Ride Report: Day 5

Day 5 / Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A bright, beautiful day lay ahead for the first day of mountain passes. South of Lincoln, the route heads up and over Stemple and Mullen pass, then going through the town of Rimini before emptying out at the town of Basin.

Heading south from Lincoln towards the first passes of the trip, Stemple and Mullen.

This is a pretty well kept road and is even traversable in winter because it's a mail route.

The road up to Stemple pass was nice and wide and well kept as it's also a rural mail route. The views of expansive pine trees was pleasing but I was deeply saddened by the extent of the dead pines due to the Mountain Pine Beetle. It’s an invasive insect that attacks and kills the pines by clogging their internal plumbing with a blue stain fungi that prevents the tree from circulating water and nutrients and over two weeks it slowly starves to death, turning its needles red. While nature is beautiful, she is also cruel and impersonal.

There is currently a severe outbreak in North America with over 2 million acres of dead tress in Wyoming and Colorado alone, projected to increase by half a million acres every year. The only sure way to stop its spread is through controlled burns of infected areas, however, people live in and around infected areas and burns aren't practical. Mild winters and warm summers help the beetles spread and as people are increasing their awareness of climate change, this destruction of vast amount of forests will affect each and every one of us as this ecosystem service is reduced in its capacity to help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Vast amount of dead trees are also a mega forest fire waiting to happen. All though the summer of 2009 was considered moderate in terms of fire danger, worries are being raised about the near future with global temperatures expected to rise. One method to fight the fire danger is cutting down all the dead pines but then we have large areas of mountain sides with no trees leading to landslides, soil erosion, and one can imagine how bad this can get.

With that in mind, I was glad to be going through these forests before the situation gets even bleaker. I was taking frequent breaks and enjoyed the silence when the motor was off, reveling in the sounds of the forest. There was washboard here and there and the breaks were needed to relieve the jitteriness in my hands. The air pressure in the tires was also rising as it heated up over long sections of washboard and I periodically released air to keep the pressures stable.

Great views of open hill-sides as you slowly climb up.

It felt very peaceful to be motoring along and enjoying this closeness to nature.

The road was steep at times.

The red and green might make for a nice color contrast, even a good Christmas theme, but sadly, all that redness signifies death of pine trees succumbing to the Mountain Pine Beetle.

Near the peak at 6380 ft.

I didn't come across another human the whole morning yet felt completely at home as a product of nature herself. Cows are the closest mammalian contact I had through these remote regions and they definitely give you the look as though you're intruding on their space. The look they give as you ride by is also funny as their assessing if you're a threat or not and then they react at the last moment as though they've just seen you and then they bolt. They're good entertainment.

sanDRina running smoothly and in her element.

Riding through thickets of pine.

No matter how remote you might be, there're always cows. The end up being your only mammalian form of contact.

The road getting a little gnarly at times, but very fun to ride.

The closeness of the vegetation shows how rarely this road is used.

I took lots of breaks as it's slow going and I wanted to enjoy the pace.

A lovely natural arch across the road (sorry for the poor picture).

Nice colors from the morning sun's rays, but seeing so many reddened and dead pines was disturbing.

From the pass looking out towards ever further and bluer mountains.

Now this is getting into high country, rolling meadows at elevation. It might not be that high compared to Colorado, but it's vastness is impressive.

On one of the "long-cuts" that the GPS said I should do when a new short cut looked available. A few times along the route, being such remote roads, the map data in my GPS didn't match the route that I downloaded as roads can change and you have to decide between following the GPS route or your instinct on which way you're supposed to go.

A pretty rough out of the way track near the pass.

Signs mentioning that the public road was crossing across private land and you you're not allowed to go off-trail.

An intersection between two long trails through this high country. Heading towards Rimini across Hwy 12.

Looking back towards Mullen Pass.

Coming out of Priest Pass Road, the route crosses US-12 onto Rimini Road with a flat easy section heading to Rimini, a silver mining boom town in the mid-19th century located in the narrow Ten Mile Creek Valley. The town got its name from the character in Dante's Inferno, which used to play at an opera house in nearby Helena. These days, old mining cabins act as retreats for city dwellers.

Past Rimini, the route takes Basin Creek Road through Deerlodge National Forest and the Basin Creek Mine that sits on the Continental Divide down to the town of Basin on I-15. The thick forests were enjoyable but again the dead trees were ruining the moment. The riding was relatively easy with some areas of deep gravel here and there.

