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.

Days 10, 11, 12: Northwest Montana

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.

Days 15 & 16: Swan Valley, Rain

It’s hard to say goodbye to two good people on a five-person team, but that’s what we did this morning when Catherine drove Bill to the airport. Catherine was Sara’s companion for the first two weeks of the trip, and everyone’s helper. Bill was the unfailingly positive guy who always encouraged you to go on and do your best, like a good coach does. He was also a good bike wrench and an excellent straight man. They also bought wine and spun it into raucous laughter. We will miss them. Their last night we celebrated Bill’s 65th birthday a little early, and he held a candle in our group photo.  When they pulled out of the campsite the next morning, the first part of the trip ended and a new chapter began.

We left Glacier and drove to the north end of Flathead Lake to meet Marilyn Wood, Executive Director of the Flathead Land Trust (see separate post). The conversation and tour was so engaging that we didn’t start riding until noon. We headed out of Big Fork after getting fine turkey sandwiches to go at a bakery called The Grateful Bread.

Our route today was south on Montana 83, which runs through the valley of the Swan River. The Swan runs north into Flathead Lake, and a few miles before its terminus it makes a pretty lake of its own. We rode next to it for a few miles and then past a big wetland, the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Immediately after that was the Swan River State Forest. When we weren’t in those, we were in the Flathead National Forest. To the east of the valley was the Continental Divide, represented by the 8,000-foot peaks in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. To the west were equally beautiful and beckoning 8,000-foot peaks of the Mission Mountains Wilderness. Traffic was light and friendly. It was cool and cloudy with a 15-mile an hour crosswind. As the day wore on the clouds broke up, and when we entered Missoula County the road was freshly paved and smooth as glass.

After four quick hours of pedaling we had knocked off 54 miles and were at the U.S. Forest Service Campground in Holland Lake. We found it quiet and clean, with a postcard view of the Rockies and a lake that is pristine except for a restaurant at the far end that boasts about its fine dining on billboards. We ignored it, ate pasta, and hit the sack shortly after dinner, well pleased with ourselves.

Things turned for the worse after midnight. Rain set in and kept going straight until noon on Wednesday. We decided to drive a few miles of the route and went into Seeley Lake to do laundry, recharge the computer, and catch up on business online. Blogging is an awfully glamorous life. The couches in the laundromat were comfy and the connection was fast. Don’t we look hip?

Montana: Flathead Land Trust

The Flathead River meanders through a 40-mile corridor after it leaves Glacier National Park. It winds south to Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River.  It’s mostly on private land, and the land is under intense development pressure as an urban corridor emerges between Whitefish and Kalispell.  We met with Marilyn Wood, Executive Director of the Flathead Land Trust. She took us to a knoll overlooking the undeveloped north shore of the lake.  “This is an iconic Montana landscape,” she said.  “If we can’t save this, we ought to just pack up and go home.”

The Flathead Land Trust serves Flathead County, an area bigger than New Jersey.  Since 1985 it has protected nearly 10,000 acres, and last year the board decided to focus on saving the river.  Wood is getting to know the landowners along the corridor, including eight farm families that control the north shore of the lake. The Land Trust is also applying for grants and lobbying Governor Brian Schweitzer and Senator Max Baucus, both of whom are sympathetic.

“This is a very conservative place politically,” says Wood.  “We have been called ‘nature Nazis.’ A few years ago the state Nature Conservancy office had to close down for a week because of death threats.  But at the same time, I have never run into a place that captures people’s imagination the way this place does.  We’re talking about a significant chunk of change to get the job done, but it’s do-able.  We’re aiming for one-third private donations, one-third state money, and one-third Federal.”

Local people love the forests and farms along the river, and especially along the north shore of the lake, says Wood.  The drive to preserve the shore got going when two Whitefish developers proposed turning one of the farms into a 300-unit luxury housing development.   The Flathead Trust hired Wood a year ago; she is a long-time Montana resident who spent 13 years with the Nature Conservancy, and is well known in the state.  She immediately shifted the organization into high gear.  “Imagine three hundred homes in that field, with trees planted between the houses and the highway so you wouldn’t even know the water is there,” she said as she drove us around.  “The County Commissioners here are pro-development, but people came out of the woodwork to oppose this.”

The Commissioners turned down North Shore Ranch’s proposal in the spring; the developers are working on an appeal.  That setback and the soft real estate market gave the Land Trust an opening.  They have signed a purchase agreement to acquire a 160-acre farm on the North Shore for $1.9 million. The farm is adjacent to a state wildlife refuge.  Most of the money will come from a one-time state fund set up in 2007, and the Land Trust’s plan is to turn the farm over to the state.  “Flathead Lake generates about $10 billion a year for the state,” she says.  “We have a vision for the north shore that includes a state park, regional open space protection, and a bike trail. Governor Schweitzer and Senator Baucus embrace that vision. The County Commissioners don’t yet, but we’re working on them.”

