Jim has taken a break from working as a guide to return to full time teaching Maths & Outdoor Learning at his local high school in the spectacular Cairngorm National Park. This means more time with his family, the opportunity to pass on and share his passion for the outdoors to his pupils and to have even more time for adventures of his own
Jim Sutherland has never found it difficult to dream about adventures, whether at night when asleep or with his eyes open wide. This approach has taken him all over the Scottish Highlands where he grew up; Spain, the Alps, the Southwest of the US by hiking, climbing, skiing and more recently by bike.
Jim has taken a break from working as a guide to return to full time teaching Maths & Outdoor Learning at his local high school in the spectacular Cairngorm National Park. This means more time with his family, the opportunity to pass on and share his passion for the outdoors to his pupils and to have even more time for adventures of his own.
Doug and I had a leisurely start to the day as John had promised to deliver his pancake mix to Joe & Liliana at the big cabin so they could make pancakes for everyone. I brewed some fresh coffee and took it down for the four of us to enjoy together. Late last night a couple of big Dutch riders with lots of kit had arrived and pitched their tent so we had to dodge around them a little bit. After saying goodbye to Joe & Liliana, Doug and I headed back up to clean our wee cabin. We swung our legs over the top tube of our bikes and headed down to the T-junction. There we were greeted by Barbara and John walking the dog. I was so pleased to meet this amazing lady and to thank her for what she had started here. Barbara played it down low and simply reminded me that the best way to thank her and John was to ‘Pay it forward’.
This morning was the first morning where I purposefully left with another rider to ride together for the whole day. The Great Divide made me feel tiny, alone and at the same time empowered. I enjoyed the time and space to ride on my own, in my own way. At the same time it was cool to share the trail with another like minded rider, such as Curtis down into Whitefish five days ago. Doug and I spent the day talking about our families, music, our student days and our love of the great outdoors. Doug was six or seven years olders than me and although his family were ‘grown up’ we had a lot in common. The conversations were fun and easy.
We passed the disused Empire Mine then made the long, steady climb up to Continental Divide crossing #3. The navigation at the top towards Ophir Creek Road & Hope Creek was intricate and kept me on my toes using the compass function on my Garmin to make sure we were heading south and not west. Doug was perfectly happy using the ACA app but I needed to see that virtual magnetic needle!
Every climb is rewarded with a descent on the Great Divide and once we released the brakes from the top it was clear that I was not going to catch Doug on his Salsa Spearfish. An amazing bike which morphed from a solid bikepacking rig for the ups into a slick, bouncy machine for the downs! He also used to race…
The next section seemed to be downhill all the way to Blossburg and the railroad tracks. We kept pushing. The plan was to stop over in Helena. Take a motel. Chill. Laundry. Beers. Dinner. The heat was incredible and that familiar ‘ring sting’ started by 2pm. Hey ho.
When Doug and I hit Hwy 12 there were some major roadworks for the final 8 miles into town. We pretty much seemed to be on the wrong side of the road, sheltered by traffic cones whilst all the cars going the same way as us were on the other side of the trucks, loaders and tar machines.
Once we got into town we found Great Divide Cyclery where the guys where were super friendly. They helped me get a rounded out SPD cleat replaced and some new bottles with cages to load up on fluids even more. They also recommended a motel just along the road and a couple of places to eat and have beer – Lewis & Clarks Tap Rooms. At the motel Doug and I took time to unpack what needed washed then bundle it all into one machine. Doug took time for a phone call home whilst waiting for it to finish off I took a bath to try and ease my seating arrangements.
Later that evening it felt weird to walk to get some dinner and find a rammed brewery. We had a couple of beers there, I am sure Doug would have liked to have stayed (he was not riding the next day) but I had an early start in order to reach Butte.
Lost Llama Lodge to Helena 42 miles, 3434 feet of ascent, 6 hours (5 hours riding + 1 hour stopped)
What was the Jedi-mind trick that was played on me yesterday afternoon?
There I sat on the porch of the Ovando Inn with cans of Coke, candy bars, sandwiches and potato chips strewn around about me. The owner came out and asked me if I was feeling better now. Where are you headed tomorrow? I did not know. She had a nice room left at a good price. The lady left me there for a while, alone with the earworm that had started burrowing into my head. The idea of stopping here and not having to endure the heat anymore was appealing. Even more appealing was to sleep in a proper bed! I think it must have been the food buzz that finally did it. I got up, walked up to the counter and said I’ll take the room please. Just like Obi-Wan’s trick with the Star Troopers I didn’t even know it had happened! She had a friend with a place up on the Divide south of Stemple Pass. She could phone ahead. I was then told that Rob was already heading there after a night in Lincoln. This did all mean that the next two days were mapped out quite nicely.
Realisation…last night I wrote in my journal ‘…if that isn’t kept at bay then my Ride is over.’ I was referring to a saddle sore on my left butt that was now looking to be infected. Paracetamol and ibuprofen only seemed to work until after lunch. Once the heat of the day was at its’ peak the last two or three hours were getting pretty nasty.
