Idaho 2014 – Day 63 – Challis – Arco: The spectacular Lost River Range

Monday July 21, 2014, 82 miles (132 km) – Total so far: 2,983 miles (4,801 km)

The wind has pushed out the wildfire smoke and ushered in a cold front. The dismal sky, with its low and dark clouds, matches my mood. A phone call last night confirmed that my old friend Evan, from Colorado State days, cannot get away from work and meet me here in Challis, or down the road in Mackay.

The plan had been for him to ‘sag’ me over Double Springs Pass Road and Pass Creek Road and do a little peak-bagging of some un-named 11 and 12,000 ft. peaks along the way. Even though he was granted conditional acceptance of leave for these days back in February, he is stuck at work now. We’d both been looking forward to seeing one another and engaging in some outdoor adventure – we haven’t seen each other since 1997. At least we had the chance to have a long chat over the phone last night.

Without Evan along to provide back-up support on the poorly maintained Forest Service roads, the not-so-good road reports from the BLM and Forest Service offices yesterday, and the high potential for precipitation today, I’m thinking I’m going to just forget trying to ride the two passes. It is disappointing. One of the things I’ve disliked about this tour so far has been that I feel like I keep getting stuck down in the valleys and riding around mountain ranges rather than riding through or over them. The trend appears as though it will have to continue. Sigh….

But riding a bike is one of the greatest mood lifters I’ve ever encountered, so let’s get to it. There should be plenty of neat-o geology to look at today, too. I don’t get going until 9.30 am – a very late start for me. I haven’t been able to get wifi while in Challis, so I don’t know the weather forecast. All skyward indicators suggest I can probably count on getting wet at some point today. The clouds are dropping rain in places to the south and are low enough to hug some of the peaks just outside of town.

There is a climb out of town and then a long, gentle downhill into a valley with irrigated pasture. The sprinklers are shooshing out moisture as I ride through an occasional mist precipitated from the sky. The RVs are out in force this morning, and any time I see them advancing in my mirror, I pull out further in the lane to force them to pass me safely. On long, straight stretches like this, I figure they can easily give me a metre of space. So far in Montana and Idaho, though, they don’t seem to want to give that to me, unless I force them out of the lane like I’m doing today. Many of the vehicles today are pulling an RV trailer AND a boat or ATV trailer behind that.

A gentle downhill after the initial short climb out of Challis.

The peaks to the south and east grow in size as we travel down the valley. Sagebrush grows in tall clumps on the valley floor. The slopes of the lower hills to the west are tan and unvegetated, but trees of varying thickness cover the hill summits. These hills are on the western edge of a block of crust that dips steeply eastward. The western hills are slowly rising upward as the block of earth tilts further down on the eastern side – a bit like one person putting weight on a see-saw and pushing the other person up. The fault line on the eastern side of the valley is dropping the valley downward (where the weight is on the see-saw). There are more mountains involved, however. The mountains on the other side of the fault on the eastern side of the valley are being thrust upward along the normal fault. The result is a lower line of hills to the west and a taller mountain range that rises abruptly from the valley floor along the fault to the east. You cannot see the tilt of the valley floor, though, because sediments have flowed down off the mountains to partially fill the valley.

Of course, it is more complicated on the ground, and there are buttes and alluvial fans and other pieces of topography to climb up and over, too. For a long time, the road trails into the distance and it looks like there is going to be a significant climb over a line of hills crossing the valley. As we get closer, the road looks like it goes straight into the hill where rocky cliffs congregate. I joke with Verne that the road might just lead straight to hell, if it indeed heads into those rocks. Until we are about 1.5 miles away, I keep expecting to see the road curve left to climb up and over the line of hills. But no, the road really does go into those hills.

I joke with Verne that there is no way the road is going into that cleft, and if it does, it probably goes straight to hell.

This section of road, Grand View Canyon, is a great example of a superposed stream – a stream that started cutting through softer sediments and then just kept right on cutting down and maintaining its course once it reached harder rocks underneath (in contrast to an antecedent stream where the surrounding rocks were uplifted when the stream was already present). Here the stream cuts through Devonian dolomite rocks deposited in a sea around 400 million years ago.

Um, looks like we might be going to hell.

