Day 5: Wauconda Pass

“All night long I stand there and watch sheets of plywood go by. It is the most boring job I’ve ever had,” he said. I had just woken up. We were talking in the men’s washroom at Margie’s RV Park. He was in the shower. I never saw anything but the top of his head. “I had a welding job in Wenatchee and I thought I didn’t like that so I quit it, but I shouldn’t have,” he said. “Now I’m thinking about going down to the tri-cities, or maybe Eugene.”

“What will you do there?”

“I don’t know. Just get a job I guess.”

Why does the Western U.S. have the nation’s highest rates of suicide and divorce? You can glimpse the answer at Margie’s and other RV parks that have turned into semi-permanent lodging for low-paid workers. There are a lot of drifters in the West, and they aren’t nearly as sexy as Clint Eastwood. They are unloved and unfocused. Their lives are hard, and it’s easy for them to get liquor, drugs, and guns. We woke up at 4:30 am when a large truck parked next to a nearby trailer roared to life and its owner left for work. Several more residents had left by 6:45am, when we pulled out for the day’s ride. How fortunate I am to be doing this, I thought, instead of watching plywood all night.

We rode north up a slight incline in the Okanogan Valley called the Wagonroad Coulee. It was 15 miles to the town of Tonasket. Then we’d turn right and head east, into the Kettle River Range, with a 3,000-foot climb over 22 miles to Wauconda Pass. The trick was gong to be getting to the top before it got too hot, without pushing too hard. Then we’d lose 2,000 feet and end the ride in Republic, 60 miles further along.

We rode fast and easily on the coulee in the beautiful early light. The sun had just topped the large upthrust granite slabs at the eastern end of the valley. Dew was evaporating off the sagebrush, producing one of my all-time favorite smells, and every so often a meadowlark would cut loose from his perch on a fencepost. A “Coulee” is a small hill inside a valley, and every time we topped one of them we would see a new vista. My wife Tania, who is the best travel companion I’ve ever known, loves traveling through western scenery because, she says, each slowly revealed vista is like walking into a new room. I have already seen dozens of things I want to show her, and we haven’t even been riding for a week.

We hit Tonasket at 8:10 am and paused at a convenience store long enough to re-fuel ourselves, then headed up the pass. It was maybe 80 degrees. Bonaparte Creek was running just to the right of the road. It was small but noisy, and after a steep beginning things leveled out for a while. The western slope of the Kettle River Range is wide-open country and the trees don’t begin until around 3,000 feet. I saw lots of abandoned or questionable ranch buildings, their boards turning to fuzz in the heat. I saw a tin man and woman decorating someone’s gate. I remembered what some writer, maybe Nathaniel West or Raymond Carver, had said: that western hills covered with grass looked like the backside of a recumbent woman. Annie Mountain rose to the south. There are a lot of lonely guys in these parts, ma’am.

Two miles from the top, very hot and low on water, we reached the Wauconda Store and Café. If you look up the word “oasis” in the dictionary, there’s probably a picture of the Wauconda Store next to the definition. Although there wasn’t another building in sight, the store was obviously a community center. Wauconda started as a gold rush town in 1896 and proved enough ore to keep miners employed for several decades, by which time the ranchers had come in. “Yesterday we took in $1,100, which was fantastic,” said Brenda Wahner, who works at the café and lives alone in a trailer nearby while she’s building her house. “In the winter, the locals keep us going It’s cold here, but not like Duluth.”

Brenda and Jim talked about growing up in Minnesota. She poured me two huge glasses of iced tea and made Bill a grade-a chocolate milkshake. We signed the register they keep for cyclists, Several cross-country riders pass by every week during the season, and this summer the cyclists they had seen were raising money for cancer, animal rescue, and Jesus in addition to the Land Trust. Take your pick!

