Thursday, August 11, 2011

Over the Mountains and Into the Hills

If you've missed any photos from the trip, or want to look at last weeks photos, check out the new link on the left side of the page which says "CLICK HERE FOR PHOTOS OF THE ENTIRE TRIP"

Big News today:  I have just confirmed employment with a Minnesota wilderness therapy program called Thistledew for the period of September 27 through November 29.  This will mean that I will have my first sabbatical from the biking trip to refresh with some time in the wilderness, and restock the bank account.

Also, as a result of a conversation I am continually having with drivers, if you drive a car, you should read this (it will save you money and carbon emissions):

8/7/11 Day 29: Bigfork, MT to Avalanche Creek campground, Glacier NP: 60 miles

Biking out of Bigfork this morning, I stopped to check out the art fair and say goodbye to Randi and Juan, who had woken up several hours earlier to set up their booth for the fair.

The road was smooth and fairly flat, with shoulder width ranging from a full lane to 2 inches wide with a steep 8 inch drop. At around 1 pm, I had been pushing pretty hard, and had done 30 miles or so. I was getting hungry, and knew in the back of my mind that all I had to eat for lunch was trail-mix. I convinced myself that I would stop at a grocery store and grab some carrots to dip in my sunflower butter (a regular snack). I whizzed through the “big town” on the map without even realizing it, and soon, I was even more hungry. I also wanted to send off my last few days of blog and photos, and was looking for a place with free wifi, when a giant sign in front of me read, “Cafe, ice-cream, wifi.” I couldn't say no, and I sat down looking at a menu of down-home diner food. I ordered a giant omelet with hash browns and toast, and kissed my hunger goodbye. Sometimes, trail-mix just doesn't cut it.

After several hours interneting, setting up places to stay and planning my route for the next few days, I rode on into Glacier National Park. The Going to the sun road, which is famed for its difficult construction, amazing views, and the ridiculous task of plowing that it requires each year, is only open to bicycles before 11 am and after 4 pm. Some parts of the road are narrow, and traffic is heaviest in the middle of the day. So I rode in at 4:45, stopped to take some fantastic photos of Lake McDonald framed by the jagged Rockies and hillsides covered in evergreens, and made my way into a the hiker/biker camp at Avalanche Creek.

I have met several other hikers (no bikers!) who are staying here as well, and all are interesting people. Carol, a woman in her sixties, has been working back-country jobs for the forest service for more than 20 years, and couldn't find a job this year. She was very friendly, and had lots of stories to tell. She appreciated my advice on some internet-related questions, and also asked about mountain biking and sleeping bags. Gear is always a good topic for outdoorsy people to relate through. I have an early day tomorrow, as I must make it to Logan pass (elevation 6646) before 11 am. It will be a good ride.

8/8/11 Day 30: Avalanche Creek to St. Marys, MT: 36.5 miles

The Going To The Sun Road, which winds up and over Glacier National Park's most scenic accessible pass, is an excellent example of the National Park Services first Superintendent's wishes. I read that he felt strongly that all National Parks should have just one paved road which allows access to the most scenic parts of the park, and that all other parts should be left to wilderness. It seems like his plan and idea have been adhered to fairly well. The Going To The Sun Road, which was completed in 1932, took 6 years to build, and was an incredibly difficult task due to the steepness of the cliffs which it clings to.

I departed camp at 7:45, a record for me on this trip (I like my sleep!). Bicycles not allowed on the steep western section of the road from 11am to 4pm due to the high traffic, narrow road, and complete lack of shoulder to allow passing. I began climbing 12 miles distant and 3000 feet lower than Logan pass, and made it to the top at 10:45, including 2 stops of at least 15 min for road construction. Though it was undoubtedly one of the longest continuous climbs I have ever done, it was not the near-impossible feat that many I talked to beforehand had made it out to be. In fact, I was passed by another cyclist on the way up (carrying no gear), and ran into 6 other touring cyclists over the course of the day.

The views going up the road, from the top, and going down were completely phenomenal. Glacier National Park is not named because of its many glaciers (there are 25 left, down from 150 in the year 1850). It was named because of the incredible forms of mountains and valleys that allow for such awesome vistas, all of which were carved out by glaciers around 2 million years ago. It is estimated that all of the glaciers in Glacier National Park will be gone by 2030, but the mountains will still be there, and the fabulous views will remain.

The weather was perfect, the crowds were staggering, and the camera was clicking at every turnout. I may have taken more pictures on this day than in any week of the rest of the trip. Waterfalls, craggy cliffs, horns, peaks, snowdrifts, big-horned sheep, and clouds in big white puffs. I learned about how long it takes glacial ice to form (big snow years don't actually help at all!), and was impressed by the heavy emphasis the park is placing on climate change and reducing carbon footprints.

