Thursday, October 27, 2005

 

Columbia Falls to Missoula


I left early Wednesday morning (10/19) and began chipping away at the 150 miles of road through the Swan River Valley, then over to Missoula after four days hanging around Columbia Falls and Whitefish. The ride started off mostly sunny but soon turned partly sunny before eventually becoming cloudy with long periods of rain, then finally ending up bright and sunny once I rolled into town.

I made my way through the grey, rainy but windless weather, along the scenic highway 83 towards Swan Lake on Wednesday. The landscape as well as landmarks started becoming more and more familiar as I made my way along the busy stretch of road. It was 6 years ago when I toured through here with two other friends, and everything remained the same way that I remembered it. More summer homes and sprawling homesteads blemished the memorable surroundings, somewhat, but the towns still remained small, quaint and charming. There were still plenty of beautiful sights to keep my eyes enthralled as I rode deeper into the now increasing grey and vaporous conditions. It wasn’t long, however, until everything was swallowed up by the changing weather and I was left with nothing to entertain my senses. At 2:00 p.m. I decided to call it a day. I rode into the town of Swan Lake in just under 3 hours and covered almost fifty miles. I stopped by some of the places that I remembered from when I passed through here back in ’99. The businesses that I remembered from that time where closed for the season. I snapped a few photos for nostalgia’s sake and then headed to the local watering hole for some relief from the wet weather and to take in the last game in the National League Playoff Series. It was still raining when the game ended and the bar was about to close. At 11:30 p.m. I mounted the bike and pedaled into the rain to a nearby but now closed campground to find a place to sleep for the night. After searching the grounds for almost an hour for a “dry” site I finally gave up and found a small bit of shelter to keep the rain off of me. It wasn’t much but I didn’t care. After I lay down and closed my eyes I was eventually able to fall asleep on the dry asphalt and just as the rain storm increased its tempo.

It was shortly after 6:00 when I got up Thursday morning (10/20) and still raining. I made a bowl of oatmeal, brewed a cup of coffee and sat under the awning and waited as the rising sun tried to burn through the misty clouds of early morning. Before 10 a.m. the rain let up enough for me to validate riding, so down the ‘Swan’ I went. Periods of cold rain mixed with warm sun kept me guessing how to dress and I stopped several times while making my way towards Seeley Lake to add and subtract appropriate pieces of gear. The rain came and went through out the day. Sick of the frequency of stopping I eventually just left my rain gear on and tried to endure the constantly changing weather. I was soaked from the inside out when I reached Condon and took some time off the bike to dry out and eat some food. This must be made clear; things in Montana are cheap. Groceries, lodging and even beer are very affordable when compared to similar commodities up North. I have found that it’s almost as cheap to eat out than buy groceries and cook. The portions you get in every place that I have been to are very generous and ample, not to mention made without the hassle of assembling a stove and all of the business that goes along with preparing a meal. This being understood I decided to buy lunch—a huge sandwich and big plate of homemade potato salad, a bag of peanuts, a bottle of Gatorade and a tall-boy of PBR for $8—and hang out awhile as the next wave of rain further drenched the already saturated ground. For two hours I waited. The air got colder as the rain came and went. Finally I had enough and jumped back on the bike and took off into the persistent and drizzling rain.

