Northern Tier 2010

July 27, 2010

Rocky Racoon

Filed under: Montana, North Dakota, Section 03 — Henry Scott @ 2:00 pm

Seth and I decided to make today a partial rest day, and we just rode from Culbertson, MT to Williston, ND. It was a fairly easy 45 miles despite strong northerly winds, but I’m glad we didn’t plan to go any further. I don’t sense any injuries building up, but I haven’t taken a day off yet, and I’m sure my body will appreciate the recharge time.

After a bit of a grind across the plains of eastern Montana, it felt good to enter North Dakota. (It may well be that we’re facing a grind for the next few weeks, especially if the winds don’t turn in our favor!) The photo of us by the North Dakota sign was taken by Jane and Paul of New Jersey: two grandparents crossing the country together by tandem. Our plan is to just relax in town for the rest of today — we may even go to a movie.

I’m also trying to decide whether or not to deviate from the “official” Northern Tier route and head south to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. My colleague Andy recommends it highly, but I’m currently leaning against because it would add about 150 miles to the trip. The mileage isn’t a huge deal, but it may be better to simply save it for another time and go with Jennifer. There’s so much to see, but it is hard to pass anything up!


July 26, 2010

The Eight-Hour Workday

Filed under: Montana, Section 03 — Henry Scott @ 8:00 pm

Today was our third day in a row of headwinds, and we decided to buckle down, put in a lot of time on the saddle, and try to make decent progress despite the winds. We started in Nashua and ended up in Culbertson, via Wolf Point, for about 95 miles. Much of today’s riding was in the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. I wouldn’t usually think of that as a long ride, but with the wind holding me to an average speed under 12 mph it took a little over eight hours, and it felt very long… Another grueling day at the office 🙂

I enjoyed the scenery, and the ride, but didn’t do much today other than pedal and eat — I’m looking forward to crossing over into North Dakota tomorrow.We’re camped in the city park for our fifth night in a row of free camping. For now, I’m anxious to get to bed.

July 25, 2010

The Great Grasshopper Menace of 2010

Filed under: Montana, Section 03 — Henry Scott @ 8:00 pm

Seth and I leisurely waited around our campsite this morning for the grocery store across the street to open. It was hard to be eager to get on the road because we were camped so close to the train tracks, and trains came about every thirty minutes. That we could sleep at all speaks to how tired we were.

Anyway, around 8:30 we realized the store wouldn’t open at all on a Sunday, and we went for breakfast at a nearby diner. On the way out, a headline in the local paper caught my eye: Worst Grasshopper Outbreak in Fifteen Years. I didn’t think much of it at the time because I’ve been preoccupied with mosquitos.

Although this is reportedly a mild mosquito year due to so much late, cold rain, the problem is severe enough that local communities have workers drive around in the evenings misting the air with repellent. I don’t want to think about the consequences of sleeping in such a fog, so please don’t ask.

Back to the grasshoppers (well, in a moment): today’s ride was short at 57 miles, but very hard due to another day of headwinds. Additionally, since entering the plains of eastern Montana, there’s not much to describe beyond what a few photos can show: the landscape is pretty, but fairly flat and monotonous. Not even the sky would provide something worth writing about — there literally wasn’t a cloud in the sky this morning. Before long I found myself falling into the trap of just staring at long stretches of Highway 2, noting how slowly the miles were adding up on my speedometer and frankly, for the first time on this trip, not enjoying the ride. That is, until I noticed the grasshoppers.

They’re everywhere! All along the roadside, flying through the air and, frequently, smacking into my legs and occasionally my face while riding. As I rode along the shoulder they would launch out of my way in every direction.

Their presence quickly transitioned from a nuisance to a fascination. I’ve never seen so many, and I’m eager to learn what factors cause so many to emerge, after over a decade, at the same time. Is it temperature? The late rains? A combination of factors, or simply time?

I’m sure today’s grasshoppers won’t be something I’ll remember as a highlight of this trip, but they helped me get through my toughest day, psychologically, so far. I suspect the middle of the continent is the hardest part for many, rather than the mountains. In the mountains one has rapidly changing landscapes and an easily visible challenge in front of him, whereas in the plains the road appears to stretch on forever, with little visual change, and the threat of uncooperative winds.

