This post, written one year after day 78, is drawn from the daily journal I kept, and is written as if it just happened.
August 3 – August 8
Missoula, MT >>> Columbia Falls, MT
After taking advantage of Missoula’s amenities and delicious food for 24 hours, we were ready to move on. Unfortunately, my untrue wheel that was supposedly fixed by a bike shop in town was back to its slight wobble once we were 20 miles down the road. Grrrr.
We took ACA’s Great Parks North route up to Columbia Falls. So far, all ACA routes have been lovely – great roads, great scenery, great towns. Great Parks North, however, took us on highway 83 for 90 terrifying miles. It was a beautiful winding road…with no shoulder and fast, impatient drivers. We’ve faced shoulder-less roads and unpleasant drivers before, but never had we been on such a road for a day and a half. Nor had we experienced the pleasure of being buzzed by oncoming traffic. Yes, on the two lane hwy, opposing traffic did not care if we were biking in the opposite lane – they passed the cars in front of them when they wanted. With no escape (just passed the white line were either rock walls, boulders, lakes, or other drop offs) oncoming cars passed very close at ridiculous speeds – maybe 70mph? The first time it happened I told myself it was a fluke…it was not. I will never ride that road again*. The road put both Carl and I in a weird anxiety ridden state. For the first time, I just wanted to go home.
We finally were free of highway 83 just south of Columbia Falls. We connected with a warm shower host in town, Dave and Jane. They let us store some extra stuff in their garage – we did a three day out-and-back to Glacier, so we figured we may as well lighten the load. Plus we knew we’d be getting on and off shuttles with the bikes – panniers are great on bikes, but carrying four panniers, a handlebar bag, and a set of tent poles while trying to mount a bike on the front of a shuttle is awkward. So we ditched half our bags.
Dave and Jane insisted we borrow their bear spray – originally I had planned to pick some up around the Black Hills, but it hasn’t really been necessary, so I haven’t. Bear spray in Glacier is apparently a must.
The plan was to take the shuttle from the Apgar visitor center, over Logan Pass to St. Mary’s, and then ride 20 miles to Many Glacier. From there we’d do some hiking as the internet indicated those hikes were best for glacier viewing. Glaciers are one of those things I like to nerd out about – so getting to this park before they all melt has been a goal for several years.
At Logan Pass, Rachel and Carl were waiting. There was an issue with the shuttles and we’d have to wait 1.5 hours. We decided to just ride the 18 miles to St. Mary’s instead (dropping just over 2,000 ft). I went around the first couple corners and then made a quick U-turn. This guy was standing in the middle of the road.
We arrived safely at St. Mary’s hiker/biker site – I took the descent slowly. I thought the wobble in my wheel could be the bearings in my worn out hub, and I kept envisioning them catching and throwing me over the handlebars and off a cliff. I’m not even sure if that’s what a worn hub would/could do, but I didn’t not want to find out first hand.
Due to our late start that morning and taking four hours rather than the anticipated two to get from Apgar to St. Mary’s (the shuttles were slower than expected), we stayed in St. Mary’s all three days. We could have taken a shuttle to Many Glacier for a fee the next day, but it would have cut deep into our hiking time, so we decided it wasn’t worth it.
During our first adventure day we hiked four miles (ascending 2,000 ft) from the Loop trailhead to the Chalet where we stopped for snacks. Carl bought a ridiculously expensive (and ridiculously good) chocolate bar with huckleberry cream, and checked the Chalet’s chalkboard for shuttle/trail information. We had planned to hike along the Garden Wall, however after discovering there was a second trail up to an overlook of Grinnell Glacier (the glacier we would have hiked to had we made it to Many Glacier) we changed the plan.
It was 0.9 mile and another 1,000 ft elevation gain. Holy Crap! I haven’t climbed something that steep since the Inca Trail!
Carl was slower climbing up, but he was like a mountain goat going down. As we descended, storm clouds suddenly broke over the ridge on the far side of the valley and raced toward us. We were helplessly stuck on a set of switchbacks. Once the thunder started, Carl, with the bear spray, made sure we knew what to do in the event of lightning strikes, and then he was gone. Apparently he thought he had a chance to get to the shuttle stop without getting wet – ha! By comparison, Rachel and I scurried down the mountain as fast as two people who are prone to tripping could – being out in lightning is bad, being out in lightning with a twisted ankle is worse. We jogged between patches of trees – a fire went through relatively recently, and there were stretches of open ridge. I have no idea if this is true, but it seemed safer to be within a clump of uniformly high trees than on a bare ridge in the middle of a lightning storm. The trail turned into a river and the rain turned to hail. Fortunately, I brought my poncho which was able to cover the backpack with everyone’s electronics. I’m not sure why Rachel didn’t have hers, but all of Carl’s rain gear was back in Columbia Falls – he carried it across the country and now didn’t have it on the three rainiest days.
Happy side notes: There are thimbleberries everywhere! I haven’t seen these anywhere other than Isle Royale/Keweenaw Peninsula. They’re so tasty! Another serendipitous moment occurred as we were leaving the Chalet. I overheard a guy say, “…it’s drinking over by the monkey flowers”. “Excuse me, did you say monkey flower?” He said, “Yes, the purple ones – there’s a more rare yellow variety too”. Ahhh! Five years ago after reading Keith Taylor’s “Between Home and Isle Royale”, I took Mark (the guy we stayed with on the way to Bar Harbor) on a wild goose chase through Carp Creek for hours looking for monkey flowers. I took pictures of every yellow flower I saw and showed Keith – none were monkey flowers. I’d still never seen one. But here, I just happen to walk by a guy as he’s talking about them!
