Northern Tier 2010

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.

July 17, 2010

Glacier, Ho!

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

Today’s ride was uneventful, other than that I made it into Glacier National Park a few days ahead of schedule. Although some days have been better than others, I’ve had very good riding conditions, and it has been easier to get through the mountains than I expected; I’ve made good time without feeling rushed.

On my way to the park the route took me on some unpleasant roads: poor surfaces, narrow and debris filled shoulders, and a steady flow of large trucks, pickup trucks and SUVs (many with trailers). Even the towns I passed through, such as Whitefish, felt congested with loud, rumbling traffic.

I didn’t see any noteworthy outcrops on my way, but I did find a Dewalt variable-speed portable belt saw, in original case, in the grass by the side of the road. I flirted with the idea of taking it with me — I even attached some straps so I could wear it as a backpack, but I quickly realized that it was just too heavy. Rather than leave it where I found it, I decided to flag down a passing motorist. It took longer than I expected, but eventually someone stopped. In hindsight, it must’ve looked pretty weird to see a cyclist, filthy I’m sure, awkwardly carrying a large, contractor-grade power tool.

Upon reaching West Glacier and the entrance to the park, I was alarmed to see signs saying that all campgrounds were full. I proceeded to enter the park, optimistic that I’d find a “hiker / biker” site with occupants willing to share. However, before I even started looking, a man and a young girl pulled up beside me in their car, asked if I had a site, and offered to let me join them in the Apgar campground. I took them up on their hospitality, only to get dinner out of the deal as well. We spent a couple of hours talking (they’re wheat and cattle farmers from Montana), and it ended up being a great way to end the day.

The last photo is of Lake McDonald, an 11-mile long lake in a glacially scoured basin. Since no showers are available at Apgar, I made myself take a quick swim. It is cold enough that I couldn’t get “used” to it, or even breathe in other than short, panicked gasps. I lasted for maybe two minutes, but that was enough to remove the worst of today’s grime.

It’s great to be in the park.

July 16, 2010

I Am the Walrus, Koocanusa!

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

Wind is key. My century yesterday felt much easier than today’s 73 (which, by the way, is exactly my average daily mileage since starting on the 8th). But, today was not only windier: the winds were shifty. I was surprised that such strong winds could completely change direction so quickly. It could have been worse, of course: I could have faced a constant head wind. It didn’t help either that I was slow to get on my way this morning and didn’t start biking until about 11:00. Accordingly, most of my riding was in the most intense sunlight of the day.

I spent the first part of today following the Kootenai River from Libby, until the Libby dam, at which point it is called Lake Koocanusa. The river is beautiful, and so is the lake… to a point. Perhaps I was just tired and grouchy, but after 30 miles along the same manmade lake I got tired of looking at it.

It was like staring at the same postcard for hours. Rivers are self-similar, but somehow I never get tired of them. The lake, however, had the exact same shoreline for its entire extent. I suppose this is because the level is fixed, whereas rivers and streams can meander and are, accordingly, more dynamic. It was also weird to read about the rich history of culture, trade and transportation along the Kootenai, only to have the story suddenly change to the wonderful environmental stewardship, hydroelectric power and recreational opportunities made possible by the Libby Dam on Koocanusa Lake. I felt particularly skeptical of the environmental stewardship, but maybe I’ve just read too much Edward Abbey.

In any event, I made my planned destination of Eureka and was thrilled to find that not only does the city allow camping right in the middle of its city park, but they provide a shower and only charge $5. Furthermore, the other three groups were friendly, and we all had a good time sharing stories. The park is right on the beautiful Tobacco River.

See below for today’s geological highlights.

July 15, 2010

STOP! It’s Montana Time

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

Since I’m so far north, it didn’t take long to get across Idaho. I crossed into Montana early this afternoon and, accordingly, entered Mountain Time. Prior to that, I enjoyed riding along the edge of Lake Pend Orielle in Idaho, but there were so many logging trucks, and lots of construction, that I pretty much just hunkered down and powered through to Montana.

In fact, today my legs and body felt so good, plus I had favorable winds, that I really got into just watching the landscape roll by, and I don’t have much of a narrative other than what I expect everyone already knows: the scenery in Montana is awesome.

The geological highlight for me was to see excellent stromatolites in the Belt Supergroup along Highway 2, about ten miles from Libby. These sedimentary rocks are quite famous, at least as famous as rocks can get, and I’ve been hearing about them since I was an undergraduate. Stromatolites are algal mats that trap sediment, and then another layer of algae forms on top of that, and so on. There’s a penny in the photo just right of center for scale. There are still some living samples today (they look like large algae-covered mounds in shallow water), but they were much more abundant in the Precambrian — the ones shown here, I believe, are about 1.5 billion years old.

Today was my first century of the tour at 102 miles from where I camped last night near Sagle, ID to Libby, MT. I’m set up in a city park, right across the street from some restaurants, and I had a huge dinner. I’ve decided to start eating out more — I simply cannot cook enough to get the number of calories I’m burning each day (I think around 6,000), and I don’t want to steadily lose weight during the trip.

An interesting thing about Libby: there are what appear to be pet rabbits all over the place. From what I’ve learned talking to the locals, there was an elderly man who breeded rabbits (fryers or boilers, I’m not sure), and when he passed away some kids broke open the rabbit cages. They’ve been reproducing like, well, rabbits ever since!

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