Monday, July 22, 2013

Idaho bike tour part 1

Ash and I try to do at least one bike tour a year, and while we had a great time last year in Colorado that definitely got us excited for more there, we decided to head back to the relative wilds of Idaho to take advantage of their slightly more remote areas and to connect with our old friend Michele and the rest of Team Martin and our other friends in the Sun Valley area.  So on July 3 we blasted up to Ketchum and got going the next morning.

Several years ago we did a great tour that focused on the area west and northwest of Ketchum in the Boise river mountains, and have long been looking doing something out to the east and north of Ketchum and Stanley since we knew there were big mountains, good rivers/creeks, and remote gravel roads in that area as well.  The Boise mountains trip was rife with great backcountry hot springs; we were able to hit one pretty much every day, and our late September/early October trip had cool enough temps that the hot springs were much appreciated.  However, the long-running heat wave in these parts has been affecting Idaho as well, and we didn’t care so much about being nicely stewed in hot springs this time around. 

The route: here it is in macro form, outlined on a state map:

And, in a nutshell:
Sun Valley-Copper Basin-Mackay-Salmon river-Panther Creek-Morgan Creek-Challis-Custer Parkway-Loon Creek-Pinyon Peak-Hwy 21-Stanley-Ketchum. 500+ miles, about 200 of which was paved, the rest dirt/gravel. 

People always ask “what bikes do you use for that?”  Last year I found a circa mid/late 90’s Fisher Gitchee Gumee steel framed and bomber “mountain bike” (very old school) that pretty much hadn’t been used since then and has made for a great around town/touring bike:

I used some cheap mtb tires with lugs on them and a center line of lugs that creates a pretty good rolling surface.  Because we knew that we might go several days without seeing a store, I elected to use a Bob trailer in lieu of the rack/panniers/handlebar bag combo (though I totally forgot to throw the trailer in the car!  Thanks to Bruce for loaning me his up in Ketchum and saving my day….)

We got Ash a very cool baby blue steel Bianchi fixy a few years ago and she didn’t really engage much with it, and after leaving her old bike with a new friend in Cuba we converted her fixy into a geared bike (a year or two after converting another old mountain bike into a single speed!). 
We replace the basket for a handlebar bag for touring, but I left it on for the pic because Ash loves her basket! 
It has road wheels, cyclocross-style cantilever brakes, a triple chainring with a pretty small/tight cassette, a riser mtb handlebar, and we found some 42c tires with small lugs that did fine on steep gravel roads but rolled fine without that annoying humming on pavement. 

Now, the details, if you are interested…..

From Ketchum we wheeled along the bike path that goes along Trail Creek with the many Sun Valley vacationers on their family rides, and soon enough the bike path ends then the pavement ends and we started churning up towards Trail Creek Pass (that goes over the northern end of the Pioneer Mountains) into the Big Lost river drainage. 

just outside of Ketchum

About halfway down to the main valley we veered south into the Copper Basin, which Ash had visited as a kid and had fond memories of a beautiful area.  Indeed, her memory was good, because it was glorious. 

From the primary gravel road we turned onto a secondary gravel road was an 18 mile horseshoe that went right to the base of the east side of the impressive Pioneers.  From there we climbed a pass called Antelope pass, and after another “bump” into yet another drainage did a long descent into the Lost River valley, which has highway 93 running through it from the east Idaho desert up to and along the Salmon via Mackay. 

We had an inkling that our great friends Heidi and Geoff were in the ‘hood on their return from a main Salmon trip and were staying at Heidi’s dad Dick Dahlgren's amazing place on the banks of the Big Lost, which is a world famous trout stream.  We called Geoff, but his phone was way buried since he was literally fishing all day and slaying some impressive hogs with a funky Japanese rod; the “tenkara” is feather weight and uses no reel; just a fixed length of line.  Leave it to one of the last telemark holdouts and singlespeed enthusiast to make a challenging activity that much more difficult and esoteric! 
note the lack of reel.  Geoff is so core! 

Fortunately Heidi was being the responsible parent and both had her phone and knew where her kids were, so we got the beta to get to her dad’s amazing place on the Big Lost.

