The High Bitterroots: Mountain Biking the Lewis & Clark Trail

The High Bitterroots:
Mountain Biking the Lewis & Clark Trail

Article & Photos Copyright 2011 Ron Watters
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I jumped up even before the sound.  KAABOOOM!  A bright white light momentarily blinded me.  The tent walls glowed red for a moment and then dissolved into blackness.

Okay.  This is it.  I’m going to die out here.  On a mountain bike trip, of all things, and I don’t even mountain bike! 

“Josh,” I ventured cautiously, “You still there?”

I knew he was there.  He was sleeping, or trying to sleep, right next to me, the two of us crammed in a tent made for one person.  Of course, he was still there.  I could feel his elbow in my back.  But the lightning strike was very, very close, and I had to check, had to hear his voice.

“Yeah, still here,” he replied weakly, “but I don’t know about Jerry.”  Jerry was in his tent maybe twenty feet away.  Wordlessly, we both pondered the situation:  someone ought to check on Jerry.  Judging by the deafening crack, the lightning must have struck within 100 feet of us.  But the storm was now at the peak of its fury and it was far too loud to try to call out to him.  The rain beat down on the tent so hard that it was like someone had turned a fire hose on us.  Josh and I could barely hear one another, much less someone twenty feet away.  No.  Someone would have to get up, put on a rain jacket and walk over to Jerry’s tent.  I made a little half hearted attempt to get up and then…KABOOOM!  Another lightning strike!

I hunkered down in the bag.  We’d check on Jerry in the morning.

* * *

What the heck was I doing here?  The answer was two words:  Jerry Dixon.  He was in the nearby tent.  His status at the moment, however, was uncertain.  He could be the picture of restful health or he could resemble something scraped off of a George Foreman grill.

This trip was his idea.  It was part of a long journey that he had planned, a summer project of sorts, re-tracing the Lewis and Clark trail.  He had started at the Gates of the Rockies and was hiking, kayaking and biking his way to the ocean.  On the most remote part of the route, the part of the Lewis and Clark trail which traverses Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains, he was looking for company and he had asked Josh and me to join him.

When Jerry called and first suggested a trip through the Bitterroots on mountain bikes, I was non-committal.  I really wasn’t all that excited about Lewis and Clark.  If you live in the west, you see and hear about them a lot.  Admittedly, I didn’t know much about the two explorers, but I had heard enough and it was all beginning to seem like a lot of hype.

Jerry was persistent and finally, after the third or fourth call, I finally gave in and said yes, but only half heartedly.

It wasn’t just my doubts about Lewis and Clark.  I also didn’t know the first thing about mountain biking.  I had only gone mountain biking once or twice — and, after those early trips, I considered myself lucky to have not broken anything.  As it was, Jerry wasn’t planning an ordinary mountain bike trip.  Oh no.  This was to be mountain-bike-packing-trip.  We’d be carrying to carry all of our gear on our bikes for the week trip.

“No problem,” he said when I asked how that might be done.  “Buy a rack for the back of the bike and load it up.”

Jerry was assuming, of course, that I had a mountain bike to put the rack on.  I didn’t.

Okay.  I know.  I know.  Everyone in Idaho has a mountain bike.  Even the governor has a mountain bike.  And, yes, it was high time that I got one.  So I got one.  With a rack on the back.  To prepare for the trip, I loaded the bike with my camping gear and rode around our Pocatello neighborhood.  Despite the cautious looks that I was getting from the neighbors, it seemed like it might work.

Until, that is, we started down from the top of Lolo Pass.  We had loaded our bikes in the parking area of the brand new Lewis & Clark visitor’s center.  The plan: have a little fun at the beginning of the trip.  Starting at the top, we would coast an easy four miles, all downhill on the paved US 12.  Once we got to the bottom, we’d turn away from the paved highway and follow a dirt road up to the top of a ridge where we would join the Lewis & Clark trail.

The fun for me evaporated about as fast as water on a pave highway in mid summer.  The downhill coast wasn’t exactly amusing.  First there was a string of semis that passed us and an accompanying blast of air that threw my bike toward the guard rail, from the edge of which I caught a rather fleeting view of the steep drop into a tributary of the Lochsa River.  Then there was the load on the back of my bike.  It was clearly making its presence known.  At about 8 miles an hour, my back end would start a gentle Marilyn Monroe swaying back & forth.  At 10 miles it was a wobble, and at 11 miles an hour I was off the road.

Eventually, I made it down to join Josh and Jerry at the bottom.  They both looked at me with a puzzled look that suggested:  what took you so long?  But there we were, at last, ready to for the real trip, which started with a 3,000 foot ride uphill to the ridge.  I began peddling up the dirt road and suddenly I was struck with an uneasy thought:  I’m already tired, and I’ve only been going downhill!

