Kootenai River north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho

In the Valley of the Kootenai

September 24, 2016

over-the-hill-tocThanks to the generosity of my hosts from Warmshowers.org, on my single night in Idaho I met several cycling enthusiasts in what was clearly a very warm and friendly community of outdoor enthusiasts, and they happily shared some of their favourite biking routes.

So when I left Bonners Ferry, Idaho on a sunny Saturday morning, I headed not to the highway but to a meandering gravel road that would take me through the lowlands of the Kootenai River valley.

This road led me first around the southern and western edges of the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, passing wheat fields, cattle pastures and a large hops farm, before winding back to the east across the Kootenai River, where I would turn onto the highway north to Canada. Since the major highway route from Bonners Ferry to my next stop, Creston, BC was less than 60 kilometers, my more circuitous route would round out an easy day by adding another 16 km.

A small creek flows towards the Kootenai at the southwest corner of Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge.

A small creek flows towards the Kootenai at the southwest corner of Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Wheat farm west of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

Wheat farm west of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.


Quad wheel tractor pulling sprayer.

The traffic was sparse but sometimes it was heavy.

Wetlands in Kootenai River valley.

Extensive wetlands make this an important area for migrating birds.

Just north of the Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge is Budweiser Loop, the site of an intensive hops operation owned by Anheuser-Busch.

Kootenai Valley hops farm owned by Anheuser-Busch.

Kootenai Valley hops farm owned by Anheuser-Busch.

Where the valley-bottom road crosses the Kootenai River before heading uphill to the highway, I stopped for an early-afternoon picnic lunch.

Kootenai River north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho

Kootenai River north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho

My afternoon’s itinerary included riding the entire length of Idaho State Highway 1 – all 20 km of it. That would take me to the US/Canada border, where the Kootenai River mysteriously transforms into another stream with a different name. (Don’t ask me y.)

Relief map of Kootenay River system

Map of the Kootenai watershed and portion of Columbia watershed, adapted from map by Shannon1 and published under GNU Free Documentation License at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kootenayrivermapnew.png

Although I would return to this spell-shifting river several times over the next few days, my brief rest on the flatlands was quickly drawing to a close. When I pedaled in to Creston that afternoon, there were just 500 meters of road between me and my destination for the night – and that half a kilometer was on a 10% uphill grade.

US Highway 2 in western Montana.

US Highway 2

Sept 20 – 23, 2016

over-the-hill-tocHow do you go from West Glacier to Idaho? Just get on US 2 and ride west – you can’t miss it.

Why did I choose US 2? For two reasons of sentiment, and one issue of practicality. First, while I could have turned more directly north into Canada, I preferred to roll my wheels in the great state of Idaho for at least a few hours. You see, I’ve been religiously obeying the Idaho stop law for many years, so Idaho is a bit of a personal Mecca.

Second, I wanted to get a new case for my GoPro camera, and that meant getting to a big town with major retailers. When I had strapped my GoPro onto my helmet on the Going To The Sun road, I noticed the case was cracked right at the mounting clip and it was in danger of flying off in the wind. Luckily that didn’t happen, but I didn’t want to push my luck. Kalispell (population 22,000) would be the largest city on my route for weeks, so I set my course for Kalispell.

Finally, my first full-time summer job had been in construction on US Highway 2 in 1970. I worked in a gravel quarry just outside of Bemidji in northern Minnesota – a long way from Montana. At fifteen I was too young for a driver’s license, and I had hitchhiked to work each morning along Highway 2. This strand of pavement represented a connection of sorts with that long-ago me in a faraway place, so when I looked at the map that one meandering line had more appeal than the others.

Google map of US Highway 2 through western Montana

Google map of US Highway 2 through western Montana

In reality, US Highway 2 from West Glacier to Kalispell was anything but romantic. Mile after mile the road was lined with fast-food restaurants, motels, car dealers, and the other standards of ex-urban sprawl that characterize the outskirts of small US cities across the country. The main local twist on this theme was a liberal sprinkling of shops advertising wild huckleberries, but they all seemed to offer the same array of over-sugared confections: huckleberry syrup, huckleberry jam, huckleberry preserves, huckleberry pie, huckleberry muffins, huckleberry candy. I had nearly given up on actually tasting a real huckleberry when I came across a health food store which sold small bags of pure frozen huckleberries. At another time of year that would have been difficult food to manage on a bike tour, but I guessed that in the fall I could pack the fruit in a little plastic tub, eat the berries as they thawed, and enjoy a delicious healthy addition to each meal for a couple of days.

