UPPER PRIEST LAKE, IDAHO — An osprey screeches and dives out of the sky straight down toward the blue waters of Upper Priest Lake in Northern Idaho’s Panhandle.
It’s one of the first sights you see coming out on to the 1,300-acre lake from a narrow, forest-lined watery hallway from larger Priest Lake.
The waterway, called the Thorofare, takes canoeists and touring kayakers on a secluded adventure far from the busy, touristy 23,000-acre lake, which is lined with resorts and cabins.
The osprey pulls out of its dive just before hitting the water, apparently giving up on its target, one of the lake’s fish.
Getting to Upper Priest Lake, which lies in an awe-inspiring setting at the base of 7,600-foot Selkirk Mountain peaks, is an easy paddle.
Canoeists and kayakers launch from the white, sandy beaches of the Lionhead unit of Priest Lake State Park and paddle about a half-mile across the large lake.
Morning is the best time to launch because ski boats aren’t on the lake yet, and the water is usually glassy.
Within minutes, you’re paddling along the Thorofare and leaving behind signs of civilization. You are entering the Upper Priest Lake Scenic Area, which is protected from development.
Soon you’re taking in nature’s perfume – the sweet smell of the cedar, hemlock and white pine forest.
You’re passing lime-green, velvety mossy banks and trees with long strands of lichen resembling light grayish-green silk.
“Have you seen any moose,” is the common question from other paddlers navigating the waterway. The area is known for moose, and everyone wants to see one along the waterway. Look closely, you might also see a white-tailed deer, bear or bald eagle.
A variety of ducks swim along the banks, too, apparently unafraid of paddlers.
Woodpeckers pound out signals, which echo through the northern woods.
It’s 21/2-3 miles to Upper Priest Lake, depending on where you launch on the big lake. You can also camp at Beaver Creek Campground on the west side of the lake and paddle to the Thorofare. The campground has a portage trail to a canoe launch on the waterway if you don’t want to paddle across the open water of the big lake.
As you float along the Thorofare, look down into the clear waters at the mosaic of sunken logs on the bottom of the waterway.
The logs have a mysterious look in the combination of shadows and glistening sunlight.
Watch closely for large fish darting across the crystalized sandy bottom.
Another pair of canoeists goes by. “Have you seen any moose?” “Nope,” we answer.
The two paddlers are heading back to the large lake after spending a night on Upper Priest Lake.
The lake has several boat-, mountain bike- and hiker-accessible campgrounds, including one at the end of the Thorofare with a toilet and a bear box.
Yes, this is bear country, and you have to be bear smart when camping. The area has black bears and is also grizzly habitat. You’ll see warning signs about grizzlies.
Besides bears, the area is home to woodland caribou, which are considered one of the most critically endangered mammals in the U.S.
As you continue your paddle looking for moose and other critters, don’t be surprised if you meet motorized boats along the way. The Thorofare is open to motorized boats but is restricted to a no-wake zone.
July and August are busy months on the Thorofare, so if you want to avoid the crowds, you might schedule a paddling trip earlier in summer or later in fall.
But no matter who you meet along the way – moose or motor boats – the Thorofare is an ideal paddling adventure for canoeists.
MORE THINGS TO DO
There are at least two weeks worth of things to do at Priest Lake. Here are a few side trips from paddling the Thorofare:
The U.S. Forest Service has two islands in Priest Lake with campgrounds, Kalispell and Bartoo. Kalispell Island is about 1.3 miles from the Luby Bay Campground on the west side of Priest Lake. Bartoo Island is about 1.7 miles.
There are a lot of mountain bike trails in the area. The Upper Priest Lake Navigation Trail is an excellent mountain bike trail near Priest Lake – up to 8.1 miles, one way, on single track in the old-growth forest next to Upper Priest Lake.
Other trails include Chipmunk Rapids, Granite Pass and Lakeshore. Contact the Priest Lake Ranger District at 208-443-2512 for a brochure on mountain bike trails, camping and other activities in the area, or go to fs.fed.us/ipnf/priestlake.
The Roosevelt Grove
This is a must for hikers because it takes you on an easy hike to a beautiful cedar forest with trees that average 800 years old with some up to 2,000-3,000 years old. The area was named for President Theodore Roosevelt and was officially designated as a scenic area in 1943. It makes for a great hike and picnic in the shadows of the cedars.
Another highlight in the same area, located 14 miles north of Nordman on the west side of Priest Lake, is Granite Falls. The trail leads to two places where you can see the falls and get photos. Get there by driving up Forest Road 302, which is an extension of Idaho state Route 57.
Priest Lake Museum
The museum, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, has a lot of information and displays on the history of Priest Lake. Go to PriestLake.org/Attraction/Museum.html.
If you get tired of camp food, Priest Lake has many options for dining. One restaurant and resort, Hill’s Resort, offers a variety of gourmet meals with huckleberry dishes being a favorite on the menu.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: From Interstate 90, take U.S. Highway 95 toward Sandpoint. Take U.S. Highway 2 west to Priest River and turn north on Idaho state Route 57 about 30 miles to Priest Lake. It’s about a 400-mile trip from the South Sound.
Camping: Sites at the Indian Creek and Lionhead units of Priest Lake State Park can be reserved by calling 888-922-6743. Lionhead is more conducive for tents and is a good launch for the Thorofare. RV camping is limited. The Indian Creek unit is more developed with RV spaces, a park store and laundry. It’s too far to paddle to the Thorofare from Indian Creek. You’ll have to car-top your canoe or kayak and launch at Lionhead or Beaver Creek campgrounds.
Campsites at the Dickensheet Unit, which is located on the Priest River below the lake, are available for first-come, first-served basis. It would also require driving to launch sites.
Fees: Cabin rentals, $50-$55 a night; RV hookup sites, $22-$28; tent campsites, $19.
Information: 208-443-2200; parksandrecreation.idaho.gov
Pete Zimowsky, The Idaho Statesman