, but the trees, which are over 200 years old are lined up on the bottom of the lake. We [also] have a platform down there, along with some sunken rowboats: fun little things for students to swim through to teach them buoyancy. We’re hoping to – if the Army Corps of Engineers allows us, and if we can find one – submerge an airplane or something cool to look at.”
Similar to Dierkes Lake, Lake Roosevelt is an example of how terraforming (guided by a human hand or nature) can radically change an environment. At a time, the lake was simply the town of Roosevelt: a quick stop for gold miners to receive their mail. Short after the turn of the century, a fire struck the little town, which took out the trees and groundcover: eventually, this snowballed into massive mudslides, which choked the creek and caused the land to sink. Today’s explorers, scuba divers, enjoy the site for its glimpse into Old Idaho.
Dennis and Melni, who explored the ruins in tandem in July of 2014, enjoyed the site for its atmospheric presence.
“Everyone’s always looking for that grand adventure – ‘Hey! There’s town underwater! Let’s check it out and see what’s there.’ It piqued my interest to look at it, and I scouted the area the weekend before to see if it was doable – we didn’t want to show up without the equipment we needed. We didn’t have a whole lot of information so we prepared for an altitude, cold-water lake: we wanted to make sure we had the protection to make it. [At] one of the summits we had to drive over was just over 9,000 feet, and I [altitude] adjusted it to 10,000 to make sure we would be safe.”
“Jenny and I hiked our gear over two miles on this nasty shale trail,” adds Melni. “We dove it, and it was incredible to see the outlines of buildings and the tops of structures – because of 100 plus years of [submergence] in this high-altitude lake. It was some of the coldest waters I’ve ever been in – mid-40s from the glacial runoff. It was an incredible piece of history to dive on.”
Lucky Peak Lake
Lucky Peak Lake, situated on the Boise River about 13 miles southeast of Boise, is a large reservoir, which holds water for irrigation. Although diving is a fun activity here, it can often be tricky depending on the water level – the reservoir is filled at the start of every year.
Dennis, who has experienced this site extensively, offers her insight on Lucky Peak:
“We have one spot we use for teaching, and we know it well: there are nuances that tell you where you’re at. On a good day, the visibility is about 10 feet, and on a not-so-good day, you can see the end of your arm: you want to be close enough to your [buddies] on those days. We use old cement barrels as our reference when teaching classes: we’ll set up in the general area. It’s nice [because of] rocky stairsteps going down – we set our divers on different tiers, we let them know we’re going east to west, keeping [them] around that 20 to 25-foot depth.”
Befitting its name, Redfish Lake is an aqua zone appreciated for its bounty of fish life, water temperatures that hover around 60 degrees, and crisp, clear waters, which are fed through small pools and streams, via underground aquifers. This beautiful alpine lake is elevated to nearly 6,550 feet, gifting explorers with awe-inspiring vistas; and down below, past recreational diving limits, plenty of submerged natural features, such as boulders, to survey.
Sterling considers Redfish Lake a personal favorite, largely because of the peak visibility, which averages about 100 feet.
“It’s my favorite dive in Idaho because it’s so clear: you almost have a sense you’re in a tropical dive trip: like diving in the Caribbean. From a standpoint of visibility, it rivals any Caribbean [dive].”
Idaho is a landlocked state. It doesn’t offer the spectacular wrecks found in the Great Lakes; its fish life, while bountiful, is drab in comparison to tropical climates; and it lacks the openness of ocean diving. However, its crisp waters, high-altitude sections, and plethora of associated watersports make it a state that should not be overlooked. High in the mountains, and deep in the waters, this is a special location worth visiting at least once. The state of spuds and springs also offers unforgettable scuba.