After a cold breakfast I made an early start at 0608. The silence was incredible, nothing was moving at that time except for the cattle at the side of the road. I could see the sun slowly rising over the hills and had some fun catching my silhouette in a photo. Just like every morning on the route my legs felt strong, my head was hungry for the miles and the bike just did its thing. Each night I checked, cleaned and lubed my bike. In return each morning it let me confidently set off. The bike I was riding was a Brother Cycles BigBro29er. I had bought this rigid frame from Will & James two and a half years ago with a mind to slowly build it up ready for a ride like this. Al had recommended to go with 2 by 11 as well as keeping it simple with mechanical disk brakes and straight bars. He knew well what I was up to and I remember him saying to get 2.2’ tires as you will need them sometime won’t you..? Me and the bike then put in hundreds and hundreds of miles riding on the trails, tracks and roads of the Scottish Highlands in preparation.
Three weeks before I left for Banff I had the bike completely serviced by Nash from RideCairngorm in Boat of Garten. His expertise and knowledge of North America was incredible, he even suggested not to get some components at too high a spec as that might make them difficult to source, replace or make in some remote workshop in British Columbia. These training rides had been punishing on the bike and Nash, Al and I laughed when we saw the old free hub – it looked like a shark had taken a chunk out of it! The body of my rear Avid BB7 had disintegrated too so it had to be replaced too. The bill was big but my confidence in the bike as I wheeled it out was worth every pound. Not once did the bike let me down on the trip, or since.
Lindsay from BaseCampBikes here in Grantown on Spey also helped me with spares, tools and clothing for the trip. In the lead up to my trip I was in his shop every other day. Lindsay went to a lot of bother ordering in Giro clipless shoes, a favourite multitool of his and a synthetic insulated riding jacket. The shoes were perfect, perhaps a little cool in the morning but they were supportive, comfortable and dried quickly whenever they got wet.
Finally I upgraded some of my bike luggage at BackCountryScot with Andy. His knowledge of bikepacking is second to none and he gave me all the time and space I needed in order to decide whether I did need a new Revelate seatpost bag or not. Andy was right. Along with an 8 litre Terrapin drybag this gave me a system that was effective and simple to use.
Although the sun was coming up I still crunched through one or two frozen puddles on Dry Gulch Road on the way to Highway 200. After the Blackfoot River there is a section of trail that is arrow straight, heading due east. At one point I looked around and realised that this view used to be a desktop image on my computer! The climb up to and over Huckleberry Pass was pretty mellow, one of my favourites. Forest Road 4106 then stayed in the shade for most of the time all the way to Highway 200 before Lincoln. As I approached town I took care to not pass any of the three places I needed to visit : Post Office, grocery store and diner.
I pulled up at Lincoln US Mail, parked my bike and proceeded to strip off some of my dusty clothes with no inhibitions at all. Leg warmers went home to Scotland, as did my Patagonia windstopper gilet and some extra gloves along with some other dusty and smelly pieces. I can’t imagine the reaction from the family when it arrived! Next the grocery store where due to hunger I was wasting an awful lot of time going round in circles. My resupply strategy was to put my purchases in a neat, 10 litre packable backpack and wear this. I tended to buy potato chips, Idahoan instant potato mash, tomatoes (lots of juice) and fruit. Mosquitos were starting to be a bit of a pain when camping at night and I did not seem to have a lot of clothes with long sleeves. What I needed was a shirt. What I did not expect was to find ‘the shirt’ in a Vintage Clothing Shop in Montana. For US $5 I got myself a comfy and cool shirt that must have been fashionable in the ‘70s. Now the best bit…the diner. The time was only around 1100 so I wanted this meal to fill me up and sustain me for the climb up and over Stemple. I ordered a strawberry milkshake. A huge salad with chicken, a burger and some fruit dessert pie. Then I carefully balanced it all on the bars of my bike and headed across the road to the town park. There were benches and tables so it was a very comfortable lunch too.
So with typical bad-timing I was about to set off on a 16 mile climb of 2000ft at the hottest part of the day. I told myself it was only half of the Burma Road route I did from the house in May. The first half was pretty dusty but still enjoyable. As the road started to get steeper I caught up with Florian, from Switzerland. I had met him earlier in Ferndale where I bought some delicious lemonade from two wee boys who had a stall by the road. He told me that yes, he had circled back after getting some cash and had some of their lemonade. We both agreed that as well as the big sweeping vistas, it was the unexpected interactions that also make the ride. Florian had a fancy belt-driven bike with two of the biggest water bottles I have ever seen on the handlebars of a bike. He told me he was dropping down off of the Great Divide route to interview folk for a documentary he had been commissioned to make.
My witching hour arrived. Despite an open, strong mind and skinny, strong legs the pain in my butt started to ramp up. I could usually do a wee dance on my Brooks C-17 saddle to relocate my rear into a more comfortable position for a while. When that didn’t work if the grade was steep enough I just got off and walked. It was reassuring that despite this necessary tactic I was never that far from Florian on the climb.
