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.

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.