The Clark Family Cabins are a great place to camp, with a family of pet bunnies and cabins across the way that are outlined in white Christmas lights. Jim and Sarah realized with a shock that they stayed here 15 years ago shortly after they pulled in.
Day 1 of the ride took us from Bay View State Park, on the east shore of Puget Sound, through the delta of the Skagit River and then along its banks to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Before we rode, we met Martha Bray, Conservation Director at the Skagit Land Trust, near one of their projects on Fidalgo Bay. I made a video of Martha describing some of the group’s work, which is available online at http://www.c2c4conservation.org. Then we made a second video on the mud flat near the State Park (it was low tide). We dipped our tires in the Pacific (in spirit at least), and then we were off.
We rode east along farm roads through rich agricultural land. The father of all that soil, Mount Baker, loomed at 10,000 feet in the eastern distance. After about seven miles we passed over Interstate Five, and then went along more farm roads. The scenery changed ; suddenly there were tall hills to the north and south of us. It was about 70 degrees and sunny and so beautiful that (l-r) Bill, Jim, and I took turns making whoops and exclamations and all those things you do when you can’t put something wonderful into words. Jim and I have been tallking about making this ride for two years, and all day I was having trouble processing the fact that it is finally underway.
We took a break at a simple little park in Sedro-Wooley, an ag town, with a small group of mommies and kids and dogs standing at attention near the monkey bars. Then I had a flat tire. It took a while to fix – it wasn’t a simple problem – but we did fix it, and the reward was a 30-mile cruise along the south bank of the Skagit River. What a road.
The Skagit is greenish and fast-flowing and so cold that your feet hurt just a few seconds after you put them in it. It is largely glacial meltwater from Mount Baker, which happens to be an active volcano. Loren Ihle, an old friend I visited the day before, told me that every few hundred years Baker lets off a huge jet of super-heated gas that flash-melts a great deal of the glacier. The water courses downhill and picks up mud and rocks and boulders and becomes what is called a “lahar,” a wall of mud several dozen feet high moving about 60 miles an hour. That’s where all the great soil comes from. Oh course, a lot of people have moved into the area since the last lahar, but that’s life in the American West.
We rode for several hours along the Skagit, watching as the hills closed in on ether side and got taller, and every so often there would be a glimpse of something craggy and snow-capped in the distance. We did not climb very much – that starts tomorrow, and on Thursday we will climb about 4,000 feet. I think the best words to describe our attitude toward Thursday are “confident, yet respectful.”
At the town of Concrete (hometown of author Tobias Wolff and the setting of his great memoir, This Boy’s Life) we met Washington State Route 20, also known as the Northern Cascades Scenic Highway, which will be our route for the next 400 miles, give or take a few. Concrete is a worn-out looking place; the concrete plant has closed. We got laughed at by a drunk couple sitting in front of a bar called “The Hub” that was blaring Lynyrd Skynrd at 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon. Fair enough.
In a flash we were back into the feast of scenery and, 15 miles later, the day was over. Tomorrow we start the Cascades in earnest. -Brad
7am Aug. 13: Kenny Cuthbert
Day 2 began at Clark’s Family Cabins on Washington State Route 20, just west of Marblemount. Until 1972 the highway ended here and this stretch of the Cascades was fairly roadless; in 1972, the North Cascades Scenic Highway was completed amid much fanfare. Concrete still celebrates “Cascade Days,” a festival thought up to promote the road, even thought the road skipped the downtown. I woke up at first light. I wandered over to Tootsie’s, the restaurant attached to the cabins, and found it booming. Sitting alone at a two-seater was an old man with Native American eyes and a U.S. Navy baseball cap. We got into an easy conversation while I waited for a take-out order of sticky buns, the local specialty.
Kenny Cuthbert had an oversized coffee mug that was obviously all his. He had the look of someone who comes into Tootsie’s every morning and orders the same thing. His grandfather came into this country from Scotland, he says. I’m guessing his grandmother was the Indian. Before the highway went through, there was a dirt road up to the power plant that turned into goop whenever it rained; there was also a rail line to the plant, which is how everybody got there. Above the plant there were trails blazed by Indians and trappers and not much else. “There were people in this valley who never learned to drive,” he said. “I knew a fellow who lived in a cabin up the hill, and he’d walk into Marblemount every so often with a sack lashed to his back to get supplies, and that was it. He didn’t see the point of a car.” Another guy Kenny remembers got so mad at his old Model A when it wouldn’t start that he beat it to pieces with a big stick, right in his front yard.
