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Friday, July 08, 2011

Crossing the Divide: Day 40, Tuesday July 5

As I detailed in my last post, our preferred routing over the Rocky Mountains/Continental Divide, Logan Pass, was still closed by snow. That left one viable alternate: Marias Pass.

Marias Pass has its drawbacks. It carries US 2, a busy highway. Marias is the only viable option for truck traffic in this area, as the next crossing south is at least a hundred miles away, then next pass north is Logan, which prohibits commercial vehicles, and north of that is Crowsnest Pass, which is in Canada. So Marias sees its share of truck traffic. And US 2 is without shoulders for much of the route between West and East Glacier. Meh. To top it off, Marias is nowhere as scenic as Logan, but it doesn’t mean that it’s unscenic.

But Marias has a few advantages. It’s an easy pass. From West Glacier, we had a few small hills at first, but most of the grade was gradual for the rest of the way. The only steep areas is the few miles before the pass itself and a mile long hill at Goat Lick, which was even steeper than the pass itself. So it’s easy riding. And there are a few cool things to see on the way, namely the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex. More on that later.

Of course we started our day much later than we should have. Besides packing up camp, catching a shuttle from Avalanche to Apgar so we would shave off 16 miles of bicycling that we had already done (and to get around the bicycling restriction on the road), a flat tire that April had to patch, a stop at the grocery store, a visit to the Alberta Travel Centre located at West Glacier (how convenient! And they actually have a display of a T.Rex skeleton in the centre!), and then a visit to the Belton/West Glacier train station, it was almost 3pm. And we had 57 miles to ride to East Glacier. Over a mountain pass. In the heat. Oh well.

Besides the first mile or two of hilliness, the first 15 or so miles of riding was decent. The traffic wasn’t so bad, and the grade was gentle, so we were hauling ass. The good vibes didn’t last long. Soon enough, we were in the dreaded CONSTRUCTION ZONE. When I first saw the orange signs I was hoping for some minor, short stuff. Then we came to the line of cars waiting at a traffic light. And the sign “FRESH CHIP SEALING IN PROCESS.” Oh fucking no.

Not knowing what to do, we skooched our way up the shoulder to the front of the line where a flagger was stationed. I asked the flagger what the situation was.
“Oh, they’re just putting down a fresh layer of chip seal for the next seven miles.”
“Okay,” I responded, “so how are the cars getting through?”
“A pilot car is guiding everyone through.”
“How fast is it going?”
“Twenty five miles an hour. Can you keep that up?”
TWENTY-FIVE MILES AN HOUR? Fuck! Only in the bestest of circumstances (read: going downhill) would we be able to keep up that pace. And no way would I want to go downhill on fresh, loose chipseal at that, or really, any speed.
“No, I can’t. So can we get a ride in the pilot car?”
“Nope. Lemme radio the dispatcher to see what we can do about you.”

We were presented quite the quandary. Logan Pass was impassable. This road was now unbikable. There were no alternate routes, and Montana Department of Transportation norr the construction contractor didn’t take any consideration that there might be a bicycle going through at some point.

And there was no fucking way we were turning around.

Rather than wait for “word” to get radioed back, April took action. She talked to the first few cars in the line. The first one was a jeep that had a spare seat. The second was a pickup that had room for the bikes, baggage, and myself in the back. (Yay for the preponderance of pickup trucks in rural areas!) I didn’t relish the idea of sitting in the back of a pickup while loose gravel and dust flew around me, but we didn’t have many options. So I sucked it up for those seven miles. And it wasn’t as bad as it could be. There was a little dust but no gravel hit me, thankfully.

After we passed the construction zone the riding got okay again. In a few miles we took a break at the Izaak Walton Inn. The inn was built in 1939 by the Great Northern Railway. GN hoped that Essex would become the next Gateway to Glacier, but that plan never materialized. So the hotel was originally used to house railroad employees and now primarily houses railfans on vacation, as it has rail history and is a great place to watch passing freights. (There is also a small yard at Essex.) I’ve passed by Izaak Walton many a time on my train adventures, so it was great to finally get a chance to check it out! Inside the Inn was lots of railroad memorabilia that we soaked up.

After Essex there was the one steep hill to Goat Lick. (At this point Route 2 passes through a couple mile smidgen of Glacier National Park, the rest of the time it skirts the southern boundary, travelling through Flathead National Forest.) When I saw the place name on the map, I thought “Goat Lick” was more than a figurative term. So it was a beautiful surprise to us when we saw actual goats actually licking! Turns out this spot has high salt content so this is one of the few spots below tree line that one can encounter mountain goats in the park. There were about a dozen or so visible, most of them looked like they were shedding their winter coats.

The rest of the way up was fairly uneventful, the only distressing thing for awhile was the disappearing daylight. And a few miles from the top the sun dropped below the mountains, and the mosquitoes came out. In force. God, they swarmed us when we stopped, and then kept up with us as we climbed as we weren’t going fast enough to beat them. April got frustrated and pedaled as fast as she could.

But then finally--Marias Pass! The Continental Divide! We did it! Here is where water either travels west to the Pacific or east to the Gulf of Mexico/Atlantic! The crossing of the Continental Divide is always a big deal for a cross-country bike tour!


When we stopped, we quickly bathed ourselves in nasty DEET-laden bug repellent, parked our bikes against the sign, and took some photos. April couldn’t deal so she took off first. I took a few more photos around the pass and then bailed as well. Hopefully now that we’d be going downhill we’ll beat those bastards.

But no luck on that. The descent wasn’t that steep, and soon we encountered ANOTHER CONSTRUCTION ZONE, this time a few miles of grooved pavement. Try to ride over that fast! AND the road started to rise again, meaning the bugs caught up. Fuck.

Thankfully it was only about 10 miles to East Glacier Park. We arrived at Brownies Hostel just a little after 10pm. Exhausted, we checked into our rooms, took showers, and collapsed into bed. And after the water drained from the shower I took pleasure that the water would now pass by New Orleans instead of Astoria, Oregon.

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