I rode past a few more familiar places and some significant-to-no-one-else-but-me-and-maybe-two-other-people landmarks. A flood of biter-sweet memories swelled inside of me as I made my way past a baseball field outside of the town of Condon. It was here, over six years ago now, that Joe Moore, Tony Tapay—the two friends I toured this part of the country with back in ’99—and myself decided to camp for the night. It was after a very frustrating day of being somewhat lost on some of the many logging roads that crisscross the backcountry which parallels highway 83. We finally made it out of the bush and got back on the highway and then made our way down to the very same grocery store that I just ate at and got some food right before they closed. Tired and very sun burnt we rode out of Condon looking for a campsite. Initially we had planned on making it to Holland Lake, but of course none of planned on getting turned around (which is really just a nice way of saying lost). It was late in the evening and the sun was about to set so we all agreed to stay at this ball field. There is a double track road that goes into the woods behind the baseball field so we followed it hoping to find a place further away from the highway. About a mile down the road we stopped and set up our tents then promptly hit the sack without stringing up our food or doing any of the regular chores we normally did while traveling in bear country. Confident that we were close enough to the road to keep bears away we figured we were safe. Exhausted by the length of the day we immediately hit the sack. About the time each of us were beginning to fall asleep an elk started to bugle. It woke all of us up and demanded that we pay attention. After determining that it wasn’t a bear we all went back to sleep. The next morning we rolled out to the ball field and made breakfast. Joe went to the toilet then came back and asked if we had seen the mutilated deer carcass that was close to where we were eating, maybe 25 yards away. Curious, both Tony and I got up to follow Joe over to where it was for a look. It appeared to be a deer that had been struck by a car, but hunks of the animal were defiantly torn away from it’s now decaying body. Another peculiar thing; the carcass was a good 100 yards away form the road. It was then that we noticed a sign that lay in the weeds close to the dead deer. It was broken off at the post and read: Grizzly Bear Relocation Habitat: Do Not Enter (or something like that/it’s been 6 years). All of us were silent for a quick minute, and then each one of us started laughing! We had just spent the night inside a Grizzly Bear Relocation Habitat and we lived to tell about it! We didn’t take any of the necessary precautions to avoid seeing one, and we thought we were safe because we were close enough to the road, but in our haste to find a place to rest for the night we had foolishly stumbled into a place where ornery bears are released! Man-oh-man were we relieved that it was morning! We joked about it each time we chose a camp site there after and never again did we camp so careless. Good times, good times. Anyway…

I rode on past the Holland Lake turn off and continued to make my way along the main artery towards Seeley Lake. It was there that the rain morphed into a real storm and a down pour fell hard from the sky. I inquired about a cheap room for the night at a bar in town then pedaled over to it for further investigation. It was $30 a night and they even permitted bikes inside the room, so I took it. Given that the night before was wet and pretty restless, not to mention that I was facing the same situation, it was easy to justify parting with the cash. After checking in I cranked the heat, took a shower and watched re-runs of M*A*S*H* until my eyes felt heavy enough for sleep.

By Friday (10/21) morning the weather changed from grey and rainy to warm and foggy. A thick blanket of hazy vapor enveloped the town of Seeley Lake but promptly burned off as I made my way off of the ‘Swan’ to the junction of highway 200 and revealed big, bright, blue skies that seemed to stretch on forever. I made great time as I rode away from Seeley Lake. When I got to highway 200 I had covered almost 17 miles in under an hour. I felt rejuvenated and strong from a good nights sleep and the day was promising to be a warm and sunny one. I took advantage of the nice weather and rode as fast as I could move the bike towards Missoula. Highway 200 is a pretty easy road to follow west from the junction at highway 83. It has no real climbs, except for one. It actually felt like I was in a constant decent from the top of the one small gradual climb and I averaged over 16 mph all of the way into Missoula. There are a few small run-ups that make you grunt a little bit but they are over quick enough to keep them from really being noteworthy. The only thing that is noteworthy is that highway 200 has a really nice and wide shoulder that makes bike travel a lot less scary than the rest of the roads I’ve been on in the state so far. Loads of traffic file into Missoula each day, I’m sure, but much like the ride into Whitefish the week prior, it being a Friday afternoon didn’t help matters any. Actually it seemed to intensify the already Closter phobic feeling of being back in an area that is somewhat widely populated.