When we got to Stemple there were one or two 4x4s and another two riders. Florian and I took a couple of photos of one another and said our goodbyes as he was dropping into Helena on Highway 279 for food and beers. Another storm was on the way as I headed across to Marsh Creek Road. I knew that I had to execute good navigation from now on in order to make it to Barbara Nye’s place without any fuss. As I climbed back up to another saddle I rode past two hikers. This really put my bear phobia into perspective. The girls gave me a wave and we then carried on our ways. I sensed the thunder before I heard it. There was nothing else for it but to keep moving and stay focused on the correct road over the pass and south west. Finally my exciting descent through the canyon started at precisely the same time as the rain. There was no way I was stopping I knew that if I kept pedalling I could outrun the storm and not get caught in it, up here at 7000ft. Marsh Creek Canyon was a blur. As was the gust of wind that nearly took me out on the cattle guard at mile 84.7 on the map! I could see banner flags and a wooden building up in the distance, this had to be the Lost Llama Lodge. The final blur of the day was Doug jumping out in front of me to say ‘You made it man, now leave your bike, it’s time for dinner.’
John came to the door and gave me a friendly smile as he shook my hand. Barbara and John have opened their home and their hearts to riders on the Great Divide. Originally Barbara started as an engineer then moved to Canyon Creek. She started off by giving passing riders and hikers water. Then let them overnight in the plot by the barn. Slowly a lodge, then cabins were built and made available. .They ask for no payment, or even barter (I brought some biscuits so as not to arrive empty handed), what they want guests to do is ‘Pay Forward’. Maybe do something a bit like this at home. Perhaps just give some food to someone who has none. Or maybe just be nice to someone who is not having a good time right now. The feeling of calm kindness with no expectation from me was incredible, something I still feel even almost a year later.
I was told to go and help myself to a beer from the porch before I took a seat in the dining room. I was introduced to Aunt Barbara(?) and another two NOBO riders from Denver : Joe & Liliana. Before we started John told me there was only one rule – Empty Plates! That was not going to be difficult. The six of us had a wonderful meal of pasta and a tomato/vegetable sauce. John’s quiet and strong way made sure that each of us felt welcome and listened to around the table. His knowledge of the Divide route sounded encyclopedic as he described particular rocks and fences to look out for in The Basin for Diagnus Well. The Basin seemed a million miles away right now. Doug and I hesitantly mentioned that there still seemed to be a lot of ‘up trail’ before Helena. John’s advice was simple ‘Stay on the Route!’ Barbara herself was not around as she was attending a Fire Service Meeting ‘in town’.
After dinner we all headed out to retrieve the big tent that the storm had flipped and then thrown across the stock fence before I arrived. This was supposed to be Doug’s place for the night, with Joe & Liliana in the larger cabin at the bottom of the field. The tent was heavy. The inch and a half struts had taken a pounding. Each of them had to be carefully released from a ratchet system which required a lot of teamwork. Once that job was done it was getting near time to turn in for the evening. There was a little bunk bed in my cabin so I said to Doug that he should just sleep in there with me. The cabin had electricity, a wee hob, lights, a radio and cupboards bursting with more food and beer or wine. All for us to take if we needed. We didn’t need anything so we didn’t.
Another day ending with hospitality and satisfaction of riding a great route in good style.
Ovando Inn to Lost Llama Lodge 67 miles, 5842 feet of ascent, 12 hours (8 hours riding + 4 hours stopped)
I was awake by 3 or 4 in the morning due to another big electrical storm. The noise, the flashes, the feeling of being at its mercy was incredible. My evolving morning strategy was to stay in the tent to change out of my merino sleeping clothes, carefully put them back into a drybag and then change back into my often, still damp riding clothes. Then deflate my airbed and stuff it, along with the drybag into my Revelate Terrapin seat bag. Finally I would wrestle my synthetic MHW Laminate sleeping bag into one half of my Revelate Saltyroll bar bag. The trick was to let the sleeping bag push the air down in front of itself until it was in the bottom half. I had chosen a synthetic sleeping bag as I know from experience that down is useless and downright dangerous when wet (did you see what I did there?) Often the hardest part of a day is getting your feet on the floor. With all my cooking kit hanging up in a tree this was not difficult! The rain appeared to have eased off as I retrieved my dry bag from the tree and headed back to bike. Coffee and granola bars for breakfast again. My BigBro 29er was propped against a noticeboard which made repacking a little easier. My cooking kit lived down in the centre of my frame bag where it didn’t affect the handling of my bike, was easy to get to during the day if I wanted a brew and in this location it didn;t rattle…rattling on the trail day after day – NO WAY!
The last thing to do was to take down Al’s Tarptent Stratospire 1 which was still pretty wet with rain. This tent dried quickly in the sun, or wind so I wasn’t too worried about stuffing it into the other half of my bar bag in this state. Al’s tent had also been down the Divide a couple of times already so knew the score and was definitely something of a talisman to me.
Last night I had read and re-read the intricate route description for the traverse of Richmond Peak. This section being one of the Divide ‘punch card’ sections with grizzlies, downed trees across the trail, sleet/snow, steepness, singletrack and did I mention grizzlies? For the first wee while my dynamo light was an additional help as I steered to pick the best line up the gravel. I couldn’t help thinking back to the first time I had proudly shown Al this Edelux II light when we were riding near the River Feshie in the Cairngorms. He told me to get off my bike and push. Then imagine doing this in ‘bear country’. How good did the light feel now!?
