Day 10: Clark Fork, Huckleberry Shakes, Bull Lake
Our travel companion on Day 10 was Kevin Bradbury, 53, whom we met at the K2 Motel last night. Kevin shared our route as far as Glacier Park, and he was on his way to visit a friend in Libby. He traveled alone on a fully loaded Surly Long-Haul Trucker, and his kit was tight: front and rear panniers that roll up like dry-bags, a tent and sleeping bag on top of the rear rack, a large handlebar bag, and a tent pole lashed to the front fork with a big rear-view mirror on one side. The bike weighed about 70 pounds loaded and was hard to pick up. Kevin was a man of few words. He was also intelligent, witty, and unfailingly polite. He was a constant reminder that Jim, Bill and I were, in fact, wimps on a luxury bike tour.
Kevin is a regional manager for the state parks in southern Ohio. He lives near the town of Portsmouth on the Ohio River, and to train for the ride he would ride his bike from his farm to the office 20 miles away, and then on to the parks he manages. On Day 10 we rode along the north shore of Lake Pend Oreille and then continued along the Clark Fork River, which drains into the Lake. The weather was cool and gray, with an 80 percent chance of rain as we started out at 8am. Soon we were past Sandpoint and in the Pack River Delta, an old fishing ground for the Kootenai Indians. The roadside panel explained that there are still bear, otter, moose, bobcat, and coyote here. There are also huckleberries.
Huckleberries taste similar to blueberries, but they’re smaller and the taste is subtly different. On the roadsides we have seen serviceberries, chokecherries, wild grapes, and marionberries (which are like Oregon blackberries), but so far we have not seen huckleberries in the wild. We have, however, tasted huckleberry milkshakes, which are a regional specialty. We had our first at the Brew Hut, a mobile drink stand outside of Clark Fork. We would have one each day for the next two days, too. Jim and Bill and I don’t know much about identifying plants, but Kevin did, and as he made informed comments we tried not to reveal our ignorance.
Another roadside panel near the mouth of the Clark Fork explained that we were near the site of the bursting of Lake Missoula, a glacial pool that covered an area the size of a small northeastern state 15,000 years ago. Geologists have reckoned that the lake was held back by an ice dam perhaps 2,000 feet high until one day, near the end of the last ice age, it burst and all that water rushed through eastern Washington, the Columbia River basin, and into Puget Sound, wreaking havoc on an unimaginable scale. The best account of this flood I have read is in John McPhee’s epic on American geology, Annals of the Former World. There is also a not-for profit group called the Ice Age Floods Institute that saves important sites and interprets these events for the public. They are lobbying the National Parks Service to designate an Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail.
Between the towns of Hope and East Hope we passed a stone obelisk marking the site of Kullyspell House, the first trading post in Idaho. It was established in September 1809 by two of Canada’s greatest explorers, David Thompson and Finnian MacDonald. They came for fur, but their impact on western Indians was about as catastrophic as the bursting of Lake Missoula. Europeans brought smallpox, syphilis, alcohol, and other plagues that wiped out most of the Indian population in the west before a single shot was fired. But we didn’t get them all. Now a new generation of college-trained Indians are among the leaders in a movement to restore native species in the Northwest.
We rode a beautiful ranch road along the south side of the valley of the Clark Fork, and at some point we entered Montana. There are usually no welcome signs when couty roads cross state lines, but there were a lot more potholes on the Montana side, and also a lot more highway fatality roadside markers. The American Legion in Montana puts white crosses at the site of each fatal crash, and there are a LOT of them. Maybe it’s because there’s no helmet law for motorcycles here; maybe it’s the lack of a speed limit in rural areas; or maybe it’s just that they have marked them all. The scenery also became grander in Montana; the mountains were higher, the grasses taller, and the Clark Fork was flowing freely. This was unusual, because most of the rivers we’ve cycled along in the Northwest are really lakes.