Kenny smiles when he hears that we’re planning to ride over Washington Pass tomorrow. “Careful on the way down,” he says. “Guys on bikes used to wear parachutes on the downgrade. If their brakes failed, they’d pop the chute and coast to a stop. It’s a big down.”
We could have talked all day, and eaten a lot of delicious food too, but the buns came and I had to get back to the crew. I said goodbye with regret to this ambassador from the days before low-fat yogurt sprinkled with high-fiber cereal. As I stood up, the waitress brought Kenny two biscuits covered with sausage gravy and a melon slice garnish. She refilled his coffee. “Bye now,” he said. “Hope you get there.”
7/13, 2pm: The Skagit Drowned
Day 2 was a short day – only 30 miles or so, and pretty flat. Our stops are limited to where the campgrounds are. We rode through Marblemount, which has been catering to tourists since 1885, and before long we got to the power plant. The Skagit is a big river. It rises in British Columbia and drains a huge watershed of wet country, so by the time it’s done it contributes 20 percent of all the fresh water entering Puget Sound. In 1918, the City of Seattle damned it for hydroelectricity. It provided more than 100 percent of the city’s electrical needs for many years; these days, it accounts for about 25 percent. That’s a lot of carbon credits. Unfortunately, it also makes two huge dead lakes in the middle of some of the most unbelievable mountain scenery in the lower 48, and it has walloped the native salmon population.. This “green living” stuff is awfully complicated.
There are many wild stories about the things people went through to dam the river, string the lines, and flip the switch. I bought a book, “North Cascades Highway” by Joann Roe, that promises lots of entertaining reading. We arrived at the Colonial Creek Campground, which was big and packed and not very nice, and had a swell meal cooked by Sara and her sister Catherine (Jim and Bill did the dishes). We were kind of anxious because the weather was getting hot, and we had to climb 4,500 feet over 33 miles in the morning and then do the big down and another 20 miles after that in the afternoon. We resolved to go to bed early, which we did, and then some jerk in the space next to us got out his guitar and started singing Eagles tunes. Wilderness it weren’t.
Day 3: Up and Down
We were rolling at 6:35 am. Progress was steady, traffic was light, and the Cascades were sublime. After we got above the drowned river, we got to ride next to a delightful wild stream, Granite Creek, as the road rose steadily before us. Those Western highway engineers were artists with dynamite. The pitch never got too steep, and we only stopped briefly every hour for more water and food. At 10 am, Catherine drove up with more water – I went through nine bottles by the end of the day. By noon we were at the top (Jim at Washington Pass, middle), and we made a short video in which Jim screams, “We feel GREAT!”
Then we started a seven-mile long 7% downgrade that was like a ski run from the top of Vail. It was just as thrilling and just as dangerous – you wanted to let it rip, but above 30 miles per hour you realize just how easy it would be to go over the side or how far you’d skid if you went down, so you hit the brakes.
We descended from 5400 feet at the top of the pass to an elevation of about 1,000 feet when the road finally leveled out. It got hotter as we continued down, until at the end it was truly furnace-like. I do mean exactly that. It felt as though you had your face next to the vent of a forced hot air furnace, and all that dry, hot air was blowing on you constantly. There were zero clouds. The hills were burnt brown, like Eastern California. We rode past large irrigated alfalfa fields, stopped at a charming grocery store for rich hippies in Mazama, and then panted our way down a beautiful stretch of asphalt called Goat Creek Road (below).
After 90 beautiful but extremely hot minutes, we pulled into our destination for the night, the town of Winthrop. It is both the regional center and a major sink for tourist dollars, and everyone on main street seems happy and well-fed. Earlier that day we had seen cops in soldier uniforms massing at the side of the road in a couple of places. Perhaps the military dump truck loaded with marijuana plants that we saw at the gas station that evening was their day’s work (below). Although the cop guarding the haul was very nice, he wouldn’t say.
