Monday, September 24, 2012

My North Idaho Bike Vacation

Ah, it's but a happy memory now.  A very happy memory.  I'm throwing down some of the details before they slip the bounds of my feeble mind.

My favorite photos can be seen HERE. (Some are embedded in the story, below.)

Day 1 - Saturday, September 8

BikeVac120908aI drove the wife's Family Truckster from Boise to Plummer, Idaho, via McCall, Riggins, Lewiston.  The bike, BOB trailer, and gear were in the back.  Most of the distant scenery was obscured by thick smoke from multiple forest fires burning in the region.  I anticipated that the drive would be dull... but in fact, it was quite enjoyable due to the fact that don't do much driving.  Maneuvering on those twisty mountain two-lanes was fun, in a "video game" sort of way... more enjoyable than maneuvering in traffic in town.

I stopped in Lewiston in the late afternoon for gas, and to enjoy half a cheeseburger and tater tots at Effie's Tavern.  (If you like burgers and find yourself in Lewiston, don't miss Effies!)

I arrived in Plummer an hour or so before sunset... checked into the "Highway Motel and Sport Shop."  It's not like I had a choice - it's the only motel in town.  It's definitely not fancy, but it was clean and the price was right.  (And the management told me they'd find a place to park the car for a few days until I returned.)  I had just enough time to get settled in, and take a quick bike ride to the trailhead, before dark.

BikeVac120908c At the trailhead I discovered a very impressive steel and stone sculpture of an Indian warrior on a horse.

The shower was warm, and the mattress was soft.

Mileage - 380 or so in the car, less than 3 on the bike.

Day 2 - Sunday, September 9

50 Sundays or so each year I go to church, so I feel a sense of loss when I miss it.  But today it just wasn't in the cards for various reasons.

I got my gear (barely!) loaded into the BOB trailer and the courier bag I brought, parked the car in a fenced vacant lot right behind the motel, and turned in the room key... and then I was off.

The first 5 or 6 miles of the Coeur d'Alene Trail are pretty much steadily downhill... but at a very gradual grade, since it used to be a railroad line.  The sky was overcast but with blue patches.  Oh - and despite the smoke on the way up, the air seemed relatively clear.  The glass-smooth asphalt was damp.  It was wonderfully cool... perfect for riding.

When the trail leveled out, I was at lakeside - the south end of Coeur d'Alene Lake.  A few miles further I came to the famous bridge.  I believe it was a drawbridge back in the train days.  When the trail was converted for bike-pedestian use, they raised the deck, and put some graduated "steps" on either side to accommodate wheelchairs and the like.  (You don't have to ride the entire incline - you can stop on a level spot part way up if you choose.)

BikeVac120909dAfter crossing the bridge, I rode north along the eastern edge of the lake for several miles... it was interesting to look over my shoulder and observe the bridge as it became more and more distant.

The scenery was fantastic from the steel Indian on!  Wetlands, forests - both evergreen and deciduous trees, and lush green meadows.  Occasional wildlife - herons, a deer or two, ducks and geese.

I took it at a relatively leisurely pace, averaging 10 or 12 mph.  Why would you want to hurry such a fantastic thing?!  There are some trailheads along the way - "entrance ramps" onto the Bike Interstate, if you will.  Traffic was extremely light - sometimes an hour would go by without seeing another soul.  I rode through the small burgs of Harrison, Cataldo, Enaville, arriving at Pinehurst in the afternoon.

BikeVac120909kPinehurst is where I set up base camp, at the "By the Way RV Park."  Pinehurst is small, and so is the RV park.  In fact, at 4pm or so the office was already closed.  I picked out a spot, and pitched my tent.  Rolled out my sleeping pad and bag.  I pushed a note thru the office mail slot telling them I'd stop in the morning to "settle up."

I rode down "Main Street," getting the lay of the land, and ended up stopping at the Big Pine Drive-In for my main meal of the day.  The food was pretty good.  When I got there, I was the only customer, but by the time I left, there were a half-dozen people clustered in the gazebo at the base of the namesake big pine tree.

As evening approached, I enjoyed a nice warm shower in the clean restroom at the RV park.  (I'd hate to slide into my sleeping bag while sticky from sweat... but the reality is I didn't sweat much on a partly-cloudy day at a relaxed pace.)

