01 February 2004
As reported in the last instalment of our North American odyssey (In Search of Maple Syrup...), raging forest fires had forced the 'not-so-famous five' across the border from Canada to the US. First stop Montana, via the 'Heading for the Sun' highway. The irony was not lost on us with the immediate vista composed entirely of smoke and charred terrain. Our research indicated that Montana has a truckload of excellent riding with more national forests than we have knobs on our tyres. Alas we soon learnt that the whole shooting match was about to be closed due to the tinder dry conditions and blazing saddles. "Get ye to Idaho - it's as clear as a bell", the burly ranger advised. And as we headed over the Lost Trail Pass into Idaho the skies magically cleared. We were greeted by endless fields of wheat and the occasional lumber town - a conundrum given the complete lack of trees. And what about the humble spud for which Idaho is famous? As a big fan of potatoes I was perplexed and disappointed.
Our destination was the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. It encompasses the Sawtooth, White Cloud and Boulder mountain ranges, along with portions of the Salmon River and Smokey Ranges. The headwaters of six big rivers and over a thousand lakes are located in these mountains. A scenic paradise and mountain bike nirvana. We found a fabulous camping spot at Redfish Lake, right below the Sawtooth Mountains - which certainly deserve their impressive name. It dumped cats and dogs on us that night. Our neighbours in Montana and Canada sure would have liked some of that.
Two days of driving left us antsy for exercise. Our selection for the morning was the Fisher William Loop. The track climbs steadily through aspen glades and beaver ponds, then abruptly steepens for the final climb to the first summit at the Aztec Mine. Groomed singletrack sidles and carves its way downhill before the second climb. No time to catch our breaths at the top though before a fast and furious descent that lasted forever. A short climb to the third summit followed and then we exited through a sea of sagebrush to Obsidian, with panoramic views of the Sawtooth Mountains far across the valley. Yet more buffed singletrack awaited us that afternoon at Little Basin Creek.We sped out through stands of ridgepole pines, aspens and open meadow - returning via Basin and Stanley Creeks through a series of crisp and refreshing water crossings. Home in time for tea.
Two parallel ridges run the length of Redfish Lake with some gnarly old single track clearly visible from our camp - just taunting us to indulge. Anti-clockwise seemed to be the story, heading down Fishhook Creek for a gentle start before an aggressive, rocky climb high above Redfish Point. The track then wanders along the ridge with the deep blue lake a few hundred meters below. Spectacular. Old, old trees shade the ridge top, their exposed roots invading the trail. A switchback descent spits us out at the lake's inlet for a well-timed rest. Squirrels soon gathered. Their antics kept us amused as they chased one and other, played hide the pinecone and unsuccessfully begged for food while we munched away. The climb to the east ridge proved challenging with a technical rock garden followed by a granny gear grovel to the top at 300 meters above the lake. Grand views of the Sawtooth Wilderness Area were ample reward. It's a committing ride along the top that culminates with a brilliant downhill back to our campsite. We were a tad shagged and a mountain of food was soon devoured.
The aptly named Warm Springs Plunge proved to be our toughest downhill workout. From Bull Trout Lake the singletrack plummets down Dead Man's Creek. It's a slalom-traverse across loose shingle and water-rutted switchbacks that constantly try to toss you down to the poignantly named river far below. Upon reaching Warm Springs Creek the track mellows a little only to be followed by a roller coaster section of unexpected technical challenges that took its toll on body and mind. We then hit a spectacular mountainous gorge and climbed a steep and narrow track high above the boiling rapids. It finally delivered us through an open meadow to the Payette River and the road end where our van waited for us patiently. Up the road a short distance, the Bonneville Hot Springs graciously let us immerse our aches in its restorative waters.
A couple more rides and our leave passes had all but expired. It was time to head our way back into Canada, slowly. First stop the mill town of St Maries. With twenty kilometres of gradual uphill along an old railway line, the Hiawatha Rail Trail got the nod as the ideal wind-down ride. The interpretative signs, massive viaducts and dark tunnels added to the fun with the final tunnel running three kilometres back into Montana. The return downhill was a blast. "Boys and their train sets", bemoaned Ditte. The Avery Store provided a shady spot to enjoy our melting ice creams in the late afternoon sun. They sold damn near everything from fish bait to wooden clothes pegs, and of course, cheap beer.
It was with sadness that we left our two-dollar a night Joe River campsite just out of St Maries. It had manicured grass, shady trees and facilities you could eat your lunch off. We set off for the Panhandle National Forest and its infamous Gold Hill Switchbacks - a 600 metre technical climb on which Ditte counted fifty-four switchbacks in less than seven kilometres. Totally buzzing after an adrenalin-packed descent we pointed the van north for our final foray into the Priest River Forest.
Around the turn of last century a huge fire engulfed Idaho and much of Montana destroying millions of board feet of timber. A remnant of the original forest remains in the Upper Priest River and we were keen to check it out. A tall and ancient forest towers high above the trail. The cedar trees are branchless for the first twenty-odd metres giving the forest a cathedral-like reverence. It was cool and quiet as we zipped along under the high canopy of spreading leaves. The track undulates between monster trunks and over the uneven rooted surface with log hops and streams to negotiate. Very spooky riding - almost spiritual. Nah!
And then a final packing of bikes and bodies into the van before returning to Vancouver and winging our way home. We hadn't found any weapons of mass destruction in the land of politicians of mass deception, just tons of mountain bike adventure and a thousand reasons to return.
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