Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bikepacking Yaak's Fire Lookout Towers

I'd been to these mountains before. I'd ridden my bicycle through them 4 years - a lifetime - ago. I'd never been so happy. Each night on that outing, myself and my friend Shaun had stayed at forest fire lookout towers, perched high on mountain tops. We had started in the Selkirk Mountains of north Idaho and seemed to dance across the peaks and river valleys right to the edge of Glacier National Park in Montana.

This time around, we had come back for more of the same: 4 lookout towers in 5 days. Shaun and Reuben picked me and my bike up early on a Wednesday morning. We drove past Arlee and Thompson Falls. We passed the town of Troy and hung a right along the Yaak River, where we drove straight for the little town of Yaak. The forested hills closed in.

September 17th

My bike is a 2013 Surly Krampus. It's green and has really big tires. Even though it is new, it seems old. A throwback to a bygone era. But it's not new trying to be old, like an FJ Cruiser. It's the original: a 1972 BJ45 Troopie. And just like my dream truck, it promises to be dependable and crawl over anything, but get me nowhere in a hurry.

I can agree to this.

But I haven't yet. There has to be some skepticism, some weak point to worry about. Maybe it's because I'm a pre-trip worrier, or maybe it's because I've not had a successful multi-day outing this year and I'm trying so-god-damn-hard to make this one work. Or maybe, it's because I'm in the Yaak where everyone is skeptical of everything. The kind of place where outsiders are looked at not so much as aliens, but more so Cold-War-Era Russians. The weather is harsh here too, and the outside world far away. If you spend winters here, you have to be skeptical, and you better own two of everything: two chainsaws, two generators, two trucks, two winches, two radios, two wood stoves, and three of each wouldn't be a bad idea.

So, I pick the bike's hydraulic disc brakes as it's achilles. I'll focus on that. That's the weak point. Now the world is in order, and I can climb to the top of it. Which today happens to be Mt Baldy.

September 18th

Winter is never too far away in the Yaak. In mid September, it is just waking up, like a spring bee buzzing around drunk from hibernation. You can feel it's presence, but it won't sting. The air is crisp on the morning descent, but not cold. Not even close.

There are 3 paved roads out of the Yaak. The South Fork Road heads over Pipe Creek Summit past the old ski hill, past the bar and pizza joint at mile marker 7, and down to Libby. The East Fork Road winds it's way up between 2 giants, Mt Henry and Mt Robinson, and down towards Eureka. And the Yaak River Road follows the Main Yaak River to Troy. This morning we are on the later.

Things of note on this 8 mile stretch: few cars, a Forest Service Work Center where I unload some trash - mostly beer cans, and large pile of ruble near mile marker 13 where the Golden Nugget bar use to be.

The Spokane newspaper ran a story this past March about the Golden Nugget's mysterious fiery demise the month before. The journalist who wrote the piece thinks it may be related to 5 other rural bars that have gone up in flames over the past 12 months. I'm skeptical. But then again, the owner was a formal Grand Dragon of the KKK who did federal time for burning down a church in Kentucky - so there's that. Regardless of gossip, the Yaak now has 3 storefront businesses instead of 4, and the remaining 3 are also bars. I hope the journalist wasn't onto something.

September 19th

Yesterday was a hard day. I did not anticipate the rolling nature of the East Side Yaak Road. I struggled up the final 2000ft climb to Yaak Mountain. I was anxious, and riding too hard. Breathing too much. The rhythms of this bike tour have not settled into my system yet. The rhythms of the Yaak would probably take a lifetime to settle into, but I'm not going to have enough time to figure that out. The best I can hope for is the bike tour.

Rick Bass' book, Winter: Notes From Montana, is a fine read. In it, Rick tells the story of his first winter spent in the Yaak. From what I can gather he house-sat a ranch on the eastside of the South Fork Road, near Lost Horse Mountain that first year in the late 80's. Here's some of my favorite quotes from the book:
"But the fishing stinks. It's almost Paradise up here, but not quite. And maybe, if I understand it correctly, that's what's needed in Paradise, to make Paradise be Paradise: a flaw. One small thing, one small evil, to define the wonder and richness of everything else."
"It can be so wonderful, finding out you were wrong, that you are ignorant, that you know nothing, not squat. You get to start over. It's like snow falling that first time each year. It doesn't make any sound, but it's the strongest force you know of."
 "Everyone back east wants me to send them pictures, but very few of them sound serious about visiting. This is fine with me. I will send them pictures."
There are other good one too, but it's hard to find quotes in a book without reading the whole book from front to back searching for them, and if your searching for quotes, you miss the fluidity of the story, or bike tour. Or, whatever.

The decision is made to head down to Troy for breakfast and coffee, then onto Libby via US 2, and back into the Yaak via Pipe Creek and the South Fork Road. After those 50 some miles, we'll start the climb to Big Creek Baldy. It looks like a beast on the map.

September 20th

A logging truck passes on the morning climb to Pipe Creek Summit. It rattles and hums it's way down the hill towards Libby. All property in the Yaak is ether National Forest or private. There are no National Parks, Recreation Areas or Monuments. This is fine by me. Some people think the best way to ruin a piece of land is to invite industrial companies to have their way with it. Others think the best way to ruin a piece of land is to make general public aware of it's existence, by naming it a National Park, Recreation Area, or Monument.

The driver of the logging truck does not wave back.

My butt hurts. The worst comes when I'm slowly trying to peel it off my saddle. It's gotten worse over the past few days. I'm getting older. Rueben's and Shaun's aren't feeling much better, and because of this, we ditch our bikes, and decide to backpack up to our final destination: Mt. Henry. It feels good to be on my feet. Bikes are nice, but they're not all that. At least not today. And today is perhaps the finest September day in the history of September days.

September 21th

That last sentence, in that last paragraph, was appropriated from my friend Aaron Teasdale's article about fire lookout towers in next month's issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. I didn't want to use quote-marks because that breaks things up too much. It would leave too many questions - especially at the end of a paragraph - but I did want to give him credit. It is a fine line.

Aaron is also the reason we are up here at Mt Henry. Last week he sent some pictures of the dilapidated tower on top, with a warning: "That’s the best spot in the Yaak. Amazing views". To my surprise, it fit into our schedule, which had been planned out for months.

It's hard for me to separate the experience of bike touring to lookout towers, from the experience of that first trip me and Shaun did, back in 2010. On that occasion, everything was new, we were ignorant, and we knew nothing. We just went for it. Now, we know too much. At what point does knowledge and experience extinguishes that sweet bumbling bliss of a possible shit-show?

A tough question. But this is not something to think about now. This can wait. There is a priority right now, on the catwalk surrounding the Mt Henry lookout tower, and it's not worrying about any of that.

He was not wrong about the views. The world is slowly revealing the Cabinet Mountain's snowfields in a blanket of alpenglow.


  1. Hi Casey. Awesome trip report! Curious to see if you'd be interested in contributing to the Routes project at Shoot me an email and let me know... pedalingnowhere at gmail

    1. Thanks, Logan. I'll think about it, and let you know about the routing stuff