I woke up feeling slightly pummeled after three days of riding, and the open oven- door heat of Thursday afternoon. What will the next 3-4 days of 100º’s be like? A bit of bad luck to have caught a near record heat wave in this NE corner of Washington. We could drive out of this heat wave in a half-day. We will instead pedal through it over four.
The Methow Conservancy’s front door is bicycle length off Main St. in Winthrop Wa. I dropped in and had a conversation with the Director Jason Paulsen and Emily, who directs membership. Their focus is on the 1,000,000 acre Methow River Watershed, and a capital campaign of twenty times as many dollars. I was more than impressed. I was also more than just a little smelly, and it was very obvious who the elephant in the store was. A retreat to our camp at the local KOA was necessary.
Sara and her sister Catherine have been herding the gear, shopping, and cooking while we have been riding. The five of us are having some good times punctuated with laughter around the dinner table. But the effort to keep everyone fed and bedded is not slight. It has been full-time job with a few pauses to adsorb this scenery and culture. We took in both last night at a riverside outside deck at the Schoolhouse Brewery.
It is now 6AM, the boys are breaking down their tents and I need to serve coffee. The saddle awaits.
“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
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.
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.
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.
Day 13: Route 93 & Whitefish
Why are there so many roadside crosses in Montana? Maybe it’s because the American Legion commemorates every highway fatality. Maybe it’s because there is no speed limit on rural roads, or no law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets. Or maybe it’s because there are no shoulders on the highways. We rode from Eureka to Columbia Falls on Sunday the 24th, another 60 miles. Most of it was on U.S. Route 93, where the shoulder is less than a foot wide and the traffic moves at 70 mph. Fortunately there wasn’t much traffic, and there were several long alternative routes where the traffic was much lighter and slower. But I don’t have much to say about the scenery on U.S. 93, because under those conditions the best plan is to put your head down, pump hard, and brace yourself for the next RV.
Jim has a flag on the back of his bike, so he rode last and made “pull out” hand motions to oncoming cars. This helped a lot. When there was no oncoming traffic, most drivers gave us a wide berth. But there were a few who didn’t, and it made me wonder whether they didn’t see us or were intentionally trying to scare us. I think maybe there are some people in the world who are, as my good friend Wade says, “locked in the pissed-off position.” These unfortunate souls tend to be men who don’t have good jobs and are tired all the time. When they see a group of happy-looking men wearing funny clothes and moving slow, and those men are maybe a little bit in the way, it’s a convenient target.
But really, I don’t want to over-dramatize things. It wasn’t so bad, and we all made it through without a scratch.
We woke up at the city park in Eureka, across a footbridge from a bunch of old buildings they moved into a lot to make an “historic village.” This was a big effort for a town this small, and walking around in it you could see that Tobacco Valley people are proud of their past. Eureka had a decent coffee shop, a public library, several good restaurants, Chinese take-out, and more, all with a full-time population of less than 1,000. It exceeded our expectations.
We headed east on a rural road parallel to the highway and had a fine ride for an hour until we passed through the tiny and well-kept hamlet of Fortine. Then it was onto 93, where the ride was mostly flat through the pine stands of the Stillwater State Forest. This 60,000 acre plot was created by consolidating land grants the U.S. Congress gave to each township in Montana “for educational purposes” in 1889. The State Forester’s office was created in 1909, and the State Forest was approved in 1918. After a big fire in the 1920s, the state built a cluster of ranger cabins in the middle of the forest, and we stopped there for a breather. The Ranger Station is now on the National Register of Historic Places. I wondered whether they still cut trees and give the cash to the University.
Just up the road, Sara (right) and Catherine drove past us and filled up our water bottles once again. I have said this before, but Jim, Bill and I could not be doing this ride without the support they give us. They shop, cook, drive the rig, find the campsite, sew up torn clothes, run errands, and in general make the whole show run smoothly. As Catherine and Bill get ready to leave the expedition on Tuesday morning, it’s becoming clear how much we have come to depend on them.
We finally made it to Farm To Market Road, which took us off U.S. 93 for another ten miles or so. The buildings and people along the ride had been pretty much working folks until that turn, but then we entered a much wealthier neighborhood. The scenery improved. We glimpsed the peaks of the Rockies for the first time. The foothills to the west of them were easy on the eyes, and there were those golden hay fields again. There were also more than a few elaborate gated entrances to ranchettes. These gates probably cost more to build than the houses themselves had cost ten miles back.