Tonight we’re in Nashua, MT enjoying another night of free camping (and showers!) in its city park.

July 24, 2010

County Fair Cattle Pricing

Filed under: Montana, Section 03 — Henry Scott @ 9:00 pm

The wind is incredibly fickle, and it was not on our side today. I’m still riding with Seth, and despite riding for almost seven hours, we only made it to Saco, MT — about 77 miles. But, there were no storms today, and we had a good time visiting the Dodson Fair. It was close to lunchtime, so I had funnel cake, fry bread, ribs and a snow cone. That tied me over until we had lunch in Malta, where we met a very friendly family with a daughter about to start school at Bethel.

At the fair we were fascinated by the cattle auction. Young boys and girls would parade their cattle, and the auctioneer would call out progressively higher per-pound prices — typically around $1.35 for these 1,300 pound animals, if I recall correctly.

Seth commented on how big of a deal each additional nickel must be for these kids, so when some locals started talking to us (somehow people can always tell we’re from out of town), we asked what qualities make some animals worth more, per pound, than others. As far as we knew, the only data they have is the total weight and what they can discern from watching the cattle walk in a short loop. I thought perhaps there was something in the gait which could indicate overall health, but I was wrong. The answer, we were told: it depends on whose parents, or grandparents, are buying.

From there we made our way to Saco, with a long, tiring, pass through the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge. It mainly provides habit for water fowl, but there were signs prohibiting big-game hunting, so presumably large mammals take refuge there as well.

It was pretty and only took us about a mile out of our way, but it meant about 13 miles of riding on rough gravel and dirt roads. Normally I love such routes, but adding such an extra challenge near the end of long day was a bit much. My legs feel injury-free, but they’re definitely getting fatigued. Anyway, this was an experience that will be a better memory than how it felt at the time.

We’ve been traveling through Native American lands and learning about the Assiniboine, Blackfeet and Gros Ventre tribes; a portion of our ride was in the Fort Belknap reservation. A great aspect of bicycle touring is the ease with which one can read every informational exhibit along the way.

We’re again camping for free in a small city park. The only downside is that it is right by the very active train line I’ve mentioned previously. A bonus, however, is that it is right across the street from several bars that serve food. We were initially saddened to find we reached town after the grocery store closed, but instead we gorged ourselves on a very large and very good pizza.

July 23, 2010


Filed under: Montana, Section 03 — Henry Scott @ 8:00 pm

I went to bed last night thinking that today would be a rest day — my body was starting to complain a bit. But, Seth, the other eastbound rider camped in the Chester city park last night (far left in the photo), and I decided to try riding together. Our initial plan was to go short and easy, but it turned out to be a perfect day for riding: a slight crosswind in the morning gradually picked up speed and became a very strong tailwind. One can’t overemphasize how good it feels to ride with a tailwind after being stuck at 10 mph with a headwind the day before.

We ended up covering 104 miles at an average speed of 16.8 mph (12 is more typical for me on tour). Our only significant stop was in Havre; we wanted to keep moving as much as possible to take advantage of the wind, but get to camp early enough to get a lot of rest.

We also took a brief break at a bar / grocery store in Hingham around 10:00 a.m., where we cashed in, and split, a free beer thanks to a token given to us by the westbound cyclist with whom we camped last night in Chester (Tim, far right in the photo). Unfortunately, we forgot to take a token to hand off to the next westbound tourists we meet, but it is a nice tradition the proprietor has going for bikers.

We made it to Harlem, MT by 4:30 and made camp in the city park. Apparently it is common for western cities along the Northern Tier to provide free camping and bathroom access — it is much appreciated.

In addition to the wind, we had good fortune with today’s storms as well: one proceeded us, so that we just had wet roads, rather than actually getting rained on, and the other didn’t reach us until right after we made camp.

Highway 2 has turned out to be more enjoyable that I expected. The landscape is mainly flat, but pretty. It basically follows an historical, yet still quite active rail line.

