Part 1: Missoula to Waterton Lakes

Day 1: Missoula, MT airport to Birchwood Hostel

I land in Missoula and wait for my bike to be brought out, last. The luggage handler opens the door and asks "was there anything else in this box?". I collect my tent, sleeping bag and pad and assess the damage. It's minor, but includes a blown tire.

This is an omen.

I run into California Bill at the airport and we ride into Missoula with a tailwind.

Day 2: Missoula and Pattee Canyon

We gather for a shakedown cruise up Pattee Canyon at 8:30 AM. Promptly at 8:30 the skies open.

This is also an omen.

Luckily, Ernie Franceschi's Birchwood Hostel has laundry facilities.

And this is the start of a list.

Thus begins the first section of Bikecentennial's Great Parks North tours of 1993 -- later known affectionately as Great Parks and Laundromats. Also known as Twelve Hundred Miles in the Rain. Rain? Nah. Needs a better spin ... let's see ... Twelve Hundred Miles in the Clouds and Mist. There, that sounds better. More accurate too, as only a few spirits will ever get dampened by the atmospheric conditions.

The box of group gear that Bikecentennial provides us includes a hatchet. It somehow gets left in Missoula. We conclude that this is a test. Any group that carries the hatchet is clearly incompetent. We pride ourselves on our perspicuity.

Day 3: Missoula to Seeley Lake

We go past the Bikecentennial office and get our pictures took by Greg Siple. We know that Greg has an extensive archive of photos of cyclists who have passed through Missoula. Little do we know that this simple ritual will make Lynda famous when her mug shot appears in the September/October issue of BikeReport! (For those who are pulling out their copy of BikeReport right now, the tour-start wedding in Bikecentennial's courtyard, described in the same issue, was not part of our tour. It happened a week later, at the start of the next Great Parks North tour. What BikeReport doesn't say is that the wedding was held in the rain.)

We leave Missoula with eight riders. Two who signed up dropped out at just the thought of mountains, without ever getting close enough to see the terrible truth. But we set the tone by heading up the North Fork Clark River, and later up the Blackfoot. This is mountains? There's a slight climb at a bend in a river, but overall this first day is barely hilly. The horizon isn't exactly level, though. Why is this called Big Sky Country? There seem to be numerous encroachments making the sky smaller.

The Home of the Home-Grown Awful Burger beckons, but I skip it and eat fruit by the roadside. We climb a bit, drop a bit to cross a river, and start to climb again on a narrow two-lane road with no paved shoulder -- one of the few such spots on the entire trip. As luck would have it, I'm just starting the climb when I see large trucks converging on me from both directions. For the first time in many years, I decide to give them the entire road. The climb leads to the best downhill of the day.

At our prearranged lunch stop we find Ton has been there for a couple of hours. He's clearly going to be the fastest. The directions tell us to turn left at the bull, so we steer at the steer. Lynda and I hear the call of a loon over Salmon Lake and stop to try to locate it. We experience no rain during the ride to, and dinner at, Seeley Lake campground. We haven't yet enough experience to appreciate this. Maine Man Geof and I are tonight's cooks, and we don't cook pasta, hoping to set an example. Fat chance. We do, however, demonstrate why the cooks don't wash dishes at the same meal. It would inhibit the cooks' culinary imagination. There seems to be some discussion of rice stuck in the pot. Not my problem. I cooked.

A lakeside dock allows us to study the pretty lake into the late evening, and again in the morning.

Day 4: Seeley Lake to Swan Lake

We cross our first pass. The pass may be unnamed, at least on our maps, but we look down on Summit Lake. The climb is gentle but the downhill is welcome, as the gods of wind have not looked kindly upon us.

