Lost air, a bear and a hunter scare: Eureka - Helena (Montana)
After a delicious lunch in Eureka paid for by a very generous lady, it was time to head to our campsite for the night.
Looking on Jamie’s phone we could see a ‘free camping’ spot located on the map. We cycled on to find a huge patch of lush green grass perched next to a river, behind the visitor centre. A sign read that we could camp where we liked and use the shower at the petrol station across the road. Fancy! After setting up our tent we spotted two other cyclists heading for the camp. Eagerly, we ran over to greet them. Christian and Claire, a Chilean and French couple, had just crossed the Canadian border in search of adventure on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Hurray! We weren’t the only crazy people starting the Great Divide so late in the year!
A few hours later our warmshowers.com hosts, Tim and Heather, sent us a message inviting us to join them for dinner at the local grill. They were passing through Eureka on their way to Helena. We told them we had thankfully not seen any bears on our journey out from Fernie. (The morning we had left there had been a grizzly bear with cubs that had made bluff charges at some cyclists). We told them our concerns of potential grizzly bear encounters on the next step of our journey through the Flathead Valley. Tim seemed convinced we would be safe.
‘Oh you guys are safe from grizzly bears now. There are probably about two in the mountains you’ll be riding through, if any’. Relieved, we finished our dinner, said goodbye and headed back to camp.
That night rain pounded on the tent roof but we slept soundly on the soft green grass. The next morning we got up early, ready to embark on the next section of our journey. Claire and Christian, powered by chocolate milk and sandwiches, managed to pack up their belongings with incredible speed and hit the road. Jamie and I continued moving various objects from one place to the other for a few hours - we still haven’t mastered the art of packing up our belongings very quickly! Finally we were ready!
We left Eureka for paved farm roads, that crossed railway lines and creeks filled with bright pink salmon. We stopped after about an hour for a coffee & snack break (as usual), before hopping back on the bikes. We soon hit dirt roads, passing little farms with horses and a strangely - a brewery! (Sadly it wasn’t open). The rest of the morning involved a very big climb. Up and up. On rocky gravel roads. So much up! There was quite a bit of bear poo around too, which was an excellent incentive to cycle faster.
At last we were at the top of the pass. Beautiful pink rocks, yellow grass and trees dotted on the mountain side. We decided on an impromptu picnic in the sun to celebrate the climb.
‘Only about 15kms to go’ said Jamie, looking down at his map. ‘And it all looks pretty much downhill’.
We hopped back on our steeds, looking forward to an epic down hill and a class of wine at camp.
‘Whooooooo hooooooo!,’ I shrieked, as we sped down hill, our bikes jumping over the rocks.
But suddenly -
The worst sound possible to a cyclist. Jamie had a flat tire.
We got off the bikes to inspect the damage. Pinky white liquid oozed from a cut in his tubeless tire.
‘Gabi, quickly put some pressure on the tire while I try and find my repair kit.’
Jamie’s work in emergency had clearly paid off. He calmly inserted a tubeless repair plug into the tire and waited patiently for the liquid to seal the hole. (If it had of been me, I would have leapt about shouting and waving my hands in the air). Unfortunately air had created a large air bubble between the layers of rubber, creating a very large liquid blister on his tire. As we didn’t have a spare tire with us, we decided to cycle on gently and hope for the best.
Just as we were about to ride on, we saw a ute crawl around the bend of the road. A hunter, dressed in camouflage and sporting a rather luminous orange beanie, wound down his window quickly.
‘You guys know there’s a grizzly bear just there, right?’
Our faces turned white.
‘Yeh, we have been tracking him for the last half an hour. He’s been making his way down the ridge, and is only about 20 meters from the road.’
‘Right. Thanks. We better get out of here then!’
He nodded. ’Stay safe guys.’
Although A. You are not meant to run away from a bear, and B. Jamie had a very large lump on his tire, we peddled as fast down the hill as our trembling legs would let us. We arrived into camp in record time! We found Claire and Christian, cooking at their campsite and told them of our days adventures. Worried about a possible bear visit in the night, we made sure to cook dinner on the other side of the campsite to our tent.
Luckily we weren’t eaten by a bear over night. After a quick breakfast of oats and coffee, we sped off down the dirt roads.
After a few hours we reached a US Forestry Services hut. What a perfect spot for lunch! As we were digging into our wraps, we were met by two friendly guys who were very interested in our story. One of them insisted we stay in his brother’s hut, just off the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Again, we are so in awe of everyone’s kindness! We bid them farewell and continued our journey.
The rest of the day involved a steady climb uphill to a beautiful lake called Red Meadows. The autumn foliage on the mountains was stunning! We cooked dinner with Claire and Christian, enjoying a glass of wine by the fire at sunset.
