Saturday, July 27, 2013

Idaho bike tour part 2

The town of Custer is about 10 miles up the Yankee Fork river, which in turn is about 20 miles from Stanley.  It was a former gold rush boom town in the 1870’s and is now a tourist destination and gives a pretty good glimpse into life then.  Not far away is one of the amazing dredging machines, which I think was actually a converted steamship that they somehow carted into the wilds of Idaho to pretty much churn up miles of a river bed.   Sort of an environmental nightmare, of course, but they didn’t think much of that then, and there’s still a big working mine above town that not only is literally tearing down the mountains but I’m sure also using cyanide to leach out the gold.  Makes the dredging seem not so bad.  In any case, Custer is a worthy stop, especially for families with kids who might be interested in that kind of stuff. 

Some awesome two-piece skis from the 1870's
Apparently avalanches were a big reality then as well
a new school mine

At Custer we faced a decision:  zip back out to the highway on the Salmon and figure out a way to keep ourselves busy for a day or two since we were a bit ahead of where we thought we’d be, or head up and over into the Frank Church/River Of No Return wilderness on a road that  - according to some folks in Custer – was “impassable”?  It was a fairly easy choice, so up we went towards Loon Creek pass on Forest Road 72. 
A fine road
 FR 72 is pretty unusual in that it’s a 45 mile horseshoe that goes right through the wilderness area, with the wilderness boundary going right up to the edge of the road on both sides.  It must have been grandfathered in because of the ranger station and the Diamond D ranch down in the bottom of the valley.  So it makes for a pretty efficient way to move through really rugged country, for better or worse (depending on how you view the concept of designated “wilderness”). 

That road was like any other that we had been on; just a simple, pretty well-traveled gravel road.  It was a nice climb up to the 8800’ summit, and then we started plunging down into the Loon Creek drainage, still on a fine road.  “Impassable?  Locals are so useless!” .  About halfway down a motorcyclist coming up the road waved at us to stop and said “I heard you guys were coming this way.”  Huh?  Really?  Why’s that?  “The road out back up and out of Loon Creek is not the same as this road.  It got washed out by an avalanche and there’s lots of downed trees.   I turned back.”

Hmm.  Ok, well now.  That’s probably a bit more legitimate beta.  But motos can have a pretty tough time with downed logs, we were on bikes, we had plenty of food, and it couldn’t be all that bad, right?

Just past the ranger station and the ranch the road took an abrupt turn uphill, as we anticipated.  In less than 10 miles it was going to climb nearly 5000 feet, and we knew we were in for a grind regardless of the road condition, but at least it was blistering hot. 

11 miles and 5000 feet....
Soon enough we realized what had happened:  that area had been hit last year by one of the infamous fires that raged around the west and the forest was completely denuded, so the recent thunderstorms had pretty much made entire hillsides sluff downhill.  It was impressive; the water and its debris didn’t wait to find drainages, it just flowed in sheets down the mountainsides, streaming down until it came to something flat….like a road.

It was pretty tough “riding”.  We did a lot of pushing, and it took all I had not to get pretty frustrated at trying to drag the Bob trailer up and over baby head rocks and downed logs.  At one point I chuckled to myself remembering how a week prior I wrote about the concept of going a vertical mile in an hour, and here we were struggling to go a horizontal mile per hour, on our bikes!  After a couple of hours we saw a moto coming down, which was encouraging.  He was a German guy who loved moto-ing the backroads of the intermountain west, and he told us that we still had 6 miles to climb and the road condition continued to similar to where we were, which was pretty bad.  That was a bit disheartening, but we still were alongside water and had plenty of daylight and a bit of energy, so onward we trudged. 