The Basin Creek Mine is an inactive open pit gold mine, and along with other abandoned mines in the area was put under the EPA's Superfund list in order to clean up and restore the environmental damage caused by mining activities in years past. The watershed was a main concern as this area supplies fresh water to the city of Helena and Basin. The issue with open pit gold mining is that cyanide and other harmful chemicals are used to leach the gold and careless environmental policies of the past resulted in polluted water systems, which taxpayers are now paying the bill to fix. I love capitalism for the best it brings out in humanity in terms of innovation and progress, but our previous implementation of it where it was simply, take, take, take out of the ecosystem with no regard for consequences is thankfully changing as awareness spreads of respect due to the environment.

The route comes out of the forest into the old mining town of Basin on Interstate 15. This whole area around Basin is known for its rich mineral veins and that's primarily due to a geological feature called the Boulder Batholith, which is a huge granite rock under the surface that is 10 miles deep and 100 miles wide spanning from Helena to Butte and formed about 80 million years ago as magma rose to the surface and cooled. As cracks appeared in this host rock, minerals rose from under the earth's crust and filled in, awaiting to be mined by man.

Along with its boom and bust mining fame, this area is also known for its archeological finds of Paleo-Indian artifacts in the surrounding hills, such as hunting spears. These early peoples, perhaps belonging to Clovis Culture, are believed to have migrated to North America about 13,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, crossing over the Bering Land Bridge from Asia into Alaska and down the boundary of the retreating ice sheet into Montana and further south. Advances in dating techniques keep increasing the accuracy of these theories. The research into the first humans in North America is very interesting with findings of artifacts maybe dating back to 50,000 years ago from a site in South Carolina, which would throw a spanner in current models of human origins and the migration path out of Africa, which we all (non-Africans) belong to as evidenced in our common Haplogroup L3 genetic marker in our mitochondrial DNA. In the future, when human genome mapping becomes affordable to the individual, we’ll be able to see exactly where our genes originated from and it all points to Mother Africa.

This is the kind of stuff I'm listening to in my audio books and it's fascinating especially when you're back in the area trying to picture what it was like 10,000 years ago hunting for mammoths with spears and using our big brains to survive. I love the notion that each one of us is the result of a long line of successful ancestors, not just the ones you can remember, but all the humans that successfully procreated over millennia to result in you today.

Taking a lunch break south of Rimini.

The easy riding road heading towards Basin.

The only thing to really fail on this trip was my second tool tube that I zip-tied to my pannier frame. The forces must just be too much through that bracket.

Riding past deep blue lakes.

Coming across some deep loose gravel in the Basin Mining area; gaining lots of good off-road experience.

The afternoon sun producing beautiful shadows.

You can almost picture the forward advance of the pine beetle. Mild winters and warm summers help them spread.

From Basin, the route jumps on I-15 for about 30 miles down to Butte. The riding was still good on the freeway as it snaked through the narrow canyon south of Basin. In Butte, at a gas station, two loggers remarked, "you rode that little feller from Chicago!?" upon seeing my license plate. When I said I was riding down the Divide, then nodded in approval and were glad to see city slickers out here in the woods. They also helped with some directions to the nearest grocery store as I wanted to try adding fresh produce to my nightly cooking. I picked up some broccoli and corn and after scanning through a camping book, decided on Grasshopper Creek campground in Beaverhead National Forest, south of Wise River.

A short ways south of Butte, after some tarmac up into the forests and Thompson Park, the route takes Moose Creek Road to Highland Road for some nice high altitude riding before coming back down to the interstate. This was a pleasant ride in the late afternoon and zero traffic through the forests was much enjoyed. From the town of Divide, MT-43 runs along the scenic Big Hole River up to the town of Wise River. This area is considered one of the most scenic in Montana and is known for its fly fishing. From Wise River, the route heads south along National Forest Road 73, Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, which runs in-between the Pioneer and Beaverhead Mountains. Being here near sunset threw beautiful colors across the landscape. The twisties were highly enjoyable and the DR performed flawlessly. The Kenda K270's are a bit squirrly at lean, but that's what you get with a compromise tire.

South of Butte, after a short Interstate jaunt, on Highland Rd heading west across Deerlodge National Forest back towards I-15.

The picturesque Highland Rd near Pipestone Pass.

Heading back down towards the valley and the Interstate off in the distance.

We seem to be doing too much of this today instead of multiplying, haha. Heading west from the Interstate towards Wise River.

The fun Big Hole Rd, MT-43 heading towards the town of Wise River.

Good twisting road.

Storm clouds gathering to the north, hoping they wouldn't follow me south as the day was nearing its end and I wanted to camp in the dry.

The twisting Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway heading south of Wise River through the Beaverhead National Forest.

The setting sun on this high country at 7000 ft through the Pioneer Mountains.

The dark storm clouds following me south and the signs on the road warn off the danger up ahead...