It was no matter.  We really didn’t ride that much.  The dirt road quickly steepened into a grade that could not be peddled.  I suppose you could have powered up it with an unloaded bike but with 50 pounds of gear lashed to the bike, it wasn’t practical to ride.  For me, there was another practical problem involved.  I had all of my gear tied on the back.  When I tried riding, my front tire would rise up, and if the hill steepened just a bit more, well, you can imagine what it’s like to do a back flip on a bike.  Some day, I would love to see the acrobats in Cirque du Soleil, but I’ve never had any ambitions actually to be one.  So I walked.

Pushing the Bikes Uphill

* * *

This all took place earlier the day of the thunderstorm.  The razor close lightning strike was just icing on the cake.  The storm went on for several more hours, but by the next morning, the rain had dwindled to a drizzle.  I rousted myself from the bag, slipped on some damp clothes and checked Jerry’s tent, uncertain what I might find.  Peering in cautiously, I found him unscathed, lying there, snug in his bag with a broad grin on his be-whiskered face.

Later that morning, we mounted our bikes and were off once again.  The road we were following was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and is called the Lolo Motorway.  Fortunately, the Forest Service has left it in its original condition, not straightening or widening, leveling or otherwise modernizing it.  It’s clearly a primitive path just wide enough for one vehicle which, of course, is downright perfect for mountain biking.  Moreover, we had quite accidentally chosen best the time of year to ride it.  It was early July.  Snow drifts still blocked some portions of the road, and during our week trip, we saw only a handful of vehicles.

Yet most of that second day, views of the surrounding country were as rare as passing vehicles.  All was hidden from us by swirling mist and clouds which engulfed the mountains.  The uphill climb continued, but then it eased up and then leveled.  Suddenly, the riding became easy, pleasant actually, rolling along the high ridge of the Bitterroots.

We were now on the ridge proper, the airy, ancient highway used by the Nez Perce to travel between the plateau country of Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington onto the buffalo-rich lowlands of Montana.  Lewis and Clark had learned about this highway, and with the help of Toby, their Nez Perce guide, they raced to get across it before early snows in the Bitterroots blocked their path.

It wasn’t too long before we came upon a sign of their passing.  It was, literally, a sign — and a big one at that.  Standing about 15 feet high and placed there by the Forest Service, it marked the site “Snowshoe Camp.”

This was where Lewis and Clark joined the Lolo trail and rested for the night after a long climb up from the Lochsa River, far below.  It was September 15, 1805.  What a wretched day it had been, the most wretched of their journey.  All day, it had snowed, wetting their clothing, chilling them to the bone.  “I have been wet and as cold in every part as I ever was in my life;” Clark wrote in his journal, “indeed, I was at one time fearful my feet would freeze in the thin moccasins I wore.”

For us, it wasn’t hard to imagine.  The sky was overcast, the surrounding forest colorless, individual stands of trees blurred occasionally by periodic streams of mist snaking about the terrain.  It was quiet and cool.  Our clothing was damp from an intermittent drizzle.  And then there was the snow.  Remaining banks of snow were scattered about the base of the Forest Service sign.  It wasn’t hard to imagine, standing there, looking around.  Thinking back on our efforts and shivering in the cool, damp air, I began to understand — and feel — a little of what Lewis & Clark had faced.

Of all the parts of their 4,000-mile journey across the continent, from the mouth of the Missouri to the Pacific, this was the one that challenged them like no other.  Lewis called it “the most formidable part . . . [over] tremendous mountains which for 60 miles are covered with eternal snow.”   Sergeant Patrick Gass described the terrain even more succinctly as “the most terrible mountains I ever beheld.”

There is something about the Bitterroots that is both exhilarating and frightening at the same time.  It is a stormy, sometimes violent place, and it is a place of mists and deep dark forests, a place where one’s thoughts can run wild.  It can be very claustrophobic, even on the high ridges when the sky weighs heavily upon the land.  Certainly, it is for those of us that live in the openness of the central and southern parts of the state.  And, certainly, it was for Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery.

Clark called this land of endless mountains, downed trees, and of snow and cold, a place “impossible to escape.”  After hundreds of miles across the open plains, the Corps of Discovery found themselves suddenly hemmed in, imprisoned by this formidable range.  Their hunger didn’t help matters.  There was no game in the mountains, and even Drouillard, a hunter and woodsman of consummate skill was coming back empty handed.  The mood among the party sunk to rock bottom.   “The want of provisions,”Clark wrote in a passive tone, “together with the difficulty of passing the mountains, dampened the spirits of the party.”

We, fortunately, had enough food. (At least, Josh and I did.  Jerry was cutting it a bit close with a block of cheese for lunch and Top Ramen for dinner.)  And our spirits were fine.  We finished our stay by taking photos of one another holding snow balls in front of the “Snowshoe Camp” camp sign, and shoved off on the bikes, westbound.

