Chapter 35 - Was it a Bear?
Even though the campground didn't have any signs or warnings about bears, the three of us wondered aloud why Georgetown Lake would be any less likely to have bears than Yellowstone. No reason, we concluded, but we figured that there would be signs or bear boxes if there was a danger. We decided to leave the food on our bikes for the night—it didn't look like rain, and the trouble of hanging the panniers in a tree if there weren’t bears just didn't seem worth it. Soon, Dan decided that he was going into the tent. That's when Jesse and I heard an enormous rustle, and watched a good-sized black shape come lumbering out of the bushes into the road.
"What's that?" I said, startled, although both of us were thinking the same thing. “Let’s talk loudly so that it will go away, don't you thi…”
"…That looks like a bear to me," Jesse said, equally loudly. “I wonder if it is?” The bear, or whatever it was, heard us and began racing as quickly as its legs could carry it into the woods.
"What's happening?" Dan called from inside the tent. "What am I missing now?"
"Oh, just a bear," Jesse said, still talking loudly.
"Are you serious?!?” He poked his head out the door. “Gosh, that was bad timing. I shouldn't have gone inside so soon! I can’t believe I missed it if that was a bear."
"It sure looked about the right size for one," I said.
"Dan," said Jesse, "why don't you get out of the tent and help us hang up the food?" Hanging the food in a tree was suddenly highest on our list of priorities. At that moment, a pick-up pulled into our site and a large ranger got out.
"…Y'know, I was jest thinkin' to myself that you kids were on bikes, and I was comin' down to warn you thet there's been a bear around the campground lately. It was around this mornin', actually, and so like I says, I jest wanted to make sure you folks were hangin' your food up."
"Actually, we're doing that right now," Jesse said. "How high should we hang it?"
"Well, they say fifteen feet, but I don’t think bears can really git that high. Maybe if you put the smaller guy on your shoulders, he could tie one end o' the rope as high as he kin reach."
There was general confusion as we made a pile of panniers with food in them (as well as panniers which might have at some point contained food) and tried to find rope. Finally we were set, and Dan climbed onto Jesse's shoulders. The ranger stood at the base of the tree, directing progress.
"O-kay, easy now—careful! Just a little higher—there you go—tie it nice and tight now—oops, watch the branch—okay, now here's the bags. Now, just hand down the rope, and one of you come down and tie a good strong knot."
"Here," I said, "I'll tie it."
"Aw, one of the boys kin do it! It's real heavy."
"Don’t worry," I said, "I know how to tie knots and I won't faint from the weight." What did he think, that my loaded bicycle was light?
"…And you probably know as much about knots as I do!" Jesse whispered to me when Dan had dismounted from his shoulders.
"So say, are you kids running away from home or somethin'?" the ranger inquired, settling in at the picnic table. The last few days had been the first time on the trip when people had guessed immediately that I was school-age and not in my twenties. Traveling with Dan made both Jesse and me look younger.
"Well, actually," Jesse explained, "we're riding our bikes to Oregon to a camp for homeschooled teenagers."
"Homeschooled? Does that mean you have tutors? Or do your parents teach you?…" Our explanation ensued, after which the man still didn't understand at all.
"…Besides," he added, after he'd taken his turn extolling the virtues of public school, "school provides you with important life experiences. You cain't get those experiences anywhere else."
The three of us looked at each other. Life experiences? we were thinking. So, what is this trip, anyway?! Should we just settle down into a classroom for some real learning?? We didn't think so.
Mr. Ranger did think so, however, because, "How d'ya make sure you don't watch TV all day if yer at home?"
"We don't have a TV," Jesse and I said simultaneously. That stumped Mr. Ranger for only a few seconds. He just kept talking, since he didn’t really want to listen to what we had to say, anyway. After fifteen minutes he finally decided to head back to his campsite up the hill.
"…Now you kids have a safe trip," he said, "You be careful, and tie up yer food." We promised we would, and once again we were alone in the summer night.
The first half of Idaho was one long downhill coast along the rushing Lochsa river. As The Book noted, the name of the river was "a Salish Indian term meaning 'rough water,' [and] is certainly appropriate for the rocky, swift river. It had to be bypassed by the Lewis and Clark expedition and other settlers who followed; in fact, the wildness of the Lochsa wasn't exposed to the traveler until the highway was completely in 1962."
I could understand why the highway took so long to be built; it must have been extraordinarily difficult to carve the road into the steep sides of the mountain. But still, I wished that they'd put a shoulder on the road, or at least made it even a few inches wider. The guys sat low on their recumbents, and the pile of gear on their rear racks made it nearly impossible for them to see behind themselves. So I did the rear-viewing for all of us, riding in front and yelling directions such as "DIVE!" and "DIVE QUICKLY!" when RV's and logging trucks lumbered into my field of view. There was no room for two big rigs to fit on the road alongside a bike. At the signal, we would all head for the gravel shoulder, a procedure that we repeated often and which we came to dread.