After struggling up the last two miles to Wauconda Pass, we had another flying descent through trees and back to the brown-grass hills, with the wind in out faces getting hotter as we continued down. At the end we were in Republic, the seat of Perry County, and we found another green shady spot in a public campground at the county fairgrounds. Republic is a big enough place to have a library with a wireless router, so we spent the afternoon online. After a shower and a fine steak dinner, dusk came and we went straight to bed. We’re facing another 3,000 foot climb tomorrow


Jim on Day 6

Over these past six days, I have had some thoughts bouncing around like the ball careening off posts and bumpers in a pinball machine. Perhaps I am living in a continuous state of heat exhaustion, and the pan-seared portions of the top of my head have become nothing but posts and bumpers.

The first two hours of our rides have been glorious; the next three manageable; and the last two awful. But today on day six a cloud appeared. And then more, and instead of 100º at the top of 5300′ Sherman Pass we were giddy with 80º road heat and cloud blessed shade. We even for the first time in five days felt sweat bead up rather than evaporate. It is the little things we notice.

Shade is our best friend. Sometimes we get so desperate that a sign “Rocks Ahead” will give us hope that the road will pass under a shady outcropping. I find myself dashing from one piece to another even when they are miles apart. Shade awaits somewhere. Homes are tucked under trees and bermed into hillsides. One had a watered sod roof. Yet others, almost exclusively new homes, are perched on sun burnt hill tops with grand views, slurping up energy. At the end of day five in Republic the watered lawn felt great to the bare feet at Margie’s. The grass temperature was 72º and the late day air 92º-98º, depending on what the wind was picking up.

Wind is among our short list of weather friends. A slight headwind keeps our heads cool enough to avoid heat exhaustion with these 105º-110º road temperatures. Yesterday we had a tail wind for a portion of the climb and my head took on a tomatoesque feel and look. To fully understand what it is like to top the pass and rip downhill at 30+mph into a mounting noon day heat wave over a 100º, you would need to roll up your car windows, turn your heater and fan on full blast, and shove your face into the vent.

On day four I saw a national weather map showing a large blob of 100º+ heat in the Great Basin and a slim finger poking up to Omak, Washington. There we were, riding the flying finger. All heat waves have an end and this one will wash out by Tuesday or Wednesday. We may see daytime highs of 70º. We are looking forward to this.  The pre-dawn awake time for the past five days was initially novel, but it isn’t any longer.

Don’t send crying towels. We knew we would be introduced to adversity. It makes for better stories. If we weren’t so focused on the weather, we might be whimpering about the the passes. We do feel adequately trained, however. Bring it on: the cold front, please.

Day 6: Al's Hat Goes to Sherman Pass

Al Craig was a serious man who owned a beat-up hat. He was a physician and exercise physiologist who specialized in helping swimmers, and his travels took him all over the world. He also owned a house and forest near Jim and Sara’s house in Canadice. “He was a different person out there,” says Sara. “He would put on a flannel shirt and his straw hat and become a woodsman. It was part of what we loved about him.”

Al’s property became the first conservation easement the Land Trust held in the western part of the Finger Lakes. He made another major donation that made it possible for the Land Trust to buy the Wesley Hill Preserve. He knew about the bike ride and supported it. But Al passed away suddenly in February, so his family decided to make a challenge grant for the ride in his memory. “He died too quickly, and we never got to say goodbye to him,” said Sara. “So we’re taking him along in spirit.”

We have climbed five 3,000-foot mountain passes in the last four days. Today we climbed Sherman Pass, which at 5,500 feet is the highest in the state, and it’s our last big climb for a while. It felt like a big day for us, so I put Al’s hat in my bike bag. We started climbing immediately at 7am; it was 16 miles and 3,300 feet to the top. The forecast was for another day of afternoon temperatures above 100 degrees, so we shortened our route to end at the Columbia River around noon.

The eastern part of the Kettle River Range is wetter, so there were lodgepole pines and tamarack lining the canyon, horsehair ferns along the road, and the lively sound of O’Brien Creek just below us. It was a Sunday morning road, with virtually no traffic. We climbed fast and within two hours we could see the top, but our surroundings had also changed; instead of large trees, there were vast fields of dead standing timber and young trees growing below them. We puzzled over what this could be until we passed an overlook commemorating the White Mountain Fire of August 1988.