Our second adventure day was waterfall day – given they were all engorged by the previous day’s rain, it seemed appropriate. Plus there were several within a three mile hike. Given the 100% chance of thunderstorms at 2PM, we didn’t want to venture too far.
As the 2PM thunderstorm deadline was quickly approaching, we raced back to the shuttle – well, Carl raced, and Rachel and I walked quickly, tripping several times. I can barely walk after the Grinnell Glacier hike. Sure, I can bike 4,000 miles to get to the hike, but I’m wicked sore after walking eight miles up and down a mountain – go figure.
Our final day in Glacier was the glorious ride up and over Logan Pass. You have to do it at sunrise. The mountains on the east side of Logan Pass are gorgeous in the early light. After a bit of confusion regarding the sun’s schedule – I thought sunrise was at 5:30…it wasn’t until 6:30, oops – Rachel and I headed out at 6AM. What a fantastic riding day. We got to Rising Sun campground just as the tips of the mountains became illuminated.
Descending Going to the Sun Road was incredible. All the vehicles take it slow on the narrow winding road, so we easily kept up with traffic. Plus, just like Yellowstone, we were able to turn out into every overlook despite them being full of cars. When I come back, I’m renting a bike in Apgar, taking the shuttle up and coasting down. It’s the best way to see this road.
We had to take the shuttle for the final stretch (Spraug Creek to Apgar). Bikes aren’t allowed to ride along McDonald Lake from 11AM-4PM.
Carl didn’t want to leave until later, so we reunited at Apgar and then rode back to Columbia Falls. Dave and Jane weren’t able to host that night, but his friend, Hiedi, very kindly put us up.
Now, with just the three of us, things are settling into a new rhythm. We can find non-warm showers accommodations once we reach our destination, so we’re not planning a week out. Rest days are sporadic – we take one when we need one. Every day is really flexible. No one is in charge – I’m just another participant which is what I wanted all along.
Additionally, I believe staying in St. Mary’s actually turned out for the better. I’m sure the hikes beginning at Many Glacier are beautiful, but at St. Mary’s we still had access to the overlook trail, waterfalls, and the shuttles. Plus the St. Mary’s Lodge, only a mile from camp, had great food. So far food in national parks has been pricey and horrendous. The Lodge was still pricey but delicious, a welcome change.
*Hindsight notes (aka a novella about highway 83): So 83 may not have been as terrible as I’d thought it was. Even though I wrote my journal entry directly after riding it, I’m not convinced of its accuracy and, unfortunately, Google Street View has never captured that stretch of road, so I can’t use any visual cues to jog my memory.
A recent conversation with ACA has caused me to question my original thoughts about the road. I contacted them to ask if there was a reason the chosen route between Missoula and Columbia Falls was up hwy 83 rather than 93. Hwy 35 was clearly a terrible route, but 93 seemed to have some potential – it has a lot more traffic (3-4x), but apart from 20 miles between Polsom and Elmo and an additional 5 miles south of Lakeside, it has a good shoulder. Was 83 chosen because it’s more scenic? The answer was no. Back in the day, 93 didn’t have a shoulder and it had, and still has, all the semi-trucks. With such high traffic and truck volumes, 93 is still not ideal – especially with the 25 miles lacking shoulder.
But what about 83 and its 90 miles of no shoulder – 25 miles is better than 90, right? Well…it probably wasn’t 90 continuous miles of nerve-racking road – memory, even short term memory, is a funny thing. The folks at ACA did acknowledge the 6 miles south of Seeley Lake are not great – windy roads with very poor sight lines. Looking at a map, I’d argue the poor sight lines began at the south end of Salmon Lake (10 miles south of Seeley). However after Seeley, ACA said things straighten out and should be OK for the remaining mileage up to Bigfork, and I believe them. Why? Well for one, every ACA road we rode on was great – it doesn’t make sense they’d have such a terribly out of character road so close to their headquarters. Secondly, my mental state was not top notch while on 83. At 83’s origin, I remember being incredible crabby for no reason – I was aware of the lack of reason at the time and still couldn’t control my mood. It was a beautiful day, we had a tailwind, my riding buddies were happy, on paper everything was perfect. I think everything started catching up with me once we left Missoula. It was the first day I wasn’t thinking about long-term logistics, there wasn’t a group crisis to avert or quell – there were no overarching distractions. I was just a participant – what I’d wanted since the beginning. I also think it was just starting to sink in that I was getting married in a handful of weeks – exciting but stressful. So I think the 10 miles into Seeley Lake were bad, and, in my fatigued metal state, I woke up the next morning expecting more of the same. So I may have projected more of the same. The two or three instances of oncoming traffic coming into our lane were awful – no doubt about that. But it’s possible these instances tainted the memory of the entire road – especially considering the last occurred a mile before turning off 83.
TLDR: If I had to ride from Missoula to Columbia Falls again, I would take ACA’s route. I’d just be prepared for the unpleasantries.