Good Medicine at Circling Raven

By: Jeff Shelley

One of the best courses to open in the Pacific Northwest in recent years lies 30 minutes south of one of the region’s most heralded tracks. Circling Raven Golf Club is situated along U.S. 95 next to Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel. This establishment is not to be confused with the Coeur d’Alene Resort. That place – with the much-photographed golf course and the famous floating green – is in its namesake town next to its eponymous lake.

No, Circling Raven and its accompanying casino resort were developed and are owned and operated by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, headquartered in the much less tourist town Plummer. The Coeur d’Alenes are an enterprising and beneficent group, centuries-old traits which, thanks to revenues generated by its gaming operation, has contributed much to several local communities.

The golf course – which occupies a whopping 400-plus acres – is named after an ancient leader of the tribe. The raven, circling overhead, was his “medicine.” As the legend goes, the bird showed Circling Raven where to find game, and warned him of danger or the presence of an enemy. Indian people looked to the raven for wisdom, and honored him with love and respect.

Circling Raven lived nearly 100 years, just long enough to experience “first contact” with the incoming white men who first stepped foot into Idaho in the late 18th century. The first whites were Canadian trappers, who dealt, traded and shared with the Upper Plateau Indian tribes. These newcomers praised the local Indians, and called their hosts “Coeur d’Alene” – French for “heart of the awl” – as they traded with precise, pointed skill.

On his deathbed Circling Raven had a vision that white men wearing black robes and carrying crossed sticks would someday come and bring great and dramatic change to the tribe. In 1842, Fr. Pierre DeSmet traveled to northern Idaho from Montana’s Flathead Valley. He met with the Coeur d’Alene people and leaders on the north shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Wearing a black robe and carrying a cross, he preached Christianity. Circling Raven’s final vision soon became reality as the tribe converted to Catholicism almost overnight.

The Coeur d’Alenes own a tremendous amount of land, and their largesse is as impressive as their real estate portfolio. Not an insulated group, the tribe has reached out to the small towns and residents of this somewhat depressed area which, for decades, relied on timber and mining for jobs and income. Since those industries have all but dried up, many people here need help. And the tribe has helped fill the void.

The tribe is in very astute hands. It’s headed by Ernie Stensgar, who was born and raised on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation. Ernie has been chairman of the tribe since 1986, and has served as president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, representing 55 tribes, since 1996. A graduate of Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Ernie is the first tribal leader to be listed among Idaho’s 100 most influential people and the first tribal leader named to the Idaho Hall of Fame. He is the first tribal leader to be honored with the prestigious Bayard Rustin Award, given to individuals who make a dramatic impact on the advancement of human rights. Ernie is also the first tribal leader to be awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from Gonzaga University.

The tribe’s initial foray into gaming came with the opening of a 30,000-square-foot bingo hall in 1993. From that modest start has evolved a full-service destination resort with a 202-room hotel, restaurants, hundreds of gaming machines, and a large convention-entertainment arena. National touring acts sing and play music in that latter space, which seats over 1,000. Boxing matches there draw fight fans from as far away as Spokane and Missoula.

Thanks to the success of its expanded resort, the tribe now provides nearly 1,400 jobs. It is the second largest employer in Northern Idaho and one of the largest in the Inland Northwest. The tribe’s economic impact on the region approaches $100 million annually. Under the leadership of Stensgar and the tribal council, the Coeur d’Alenes invest directly back into the region, creating new industry and new jobs, contributing millions of dollars to tribal and public education, and increasing funding for vital tribal programs

The tribe founded the Benewah Medical Center, which is used by Indians and non-Indians alike. The BMC is a model for both Indian and rural health care, with similar agencies from throughout the U.S. venturing to Plummer, Idaho, to observe the operation. It represents the first time in American history that an Indian tribe became a health care provider for the non-Indian public. The BMC now serves over 10,000 patients in the region.

Revenues from that enterprise helped finance a state-of-the-art “wellness center,” a 40,000-square-foot building with a gym, weight training area, swimming pool, ball courts, studios, and so forth. During my visit the place was packed with sweaty, exercising kids who – without such a facility – would not be so constructively occupied. In addition to the clinic and wellness center, the tribe has contributed to the well-being of the residents of Mullen, St. Maries, Plummer, and other small towns in the Idaho Panhandle.