We rode through a brief rain squall, and as the afternoon wore on the clouds became more and more threatening. We turned back onto Route 200 East and pressed on. Near the town of Heron, the skies opened up. We took refuge under the awning of a grocery store operated by smiling, chubby women wearing old-fashioned bonnets. People in plain dress came in and out as we stood there eating the pecan pie slices and chocolate chip cookies the women made in their bake shop. They wouldn’t tell us which religion they followed. Across the street was another grocery store with flyers on the counter. The flyers asked, “Would you like to stop tax-exempt foundation-funded special interest groups from manipulating the US Forest Service?” A Group called the Sanders Natural Resource Council was asking for support of a “coordination plan” they submitted to the County Commissioners. The general idea was less wilderness and more roads that would allow more logging and mining of federal land. The flyer cited a group called Stewards of the Range approvingly.
The rain let up eventually and we turned north on Route 57, with the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness to the east, the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness to the west, and Cabinet Creek next to the road. The scenery became spectacular, and in two particularly fetching spots there were billboards celebrating the completion of conservation easements held by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Oooo boy! I bet the grocery store guy HATES those.
The rain came back and by the time we reached our U.S. Forest Service Campground on Bull Lake, it was raining pretty hard. We worked smoothly and put the camper up in record time, then waited for it to stop. It thankfully did, just in time for Jim, Kevin, and I to make a quick trip to the
Ross Creek Cedar Grove Scenic Area, an old-growth stand with trees eight feet in diameter and 175 feet tall (That’s Kevin inside the trunk of a downed cedar for scale). We put up our tents, walked down to Bull Lake for a calendar-quality sunset, and invited Kevin into the camper for a late dinner of hamburgers, fresh organic Idaho fingerling potatoes, and adult beverages. It was simple food but Sara and Katherine had prepared it perfectly, and they were serving it to men as hungry as draft horses.
The camper was dry and warm and bright with loud talk and laughter. Kevin held his own as our jokes became increasingly raucous in the deepening gloom. When we said goodnight and went to our sleeping places, the sky had cleared and was full of stars.
Day 11: Kootenai River & Lake KooCanUSA
When we woke up the temperature was hovering around 40. It was the opposite of a few days ago, and we lingered in camp until it was warm enough to ride. We had also crossed over into Mountain Time, so we didn’t leave until 9:30am. We put on out tights, gloves, long underwear, and jackets, and set off. Kevin hung back. We didn’t see him again, but we did trade e-mail messages as we both pedaled across the country. He made a contribution to the Land Trust, too.
We continued north on Route 56, still with wilderness on either side of us, but as we rode on the peaks became lower and further away. After an hour or so we passed into private land. The highlights included a wonderfully sleazy-looking roadhouse called the Halfway House and “Majestic View Ministry,” which looked like a majestic tax dodge. The cell phone came alive just south of US Route 2, the major east-west highway in these parts. We took it and started along the Kootenai River, which flows freely at this stage. We passed Kootenai Falls, where an endangered species of sturgeon still spawns, thanks to a hatchery operated by the Kootenai Tribe of Indians.
Route 2 had a lot of traffic but a wide shoulder, and the sun was strong enough to let us strip down to shorts and t-shirts. We went into Libby, a rough-looking place with a spectacular diner: Henry’s Restaurant, next to the Ace Hardware Store. We got there as the lunch crowd was thinning out. I ordered a patty melt with fries and clam chowder, and coffee, and was stunned when it was set before me. It wasn’t just the furnace-like hunger one develops on these rides; this was excellent food. The patty melt was grilled onions, melted cheese, and a thin beef patty on a thick slice of fresh rye bread grilled perfectly. The fries were hand-cut, the chowder homemade. As we were chowing down, a friendly woman who was maybe 60 went to a three-spindle Hamilton Beach milkshake machine and started making our dessert: huckleberry milkshakes. She peeked over the top of the steel cups as the mixer whirred, added a little milk from a cup, and threw a handful of fresh huckleberries into each steel cup. Then she served it to Jim and I in the steel cups.
“It was a grade-a shake,” said Jim, who knows about such things. “The fruit was fresh, the ice cream was thick. And the consistency was perfect. I tilted my head back and oh, how the last few drops just rolled in.” I agree. I would have to rate this among the top three milkshakes of my life so far. There was so much that we gave our excess to Bill, who acted nonchalant. But we knew he wanted some.