Still making great time, I pedaled towards Missoula. By 2:15 p.m. I reached Higgins Street, which, ostensibly, is the main channel of town. I took a brief, self-guided, sight-seeing tour of the street before contacting my good friend Cooper at his place of work. By 6 p.m. I had a beer in hand and was catching up with Cooper, Anne and their family at a nearby restaurant. It was a great day in the saddle. I covered a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of time (actually it was one of if not the fastest day I’ve had thus far in the tour). I had reached 4,500 miles and was reunited with some dear old friends, in a town that I had been curious about exploring ever since passing through here in ’99 with Joe and Tony.

**If anyone is curious about that tour I took with Joe and Tony down the Continental Divide back in 1999 please click the Bio-Wheels Icon on the Links page on this web-site. This will take you to the Bio-Wheels web-site. Once there click the lounge button on the site and look for “The Great Divide Ride.” There are three parts to it and plenty of photographs. I believe there is a story about the night I described as well.




Tuesday, October 25, 2005

 

More Friends to add to The Collection


The morning was bright and the air was dry and still when I awoke on Friday (10/14). After eating breakfast and repacking the bike I made a few phone calls to some friends and family. It’s much cheaper to talk to people from the states than when I was traveling through Canada, so I took some time to catch up with a few of the folks that I was able to track down. I got a hold of some long time friends, Cooper and Anne Burchenal, who are living in Missoula with their family. I talked with Cooper long enough to arrange to meet up with everyone as I made my way down the state, then set off towards the town of Whitefish, fifty miles away. The day was warming up to a pleasant temperature with clear blue skies. I was as excited as the night before to be back in the states and in familiar territory and I rode like hell towards Whitefish. I had already been through many of the same towns on this slope of the Continental Divide in 1999 when I toured through this part of the country with some friends, so I kindda knew what to expect from the towns and terrain. I knew that there were plenty of places to re-supply with groceries and water, which would make it much easier to travel light compared to traveling through most of Alaska, The Yukon, and Northern British Columbia. I also knew that the main roads cut through valleys and not over any really big passes which was a bonus as well. The one thing that I forgot about was that the roads were narrow and very unfriendly to travel by bike. The speed limit in Montana is 70 miles per hour and the road into Whitefish is especially heavily traveled. Lots of logging trucks as well as local traffic use the road and being a Friday night didn’t help matters either. So I wasted no time and rode as fast as I could pedal to Whitefish. I got to town by 5:00 p.m. and stopped at a bike shop upon arrival in Whitefish; Glacier Cyclery. It was there that met Tim Killian, one of the three of the bike shop’s friendly employees on duty that particular Friday night. Later on that evening I met up with all three of the guys and their respective girlfriends/wives at one of the local bars and hung out with them for the remainder of the evening. Meghan O’Donnell, Tim’s girlfriend, is a teacher at Summit Preparatory School, a private school outside of Kalispell, MT that assists troubled teens, and was interested in finding out more about the tour. We talked about Covenant House and Summit awhile before Meghan asked if I would talk to her students about the tour. I was defiantly interested and instantly agreed. It wouldn’t be until next week that she would be able to arrange a time for the presentation so in the mean time I was invited to hang out with Tim, her and there other room mate Nick at their place in nearby Columbia Falls. Very thankful, I accepted the offer.

I spent the next few days hiking and trail riding in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, close to the entrance of Glacier National Park, with Tim and Meghan, their dogs and some of their many friends. I got a small taste of what life is like in the towns of Whitefish and Columbia Falls too. On Saturday night (10/15) I went out on the town in Whitefish with Meghan and few of her friends and after a fantastic trail ride on some nice, twisty, narrow single track on Sunday, We went to an apple cider press: a local tradition where the townspeople bring some of their apple harvest to press into cider, followed by a pot-luck dinner. I got to see a couple of good movies, and one bad one: Mad Max; Beyond Thunderdome—does that movie make any sense? We also got into some interesting conversations and debates about horse’s trail rights in national forests, mountain bike fees in national parks, and other outdoor related things.