After four more harrowing miles on US 93 we pulled into Whitefish, where real people buy their groceries while the play ranchers with the big gates buy bad art and ranch-style throw pillows made in China. Whitefish had a good bike shop (Glacier Cyclery), a coffee shop with free internet (Montana Coffee Roasters), and a bookstore (Bookworks), though, so we left happy. We rode a few more miles to Columbia Falls, then put the bikes on the truck to drive to Glacier National Park, which is 15 miles east of the route we’re following. We got a prime spot next to Lake MacDonald in the Fish Creek Campground, bathed in the lake, ate a fine meal, and drank champagne to celebrate the end of Bill’s ride. Tomorrow we rest.
Day 14: Glacier Rest Day
We woke up late and did nothing for a while. Delicious. Two weeks of riding without a real break had drained the energy from my legs, and the plan for today was to not move more than absolutely necessary. Bill packed up his bike while Jim and I puttered around for most of the morning. Sara and Katherine went off exploring.
It was easy to do nothing because our campsite was pretty close to perfect. It was just a few steps down to a rocky beach on a huge lake with the water at 70 degrees. You can sit there and watch the water and pretend to read for a good long while, and there aren’t many things that are better.
Around noon we went for a drive, up to eat lunch at the historic Lake MacDonald Lodge and then up to the Continental Divide on the famous Going-To-The-Sun Road. Both of these have been photographed and described so often that I won’t attempt it here, except to say that the road is head-spinning crazy great, and don’t look down. Here’s a shot of Mount Oberlin, named for the college my daughter attends. Like many A-list national park environments, however, Glacier was jammed with people. We were in the ost crowded parts because we weren’t doing any hiking, but it was beautiful anyway.
The Road is on the sixth year of a ten-year refurbishment project, so a lot of it was a single lane and there were lots of five-minute delays. The flagman at one of them told me he made $20.55 an hour, which was $5 more than you make working for the State, but that work couldn’t begin until snow was cleared on July 2, and that it had to end on September 15. We got back to camp and lounged around some more. Tonight we’ll say goodbye to Catherine and Bill, and tomorrow it’s back to work.
Day 22: Into Yellowstone
I rode out of Chico Hot Springs around 11:30 am on Tuesday September 2. I was a new man, thanks to the stress recovery program I call “five S” – sleep, soak, supper, Swedish massage, and someone you love who loves you back. Chico gave Tania and I all the tools we needed, and at the highest quality. Don’t miss this place. She and I agreed to meet at the Yellowstone gate in Gardner, about 30 miles south, in two hours.
The rain had stopped and low clouds had broken up; in the cold sunshine, we could finally see Emigrant Peak. I followed River Road through Paradise Valley until it joined Route 89 and started up Yankee Jim Canyon, with the Yellowstone River rushing over rocks just below the highway. About 20 miles into the ride, I saw an historic marker. It said that the other side of the canyon had a remnant of the original wagon road built by James “Yankee Jim” George in the 1860s. This road became the first Yellowstone Highway and was used by early automobile tourists who bravely set out in their Model Ts. They drove to the park at bicycle speeds from the eastern terminus of the highway at St. Paul, or the western end at Seattle.
In the mid-1920s the Yellowstone Highway was incorporated into US Route 20, and the present route was blasted out of the opposite wall of the canyon. Tania’s graduate thesis is on early tourist accommodations along US Route 20. I decided she had to see this, so I turned around and met her coming up the canyon in her car. Together we drove up a dirt road on the west side of the canyon.
Yankee Jim operated a profitable toll road for miners and early Yellowstone visitors. He was also a famous Western drinker and teller of tall tales, thanks in part to Rudyard Kipling, who wrote about a visit with him in 1890. Jim fought the Northern Pacific Railroad’s plans to build a rail line up the canyon until they agreed to improve his road, and a one-mile section of this roadbed survives. It is about eight feet wide, paved with granite boulders from the river, and has a long rock wall on an upgrade. The most thrilling discoveries for a scholar of the era known as “Tin Can Tourism” were remnants of two advertisements painted on rocks. We squinted until we saw “Souvenirs at Moore’s, Gardiner” and “Grotto Café, Gardiner.” I tried to imagine someone from my great-grandparent’s generation put-putting along this road eighty-five years ago. It was probably similar in some ways to the trip I’m doing. There are a lot of unknowns, you’re at the mercy of the weather, you’re carrying your own food and water, and doing your own repairs. Cars whined along the other side of the canyon at 70 mph. Before long we joined them, and not long after that we were in Yellowstone Park.
