By Carrie Scozzaro
North Idaho provides nearly year-round recreation on large and small waterways teeming with some of the Northwest’s finest wildlife: osprey, heron, Canada geese, migrating trumpet swans, and bald eagles. Four-legged friends include moose, deer, and bears, and even mountain goats along Lake Pend Oreille.
Known to birders, paddlers and fishermen alike, Coeur d'Alene's Chain Lakes branch outward from a 13-mile stretch of the lower Coeur d'Alene River where the north and south forks converge. Maximize your journey by putting in at Old Mission State Park, home of the 1850 Cataldo Mission, then float westward. Low river levels are rarely an issue, although flows can be sluggish in summer (check the USGS site). Most channels from the river are well-marked, yet it's a good idea to confirm directions, depending on the season. Cave Lake, for example, can only be accessed from inside Medicine Lake with summer vegetation obscuring the entryway.
Several lakes -- Anderson, Black, Killarney, Medicine, Thompson -- have boat launches and facilities from rustic to well-established (running water, flush toilets, plenty of parking). Day and overnight camping is available, with boat-in sites on picturesque islands in Killarney, Medicine and Swan lakes.
Priest Lake, another jewel in north Idaho's lake country, is a destination unto itself: biking, hiking, camping, fishing and even foraging (mushrooms in the spring, huckleberries in the summer). Priest Lake is actually two lakes; a 2.5-mile, no-wake thorofare links Lower and Upper Priest Lakes, the latter a paddler's paradise.
Put in on the west side of Upper Priest at Beaver Creek State Park and expect to portage about a mile, while Lionshead on the eastside has direct access, but the breakwater can be choppy. Spring and summer runoff can make the thorofare too fast for all but the most experienced. Chip Dalvini, owner of Kayak Coeur d'Alene, prefers early October mornings when wind is low, the bears scarce--both brown and grizzly live here--and people scarcer. Look for coyote and beaver along shore and pike in the crystal-clear water, framed against the dense green and gold of tamaracks turning for the season.
Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced pond-ə-ray) is the largest and deepest Idaho lake at 43 miles across and 1,150 miles deep (the Navy still tests submarines out of Farragut State Park on the Lake's southern tip). A lake this big means big weather, including thermal winds in otherwise calm coves, so planning is key. Yet with 100-plus miles of mostly undeveloped shoreline, the lake remains a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts even during peak summer season.
Put in at Garfield Bay, a modest resort town accustomed to visitors and head 2-3 miles north to Green Bay, (noting that the wind can make it feel like double that). For a gentler but longer paddle of about seven miles each way, hug the coastline south toward Talache Landing. Or, launch from there for a jaunt to Maiden Creek or Evan's Landing, which offers gently sloping shores with sweeping views of the lake and distant mountains.
-- Check out C&K's full list of North America's Top Paddling Towns.