Dick Dahlgren is a fascinating guy; in addition to being the father to the precocious Heidi (no small feat in itself!  Her ferocious competitiveness got her all the way to the US ski team) Back in the 70’s he was integral in the effort to keep the incredible Mono Lake (a huge saline lake near Mammoth, CA: from being decimated by the ever-thirstier Los Angeles, the result of which was both LA grudgingly helping to restore flows back into the lack (that they were stealing) and has lawsuits going today!  But after many years in Mammoth he and his wife packed up a rig and went in search of the ultimate place to fly fish, and bought some land on the Big Lost.  Since then he’s built and moved/rebuilt 4 beautiful buildings at one of the best spots on the one of the best fishing rivers in the west that sport his wood carvings and watercolor paintings on the walls. He’s recently completed the most recent structure:  a replica of a old miners’ cabin - using lodgepole pine logs that fell on in the small forest on his land – as a nice refuge from his refuge to write his novel! 

Dick D truly in his element

It was great to see Geoff and Heidi, and Dick’s wife Julie whipped up a fantastic lasagna for us that night.  We typically eat pretty well when we bike tour, but lasagna’s a tough one on the road!  And as a thunderstorm’s wind and rain pounded the cabins that night we were quite snuggled in and glad we weren’t battling to keep the megamid “tent” together…..

thanks Team Dahlgren!

Our original plan was to take a day off the bikes and hike up Mt Borah, Idaho’s highest peak, but Heidi and Geoff had done a bike tour out of Mackay that bypassed that option yet sounded great and tied right into our (very) loose schedule.  So we climbed Pass Creek, which took us up and over the south end of Borah’s Big Lost range, and upon reaching the pass we looked out to the east and saw yet another big mountain range: the Lemhis.  Huh?   The what mountains?  We had never even heard of them, yet only hours from our house lies a decent-sized range capped by the impressive Diamond Peak at over 12,000 feet!  And of course it clearly sports a lifetime’s worth of killer ski lines.  So much to do…..

The Lemhi valley is an austere one. Tucked between the Lost Rivers and the Lemhi range there ain’t a lot going on in there, and literally in an afternoon of riding, a night camping next to the headwaters of the Pahsimeroi river, and again riding the next morning we saw……no one. No cars, no people, no structures.  At one point was we spun down a 15 mile gradual descent with the craggy eastern faces of Borah and Leatherman peaks looming above and a vast sage plain below Ash asked:  “have we been transported to Mongolia?” 

Mongolia, Idaho

that is one optimistic - or desperate -  realtor!
But soon enough we hit Highway 93 that runs along the Salmon river to the town of Salmon, getting caught out in a shelter-less area by a decent thunderstorm complete with helmet-vent-intruding hail just before we hit town.  Twenty more miles and we were able to leave the highway and ride along the lonely road that goes down the river towards the Middle Fork take out and the main Salmon put in, so the only vehicles going by were the occasional river trippers. 

Our destination was the Panther Creek road, which not surprisingly runs along Panther Creek, which parallels its much-larger sister to the west, the Middle Fork.  Like the MFS, Panther bisects a one of those really big swaths of green you see on Idaho maps, and is a critical conduit for backcountry travelers in those parts because it goes over 65 miles through that particular green swath back to Highway 93.  Amazingly, it’s a 45 mile climb to the pass!  It only climbs 4500’ in those 45 miles, so it’s not consistently steep, but it’s a long grind nonetheless with not much of anything/anybody out there. 
cooling off in Panther Creek
From Challis – which is 50 miles from Stanley, yet culturally in another galaxy  - we caught another key conduit in the “Custer Parkway” that goes from Challis to the old mining boom town of Custer. I’m not sure how they came to apply the term “parkway” to a one lane gravel road that not only had some brutally steep sections up to an 8800' summit, but was also washed out in places, but it was fine riding (and it was built in less than a year in 1879!). 

On top of the first super mean climb under a blistering sun the only car we’d seen – an ancient, beat to shit Ford Tempo with incoherent license plates came wheezing back up the other side and sighed to a stop, and out hopped….what I can only describe as “hippies”.  It was pretty amazing: reams of hair, gallons of patchuli oil,  fully tie-dyed, the works.  And there seemed to be something like 7 of them in this car that “was gettin’ a little hot; it doesn’t really like hot climbs like this” along with a ton of stuff as well as a huge fluffy dog!     “We are looking for this place that has a bunch of opals; have you seen any?”  Huh?  Opals?  Of course that’s what you’re looking for, but no, sorry, haven’t seen any through my sweat-stung eyes.   So we weren’t much help, but despite this they reached into the depths of the Tiempo and amazingly pulled out an ice cold Henry Weinhard’s root beer and offered it up, which was much appreciated.  Thanks much, and good luck opal hunting! 

To be continued……

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