As I descend the pass, two young ladies cycling the opposite direction pull across the road and accost me. They are Karin and Kirsten. Karin had lost her Oakleys in Kalispell, and when she bought replacements, the saleswoman gave her a personally constructed coupon good for one pitcher of beer at the Bigfoot Tavern in Bigfork. They stopped for their beer and holed up for two days waiting for the storms to clear (sound like a pattern starting here?) and took shameful advantage of the hospitality offered by Bigfoot himself. Wanting the return the favor, they gave us a personally signed five-dollar bill and ordered us to send some business to the Bigfoot Tavern. Sound complicated? We'll see.

I weigh my bike on a propane scale in Condon. 70 pounds without water bottles. Not SuperLite (tm), but not too bad.

Views to the right become more spectacular, peeking through the Swan Range into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. An actual visit to the latter will have to await another trip. But inaccurate map-reading plus an empty stomach convinces me that it's time for lunch, even though I haven't seen the ranger station where we agreed to stop. Based on the map, I think I've missed it. Based on my stomach, I think it's time to stop no matter what. I stop at a pullout with a scenic view up the Goat Creek drainage toward snowy peaks. In a couple of weeks, snow and ice will seem common. But I left Florida only a couple of days ago, and haven't gotten used to the idea of anything cold. Eventually I snare half the rest of the group at this spot. Of course, a couple of miles after leaving this stop we reach the ranger station, where the rest are waiting. Eating lunch twice is already no problem.

We escape the rain for a second day, though we begin to understand that we are having luck that can't hold. Everywhere we stop, everyone talks about all the rain, especially the storm that just passed over an hour ago. The rain is obviously encouraging a delightful wildflower show, however. The sun even comes out long enough for the hardier souls to take a dip in Swan Lake at the end of the day. Ton tends a beautiful and heart-warming campfire. He doesn't get a chance at home -- not enough wood in Holland for campfires.

Day 5: Swan Lake to West Glacier

We stop in Bigfork, a pretty tourist town, with a bakery that yields bread for the evening. South Carolina Bill and I find the Bigfoot Tavern. Bill has a whole beer, I have a shot of beer. Neither of us is excited by the idea of getting on a bike after filling up with beer. But at least we've returned the favor. Rain clouds are starting to take potshots at us, and we retreat briefly to an art gallery. We roll through open fields with distant mountain views. The suddenly open terrain combines with the overcast skies to twist my bearings by 90 degrees for quite a while. After just brushing another storm, we pass our first canola field, in full bloom. Surely no yellow in nature is so intense. Many days later I will notice when passing canola fields that I imagine the sun has finally come out, so bright are the massed blossoms.

As we head toward Columbia Falls, still dodging showers, I pull out some trail mix that is part of today's lunch. Nice combo. I manage to crunch down on the tip of my tongue with the first bite. Love that taste of blood! Ouch! I ride the next several miles hanging on to my tongue to stop the bleeding. I hope I look as odd as I feel -- wouldn't want to waste such a manoeuvre.

The campground we expected in Hungry Horse is gone, but Geof gets his tour nickname from the town. We plod on toward West Glacier against a rising wind. Later I will notice the correlation -- wind blows away from storms -- but I haven't made the connection yet. The lead group sets up camp as it starts to rain. The shoppers, the grocery group, get caught in the downpour. We are baptized. There is a laundry room at the campground, though we do not recognize its significance since we have not yet started to keep a written list. Our Dutchman Ton is one of the cooks, and prepares a simple but marvelous Dutch recipe which involves steaming equal parts of potatoes, carrots and onions. We note that everyone in the group approves of using onions as a bulk vegetable. Henceforth our buying guide lists a large onion for every two hungry cyclists.

Day 6: West Glacier to Avalanche Creek

We enter Glacier National Park. The keeper of the grocery store at West Glacier asks our advice on stocking supplies for bicyclists -- he is thinking hardware, and interested in helping cyclists. Tubes, we tell him. Tires? Too many kinds required. But bagels, yes. He already carries bagels, and we point out how much this helps.