See below for some riding statistics thus far:

July 22, 2010

The Mountains Are Gone

Filed under: Geology, Montana, Section 03 — Henry Scott @ 10:00 pm

I can still see an occasional butte, faintly to the north, but otherwise I’ve entered the plains and have many flat miles, predominantly on highway 2, ahead of me. Perhaps surprisingly, I’m enjoying the contrast in landscape. We’ll see how long that lasts.

I had a good morning in Cut Bank. I got up reasonably early, but stayed around the Riverview campground to let my gear dry out. It didn’t get wet in yesterday’s storm, but rather from condensation during the night. To pass the time I went out for breakfast and spoke with the owner of the park. He owns about a mile along the ravine on which the park is located, carved into thinly bedded sandstone, and he told me that a complete T-Rex was found here in the 1920’s and is referred to as the “coulee dinosaur.”

The rest of the day was flat with winds that slowly veered from cross with a slight tailwind to cross with a significant headwind. I stopped in Shelby to get groceries, and stayed for over an hour because a storm rolled in while I was shopping; I watched it while eating lunch under a large overhang. The downtown has a lot of character, and the town itself has a rich history of boom and bust economics, ultimately succeeding due to the discovery of oil deposits.

I was hoping to get 100 miles in today, but I got caught in another small storm — it was after that the wind once again became my adversary. I’ve been told that this region usually does indeed have predominantly westerly winds, except for when storms roll through, and we’ve been getting lots of storms recently.

After the storm, my speed kept dropping until I could barely maintain 10 mph, and at that point I reached Chester. The town allows free camping in a pretty park — complete with a large covered structure, drinking water and a clean bathroom.

I met another eastbound cyclist here named Seth; he is ultimately headed for New Hampshire, but we’ll follow the same route for quite a few miles. Before long a westbound biker came through, a teacher from New York, and a motorcyclist after him. We all quickly became friends and set up camp under the protected structure; this turned out to be a good move because sure enough, yet another storm rolled in last night.

Here’s hoping for a return to the prevailing westerlies tomorrow!

July 21, 2010

Rider on the Storm

Filed under: Montana, Section 02 — Henry Scott @ 9:00 pm

Almost all of today’s ride was in Canada, and my intention was to name this post “Canadian Bacon,” in reference to the late, but very good, breakfast I had in Cardson, Alberta. However, as I write this I’m thinking about what is freshest in my mind, and that is the 90 mile race I lost to my first real thunderstorm on this trip.

I left my Belly River camp early this morning because I had a long day planned: I wanted to get all the way to Cut Bank, MT, which is 113 miles. All of the riding in Canada was great, but the first 20 miles or so were particularly impressive because I was going through the Canadian portions of Glacier, most notably I was very close to Sofa mountain and its recovering forest from a 1998 fire.

Early on I found myself with a tough decision to make — I was at the intersection at which I could leave my route to visit the famous Prince of Wales hotel and visitor center in Waterton. It would have only added about half a day to my trip and not much backtracking, but I decided to leave it for another time.

As I continued from there I felt good about my decision — even though I was leaving the mountains, it was incredibly pretty. Traffic was extremely low, the road was in great condition and there was almost no development except for fences and a few access roads for ranchers. Mountain views remained excellent for many miles, and the roadside was littered with brightly colored wildflowers.

There were many redwing blackbirds. As I’d pass, presumably a nesting area, one or two would give chase for an eighth of a mile or so. They wouldn’t get very close, but they made it clear I wasn’t welcome. At one point a larger bird, I’ll loosely call it a hawk (I’m not sure of his identity), got into trouble with the blackbirds as well, and we made our escape together.

But, rather than bond us as allies, the hawk began to chase me once the blackbirds turned back. I may well have misinterpreted the dynamic with the blackbirds, but I was clearly the target of the hawk — he would swoop towards me, barking a warning I couldn’t understand, and come close enough that he had me swerving all over the road. I was simultaneously scared and amused, laughing as I picked up speed and did my best to dodge my pursuer. Despite these aviary conflicts, the riding was great.

