Paradise Lost to Paradise Found (again) – Saturday 21st to Monday 23rd May
Saturday 21st May – Heron to Libby (Stage 18)
Once more we were blessed to wake under azure blue skies with cotton wool clouds high above us – the perfect way for a day in paradise to begin as we looked out on deer, canada geese & peacocks all grazing on the expanse of lawn in front of us. We chose a 3 egg scramble for our breakfast with mushrooms, onions & bacon, ideal cycling fare! A huge thank you to Mike, Cookie & Jennifer for making our stay so memorable, this is somewhere worth travelling hundreds of miles out your way to visit.
Gene Genie (everyone names their bikes right?!!) was loaded & we were on our way by 9.30 for today’s epic adventure. We reversed yesterday’s route for the first 5 miles as we negotiated a small section of gravel, crossed Heron’s new bridge & took a right back onto SR200 for 10 miles. We continued to follow the Clark Fork river, but it remained hidden from view for most of the time as we were surrounded on all sides by pine forest – the smell was wonderful!
We took a left turn & picked up SR56 as we took a two-lane byway towards another set of snowy capped mountain peaks. We had the road pretty much to ourselves as we climbed at a gentle 2% to 3% for the next hour or so -the only sounds were occasional bird calls & the peaceful babble of the creek that flowed down the gradient we were ascending. We reached a scenic viewpoint where we grabbed a quick selfie to help me remember our route through the valley.
Almost without warning we stopped climbing as we hit a plateau where we met a lone fisherman just setting up on a small lake for the first day of the new season – Zak was from Missoula, but had spent a couple of years doing his post graduate qualification in Cork, Ireland. He was a keen outdoorsman & he shared a couple of stories about his off-road adventures, before we left him alone to fish in peace. We were on the lookout for a small turn-off which would take us up the side of the valley – everything looked big & steep from the valley floor.
Ross Creek Cedars had been recommended to us by Mike at The Amber Bear Inn. This involved taking a 4 mile detour up a small single track road which regularly hit double digit gradients & this took a bit out of us on fully loaded touring bikes! I’ve lost about 5 pounds of weight already on the adventure so far, but I was still hauling 40 lbs of kit, 35 lbs of bike & 175 lbs of me up a brutal climb. We were enclosed for most of the climb, but there was one viewpoint I’d earmarked for a photo on the way back down, however, first we needed to explore the Cedars of Ross Creek. They are a stand of ancient cedars that sit in a couple of acres of forest. If you’ve been to Sequoia National Park, think of a slimmed down (or decaffeinated) version – I thoroughly enjoyed it & it was worth the effort to get here.
We descended cautiously, constantly on the lookout for cars coming up the climb – I remembered to stop at the overview to capture some more snowy mountains! Re-joining SR56, we continued up to Bull Lake, where we took a quick break to eat some trail mix – remote days mean no coffee or cake – first world problems we have to endure!! As we altered course slightly we turned into a nagging headwind, which slowed our progress & dampened our spirits slightly. The road appeared to stretch just that little bit further into the distance. During a long ride your mind can play all kinds of funny tricks on you, as small things like a gradient (up or down) or wind (into you & behind you) affect how you feel. Headwind & uphill – answers on a postcard or email!!!
We eventually reached the junction with US2 at the 55 mile point – we’d crossed Stevens Pass using US2 on our way to Leavenworth 2 weeks ago, so it was like joining an old acquaintance (I would say friend but uphill into a headwind prevents me saying it!). Tracing the course of the Kootenay river upstream, this is where parts of The Revenant (starring Leo DiCaprio) were filmed – the river is powerful & beautiful in equal measure. I managed to capture a short piece of video in addition to a couple of photos.
For the final 15 miles, we cycled side by side making small talk, just to take our minds off the battle up the valley – in truth the ride was a bit further than we would have chosen, however, the location of towns dictates ride lengths to a degree. The vistas were a huge help too!
