Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 86 – Plains – West Shore State Park: The ‘killer’ campsite

Wednesday August 13, 2014, 64 miles (103 km) – Total so far: 3,933 miles (6,330 km)

Around 6 am, the hiss and squeal of an approaching train wakes me. Then it goes pounding by in a rhythmic squall of noise. It is the first train to wake me. Even though they’ve been travelling through all night, their passing only barely registered in my consciousness. I never fully woke. I was too exhausted to be woken.

Now, I enter the day feeling like I have a hangover. That’s no fun if you didn’t have any fun to produce it. I’m lying half-on, half-off my sleeping bag, stretched out diagonally across the tent. I never made it into my sleep sheet, but I must have gotten a little bit cool at some point in the night, because the fake silk sheet is bunched around my shoulders and torso. Maybe you can have a hangover from too much adrenalin?

I sit up and start packing. The bags of concrete that seem to have replaced my lungs feel solid and heavy. But I don’t audibly wheeze as long as I just take shallow breaths, so that is an improvement on yesterday. I’m keen to get going today to beat some of the traffic on a road that doesn’t appear to have a shoulder for much of its length.

I stop at the library on my way out of town to pick up wifi and check the weather forecast. Today looks hot and smoky, but there is a very high chance of rain and cooler temps tomorrow. Yippee! Yippee! I then stop at the gas station to get a drink for my water bottle holder. Numerous firefighting crews are stopping to get snacks before another day on the line. The command centre and crew camp for the fire I rode through yesterday is here in town. I’m pleased to see most crews have a few women on them, one of whom says she absolutely loves my streamer helmet.

MT 28 leaves MT 200 just outside of town to follow a creek valley. The valley winds through tall, grassy hills. It feels like it could be any semi-arid valley in the Western U.S. But not far up the road, lumps of rounded earth look like someone has taken a shovel and a sandbox pail and left mounds of sand. Looking up the valley, these benches grow longer and taller. The mounded hills are sediment dumps from the floods of Glacial Lake Missoula. The sediment derives from up the road at Rainbow Lake and the passes nearby. The water scoured out those passes, Rainbow Lake and the areas around it, and dumped it here several miles downstream.

Those hills in the foreground are flood deposits from when Glacial Lake Missoula broke through its ice dam.

We climb up these sediment dumps in a long climb of about 850 feet of elevation gain. My lungs are still giving me lots of problems, and the climbing today demands more of them than any of the riding I’ve done in the past 3-5 days. Consequently, there are lots of stops today so that I don’t progress into a full-blown asthma attack. But it’s okay, and it doesn’t get me down, because everywhere I stop, there are amazing things to see and think about related to Glacial Lake Missoula.

We have a climb to Rainbow Pass first thing this morning. The whole ride goes through evidence of the floods of Glacial Lake Missoula.

A bit further up the road, the climb travels through numerous road cuts that allow a cyclist to really get a good look at all the sediments picked up and plopped here. Some of the debris are huge, angular chunks of rock. Some are as big as a small car. Geologists note that the chunks have no rounding of their edges or corners. This indicates that the rocks were not rolled in the current but were dropped here by hydraulic forces called ‘kolks’. These are extremely strong vertical vortices that develop within deep flows of very fast water. In a way, they are like underwater tornadoes with a similar destructive force. The kolks are responsible for plucking out small and large depressions of bedrock in the areas of fastest flow along the path of Glacial Lake Missoula. Rainbow Lake, just up the road, is one of them. The lake is 1.5 miles long, about a third of a mile wide and 35 feet deep! All of that rock was plucked out by the force of the water and then deposited in the debris dumps downstream!

This entire hill is composed of flood deposits. There are some rocks as big as cars in the fill – bedrock that was plucked out of the parent rock and deposited here.

We climb and climb to the top of the debris mounds where it levels out in a rocky, scraggly forest. Then we get a downhill into a somewhat wide valley where a huge powerline cuts across the stunted and sparse forest. From this corner, we can look up the valley to see the road rising and falling through numerous roadcuts. These are huge ripple marks from the flow of the water. It is so amazing and so beyond any scale that humans can readily comprehend.

The traffic has started to pick up, and there are a fair number of trucks, so I don’t stop to take photos. I’m too busy trying to breathe and trying to get my head around what I’m viewing. We climb up this valley to a point where a road joins from the southeast from Camas Prairie. Two strong flows of water draining to the west met here, where vortices of water tore out Rainbow Lake. It is extraordinary to think about the volume and force of the water here. I didn’t get a good photo of Rainbow Lake, but fellow CGOABer Richard Hoeg got one, and you can view it here:

After we cruise around Rainbow Lake, the road pops out into more large, grassy hills. The downhill here gets me up to 40 mph with no effort. Then the road climbs again to a broad swale of the pass. There are views down into Camas Valley of huge mounds of debris that swept down off the passes. These low points are dips in a ridge that cuts the valley east-west. When Glacial Lake Missoula was at its maximum, the water rose 800 feet above the dips. So, so cool!