On Tuesday (10/18) I met Meghan at Summit Preparatory School and spoke to its maybe 60 students about the tour. It was an informal, unstructured presentation but was well received. I hung out with the students, showed some pictures from the web site and answered questions about the tour for a couple of hours. Everyone was interested on some level and many asked different questions like how it was funded, how much the bike weighed, route finding, bear encounters, etc. Several teens stuck around after it was over to ask more specific questions about bike touring and some elaborated on tours that they had taken or was going to take. It was a really enjoyable experience that left me feeling happy and lucky to meet such an interested, fun bunch of young adults.

That evening I packed the bike and got it ready to head off for Missoula the following morning. After the bike was loaded and ready to go Tim, Nick and I ordered a pizza and began watching The Blair Witch Project. How you can get lost in the woods of Maryland armed with a map and a compass, with a witch running loose baffled the three of us, and we spent the last night heckling the foolish hikers and eating Columbia Falls best attempt at cheese pizza, which is actually pretty good. Meghan got home just after the movie was over and everyone hung out a bit longer before heading off to bed.

(10/19) It was a mostly sunny Wednesday morning when everyone got up. After snapping a few photos and arranging a potential time to meet up in Missoula around Halloween I said goodbye to my three new friends and headed off into the cool morning air, in search of new adventure and with the hope for new, but similar encounters.




Monday, October 24, 2005

 

My Last Days in Canada


(10/11) After the unexpected delay in Lake Louise I was eager to get back on the road and continue riding south. I finished all the business associated with the wheel problem then sped away into the calm, cool air of early afternoon. It was starting to become a beautiful, sunny day when I finally was able to begin riding. I was eager to try out the wheel and tire combination that I bought to replace the defective wheel and worn out tire that I had been riding on for the past 4 months. Right off the bat I noticed a difference in the handling of the bike. The size difference between the two tires is pretty significant. The old tire is a Nokian Triple X that measures 26 X 2.4. The new tire is a much smaller size. It’s a Nokian Ultra-Tour 2 and measures 26 X 1.9. Of course both tires are 26 inches in diameter but their respective profiles vary greatly. The difference between the two make the steering of the bike feel more responsive and quick. I just needed enough rubber to make it down into Montana and there was enough tread left on one of the two old Triple X tires so I only bought one new Ultra-Tour 2 tire, and left the Triple X tire on the rear wheel and put the new Ultra-Tour 2 tire on the front. The new wheel and tire combo created a whole new look to the bike. When you compare the front tire to the rear the size differences make the bike look a lot like a chopper or a dragster! After twenty miles the bike once again felt stable and familiar and I was able to turn my attention to the spectacular mountain scenery of Kootenay National Park.

A long flat 17 mile/28 kilometer stretch of road leaves Lake Louise south, bound for the Kootenay’s. There was no wind to hinder my pedaling and I quickly reached the entrance into Kootenay National Park after only 40 minutes of riding. At the junction of Highway 1 and 93 lies the start of the gradual climb to the top of Vermilion Pass. It’s an easy climb to the top of the pass, 1637 meters above sea level, and once you reach the summit and cross the Continental Divide it’s a long, fun decent down the other side. The road then meanders through a valley, along side the Kootenay River, and past more impressive scenery. The views from the road are just as picturesque as the views in Jasper and Banff. Big mountains freshly dusted with new fallen snow pop out all over the place, creating a dramatic contrast against the stellar blue sky of early October. The road rolls along the valley floor for about 40 miles (75 kilometers) before starting the next climb up Sinclair Pass. Even though the pass isn’t as high in elevation as Vermilion, Sinclair Pass is a much steeper and longer climb. It begins at a lower elevation than Vermilion and starts off somewhat easy but soon you are locked into a long and winding climb, and the grade of the ascent keeps you seated and spinning away in your bikes most comfortable gear. After about forty-five minutes in the saddle I got to the top of the climb and found a terrific place to camp for the night, complete with a bear locker and natural spring. It was 6:30 p.m. and getting dark. I made my same dinner of dehydrated pasta and drank my same cup of hot chocolate before brushing my teeth and placing all things smelly in the bear locker then heading to bed. It was a chilly night, and I was camped atop a 1486 meter pass in October, so needless to say that it was a cold night’s sleep. My feet were freezing, even though I stuffed a couple of feet warmers that I bought while in Lake Louise inside my shoes earlier. “I wish that I had my down booties,” I thought. Trying not to focus on my numb extremities I thought of other things. I had covered almost 80 miles/130 kilometers in less than 6 hours, and coupled with the events of the past two days I was pretty tired. The distant sound of elk bugling made finding sleep a bit easier and by 9:30 p.m. I was out for the night.

