Day 14: Kooky Koocanusa

Montana, there’s a lot of it to love. Riding along Lake Koocanusa all day today. It was formed by a dam on the Kootenay River and goes from Canada all the way to the USA. Get it? Koo-Can-USA? Is this one of those things that’s so dumb it comes all the way around to being clever again?

So many pick up trucks on the road towing RVs and RVs towing pick up trucks and everything in between.

The air has a pine fresh scent with a top note of diesel and wildfire smoke. That junk they sell for cleaning toilet bowls? Not even close.

I have my first flat tire today. I come out of the grocery store and a man in a beat up sedan has parked within inches of the bike. I deliberately picked a spot in the sun away from other cars so this is a bit of an annoyance. He is sitting on the hood of his car repairing what appears to be an IED with a large homemade knife. He says it’s a Bluetooth speaker that he made himself. We chat about the bike and say our goodbyes. As I ride away something is wrong with the rear wheel. Sure enough it has gone totally flat and the tire is completely unseated from the rim.

I have to unload the bike and detach the trailer to do the repair. It’s a messy job and I have chain grease on my pants and on my hands. As I look for the leak, I start to suspect that I’m going to find a hole made by a knife in this tire. It seemed like the tire was fine when I went into the store and now it’s suddenly completely flat?

Moments later, I find a tiny piece of wire has poked through the puncture resistant Schwalbe Marathon Plus lining. It’s been my experience that this is a frequent cause of punctures. I believe the wire comes from a shredded steel belted radial by the side of the road. I’m embarrassed for thinking such dark thoughts.

Tomorrow, it’s off to Whitefish.

Day 13: Autumnal Equinox

I wake up this morning, unmolested by bears in the night.

Today is one of two days per year when the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Happy autumnal equinox!

I’m perfecting a technique for making a cuppa tea with the least amount of energy possible. Those of you from serious tea drinking countries may wish to skip this part. I put a teabag into cold water in my thermos and heat it with the electric immersion heater to 160°F (70°C). It’s ready to drink right away and it stays hot to the last drop. For coffee, I carry a small hand grinder and heat the water to just below boiling. I’m not completely uncivilized.

I recently discovered thermos cooking and it’s a great way to save fuel. You can make things like pasta, rice, or steel cut oats by heating them to boiling and just letting them sit in the thermos instead of burning fuel to maintain a simmer.

I chatted with a fire fighter who has been on the front lines of the wildfires here in Montana. Although there are still a lot of incidents showing on the map, he explained that it’s just the “duff” burning off at this point and there are no road closures along my route.

I bought a “bear keg” for food storage today. Practically speaking, hanging a food bag in a tree would have been adequate and lighter on this trip but the whole point of this shakedown cruise is to test equipment and figure out how to pack it on the bike. The keg is something I’m going to need on the way to Alaska next year as there won’t always be trees available. Also, Alaska has grizzlies who are not as cute and cuddly as black bears.

I feel a little guilty about leaving the nickel coin “key” on top of the bear canister overnight. It’s like I’m taunting the bear. Look at me! I have opposable thumbs!

I still haven’t met a single person touring on a bicycle. I don’t know why. The daytime temperatures are absolutely perfect for riding. Nights are a little cold but not freezing yet and a good sleeping bag is all you need.

Day 12: Poke it with a Stick!

The day starts with what I think of as “Belgian weather.” Just barely above freezing, about 110% humidity, and foggy. It’s the kind of cold that gets into your bones and can only be remedied with a hot beverage, preferably with alcohol in it.

The fog is so thick it’s unsafe to ride on this narrow road with traffic so I pull over and wait for it to clear. In hindsight, this is the kind of waiting I could’ve done warm and dry inside my sleeping bag.

I decide I’m in the mood for coffee and pie at an old-fashioned diner. No, wait, make that hashbrowns and eggs. This is my one day in Idaho and I need to experience “The Potato.”