We finally made it into Libby, a town made famous in the USA for the Superfund that continues to clear up one of the USA’s worst man-made environmental disasters caused by toxic asbestos dust. Our host Mike recommended that we spend as little time in the town as possible, as hundreds of residents have died & thousands more are sick due to the pollution.
I’ve probably created the impression we were tired by the end of the ride – we were! This is where access to tv &/or the internet helps us to relax, process the day & generally recharge our batteries. I won’t mention the name of the motel we stayed in, but there was no internet & the tv ran off wi-fi that wasn’t working!!! Needless to say Libby doesn’t make my top 10 places visited so far. Having said that, we still made sure we celebrated another epic day of riding as we tipped over 1,000 miles for the adventure so far after 22 days of the trip.
Stage Stats – 69 miles, 3,205 feet of climbing. Mainly uphill & into a headwind on rolling terrain with one climb of note. 1,026 miles ridden since 30th April.
Sunday 22nd May – Libby to Rexford Campground (Stage 19)
We were up at 7.15am, aiming for an 8am leave as today was another big ride with a fair chunk of elevation. The best laid plans however, don’t always pan out & we had to wait for breakfast as the motel didn’t have any milk for our cereal & there was no fresh coffee. Regardless of these small delays, the steeds were packed & we left by 8.20am.
Today would be another classic Adventure Cycling Association route along deserted backroads – in the first hour of riding we saw 7 deer (4 are in the train photo below), 4 cyclists, 3 eagles, 2 trains & a solitary car (which was acting as support for the cyclists). The road presented huge vistas of the snowy peaks we’d ridden around yesterday.
Champion Haul Road & the railroad fought for space by the side of the Kootenay river as we weaved our way through the Kootenai National Forest – at times it was deciduous & at others it was dominated by pines. I’ve been trying to capture a shot of the enormous freight trains since Seattle, more than 3 weeks ago. I was happy as Larry when I finally saw one first thing this morning.
I was even more delighted when I stopped next to the railroad tracks for a nibble on some trail mix & in the distance I could hear an engine chugging & chuffing its way up the slight incline. I just had time to get out my phone & capture a small bit of footage – apologies if you don’t like trains!!!
As we left the Champion Haul behind, we crossed the river to join the even more remote Forestry Development Road that would take us into prime eagle territory again for a couple of miles as we made our way towards Libby Dam. The river was in full flow as it rushed downstream – we on the other hand trundled uphill!
Just beyond the turn-off for the dam was a big lookout area – we heard a group of motor-cyclists saying disbelievingly that it looked like two cyclists have made it up the hill without e-bikes!!!! We’ve become so used to riding uphill that what seemed like a normal day exploring our office of stunning vistas & lesser-spotted wildlife was not so normal to other people after all.
The Forestry Development Road is 45 miles in length, following the western shoreline of the Koocanusa lake (so called because it’s formed by the KOOtenay river as it flows through CANada & the USA). Today’s scenery & vistas stood out as being exceptional – given where we’ve been & what we’ve seen, this is the highest of praise. The lake itself extends 90 miles in total (42 miles in Canada & 48 miles in the USA) & holds 13% of the total water in the Columbia river system – the town of Rexford, where we’re staying this evening was moved in its entirety when the lake was formed.
We were riding through the Kootenai National Forest for the 3rd consecutive day – this gives a scale of how gigantic the parks & forests are. We won’t reach the end of the forest today either!
As we neared Big Creek (about 40 miles along the Forestry Development Road), we stopped to view the rapids below & a Golden Eagle swooped overhead – although I wasn’t quick enough to capture a photo, the experience of seeing the majesty of a golden eagle will stay with me for a long time to come. We were now nearing the only place where we could cross back to the (slightly) more inhabited side of the lake at Koocanusa Bridge – it was framed by the Canadian Rockies beyond.
Our cycling adventure for today was drawing to a close, however, Rexford Campground marked another important landmark. Up until today we’d been staying exclusively in hotels, motels & inns – today will be our first night camping under the stars! I walked into The Frontier Bar full of apprehension, however, I had the huge good fortune to meet Misty, who managed the place. She could clearly spot a waif & stray at 100 paces & soon found us a place to pitch our tents behind the Bar & near the shower & laundry block. Within 20 minutes we’d pitched our tents & were toasting one of the best days we’ve ever had cycling!
