Friday, June 13, 2014

A traffic-less 400K? Almost with the Koocanusa-Yaak 400K

Karel and me at the Dirty Shame in Yaak.  Great burgers!
Karel's 400K and 300K photos  My photos  Results

I had some huge concerns when mapping out the Koocanusa-Yaak 400K Brevet.  Chief among them was the potential heavy traffic on narrow shouldered roads on US Highway 93 near the start, and US 2 near the finish. Also, this was the most likely Montana route to produce a Bigfoot sighting, or to be accosted by some mountain people Deliverance style.

I needn't have worried.  After the first 25 miles on the very pleasant Farm-to-Market road from Kalispell to north of Whitefish we got on US 93 and we were pretty much all by ourselves.  There was an occasional car or truck, but all gave us plenty of room.  Then we encountered some road construction and had the joy of riding on brand new pavement for almost 10 miles while the cars and trucks were slowed to 35 mph by a pilot car.  It was wonderful.  By the time we got to Dickey Lake, the road widened as the traffic finally started waking up.  It was smooth sailing for the first 100K to Eureka. And not to be a spoiler or anything, but despite the squatchyness of the route we saw no bipedal critters other than humans, and those humans were nothing but nice-no banjos or pig squealing or anything-not that there's anything wrong with banjos.

Karel Stroethoff was the only other randonneur to join me on this day. Ken Billingsley was planning to join us, but his knee was acting up-and a 400K is not a ride to be messing with a sore knee if you can help it. Though Ken was missed, Karel and I have ridden thousands of miles of brevets and permanents together-and we have never run out of things to talk about as we chug along.  Lucky for me, Karel did come out-unlucky for Karel-he probably shouldn't have...but more on that later.

After Eureka we would be on the most quiet paved roads I've ever ridden.  For the next 100 miles we could have probably counted the number of motor vehicles that passed us on one hand.  Why this place isn't an absolute cycling mecca-I'll never know.  The local businesses seem to be more interested in motorcycle riders for customers.  If they ever figured out how to market this area world-wide to cyclists they'd have a gold mine on their hands.  It's not that some cyclists don't know this area.  There's a popular spring 2-day ride called STOKR that takes place on some of these roads, and there's a growing Gran Fondo later in the summer as well.  But with the scenery, challenge, and extreme lack of traffic on these paved roads-this place should be overrun with road cyclists.

We crossed the beautiful Lake Koocanusa on what I learned is the longest and highest bridge in Montana (with no traffic in sight).  Lake Koocanusa was created by the Libby Dam plugging up the Kootenai River.  It was built in the early 1970's which seems incredibly recent for a major dam project.  I thought we were done doing those by the 1950's.  The lake goes all the way up into Canada.  The name Koocanusa is broken down as Koo for Kootenai, can for Canada, and usa for USA!  Neato!
Lake Koocanusa Bridge-photo by Karel

After Koocanusa we entered one of the most remote areas in the lower 48 states-known locally as The Yaak. Yaak is an Indian word for arrow.  The region is known for the Yaak River which is a pretty popular whitewater float.  I always heard that the Yaak is a place where people go who don't want to be found.  It's a little bit spooky.

We had a long, hard climb on the narrow, but nicely paved forest service road.  It went on forever and the grades got really steep at times.  This is no engineered highway grade-this is a logging road-though an extremely good logging road.  Logging roads can get really steep.  Karel and I both took a couple of short breaks, but the reward at the top was nice view of Mt. Henry. Then it was a super fun and twisty descent to the Yaak River on the other side.  We couldn't really let it go though-as the extreme lack of traffic meant tree branches were hanging across the road in places and at times the pavement was very rough.

It was about 100K from Eureka to the small village of Yaak with pretty much nothing but a few shacks and cabins in between.  We were out of water and seriously in need of food.  A sign in front of the World Famous Dirty Shame Saloon said their food was better and cheaper-so Karel and I decided to give them a shot. The special for the day was a 2/3 pound double cheeseburger for the price of a 1/3 pound burger. That sounded just right-and Karel and I both took advantage.  Along with the huge burgers we got a big plate of fries and all the coke we could drink. On top of all that the folks at the bar-both staff and customers were really friendly and normal-not scary at all like I sort of worried about.  It was just a nice little place out in the middle of nowhere.

After Yaak we had to climb out of the valley...and climb we did.  I kind of underestimated this climb-though I saw it in the car on the pre-drive a couple of days ago.  I suppose being loaded down with a huge burger and greasy fries didn't help, but both Karel and I really struggled going up hill.  It took forever and we were hurting.  But over the top is was 24 miles of downhill all the way to Libby.  Thank goodness!

Another food stop at Libby-at the McDonalds and then on more quiet roads-the Haul road along the railroad tracks, and the Fisher River Road back into the forest.  It was getting dark so we stopped to gear up.  The temperatures also dropped from the 70's to the 40's in a matter of minutes after the sun went down. 