I buy bear spray in Sandpoint, Idaho and ask for a diner recommendation. The vegan shop clerk suggests Joel’s place just around the corner. I walk in and the staff are already at the window checking out the bike. Before they get a chance to ask any questions, I announce, “I wish to experience ‘The Potato’!” In hindsight, potato-based humor directed at Idahoans is probably a risky move but they’re willing to tolerate my shenanigans.

The vegan potato burrito may be the best burrito I’ve ever had. I finish it and go back back inside to order two more for the road. This biking business is hungry work.

I cross into Montana and the speed limit signs on this two lane road change to 70 mph (115 km/h). Oh, right, this is the state that did that “no speed limit” thing.

I spot a guy walking a dog and pushing a stroller. There are no houses for miles around so I smell a story. I pull over for a quick chat and he tells me that he’s just finishing up a six year walk around the world. Multi-year slow trips around the world? Who does that sort of thing? Good luck, Tom! (@theworldwalk)

Another gorgeous campsite next to a lake. There are no showers and it’s warm enough in the sun so I go for another swim.

Surveying the campsite, I see what looks like fresh bear scat. It’s got the right shape, size, color, and texture but no smell. I even poke it with a stick and get up close to smell it but it’s not at all unpleasant. Did another camper dump out a can of soup on the ground? What could it be?

I talk to the camp host and he reassures me that it is in fact bear scat. “But don’t worry about it, they’re just two little black bears who’ve been eating apples from a tree over by that site.”

Um, okay, everything I’ve ever read says do not camp near fresh bear scat.

“They set up a trap to catch them but they’re real scared of people.”

Right.

There is a steel storage box for food at the site so of course everything’s going in there and I’m sleeping with the bear spray under my pillow.

PS: My dictation software wrote it as Phresh Bearskat. That is now my DJ name. I want hats and t-shirts and all the merch.

Day 11: Goodbye, Washington. Hello, Idaho.

I spend the morning riding along the Pend Oreille River. The sunny forecast has been downgraded to mostly cloudy but the terrain is flat so I’m making good progress compared to recent days.

The name of the river and the county means “hangs from ear“ in French. Even without checking Wikipedia, it seems obvious that this is a reference to indigenous peoples coined by Canadian fur trappers. Sort of like Nez Percé (pierced nose). I’m betting their modern descendants are not thrilled with the name.

Some sun, some clouds, and a lot of the green tunnel of shade. All the tall trees along the sides of the road are a real pain in the neck.

Bear sighting! A juvenile black bear runs out into the road just ahead of me. We notice each other at the same time and he scampers back off into the woods. I don’t stick around to meet the rest of his family. The front camera just barely catches him him but I just started one of those hyperlapse/time lapse recordings so I only got a few frames. Frankly, I’ve seen pictures of the Loch Ness monster that were clearer.

Campgrounds along my path are starting to close for the season which is inconvenient because it’s often impossible to find out in advance. The phone numbers all go to canned recordings at some central office and the website links are often unhelpful in answering simple questions such as “Is the campground open right now?”

I get chased by dogs at four different locations along a country road. It’s been happening all through the trip but there has always been a fence. These guys all ran out into the road. No close calls, really, but I wonder how they’ve survived this long running out into traffic like that. Perhaps they don’t chase cars?

For years, I’ve been telling people who ask “How long does it take to charge?“ that I don’t need to stop to charge. Well, that was true until today. Due to the low sun angle, there are long stretches of road which are completely shaded and sunny islands along the way. I find myself taking extra long breaks in the sun to get some more juice into the battery to extend my range for the day.

Tomorrow will be mostly riding through Idaho and into Montana. I’m really hoping they’ve planted those famous potatoes on both sides of the road so I can finally get out of this green tunnel. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I’m pretty sure potato plants don’t grow this tall.

Day 10: Son-of-Travis

Another late start. Last night’s forecast called for rain all day so I was prepared to spend the day in the tent waiting it out but the outlook changed overnight to possible light showers in the morning followed by thunderstorms in the afternoon.