Looking down over ripple marks and other flood deposits just southwest of Markle Pass.

Really, you must look at this area on Google Earth. Type in Hot Springs, Montana and look at the valley edges. Many of the hills have bathtub rings from the old shorelines. The lines show up easily because the growth of the pines matches up pretty well. Look further south, and you can see the giant ripples marks on the landscape. You can also see the lakes gouged out along the valleys where the kolks did their work. Truly fascinating! Go, now! Have a look!

I fly down off the ridge into the Little Bitterroot Valley. This long valley was most likely cut during the Eocene 40-60 million years ago when the climate was much wetter and large streams flowed. But the large rivers dried up by the Oligocene 35 million years ago, and the valley has been collecting sediment ever since.

Once down into this wide, arid valley, we stop at the busy gas station at the road turn-off to Hot Springs. They have fresh cinnamon rolls, so I buy a couple of those for later. A couple folks from the reservation (we are on the Flathead Indian Reservation) come ask the standard six and tell me to be careful with the traffic and the heat. Very nice folks. This is in great contrast to the two guys driving the massive coach-sized RVs towing cars who give me the stink eye when they walk past me.

On up the valley we ride. Looking back we can see the ridge, and the notches that form the passes, that impeded the flood flows of Glacial Lake Missoula. It is fascinating to think about the height of the water when full and to think about the paths the water took when draining. I can just imagine the lake filling and then flooding. Further up the valley, the old shorelines (which are so cool to look at on Google Earth) are quite obvious from the road, even though they are a bit clouded by smoke today.

Look closely and you can see horizontal lines on the hill closest to the camera. Those lines are old shorelines of Glacial Lake Missoula.
Looking south to the end of the Little Bitterroot Valley. Note the dips in the ridge to the south. At maximum volume, Glacial Lake Missoula was 800 feet higher than those gaps. The current flowing through them plucked out bedrock leaving circular pits behind that you pass beside the road before you drop down into this valley.

My lungs are still on fire today, but so is my brain. There is just so much to see and try to comprehend. As we get further up the valley, we start to see the rock flour hills that were deposited by meltwater streams that flowed into Glacial Lake Missoula from a lobe of the glacier that occupied the valley of Flathead Lake. One of the other cool things to look at and think about as you ride is the distribution of irrigated agriculture. In the southern part of the valley, there is a lot of center pivot fields of irrigated crops. In the northern end, where the rock flour hills appear, there are none. This is because some of the glacial rock flour settled out in mounds where it first entered the lake, but further down the valley, as the meltwater current within the lake lessened, the rock flour was distributed across the valley floor in a continuous layer. Water enters the valley aquifer in the Big Draw (where we are heading) in the north and filters down to the southern end of the valley where the impermeable rock flour creates a cap and maintains a high water pressure on the aquifer. This provides very productive artesian wells used for agriculture. The wonders do not cease today.

Those little hills are deposits of fine rock flour. Glacial meltwater, from a lobe of the glacier occupying present-day Flathead Lake, swept sand, gravel and rock flour that melted out of the ice down this valley. The valley was covered by Glacial Lake Missoula at the time, and these deposits settled out of the deep undercurrent of the meltwater stream as it flowed through the lake.
A close-up of the rock flour hills.

We round the long corner of the valley at Nirada and enter the Big Draw. This wide valley, with its long lush grasses lined by hills of sparse forest, is a glacial outwash plain from a lobe of the Flathead Valley glacier. You can even see the old meltwater stream channel where the road crosses it. The glacier’s terminal moraine sits at the top of this gentle climb and is so defined and lumpy that my little nerd heart thrills. There is no shoulder through here, and the traffic is getting heavier, so I keep getting off the road at pull-outs to have a long, nerdy look. The scale is phenomenal but so worth pondering.

Looking down the “Big Draw” toward the Little Bitterroot Valley. This is a sloping gravel outwash plain from the lobe of the glacier occupying the Flathead Lake valley. Meltwater streams carried sediment down this valley – you can see the old stream where it crosses the road in two places.
Heading up the Big Draw. That ridge up there is one beauty of a terminal moraine from a lobe of the massive glacier that moved down the Flathead Valley.
Another photo of the terminal moraine – because I’m such a nerd, I took about eight photos of it from different angles.
Check out the gravels in the terminal moraine.

I take some photos looking down into the Flathead Valley before we go flying down the long hill. It is a nice reward after abusing the lungs with a lot of climbing for most of the morning. We join Highway 93. This highway also has a very high accident rate, but the shoulder is super-wide, so the heavy traffic is not a bother. The hills are a bit of a bother, though. The road climbs and falls quite a bit. The heat has turned it up a bit, too, so I take regular breaks to keep my cement lungs in agreement with respiratory function.

