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Bright and early the following morning, we dug ourselves out of bed, packed up our gear and started back down the old River Road back towards I-90, because today was the day we were going to make use of those bikes hanging off the back of the truck and ride the Route of the Hiawatha Trail!
Not wanting to waste an opportunity, we drove back along old River Road till it finally came to an end and a bridge further south along the road, closer to the Snakepit, giving us a chance to take a closer look at those other RV parks we’d seen on the way in the night before.
Before long, we were at last back on I-90 and saying our goodbyes to Idaho, well, at least until we rode back into it via the Taft tunnel at the beginning of the Hiawatha Trail .
Eventually, we found our way from Exit 5, along the dirt and gravel roads till we reached the trail head for the trail.
Trail inspectors were out and about, making certain people had their helmets and headlights, after changing into our riding clothes and unloading the bikes, we made our way over to the little EZ Up Canopy to purchase our trail passes and tickets for the shuttle, a mystical vehicle that in my two times on this trail, have yet to actually manage to get a ride on….
Once the ticketing was done, toilets used, the only thing left was the mouth of Taft Tunnel, looming ahead of us.
Over a mile long, the tunnel is a frosty 45 degrees inside, lined with deep concrete culverts along each side to channel the ever seeping water dripping out of the mountain’s rock away from the road bed.
The tunnel has no lights of it’s own, one must provide lighting on their bicycle. When I had ridden this trail back in 2005, I still had batteries for my mountain bike’s two big onboard headlights. Sadly, by 2012, the rechargeable 6 volts were long gone and I forgot to bring the bag that the batteries ride in with me on the trip!
So, our solution was two LED high power Head lamps that we jury-rigged to mount through the vent opening on our bike helmets. In hindsight, I should have forgone the elastic strap and just duct taped the damned thing in place, as it fell loose by the time I was a quarter of the way through the tunnel.
For the remainder of the tunnel, I ended up holding it in one hand to illuminate the way while using the other to actuate only one of the brake controls instead of both.
Did I mention that the trail is downhill it’s entire 15 mile length? Eventually, we made it out to the other side, and took a few moments rest along side the stream running near the western entrance to the tunnel.
While we rested and recounted our adventures through the tunnel, at which time I learned Mason nearly ended up in one of the culverts, a little flying visitor came to join us.
Soon, we were once again blazing down the trail, passing through a continuing series of tunnels as we went.
Along the way, shortly after exiting one of the tunnels, we came across another couple stopped in the same area asking for someone to take their picture in front of the tunnel’s mouth. In exchange, they took our picture for us .
Along the route of the trail there are signboards on which details of the construction of the grade and the history of the Milwaukee Road Railroad can be read .
As you ride the grade down, you skirt along the edges of the Bitterroot Mountains, with vistas of the mountains and valleys still far below. There are no guard rails along this ride, so be certain to keep your bike under control, going off the edge here is one hell of a drop .
When we stopped a little while later for a rest brake, Mason had a close call when he had difficulty actuating the brakes on the bike he was using and clipped one of the rocks lining the edge of a view point clearing and took a biff.
This one was soon followed by several more, interspersed with more tunnels , providing ongoing entertainment as we fought with trying to use our little, rather unhelpful head lamps.
A number of people, when they think of a railroad tunnel, think of a smooth, concrete lined thing, much like a good number of highway tunnels. For most tunnels on a railroad, especially old ones that haven’t since been enlarged to accommodate ever growing stack container trains and other freight, they’re rough hewn rock, broken lose through the use of hand drills and black powder or nitroglycerin.
From a number of view points as you make your way down the grade you can even seen the grade ahead far below as it zigs and zags back and forth through the mountains, slowly descending in elevation.
The view far below one of the trestles…
One tunnel caught my attention in particular on the ride, as it was the only one that was closed to riding due to having been built across a fault line.
As the mountain shifted, the tunnel’s cracked and began to collapse in. I did my best to get a shot though the chain link fencing on the gates keeping riders safely outside the failing tunnel.
It was around this point that we ran into one of the Trail Rangers making his way down to the bottom of the trail at speed. He pulled off and spoke with us as we were stopped outside one of the tunnels, and informed us that we were only half way through and told us the time.
We thanked him and decided at this point that Mason and I would split up. Mason would start from where we were and ride back to the top of the trail and I was going to go on ahead, having ridden the trail from end to end before, and see if I could catch the bus, and if not, turn around if I hadn’t made it when our deadline for the bus hit.
Not too long after Mason and I parted ways, I came around a bend and found this grave marker. The marker is from when the trains rescued a great many from the 1910 blaze that destroyed over three million acres of forest in the area, and of a man who was on one of those trains racing through the blaze who panicked and jumped from the moving train to his death.
The train and the remaining passengers continued on and survived. After the fires had died, they came back and found his body and buried him beside the track, figuring to him to be a railroad laborer, also known as a “Gandy Dancer”.
I continued along from here a good place before stopping once again at the remains of the old track side village of Adair. Only a few rotting old buildings stand testament to a settlement long gone.
Eventually, as I rode on, I too, ran out of time, several miles past where Mason I separated, but no where close to the bus or the end of the trail. So, I started back and realized that perhaps I should have taken some time before the trip to actually ride my bike, especially up-hill…..
I discovered that a 1.5% downgrade is great for coasting, but a royal pain in the butt if you’re out of shape and haven’t ridden your bike at all during the prior part of the year before going on this trip.
Fortunately, for me, there were still people coming down the trail behind me, and as I huffed and puffed my way back up the hill, I inquired of passersby if they were heading back towards the top of the trail and if they had room for one more man and a bike.
For a while, there, I didn’t think I was going to find one, figuring I’d used up that last little nugget of luck back in 2007 when Peter and I had hiked the Ten Falls Trail at Silvercreek Falls in Oregon, but just as I thought I was stuck with hiking all the way back up on foot, I came across this wonderful group of people .
Sadly, I cannot remember anyone’s names anymore, but I still thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
Having procured a ride, I turned around and joined them to finish the ride to the bottom of the trail. Let me tell you, this was the first time that by the finish of a bike ride, I was exhausted from coasting!
I was ever so glad when the end of the line appeared just below us on the grade .
Sadly, I didn’t have means of communicating to Mason that I had procured a ride back, so he worried and waited by the mouth of Taft tunnel until I arrived in their pickup truck back at the parking lot.
A quick wipe down with wet naps and a change into warmer clothes and heartfelt goodbyes, I loaded my bike back onto the track and climbed into the cab of the truck--
--And discovered when I turned on the headlights that the running lights would no longer come on when you pulled the knob…………