While I was enjoying shifting my body weight through the corners, I was on the lookout for animals on the road around the corners, especially being dusk and around one such hillside, I came across a group of four black cows bolting away as fast as they could. This one girl who decided she couldn't get across the road before this threat (me) got to her, stopped and gave me a long hard look. I thought nothing of it at the moment and continued on.

I saw a sign for Elk Creek Hot Springs near my campground and decided to see if it was open and perhaps a better camping spot. The single track route took me up into the mountains with no hot springs in sight and dumped me back on the road a few miles back. With that being a dud, I was headed back to my original campsite. Just as I came flying around the same hillside as before, I told myself it would be funny if those same four cows were there and what do you know, there they were just about to make their way across the road thinking it was safe and this same alien threat was back again. That same girl who gave me the look was leading the pack and stopped and gave me that look again. I was cracking up in my helmet and waved to the girls as I went by, capping off a great day of riding about 210 miles with some laughs.

Beef on the run! It is quite amusing to see cattle bolt when they've finally decided I'm a threat. Look at the one on the right, she was bolting uphill to get to the other side of the road with her compadres.

I was waiting patiently taking pictures, but she decided to stop and take a good hard look at this threat. I took a detour and ended up going on a loop and...

came back around to the same patch of road with the same group of cows. They were just making their way back across the road to maybe some good grub. The one of the road must be the same one who gave me the look before. I was laughing away in my helmet.

Grasshopper Campground is a well-situated campsite along Grasshopper Creek with sites right next to the creek reminding me of camping trips in my middle school years in the mountains of southern India. I setup camp before some fast moving thunderclouds came through and was gracious to the hosts for providing free firewood from fallen trees in the area. At an elevation of 6,900 ft, it was going to be a cold night and I setup my cold temp sleeping arrangement, which consisted of putting my sleeping bag into a bag made up of two emergency space/aluminum blankets to reflect my body heat back to me through the night, an idea I got from ultra-light frugal backpackers.

Spending the night at Grasshopper Campground near the 7,800 ft divide.

My beautiful campsite near the tranquil Grasshopper creek that runs south for 50 miles passing through Bannack State Park.

The view reminded me of my camping days in school high up in the Palani Mountains of South India.

Easy access to water for all my cooking needs for the night.

Getting into the living rhythm of the trip. This is my 1 person Catoma Twist tent designed by a company that made fire fighting tents before marketing to consumers. Besides its ease of setup, I liked the large vestibule area, which allowed me to store all my gear for the night under dew and rain protection. I laid my jacket under my legs in the tent and the pants act as the entry mat into the tent.

I was using this trip to test all my gear for extreme conditions and this altitude at this time of year (late summer) meant cold nights in the high 30s. My lightweight down sleeping bag didn't provide enough warmth on the chilly nights last year to Alaska. So this year, I made a silk sleeping bag liner and enveloped myself in an aluminum space blanket bag to reflect my body heat back to me. I left the space blanket open enough to allow my perspiration to evaporate. And as it is widely known, layering is the key to regulating body temperature.

With a campfire roaring, I experimented making dinner with my alternative stove, a wood-fire chimney stove designed by similar backpackers. The concept was simple in that creating intake vents at the bottom and channeling fresh air through the fire and out an exhaust should ensure a high temperature sustained fire required for cooking and after struggling a bit to get a fire going inside the bean can, it worked as described. I controlled the amount of air going in by turning the stove into the wind or away. I soon had boiling water and dinner was made. Besides providing some entertainment, it also deposited lots of soot on my pots. Dinner that night was couscous with broccoli, sprinkled with cayenne pepper and albacore tuna, along with miso soup and corn on the cob. I slept with a full stomach knowing it would help keep me warm into the night.

Getting free firewood from the camp hosts.

Setting up a campfire, before the passing rains returned.

The progression of fire from lighting the tinder..

...to the kindling catching..

...to the fuel wood finally burning. Lighting a fire is a very satisfying feeling.

Having fun with my alternative cooking wood stove made from a can of black beans.

The design was taken from ultra-light backpackers who are designing sustainable natural solutions. I put a safety wire grate on top hoping to grill some meat at some point. The simple idea is to have an exhaust port, the v-shaped cut...

and intake ports on the opposite side at the bottom, so that the one way direction of the airflow provides constant oxygen for the fire to combust.

Boiling water for broccoli.

Being a windy night, I could control the strength of the flame by turning the stove's intake holes into the wind or out of.

Wasn't long before a rolling boil. Yes, one of the downsides is the soot on the pots from a wood fire.

Lightly cooking broccoli, before adding to...

Couscous and chunk tuna with broccoli.

Boiling water for miso soup.

Making some corn on the cob on the fiery coals. I was stuffed and slept warm and happy.

Next: Day 6, Riding to Yellowstone National Park

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