But if we hadn't dived into the shoulder at around mile 40 on one particular afternoon, we wouldn't have seen the waterfall cascading down mossy rocks. And if we hadn't seen the waterfall, we wouldn't have left our bikes by the road to explore. And if we hadn't gone exploring, we wouldn't have found the black raspberry bush growing out of a boulder in a pocket of soil, its berries bursting with juice. We ate until our fingers and lips turned deep purple, and took a shockingly cold shower under the waterfall. Then we hugged each other, shivering and laughing on top of the rock.
The beauty of Idaho's rivers and forest fairly made my heart ache. The greenness took over everything, and even the moist, cool air seemed practically green-tinted. As I enjoyed the seemingly-never-ending downhill, I tried to imagine Lewis and Clark, with no towns and no maps, leading their pack animals on a trail just a few hundred yards up the ridge. Riding here was bringing me close to history.
The mountains here were different from the Rockies in Montana, different from those in Colorado, and different from the eastern ranges too. They felt old, even though they are young, geologically speaking. The mountain peaks were sharp, and Highway 12 wound around and down through steep valleys. From far away, the mountainsides looked furry with trees, except where humans had made their mark. Some sections of the National Forest are owned jointly by the timber companies, and they leave desolate, desecrated, one-mile-square clear-cuts dotting the hills. But despite that reminder of humans, the land looked happy. Wildflowers flourished by the edge of the road, the buzzing of the bugs was almost joyful, and the rivers were rushing and tumbling and laughing and beautiful and wild. I kept wishing that I had an inner tube in my panniers so I could float downstream.
The night we arrived in Wild Goose Campground, nestled on a little outcropping overlooking the Clearwater River, we found that all twenty campsites were full. But two people offered us space at their sites, and we ended up camping with a family who refused to let us pay for our half. The river sang us to sleep.
The next morning was a layover, and our campground benefactors asked us if we wanted to go tubing with them. Did we?!? There was no question in our minds, and we piled into their pick-up truck with a bunch of kids and tubes and dogs and headed upriver, past where the Lochsa met the Clearwater. We started off in gentle rapids, and then moved into the calmer current of deep water.
"Look how you can see the bottom!" I exclaimed. It was glassy clear, no muck or cloudiness. Large fish swam under us, and flecks of pyrite reflected the sun. Now I knew where the river got its name.
That night, Jesse and Dan and I sat quietly on the shore of the river. A mountain peak towered hundreds of feet above us, rising almost vertically on the other side. The top was spiked with pine trees, dark against the blue-black sky. After a while the sky got darker, and stars began to twinkle in the blackness. I wanted to absorb the scene, remember it so that I would never forget how it felt to sit with that magical river in the moonlight.
The next morning we packed up in record time, and we were on the road at 6:15. It was a glorious day, with mist rising from the river and sunlight filtering through the pines. Then we had our first calamity, when Dan accidentally exposed a roll of film.
Our second misadventure was a minor collision. Jesse was in the lead when he spied a pair of sunglasses in the road, and he stopped suddenly, without any warning. Dan, who was following closely, squeezed his brakes hard. I slammed on my brakes as well, and somehow neither of us fell over. I felt like I'd been irritable about a lot of things lately, but the accident bothered me. Jesse could've at least apologized! I thought.
After catching our breath, we started up again—only to hear a sickening CRACK that signaled Dan's chain coming apart. At this point I realized that I wanted to ride by myself for awhile. We agreed to meet in Kooskia where we would make our Sunday phone calls home, and a feeling of relief descended upon me as I rode off into the cool morning. I watched the sun gradually light up more and more of the mountains, watched the beautiful landscape, and felt supremely happy as I pedaled towards the first real human settlement since Lolo-the-town.
Phone calls over, the three of us left Kooskia and turned sharply south, riding out of lush forests and back into dry sagebrush and scrub. Barely a half-mile down Highway 13, Dan got a flat tire. We stopped in front of a deserted elementary school, and while the already-hot sun beat down, Jesse put in a new tube. We made it three more miles, just past the small town of Stites, before the tire was flat again, this time with a bang: Jesse must have pinched the tube between the tire and the rim when he put the tire back on. Now he had no fresh tubes left, so we settled in for a longer wait while Jesse patched one and replaced it in the tire. The only bit of shade around was by a stilted tree in a thistle patch.
I tried to be patient, and outwardly I hoped I was. After all, I should be kind and considerate and caring. I kept reminding myself of how Jeff and Wyeth and Roel continually waited for me in the Ozarks. But I was not feeling considerate at all. It was getting hotter by the minute, and I knew White Bird Pass would be murder in this heat.
