Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 71 – Missoula – Placid Lake State Park: Heat and smoke – a short day

Tuesday July 29, 2014, 52 miles (84 km) – Total so far: 3,494 miles (5,623 km)

I pull the curtains back and peek out the window. Sigh. The wildfire smoke, which reappeared two days ago and hung around all day yesterday, is still quite thick. It annoys everyone. If you are around it long enough, it will make your eyes burn and your throat sore. However, as an asthmatic, wildfire smoke is more than just an annoyance. It becomes a factor in how long and far you can ride each day.

It is hard to explain how asthma feels to a non-asthmatic. It is NOT the ‘out of breath’ feeling you get when you are out of shape and do physical exercise. An acute attack is more like the feeling you get when you swallow water down the wrong way and can’t get a deep breath. When the smoke is around for more than a day or two, my lungs get very tight. There is a constant pressure, and it feels like I’m only using the top 1/3 of my lungs to breathe. I get very phlegmy – as asthma causes airways to constrict and mucous production to increase. If I take a deep breath, I cough. If the smoke hangs around long enough, then I will also start getting sharp pains in my lower lungs and up through my back. When I’m at my worst, you will hear me breathing if you sit next to me. If my lungs are pretty bad, my breathing will be raspy. If my lungs are really bad, my breathing will be short and wheezy. I’ve had asthma as long as I can remember, so I’m pretty good about managing it. I use both a preventer and reliever inhaler when the smoke is about – let’s hope it doesn’t get worse.

I’m not planning on going far today. I head back east out of town on MT 200. There is not much traffic to Bonner, but the gas station here is very busy. I pedal on out of town and see a highway patrol car heading into the gas station. It is the only highway patrol car I will see the entire two months I’m riding around Montana.

Not long after Milltown, one of the Superfund sites related to the copper production upstream, the road enters the canyon of the Blackfoot River. Those billion-year-old belt rocks form high walls as the river weaves along below the road. Islands of pine trees grow in places along the river. Pines also grow on open grassy riverbanks, providing shade and shelter to the heaps of fisherman wading into the current all through this section. The road shoulder is wide. That’s a good thing. There is plenty of traffic through here.

The canyon walls drop away and we enter the wide Potomac Valley. The road sticks to the northern edge of it. Eventually, we start climbing to Greenough Ridge. A fault along the north side of the ridge has lifted it to separate the Potomac Valley from the Clearwater Valley. Before the faulting, the two valleys were just one big one. The fault is still raising the ridge.

The downhill off of the forested ridge back down into another grassy valley is fast. I’m thankful for the wide shoulder, so I’m not constantly having to assess traffic. The hills here are rocky and grassy with sparse forest cover. We pass an exclusive resort just before dropping down to the Blackfoot River. This area, and this river, was the inspiration for the book “A River Runs Through It”. The author lived in Seeley Lake. Here, it’s not exclusively about fishing; a kayak slalom course is visible from the bridge.

At the junction with Highway 83 we stop at the rest area for a toilet break. The facilities are dated and dirty. I get in and out as quick as possible. The gas station across the street is very busy! A couple come up to me and want to know the standard six. They are out for a day ride and would like to get into touring, but they won’t ride roads without a shoulder, so their options are limited in this state. I tell them Wyoming is windy, but the roads generally have shoulders and the scenery is diverse.

Then I head up Hwy 83. This road has plenty of tourist traffic, too, and I’m sad to see the shoulder end. There is always traffic coming from one direction or another, so it’s hard to really appreciate the scenery. Salmon Lake sits in a tight section of the valley where the lake laps right onto canyon walls on one side. The state park has camping, but I don’t want to be right on the road. So I head up a bit further, then turn off onto a dirt road and spin my way up and up to Placid Lake State Park. I note there are plenty of dispersed campsites along this road if I don’t care for the state park options.

The woman at the campground entrance is excited to see a cyclist. “We don’t get too many of you guys. The host at Salmon Lake gets tons of bikers, so many that he’s made a biker-only campsite, but not many come up the road to get to us”! She treats me almost like celebrity. There are three non-electric sites available. She thinks I’ll like one near the swimming beach, but when I go ride around to check them out, I note it’s not going to have any afternoon shade. I pick a site on the hill above the boat ramp that will have all-day shade. It is supposed to get to 93F.

The woman has all sorts of trouble getting my parks pass number into the computer, but she is a good sport. She thinks it is absolutely wonderful that I’m taking so much time to visit the state. She insists I go for a swim to get cooled off. Later her husband comes by and talks to me for about 20 minutes. He, too, is excited one of those touring cyclists has actually come all the way up the road – now they can brag to the guy at Salmon Lake that they are getting more cyclists this year, too.

I relax in the shade, go for a swim, and watch all the campground residents launch boats and go waterskiing. It’s a noisy place, but it works for today. At least all those kiddos aren’t inside in front of the TV. I also get ahold of a friend of a friend who has a cabin in Seeley Lake, and we make plans to meet up in a few days time. My asthma is okay. The smoke has hung around all day, but by doing a short day, things have been manageable.

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