There are indications that the public supports the vision, too.  Flathead County voters have approved a ballot referendum for November that would use property taxes to fund open space protection.  A poll found that 64 percent of voters would approve a $10 million bond, and 61 percent would approve $15 million.  “We have people behind us who are all the way from Obama Democrats to rock-ribbed Republicans,” said Wood.

I think the Flathead Trust ought to send the North Shore Ranch developers a box of cookies.  Wood says that the question of what to do about the river corridor has been hanging in the air for a long time. The development proposal called the question, just as it did in the Adirondacks, or in Canandaigua Lake, NY, or in hundreds of other places.  In the end, it comes down to whether or not the community has the will to protect its natural beauty.  Today things look good for the Flathead River.  Wood and her board are out there working like hay farmers who see rain clouds on the horizon. They’re conjuring up the community.

Days 16 & 17: Tailwind To Helena

Day 16: Up The Blackfoot River
The rain let up enough for us to leave Seeley Lake around 1:30pm, with 55 miles to go to Lincoln. This was a big Pacific storm, and it was not done with us yet. Dark gray clouds scudded across the sky from west to east, pushed by a crosswind strong and gusty enough to throw the bike sideways. We held on tight. We rode through the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area, which looked like a great place to see a bear or an elk, but we had no luck. Fifteen miles down the road we reached the intersection with Montana Route 200, which had an ordinary gas station with an extraordinary fiberglass steer out front. We turned left and started heading east.

When we turned, the wind became our friend – not a kind and gentle friend, but a fun, wild friend who might make you do things you shouldn’t do. Jim’s bike computer shows that our average speed on this trip so far has been about 5 to 8 miles an hour on uphills and 13 mph on flat ground. With the tailwind, we were doing uphills at 15 mph and level ground at speeds well above 20 mph. It was kind of like piloting a motorcycle; fun, but requiring quicker reflexes and more intense concentration. We did the 40 miles to Lincoln in about two and a half hours.

Our roadside companion was the Blackfoot River, which flowed broad and shallow through rolling hills. After a while we turned into a canyon and the river got smaller and faster. When trout anglers fantasize, this is what they see. The wind gusts in the canyon became more erratic and sometimes the wind turned on us, which was shocking. ONe tends to take a tailwind for granted after a while.  Four miles from Lincoln, the rain finally came – horizontal sheets of rain blowing sideways from out of a side canyon, with nasty wind gusts. Shouting and cursing, we rode through it and met Sara and the camper at a private RV park on the edge of the village. Before long we were in full recovery mode, with a good hot shower, wireless internet, and a great meal at the Moose Joose Saloon. I pitched my tent next to a small stream that gurgled softly all night long, and slept ten hours.

Al’s Hat at The Great Divide

We started out on Thursday the 28th, Day 17 of the trip, at 8:30 am. We were bound for
Helena,where we would pick up Paul, Jim’s younger brother, to ride with us through Yellowstone Park. We were going over the Continental Divide today at Flesher Pass, elevation 6,200, a gain of about 2,000 feet. We rode through Lincoln, which seemed to be mostly a strip of bars with slot machines, and when we got to the end of town we were delighted to find that the tailwind was still there. Traffic was light, and the clouds were higher with no threat of rain. It was cold, but otherwise perfect weather for a ride. We quickly ate up ten miles and turned onto state route 279, the road to Flesher Pass.

Asphalt trucks. Road Work Next 20 Miles. Expect Delays. In a car these would be frustrating developments, but to a bicyclist they are a ticket to a private road. All the way up to the top, we had long stretches with no traffic in either direction on a road that was paved yesterday. Then a slow-moving truck with a flashing light on top would pass us, followed by a line of slow-moving cars. Then we’d have another two miles of complete solitude. It was perfect. By 10:30 am we were at the Continental Divide. Flesher Pass isn’t much to look at – it’s below timberline, does not have a stunning 100-mile view, and on the day we passed through it was the parking lot for the construction crew. “This isn’t any worse than the climb from Naples to Branchport,” said Jim. But it WAS the Great Divide. We took out Al’s hat for the Official Photo and, hurried along by the wind, started down.

