Packrafting with Dogs in Idaho's Backcountry

I was super stoked when Kokopelli Packraft asked if I wanted to go on a trip to Idaho where I’d get to do some of my favorite things: backpacking with my dog, exploring alpine lakes in a packraft and not showering for a week.

Packing for the trip was a little different than for a normal summer backpacking trip; Idaho mountain weather in late June is a total wildcard. The daytime temps were slated to be anywhere between 50 and 80 with possible thunderstorms, and nights looked to be somewhere in the high 20’s to low 30’s.

My thoughts of a nice light bag containing nothing but a tank top and shorts went out the window as I crammed my wool baselayers and down jacket into my pack. Fortunately, my packraft (a lovingly well-worn three year old Hornet Lite) is neither heavy nor a space-hog, so I had plenty of room for layers. My packraft, life jacket and paddle together clock in at just under 8lbs, which is amazing for an entire backcountry lake-boating setup but still a fair bit of weight to add on your back. I’m not an ultralight backpacker by any means, but in the name of keeping my pack weight manageable I figured I’d cut weight in extra underwear and healthy food (who needs a heavy apple when Cheetos weigh practically nothing?), and I left my camera at home since I was traveling with two photographers.

Hobbes, my two year-old American Brown Mutt, was going to be coming along on this adventure, so I packed up his little backpack too. Since kibble for five days is heavy, he gets a mix of half kibble and half much lighter freeze-dried meat to carry in his pack (along with his food/water dish and a couple of small water bottles in case we’ll be away from a water source for a bit). With all of our supplies organized, we were ready to hit the road on our ten-hour drive to Idaho.

Dogs in Idaho's Backcountry Packrafting KokopelliDogs in Idaho's Backcountry Packrafting KokopelliDogs in Idaho's Backcountry Packrafting Kokopelli

The first stop was picking up Tanner, a photographer/videographer from Seattle who would be coming on the trip. I’d never met him, and his grandparents dropped him off at a rest stop along the freeway where I picked him up in a hilariously hostage exchange-like situation. Conversation was easy and fun over the next five hours and we cruised into camp around dinnertime where Mina, a photographer who’d organized the trip, was waiting at our car camping basecamp for the night. Hobbes and Kyra (Mina’s Husky/Pittie) attended immediately to high-velocity sprinting around camp while we set up tents, made dinner and got to know each other. Bedtime came pretty early so we could get up in the morning, pack up and hit the trail.

Packing up in the morning, it became apparent that I wasn’t the only one with a heavier pack than usual; in fact, mine was the lightest of the bunch. Mina’s camera was big and heavy enough, but Tanner’s video equipment bulk and weight was such that we immediately named his sixty-odd pound pack, El Gigante. All of us heaving into our packs made the trailhead sound like the qualifiers for the Olympic weightlifting events. Needless to say, our pace was modest.

That day we hiked six and a half miles through the wilderness. Since it was before July dogs could hike off-leash in the wilderness area, to Hobbes and Kyra’s great joy. Our route took us through meadows, forests, talus slopes, large swaths of avalanche debris, several deep water crossings, mud and finally snow. Around every turn, the views were spectacular.

Dogs in Idaho's Backcountry Packrafting Kokopelli

When we got to the top of the last snowy section, we looked out across a ring of jagged peaks descending into a pristine alpine lake (I racked my brain trying to think of a less cliche statement than jagged peaks and pristine lake but I’ll be damned if that one is not a classic for a reason). Eager to shuck our packs and eat, we hiked down and around the trail along the lake to find a campsite.

The dogs had probably hiked about 14 miles to our six, so they found some warm rocks to lie on and dozed off while we set up camp. The sun had been coming out from behind the clouds intermittently all day, but shortly after we got to camp it started raining on and off with the occasional bout of hail to make things more interesting. The next morning we woke to more rain that tapered off, leaving dark clouds in its wake. The sky looked so cool contrasted with the mountains that were being lit up by the sun. We bundled up, loaded up the dogs and paddled out, wearing most of the clothes we’d brought because both the air and the water temperatures were a stone’s throw from freezing.

After our morning paddle, Hobbes and I crawled back into my tent for hot coffee, second breakfast and a little warming up. He walked to the foot of my sleeping bag, did a few circles and curled up into a sleepy little ball like a fox, while I boiled water and smashed cheese and hot sauce into a tortilla. There’s something really special about having dogs on adventures; they always seem so content to be out dogging around in nature, and it just feels right to have your furry best friend with you when you’re living outdoors. Also, no critter big or small can get within thirty feet of my tent without sounding the puppy-alarm, so Hobbes is great for keeping out squirrels, bears or anything else that wants to ransack my feed bag.

We decided to explore the far side of the lake in the afternoon; Tanner noticed the day before that it was still covered in floating ice sheets on one side and we all wanted to check it out. We paddled through the breaks in the ice and heard the pieces hitting each other, breaking apart into shards that tinkled like tiny bells. Kyra was asleep between Mina’s feet on the bow of her boat while Hobbes was leaning over one side trying to bob for ice cubes and eat the small pieces floating around.

Dogs in Idaho's Backcountry Packrafting KokopelliPhoto by Mina Lee Dogs in Idaho's Backcountry Packrafting Kokopelli

The next morning I woke up to ice on my tent, Hobbes in my sleeping bag and the sounds of Tanner rustling around excitedly. Don’t travel with photographers unless you’re a morning person, I thought as I turned on my phone to see that it was 4:55am‚ they will drag you away from the comfort of your bed muttering things like blue hour and catch the light. I got dressed, hopped on the water with Hobbes and looked up to see that it was indeed pretty damn stunning. The views alone were amazing but hearing Mina and Tanner making their good sunrise noises made getting up that early especially worth it. They sounded like a cross between David Attenborough narrating a NatGeo scene and sound bites from the honeymoon suite on someone’s wedding night; having that as the backdrop to paddling through water that looked like glass while the sky turned pink and orange is something I’d get up at 4:55 for any time.

That afternoon before we packed up to hike out and go explore another lake, Mina showed us what was probably my favorite take-away from the trip, that if you flip a packraft upside down and deflate it a bit, it becomes an incredibly comfy nap spot. You can thank her for that one when you try it; it’s a game-changer.

Since it was still too snowy to continue up in elevation without snow gear, we hiked down to camp somewhere new and check out other lakes. The nice part of that was that it got warmer as we descended. As the temperature climbed, however, so did the presence of Idaho’s unofficial state bird: the mosquito. Fortunately, it was windy, so that kept the mosquitos away a bit. We found an awesome dispersed campsite where the dogs were free to run around, and we could set up a good base camp to explore more of the area’s lakes. Hobbes was delighted about his schedule of getting up early, paddling and exploring, eating, chasing Kyra around the campsite, napping in the dirt, paddling more than eating more.

As I dry-roasted in the I-84 westbound afternoon sun, powering through the last hour on my drive home, all I could think about was scrubbing my feet in the shower and eating fresh vegetables. Hobbes was unconscious in the backseat, my hair had been in the same braid for almost a week, I’d run out of underwear days ago and my last clean shirt was putting up a good fight but losing spectacularly to the odor that my body had cultivated. I couldn’t wait to get home and sleep in my own bed, but daydreams were already creeping into my head about what adventure was on the horizon next.

HORNET-LITE

from $550

  • Perfect for Backcountry Alpine Lakes
  • Lightest Kokopelli Packraft
  • Type: Open
  • Weight: 4lbs 7oz (2.0 kg)

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