Surprisingly, our entry to Glacier NP is one of only two days on the entire tour that I don't reach 30 mph. But this is a short day. The long stretch along Lake MacDonald is virtually flat, and the view across the lake, though lovely, is also a bit odd since the low clouds obscure the tops of the mountains on the other side. No grand vista, no sky, just the flatness of the lake with a band of green on the far bank. At the far end is MacDonald Falls, a fast-moving piece of river-sized MacDonald "Creek". Then comes the gradual climb to the Avalanche Creek campground -- thus no real downhill for the day.

The wildflower show has been good ever since we left Missoula. Today I note several patches of roadside columbine, including one spot with white, blue and pink columbines all in one spot!

We have time for the short hike to Avalanche Lake. Avalanche Creek is a milky gray-green -- the first time I've seen a glacier-fed stream. There will be many more on this trip. We are glad for the extra time today, as we know we have an early climb tomorrow. But we also know that it is raining on our camp. Steadily. Again we wonder about the hatchet that Bikecentennial wanted us to carry. Far more useful would have been a lightweight tarp to shelter a table.

It's my turn to cook again, this time with California Bill. The grocery at West Glacier was decently stocked, but was no supermarket. So we are learning to appreciate pasta with tomato sauce. Well, we are trying anyway. As all touring cyclists know, pasta never really tastes bad. Or is this self-selection? Is the proper conclusion that anyone who ever tires of pasta never becomes a touring cyclist?

Day 7: Avalanche Creek to Saint Mary

We rise at five. The climb up Going-to-the-Sun Highway on the east side of Logan Pass is billed as one of the incredibly spectacular segments of this trip. Probably it is. But today it's cold and raining, and we must travel 16 miles and 3000' up before the road closes to bicycles at eleven. I roll at seven. There is, however, an obvious reason to bike in the early morning rain in a park: no traffic. In the first hour exactly ten vehicles pass, both directions. It even stops raining for a few minutes near The Loop, but that's just for the aggravation of putting the rain gear back on shortly. I try to climb for half an hour between rests. The views through the rain do live up to the promises, even constrained as they are. The mountains may be more spectacular under a clear sky, but they develop a magical mystery under cover, with clouds and fog shooting the gaps, a fascinating intimacy that's totally missing in the sunshine. At least, that's what I keep telling myself for the next two weeks.

The Sept/Oct BikeReport cover will feature a photo of the view from Going-to-the-Sun highway. It's a lie. The photo shows a clear sky with no clouds. Wrong. Where that photo is purportedly taken from, the photographer is standing in the rain and totally surrounded by a cloud. I know. I was there.

We climb into the clouds and the views disappear completely as the traffic builds up. I make it to the top last at 10:30.

Thus our first crossing of the Continental Divide is in the rain.

This is yet another omen.

To be precise, we have crossed from the Pacific drainage into the Hudson Bay drainage. Triple Divide Peak, where those two also meet the Atlantic drainage, is a few miles to the south.

Logan Pass is cold and windy. A thermometer claims 41F, but it feels colder. We huddle under a small shelter, break out the stoves, and make tea. Two and three and a time we climb the steps to the crowded visitor center and sit before the fireplace where the park service is tending a lovely fire, and try to dry minor items of apparel. And we aren't the only cyclists stubborn enough to be here today. Among the others are Andy and Shelly, a teacher couple from Philadelphia who are riding to Alaska. They don't reach the pass until 11:30, but weren't hassled by the park service. We'll see them off and on for the next seven days, until they leave Skookumchuck ahead of us and stay ahead.

The weather improves, as do the views, and three of us walk up to the Hidden Lake overlook, where a mountain goat is standing unconcernedly a few feet from a boardwalk. A man is asking to buy film, and I sell him my extra roll. A mistake, as I undercharge him, and when I go to replace it later I find only Ektachrome to replace my good Fujichrome, and at a high price. Live and Learn.

Now we can see some of the peaks around Logan Pass. Craggy monsters they are, dusted with heavy bands of snow that's been falling only a few hundred feet above us. This really is an impressive place -- now that we can see some of it.