I install the new mirror, tape up the broken fender and head out for a morning of rolling hills and sunshine.

During my lunch stop, these deliciously dramatic clouds roll in. Instead of immediately seeking shelter, my dumb ass pauses to take photos. Minutes later, the wind picks up and big fat drops come crashing down.

I make a beeline for the nearest grove of pine trees to get out of the open. By the time I make it there and start pulling on my rain pants, the rain has turned to hail the size of mung beans.

At this exact moment, a car pulls out of the driveway where I have taken shelter and rolls down the window. I’m about to make with the explanations but none are required. “Go on up to the house and get out of this weather,“ the man says. “My wife is home. Tell her Travis sent you.“

At the top of the driveway, 12 year old son-of-Travis opens the garage for me wearing a nine inch Bowie knife strapped to his waist. Did he put it on when he heard a stranger was coming up the driveway or does he sleep with it under his pillow? Either way, he is ready to defend his mother and sister. Young Davie Crockett is going to have a story to tell in school on Monday morning about the stranger with the “expensive” bike.

Fifteen minutes, later the sun comes out and all is back to normal except for the enormous puddles everywhere. I wave goodbye and continue on.

A short ways down the road, I approach a white SUV running amber flashers stopped by the side of the road for no apparent reason. As I’m about to pass, he flags me down to let me know that I’m about to ride my bike over a powerline that came down during the storm. It looks like a tree fell and took the line down. The white SUV is a state trooper and he’s just waiting for utility crews to arrive. His take on the situation is that it probably tripped a breaker and that it is safe to ride over it given that he hasn’t seen any sparks.

I search my memory for knowledge about situations like this and come up short. Given the wet conditions, I figure he’s probably right about the no-arcing? I wouldn’t approach a downed power line on foot but I figure I should be fine rolling over it with the bike and continue down the road without incident.

I call it a day with two hours of daylight left and find that I have the entire campground to myself. Supper cooked and eaten, all food and scented items stored away in the bear-proof container, I take stock of my situation and decide that since I haven’t taken a shower in two days a swim in the lake is in order.

Air temperature is 45°F (7°C), the water temperature is 55°F (13°C) so I expect this to be a very brief swim. To my surprise, the sunset-on-a-private-lake experience is so compelling I stay in the water for almost 10 minutes. Sorry, no nude selfies.

If the sunny forecast holds true, it’s looking like tomorrow will be my last day in Washington state.

Day 9: C is for Cookie

I wake up at 5 AM and check the weather forecast. The sunny Monday I was promised last night has been rescheduled to Tuesday. I can’t wait three more days for the weather to clear so I’m going to have to push over Sherman Pass with only the barest hint of electric assist. It’s going to be a leg day. Every day is a leg day.

Lower gearing on the bike would have helped a little in this situation. I’ve never had to climb a 14 mile hill with an average grade of 4.5°. I know it can be done with a full battery so a plug-in charger would have handily remedied the situation.

I set off early and take breaks at 330’ (100 m) vertical intervals. Climb 330’, eat a banana. Climb 330’, eat a cookie. Climb 330’, have some walnuts. I make it to the top before I run out of cookies.

I’m ready for rain but only get a few drops. Solar power averages only 35 watts to the top compared to 200-300 watts in full sun so I only use the bare minimum of assist needed to stay upright on the steepest sections. The rest is all pedal power.

The descent is epic for regenerative braking. My battery goes from 1% to 20% on the way down.

I roll into this gorgeous campsite next to the Columbia River and call it a night.

Day 8: Republic, WA

I wake up in Wauconda to cloudy skies, 1% battery and not enough stove fuel to make coffee. The next town with services is 16 miles and 1000’ climbing away. Also, it looks like it may rain. Also, there’s no internet.

I don’t much care for these rumble strips in the middle of the road on route 20. I’m sure they save sleepy and distracted drivers from drifting into the oncoming lane but one out of seven cars passing me comes too close because they don’t want to drive over it. I counted.