Tonight, I am camped behind the Park Cafe in St. Marys, a small town just outside the east entrance of the Going To The Sun Road. Friends of a relative own the cafe, and it is a hoppin' joint. Because the nature of their business is so seasonal (no one comes between December and March), they hire and house a group of 40 mostly young college-aged folks for the summer, and put them to work in the cafe and the store next door. Kathryn and Neal, the owners of the cafe, took me on an evening walk to a nearby hilltop, where we watched the sunset as a summer lighting storm chased us back to the cafe just in time not to get drenched. I was then invited into the “community room” where a bunch of the employees were playing card/board games, socializing and having some late snacks and drinks. I ordered a piece of the cafe's famous pie (pecan is my favorite), and then I went back to the community room and chatted with the friendly, happy group of employees until around 11pm when I hopped into my surprisingly dry tent.

8/9/11 Day 31: St Marys to Browning, MT: 30 miles

This is my 6th straight day of biking, my longest stint without a layover yet. My left knee bothers me when I climb hills for a long time, so I intended to make this a short, easy day, but it started off with a fairly hefty climb, during which my knee felt fine. Cruising south-east away from the park, the views were still incredible (much better than from the west side), so I stopped to take more photos. I ran into 2 other cyclists, one with worn-out gear from the 80s who had once done a round-trip tour from New Hampshire to Washington State to Mexico and back to New Hampshire. He was a little eccentric, and shied away from the idea of taking a look at my blog because he doesn't like technology. The other, who caught up to me on my way up the big hill, is crossing the United States in bits and pieces when he has time off of work. His wife and child were carrying his gear in a minivan on this leg of the journey, so he was much lighter than I, and pedaled off in front of me.

I soon descended from a mixed forest of fir and aspen into rolling foothills of tall grass. Montana sure has a lot of wide-open spaces. My ride was smooth and flat and mostly down hill. I found a zip-lock bag containing 4 perfectly good fresh kiwis on the side of the road. Crazy what gets abandoned out there. Over the course of the trip, I've also seen about 20 bungie cords, a set of keys, towels and clothing of all sorts, and nuts and bolts galore. In addition to lots of road kill, today I say a cow patty that had been painted right over because it sat in the path of the white line on the side of the road.

Tonight, I am couch-surfing in Browning, MT, the “capital” of the Blackfeet Indian reservation. The only other white people I have here seen other than my host were tourists filling up their tank at a gas station.

My couch-surfing host here is Rachel, a recent college grad who is working with Americorps to provide health services to the elderly of the tribe. She has been in charge of a group of 12 young adults, all from the Blackfeet tribe, and they have been doing work to help the older folks in the area who can no longer do some things for themselves. Rachel and I got along instantly, and share a passion for health, environment and improving the state of things in the world. We walked around town for a bit, past the local liquor store, which had several folks who seemed to be in various states of consciousness hanging around, despite a large sign which read “NO LOITERING.” We had planned to stop at the grocery store, but it was closed due to a broken water main, which had left the whole town without water for most of the afternoon. It was a bit like being in a 3rd world country again, trash on the streets, weeds growing from every nook and crack, homes in various states of decomposition.

We made our way back to Rachel's small apartment, and managed to cook up some tasty burritos from what she had in her kitchen. After much animated conversation about the state of the world, we found out that we both want to study eco-toxicology, and feel that it holds some answers to the declining health of Americans in general. It was refreshing and inspiring to meet another person, quite a bit younger than myself, with passion and interest in so much of what I care about.

8/10/11 Day 32: Browing, MT to Choteau, MT: 73 miles

Rachel took off to work early in the morning, and left me to pack my things and lock up her place. Given the time and the opportunity, I felt we could have become great friends.

Rolling hills of grass, with the occasional interspersed cow filled my ride from Browning to Choteau. Shade was hard to come by. Gentle hills are great for riding: a mild workout on the way up, followed by a nice break on the way down. Much more interesting to look at than flat land as well. Thunder clouds chased me all afternoon, and filled the “big sky” with texture. I did not find occasion to pull out the camera.

I arrived at the house of my next couch-surfing host, Morgen, around 6:15 pm after departing Browning around 11am. After introductions, she invited me to “taco night” at a local bar, so I took a quick shower and we headed out. The bar, called “The Wildlife Sanctuary” was filled with locals and tourists for taco night, and I met several of Morgen's friends and those they were socializing with. We had a couple of beers, ate some great tacos, learned about some local politics regarding bears and elk, and made our way home for the evening. Morgen and I get along very well. She is a relaxed, open, caring individual with a job that helps people in a serious way.   

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