Lightning started a fire on this slope that eventually burned 21,000 acres. More than 3,000 firefighters worked for 24 days to bring it under control. The kiosk explaining the fire had this quote from US Forest Service crew boss Karen Soenke: “The wind changed direction that evening and our fire grew and began burning in the canopy. Half of our crew was separated from us. We only had radio contact to inform them that we had returned to the safety zone. We deployed our shelters and waited it out.” The heat became so intense that granite boulders in the fire zone cracked apart.

The fire destroyed thousands of acres of lodgepole pines. But the trees are well-adapted to fire, so their cones open and release seeds when heated to 113 degrees. Twenty years later those seedlings are eight feet tall, with their dead ancestors still standing above them. Stands of larch trees were more likely to survive because they have thicker bark and replace their leaves every year, Today they run in dark streaks along the slope below the overlook. The dead snags have become prime habitat for birds like the mountain bluebird and Lewis’ woodpecker. The fire had an impact on public policy, too.  Since it ended, the Forest Service has stopped fighting all fires in favor of holding “controlled burns” that simulate the natural fire cycle, or just letting some fires go.

Several miles later we were at the top. Bruce Sanford, a guy from Nova Scotia who dreams of going cross-country on a bike some day, took our picture (note Al’s hat). Then it was down and down again, the biggest down so far, but the grade was almost perfectly engineered so we didn’t have to use our brakes more than occasionally. We just steered and cruised at 30 miles an hour; it felt like piloting a plane. Near the bottom I glimpsed the Columbia River through the trees. I had never seen it before. It is really, really big.

We reached the Columbia at Kettle Falls. At that point it is a 150-mile-long lake behind the Grand Coulee Dam; we were near the northern end of the lake, which is named for Franklin D. Roosevelt. We rode four miles north to an RV park near the drowned part of the Kettle River, which branches off to the east of the Columbia, and the heat closed in on us like a fist.

I floated in the cool water of Lake FDR and thought about how different it is to be an environmental advocate when you live out here. In New York, you can set aside millions of acres in the Adirondacks and prohibit all tree-cutting, damming, or other human activity. You can poke out your chest and brag about how you’re passionately devoted to the “forever wild” clause in New York’s state constitution. You can afford to write off all that water. In the west, if you didn’t dam the rivers, no one would be able to eat or drink. Nature in the west has been re-plumbed so our civilization can exist there.

Day 7: Kettle Falls to Pend Oreille

Western people love sentimental poetry. The RV Park we stayed at near Kettle Falls was on its last legs and for sale. All right, it was a dump. Jim and Sara complained bitterly about it and nicknamed it “rancho inferno,” but I found that the owners had put a lot of work into making the bathrooms cozy and nice. In the men’s room there was a five-stanza poem about how much the author loved using an outhouse; sadly, I was too rushed to copy it down. There was also a plaque that read, “Good luck to you, ol’ riding pard/ May your first loop always hit/ May your pony never set up hard/ And your dolly never slip.” It’s about roping, and also life I guess. The ladies’ room was decorated with hats.

The RV park was full of low-income people, just like Margie’s was, and the people next door were interesting. In the early evening the night before, when it was still well over 90 degrees, they sat in an enclosure so we could hear them but not see them. After we were in bed, they started burning sage (or smoking pot – opinions differed) and playing Native American flute music. A man was talking about the Rapture. An older woman had a bad cough. He said that in his opinion, the reason the Anasazi Indians disappeared from their settlements was they were all called up to heaven. “They were pulled up there in a Rapture,” he said. “That’s why they never found any bones. The people just disappeared.”

The falls disappeared too, but we did that ourselves. Kettle Falls was a prime salmon-fishing site on the Columbia River for at least 9,000 years, and then the Grand Coulee Dam submerged it 70 years ago. At a restaurant last night there was an old photo of the falls. It looked like a low Niagara. The volume of water going over that shelf was tremendous.

