Some people travel. Some people wander. I’m a wanderer. On a recent trip, for example, I set out with a couple of loose goals anchored by a two-night reservation at a bed and breakfast in Coeur D’Alene (CDA), Idaho. First I wanted to explore the Centennial Trail. Second was a long-overdue visit with friends in Seattle. I envisioned exploring Olympic National Park on the way home.The more traveled road from Boise to CDA takes about seven hours of highway cruising. But highways are not for wanderers. I prefer back roads—roads that allow me to gawk and gape and suddenly veer to the shoulder for an ad hoc photo.
A concession to the bike strapped to the back of my car, I intended to stay on paved roads as much as possible. From Boise to Grangeville I followed the standard route: State Highway (SH) 55 then Interstate 95, deviating only for the old portion of the Whitebird grade. Pondering the night’s camping possibilities, I spied a sign pointing to Snowhaven Ski Area east of Grangeville. A paved road climbs steeply and meanders past a patchwork of private homes. At seven miles, I reached the ski area, owned by the city of Grangeville and quite obviously off limits to camping. But the road continues onward and upward through dense forest and so did I. Normally I look for little two-track trails leading into secluded woods, but I wasn’t seeing anything promising. With the sun racing for the western horizon, I pulled into Fish Creek Campground and grabbed one of several available sites near the entrance. This was a reminder of why I loathe campgrounds. Around the corner a village of homes on wheels was plugged into every possible noise making device. Meanwhile shrieking children rode bikes through my campsite as if I weren’t there.
Just west of Orofino, I meandered through the Palouse along Cavendish Grade and Southwick Road to SH 3, which took me north through Deary, Bovill, and Santa—all villages too tiny for stop signs. By early afternoon I arrived in St. Maries, where I planned to unload the bike and ride a dirt portion of the north Idaho trail system.
I’ve been hearing about the magic of this trail for years. I had a map and a vague idea of what was in store: lots of tunnels, some dirt portions of road, some paved portions, some portions of road to be shared with cars, and many options. I discovered that my map was really more of an idealized diagram of possibilities. I drove around and drove around looking for the trailhead. I finally asked a cop. He looked at me like I’d lost my marbles. “A bike path? Here? Nah, ya gotta go up north Wallace or Mullan way. I think ya can catch it at Plummer, too.”
Well hell. I knew the major portion of the trail was up there, but I was looking for the Old Milwaukee Scenic Alternative Trail—which on my map clearly begins in St. Maries and connects with the Route of the Hiawatha, which in turn connects with the Trail of the Couer d’Alenes in Mullan. I found Milwaukee Rd, which quickly turned into dirt and ended at an old mill. I bypassed a residential street. Then, noting that my diagram showed a couple of river crossings, I tried the St. Joe River Road on the other side of the river. This road was gravel, in good condition, lovely, and even went through a tunnel.
At places, I could see the gravel road on the other side of the river which had to be the other portion of the Milwaukee scenic alternative. I followed this road, Forest Service 50, all the way to Avery, where I found the bike trail headed north toward Pearson.
This is the famous Route of the Hiawatha portion of the trail that contains the tunnels and trestle bridges I’ve heard so much about. But by this time, it was nearly 4 PM—way too late to begin a rather serious climb on a trail that eventually ends in Montana. So, I backtracked to Calder for a burger that I needed a ladder to negotiate. Then it was time to find my own private Idaho camp site. It being a Monday early in the season, I found Shadowy St. Joe campground to be completely empty but for the camp hosts. I spent another night snugged into my sleeping bag while rain thrummed the top of my car. A beautiful meadow of wet, wild onions greeted me in the morning.
Back in St. Maries, I saw banners advertising espresso. Hoping to snag some breakfast too, imagine my surprise when I found a row of shampoo basins lining one wall of the espresso joint! But the barista kindly pointed me in the direction of a good hot meal at the end of the block. I’d passed right by, thinking it was a Laundromat. Go figure!