I awoke to a thick fog Wednesday morning (10/12). After breakfast I broke camp and packed the bike then started down the other side of Sinclair Pass. It’s a long, 9 mile (15 kilometer) ride down the other side of the pass, past Radium Hot Springs Resort and then into the town of Radium. I had planned on soaking in the hot springs before riding into town. But being somewhat spoiled by my experience at Liard made the swimming-pool-like-setting of Radium unattractive and kept me pedaling on to town. I stopped in Radium long enough to buy groceries and eat lunch before starting off again. As I was ridding out of town I ran into some Big-Horn Sheep; a female, a yearling and a ram. The female seemed disinterested in me and kept on eating grass as her offspring lay resting close by, while the male stood directly in my path. It took sometime for the ram to figure out that I posed no threat to him or his family and eventually he wondered off the road allowing me to pass on by.

The rest of the day was windy and grey and the threat of rain was ever present. After battling a tenacious head wind all day, I decided to stop at the small timber town of Canal Flats for the night after covering only 50 miles (85 kilometers). I found a place to camp and then started my evening ritual. The night was much warmer than the previous one and it was my last night in Canada, so I lingered a bit outside before turning in. A cloud burst round 10 p.m. forced me inside my tent. I stayed awake inside the tent long enough to figure out my route back into the states, then fell asleep as the first drops of rain started falling.

I was maybe 120 miles (186 kilometers) away from Montana and I was determined to make it there that evening (10/13). By 8:30 a.m. I was up, fed and ready to ride. The day started off wet and I stayed dressed for rain until the skies were safe enough to start shedding. The skies dried out and remained that way through out the days ride to Montana. Except for a few diversions down some shorter country roads, I followed Highway 93 all of the way from Canal Flats to the Canadian/U.S. border. For the most part it’s a pretty uneventful ride through a bunch of farm country; cattle and horses mainly. There are a few significant climbs along the ride to the states, but nothing too demanding, and the skies stayed dry all of the way. By 7:00 p.m. it was dark and I was less than 5 miles from the border. I stopped at a small convenience store/gas station in Grasmere, the last town in Canada before crossing into the United States, to spend my last $7 of Canadian money on some food. After the quick meal, I put on warmer clothes, attached my headlamp and got ready to enter into the United States. The customs official checked my identification and then I rolled into Montana. It was around 8:30 p.m. when I reached Eureka. I pulled into the first gas station that I came to, to find out some information about camping. The gas station was also a motel, and after finding out how affordable the spacious, warm rooms were I decided to check in for the night! It was cheap—only $43 dollars, with no sales tax—and I had put in enough miles (114) to justify the splurge. After being away from American craft brews for almost 2 months I was also thirsty for a good beer, so bought a six pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for $6, U.S.! Whoo-Hoo! Man, it felt great to be in familiar territory and back in the states! I took a shower, ate some food and drank beer while catching up on the news in a heated room, on a queen-size bed.



 

Back In The U.S.A.



(10/17) I’m back in the states! I rolled into Montana late Thursday evening and made it as far south as Whitefish by Friday. Immediately upon arrival in Whitefish I met some friendly folks who live not too far away in Columbia Falls. They invited me to stay with them and do some trail riding while the riding’s still good and I’ve been hanging out ever since! It’s been a pretty eventful past week/week-and-a-half and there’s a lot to type about so check back soon and I will have more posted then.