The high walls envelope us as we are swallowed by the mouth of the canyon. The dark rocks create spectacular cliffs and our world reduces from the long, wide views of the valley to a tiny slice of sky above, a forward view measured in feet instead of miles and a side view limited to the width of the road and 10-15 feet of grass or creek. We climb through the canyon, and I’m happy I’m doing this uphill so I can really take in the rocks – going downhill they’d pass in a blur.



We pop out of the canyon into another wide, long valley. The headwind has increased and we pedal slowly up the very gentle gradient. The sense of space and time starts to lift my mood, even though the sky is starting to look worse. The final climb to the summit is just a couple miles of road that ramps out of the valley and into the tighter headwall of the drainage.

Much of the morning looks a bit like this.
Looking back down the last hill just before the summit.

The Willow Creek Hills are the drainage divide between the north-flowing Warm Spring Creek and the south-flowing Big Lost River. The summit is Mississippian White Knob limestone – more rocks laid down in a sea 340 million years ago. This divide in this valley lines up with the divides in the two valleys to the east of here, and there is some speculation by the geology folks that the locations within the valleys has something to do with the Yellowstone hot spot. All of the drainage divides line up along the arc of the hot spot parabola.

All the morning climbing leads us to this point. We’ve had a headwind all the way up, but will have a tailwind all the way down. Go figure.

The drainage divide today is also acting as a wind divide and rain director. I’ve had a headwind all the way to the summit, but the wind here is swirling about. There is rain coming fast from the WSW. No time to linger or we are going to get wet.

That’s Mt Borah, 12,262 ft, Idaho’s highest peak.

We zoom down off the summit. I don’t understand it, but we now have a 10 mph tailwind after the 7 mph headwind all morning. But we’re not complaining. The views, also, are outstanding and huge. Seven peaks taller than 12,000 feet line up along the crest of the Lost River Range to the left with Mt Borah, Idaho’s highest peak at 12,262 ft, taking a commanding position. The range juts up from the valley floor in such dramatic contrast along the normal fault. Be still, my geology nerd heart!

This is typical Basin and Range topography. As earth’s crust stretches, blocks are created along large faults. Mountain ranges thrust upward and valleys subside. Smaller ranges on the other side of the subsiding valley gently lift (the see-saw analogy presented previously). But this valley is different because the rocks being thrust upward in the Lost River Range were already deformed when they first started being lifted. The mountains are composed of carbonate and quartz rocks deposited 290-360 million years ago. These rocks were then folded and thrusted to the northeast about 80-100 million years ago. Then about 4-7 million years ago, the earth’s crust started stretching (Basin and Range extension) and began to form the present topography.

Heading down valley with a nice tailwind.

The colours and folds in the mountains, particularly along the right flank of Mt Borah, are incredibly beautiful. There are oranges, reds and whites mixed together in the sharp folds which look like layers of a smashed, upside-down U-shape. If only it were sunny, it would be so spectacular!

I fly along the valley floor, pushed along by the tailwind and gentle downhill grade. Oh yeah, my foul mood is completely gone now! I crane my head to look here, there and everywhere. When geology textbooks come to life, so does my head and heart. I love this so much. This is why I ride.

I stop several times to just take it all in. I’m sad I’m not going to get a closer look at those rocks and mountain peaks, but standing here in this big valley looking at peaks rising 5,500 feet right before me, is outstanding enough. As my old school teacher used to tell us, ‘turn that frown upside down’! I’m smiling big-time now.

I continue down the valley, constantly gazing up at those huge peaks that rise straight up out of the valley. The huge alluvial fans spreading out at their base are pretty amazing, too. The geologists suggest these big deposits of mountain sediments were formed in the late Pleistocene (about 15,000 years ago) when the streams leading out of the mountains had seasonal flows ten times greater than today’s flows.

There is just so much to look at as I head down the valley with the increasing tailwind. There are old fault scarps on other fault segments to look for, changes in vegetation that correspond to changes in rock type to identify, and colourful carbonate rocks to gaze at.

Normal fault – still one of the most seismically active areas in the state. The 1986 earthquake damaged buildings in Challis. Look for a faint, discontinuous white line above the black arrows. For the arrow furthest to the left and the two arrows furthest to the right, you need to look just above the line of the very gentle slope to the faint white lines above this. These white scars are the line of the surface rupture in the 1983 Borah Peak earthquake. These scarps are 8 inches up to almost 15 feet wide/tall. You can pick these out over about 20 miles of the fault segment that moved.

