COOLIN, 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 onto 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 whitetail 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; to 3 miles to Upper Priest Lake, depending on where you launch on the big lake. You also can 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, only 30 miles from the Canadian border, 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.