The “front range” is what you call the wall of the Rocky Mountains that faces the Great Plains. Our downhill run was long, gradual, and glorious, but we weren’t at the Plains yet. It was more like the Montana Steppes – high and arid, with sagebrush and Ponderosa pines. We rode past irrigated alfalfa fields, lonely ranch houses, and hunting cabins. At one point a turkey vulture circled directly over our heads for a while, apparently checking out whether we might be good to eat. It was real Big Sky Country, and it was so wide open that it was spooky. It was a relief to find the Canyon Creek Country Store, where Sara caught up to us. This was a combination convenience store, gas station, post office, and antique store, with an outhouse for a bathroom. “It looks like we’re out in the middle of nowhere, but there are really a lot of people living within ten miles of here,” said the woman behind the counter. “The summers are nice, and hunting season is our busiest time. Winters kind of stink.”

We headed out for the last 15 miles of the day and saw a clear sign that we had crested the Rockies: lenticular clouds, which hug the updraft of the mountains and can run along the front range for hundreds of miles. Lenticular clouds often have dramatic, aerodynamic shapes. The one we rode under today was like a wedge that ran from the northern horizon to the southern horizon.

The road flattened out and just like that, we were in the northern sprawl of Helena. We rode through it and met Sara at White Sandy, a Bureau of Land Management campground on an artificial lake. After we set up, Jim and I ran to get Paul’s bike and meet him at the airport.  We also had time to run a few errands in Helena, which was the biggest city we had seen since we left Seattle.

Day 18: Canyon Ferry Lake & Townsend, MT

We woke up before dawn, packed the camper, and Sara rolled out with us at 8:30 am. Our campsite was three miles down a dirt road, and I had broken a spoke the last time I rode on a washboard surface. I didn’t want to risk it again. Our riding partner for the next eight days would be Jim’s younger brother Paul, a consultant who lives with his wife and three of their four children in Atlanta. Paul had been training hard on his new Schwinn Peloton racing bike, but he still seemed anxious, having never done this before. “It’s like having a summer job outdoors,” I told him. “You get up early and work hard until mid-afternoon. At the end of the day you’re tired and you need a shower. You sleep well and you want to go to bed as soon as it’s dark.”

During the shipping Paul’s bike developed a mechanical problem we couldn’t fix, so he and Sara drove into Helena while Jim and I started out. We rode 16 miles, first south then east, to Canyon Ferry Dam, another wad of concrete 225 feet high and1,000 feet long that holds back two million acre-feet of the Missouri River. This was near the headwaters of the Missouri, where Meriweather Lewis and his band of soldiers met up with William Clark in the summer of 1805. Lewis’s journal says that progress up the Missouri was hard – the Corps of Exploration averaged only about 18 miles a day on this stretch – and that a 16-mile canyon with sheer walls 1,200 feet high made it impossible to camp until after nightfall. The canyon was drowned 53 years ago by the dam Jim and I were crossing. Another dam just downstream had created the artificial lake where we stayed last night.

The question that always pops up in my mind when I see these dams is whether or not they are really necessary. On this ride, I’ve come to understand that this is the wrong question. Fifty-year-old people in Helena have never known a time when there wasn’t a dam, and Helena depends on its water and power. It’s sad to think that the beautiful wild river Lewis and Clark saw is gone forever, along with most of the salmon population and countless other species. But there is an endless list of sad thoughts you can have about things that are over and done with, and if you go that route all you’ve done is wallow in self-pity. The important question is how well we are doing with the West we have created.  We should focus on saving the natural places that escaped the dam-builders, dismantling the dams that are not needed, and restoring the landscapes that can be restored.

It didn’t look like Helena had made up its mind yet on this question. The ride to the dam was through rolling hills with lots of farms and pasture, and there were also lots of scattershot housing developments with trees less than two years old. A lot of the open land had Realtor signs on it, either “For Sale” or some developer’s come-on. It was sad to see Helena going the route of low-density sprawl that started in Los Angeles and reached its smoggy apotheosis in Denver. On the other hand, there is a land trust here, and there is an open space bond issue on the ballot. Whether it passes will depend on who works harder (Editing note:  the bond issue passed, barely).

We rode across the dam and gawked at the electrical station at its base. Then we continued south on state route 284, climbing and dropping in a series of steep hills that were small but tough. About 20 miles into the ride Sara passed us with Paul and his bike, now fixed. Shortly after he joined us, the road straightened out and flattened. It was 30 miles to Townsend. The Belt Mountains rose to the east; we will cross them tomorrow. To the west, across the big flat lake, were the Elkhorn Mountains of the Helena National Forest.