I make it to Republic, Washington just as it is beginning to rain. I decide it is time for a hot meal, shower, laundry and errands so I check into the last remaining room at the local inn.

Next up is Sherman Pass with 4000’ (1200 m) of climbing. Weather outlook is mostly rainy so I’m not looking forward to that climb. Next sunny day is two days away and I can’t wait that long.

Day 7: Wakanda?!

Isn’t this place supposed to be some kind of secret?

Another later-than-intended start to the day. I’m still figuring out where everything should go on the bike and it’s taking me way too long to get ready in the morning. I stop by the post office and mail a few things home.

To the motorist who rolled down her window to shout “You’re awesome!“ while I was grouchy because I skipped second breakfast, I think you’re pretty great too.

I’m encountering people who say things like, “Hey, we saw you coming over the pass yesterday.“ I think there were three like that today. I haven’t seen any other touring bikes.

I’ve been coming up far short of the estimated 80 miles (130 km) a day I though I could do. Much of that is due to the terrain which will flatten out in the middle part of this tour.

I cover 60 miles (100 km) by 3:00 PM. Having a full battery and lots of sun, I decide to compensate by pushing on to a campsite 40 miles (64 km) away. Easy enough, except that it is all uphill, the road is terrible, I run out of power and eventually run out of water with 2 hours left to go. My 3 hour estimate turns into 6 hours. A kind stranger offers me a Gatorade. Nothing ever tasted so good. You’re awesome, dear stranger.

I arrive an hour after dark, humbled by my own hubris. The temperature is just above freezing. The campground is an RV park. The amenities start and end with running water and an outhouse. The owner does not charge cyclists. Dinner is half of a rice crispies bar. I have got to start eating better.

Day 6: Miles and Smiles

Got an early start today and was rewarded with beautiful views and lots of sunny-sun-sun. My new obsession with basking in the sun feels reptilian.

Climbed 3300’ (1000 m) by lunchtime. Made it over a very chilly 5500’ (1700 m) pass before dropping back down the longest continuous descent I’ve ever done on this bike.

Planning the daily energy budget has been a challenge through these mountains. It’s more about Wh per 1000’ of ascent than Wh/mile. I over-compensated after yesterday’s toils and reached the peak with around 70% battery charge remaining. That’s not great because I couldn’t take full advantage of regenerative braking on the long descent and the friction brakes got pretty hot.

There are honest to goodness tumbleweeds blowing around the campground. I’ve seen them before but they seem like a cliché when you first come upon them. I tried not to whistle the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly but I failed.

There are some very tame deer here. I suspect people feed them.

I’m not sure where tomorrow is going to take me, but I’ll be starting with a nearly full battery for the first time on this trip. I think it’s going to be a clear day so I should be able to make more miles and smiles. The bike and trailer have performed flawlessly. I’m ending each day pleasantly tired but ready for more the next day.

Day 5: Rain, Rain, Go Away

My hardest day so far. I got a late start trying to sort out an issue with my batteries and stopped early due to rain. In between, punishing 7° climbs with narrow road shoulders and very little electric assist with only 216 solar Wh today. I actually had to get off and push for a while.

The light drizzle (local maintenance crews called it a “dry rain”) turned into regular rain. I put on my wet weather gear and walked around taking pictures. My Washington state experience wouldn’t have been complete without some precipitation.

I have a lovely campsite by Diablo Lake. Free, as of a couple of days ago due to the late season. Thank you, National Park Service.

Black bears have been spotted in the campground this summer, though not recently. Guess what the “Danger Keep Away” trailer is for? Hint: it rhymes with “care.”

Get a polished stainless steel mirror, they said. It won’t break when the bike falls over, they said. Well, it didn’t break but the reflection is a bit Dali-esque.

The next campground is on the other side of a peak with 5500’ (1700 m) of climbing. There’s no internet here but the word in the camp is that there might be some sun tomorrow. I’m going to need it.