The construction of new and impressive facilities by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe continues with this golf course, which opened in August 2003. Florida-based golf architect Gene Bates – who’s done hundreds of layouts around the world but this is his first in the Pacific Northwest – considers Circling Raven among his top three designs. Bates’ sentiments were seconded in February 2004 when GOLF Magazine included the track in its list of the “Top-10 New Courses You Can Play.” Circling Raven and the nine others outshone 270 courses that opened across the U.S. in 2003.

Unlike its splashier neighbor to the north, Circling Raven is affordable (play rates at the Coeur d’Alene Resort Course are upwards of $175). The green fees here are $70, including GPS-equipped cart and unlimited range balls. In addition to an exceptional layout, the venue boasts a 6,500-square-foot clubhouse – with the Twisted Earth Grill and a full-service bar, and a 25-acre driving range with natural-turf tees and separate wedge and sand-shot practice areas.

Bates was blessed with an assortment of options in selecting a site for the new golf course. Several different parcels within the 1,000 acres surrounding the resort were available. “Ultimately, we settled on the most difficult ground, because that generally yields more spectacular results,” said Bates. The site is split by a railway; the trains clatter past golfers a mere two times a week.

The layout meanders past and across wetlands, tall Palouse grasslands, and a pine forest. From the tips the par-72 track stretches 7,189 yards, where it receives a course rating of 74.5 and a 140 slope. Four other tees make the challenge a bit more manageable for the less skilled among us. Because it stretches across such a vast tract – skirting the wetlands via custom-made, boardwalk-like wood bridges and concrete cart paths along the way, the course’s price tag was $30 million. Carts are mandatory here as the green-to-next-tee distances are just too long.

The charter given Bates has proven quite successful, according to the resort’s CEO, Dave Matheson, a Coeur d’Alene tribal member. “We wanted the golf experience to be in concert with a natural experience,” Matheson said. “We feel strongly about such things in Indian Country and we’ve been careful to find talented people who can achieve these goals. This is our homeland. We don’t forget that it’s also the homeland of many species of fish and wildlife, including our migrating and resident birds.”

In concert with those aspirations, Circling Raven is a member of Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary System. The preservation of the endemic wetlands and Palouse grasses – both critical elements of the local ecosystem – is apparent by the industrious sounds of meadowlarks, osprey, pheasant, mallard ducks, widgeons, geese, heron and, yes, ravens. Large ruminants such as elk and moose live nearby, as do bear, deer, beaver and cougar.

In addition to it Audubon International designation, the course is also a member of the newly formed Idaho Golf Trail. Launched in spring 2004, the six-course trail – one of several in the U.S. – also includes Hidden Lakes in Sandpoint; the aforementioned Coeur d’Alene Resort Course; Whitetail Golf Club in McCall; Sun Valley Resort in Sun Valley; and BanBury Golf Club in Eagle.

Golfers at Circling Raven will experience considerable variety along its 18 holes. Vast, white-sand bunkers define landing areas and impinge bentgrass greens; wetlands and Environmentally Sensitive Areas come into play off tees and along the bluegrass fairways; and natural and manmade land forms give some holes a links-ish feel and the chance to play a ground game with approaches to the greens. The construction of the course was excellent; it looks like its been here for decades. Perhaps the strongest holes are the par-3s, which stretch from 175 to 250 yards. There are no pushovers at Circling Raven. The greens are pure, with subtle slopes and the opportunity for tough pin placements comprising major impediments to par.

Perhaps best of all, no matter the difficulties encountered during a round, at Circling Raven golfers can simply look up and enjoy the ride and the view. The separation of holes is stellar (“the only hole you can see is the one you’re playing,” says tribal spokesman, Bob Bostwick), and the vistas sublime. The panoramas stretch for miles in all directions, with mountains, broad expanses of native grasses, and shimmering forests alleviating the pain that golf too often inflicts.

Perhaps the words of director of golf Dave Christenson best sum up the Circling Raven experience. “I think people will be blown away when the see the course for the first time. Because of its set-apart fairways and diverse terrain, it’s like no other course in the region.

“The course, ideally, is meant to be enjoyed by individuals, groups and casino guests,” Christenson continued. “And it provides a great opportunity for tribal members to learn about the sport of golf, as well. I think everyone is going to be pleasantly surprised by what we have here.”

If you’re out in this lovely neck of the Northwest woods, be sure to visit Circling Raven Golf Club. For more information or a tee time, call 800/523-2464 or visit