Overlooking Flathead Lake from the terminal moraine. Imagine a massive glacier filling that whole valley and coming right up to your feet here.

I stop for more drinks at a gas station in Dayton. A guy about my age in a fancy, shiny sports car with a fancy, shiny wife looks at me with what I think, politely, I will call disdain. I know I’m bad, but I have to admit I giggle inside when I get to the checkout counter ahead of him, then we both have to wait while the attendant goes outside to do something with the gas pumps. I know I stink today – temps have been in the low 90s to over 100 for the last 10 days, it has been quite smoky and I haven’t done real laundry in that period, I haven’t had a shower in four days and didn’t even get a swim of some sort last night. I know I stink, and I love that Mr Perfect is trying to stand far away. Hehehehehe 🙂

I don’t know where I’m going to spend the night. My lungs won’t make Kalispell today. I’m thinking public land options for wild camping will be fairly non-existent ahead. It is sorta looking like I might hang around Lakeside for the afternoon then find somewhere to stealth camp tonight. However, I stop by the state park on the off-chance they have a site available.

I roll up to the camphosts’ trailer, and a man immediately comes out to greet me. I ask about a site. He smiles and says, “Oh yes, you are in luck. I’ve got a couple options for you. I have one regular site where the people are packing up now. But I have also got an absolutely killer of a site just for you”! Normally, his choice of words wouldn’t perk up my ears whatsoever, but after yesterday, I’m not sure I want anything that is ‘killer’! He continues, ‘But it’s your choice. I have a spot available that is right on the waterfront. It is a walk-in site, but it’s tremendous. You are so lucky. The people have cancelled their reservation – normally those sites book out three months in advance. The park system established them as canoe campsites so people could travel from one state park along the lake to another, but most people who book them are just regular campers.’ I tell him to hook me up with the killer site. When he puts all of my information into the computer, he says, “Okay, so your MT parks pass is an Indiana address, your phone number is a Colorado area code, and your driver’s licence is from Australia?” I reply, “Yes. I could tell you the story, but it’s not as exciting as it might seem.” He laughs and says it’s fine.

I roll down to the campsite. The road gods have kept me in their good graces. Life most definitely has a way of levelling things out. After coming almost face-to-face with the front end of a pick-up yesterday, today I have the best campsite ever. It really is a killer of a campsite. I cannot believe my luck. Plus, there is no mucky stuff to step into to go swimming. The shoreline is all small, round stones. The water is so clear you can swim out to where the water is over your head and still see your feet with clarity. The water is so cold and refreshing, I would describe it as DELICIOUS! For my first swim of the afternoon, I go in with my shorts and jersey as part of the pre-rinse cycle. Then, for the rest of the afternoon, I alternate swimming and floating for long periods with rock skipping, snacking and hydrating. You could not have asked for a better afternoon to top off an incredibly interesting morning.

Life has a way of leveling things out. After nearly being killed by an on-coming pick-up truck yesterday, today I luck out on a primo walk-in campsite right on the shore of Flathead Lake. Normally these sites book out three months in advance, but I got lucky with some people cancelling their booking.
Even though I hand-wash my clothes each evening, everything on-board is smoky and sweaty after a week of smoke and temps in the 90s. So I go in fully-clothed for the first swim of the day to give my clothes an initial rinse.
The guys think this is heaven. We spend the afternoon swimming, skipping rocks and hanging in the shade.

In the early evening, the hazy skies give way to stratus cloud. Darker clouds move in and the wind picks up. The water goes choppy and the sky goes gray. Storms pass over with lots of wind, a couple rolls of thunder and a few raindrops. The change in the lake is fairly sudden and dramatic. The gentle waves that had been lapping onto shore now crash onto the rocky beach, redistributing pebbles and driftwood with each surge of waves.

In the evening, the winds pick up and some storms come through. The lake has white-caps and it’s soothing to listen to the big waves crashing on shore.
Later in the evening, we even get a rainbow. It is appropriate – it makes me think of The Rainbow Connection song that Kermit sings. That always lifts my mood.

I observe it all from a rock above the wave line. I am so grateful to be out here riding and to have such a fabulous campsite tonight. Last night I felt incredibly fragile and defeated. I wondered if I’d be able to ride in the morning without a lot of trepidation. But this morning, mentally I felt fine. I felt like I’d had a very bad day the day before, but I was ready to go again. There was geology to behold and some climbing to do – and those two things are some of my favourite parts of bike touring. And tonight I feel incredibly alive and rejuvenated. There are highs and lows on every bike tour. But sometimes, like yesterday and today, the amplitude and frequency of those emotional waves are just like the stormy surge out there on the lake right now. I’m certainly ready for some calmer waters after a fairly challenging week on the road.

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