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Paddlers carefully eye Priest River flows

Experienced kayakers paddle in teams on spring run-off rivers and wear top-of-the line life vests and dry suits for protection from the cold water. (Jesse Tinsley)
Experienced kayakers paddle in teams on spring run-off rivers and wear top-of-the line life vests and dry suits for protection from the cold water. (Jesse Tinsley)

RIVERS – The best time to float the Priest River comes and goes, but the next couple of weeks will be worth checking out.

At its extremes – up to 10,500 cubic feet per second and down to 165 cfs – the river is basically too high for safe passage except for experts or too low to float without dragging a vessel over the rocks.

  • Ideal flows for experienced canoeists are in the range of 1,200-4,500 cfs (recorded at the gauge near Priest River, Idaho).

During summer through early fall, when most people would be lured to portions of the river downstream from Priest Lake, the water generally is too low to float without bouncing and scraping along the rocks.

However, inexperienced paddlers running inflatable boats can have a safer, enjoyable float at flows in the 600-1,000 cfs range in the Eight Mile Rapids stretch from McAbee Falls downstream.  (See description below.)

Prime times for experienced paddlers farther upstream are:

  • Spring runoff period of May and early June, but be especially ready for cold water and alert for new log jams or strainers.
  • Early October, a glorious, fall-color period when mosquitoes are gone and flows pick up to the 1,200 cfs range as water is allowed to flow over Outlet Dam to lower Priest Lake to winter levels.

Read on for more details and notes on flows from Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club diaries.

Over the May 18-19, 2013, weekend, the flow at the Priest River gauge was about 6,000 cfs and some paddlers equipped with dry suits and kayaks found the flows pushy and corners required skill. River flows are dropping quickly this week and are likely to be around 5,000 feet by Memorial Day weekend.

At flows above 5,500 cfs, many of the stream obstacles are washed out, but the river is fast and pushy and demands concentration to avoid getting overpowered.

At flows below 5,500 cfs, paddlers will find more obstacles and rapids.

Experienced canoeists over the years have tended to prefer flows from around 1,200 (more technical) to 4,000 (ideal for rapids and playing) in the 25 miles between Dickensheet Campground downstream to McAbee Falls. Most day tripping groups with good paddling skills run Dickensheet downstream 15 miles to Big Hole takeout.

For a more moderate but challenging trip, All About Adventures, a North Idaho outdoor company, takes clients in inflatable kayaks on the Eight Mile Rapids stretch from McAbee Falls downstream 10 miles. They ran the stretch over the weekend at 6,000 cfs calling it "a little big" but doable for competent paddlers. Here are the details:

This Priest River classic starts with a nice lesson/play area at the put-in under McAbee Falls at the Peninsula Road bridge. A 45-minunte oxbowing, flat section leads to the Eight Mile Rapids, a Class III section featuring 20-minutes of sustained twisting and churning whitewater. The remaining paddle, about 45-minutes, is flatwater. This run takes just over 2 hours at 5,000 cfs to 5 hours at early July flows.

For insight in the Dickensheet-Big Hole-McAbee Falls stretch, check out the following notes from Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club diaries kept by canoe enthusiasts Jane and Ron McDonald.

Club paddled Priest River:

Date -- Flow (cfs) -- Notes

5/1/71 -- 4,070 -- (lower 8 mile)
5/8/71 -- 5,990
5/5/72 -- 2,690
5,5,73 -- 2,280
5/3/74 -- 5,830
7/5/74 -- 5,350
5/24/75 -- ??
11/15/76 -- 700 -- rocky, runable
5/21/79 -- 1,400 -- rocky, enjoyable
5/13-15/78 -- 4,100 -- good, lower exciting
5/13/79 -- 4,400 -- upper / lower good water
5/26-28/79 -- 4,500
5/23/81 -- 4,000 -- great
5/23/83 --10,000 -- super high/ fast/lost a canoe
5/17/83 -- 4,800 -- good upper and lower
6/2/84 -- 5,300 -- fast / high
6/15/84 -- 5,200 -- good upper and lower
5/3/85 -- ?? -- lower not as pushy, played in 8 Mile

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Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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