Sunday August 10, 2014, 50 miles (81 km) – Total so far: 3,802 miles (6,120 km)
The smoke settled in very thick yesterday afternoon. The temperature reached 93F. If the pines had been eucalypts, you could have fooled me that I was back in summer-time Australia. I spent much of the afternoon lying on the grass in the shade at Fireman’s Park. There was a family reunion being held in the picnic shelter, and I could not help but wonder how many of those present were living with lung disease. Just across the street is a vacant lot with a sign saying to Keep Out because hazardous asbestos material is present.
I headed to a motel about 1 pm to try to get out of the heat and smoke, and because I was due to call Nigel. He thought my hoarse voice sounded sultry and sexy. I told him I was trying to get out of the smoke for an afternoon but my ‘non-smoking’ motel room smelled like 35 years of cigarettes. I wasn’t sure it was an improvement on camping in the wildfire smoke, but I at least I got to hear his voice.
This morning the smoke remains pretty thick and will get thicker as the day goes on. I’m really starting to feel the chronic irritation to my lungs. The sharp pains have started to reach higher into my lungs and I feel, generally, like someone has put a belt around my chest and started to squeeze it tighter and tighter. I’m not sure how many more days I can inhale the smoke before my breathing gets so bad I’ll need more than just preventer and reliever inhalers. I have coughed up enough phlegm in the past week to wallpaper a living room.
The good news is that the canyon west of town is beautiful and there is a nice road shoulder. The walls rise steeply with thick fir and pine clinging to the rock. The Kootenai River, even in late summer, rushes downstream with many sections of whitewater.
I stop at Kootenai Falls and head down to see both the falls and the swinging bridge. The vegetation here feels more Pacific Northwest than Rocky Mountain West. Many of the species, the firs and the larches, are common there. I’m a bit uneasy about leaving my bike and gear locked to a tree along a busy road and popular lookout, so I hike the trails at super speed. All of the rock is eroded into that same Belt rock that we’ve been seeing all over the place for weeks now. In this part of the state, the rocks are incredibly thick – 12 miles or more deep in places.
Not long after Kootenai Falls, we reach the turn-off for Hwy 56 down toward Bull Lake. There is a rest area at this intersection, and I take the time for a snack and toilet stop. I also take my inhaler as my breathing is really not good today at all. There are two women conducting boat inspections – they look bored. There isn’t much business this early in the morning. The entire parking area still lies in the shadow of the mountains.
There is a climb up and away from the rest area and then a cruise through a small community of summer homes and cabins strung out along the edge of a small lake. The Cabinet Range rises sharply from the valley. Its peaks are ragged and pointed from valley glaciation. They will stretch all the way along the road today far to the south.
The road climbs more than it falls for the first part of the morning. We undulate over the glacial debris from yet another glaciated valley. At times the streams of the valley are close to the road. Other times they are quite distant. The road mostly hugs the eastern edge of the valley, while the streams use the entire valley floor to carve their courses. Much of the time the view is just trees and meadows with the Cabinet Range reaching right up off to the left.
We start to get some good downhill after the road to the silver mine. Even though this valley has evidence of logging and mining, it doesn’t feel nearly as flogged as Hwy 2 south of Libby. The views are pleasant, the traffic fairly light. This is the type of road I was looking forward to riding in Montana, but I’ve come across so few like this in this state.
Considerable private development has grown along the lake and valley near Bull Lake. Huge quartzite cliffs stand high above the western edge of the lake. There is a general store doing a booming business in block ice when I ride through the little settlement. Plenty of folks are already out on the lake on boats.
The lower Bull River valley features enormous meadows that cover the valley floor. Lush grasses and willows line the ribbon of the river which folds back on itself like it needs to form switchbacks to get down the valley. Ridges of the Cabinet Range form serrated spurs that climb to the pointy peaks. Small ponds reflect the vertical landscape in their calm pools of stagnant water. The guys are keen to hang out by the habitat, but I beg to move on.
Traffic is heavier south of Bull Lake but not so bad you need a shoulder. Most people are actually moving over a bit, too. It shows that they can do it when they want to. I wave in acknowledgement to the people who give me ample space.
I would love to see this landscape from the air and see the topography created by glaciation. The wide meadows connected by narrower sections where the river follows close to road would be interesting to see from above. I’ll have to check it out on Google the next time I have wifi.
Eventually, the winding river and the wide meadows meet a stack of ridges to the south. The glacier must have stopped here. The road slips in between the ridges to follow the narrow river-carved valley downstream. The trees close in, the road climbs onto a slope and the river drops down and away. There is plenty of up and downhill here. At times, the road is high enough that you cannot see the river below. Then the road drops back down to the narrow valley, and trees and pasture are the only thing separating the road from the river. The road today has had such a variety of scenery that I’m quite pleased. For being stuck down in the valleys all the time in Montana, this one at least produced a diversity of views.
Down at the road junction with MT 200, I turn right to find the bakery. It has a huge variety of baked goods, convenience items and drinks. The place is very busy! I see five touring bikes outside and catch up with the riders when I come back out. It is a group of five twenty-something hipsters riding from Seattle to Glacier or Yellowstone. The chick is a cyclist in normal life; at least two of the guys don’t ride much usually. I don’t feel a huge rapport with these folks like I did with all the guys I’ve met on the Great Divide Route or off the ACA routes, so I don’t stay too long to chat. Besides, the campground is close by and I’m ready to let my lungs rest. They’ve been painful and restrictive all day.
The campground has an upper and lower loop. The lower loop is along the river and the lake created where the Bull River meets the Clark Fork. I figure the lower loop will be more crowded and have less shade, so I head to the upper loop. I find a spot with plenty of deep shade and a nice, flat spot for the tent. The loop is about half-full and none of the sites are on top of each other. This will be a great spot for tonight and tomorrow. There is water available and it is blessedly cold and clear.
I set up the tent and collapse inside. It’s in the mid 90s again and the smoke has gotten pretty thick. I just want to lie here and do nothing but breathe. I could never understand the appeal of ‘oxygen bars’, but right now, I think I would pay to suck up a bunch of clear air.