At mile 216.8 on the ACA Map after the orange-diamond snowmobile trail I rode onto the ‘lesser-travelled dirt trail’. Even writing this 7 months later on I can see the undergrowth that has enclosed the trail and feel the silence. At 219.6 I met a short, sharp , ‘steep hill’ where I pushed up through the bushes acutely aware that I couldn’t see what was either side of me, or up ahead – just like on day 1…I pushed past the gate, turned left and soon encountered some RVs and Jeeps parked up at Clearwater Lake. After this I slowly but surely began the 5.5 miles spin up West Morrell Road/FR 4353. As I looked up I couldn’t help but think that was on too much of a traverse and not climbing enough. The purple line on my Garmin didn’t really help. At one point I turned to check out a turn in but it ended at another gate with the remains of an open campfire. I simply couldn’t imagine spending the night there but I guess the Tour Divide riders are wired differently.
Soon enough I came to the 4-way junction where there was a pickup parked and its driver just about to get in. I pushed the cranks just a little harder to make it up to him before he drove off. He told me that he had tried to camp up here yesterday afternoon and has been chased away by strong winds and hail stones the size of walnuts! This confirmed to me that my decision to stay low yesterday had been a good one which had avoided a cold, soaking on the climb then a miserable camp or dangerous chilled descent to Seeley Lake.
At mile 230.7 the route description says that the road becomes more primitive. To be honest I was unsure what this meant. When I saw that it was some of the best singletrack I have ever, ever ridden I was once again overcome by the emotion of riding this Route. The trail traversed, or descended the side of an alpine basin with spectacular rocky peaks at the top and acre after acre of forest dropping steeply away to my left. One section had been washed away and it certainly demanded my full attention. My own riding and control, of even a loaded rigid bike was good enough to cope with this terrain but I did think to myself how terrifying this might be to other less experienced, or competent riders.
I found my ‘Bear Voice’ on this descent. At each bend. Whenever the trail got closed in by vegetation I made my noise. I liked my noise. Mostly because I don’t think anyone else was going to hear my noise. Except the grizzlies. The descent was breathtaking, like nothing I had ever done before. The 8 miles down to Seeley Lake were on freshly graded gravel too which on my 29er with 2.2’’ tires took no time at all.
Close to Seeley Lake I encountered some other riders heading in the opposite direction NOBO. Although only a 2 mile detour to resupply I made the decision to push on to Lincoln for the day. The undulating climb to Cottonwood Lakes and Little Shanley Creek did take a bit out my skinny legs, but not as much as the rising temperatures which my wife had warned me about. I passed more NOBO riders who in comparison seemed so fresh. The rat on my shoulder whispered ‘They won’t be so fresh on the way up Richmond Peak!’ On Shanley Creek Road I caught up with two other SOBO riders and we rode together and chatted for a while before my urgency to reach Lincoln kicked in again. One of today’s highlights was riding past an airfield where a twin prop plane did a great take off for me.
Forest Road 89 seemed to burst out of the forest and into a wide open plain. I sensed, rather than saw that Highway 200 and Ovando were not that far away. One of the riders caught me up at a photo stop and said that he was unsure of where to stop, maybe Lincoln. Little did I know that we were not going to see one another for a couple of days then spend a day riding together.
I pulled into Ovando early afternoon and headed straight to The Ovando Inn to resupply which is really just a code for ‘binge-eat’. I bought tins of Coke, microwave burrito and more granola bars. I even bloated out with an ice cream. The calories surged through my body and it felt so, so good. Then the lady at the Inn played a Jedi-mind trick on me…
Owl Creek Packer Camp to Ovando Inn 58 miles, 4648 feet of ascent, 9 hours (7 hours riding + 2 hours stopped)
A storm was directly overhead when my alarm went off at 5:30am. My excuse for not getting up was that I did not want to be soaking wet on the climb up Richmond Peak so I turned over to enjoy a couple more hours of comfort in the yoga tent.
By 8:00am I had packed up my kit, had a cold breakfast and thanked Kathleen for her hospitality. Before leaving the Laughing Horse I gave her the pack of coffee from the Montana Coffee Traders, some instant meals and fruit for her and the staff. Somewhere near the front door I also accidentally left my rear clip on blinky LED light. Despite retracing my steps about three times I could not find it so I do hope that someone did and was able to use it.
I certainly did not have the hunger to hit the road and pedal so today was going to be a learning day for me…
Despite my late start I did not miss too much of the storm and was wet through in no time. The only way to stay reasonably warm and wet was to keep moving. Something I learned for the first time on a 100 mile charity road ride back home in Scotland about 5 years ago. Sure there were informal food/support stops on Derek’s route but if you took them during that ride the constant rain and 40 degree F temperature was going to spoil your day at the very least! Knowing that I had to simply crank out 50 miles non-stop from Badralloch to Achnasheen was a liberating feeling and one that I did not think I would be ‘cashing in’ on here in Montana.