There was one memorable tourist attraction along the route, however. The Ten Commandments theme park is a circle of billboards around a small gravel parking lot right beside the highway. Each of the Ten Commandments is illustrated with contemporary imagery. The Commandments are interspersed with other bill boards that tie the biblical verses to phrases in the US Constitution, as if the white aristocratic slave-owners who penned the Constitution were the direct successors to Moses. American exceptionalism aside, I found in one sign a very pointed message to travelers of my ilk: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ox, nor thy neighbour’s ass.”

Illustrated "thou shalt not covet" commandment billboard.

On this warm sunny morning, coveting my neighbour’s ox was a thought-crime easily avoided – but the day before, struggling through the sleet up to Logan Pass, either my neighbour’s ox or my neighbour’s ass would have proven a grievous temptation.

This stretch of road didn’t offer an attractive place to sit down for a quick picnic lunch until I got to the Glacier Park International Airport. The turnoff was marked with the little bit of “nature garnish” which typically signifies “a large tract of formerly natural landscape which has been flattened and paved”. For my purposes, though, this looked like a suitable roadside rest, a place to sit down in the sun with my maps while I enjoyed a meal of rolled oats, yogurt and huckleberries.

entrance sign for Glacier Park International Airport

I sprawled out on the soft grass, pulled out maps and bags of food, started mixing up lunch – and a loud rhythmic “whoosh” began, followed by sudden showers. The automatic sprinklers had ticked on! I scrambled to fold up papers, cover food, put on shoes, and scamper to a safe distance with my bags. I should have known that this lush manicured oasis did not grow just on the rain God sent from the skies!

The artificial deluge only last a couple of minutes but the grass was soaked, so I had to be content with eating lunch from a perch on the dry concrete wall.

Leaving Kalispell the next morning, riding away from the major tourism attractions, the trappings of suburbia dwindled more quickly. I was also pleased to find a just-constructed, separated bicycle path running alongside the highway. The path was so new, in fact, that they were still backfilling the edges of the asphalt pavement with gravel, and I had to dodge “path closed” signs in a few places. The separated bike lane carried on for almost 20 kilometers, and by then Highway 2 was winding through a long stretch of sparsely populated country.

For the next couple of days I passed just a few towns or small villages, passed just a few gas station/convenience store combos, along with one lakeside resort lodge. Logging trucks were the main component of traffic, but that traffic was thin, so most of the time I biked in silence.

Nearly all of this roadway had paved shoulders of adequate width to bike on when the occasional logging truck roared by. With few exceptions the hills were gentle and reasonably short. For the most part, biking through western Montana was a pleasant, meditative, if unremarkable process.

US Highway 2 in western Montana.

On September 22 I took just one photo (above) but I could have taken a hundred that looked pretty much the same. That morning a light westerly wind had blown in a fine flowing mist, which was predicted to clear up soon but instead hung around until mid-afternoon. I again reflected on Bill Streever’s explanation of the wind seeking equilibrium between pressure zones. On this day the wind seemed determined to enforce a different equilibrium. As I pedaled along in my rain suit I gradually got wet, as much from perspiration as from precipitation. After an hour or so of fairly stiff riding I should have worked up some heat, but the headwind gradually picked up and the moving stream of 10°C air kept me just on the shivering side of comfortable. I took no break longer than a 10-minute snack break, and then picked up the pace in an attempt to get warm, but the wind simply adjusted strength to keep my temperature in a chilly equilibrium. Arriving in metropolitan Libby, Montana that afternoon, I found I had ridden 96 km in just over 5 hours – a brisk pace for me, and enough to call it a day’s work.

By mid-day on September 23 I crossed the border into Idaho.
At the Welcome to Idaho sign on US Highway 2.