The massage therapist at Chico told me not to miss Boiling River, just inside the northern entrance to the park. The river is the outflow from Mammoth Hot Springs, and people have build rock dams at the point where this stream of hot water enters the cold water of the Gardner River. The current is swift, and the transition from too-hot to too-cold water can be made by moving laterally just a foot or two. But if you get a spot that’s just right, it’s a great place. Next we visited Mammoth Hot Springs, and we gawked and clicked away at our cameras just like all the Asian and German tourists on the boardwalk with us. We continued on and saw a bison, as well as a elk cow prancing with a young male while an older male bugled his outrage from across the road. Then we arrived at Canyon Village, rejoined Jim, Sara and Paul, cooked a meal on the tailgate of Jim’s pickup, and settled into a good motel bed for $70, albeit with thin walls.
Day 23: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Morning came up misty and cool. It was a good time to do laundry and look around Canyon Village. The laundromat was excellent, but there was no Internet connection available anywhere. I was done by noon and the skies were clearing up, so we took a loop hike that included a long section of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. We parked in a lot near the Upper Falls and walked across the road & to the south, on a trail leading to Clear Lake. Almost immediately Tania found a large dump site strewn with broken crockery, probably from the old Canyon Lodge. We spent maybe a half-hour looking through the dump like amateur archaeologists, excitedly pointing out maker’s marks and speculating on the purposes of he old bits of metal we uncovered. This may be unusual behavior for tourists, but it made us happy. And if any rangers are reading, we didn’t take anything.
Further along on the hike, we saw a bald eagle and then, incredibly, an adult male gray wolf running along the opposite shore of Clear Lake. Wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and are doing well; there was no doubt that this was a wolf, with his long snout and muscular haunches, although he was too far away to photograph. Then things got even better: we came upon a big bubbling mud pot, then several of them, and then a whole field of them. Then, without any warning, we reached the rim of the canyon. So much has been written about this place that I won’t attempt to describe it any further, but if you haven’t seen it, you should.
We walked to Artist’s Point and took the 32nd-billionth photo of it, and standing there I remembered my Uncle Vincent and the last time I had been here. I was 15 and had not traveled much outside of my home in a small town in south Florida, and had never seen the West. Vincent was a kind great-uncle, never married, who had recently bought a new Winnebago and was eager to use it. He offered to take my older brother and I on a vacation, and given our personalities at the time, I think my parents would have been eager to agree to the plan.
Vincent loved to drive and take pictures, but he was not a hiker. We drove long days, and I remember mostly reading Atlas Shrugged in the back of the camper and brooding about how bad everything was and how no one understood me. Then we pulled into Yellowstone and Vincent parked at Artist’s Point, and we got out and I was dumbstruck. I wanted to walk into that vast wild landscape and never come out, and that feeling has never left me completely. Standing there thirty-four years later, I wanted to thank him – but of course he has been dead for 20 years. So thanks, Vince, if you’re logging in from the Great Beyond.
We capped off this incredible hike by hiking down Uncle Tom’s Trail, which uses about 300 steel-mesh stairs to get to a point near the bottom of the Lower Falls. Then we went back to the room to rest, because at 8,000 feet you get tired pretty fast. Then we went to the dining room of the Lake Yellowstone Hotel for dinner, to thank Jim and Sara for inviting me to do the trip. I had prime rib of bison.
I believe that if you want a species to thrive, and it’s edible, you should eat it. This helps create a market for the species and ensures that people will keep lots of them around so they’ll have a robust gene pool. There are lots of other reasons for environmentally concerned people to eat bison, besides the fact that it is delicious and much better for you than beef. You can get bison at Wegmans and many other supermarkets. And if you’re a vegetarian, you can always write the Yellowstone Foundation a big check.