Day 7 was a 66-mile ride through yet another different landscape, mainly because the mountain range we crossed was much lower. The heat eased off a bit, too. It was still real toasty, but slightly less ridiculous than in had been in the last four days. We started riding about 7:30 am. Thanks to the exquisitely well-planned routes provided to members of the Adventure Cycling Association, we were able to bypass the heavy traffic on State Route 20 between Kettle Falls and Colville. We rode on the southern side of the Colville River valley, which was strictly for working people. The valley had no tourist stuff anywhere but lots of lumber, farming, mining, and manufacturing. We rode past the Washington Headquarters of the Boise Cascade Corporation, an enormous mill with an even bigger pile of logs next to it. The logs were being watered with sprinklers so they wouldn’t dry out and crack before they were milled. Sprinklers are everywhere out here.

We rode past farms and alfalfa fields in the exquisite pre-9am Western daylight. In one field that had recently been cut, kestrels and ospreys sat on the power poles and hay bales, intently watching the field. I saw one dive from a pole, grab a mouse without landing, pivot 180 degrees in the air, and return to its perch with its prey still wriggling. The whole manouver took less than two seconds.

By 9am we were in the city of Colville, which is the county seat and seemed substantial after the miles of emptiness we had crossed. We rode down the extra-wide streets past handsome art deco buildings, looking for a mailbox and a water fountain. We found them at the city park, along with retirees out for a morning walk and day care providers sitting at picnic tables while their young wards ran in circles around them. Then we were out of there and climbing Graham Hill, the heat building now. To the north a mountain called Old Dominion rose 3,700 feet above the valley floor. This is a big mining region, and Old Dominion has major deposits of silver and lead. Ahead was a climb of about 1,300 feet through the Selkirk Mountains, with state land to the north and the Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Recreation Area to the south.

We rode through 40 miles of land mostly set aside for wildlife. Although we didn’t see many animals, we saw outstanding habitat: a long creek that turned into a huge wetland and then into several pretty lakes. Jim’s bike thermometer was nearing 100 and we were low on water when we stopped at the first of these, Coffin Lake, for a cooling plunge. It felt better than almost anything you could imagine.

The Selkirk range resembles New York’s Route 3 when it goes through the western Adirondacks. You see long flat stretches of lodgepole pines, the trail is gently rising and falling, and every so often a field or marsh or pond will reveal itself. But there were cattle resting under the pines here, and the soil was as dry as beach sand. We found a resort that had a store and water pump, filled up, and continued for a few miles. Then there was the beautiful road sign that shows a truck on a ramp, which means that you’re about to enjoy a big downhill run. We descended fast around hairpin turns and lost over 1,000 feet in a few miles, feeling like we were in the Tour De France, but really we were coming into the valley of the Pend Oreille River.

The Pend Oreille is a much smaller version of the Columbia, meaning that it is a series of smaller lakes and dams. We went to the town park in Ione and jumped in, powerless to resist the cool water. Two children were playing on the beach. Both were wearing life vests, and no adults were nearby. “My uncle Chris says that when we go in the water by ourselves we have to wear these,” said the girl, Heather, who was a few years older and more talkative than her brother Billy. “It makes it harder to get rocks off the bottom,” he said. “You keep bouncing back up.”

Heather said that her father used to work as a long-distance truck driver, but now he works in the lead mine north of Ione so she gets to see him more often, which is good. “He comes home and he’s really tired,” added Billy, “but he plays with me.” Then their mom showed up and said it was OK to photograph them. We said goodbye and went just up the road to Cedar Park RV Camp, a tiny, spotless field with a few semi-permanent residents who work in the mines. Next door to us was a farmette with a lot of chickens. They’ll get us up early tomorrow.

Kalispel Conservation

When we rode down LeClerk Road on Day 8, south along the Pend Oreille River, we passed through the reservation of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians. The forests were healthy, the open space unusually diverse, and their wildlife management area beautiful. Jim and I pulled into tribal headquarters and were lucky to run into Deane Osterman, Executive Director of Natural Resources for the Tribe. Deane is a serious, fast-talking guy who has clearly studied this stuff. He calls himself a “wildlife warrior.”

