From Idaho, we motored north on Highway 93, into Montana and my old stomping grounds in the Bitterroot Valley. I bored Allison reminiscing about ski adventures gone awry as we passed Trapper Peak, Como and El Cap, Sky Pilot and Gash Point, Saint Mary’s and Saint Joe and finally Lolo. Looking back, it’s pretty incredible we made it through all those descents relatively uninjured given how uninformed we often were.
Pedaling around Missoula, I was impressed by the places that haven’t changed a bit, like Charlie B’s, Del’s, and the Oxford, and less so by the new developments that are totally different from what I remember. We didn’t have nearly enough time to catch up with all the people I wanted to see but did manage to fit in a ride with some old pedaling buddies.
As our bike-laden Honda pulled into the trailhead lot an hour out of Missoula we attracted glares from the horse folk who were standing around campfires near their trucks while waiting for the morning sun. After our bikes were unloaded in the grass one of the cowboys wondered aloud whether bikes were even allowed on these trails. Isn’t this area Wilderness? Well, Scott explained, not yet; not Wilderness just wilderness. The area is one of many in Montana that’s being pushed towards Wilderness designation and when that W gets capitalized bikes will no longer be allowed. For now though we’re free to explore the hundred-plus miles of trail that branch from the trailhead.
Still a little jelly-legged from our rides the previous days in Idaho, we talked Scott and Sean down from the mega-loop extravaganza they’d been eyeing. We settled instead on a mellower sub-30 mi jaunt. The trails in Missoula had dried completely from the week’s rain, but out here in one of the wettest parts of the state the air was still heavy with humidity and the low spots still mucky.
We pedaled up through Doug Fir forests then into stands Larch and Spruce. Next came dark Cedar forests with giant old-growth towers that dimmed the mid-day light into dusk. My tires bumped over horse hoof prints until we passed the point where they’d turned back. Here the trail was smoother and only the faint traces of horseshoes remained after days of rain. Instead crisp prints in the sticky spots were from deer, elk, moose and wolves. The wolf tracks were especially interesting because there were a lot of them and some of them looked very fresh. Allison, who’d been bringing up the rear of the group, expressed her nervousness:
Do wolves ever bother people?
Not that I know of, but that was barbecue-flavored sunscreen I gave you, so you never know…
The wolves must be fans of dry rubs instead because we never saw them.
Eventually the old growth grew shorter and more spaced as we approached tree line, which is only about 6000′ here. We crossed the state line into Idaho, refilled empty water bladders at a lake inlet and enjoyed the indian summer sun. The ride back down was long and tacky. The yellowing leaves whooshed against my handlebars and arms whenever I’d lean my bike around a turn. Slick logs, twisting trail, and hidden pedal-height rocks kept our downhill pace in check.
Back at the car with our dirty bikes, canned microbrews in hand, an old timer wearing dark denim wranglers and western boots ambled over to congratulate us on our ride. Scott’s mountain bike ambassadorship from earlier in the day had already began to pay off.