I fully embraced the cold and the rain on the run down Highway 83. I will never ever forget seeing the lightning reflect off the map case on my handlebars or the constant road spray. Each road marker came with comforting regularity and slowly, but surely brought me nearer and nearer to where I would have to make a decision. What an experience to ride my bike and enjoy the pure line of the highway, the forest and the storm for mile after mile.
Just north of Condon, at Cold Creek I pulled into a gas station for some food and a coffee. The rain was coming straight down and the thunder still boomed through the Swan & Mission Mountains either side of me. I’ve been in the mountains enough to know that these sorts of conditions in the valley are often much more serious high up and rain would be sleet/hail with stronger winds. As I slurped another coffee and inhaled my second or third pastry I thought to myself ‘Would I head out into my local Cairngorm Mountains on a loaded bike to ride a serious trail in conditions like these?’ ‘Of course not, so why do it here!’ I traced a cold finger down the map to settle at Owl Creek Packer Camp, just by Holland Lake. Not far. It might even stop raining.
As I rode into Condon I could see the local fire station, an appliance and a crowd of people who could only be firefighters with their friends and family. I pulled over to their station to say ‘Hi’. Michael and his son kindly gave me some water. We talked about the weather. I told them that my wife is a firefighter too. The feeling of community and hospitality was strong. Before I left I asked to take a photo of the two of them in front of the appliance with my bike. Little did I know this was going to be a bit of a theme on my ride down The Divide. By trying to stick to a schedule I had created at home, in Scotland, a year ago I was missing out on amazing experiences and interactions like this. Also if the weather was not in my favour there was nothing I could do about it.
I arrived at Owl Creek Packer Camp in the afternoon and by this time the rain had stopped. This allowed me to hang out wet kit and get it drying in the sun. This campsite is a Forest Service one so there were no fees for the pitches, drop toilet and benches. As I walked around I couldn’t help wondering why there were so many RVs, jeeps, horse boxes and trailers around.
Back at my tent I met Joe whose son was heading back in after leading a group on horseback – what a summer job for a 16 year old! Joe and I talked for a wee while. He was a quiet, friendly guy who worked as a pilot in Montana. Before he left Joe asked me to join him and his family for some steak at their pitch later in the evening.
By late afternoon mule trains started coming quietly into the camp. I did wonder what the conditions had been like for them up in ‘The Bob’ for them last night and this morning. There were no bear lockers so I had to do my first ‘Bear Hang’ and was so chuffed to get it right the first time! Must have been something to do with rigging all those hoist systems in the Mountain Rescue team.
I enjoyed a fantastic dinner with Joe, his wife and daughter. They hardly let me move from my seat! We all enjoyed plates of pasta, salad and some delicious steak. Joe’s wife talked quietly with pride about her children’s prowess on horseback in Montana. They asked about my plans for the next part of my journey and we did all agree that this next section of the ACA map seemed rather long! I was given directions to an Aunt’s at Canyon Creek in case I needed some more hospitality from their family. Their son came by the pitch with one of his friends. They both looked resplendent in their boots, jeans, big buckle belts, new shirts and cowboy hats. His sister seemed pleased to see them too. The boys gave me a friendly hello before heading out for their final dinner with their clients.
Once again I end another day on The Divide having met friendly, open and kind people who clearly love where they live. The riding has been challenging too with my physical and mental training paying off. I went to bed replete that night, excited and a little nervous about the traverse of Richmond Peak in the morning.
The Laughing Horse Lodge to Owl Creek Packer Camp 40 miles, 1563 feet of ascent, 8 hours (4 hours riding + 2 hours stopped)
I had a long lie then prepared a strong coffee with my stove and GSI JavaDrip. Curtis was not awake yet so the coffee was quietly shared with the lonely guy we had got speaking to last night. He was staying at the campground whilst trying to find work in Whitefish. Poor guy couldn’t really afford much financially or emotionally and all he wanted to do was see his family. In between sips or sentences he just zoned out and I just let him. No judgements, no sympathy just listen. Lots of family and friends will agree that this is not how Jim usually operates but it was starting to feel like the Great Divide was changing how I thought…for now at least. Little did I know that by the end of today it would have done this a lot.
Time to ‘get down the road’! Weather forecasts were suggesting some storms coming in that would swell rivers, turn gravel to peanut butter and soak folk on bikes. As a Scot the last point did not bother me too much but the first two, in a big place like Montana, filled me with dread. The ACA map was carefully studied over another coffee and some of my remaining broken, squashed, re-solidified and crumbly trail food from the bottom of feed bags. Columbia Falls was chosen as my location for resupply then second breakfast. I was also looking forward to navigating the intricate series of seemingly perpendicular roads and trails that headed east to Columbia Falls and then south to Flathead Lake. Here I was going to take Highway 83 and simply push as far south as I could despite the weather, hence the phrase ‘ get down the road’.