The Kalispel’s ancestral territory ran to 4.2 million acres, but the U.S. government reservation they got in 1914 is 4,600 acres strung along the river. “What the treaties did was cut away our rights to the land,” said Deane. “Our long-term goal is to restore the land.”

The tribe has acquired about 5,000 more acres outside their original grant to manage as conservation lands, using settlement money from suits against the Bonneville Power Administration and other entities that have damaged the habitat. “Most of this land had just been pounded,” he said. “And the Pend Orelle is the watershed most impacted by hydro development in the Pacific Northwest.” There are at least eight dams on the river, which flows northward from Idaho into Canada, does a 180 degree turn, and dumps into the Columbia River right at the border. “The summer water temperature can be eighty degrees, and native fish like salmon cannot live in water that warm,” he said. “There are no native fish left in the river.”

One part of the Tribe’s wildlife farm raises large-mouth bass for the Pend Oreille. This is controversial because bass are non-native, but Osterman says the Tribe is encouraging sustenance hunting and fishing for its members. They also plan to pour Rotenone into a tributary, Cee Cee Au Creek, to kill all the the brook trout, which are not native, then re-introduce native cutthroat trout. North of their land is what Deane says is the most endangered animal in America – an American species of caribou. There are about 25 left. “Caribou, bull trout — they are really Pleistocine species, and now with climate change they’re just blinking out,” he said. “That is really sad.”

The Kalispel operate a large casino outside of Spokane, but Osterman’s department is self-sustaining from settlement money. “It really is a war for wildlife,” he said. “And land trusts play a critical role. Sometimes we can’t get ourselves in gear fast enough to make a land purchase we want, but they can.” The Tribe is making a major contribution to the Inland Northwest Land Trust to further their partnership.

Our fifteen minutes were up. “Got to go,” said Deane. “Can’t keep the Tribal Council waiting.”

Day 8: Along The River to Idaho

The librarian in Ione warned me that a cold front would come in around midnight, and so it did. There were gusts of wind, light rain, and blessed relief. The dawn came up cloudy with a fresh wind from the south. We had 76 miles to go but it was flat, and without the heat and the climbs of past days it seemed almost easy.

If yesterday’s ride was like the Western Adirondacks, today’s ride was a bit like the shoreline of two Adirondack lakes – one that hasn’t been discovered by rich jerks yet, and one that has. LeClerk Road runs along the east bank of the drowned Pend Oreille River. It feels like a road that would get a lot of traffic on weekends when people are at their lake homes, but on a Tuesday morning it was empty. Herons fished on the shore and raptors watched for their breakfast as we rode past. Our mountain-toned legs ate up the road, and we did 30 miles in the first two hours. The houses were mostly older, small, and tucked away in the vast scenery. Across the river, cars screamed along State Route 20, ignoring it all.

Around 9am we entered the Kalispel Indian Reservation. The contrast was dramatic. Where we had been riding past ranchettes and old farms, at the border the land opened up and an open field of 440 acres stretched down to the shore. A sign explained that it was a wildlife mitigation project, paid for by the Bonneville Power Authority and managed by the tribe, to compensate for the loss of habitat caused by the construction of Albeni Falls Dam. The tribe is managing the land for geese, mallard, muskrat, deer, eagle, yellow warbler, and black-capped chickadee. A few miles up the road we got a quick overview of the Kalispel’s ambitious plans for the environmental restoration of their ancestral lands from Deane Osterman, the tribe’s Director of Natural Resources (see separate post).

Deane had to run to a tribal council meeting so we pushed on, using the “peloton” technique to compensate for a headwind. A peloton is when riders fan out in a vertical line, like geese, and take turns being in front. The lead rider breaks the wind so the ones behind him can rest. We got our average speed up from 12 miles per hour to 17 miles per hour this way, according to Jim’s handlebar calculator of speed, distance, temperature, and other things. He consults this constantly. I’m glad he does, so I don’t have to.

