"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Biking the Route of the Hiawatha

At the suggestion of our friends Lynn and Glenn, we are in St. Regis, Montana for a week, primarily to ride this well known and loved 15 mile bike trail through the forests and hills of Idaho and Montana.  We are staying at a great campground, the Nugget RV Park, which I highly recommend.  Aside from very nice facilities it has acres and acres of wooded and well groomed hiking trails perfect for pet walking and wildlife viewing (many deer, turkeys and a fox so far).

Me at the start of the trail

The Route of the Hiawatha was originally the Pacific extension of the Milwaukee Railroad. It took almost 9,000 men (mostly immigrants), $234 million and three years to build this challenging section of the railroad. It is now named after its last train, the Hiawatha Olympian, which ran for only only a short time before the railroad line went bankrupt.

Map from Official Route of the Hiawatha website

The trial is now jointly owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Lookout Pass Ski Area, which is located on the state line between Montana and Idaho right off I-90 Exit 0.  

Lookout Pass Ski Lodge
The line for tickets

Parking lot at Lookout Pass and view into Idaho

The Trail can be accessed in several ways at multiple locations, but the easiest and most popular is to purchase trail and shuttle passes at Lookout Pass, rent bikes there if needed, and then drive to I-90 Exit 5 (Montana) and a few more miles on a dirt road, park, and enter the trail there at the East Portal. That's what Rick, our friend Kate and I opted to do.

Parking and unloading at East Portal

East Portal, where trail-masters check your passes and ensure you are safely equipped
for the ride with helmets, water and strong head or handlebar lights.

The very first feature that we encountered, after the trail-master's tent, is a 1.7 mile dark tunnel, with water running down the walls, dripping from the ceiling and into gutters on each side.  It was one of eeriest multi-sensory experiences I have ever had. There is no sound but the distance distorted echoes of other riders and running water. There is no wind, and the air is thick with moisture to the point of being like fog reflecting light from your head lamp, which is the only thing you see except for an occasional reflector and glimpses of the stone walls. It smells rich, deep, wet and earthy. And it's a chilling 45 degrees Fahrenheit.  The road surface is graded toward the edges so that the water runs into the gutters, but that also means its a little tricky to stay straight on course. The dark doesn't help one's sense of balance either. And it seems to go on forever. I got the strong feeling I had been transported to someplace in Middle Earth. 

But eventually we did see the light at the end of the tunnel and broke out into the heat of the day and fresh air. We were greeted by a sweet water fall right next to the trail. It's important to stop and turn off all your lights so that you still have enough battery power for the ride back. 

There are more tunnels, but none as long as the first... 

...and seven trestles of various lengths and heights. 

View from one of the trestles

The surface of the trail starts smooth, but it gets increasingly rocky and bumpy. We were all feeling it through our bike seats by the end of the trail. My super duper Specialized bike with full suspension (front and back shocks) was a real bottom saver. 

Smoke from fires in Idaho made the views a little less spectacular than they might have been on a clear day, but it was still beautiful and completely undisturbed by anything but the trail, trestles and tunnels. There are informational plaques interspersed along the trail that gave us an excuse to stop and stretch our legs.

It took us over three hours and it would have been good to have more snacks with us. After the fifteen miles, a shuttle picks everyone and their bikes up at the Pearson stop and returns to the end of the long tunnel for the last stretch.  The chill of the tunnel felt great at that point.

By the time we got to the truck we were hungry. It turned out to be a longer day than we expected. We returned Kate's rented bike to the lodge and hoped to get a meal there, but were sorely disappointed by the service (one woman to cook, serve and run the register, with many people waiting), so we headed home. 

Things to know if you want to ride the Route of the Hiawatha:

1. This is a great adventure for almost anyone who can ride a bike. We saw families with children, folks riding recumbent bikes, and rough and ready mountain bikers. It's downhill all the way so no hard peddling is required. It just takes people different amounts of time to do the trail, and the last shuttle is often at 4:15, with no other option for return but to ride the whole trail back again.

2. No pets are allowed on the trail.

3. Rentals of helmets, lights and various styles of bikes are available at the Lookout Pass Lodge.

4. Bring plenty of food and water, and don't expect much in the way of food service back at the Lookout Pass lodge.  There are a couple of thermos jugs placed along the trail to fill your water bottle, but they could be empty or you could easily miss them. There are also a couple of bathrooms on the trail. Study the map and keep your eye on the mileage markers and tunnel numbers to know how far you've got to go.

5. Those with poor night vision, serious fear of enclosed spaces or heights might want to think twice about riding the trail.

6. The website has plenty of good information, but it's hard to really imagine until you do it. Check it out

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Our Montana Summer

Speedy campground internet! A miracle! Quick, quick, get a post out!  This will be a review of the highlights of our summer in Montana. We're not quite done, but I'll share up to where we are now, which is Libby, Montana "where the Cabinet Mountains meet the Kootenai River" says the official City of Libby website.  

But here's the Montana story so far.  We made a quick stop in Billings just to have dinner at Blue's Barbecue with new friends Bobbie and Rich, who are only a schmeer of BBQ sauce away from being full-timers. 

Another quick stop in Bozeman, which we had no idea was such a hip place. We had only one day, so we hit the Museum of the Rockies and saw lots of dinosaur bones. We're planning a return visit very soon on our way east. Not for the bones, but for the Audi dealer - the only one in Montana. : ( 

During our week in Missoula we took a road trip south on Rt. 93 through the Bitterroot Valley

Along the way we took a slow meander through the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in Stevensville and spotted a great blue heron rookery with at least 20 nests visible in the tops of the tall evergreens. Lots of deer too.

Our last stop of that day was Lake Como (yes, named after the one in Italy), with its beautiful beach and views of the Bitterroot Mountains.