Curtis appeared. He was in R & R mode with a plan to catch up with some friends in town that we missed last night. Curtis was then going to recce the area to see what it might be like to work in the area as an ER specialist. Even after only a day or so in his company I knew that he would be a calm, decisive and understanding person in that environment. We wished one another luck and agreed that we might meet up later on the Divide…
I got to Columbia Falls quickly but did not resupply very quickly. The sheer size and choice of products in the supermarket had me going round and round in circles. By the time I was finished the second breakfast could not come any sooner. But I had to wait and by now it was nearly 80 degrees. The Montana Coffee Traders cafe I chose near the river was absolutely rammed with people, probably because it was Friday. I placed my order then went back to my veranda seat to repack my bike and have a blether with a couple of locals.
Fuelled up I really enjoyed winding my way south on the gravel country roads that headed towards Swan River and Ferndale. What a joy to ride my bike, take in the views and not a lot else. By the time I got to Echo Lake I was starting to feel the heat and needed to cool off and get some more food inside me. I pulled in by the lake and found a wee path to put my bike before I headed down to the water for my first skinny dip in years. Maybe since my honeymoon on the island of Corsica in a mountain lake surrounded by snow. Once in the water and swimming about I realised that I might actually be right in front of someone’s garden so my eventual retreat from the water would have been hilarious for anyone to witness.
At Swan River I was able to speak to Rachel on the phone. That made me feel very happy. She said that most of her family were there which was nice to hear. On the way into Ferndale I stopped by some roadside, homemade lemonade from two week boys. It was cool to speak to them and their family and get an idea of what it’s like here. Just as I was leaving a Swiss rider came by. I shouted to him that he must stop and have some of their delicious lemonade. He shouted back that he needed to get cash first. I hope he turned back.
The run down to Swan Lake was pretty cruisey and then I looked at my GPS to see that it was still a long way to the State Park. Anyway it got done as you do. When I got there I was disappointed to find it absolutely packed out with RVs. The lady warden on her caddy wagon could not really have been any less helpful to me when I asked if there were any pitches left. She said there was no room. That’s because there were great big flipping RVs everywhere. As a parting shot she said that there was a place about a quarter mile away who sometimes let folk like you camp…
I headed to the gate, turned left and sure enough pretty soon came to The Laughing Horse Lodge. At the reception I asked if I could camp here over beside the one (small) campervan, the white canvas tent and the portaloo. The lady explained politely that the campervan was where some of the staff slept and that the canvas tent was for yoga sessions. She then asked me to wait here and she would go and ask Kathleen, the owner if she could help. At that some point I became a bit more aware of my surroundings, the guests coming in the door and my appearance. Right on queue the forecast storms appeared to be arriving and I started to prepare for the worst. I could not have been any more wrong! Kathleen dressed in cool chef uniform and headscarf greeted me with a lovely smile and told me of course I could stay. She went on to tell me that I can sue the yoga tent to save me the hassle of pitching in the rain. Kathleen then took me through to the dining area, already filling with well-dressed guests and pointed to the ‘Staff Only’ door. ‘You just head in there Jim. Help yourself to towels, have a shower do your laundry just make yourself at home.’ I was starting to fill up with emotion as within 20 minutes I had gone from being turned away for how I looked to being welcomed by a complete stranger. ‘I need to offer you something for all of this. Would $20 be alright?’ Kathleen’s reply was not to be silly come and have dinner if you want to.
In between showers I was treated to the sounds of mellow jazz from the dining room as I optimistically tried to dry my now clean riding gear. As my dinner time approached I gave up and reminded myself that my riding gear was soon going to get wet in the morning anyway.
A friendly waitress showed me to a table right in the middle of all the other guests. I had a perfect view of the jazz duo as they played chilled out tunes on a double bass and glockenspiel. I felt like a king as I alternated between mouthfuls of succulent local beef, sipping a local beer and writing my journal. As I walked past the musicians to go to the bathroom I whispered ‘I don’t suppose you are allowed to play any Miles’ are you?’ When I came back to my seat they announced ‘All Blues’ by special request!
What a day. What a place. What people. Thank you.
Whitefish to The Laughing Horse Lodge 61 miles, 1973 feet of ascent, 8 hours (6 hours riding + 2 hours stopped)
I woke at 6:00am, promptly packed away my sleeping kit, got dressed and headed across the road one more time to the gas station to use the toilet. The campground was rammed with tents but as I had suspected there was not a lot of movement at that time in the morning. A group of 3 road cyclists got packed up very efficiently and were on the road well before me. I set off with a damp tent at 7:00am and headed across to the wee bridge over the river. After crossing the bridge, I noticed Curtis camped down by the river, he waved so I turned around and had a quick blether with him. I explained that today was going to be my first 100 mile day. He was not quite sure about his plans and said that he might camp at Red Meadow Lake at the top of the second big climb. Curtis and I had got on pretty well together on the ride to Eureka so we promised to keep a look out for one another on the trail.