Day 24: Hot Stuff
Yellowstone’s “Grand Tour” road is how most visitors see the park, and since we didn’t bring backpacks and had only a day left, that’s what we did. We drove to the Mud Volcano site and saw some more amazing bubbling stuff, and then went back to the Hotel to inspect the tile work in the main fireplace (we discovered that it was made by Batchelder of Los Angeles in 1923). Next we stopped at Yellowstone’s Natural Bridge and hiked there for a few hours, seeing marmots aplenty. Then it was on to the Old Faithful geyser basin with its many wonders, and also the many wonderful 19th century names that people gave to them, and also the incredible log architecture of the Old Faithful Inn. Then it was back to Canyon Lodge, where Paul took us all out for a fine meal.
Day 25: Riding The Park
Our wonderful break was over, and it was time to ride. We were up at 7am, and Tania left for her plane at 8am. We were ready to ride by 8:30am, but there was fog and it was cold – maybe 45 degrees. We waited at the visitor’s center for an hour until the fog started to lift, and off we went. The mist was lifting and we rode past a herd of buffalo in a frosted field, then south along the Yellowstone River. It was way too cold to be comfortable, but also way too beautiful to believe.
We turned onto the East Entrance Road and rode along Yellowstone Lake, and before too long we saw hot springs and fumaroles rising on its shores. “Early park visitors reported that the nearness of hot and cold water simplified their camping problems,” reports the Wyoming edition of the WPA Guide. “A fish pulled from the lake near the cone could be dangled in the pool and cooked before it was removed from the line.”
Jim really wanted to see a grizzly bear. He stopped at clearings and scanned the horizon in vain. He had seen an eagle and thought he might have seen a wolf, but he really wanted to bag a griz, at least visually. We started up through the Abrasoka Mountains toward Sylvan Pass, a rise of only 900 feet made much more difficult by the elevation and the biting cold. The pass, at 8,500 feet, is a particularly nasty piece of highway. It is totally barren of plants, a massive ditch of gravel and boulders between two high cliffs, and it screams “avalanche” even when there’s no snow there. They used to close this pass in the winter, but the word is that businessman in Cody, Wyoming called up an old friend of theirs, Dick Cheney, who ordered that the pass be kept open in the winter no matter what so the tourists would keep coming. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, it’s just another reason to hate the guy.
The downhill run from Sylvan Pass was perhaps the longest of the trip, and to me was the most pleasant of them all so far. We only have one more mountain pass to go before the plains begin, and this downhill run was – no lie – 30 miles long. It began with a sharp descent through high peaks (that’s Grizzly Peak, el. 10,400, behind Jim and I). Shortly after we left the park, Jim finally got his wish and hugged a (wooden) grizzly bear at the Pahaska Teepe café and motel. Then the road sloped into a more gradual downhill next to the beautiful Shoshone River. We rode past tall brown cliffs pocked with caves where Shoshone Indians had lived, through the Shoshone National Forest, which is the oldest in the U.S., and it just kept getting warmer as we went lower. There was a tailwind, too. The roadside was undeveloped except for the odd dude ranch, and it was also extraordinarily beautiful in a John Ford Western movie kind of way. We pulled into a US Forest Service campground near Wapiti, having done 65 miles, and the river’s rushing sound kept me sound asleep all night long.
Day 26: Cody
We set off around 8:30 on Saturday morning with 30 miles to go until Cody, where we would stay the night. Paul’s plane was set to leave from Cody at noon on Sunday. The ride was fast and we were in Cody by 10:30 am. I had ordered a new rear wheel at the local bike shop, but it hadn’t arrived yet. After some wrangling, I had it shipped ahead to Sheridan, where it will be installed on Tuesday. We spent the rest of the day looking around, and I caught up on all the e-mail and blog business that had accumulated in the five days I was offline.
In the afternoon we visited the bar of the Irma Hotel, built by Buffalo Bill and named for his daughter. The bar was given to him by Queen Victoria, one of his many fans. This guy was perhaps the most brilliant promoter the U.S. has ever seen. The town named after him appears to have a thriving economy more or less completely based on his image and reputation.
Jim, Paul, and Sara went out for a farewell dinner while I stayed behind to finish this up. Tomorrow we say goodbye to Paul and head east through high flat country to the base of the Bighorn Mountains. Monday we climb to the top, and Tuesday we go down. Then it’s on to the Great Plains.