This is a big, open landscape that looks a little bit like a central California valley, although the mountains are more heavily forested. Huge wheat and alfalfa farms sprawled away on either side of us, mile after mile. Unfortunately, the wind kicked up from the south and blew directly in our faces at 10 to 20 miles an hour. We formed a peolton and struggled through it, but we were drained when we pulled into Townsend.  Jim later said that this was the hardest day of the trip for him.  One reason was that h had a slow leak in his front tire, which wasn’t apparent until it showed up flat the next morning.

We set up camp at the community park in the center of town. A friendly woman at the local Chamber of Commerce gave us a key to the bathroom, and we got electricity from a power pole. They didn’t charge us anything. When the schools let out, three little girls rode by the park on their Huffy bikes with 12-inch wheels. One of them had streamers on her handlebars. Go girls, go!

Jim, Sara, and Paul went to the Mint casino for mid-afternoon milkshakes. I went to the Community Library, which was also full of after-school children since it is attached to the public school complex. I could see high school football practice out the window. One of the sweet regrets of this trip was seeing so many places like Townsend, which seem vital and interesting and full of stories, but having only an hour or so to be part of them before it was time for the next thing. I guess I have to come back.

Sheridan Community Land Trust

The Sheridan Community Land Trust is a newborn with important friends. “Three years ago we did a community assessment and discovered strong support for protecting the treasures we have here,” says board member Judy Slack. The mayor of Sheridan (Dave Kinskey) and a Sheridan County Commissioner (Terry Cram) lead an effort to set up a community land trust and gave it start-up money from city and county budget lines that support non-profits. The group has 12 board members, a part-time executive director, and volunteers who work on four committees. It also has a broader focus than most conservation-oriented land trusts. The four working groups cover open space, recreation, and wildlife; affordable housing; agricultural easements; and historic preservation.

We met Judy and Chuck Bentzen, a member of the open space group, at the Land Trust’s first easement, a nine-acre stretch of the Little Goose River just south of town. Protecting river corridors is likely to be a major focus. Roger Wilson, a board member who is active on the land protection side, says that the group is particularly interested in protecting the Tongue River from Sheridan north. Seven private owners control this stretch of the river. Wilson is talking with them and with people at the state and federal levels, as well as the Nature Conservancy.

The Sheridan Land Trust is also allied with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, which is a major player out here. Ranchers who don’t want their spreads carved up into second home sites are lining up to donate agricultural easements, says Bo Bowman, who coordinates the donations. The Stock Growers Association is a big, influential group of landowners. Some of them are quite wealthy, and most of them are rock-ribbed small government conservatives. But this isn’t a partisan issue, says Slack. People who love the big, open landscapes of Wyoming have all kinds of political views. Since land trusts are nonprofit organizations that make voluntary agreements with private landowners, at arm’s length from the government, they can talk to small-government folks comfortably. And anyone who has valuable land can save quite a bit on their local property taxes and get a big federal tax credit by donating an easement.  This is especially helpful if the donor hates to pay taxes.

It will take a lot of money and clout to do something like this, and Wyoming has both. The Padlock Ranch (where we met the Governor’s conservation tour) has donated large agricultural easements to the Stock Growers Association, and the Nature Conservancy owns similarly large easements on ranch property in the eastern slope of the Bighorns. Sally Morton of the Conservancy’s Wyoming office sits on the Sheridan Land Trust’s board. “The big groups are working on big projects,” says Slack. “Our group is focused only on Sheridan County, so we are going to take the neighborhood-level things they can’t do.”

Slack is active in the historic preservation group, which is trying to negotiate the first easements in the state of Wyoming that protects the exteriors of historic buildings, trails, archaeological sites, and other historic resources. “The local lawyers have never seen a preservation easement before,” she says. “But there is a need for it. Ranches that donate agricultural easements often have landmark stone barns and houses that are essential to the character of the place, and this is the way to protect them.”

As a community land trust, the Sheridan group also aims to set up affordable housing in a community where rising home prices are forcing working-class people into marginal living situations. “We will own the land, the Sheridan Housing Action Committee will build the houses, and the homeowners will take out long-term leases with us,” says Slack.

It sounded to us as if the Sheridan Land Trust is actually three or four groups under one not-for-profit umbrella. The group is mostly in the planning and idea stage, and there are going to be some rough spots when the differing agendas of preservation, affordable housing, and open space protection advocates meet on the Board of Directors. But Sheridan needs all three things badly. Sprawl and gentrification are ramping up with the energy boom, and the group will be challenged to choose which opportunities to follow. Slack says the group hopes to secure one or two easements a year for the time being, while it develops membership and fund-raising. That would cover the tip of a very large iceberg. The elements are in place for very rapid growth, if the group can handle it.