The next day was a breeze. All downhill, although it was very nippy! Near the bottom of our descent, I rounded a corner (at great speed), and saw to my surprise, a hunter standing in the middle of the road pointing his gun in our general direction. It seemed that he was trying to shoot a ptarmigan.
The hunter nodded towards us. ‘Hey there guys!’
I threw the man a filthy look.
‘There are other cyclists behind us. You should be more careful!’
We sped on, enjoying the final section of the descent into Whitefish.
‘Pizza?’ I asked Jamie.
After a delicious pepperoni pizza (and several glasses of wine), we made a beeline for the campground.
‘Hey guys, we have a special deal for cyclists. Only $10 a night. And we have showers!’
‘Fantastic, we’ll stay for two nights please!’
We paid the man and trotted off to find a tent site. It was only after we had finished setting up our tent, and were tucking into some hot chocolate, that we heard the most horrendously loud noise.
‘What on earth is that?’ I asked Jamie in confusion.
‘It sounds like a train going through the campsite!’
And indeed it (nearly) was. It turns out our wonderfully cheap campsite was situated not only by a beautiful lake, but also right on the freight train line. It also turns out that freight trains roar past the campsite every half hour (including during the night). Bleary eyed and exhausted (we were too tired to pack up our tent and move the next day), we spent the next couple of days resting (napping) in coffee shops. Jamie also replaced his tire (which had increased in size and was most bulbous), and we restocked for the next section of the trip.
Our cycle from Whitefish to Big Fork was a delight. Smooth back roads, tiny apples on the roadside and signs inviting strangers to pick grapes for free (turns out they were incurably sour and indigestible - but still!). There was even a friendly dog, that trotted out from his house and insisted we pat him. I was very excited.
‘Jamie, do you think he would fit in my basket?’
Jamie rolled his eyes and had to practically drag me away from him. But he had the softest fur - I was desperate to keep him. Alas, we cycled on.
We zigzagged along back roads, until we finally arrived at a town called Big Fork. Hungry, we went straight to the supermarket where we purchased a loaf of ‘Italian’ bread, a roast chicken and a large tub of potato salad. We cycled to the campground and perched on the edge of the lake where we (by some miracle) managed to devour all of the above. A cyclist’s appetite is really quite impressive! We patted our stomachs happily and after setting up the tent we climbed up to the cliff to watch the sunset.
The journey from Big Fork to a wild camp at Cedar Creek was remarkably different to the previous days ride. It was back to quiet dirt roads and up mountains. At lunch we sat in the sun and enjoyed watching the orange and yellow leaves fall off the trees and onto the ground. In the afternoon we sped down bumpy hills, all the way to our camp for the night. Cedar Creek camp was a little clearing by a (rather swampy) creek known for its mosquitos. Luckily for us the temperature was around zero and had scared the mosquitos away. Claire and Christian joined us and offered us some of their new hot chocolate. We accepted, excitedly.
‘It’s really good,’ Claire told us. ‘We just put a few spoons in our hot milk.’
‘Can I have a look at the jar?’ I asked, interested. Claire passed it over to me. I looked at it carefully. On the label it read “Instant PB.” PB? But that’s not hot chocolate…
‘Claire, you do realise this isn’t actually hot chocolate power?’
‘What? No?’ She replied, somewhat confused.
‘It’s dehydrated peanut butter,’ Jamie chimed in. We both desperately tried not to laugh, although it was a very easy mistake. We had heard of this magic powder from other cyclists. You mix two teaspoons of peanut butter powder, with one teaspoon of water, and voila`, you have peanut butter ready for your sandwiches.
‘Oh! Well yes, I suppose it didn’t really taste like hot chocolate. But we like it.’
To be good sports, we insisted they mix some up into a paste so we could all try it.
‘I don’t like it,’ said Christian, after he had tasted it. ‘It’s better with hot milk.’
‘Well, you guys have probably invented a new delicious hot drink,’ I volunteered. Jamie nodded.
In the end, we decided against a ‘hot chocolate’, and went off to bed.
The next day we cycled along in the sun, taking our time to admire the autumn trees along the road. We were quite excited as we didn’t have a long ride (only 45kms! A breeze!), and had booked a little log cabin for the night. When we arrived Claire and Christian were cleaning their bikes meticulously. We parked our bikes and guiltily trotted over to the general store for an ice cream. We watched as a couple of friendly deer munched on the grass around the cabin. We didn’t clean our bikes…
That night we curled up on the couch and watched Anchorman on DVD - quite a change from our previous evenings in the tent.
The next morning, fuelled with blackberry pancakes and strong coffee, Claire and I sped off along the highway towards Seeley Lake. The boys opted for a big day of rough road, but we found out later that they were rewarded with incredible views and an epic descent. (Unfortunately our trusty Steripen leapt out of Jamie's handlebar bag in the process - goodbye Steripen!).