Our next parking location was Polson, where we spent a month. Highlights (some of which I have already reported) included the National Bison Range...

many, many fawns (it seems to be a good year for babies here)...

 Wild Horse Island State Park on Flathead Lake...

and a very unique alpenglow sunset (color not enhanced!) on the Mission Range.

The small town of Coram, just west of Glacier National Park, was our next scheduled stop, including a two week visit with our fellow RVing friends Glenn and Lynn.  Just about the time we arrived in Coram, all set to explore Glacier, a wildfire broke out on the east side of the park, resulting in the closing of the Going to the Sun Road from a spot called Big Bend to St. Mary.  Bummer. 

But Glacier is a big place, and we found plenty to do on the west side. We started with a day of kayaking in our AdvancedFrame Sport inflatable kayaks by Advanced Elements at the always spectacular Lake McDonald. We haven't said too much about our new kayaks yet, but we're really happy with them. Lynn and Glenn turned us on to them, so the four of us inflated our four identical kayaks and hit the water.  Honey joined in. (We may need to get her one too.) They are SO much easier to assemble and break down than our old folding models. They ride and track nicely, plus they're soft. I like soft. 

Another day we all went rafting on the middle fork of the Flathead River with the Glacier Raft Company. Bold and experienced Glenn and Lynn kayaked in the company's inflatable kayak's, which weren't very comfy, while Rick and I joined a team of about 10 in a raft.  And one final time, we all kayaked the Flathead River for about 6 quiet miles near Columbia Falls.

Kayaking the "Lazy" Flathead River

While the fire was still blazing away on the park's east side we were able to hike the Trail of the Cedars and the Avalanche Lake Trail on the west side. They are very popular trails at the slowest of times, and with the other side of the park closed off, everyone hiked what was available. So it was crowded, but hey...

Rick on the Avalanche Lake Trail

Although St. Mary was closed, Two Medicine, an area in the southeast corner of the park, was open, so we drove over there. What was most amazing about these two weeks, is that we never saw any smoke from the huge fire until the very last day as we prepared to move. Clear blue skies even at Two Medicine.

Two Medicine Lake and Sinopah Mountain
 Finally, the Going to the Sun Road opened up as far as Logan Pass, so we hit the road as far as we could go one evening after supper. No traffic, no crowds. Hallelujah. It was a gorgeous night for a drive and a hike.

Sunset at Logan Pass

Moonrise at Logan Pass

 Alright, Glacier experience done. On to the northwestern corner of Montana, completely new territory for us. McGregor Lakes RV was our first stop for a few days. While there we heard from our nice neighbors that there was a skydiving event nearby, so we checked that out. Another first for us. Hundreds of skydivers were jumping in groups. Very fun to watch. Boy did we learn a lot about a sport of which we previously knew nothing at all. Love doing these different things. No, we didn't try it.

While at McGregor Lake we met our first Montana bear, as reported in my last post. Here's another cute shot of the friendly younster.

Our next move took us to Libby, not a very big place, but it has some interesting features. For one thing, it has a dog park! But it's a very well kept secret. I found it by accident while looking for some trails at the local multi-purpose park. Found the trails, and there was the dog park! So we spent every evening there meeting the locals at J. Neils Memorial Park. We camped at Woodland RV Park, which we liked very much. Lots of tall spruce trees, grass and big sites.

Libby is right on the Kootenai River and we took our new found courage in hand (up until know we've been flat water paddlers) and kayaked the river for about seven miles. It's an easy river at this location. 

Kootenai River

We also took a drive up river to the Libby Dam, Lake Koocanusa and on to the very cute town on Eureka.

Lake Koocanusa just above Libby Dam

Have I mentioned how hot it is here lately? We highly recommend G's Homemade ice cream stand in Eureka. It's a tiny yellow house with brightly colored picnic tables and umbrellas, right on the main street of town. She had ten homemade flavors the day we visited, and we can attest to the excellence of vanilla and butter pecan.

So the ice cream was great, the lakes and rivers are beautiful, but the peak of our stay in this rural corner of Montana has got to be the Kootenai Falls and the Swinging Bridge, hands down. Located just west of Libby on Rt. 2, it's an easy day trip with lots of hiking options right from the parking lot. The Falls are less than a mile from the road and require some hiking to see them. Once there, you are free to scramble among the rocks that contain and form the Falls. They are quite powerful and good judgement must be used because there are no fences restricting access.

Dogs are allowed throughout, but there are several challenges to having them along. First, there is a multi-storied metal stairway with perforated steps and platforms that could creep out most dogs. (Honey would have nothing to do with it. So we came back another day without her.) If your dog gets past the stairs, then there is the challenge of scrambling around on the multilayered rocks precariously close to the rushing, pounding waterfalls. I can only imagine...

Finally, there is the swinging bridge across the raging river. I didn't see any dogs taking on that challenge either. In fact there were quite a few people who declined. It really swings and could give anyone with a mild fear of heights the heeby-jeebies. So without dogs, it's a great place to explore and could easily be a full day experience, with many places ideal for a picnic.

We'll be in Montana for a few more weeks, in St. Regis to ride the Hiawatha Trail, in Missoula, Helena, Bozeman and beyond...

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A Bear Hug from Montana

Greetings! We have just a few weeks left to our summer in Montana. We've had heat, fires, changed plans, good company, glorious water adventures and strenuously rewarding hikes. Currently we are at McGregor Lakes RV, on the lake of the same name in the northwest corner of the state. 

We encountered this young black bear about 1/4 mile from our parking spot today. Our first Montana bear!

I had just enough bandwidth to squeak this post out. (Took about a half hour.) We expect to be back in Verizonland some day in our future, and will pick up the blog in fuller form when that happens. Until then we hope all our readers are safe and happy and enjoying life to its fullest.