As we sat down at our table to toast a truly epic day, little did we know that;
a) we had the prime table to watch the huge ice hockey playoff game between Edmonton Oilers & Calgary Flames & the Campground was full of Canadian visitors,
b) we’d still be sat at the same table 5 hours later, still in our cycling kit, having re-hydrated to the tune of 6+ pints of Strange Haze IPA,
c) we’d have become friends with Misty – the kindest, most generous person I’ve met on the trip so far.
Surprisingly we managed to find our way back to our tents (all of 5 paces from the rear of the bar) & spent our first night camping on this adventure. I spent 1/2 hour chatting to Kimberly, one of our Canadian RV neighbours – these random meetings are generally unexpected & without exception hugely enjoyable. We shared a potted history of our life histories as the sun set on a great day – thanks Kimberly, it was a joy to spend time with you. Here’s looking forward to our 2nd night under the stars tomorrow as we’ve decided to have a bonus rest day here. Paradise Found!
Stage Stats – 69 miles, 3,507 feet of climbing. Rolling day along the Forestry Development Road with one climb up to Libby Dam. 6+ pints of IPA dispatched!
Monday 23rd May – Rest Day
Initial thoughts after my first night under the stars were that it gets properly cold between 3am & 4am!!! Other than that I had a good night’s sleep & woke up about 8.15am. We were both dressed by about 9.15am so popped our heads inside The Frontier Bar to get some breakfast – this is where Misty came to our rescue again, as the bar didn’t open until 11am. However, we were invited in with open arms, offered a pot of coffee with the bar crew & then offered some of Misty’s home made frittatas. You’ll already have worked out we weren’t allowed to pay for the food or coffee.
The Frontier Bar was one of the original Rexford buildings that was moved from its original location when the lake was created back in the 1970’s – it’s got a real character that exudes from its timbers. Misty took a couple of photos of us both by the bar & outside, to make sure we remember our stay here. We spent about an hour chatting with Misty – she shared her life story which has had a few very difficult moments but her resilience & generosity of spirit shines through. She’s always looking to help others & I won’t forget her or her generosity in a hurry. You’re a legend Misty!!
We spent a couple of hours hiking around Lake Koocanusa – as the photos show, the lake has plenty of capacity to receive more water from the mountains, should the snow continue to melt into summer.
We eventually found a way to reach the waterline – we didn’t see anyone else while we were exploring the lake & I certainly felt insignificant in such a remote environment.
We also took the time to have a nose around town – it’s a combination of buildings that were moved when the lake was formed, properties that have been recently erected & RV’s owned by visitors which remain onsite between April & October.
After lunch in The Frontier we spent a few hours sorting out a few admin bits & pieces, doing the laundry & packing as much of our kit as possible, ahead of an early morning start. I also managed to write up my blog covering Ione to Heron. During the afternoon I got chatting to another couple of our Canadian RV neighbours (now friends) – Karen & Lori were great fun to talk with & they offered us blankets if we needed then overnight. We swapped details & have already been in touch with each other.
We’d originally planned on having an early night, but we got talking to Misty’s partner Tina who regaled us with stories of her Trail Angel antics (2 state limit applies!!) when hikers had required assistance getting to or from trailheads in the past. We also picked up a couple of great tips for food & drink which we plan to check out over the next couple of days. We managed to buy Misty & Tina a drink as a very small (& inadequate) token of our gratitude. After our disappointments in Libby, our Rexford Campground stay has been an absolute tonic. My only regret is that I didn’t get any photos with our new friends.
Thank you to everyone in Rexford who took us under your wing – we really appreciated your kindness & generosity. Our adventure has been hugely enhanced & enriched by our 2 nights here. We have to break camp for the first time tomorrow, hopefully we won’t take too long to get on the road!