Getting horizontal in the sleeping bag felt nice.

I wish the campground were a little farther off the beaten path... I-90 goes by maybe 100 yards distant, so I heard road rumble pretty much all night.

Mileage - 53

Day 3 - Monday, September 10

It was brisk when I dragged my carcass out of the bag and into my shorts and long-sleeve shirt.  (I chose a lightweight woven cotton long-sleeve shirt for my riding, to avoid excessive sun exposure.  It's a technique I've learned over many years of hot-weather motorcycle touring.)

It was 7am or so - but since north Idaho is Pacific Time, it would've been 8 back home.

When Dick, the manager, showed up, I went and paid for 3 nights camping.  Dick is a nice old fella, and I enjoyed talking to him for awhile.  As it turned out, I didn't do much talking in the week or so I was riding.  Which isn't a bad thing.

From Pinehurst, I was doing some "day tripping," so no need to load the gear on the trailer.  I organized things in the tent, zipped it up, and was on my way.

BikeVac120910cFirst stop was breakfast... "cold" breakfast at the grocery store.  It's probably not particularly nutritious, but my traditional "motorcycle trip breakfast" is a quart of chocolate milk (Kristin Armstrong would be impressed!) and a couple donuts.  I scarfed down breakfast, and then it was back to the trailhead.  (The campground is maybe a quarter-mile off the main Coeur d'Alene trail, but a bike path from the trail passes directly in front of the campground.  And besides, even at "rush hour," traffic isn't much of an issue in Pinehurst.)

I rode leisurely on up the main Coeur d'Alene Trail - more lovely scenery, occasional trailheads, an occasional fellow traveler.

The end of the line - officially - is in downtown Mullan, Idaho.  Unlike the magnificent Native American at the west end, in Mullan the end of the trail is marked with a row of boulders.

A bike path continued "unofficially" for a few blocks, then merged onto a 2-lane roadway.  Which goes past the Lucky Friday Mine and more nice scenery to Shoshone Park.  I had intended to ride to the Montana border, but borders are somewhat obscure.  I believe the park is probably within a mile of the border.  I sat and vegetated - all by myself - at the park for a few minutes, snapped some photos, and headed back the other way.

The scenery was just as nice on the return trip.  It clouded up in the afternoon, and even sprinkled a little bit.  Not enough to break out the rain jacket.

Amazingly, just a couple miles up the trail from base camp I encountered a big Walmart!  Who woulda thunk?!  The Smelterville SuperCenter!  And it was pretty clean... and not crowded.  (If everybody in a 5-mile circle around the place were all there at once, I don't think it would be very crowded.)  I got some chicken and potato wedges at the deli for dinner, and several varieties of fresh fruit.

Oh - and before I showered and turned in for the night, it was back to the Big Pine for a large chocolate/vanilla softie!

 Sweeeet!  (Gotta fuel up, ya know...)

Mileage - 60

Day 4 - Tuesday, September 11

The previous day was brisk - Tuesday was downright cold!  I was reluctant to leave the comforting confines of my 20-degree down-filled bag.  My tent, and the picnic table, were both covered with frost.  For the first half-hour or so after I was out of bed, I took refuge in one of the shower rooms; they were equipped with wall heaters, so I sat in one and read the visitor literature about north Idaho.  But once the sun came over the mountain and trees and toasted the frost away, it was again very pleasant.

I spent the day riding "locally," in the Pinehurst / Enaville / Cataldo corridor.  There were probably half-a-dozen garter snakes, suffering more than I from the cold morning and trying to gather warmth from the black asphalt. Fortunately for them, traffic remained pretty much non-existent.

The highlight of the day was a ride-up to the Cataldo Mission building.  Constructed between 1850 and 1853 by Catholic missionaries, it is often cited as the oldest standing building in the state.  I don't believe that's correct, but it's a beautiful and well-maintained old structure.  And cyclists can breeze right past the booth where you pay admission to enter.  (It's a state park.)

Another building with some historical significance is the "Snake Pit" in Enaville, a bar/restaurant that has quite the reputation.  Unfortunately, it was closed and for sale.  Evidently the owners had to shutter the place for health reasons.





