In the summer of 1996, I had the idea for my son Liam and I to take a trip together. My desire was to do something physical and unique that we would remember for many years. I’m not sure how I discovered the biking trips thru Backroads, but I picked one that was 5 days of biking and camping thru Glacier National Park in northern Montana. It looked to be demanding and was in an area of the country that I had never been to.
I had to get in shape for this one. I had started biking seriously about 3 years prior. For this trip, I started two months prior to our departure, doing my daily 7.5 mile route of hills. I added 16 mile routes on the week-ends and some 35 mile trips prior to leaving. Liam did no preparation, which turned out not to be a problem for a young 17 year-old.
We left from Hartford two days prior to the start of the trip, taking a late afternoon flight with a change in Minneapolis. Everything went OK except the landing in Minneapolis which had to be aborted due to a plane on the runway. On our return, the same exact thing happened. We got to Kalispell, MT at 10:10 pm (MST) and checked into the hotel in Whitefish about an hour later.
Getting Ready in Whitefish
We woke early on Friday (8-1) and decided to go to Big Mountain, which is a ski resort in Whitefish. It was a crystal clear day with deep blues skies. We took a taxi to the mountain. During the ride, the driver (middle age woman) played 20 questions with us; “Got your bug spray? Them bugs are mean on the mountain.”, “Got your pepper spray? This is bear country ya’know”. When I told her we were here to bike thru Glacier, she said “I wouldn’t go in there unless I was armed. Them bears in the park aren’t afraid of people”. A great tourist promotion from my first encounter with a native of Montana!
The Big Mountain was great. We could see everything for 50 miles; Flathead Lake, Whitefish Lake, and our destination, Glacier National Park. Being scared of heights, the gondola ride up and down was a little hairy for me. We saw a deer on top of the mountain and ate lunch. I tried to talk Liam into hiking down on the 3.8 mile Danny On trail, but I think the taxi driver deterred him from anything but riding down.
For the rest of the day, we walked thru the center of Whitefish; a nice small western town built in the early 1900’s around the railroad and logging industry. We had a terrific dinner at Truby’s; a gourmet Greek pizza with artichoke hearts, olives, feta cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes. So far, I think Liam was having a good time with some adventure, good food, and good mountain scenery.
Camping at Apgar Village
On Saturday, we got picked up by Backroads and met our three leaders; Carla, Bret, and Paige. All nice young folks (all in their 20’s); very personable, enthusiastic, and accommodating. We also met some of our other biking mates for the week; Mark & Lisa from Georgia; Bob, Steve, and Marge from New Jersey; Karen, Janie, Gayle, and Jackie from Ohio/Kentucky.
We all rode over to Apgar Village in the van. It was a fun ride; kind’a like being on a school field trip with people joking, teasing, and getting to know each other. At the Village we walked around and got our first glimpse of Glacier National Park which was Lake McDonald; a beautiful long narrow blue lake crowded by high mountains on both sides.
We walked to the campground and met the other members of our group; eight people from a biking club in Illinois and two woman from Kansas. All very nice people. During the trip, some of us gave labels to the various groups because it was hard to remember everyone’s name. My labels, which others at time used and which made it easier to write this journal, where as follows. The eight people from the bike club became the “Corn People” or just “Corns” because they all belonged to a bike club called “Riders of the Great Corn Desert”. They all had biking shirts with ears of corn on them.
I referred to the two woman from Kansas as the “KC Twins” because they looked kind’a similar and I couldn’t remember their names at all. The three people from New Jersey (who were all siblings) became “The 3 Jerseys”. The four woman from OH/KC, who were all related (2 sisters, 1 sister in-law, and 1 niece) became “The Kentucky (KY) Women”. Mark and Lisa didn’t get a name.
At the campground we started getting acclimated. We set-up our tents and began to get a feel for the Backroads routine; group work, fun, chance chatter with hellos and how ya’doins. I met The KY Women and helped them set-up one of their tents as it appeared they were clue-less at how to put one up. I earned their appreciation and a cold beer, which hit the spot.
We got briefed on the Backroads routine and did intros. We also heard the “road rap” which was to be our daily briefing on the upcoming days riding route and schedule. We got hit with a lot of info. Also, tested our bikes. They where heavy/rugged touring bikes.
Going to the Sun Road
We had to get up early the next day as we needed to be over Logan Pass by 11:00 am (park regulation for bicycles). I didn’t sleep a wink ‘cause of the hard ground, anxiety, and I felt pretty grimy. I heard some snoring but apparently it really affected some of the others. It was blamed on The 2 Jersey boys who someone quoted as “sawing wood – big time!”. The cooks got up at 3:30 am, I crawled out at 5:00 am . I took everything down and packed in the dark using flashlights. We wolfed down breakfast and got on the road by 6:15 am.