Stuffed to the gills, we turned north and headed up Montana Route 57, along the Kootenai again but with less traffic. The river was still flowing with clear greenish water deep enough to float the local style of fishing boat, which looks like a dory. Ospreys were tootling and wheeling from hacking platforms. A stream of freight trains groaned past us on the opposite bank, first headed north, then south. The temperature was perfect. Then we took a left on US Forest Service Road 228, which goes up to Libby Dam and then along half of the 90-mile lake it created, Koocanusa.
Koocanusa is not an Indian name; it is a conflation of Kootenai, Canada, and USA. The lake is so long that half of it is in Canada. The Kootenai River rises in British Columbia, flows into Montana and Idaho, then turns north again and enters the Columbia river back in Canada. Libby Dam is a huge mass of concrete, hundreds of feet high and half a mile long. If you look closely at the photo, you can see a boat in the river that will give you a sense of scale. It is one of the last large federal dam projects in the West, and was completed in the early 1970s. The Columbia River Treaty governs its operation. At the palatial visitor’s center, we had a long conversation with a park ranger who described how carefully the Forest Service and other agencies, including the Kootenai are working to protect native species of fish downstream.
The more I heard, though, the more I saw a huge federal boondoggle. The visitor center has a huge exhibit, an there is also an overlook, a campground, and a park at the base. We were the only people there. The dam was built to provide clean electricity during times of peak demand, such as summer afternoons, but the large releases of water needed to generate that much power messed up the ecosystem so much that its original purpose proved illegal. So the dam doesn’t even serve its primary purpose. It does help people downstream avoid floods, but there really aren’t that many people downstream, and as farming goes it ain’t the San Joaquin Valley. I wondered: couldn’t you give each resident of Bonners Ferry, Idaho enough money to relocate, and still spend less than it cost to build this dam?
We biked up a beautiful paved road that had no traffic and went through Federal land with no private inholdings. There was a good highway on the other side. I later learned that the road we were on was built to carry heavy equipment up the lake. The original highway was submerged by the dam, and after the lake was completed a new highway 37 was built on the opposite side. How much did that cost?
We stayed at a nice U.S. Forest Service campground 10 miles up the road that had signs pointing to a beach. When we got to the beach, we found a large stone bath house, lifeguard stands, an ampitheater, an expanse of sand, and no water. The lake level was too low. But after two days Jim and I smelled like spoiled beef soup, so we picked through the rocks and dove in.
The bottom was mud, and thick clouds of silt rose around me as I paddled into deeper water. Libby Dam went up in the early 1970s, and the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973. A lot of people in the rural west hate the Endangered Species Act. I can understand why. Nobody likes to be told that the party’s over.
Day 12: Big skies to Eureka
It was cold again in the morning but we were riding by 9am. We continued on the Forest Service road bordering Lake Koocanusa for 30 miles until we finally got to the one bridge that connects to Route 37; then we got back on 37 and headed north to Rexford and east to Eureka, our destination for the night.
The Forest Service Road was so beautiful that it became monotonous. It was almost a bike trail. In the three hours we spent on it, we saw three cars, three motorcycles, and six other bicycles. We also saw ospreys, deer, heron, and red-tailed hawks. We’re still looking for huckleberries and bald eagles. Just before the bridge there was an elaborate roadside memorial for Bob, Tom, and Jim, who apparently missed a turn, sailed off a high cliff, and crashed into the lake on April 27, 1997. Eek.
As soon as Route 37 rose out of the Kootenai Valley, the landscape changed dramatically. Where there had been cedars and ferns and lots of water, now there were high peaks covered with Ponderosa pines, enormous meadows, and long rolling hills. All of a sudden it looked like the Rocky Mountains. We entered the Tobacco River valley, named for the crop grown by Indians for trade to whites in the 19th century.
We hit U.S. 93 just outside Eureka, an appealing town of about 1,000 people. We made it to a clean, tiny municipal campsite there by 2pm and found several free wireless internet spots. I took a break from writing to join the crew for a surprisingly upscale dinner at Jax Café, which has a good wine list and a fine dinner chef. It also serves huckleberry milkshakes, but by the time we finished our fancy pastas and salmons and salads and loads of foccacia, we were all too stuffed. Tomorrow our destination is Glacier National Park, and Monday is a rest day.