After the navigation adventures yesterday I was determined not to mess up today. I didn’t as the ACA map, the purple line on my GPS ( I was in the US now!) and my cue sheet all combined to safely take me to the bottom of the Whitefish Divide. As I rode along Grave Creek Road with its’ interesting cabins for bikers and the homesteads I found myself trying to make sense of the route through Whitefish Divide. The trees were too dense to see the road so instead I looked to the natural valleys and passes all of which looked possible! My study of the morning’s climb was strangely interrupted when a stoned local, on a full suss bike joined me for a quarter mile or so on Highway 114. Random encounters such as this were all making my time on the Great Divide an amazing experience, one that I will probably never forget. Hwy 114 was now heading almost due north and was climbing all the time – this was it the start of the climb to Whitefish Divide.
It was a great feeling to watch my altimeter steadily climb as the miles passed and to know that all the months of training had paid off. The deliberately punishing after school loops of The Burma Road from home, the multi-day loops with deliberate easy option-real option points on day 2 or 3 (designed to train the mind as well as the legs) and of course the rides around Abernethy & Glenmore Forest as fast as I could in all conditions, day or night. In one year I had gone from riding distances in a week that used to be accumulated in a month!
The Whitefish Divide climb was steady on gravel and not actually too steep. A lot of trucks and CanAms drove past me so I was not too stressed about grizzlies at this point, despite what the map said. As I approached the summit my senses were almost overloaded with the size of the slopes and the sheer number of trees everywhere – trees that I was convinced might have a bear behind them. At the summit there was a pickup so I stopped to speak to them. The father and son were from Montana and were driving over Whitefish and I think then on towards Polebridge. Dad tried to convince me that I wouldn’t encounter any bears unless I really got ‘high up in the brush’…
The descent down to Tuchuck Campground was exhilarating and my smile was so big it almost hurt. At the campground there was a Forest Service pickup truck so I stopped nearby to have my sandwich from Eureka gas station, some granola bars and generally just enjoy the simplicity of what I needed to do…’Eat, Sleep, Ride-Repeat’. I didn’t stay too long and as I turned back onto Forest Road 114 there was Curtis, quietly having his lunch. Curtis still wasn’t too sure about riding all the way to Whitefish so I didn’t hang around. To be honest I am not surprised as this nutter had ridden from Banff to Fernie the week before non-stop, so maybe he needed a rest?
FR 114 curved south meeting FR 486 and the North Fork Road. The peaks of Glacier National Park were sharp, snow covered and spectacular. The riding was not too difficult, just steady so I was able to take in their shape, their scale and the beautiful way that the midday sun shone on them. I didn’t completely forget about navigation as at the junction of FR 486 and FR 115 I had to turn west and begin the climb to the second big pass of the day at Red Meadow Lake. Just before the junction I had noticed a community center and was reading about local events as I rode past when suddenly I became aware of another rider behind me…Curtis was right on my tail with a huge grin. When I asked him how long he had been there he said 15 minutes! Either he was winding me up or I had really got into the zone on this ride. We both rode side by side and started the usual sort of conversation about our lives back home, our partners, family and our jobs. As the grade increased we’d take turns at being up front as we steadily climbed alongside the Red Meadow Creek in the building heat. Any stops for water were short because of the mosquitos. The last half mile was pretty brutal and I was absolutely determined not to stop, or put a foot down. At times this did mean I was moving very slowly but I was pedalling, not pushing. A left hand bend, then a right hand bend and finally there was Red Meadow Lake in all its splendour with tall trees all around, massive slopes either side and importantly picnic benches. This was our high point for the day so Curtis and I relished in this knowledge. We filtered water to top off our bottles, had the last of our food and started to discuss our plans when we hit town. Pizza and beer was the unanimous decision.
The descent was incredible. I will never ever forget the whopping, swooping yell from Curtis as he screamed down the first of those hills. No matter how hard I pedalled my 36/26 front with 11-42 cassette I could not catch him on the steeper sections. The 30 miles into town were either flat or downhill it was just so much fun riding alongside then pulling away from one another for a bit before catching up. The gravel road was in good shape but I had learned after one almost over the bars moment to take care with the sun, or shade hiding any small potholes.
The pavement of East Lakeshore Drive arrived too soon after nearly 70 miles of gravel but the views through the trees to the lake made up for it. At one pull in we stopped to take photos and I am sure that Curtis said he had seen a snake. Typical, even when out of the forest this ride is going to keep us on our toes.
The first eating place that we saw was called ‘The Taphouse’. We pulled in, ordered beer, pizza and side orders of salad then headed to a seat outside. The food and drink just finished off one of the most memorable and enjoyable days I’ve had on my bike so far. The challenge, the scenery, the sounds and the company were unforgettable. Talking of sounds…the State Park campground that we detoured to was right next to a railway line. We both immediately quoted the line from The Blues Brothers about ‘How often does the train go past?’
I left at about 7.00am to head for my first ‘A & W’ $10 breakfast. The diner, the food and the other customers did not disappoint. There was enough peace and quiet to spread out my map and plan out the day. The coffee, toast and full ‘Canadian’ breakfast put fuel in the tank. The three truckers in the booth beside me were happy to make conversation as well as keep an eye on my stuff when I went to the bathroom. I had no regrets about chickening out from Flathead but still wanted to ride as much of the back trails and singletrack as I could. One of the local truckers gave me good directions to clear Fernie and Highway 3 in order to get onto the two track of the alternate.