The breakfast was delightful, but cowboy coffee not so much. I returned to the Espresso-salon on the way to the car. The barista, now joined by another employee, smiled warmly. “I knew you’d be back!” she crowed. Then, she asked if I were planning on riding the trail.
“Eeyaaah . . . if I can ever find it!”
These ladies also seemed unaware of the Old Milwaukee section of the trail. But they recommended that I pick the trail up either at Chatcolet in Heyburn State Park or in Harrison. So armed with a delicious mocha, off I went on SH 3, headed for the small tourist town of Harrison.
My next post will describe the delights that awaited me once I finally found the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes.
I admit it. I was pushing the season. It’s been a dry year, a low snow year. Despite mellow temperatures, the snow was long gone from the Boise front range, golf and gardening were in full swing. Even so, I know that it’s dicey to head for the high country in May. I just had to do it.
I awoke to lenticular clouds polka-dotting the blue sky and a severe cold snap in the forecast.The car was loaded, fueled, and ready to go. I had a few errands to run so I got a late start. As I left town, the party-blue sky had disappeared behind a canopy of thick grey that stretched from one horizon to the next. I shook my head at my own folly.
Less than ten miles north of town big, fat, sullen snow flakes began to attack my windshield. They looked preposterous as they drifted down to rich green fields. Despite a growing conviction that I was the stupidest person on the planet, I continued my drive through the snow storm. The flakes were melting as they hit the pavement. The storm would surely not last. The road was empty, as I knew the mountains would be also. Even if I chickened out and returned to my dry bed at home, the sights were charming. After two and half hours, I arrived at Peace Creek trail head. The sizable parking lot was empty, but for my car. I watched the flakes falling from the sky. They were becoming lazier and lazier. But so was I. I tipped the seat back and closed my eyes for a catnap.Thirty minutes later I startled awake. Good grief! Why am I sleeping in the middle of the day? It was still snowing—very lightly. Should I go or should I stay? As I mulled the possibilities and peered at my map, I heard a scratching noise. I looked up to see a puffed up mountain bluebird perched on my rear view mirror.That was my answer! Go! Of course, you must go! Whadya have to loose? Are ya worried that yer hair’ll get wet, ya little ninny? I suited up and marched off toward the bridge over Peace Creek. I quickly recognized that I was plenty warm. The wet earth imparted an intoxicating perfume. Water droplets bejeweled everything, turning the mundane into the Queen’s jewels.
Before long, I realized that it had quit snowing. I tromped along the well-marked path, brushing past wet foliage and chastising myself for wearing cotton cargo pants that wicked moisture toward my knees. Unexpected little accumulations of snow enchanted me.
As I retraced my steps, everything my eyes fell upon touched my soul.
Damp Ponderosa Pine bark attracted my sniffer. Have you ever smelled a Pondy? They send out the most delicious aroma of vanilla bean and chocolate. Who needs mocha when there’s a Ponderosa nearby?
When I stopped for lunch, I couldn’t resist reaching for a large milky quartz. I know, you’re supposed to leave things as you see them, but heck this rock was right in the path, ready to trip some unsuspecting hiker. So, after fortifying myself with the sandwich from my pack, I hefted this 6.5 pound rock into the bottom of the pack. I’m just like my mother. The quartz is a stellar contribution to my back yard.
Along the way, I observed many deer and elk tracks . . .and . . .This photo tells a story: the story of the big bad wolf. That camera lens cap is 2″ in diameter. The canine print above the deer track is about 4.25″ long. (It doesn’t look quite that big from this angle, but I have another shot of the paw print right beside the lens cap. Trust me. It’s BIG.) I love that my woods are no longer completely sanitized of large, four-legged, predators.
By the time I got back to my car, the sky had cleared, all but for a few clouds. I replaced my wet socks and boots with clean, dry socks and shoes and proceeded to explore the countryside a bit more by car before finding the perfect campsite from which to eat my dinner, watch a nearly full moon snake through the trees, and hunker deep inside my down bag. In the morning there was frost on the grass and frozen puddles to verify how damned cold it got during the night.
Life is extraordinary!