The Fisher River road goes against the Fisher River, but it was a pretty easy grade.  That all changed when we switched to the McKillop Creek Road-which was all brand new pave.  It was eight miles to US. 2 and 7 of them were up a what I would guess is a 6 to 7% grade.  And again-not a car or truck to be found anywhere except those parked off the road at a few campsites along the way.  I figured the only thing that could ruin our quiet riding bliss was if we came across a high school keggar-and this area would be perfect for a keggar-but none were to be found-thankfully...either that or Bigfoot!

At this point Karel was really starting to feel the ride.  Now Karel normally eats 400K's for breakfast, but this season he's been working way too hard at his real job (Math Professor at the University of Montana) and not getting in enough riding, or enough sleep.  He hadn't turned a pedal since our 300K two weeks ago.  He was starting to get really sleepy.

I waited only a couple of minutes at the junction with US 2 for Karel to come along.  It was dark and very cold-temps in the low 30's at times as there were lots of lakes in the area and lots of cold air pockets.  After our penultimate control at Happy's Inn we had 50 miles to go all on US 2-one of the main highways in this region...except that it was midnight and the road was totally empty.

Shortly after Happy's Inn Karel and I were still riding together when I saw the eye shine of some critters crossing the road ahead of us. I assumed them to be deer-as they were all over the place on this route. Suddenly the side of the road became alive with critters moving around rapidly-but they were much bigger than deer and much faster than cows.  All of sudden they crossed our headlight beams and revealed themselves to be 20 or 30 head of elk!  The herd rumbled right across the road within a few feet of us. It was exciting and a little scary.  If one or a few of them had run into us-it wouldn't have been pretty.  And if a car or truck had happened along just then is would have been total carnage.

The elk scare must have woke me up because I started riding a little stronger on the big, big rollers through this stretch.  As I crested a big hill I realized Karel's lights were nowhere in sight behind me.  Just then a pickup passed me and pulled over.  A very concerned woman said my buddy was a ways back there and he was stopped. I thanked them for their concern and said I would stop and wait for him.  This was no big deal. On long brevets riders often get separated out-of-sight of each other, but a few minutes wait is usually all it takes to get back together. I figured Karel got a flat tire or something-nothing he wasn't equipped to handle.

After just a few minutes, our loyal neutral support volunteers, Brenda and Jackson came along in the car to check on us.  There was absolutely no cell service on most of the route-except at Libby and Eureka so I couldn't check in.  So for safety sake I asked Brenda to come out our way after mid-night to see how we were doing.  I sent Brenda down the hill to check on Karel and I would wait for her to bring me a report.  After a few minutes of shivering I decided to just start riding again-no use getting hypothermia waiting around when I couldn't really do anything anyway.  After riding for several miles, Brenda finally came along and reported that Karel was engaging in that time honored randonneur tradition of a ditch nap.  Brenda had a hard time finding him, but when she did Karel was getting underway again.

After Marion there's a great big 6% downhill.  Normally this is very welcome, but with temps at or near freezing I didn't really need it.  It was excruciatingly cold.  But I was getting closer now.  A few more drivers of questionable sobriety were coming out on the roads so I was happy to turn off US 2 at Kila and get to the Great Northern bike path the rest of way to Kalispell...if I can find the dang trail.  Even though I had driven to this location two days before I had to play my light around for a few minutes to find the entrance to the path-which isn't marked for night riders.  

10 miles of path riding at the end of a brevet is my kind of finish.  No worries about drunks and a relatively flat-downhill grade.  I rolled into the finish at about the same time we arrived for check-in the previous morning. I had been up for almost 25 hours and on the ride for 23:25.

Karel got in a little after 6AM.  He suffered mightily from the cold and lack of sleep and even had to walk on the Marion Hill descent because he was too tired and cold to keep the bike going straight.  He was also very concerned about drunks and pulled over every time a car came by.  He had trouble finding the path like I did, but eventually got on it and to finish line.

I am so grateful that Karel was along on this ride. Riding through The Yaak and on the very dark and spooky McKillop Creek Road alone would have probably led to me abandoning at some point. And this 400K was very important for me.  It's my last big test before the Cascade 1200 on June 21...Lord help me with that one. I hope I haven't bitten off more than I can chew. 

I am also tremendously grateful to my wife Brenda and son Jackson for their support.  Brenda was up with me a 3:30AM to get to the start and handle the paperwork, and they were both out there in the wee hours of the next day to check on us.

Finally many thanks to my brother-in-law Dan and sister-in-law Dori and their family for putting us up and for all the encouragement and sausage sticks that sustained me on much of this ride.  It was also neat to have all the family and guests at their house who were visiting for my nephew Gavin's high school graduation to give me a round of applause when I staggered down the stairs much later that morning for breakfast.


Biker Bob said...

Congratulations to both of you and thanks for a great report. I did a little kayaking on the Yaak River in the very early 70s. Montana has some great scenery but it does get pretty cold at night even in June. Best of success on the Cascade 1200.

Jason Karp said...

Thanks Bob!

Iron Rider said...

Sounds like a great route. I hope to ride out there sometime.