The road gradually climbed up and out with views of the ski hill across the valley. I smiled when I passed a sign warning of bear activity in the area; then smiled even more when a couple of local women out walking said ‘Good Luck in Flathead!’ Eventually the road became gravel and I arrived at a Y-junction with one way going up and one way going down. I had only brought the US 50K map SD cards so was using some sort of basemap for Canada along with my Adventure Cycling Association ‘Canada Section’ paper map. The junction now gave me a third good reason to stop. Since dipping my toe into the water of long distance and multi-day riding I had always tried to not stop unless I had at least two real reasons, eg. eat something I couldn’t eat on the move, check navigation in detail, apply sunblock or fix some annoying mechanical. In order to fix my ‘bag-buzz’ I propped my BigBro against a stone wall in order to completely remove my Terrapin holster and drybag. Basically I had too much kit, which was going to be addressed at a US Post Office today but for now I repacked my drybag and reconnected the holster to my seat which had been slightly raised… At the same time I drank more water and had a granola bar to keep energy levels up. I hate going down in the wrong direction only to have to come back up. I’d always rather climb up too much so that at least you can use gravity to correct things. A bit messed up I know but it works for me ok? A bit like always climbing on the crest of an alpine ridge in order to see what is ahead unless you definitely know to traverse on the sides. So down I headed and as soon as I hit the bottom of the section of trail there was a crap path alongside the railway line, or an undulating, muddy trail following power lines. The muddy trail got really steep and eventually I had to push my bike up beside the power lines. This route just didn’t feel right according to the ACA narratives…
Back to the junction where by now there was a truck and another tourist from New Zealand. I explained what I was trying to do and he offered to help with his 4G mapping. Eventually I decided to head on the upper track which turned out to be the right one, kind of…as it led down to the power lines. The next section was steep but rideable which I enjoyed as it was a challenge and at last I seemed to be heading in the right direction. I was close to Lodgepole River Road and then according to my map I would ride southwest to Elko. After a couple of miles I passed another kiosk (Canadian for noticeboard) which again confirmed I was still on track. Then it all stopped making sense. Perhaps I still hadn’t really got my head around the scale of the ACA maps. Maybe my Garmin basemap was lacking the detail I needed. After some reflection I decided that the reason was much simpler than that – I had messed up my navigation! So I doubled back to the kiosk, rode the bridge across the Elk River and hit Highway 3 promising myself not to waste any more time or energy.
The highway was not that bad, nor the scenery. I exchanged friendly waves with northbound riders as the miles ticked by. By the time I got to Elko I was into a great touring rhythm and making good time. My drive to get over the Border was strong so I turned due south on Highway 93 which was going to take me all the way to Roosville and then Eureka.
By now the rain that was forecast began to fall but this did not make any difference to me as I was comfortable, happy and moving well.
Just north of Grassmere I caught up with three other riders who judging by their loaded bikes were also going south. At the cafe/store there we all stopped to resupply and say hello properly. Two riders from Idaho were on a four or five day trip while Curtis who was on his own had a lot more time at his disposal. We all shared the same feeling of being so, so grateful to be riding our bikes with all our other responsibilities left at home. Rain, or no rain we had somewhere to be so after a lunch of snack bars and soda we hit the road again.
At the Border we regrouped and joined the line as it slowly crept nearer and nearer to Montana. I couldn’t resist texting my friend in San Francisco to tell him that this was his last chance to get the black helicopters despatched to Roosville! I was given the full welcome so I do wonder if Brett did tell them to check the Scottish guys Visa and papers!
Eureka came quickly, only 10 miles down the road. I can’t remember who told me but there was free camping at the Town Hall across from the gas station and the river. The catch was that some sprinklers came on at 7:00am and some at 8:00am. I pitched my tent well away from the sprinklers I could see and close to a bench where I could prop my bike. I then took a quick ride back up into town to post home some of the extra clothes that I had taken, eg. a windstopper gilet, a long sleeved top and a plastic ground sheet. Even in Eureka PO folk were interested and friendly about a Scottish rider passing through.
Having lightened my load a little I decided that it was time to have dinner. It was fun to head back up the hill on an unloaded bike to find a place to eat. For dinner I joined some other riders who were doing a short three day ride from Whitefish where they had rented bikes and a shuttle.
‘Huckleberry burger’ caught my eye. This was a generous burger with salad, sauces, chips and importantly a slice of huckleberry ice cream! One of the best burgers I have ever had, my dinner companions even took a photo of it!
When I arrived back at the campground the place was mobbed with lots more riders from Whitefish. I noticed that Curtis, one of the guys I had met in the afternoon had taken himself away from the main pitch and down by the river. For a brief moment I considered moving to somewhere quieter but also wanted to experience being part of the friendly, excited buzz of bikepackers. After resupplying and using the gas station toilet for a wash I turned in for the night and sleep came quickly.
Tomorrow was going to be my first 100 mile day, I needed a rest.
Fernie to Eureka, 63 miles, 2400 feet of ascent, 11 hours ( 6 hours riding + 2 stopped)