* * *

Two days later, I came upon Jerry and Josh stopped alongside a van with Texas plates.  They were talking to a tall and lean man in his 50s, wearing a t-shirt with a Lewis and Clark map on the front.  Geophysicist, Mike Karas, was on a long furlough, a half-summer-long furlough from his work, following the historical trail.  “I spent a year researching Lewis and Clark,” he told us shortly after I arrived, “I read everything I could get my hands on.”  Obviously, this was no ordinary vacation.  To Mike Karas this was the ultimate vacation.

It wasn’t his first ultimate vacation.  He had followed the Oregon and Santa Fe trails, and it was clear that he had done this before from the looks of his tidy and well outfitted van.  The rear door of the van opened to a small library of books and files of historical material on the Lewis and Clark trail, and the side door, accessed his portable kitchen, complete with a wooden cabinet, Coleman stove, water, cooking utensils and a well-stocked pantry.

Jerry’s eyes locked onto the pantry.  No doubt that he was doing some quick calculations in his mind.  His block of cheese was dwindling and we still had three or four more days of riding ahead of us.  “Look at that food!” he said with eyes wide, mouth open and tongue lolling.  Jerry hadn’t quite yet made it to the early stages of starvation, but Mike didn’t even hesitate and asked Jerry if he’d like a peanut and jelly sandwich.  Jerry, the backcountry bon vivant that he is, readily accepted.  Soon we were spread out, sitting on the edge of the road bed, sharing Mike’s meal of oranges, French onion chips, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

After lunch, Mike drove on ahead of us, but we eventually caught him again at the base of Sherman Peak. Sherman Peak lies along what is known as Spirit Revival Ridge and the four of us joined together for a hike along the ridge to the top.  No matter how indifferent you might be to Lewis & Clark, you can’t come away from a walk along this ridge without becoming absorbed in their story — and, at the same time, you can’t come away from it, well, without reviving your own spirit.  It was here that first Clark (who had gone ahead) and then Lewis, saw something other than endless mountains.  What they saw gave them hope, and it’s no better expressed than in Lewis’s own words . . .

“Set out this morning a little after sunrise and continued our route about the same course as yesterday for six miles.  When the ridge terminated and we, to our inexpressible joy, discovered a large track or prairie country lying to the SW.”

View From Sherman Peak

To our inexpressible joy:  what beautiful words.  The mountain from which Lewis first glimpsed the prairie–from which the view inspired him to write those poetic words–is Sherman Peak.  It was from the sparsely treed summit of this gentle mountain that Lewis, for once really knew that there was indeed an end to the mountains.  “The appearance of this country, our only hope of subsistence, greatly revived the spirits of the party, already reduced and much weakened for want of food.”  They would make it!

* * *

Not long after Sherman Peak, the Lolo Motorway leaves the historic trail for several miles, rejoining it later.  At this point Lewis & Clark left the ridgeline and descended down a drainage named Hungery Creek.  To this day, Hungery Creek remains the most wild and primitive portion of the entire Lewis and Clark trail.

The road, however, avoids the stream’s tangled undergrowth and steep canyon walls, contouring around the north side of the ridge.  Lying in the most magical of places, the path leads through a forest of tall hemlocks.  There is very little underbrush in this forest:  just tall stately trees with rich dark brown trunks streaked with grey lichen, and a quietness that takes your breath away.  The riding was smooth and cushioned by a layer of hemlock needles, and was so effortless that at times I felt as though I was a spirit moving silently among the huge trees.  It sort of crept up on me, but on the cool northern slopes of the Bitterroots, my conversion to mountain biking was complete.

Moreover, I’m happy to report that I managed the rest of the ride without any major mishaps.  I came out with all body parts intact and though there were a few sore spots here and there, everything was working properly.  That was after an incredible descent out of the Bitterroots.  This time, there were no semis speeding by.  The road we followed was a lightly used, secondary road that dropped and dropped and dropped all the way down to the Clearwater River and right into downtown Kooskia.

It was on the Clearwater River downstream from Kooskia where Lewis & Clark found respite after their journey through the “terrible” mountains.  Along the banks of the Clearwater and with the help of the Nez Perce, they feasted on fresh salmon and game and built the boats that would take them down the river to its junction with the Snake and then on to the Columbia and then on to the sea.

They would return the same way in 1806, making another crossing of the Bitterroots this time from west to east.

When we arrived in Kooskia, we headed directly to the grocery store where we indulged in ice cream, fresh fruit, and all sorts of junk food.  Josh and I were on our way home while Jerry would be continuing his journey by kayaking down the Clearwater River.  As we were leaving, Jerry was making one last trip to the store to pick up a few extra supplies.  Top on his list:  another block of cheese.


On August 12, 2003 Jerry Dixon reached the Pacific, completing his journey re-tracing the Lewis & Clark trail by foot, bike and kayak.  A few short years later, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease).  He died in the fall of 2010.  “Never stop dancing,” he would say.  And he never did.  Only a couple of months before his death, he ran the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Jerry Dixon - High in the Bitterroots