The 1st 18 miles were very, very enjoyable – easy, flat, cool, and pristine. There was no one on the road as we rode along the eastern edge of Lake McDonald. Liam pulled ahead and I didn’t see him again until the Pass. At 20 miles the hills started, a 6% non-stop uphill grade that wound around the side of the mountains. I was doing OK for about 6 miles. The road was treacherous, with thousand foot drop-offs to the right edge. We had spectacular views to the southwest. I stopped a lot to rest, drink, and eat.
At about mile 26, Janie passed me. She was going like an engine! Next Beth, Mark, Barbie, and Jim. Then Karen, Jackie, Bob, and Steve . Carla came by and gave me some water (I was almost out). I could see the end, 2.5 miles away, up along the mountains; the road chiseled into the side with the cars and bikers creeping along like ants. I was bushed, but committed to keep going.
I went by the Weeping Wall. Later in the week, some of the women said it was aptly named ‘cause it was there some felt like crying. I was close and determined to make it. I got to within .5 miles and took a break at an overlook. I pumped up over the last knoll and was greeted by my bike mates with congrats, handshakes, and pats on the back. A grand moment! Most of us made it up on the bikes. George confided to Liam that he “got pulled over by a smokey” for being on the road after 11:00 am.
We hung around at the pass for about 2 hours. Liam hiked up to Hidden Lake to see the glacier. I waited for him to return and then we started down. Being scared of speed and heights, I took it very slow. My hands ached from the braking and had to stop several times to rest my fingers. The vistas where great; high jagged mountains with patches of snow. Many colors of rocks and vegetation layers. The last 4 miles were flat and hot. I made it to Johnson’s Campground in St. Mary’s; hot, sweaty, tired, and proud of my accomplishment. I had just ridden 47 miles and went over the Rocky Mountains!
Continuing on with the sensations – for the week, I experienced the following feelings, subjects, and sights: Hot, sweat, water, cool damp morning air, sore legs, sore groin, smiles, laughs, “good mornings”, water, dark, flashlights, snoring, hot sun, hot pavement, jokes, chatter, sun burns, tan lines, hills, more hills, another hill, granny gear, wild flowers, scented balsams, azure blue lakes, turquoise blue streams, jokes, red van, more sweat, more water, camp fires, bugs, good people, the bear bag routine, and blue skies.
On day 2, we biked to Many Glacier – a fairly flat ride with rolling hills to the Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge at the end of a road. I rode with Liam and 3 “Corns” (Jim, Barbie, and George). We hung around, ate lunch, and then biked over to the Many Glacier Hotel. Many of our group stayed at Swiftcurrent and went hiking or fishing.
I met up with The KY Women, who were going swimming and boating. Liam was showing some signs of fatigue due to not eating the “gourmet vegetarian cuisine” we were having. Understandable for a 17 yr. old used to hamburgers and pizza. On the way back we stopped at the “Two Sisters Cafe” and had big juicy hamburgers. After that he was a new person from a good dose of fat and protein. We had biked 42 miles.
We got back early (3:00 pm), did a load of laundry, showered, and laid back in the shade of the van with Liam. Later, The KY Women joined us because it was the only shady spot to be found. We had a great meal of chicken/beef fajitas, yellow rice, refried beans, and salsa fresca. All cooked by Bret, who was “camp dog” for the day. He really got into it, listening to Spanish guitar music all afternoon. I slept a little better. The campground was in a small sloping field.
On day 3, I woke to a bugle call by the AMC club camped nearby. We were to bike from St.Mary’s to Waterton Lakes in Canada. It was another nice sunny day. I headed out with Liam, Mark & Lisa. We had a nice ride north along Rt 89 thru Babb.
We turned left and started a steep 5.1 rolling uphill on Chief Mt Highway. There was lots of cow dung on the road. I rode with one of the KC twins and George for a while, as I had lost sight of Liam. I made it to the top at 10:30 am and was greeted by Paige with who squirted cold water all over my head and fed me ice cream sandwiches. They really tasted good.
I continued on after a rest; had small up and downs to the Canadian border. I was riding alone until Janie passed me, as usual, on an uphill. Karen came by on the next uphill but I was able to keep up with her, catching her on the downhills. On one of the sags, I met Karen, who was stopped, and helped put her chain back on. We had a long down hill into Canada. I met Liam and The KY Women at the border. We took everyone’s pictures and then we all headed out together on another long downhill.
At Belley River, we started a long 6 mile uphill. I rode alone as I could not keep up with the rest. For me, this was the toughest part of the whole trip. It was hot, really hot, in the high 90’s type of hot with no breeze. Like riding your bike with a hot griddle under you. There was not much to look at either. I had to stop a lot to drink and rest. I said a prayer to the Big Guy to give me a breeze or puff of wind. What he gave me was Paige in the van with cold water and ice cream. I finally made it to the top and met Liam and The KY Women at an overlook.
They headed out, but I stayed and rested. I ate a leisurely lunch and enjoyed the views of Waterton Lakes. I could see my destination, Waterton Park in the distance (about 9 miles away) to the northwest, stuffed into a corner of the mountains. I saddled up and rode a big downhill to the Prince of Wales Hotel. I met up with Liam and The KY Women eating their lunch on the large grassy area in front of the hotel.