Claire and I passed beautiful lakes, wheat filled paddocks and strangely, quite a few billboards preaching the Ten Commandments. Eventually we reached Seeley Lake in the late afternoon and went straight to the campsite, keen to set up before it got too cold. Unfortunately when we arrived we realised that although the campground was free, it had no water. We trotted back to town where we met the boys at ‘Chicken Coop’, a fine establishment that sold large quantities of fried chicken. After eating our fill, we each (stealthily) took it in turns to carry muddy drink bottles into the bathroom to collect as much water as possible. That night we were lucky our water supplies didn’t freeze! The temperature dropped well below zero, and in the morning it was snowing. Refreshed and strangely energetic (probably from all the chicken we had the previous night), we pointed our bikes towards the mountains and enthusiastically began to ride, sure that the snow would soon melt.
It did not.
In fact, it only increased and with great vigour.
Within minutes we each had a pile of snow an inch high on our helmets. For the next hour we had to squint because there was so much snow was flying into our eyes. After a while we paused under a tree to scoff down snickers bars and a half squashed banana. We pushed on. After about half an hour more of climbing, Jamie, unable to feel his fingers any more, leapt off his bicycle and tore open his stuff sack full of spare clothes and gloves. He quickly pulled out his woollen mittens that his mum had knitted, lovingly. Much better! Several star jumps later we were back on the bikes, keen to get off the mountain as soon as possible.
After crossing the pass, the snow stopped and we were able to see properly again. We gobbled our tuna (and ‘borrowed’ condiment) sandwiches as fast as we could, and peddled towards Ovando. At about 4pm we arrived. Ovando, it turns out, really loves cyclists. For a mere five dollars we had the choice of staying in a tipi, an old sheep herder’s caravan, or the old jail. We opted for the sheep herder’s caravan - a welcome shelter after a very cold day. After Christian and Claire had set up their tent behind the jail, we went straight to Trixie’s Saloon.
Wow... Trixie’s was an experience.
Trixie herself resembled a female version of Popeye, with a very curly miss piggy hairstyle to match. She seemed rather disgruntled at our insistence that we just wanted hot chocolates and nothing else. She also seemed to enjoy smashing crockery and hissing at customers. No-one else in the bar seemed to mind, and were quaffing beer and sharing hunting stories. The hot chocolates however, were absolutely delicious! Hot and sugary, with a swirl of whipped cream. Just what we needed! We drank them greedily and scurried out.
That night was very cosy. We curled up on the bunk in the sheep caravan and went to sleep.
The cycle from Ovando to Lincoln was a big one. We endured a rather long climb up the mountain, spurred on by a collection of music recommended by our friend Danny. GGOLD is an excellent playlist, and definitely helps you get up those mountains!
65kms later we arrived at a little RV park in Lincoln, with the softest grass we had ever seen. Jamie dismounted and immediately lay down by the creek that flowed through the campground. Later, while cooking sausages, a very cheeky deer wandered into our campground and insisted we feed her. We politely declined and shooed her away. Bambi (as we very originally named her), spent the rest of the evening nibbling grass around our tent.
Although we were exhausted, we decided to push on to a cabin we had heard about from our Swiss friends, Adam and Julie. The day was hard. Partly because it had been over a week since a rest day, and partly because it was a steep muddy climb in icy rain! Our days efforts were rewarded however, with the most lovely cabin imaginable. Some years ago, Barbara, after noticing a vast quantity of cyclists passing her home (situated on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route), opened her home and insisted cyclists stay for free in one of her cabins. Her only request was that in the future, cyclists would ‘pay it forward’ to other travellers. We certainly would! The little log cabin was well stocked with pancake mix, pasta, candles, wine and jars of M&Ms. We lit the fire immediately and took it all in. It was truly incredible! Barbara and her partner dropped by with eggs and fresh mozzarella, and asked us about our travels. Before long, they said goodbye and hoped we would enjoy our stay. And we did! What a special place. Over dinner we talked about the house we would like to have one day in the future, with a seperate cabin for cyclists and travellers to stay in, with as many bulk foods as possible. Our dream!
In the morning, we opened the curtains above the bed. Clear blue skies! I leapt out of bed and went straight outside to pat the llamas. They were incredibly friendly and enjoyed a good scratch behind the ears. After sufficient patting and a large quantity of buttermilk pancakes we were ready to hit the road.
We decided to take the easier road to Helena, opting for quiet paved back roads, than a dusty climb back into the hills. We whizzed past ranches full of glorious horses, and past old saloons.
We arrived in Helena just after lunch, and decided to stay the Mountain Bike City Bunk House. It was a beautiful little cabin, with fresh white sheets and fluffy towels, and a bed that felt like clouds. The owner, Conrad, insisted we jump the fence to see the orphaned bear cubs, climbing around in a sanctuary. He then leant us his wonderful bright blue tandem bicycle and insisted we come for dinner.
‘Ever tried elk?’
Ah Montana, we love you.