As I was returning to Pinehurst, I saw some bushes rustling at the side of the trail... an adult cow moose was grazing on leaves off the bushes.  I snapped a couple photos, but couldn't get a superior photo because of the bushes between me and her... and I was reluctant to try to get too close.  (Since I don't relish the notion of a moose dancing on me, should she decide I was pushing into her space.)

It was a rather lazy day, and when all was said and done I had accumulated a mere 34 miles.

That evening as I sat in camp, a "neighbor" from a nearby camper was strolling by and struck up a conversation. Politics!  Yuck!  (I'm kinda "politicked out" at this point.)  He started ranting about candidate Romney, and said, "If people knew about his religion, Obama would win by a landslide in 49 states, and maybe in Utah."

I asked, "Oh, why is that?"

He said, "I don't know what you know about the Mormon religion, but..."

I interrupted him to tell him I was a lifelong member, as were my parents, as were their parent and grandparents.  So, I guess he was satisfied I knew about the religion.  He told me he was an ex-Mormon, and went on to suggest that if Romney were elected, he'd be taking his marching orders from Salt Lake.  Which is absolutely NOT a matter of concern to me. (The Church would make its positions known to him, just like whoever is president, but that would be the extent of it.)

(Sorry to digress - you may be "politicked out," too.)

Mileage - 34

Day 5 - Wednesday, September 12

Once again, camp was frosty.  That might've been okay when I was a young boy scout, but an old geezer like me shouldn't have to wake to frost!  In reality... small price to pay for another perfect bike riding day.

Wednesday I had to face another reality - I bundled up and started breaking camp for the long trip back to the real world.

I pitched the rain-fly of the tent over a bush, and once the solar power kicked in, it warmed and dried out nicely.  The trailer loaded, I thanked Dick, the RV park owner, for the hospitality and headed west toward my starting point.




It was another lovely day of bicycling, and I arrived back in Plummer mid-afternoon.  The motel people put me back in the same room.  The car was quite grimy, apparently just from sitting there a couple days with smoke in the air... ?  It's strange, because while it was a little hazy, the smoke certainly wasn't oppressive for the days I was riding.

The mattress was a nice change of pace, being about 12 inches thicker than my Therm-A-Rest camping pad.

Mileage - 51

Day 6 - Thursday, September 13

I loaded everything into the car, said goodbye to the motel people, grabbed chocolate milk and a donut, and headed east toward Avery... in the car.  'Twas another perfect day.  From Avery I drove to the base of the Route of the Hiawatha, and unloaded my bicycle... around noontime.

As I rode toward the dirt/gravel bike path, some other cyclists were sitting around a table with their mountain bikes. One of them asked, "You're not planning on riding up on that, are you?"


"I hope you've got a spare tire, or at least a spare tube."

"I'm good, thanks."

A little farther on, the trail ranger was there to collect my $10 fee, for day use of the trail.  He said, "I hope you're self contained, because we don't have much help on the trail today."

"I'm good, thanks."  And I was.

Compared with the smooth asphalt I'd been spoilt by for four days, the Hiawatha's dirt was bumpy and squirrely... but tolerable.  (I had a 32-width Vittoria tire on back, a 28 on the front.  I had total confidence in my tires surviving... but I did have the spare tube, a patch kit and pump.  I was good.)

Besides being dirt, the Hiawatha path goes over high trestles, and through dark, damp tunnels.  Awesome!

I took my merry time, especially on the way up.  Traffic was extremely light.  The ranger guy passed me going up and said hi... I bet I saw 10 people total over the 10 mile ride to the top.

At the very top, you ride a few hundred yards on a dirt roadway, and then arrive at the entrance to the St. Paul Pass Tunnel, AKA Tunnel No. 20, AKA the Taft Tunnel.  8771 feet of (unlit) tunnel!  Also at the entrance was a lovely waterfall.  I could feel the cool, humid air flowing out of the tunnel entrance... it actually creates a particularly green and verdant patch of foliage right there.  I enjoyed the atmosphere for a few minutes, snapped a few photos, fired up the headlight... and in I went.