We experienced beautiful sunny views down the lake. I walked down into the town and checked out the stores. Waterton is a small summery alpine town with a nice paved promenade along a deep blue lake. Walking back along the lake, met Liam and The KY Women on the rocky beach. They had all just gone swimming in their biking cloths. It was hot and with a little goading from the women (they said it was invigorating, water temp was in the high 60’s!), I jumped in. It felt great! We all lounged around there for about 1/1/2 hours letting our bodies dry in the sun and enjoying the beautiful views. It was one of the high points of the trip.
On the Road to Two Medicine
On day 4, I rode the van back to the top of Chief Mt. I wanted to avoid the big uphill into the US. Liam went with Jackie, doing the whole route with the rest of The KY Women. The scene in the van was quite comical; a human sardine can with 18 people smushed into a Ford Econoline. Another high school field trip revisited; laughing, teasing, jokes, and body noises.
I rode alone for a while, south from Chief Mt. back to St. Marys. There was a nice river valley with hay fields to the east. I met up with The 3 Jerseys and Paige at Duck Lake turn off. Paige displayed her bike surfing by standing on the cross-bar while coasting. I stopped at an Indian Jewelry place and bought Annie some earring’s. I ate 1/2 sandwich and headed up a 6 mile steep uphill.
I rode with Marge and 1 of the KC twins. Half way up, I ate another 1/2 sandwich. At 3.6 miles up, met Paige and got doused with cold water (she always seemed to show up at the right moment). I made it to the top and ate lunch with the Corns, 3 Jerseys, and 1 KC Twin. Beth was having a “hissy fit” ‘cause someone put a banana in her bike bag and it had melted all over her camera. We had a nice downhill and then a couple of small uphills to Kiowa. I rode with Marge and 1 KC Twin.
I rested at Kiowa and waited for Liam and The KY Women. We took off for a 3.5 mile uphill that was spectacular. The road was cut into the side of small foot hills that traversed upwards. After a while, I rode alone – it was soothing.
At the crest, I started a spectacular downhill. I took it slow to savor the ride and enjoy the wild columbine, daisies, and scented pines along the road. I slowly pulled into Red Eagle CG. We had a great dinner of lasagna and garlic bread with Caesar salad. I played cards, until dark, with The KY Women. It was interesting how the group had split into 3 parties; the “Corns” and KC Twins, the 3 Jerseys, and the rest of us (me, Liam, Mark, Lisa and The KY Women). We slept by a babbling stream. I woke a few times, but it was the best nights sleep I had all week. I rode 45 miles that day.
Back to West Glacier
On day 5, we had a great breakfast of egg and bean burritos with fresh salsa. The big Corn eaters cleaned it out before The KY Women came back from the rest rooms. I felt bad that they didn’t get a good breakfast.
I left camp with the Corn people. We rode 15.9 miles with Beth, Mark, and Bob (1 Jersey). I met Liam, The KY Women, and everyone else at Marias Pass. We took off for an awesome downhill for numerous miles. We went from high plains cool, to forest, to damp river, and then a couple of small uphills.
I ate lunch at the Walton picnic area and met up with the Corns, Liam, The 3 Jerseys, and The KY Women. We met Paige and the van and rode another 6 miles with a threatening thunderstorm on my left (thunder and bolts of lightning all around). We saw another cafe and decided to stop and take shelter.
Within a minute, a deluge of rain came down really hard. Jim stopped after me and then Lisa. She had a very frightened look on her face. Later she told me she was very scared of the lightning. Janie just rode by waving.
It started to let up and Carla came by and said it was OK to ride. Liam and Jackie went by with rain gear on. I set off with my rain gear on. I saw Karen and decided to follow her. I felt bad that she had no rain gear on.
It stopped and we rode the rest of the way to West Glacier. I was a nice ride along the river; saw and heard rafters in the turquoise blue water below us. I pulled into West Glacier and met up with all of my fellow bike mates.
We had done it! We all changed into dry clothes (all were suffering from a mild diaper rash from riding in wet cloths) and meandered into the town while our leaders packed the van and trailer. I found Liam, The KY Women, and Mark & Lisa in a small cafe and had a round of beers to toast our journey. It was a nice moment. That day I rode 59 miles.
Overall, I did 235 miles; Liam did 250. It was a journey and a passage. Like taking a tough course. It was hard work, where we experienced the extremes – cold, heat, elevations, rain, tired muscles, hard ground, and exhaustion. We also saw some great country. Seeing the country was one great part of the experience. Sharing it with other people was another part. Doing this with other people was truly magical; sharing the joy and adventure, meeting new people, and making new friends. Doing this trip also brought great personal satisfaction and reward from the sense of accomplishment; knowing you can ride long distance and now there’s no hill you can’t climb.