My heart is so full today, but I think about how I’ve always thought of heartbreak in geological terms. Acute heartache is like compression – a squeezing so tight that you can feel the pressure in your throat and gut. You feel you will shatter in a million pieces as your heart splinters apart under such force. But long-term heartache is like the forces seen here – a slow, pulling apart interjected with ruptures of emotions linked to specific events. Like valleys subsiding, hope slowly sinks as your heart pulls apart. Basin and range topography, and the geographic positions where such topography is located, always make me think of the emptiness and tearing apart of long-term heartache.

Not too far north of Mackay Reservoir.
Near Mackay.

But yes, today, my heart is full. My grin is ear-to-ear by the time we hit Mackay. This was sort of my aim for today. It’s a nice little town with all the services you might need. I just stop to refuel, because I think I’d be a fool not to take advantage of that tailwind. Plus, the clouds have been breaking apart like the earth’s crust, and the sky has gone from cloudy to partly cloudy. It has also gotten quite warm – upper 80s. It’ll be 92F by the time we get to Arco.

Traffic increases south of Mackay, but the road has a good shoulder. I tick down the miles, speeding along on the flat-ish surface at 20 mph. There are plenty of debris in the shoulder, and about 10 miles from Mackay, I feel the rear tire going flat. Crap.

I find a shady driveway (not easy to come by out here) that leads to a large property and pull off all of the panniers, flip the bike upside down and commence repair. I quickly find the steel radial tire wire and pull it out of the tire with my pliers. While I’m waiting for the rubber cement to go tacky, I run my hands all through the inside of the tire to check for anything else that might be sticking through. Then, I try to apply the patch. But it just won’t stick to the tube and rubber cement no matter how hard or long I try to squeeze it. So I try the whole process again. It sticks for a second but then peels away. Screw this. I’ll fix it when I get to camp. I’ve fixed many, many flats over 30 years of riding a bike but never had this problem before. So I just stick in a new tube.

The helmet streamers are like having your own windsock on top of your head. This is what you like to see/feel when riding – a tailwind strong enough to blow them forward while you are riding!

Off I go again flying along with the wind. The traffic is heavier than you might expect but the shoulder remains wide and full of debris. The closer I get to the Arco, the more the tailwind diminishes and the heat increases. The Snake River Plain is a long flat expanse in front of us, the mountains on either side of us not as grand as before. About 10 miles outside of Arco, a car goes by and the driver honks and waves. There are two mountain bikes on a rack on the back. As I wave, I feel the rear tire going squishy again. Crap!!

I pull off to the side of the road – no shade to be found now. I don’t have much water left because I didn’t refill in Mackay, assuming it would be a fast ride down to Arco. You know what they say about assumptions…. Anyway, I commence flat repair number 2 for the day. I think I must not have gotten all of the tire wire, but upon inspection, I find a sharp rock wedged into the tire in a different spot to where the tire wire had been. The rock has created an obvious hole in the tube. I stupidly try to patch the tube on the side of the road, in the heat and sun, and still can’t get a patch to adhere. So now I use my last spare tube (which already has been patched a couple times) to get back on the road. It makes me nervous to not have a good spare tube and a patch adherence problem….

In the time it’s taken me to patch and then replace the tube, then pump up the tube (this takes me forever as I’m not a fast, strong pumper), my nice tailwind has turned to a vigorous cross to quartering headwind. What?!!

So I struggle the last ten miles into Arco – hot, out of water, and worried about getting another puncture. My mood is still very high, though. You can’t encounter that much amazing geology and 40 miles of a great tailwind and not think that the day hasn’t been just about perfect. I don’t know it now, but those will be the last two flats of the trip – both of them within 10 miles of each other!

The KOA is expensive and nothing special, but some guy on a motorcycle who seems to be helping the staff offers me a cold beer. We share stories on the shady front porch of the reception building. He thinks I’m pretty nuts but also pretty darn cool. He can’t believe I’ve ridden all the way here from Challis and fixed two flats along the way. I tell him, “just imagine what I could do if I was actually a strong rider and didn’t keep stopping to look at things”!

Because one can of crappy beer gives me a buzz, I excuse myself to go set up the tent, fix the tubes, grab a shower and eat some food. In the olden days, when I was young and immortal, a beer buzz would make me want to go do stuff and conquer the world. Now, approaching middle-age, a beer buzz indicates to me that soon I will want a nap, so I should go conquer the world, or at least get my daily chores done, before I need to lie down.

What an awesome day!

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