8771 feet... that's a little under 2 miles.  Rolling along at maybe 8mph... that's 10 or so minutes in the pitch blackness!  Water was dripping off the ceiling and running down the walls... a canal at the base of each wall caught the water and directed it toward the lower western entrance.

I got a little nervous about how dependent I was on that little (but bright) Chinese headlight.  If it were to fail it would be long walk back to daylight!  (Although the tunnel is long, it's also super-straight... you could see the faint glimmer at the other opening way off in the distance.)  The light performed admirably, and I emerged into the bright daylight... in Montana.

A trail ranger-type guy was there, and I had a pleasant conversation, and he shared water with me out of a cooler.  I still had water, but refilling meant I wouldn't have to ration on the way back down.  (Be advised... if you ride the Hiawatha, water is not readily available.  Carry plenty.)

I rested up for a few minutes, bid adieu to the nice ranger fella, and then plunged back into the tunnel.  On the way back, I fired up both the headlight and the Monkey Lights... and I wish I'd used 'em in both directions!  They did a fantastic job of lighting up the walls of the tunnel on either side, and made it much easier to orient myself down the middle.

I continued at a leisurely pace on down the trail, back through much less formidable tunnels and over the high trestles, pausing regularly to enjoy the scenery and snapped photos



By the time I got back to the car, the sun was quite low in the sky.  My intention had been to drive back to St. Maries and find an RV park to stay in, but by the time I got there it was almost full dark.  I checked at a motel - they wanted $68 for a room.  Too much!  I decided to head on back the few additional miles to Plummer, and see if they'd rent their room for one more night to an old friend.  But first... I was hungry!  I was attracted to Bud's Burgers... the sign in the window said giant burgers.  (Yeah, I love the burgers and fries.  Thank goodness I burn 'em off by riding!)  I ordered the big one - 12 ounces! - and fries.  Yeah, it was delightful.

Then I drove in the dark back to Plummer, and they put me in Room 1 - reserved for dignitaries!  (Actually, it was roomier than Room 2.  Nice!)

Mileage - 30+ (on the bike)

Day 7 - Friday, September 14

This time when I left the motel and got my chocolate milk and donut and headed out... I had to head south, back toward my real life.  Sigh...

It was just as smoky on the return trip through Moscow, Lewiston, Grangeville, Whitebird, Riggins, New Meadows.  When I got to McCall, early afternoon, I phoned home.  What do you do when you phone home, and the missus asks you to "stay gone" for one more day?  Yeah, that's what happened.  She was working on a project and didn't want me in the way.  So, I rolled on over to Ponderosa State Park, where there was a nice selection of available camping spots.  I pitched the tent.

Then, I went for one last dream ride.  20.5 miles around the perimeter of Payette Lake.  Counterclockwise, beginning and ending at Ponderosa.  There are 4.2 miles of dirt at the north end of the lake that discourage the casual cyclists, but I'd ridden it several times over the years.  The rest of the route is nice... and actually the scenery is quite spectacular in places.  When I got back to McCall I stopped for... yep, a burger and tots.  Then it was on back to my tent, where I sat and watched the sun set behind the pines, took a nice shower, and slid into that satin bag for the last time in probably a while.



Mileage - 21

Day 8 - Saturday, September 15

Breakfast at the Pancake House.  (Not a burger!  haha... a "McCall's Best" omelet and a sourdough hotcake.  Long a favorite breakfast of mine.)

A couple more hours on the road, from the smoky mountains back into the smoky, hot valley.  Sigh.

This was definitely a vacation I'd be willing to repeat every year as long as I'm albe, for the duration.  That's highly unlikely, but I sure do hope I get to return someday.  Those awesome bike trails beckon from up north.


Clancy Anderson said...

Nice write up. Those trails up there are a true gem.

My brother and a few friends were up there a few days before you. They did the whole loop again.

Bob T said...

I would like to do that with my wife someday. The trouble is that she's not much of a cyclist and I'm not much of a camper! We'll have to find a way to work it out. :-)

Marcus said...

Cool story. Thanks for the photos.

db said...

Bookmarking this for when I get a chance to do this. Thanks for posting it all.

Unknown said...

the photo is beautiful. i like it very much.