However, before long the wind picked up, and I was riding straight into it. The topography just consisted of rolling hills, but even on the downhill portions I could only go about 12 mph. I started second guessing the choice to head east until I looked in my mirror and could see dark clouds forming over the mountains I was leaving behind — maybe I was saving myself from some miserable weather. At first I thought the headwind meant I was safe, but cumulus clouds were quickly forming everywhere I looked, and the storm front to the west was clearly heading south and east (i.e., toward my destination). I looked at each cloud with great suspicion, trying to ascertain if they were growing darker or gaining in vertical development.

Thus began my long, and ultimately fruitless, race against Mother Nature. I was on the bike for well over nine hours today. I made it to Cut Bank, but about ten miles shy I got caught in a heavy downpour. Fortunately the lightning was in the distance, and I have good rain gear (and lights), so it wasn’t that bad. By the time I reached my campground, it was already clearing.

Although I ultimately spent less than 24 hours in Canada, I had many encounters with friendly people, just like I’ve been having for the entire trip so far. The biggest difference I noticed was in the things I saw laying by the side of the road. Try to guess which of the following I saw in Montana, and which was in Canada.

July 20, 2010

Oh, Can-a-da…

Filed under: Geology, Montana, Section 02 — Henry Scott @ 9:30 pm

Although I did enter Canada today, this title is a bit misleading because the highlight of today was the hike up to Grinnell Glacier. I got off to a slower start than planned because the rain that had me trapped in my tent last night transitioned into a very cold fog this morning. It got so cold late last night / early this morning that I had trouble sleeping. On the bright side, I’d be very surprised if I experience another sub-40 degree night, so I think my sleeping gear is working out well.

Despite the rough start to the morning, I eventually emerged from my tent to make some oatmeal and tea, and in the process got to know the neighboring backpackers. There were two young electrical engineers (one a recent graduate and the other about to enter his final year at USC), a soon-to-be forestry student from Oregon, and a principal from New York. It was a great group.

After breakfast I made my way to the Grinnell Glacier trailhead and promptly met a black bear. (The young mountain goat shown here is actually from a couple of days ago on Logan Pass.) I saw a grizzly last night, but at too great of a distance to get a photo. We stared at each other few a moments and went about our business. The trail followed Josephine Lake for a mile or so, and started working its way up in elevation through red and green outcroppings of the Grinnell formation — mud cracks and ripple marks were ubiquitous. It is mind boggling to imagine so many episodes of drying out and subsequent deposition of new sediments only to dry out once again.

Before long the trail offered grand views of the jade-colored lower Grinnell lake and, eventually, the upper Grinnell lake and the glacier itself. The picture here show the progression of lakes and the U-shaped valley carved by this once-mighty glacier. It was fascinating to see active glacial erosion — Grinnell is rapidly retreating, and the exposed rocks are covered with glacial striations, clearly etched in the stone during a larger period of the glacier’s life.

I also saw more stromatolites and got good views of a park feature I’d been hoping to see the past few days: the igneous intrusion in the Helena formation. It is notable because it extends through many of the highest peaks in the park and presents some of the few igneous rocks in the park. It is quite easy to see because it is dark in color, but it is bounded above and below by bright white marble. The dark-colored diorite intruded into limestone and metamorphosed the limestone into marble.

By the time I got back from the 12-mile hike my appetite was back so I had a cheese burger and fries from the Swiftcurrent restaurant, but that wasn’t quite enough so I followed it up with a small pizza.

It was important to eat so much because I then broke camp and rode the hilly 34 miles across the border to Canada (Alberta) and into the campground at Belly River. I knew ahead of time that there’s no running water here, and I only wanted to carry enough for some noodles tonight and oatmeal in the morning. I’ll stop for a big meal somewhere early tomorrow. The ride, by the way, was wonderful because the route slowly took me around Chief Mountain, and by the time I reached the border crossing the setting sun had it perfectly illuminated.

July 19, 2010

Moving Like a Glacier

Filed under: Geology, Montana, Section 02 — Henry Scott @ 8:00 pm

I slept in as long as I could today (7 a.m.) because it was a bit cold and cloudy, and then realized I didn’t have a sense for how to best use my time. Should I go for a hike? Proceed to another part of the park? I decided to go out for pancakes to think it over.