Past the Kalispel lands the ride turned back into cattle and alfalfa farms, with the water in the distance to the right. Deane had explained just how much damage the dams have done to the river, but a tourist wouldn’t know that. It still is beautiful. We rode into Newport-Old Town at noon, ate lunch and drank hot coffee at a Safeway supermarket cafe, met up with Sara and Catherine, and after a jolly time we headed into Idaho. Washington had been our route for eight days and about 400 miles, or one-tenth of the entire trip.

We crossed the Pend Oreille and rode eastward along its south bank. Once again, the Adventure Cycling folks had clued us into a beautiful rural road that skipped the congested highway. We had 27 miles to go to our destination, Round Lake State Park near Sandpoint. The scenery improved. In fact, it became tremendous. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see Robert Redford waving to us from the roadside. Unfortunately, Californians seem to have discovered the Idaho Panhandle. We saw lots of signs for subdivisions with ridiculous names. One was named “Willow Shores” but was covered with pine trees. What was really depressing was the asking prices. Second-home McMansions, those colossal monuments to bloated ego, seem destined for this place. I hope the housing bust lasts long enough for the locals to organize a land trust.

Circular rolls of golden fresh-baled hay were scattered through fields like game pieces. Behind them were stately mountains we didn’t have to climb. Along one stretch was a series of hacking platforms occupied by nesting pairs of ospreys. This was the longest ride of the trip so far, and for the last few miles the three of us were very tired, but tomorrow is a rest day. Round Lake was cold, the showers were hot, and Sara filled our bellies with bratwurst.

Idaho & Montana, Aug. 20 to Sept. 2

c2c4_idahomontanaOn Day 8 of the ride, we entered Idaho at Old Town, near the junction of State Route 20 and U.S. Route 2. We rode along Old Priest River Road to Round Lake State Park, where we spent the night. Day 9 was a 15-mile ride into Sandpoint on the shore of Lake Pend Oreille, the source of the Pend Oreille River.

Days 10, 11, 12, and 13 were about 70 miles each, and at the end of day 13 we ended up in Glacier National Park. On Day 10 we rode along the Clark Fork River, a major tributary of Lake Pend Oreille, through the towns of Hope and Clark Fork along Route 200. Then we turned north on Route 56 and rode just west of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, sleeping in a Forest Service campsite that had no power or cell phone coverage – but which did have rain.

On Day 11 we continued north to U.S. Route 2, the major east-west highway up here, and took it eighteen miles to the intersection with Route 37. We turned north there and went along the west shore of Lake Koocanusa, about 40 miles of nothing and quite beautiful. We stayed at another fine Forest Service campground with no electricity or cell phone coverage. On Day 12 we rode 30 miles along the lake shore and then continued north on Route 37 to Eureka, where we spent Saturday night in a city park during rodeo weekend. We all had earplugs.

On Sunday (Day 13) we rode south on U.S. Route 93 to Whitefish and Columbia Falls, then on to a campsite on Lake MacDonald in Glacier National Park. We had a rest day in Glacier on Monday (Day 14), Bill and Catherine left the trip at that point.

Jim, Sara and I drove back to Columbia Falls. Jim and I mounted our bikes and continued south on Route 83 for a long while. We went along the western slope of the Rockies in Montana, which is some of the wildest territory in the lower 48. We passed through Bigfork and Seeley Lake in a two day ride marked by more rain, until we hit Route 200 East. We continued through Ovando and stopped in Lincoln, then headed in a southeasterly direction to Fort Harrison and Helena. Jim’s brother joined us at the Helena airport and rode with us for the next nine days to Cody, Wyoming.

After Helena we took Route 287 adown the east shore of Canyon Ferry Lake to Townsend. Then we crossed the Big Belt Mountains to hit Route 89 south through Ringling and Wilsall. We crossed Interstate 90 at Livingston and continued south on Route 89 to Pray, the site of Chico Hot Springs, where I reunited with my wife Tania. Chico Hot Springs is a short ride north of Yellowstone National Park and the Wyoming border.