In fact, the weather has improved so much that the coast down from the pass mocks the layers of clothing I have piled on, and I unpile them quickly, all the way down to shorts, when we reach level ground near St Mary's Lake. (Level is a relative term. Here we have the western Montana meaning of level, not the Florida meaning.) But the road down is some geology lesson! On this side of the pass we are dropping through the Rocky Mountain front. First we drop quickly, with stark, rugged peaks in every direction and glimpses of glaciers in between. Rather suddenly we notice that we are floating out of the mountains. Ahead, we can look straight out beyond. We can't quite see plains, and there is at the least one serious morainal roll in the ground beyond the turn we will make in the morning, but it's clear that we have, with startling suddenness, reached the edge of the mountains.

And today the columbines are yellow.

As we partake of family-style dinner at Johnson's Restaurant (next to Johnson's campground) in the town of Saint Mary, a compact but intense rainstorm hits. I sit and try not to gloat. I am one of the few whose tent is secured against rain. Lynda's Pocket Hotel (award for smallest tent) is hanging on a line, inside out. To dry. Johnson's has laundry facilities.

Day 8: Saint Mary MT to Waterton AB

The day begins with, what else, rain. But it waits until we've left camp. I quickly realize there is little point in doffing rain gear unless I overheat, since I'll don it again soon. We pass through three or four showers before turning up a long but gradual climb with wide, spreading views of the sort that we won't see much of, out into the plains on one side, and the lonesome heights of Chief Mountain on the other. We pass a herd of cattle, but as they are loose and crossing the road and look somewhat territorial and I am going uphill, I decide not to invite them to run with me. The rain holds off for a while, but then the only serious hailstorm of the trip pelts us as we cross the northeast corner of Glacier NP. We leave the United States on the Fourth of July. It's raining at the border, and we are all prepared for inspections. No inspections. No identification requested. Answer four questions and ride through. The fact that entering Canada is a thoroughly pleasant experience despite the rain has something to do with the lack of hassle and the attractive border guard.

At the peak of the last climb, before the fast descent into Waterton Lakes, I stop to pee. It doesn't seem like all the watery noise is me, and I don rain gear once more. The view over the lakes is probably spectacular, but I can't see much of it through the rain, and I am too cold to stop and wait for it to pass, and there is no shelter for changing into warmer clothes. In the rain, 38 mph is my fastest so far on this trip. Geof and I wait in line (or perhaps we queue up) at the entrance until a beautiful young lady informs us with a big smile that bicyclists enter all Canadian National Parks free. We consider discussing this matter with her at some length, not because we disagree but simply because being told by her is so agreeable. We reluctantly continue, though we later hear that Rich decided differently. It's a few cold miles in the rain until we reach a visitor center, and I avoid stopping to keep from getting ch-ch-ch-chilled.

At the campground on the edge of Waterton village, we choose a campsite which is considerably less than the most beautiful. Why? The laundromat is nearby, and the cook shelter is empty.

And here is our final omen, a good one.

This is our first encounter with that marvelous staple of Canadian campgrounds (at least in the Rockies), the cook shelter. For those who haven't seen them, they are like picnic shelters, generally with space for about four picnic tables and sometimes larger, but with approximately three walls, an old cast iron or steel wood stove, and (mirabile dictu!) a virtually unlimited supply of cut firewood. With a single exception, every place we camp in Canada, public or private, offers us a cook shelter. The firewood is softwood, inevitably (this year) wet, and needs splitting, but who's sweating the small stuff? The stoves sometimes leak and otherwise show signs of age, but they heat fingers and bodies and water, and sometimes they dry clothes and make toast. We will not again wish for a portable canopy, although the hatchet we spurned would have come in handy for splitting firewood.

If I implied that there was reason to complain about the appearance of our chosen campsite, let me quickly dispel that idea. No spot in Waterton is less than gorgeous as long as you lift your eyes above the crowds at ground level. You are never far from grand Upper Waterton Lake, and high peaks tower on almost every side. And the sun even greets us a while this evening.

Next: Part 2: Waterton Lakes to Banff