As it turns out, however, the road actually improved dramatically, and it was only about 3 or 4 miles to the summit (the German guy was going back and forth between kms and miles, and I think he got them mixed up), so our speed picked up considerably and we finally topped out to some amazing views of the Frank Church wilderness and the Sawtooths in the distance.  We had left our last water source in anticipation of going up and over the top and down into the next drainage, but to add an exclamation point to our day, the road actually rolled up and down along a ridge for seven more miles.  Glorious riding, but the light was starting to wane and we were keen to find some water and camp.  A couple of lakes glinted tantilizingly a thousand feet of steep hillside below us, but still we rolled on the ridge, until finally we began the plunge off the ridge and quickly came upon a tiny pond that looked like a mosquito haven, but we didn’t care and flopped out to camp, accompanied by a lone curious deer (which created a pretty funny tale that I’ll write up later).

nearing the top....

stoked to be on top

an unwelcome grind up onto the ridge after a quick descent

A very welcome pond
For what it’s worth, I did a quick google search on Frank Church, since he’s the namesake of a couple of huge, awesome areas.  Longtime senator from Idaho, he was one of the sponsors of the ’64 wilderness act, THE sponsor of the ’68 wild and scenic rivers act, and fought against moving water from the Pacific Northwest to thirsty California, not to mention being a foreign policy wonk who achieved notoriety for being the first senator to speak out against the Vietnam war.  Here’s the wiki site: that’s worth a look if for no other reason than there’s a great photo of him with the venerable Joe Biden in 1979.  And he was from conservative Idaho!  The last Dem elected to the senate from the only state with the dubious distinction of possibly being more conservative than Utah.  And, presciently relative to the headlines from (literally) today, he had this to say about the National Security Agency, in 1975:  That (surveillance) capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide.”

But back to the trip......Our German friend had told us that the descent down towards Highway 21 was  a “fast, glorious, descent”.  It was actually something like 12 miles of bone-jarring embedded rocks, and we were glad we hadn’t tried to go any further past Mosquito Pond because it took a lot of effort to hang onto the laden bikes.  As we bounced down I decided that literally everything that guy had told us was wrong.  Ah well, we know what we know, and don’t what we don’t.  Eventually, however, we hit the “glorious road” a few miles above the highway, and rolled into Stanley just in time to catch breakfast at the Stanley Bakery, where the The Great Metabolizers mowed an impressive amount of food. 

From there it was just a 60 mile ride up and over Galena Pass back to Ketchum.  However, our adventures weren’t quite over.  We decided to stop at Redfish lake and join the hordes there who love that lake and the views across to the craggy Sawtooths, and we hopped the boat across the lake and hiked up to ogle at the amazing Elephant’s Perch rising out of a couple of shimmering mountain lakes.  A pretty incredible place. 

The remainder of our trip consisted of much socializing (we bumped into a gaggle of SLC’ers in the neighborhood for a wedding, Scott Martin who jumped off the train of a huge tailwind blowing past Smiley Creek lodge when he saw us there talking to yet more SLC’ers) and a couple of fun days in Ketchum.  We shredded some amazing singletrack with our longtime buddy Bruce Rogers, who showed us his favorite ride (which is saying a lot):

 had breakfast with the awesome Dave Chase,:

Dave will change health care for us all, eventually.....
and then..... our adventure built to a final crescendo with the first annual Sweet-Martin/ Gray/Patterson/Diegel putt putt golf tourney on the hallowed greens of the Sun Valley Golf Course.  The competition was fierce:

With Leo fetching beers for the elder statesmen of the crew the tourney of boyz vs girlz was a seesaw battle until the final hole, where Michele Gray proved yet again that she is the dominant sibling by draining an 8 footer and then watching brother Scott shank the boyz’ last gasp.  
Michele not letting any silly heart attack get in the way of showing us all how it's done
the boyz still able to smile after the devastating loss

Ah well, at least the losers were able to commiserate over schooners at Grumpy’s and the winners didn’t gloat too badly! 

And as a bonus, we are fairly certain this strapping lad is the lead singer for the latest hot new Boy Band that shared the course with us!
 Ash and I are prone to saying “This is the Best Ever” so often that its meaning gets a bit diluted, but we agreed that the backroads of Idaho (and the rest of the intermountain west) do indeed provide a truly unique opportunity for backcountry bike touring and this one was definitely The Best Ever.  Sure Europe has glorious roads, quaint villages, soaring peaks, fabled passes, scrumptious pastries…(better stop there) but there are no real “backcountry” roads (the ever-wrong German said that it’s nearly impossible to ride a motorcycle off road in Europe), and in developing countries the back roads are THE roads, so there’s a fair bit of traffic.  Thanks to the US Forest Service (the most prolific road building entity on earth) we have about 1.76 gazillion miles (maybe kilometers) of awesome and relatively deserted backcountry roads to ply, and the best way to do it is, of course, by bike! 

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