Somehow, things still weren’t clear after breakfast, and I thought about seeking the advice of a ranger. Right about then a park bus showed up on its way to the St. Mary visitor center, which was about five miles away (Glacier has a terrific, and free, public transportation system), so I hopped on. I spoke with a very helpful ranger, and she encouraged me to continue on to Many Glacier and hike to Grinnell Glacier.

As I waited for the return bus, it started to rain. Fortunately, I left my camp rain-ready when I went for breakfast, but it was still raining when I got back, so I parked myself in the tent to read and wait it out. Once the rain stopped I packed up and rode the 23 miles to Many Glacier and made camp. The ride took quite a while due to strong headwinds.

I got here too late for the hike to Grinnell Glacier, but I had enough daylight to head up to Ptarmigan Falls, which were incredible, but hard to photograph. Along the way, however, there were many good outcroppings of the Grinnell formation of the Belt Supergroup.

The rocks in this formation are mostly fine-grained sedimentary deposits with a deep red color due to the presence of some oxidized iron. They clearly formed during a long period of time for which much of the Belt sea was shallow water that periodically dried up, only to be re-flooded, as indicated by numerous preserved ripple marks and mud cracks. These rocks are overlain by deep-water deposits such as limestone, so we know sea level was ultimately on the rise, but within the Grinnell formation there appears to have been a long transitional period because there are occasionally interbedded green layers which suggest the more reducing conditions of slightly deeper water.

I’m currently trapped in my tent while it rains again, but that’s okay because I’m ready for bed, and I love the sound of rain on the tent. I just hope the weather will be good tomorrow!

July 18, 2010

Gone to the Sun

Filed under: Geology, Montana, Section 02 — Henry Scott @ 8:00 pm

The only bad thing about today is that I’ve already climbed the highest pass of my entire route and crossed the Continental Divide. Presumably, if I just start coasting from here I’ll either end up in the Gulf of Mexico or The Hudson Bay.

The road over this highest pass is called the “Going-to-the-Sun” road, and it provides visitors access to the park’s interior via Logan Pass at 6,664 feet. Completed in 1932 under the leadership of superintendent Stephen T. Mather, the road itself is impressive. Rather that excavate a series of switchbacks to cross the mountains (the more common and less expensive option), park planners worked with architect Thomas Vint to build a road that feels like it blends into the landscape by following and slowly rising up through a valley, with just one dramatic switchback, before continuing the climb up the other side. They were remarkably successful,

The tilted rocks of the Belt Supergroup are right up against the road’s edge, and streams and waterfalls appear to spill right into the road, only to flow underneath through subtly constructed aqueducts to continue on the other side.

Bicycles are prohibited from being on two key sections of the 32-mile road from Apgar (where I camped last night) to Logan Pass from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., so I got up early enough to be biking by 6:00 a.m. My legs felt great, and I easily made it to the pass by 10, with many photography stops.

I lingered at the pass for a couple of hours to bask in the spectacular vistas of glacial horns, aretes, cols, cirques, U-shaped and hanging valleys, visit the bookstore, and attend a presentation about the rapidly retreating glaciers of Glacier National Park — there are only 24 remaining (well over 100 in the 1800’s), and conservative predictions have them all gone by 2030.

The ride down was wonderful, and I decided to stop at the Rising Sun campground for the night. I got here by about 2:00 or so, and I had plenty of time for a big meal, a shower and some hand washing of laundry. Afterward, I retreated to my tent to read, but felt an overwhelming desire to sleep, and I had the best nap I can recall: birds chirping, with gentle breezes moving air through my tent. (I’ve haven’t been getting quite enough sleep for the past few nights, so I think this was a prudent way to spend part of the afternoon.)

After waking I visited with my campground neighbors for a while — I was pleasantly surprised to learn I had only been asleep for a couple hours, rather than the several days I feared.

I then cooked a simple dinner and watched a ranger program about avalanches and fire; now I’m getting ready for bed and trying to decide what to do tomorrow. I think I may take a break from biking and do some hiking.

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