Nine miles later, in the town of Harpster, it was officially too hot to ride. My head hurt and Dan and Jesse didn't look too good either. The landscape through which we were riding was sagebrush and open space, and the sun beat down relentlessly. Had we really been in a lush forest that morning? The woman at the RV park in Harpster offered to let us rest in the pavilion down by the river. It was 1:30 and we gratefully accepted. After lunch, none of us felt really motivated to keep going—we figured we'd wait until the heat burned off a bit.
By the time three o’clock rolled around, we realized that we had to get going despite the temperature—otherwise, we'd never make it up the pass before dark.
The heat was searing, radiating off everything and making my head ache again. We started up the six-mile, 6% grade in our usual hill-climbing formation: Jesse riding ahead, and me riding just ahead of Dan, urging him constantly to take it easy and drink and stop a lot.
"You're just like a big sister, I swear!" he said at one point.
“Well, that’s why big sisters are useful,” I answered. “We make sure you drink enough on hot days!”
It was slow going. The heat was incredible, and I also knew that Dan wasn't drinking enough, despite my nagging. We had only gone a mile before I realized why: he had only filled one water bottle, hoping to spare the weight. I took one look at his face, and knew this wasn't good. He was beginning to turn a peculiar color, and then he complained that he was dizzy and his head was hurting.
"Pull over," I commanded sharply. "You have got to drink." He was looking sort of yellowish now, and I wouldn't let him get back on the bike.
"Yeah…but…" his voice was unsteady "I'm gonna run out of water…if I drink a lot."
"I don't care," I said, "drink. We'll stop a car and ask them for some water. I'm gonna go ahead and get Jesse and you stay right here." There was a tiny bit of shade under a rock outcropping, and though it wasn't much cooler there, it was better than nothing.
"Jesse’s gonna be mad," Daniel said softly as I began to ride away.
"Don't worry about it. I'm going to get him, and you're gonna stay right here and drink. Are you still dizzy?" I suddenly wondered if I should even leave him.
"I'll be okay." His grin was small but steady, and I began pedaling into the intense heat.
Jesse was waiting around the next bend, wondering what was happening. "Dan looks bad," I said. I was out of breath, so I didn't say more—we both zipped down the hill.
"Hey Dan—are you okay?" Jesse asked. Daniel was actually already looking better, but I knew he still needed more water. "I'll give him some of mine," Jesse said. "I have enough. Also, you should wear this white shirt, Daniel, and maybe it'll keep you cooler…" We started slowly up the mountain, stopping every few feet. "Sara, you go ahead if you want," Jesse said. "It doesn't make sense for us both to go slowly."
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Yeah—we'll meet up with you in Grangeville if not before."
"Well…okay," I said. It did seem like there was nothing I could do to help the situation, and it would be easier to ride at my own pace in this heat. I pedaled on ahead.
Not that I went far or fast. The mountain was interminable and steep, and the humidity made the sweat stream off my nose and arms. I stopped and took long breaks whenever there was the tiniest bit of shade. I could hardly believe that anything could be as hot as that sun, glaring down on White Bird Pass. I got some extra water from a kind family in an air-conditioned van. I began to feel miserable anyway.
But then as I rode, I thought back to a “hot” day back in Rural Retreat, Virginia. I remembered how difficult it was to climb that mountain, how out of breath I'd gotten after only a few pedal strokes. And I looked down at my brown, muscled legs this afternoon, and thought about how strong I was now: climbing a 6% grade and singing at the same time.
"I do it for the joy it brings, 'cause I'm a joyful girl." I really am having fun! I thought suddenly. Masochistic as this ride might be, it was good to feel my power.
Dan got a ride up the last half of the pass with a woman in a pick-up truck. That night, I suggested that he get a Camelbak drinking system, a plastic bladder with a flexible straw so he could drink easily and often. "Okay, big sister," he said. "I'll get one tomorrow at the bike shop—if there is one, anyway."
The woman in the Cash and Carry supermarket said that had been more than a hundred and ten degrees that afternoon. I met Jesse's gaze; we were triumphant warriors. As the sun went down over the city park, it cooled off a little—and then, three exhausted cyclists fell asleep without any trouble at all.
Bike touring can cure anyone of insomnia.
The next morning, while Dan and Jesse paid a lengthy visit to the bike shop, I rode out of town alone. I was getting into By Myself Mode already. The trees by the road created welcome shade, there was little traffic, and the birds sang as I climbed; the last part of White Bird Pass was a lot more pleasant than the first.
When I reached the top at 4,245 feet, I felt sorry for anyone climbing up the grade I was about to go down. The nice yellow sign said, “7% Grade Next 8 miles: Trucks Use Lower Gear.” No wonder that eastbound cyclist I'd met back in Wyoming told me that he’d hated Idaho.
The immediate acceleration of my bike took my breath away as I began to roll downhill. Within a few seconds I was going thirty m.p.h., and the road was so full of switchbacks that going any faster would be a bad idea. I was entering the gorgeous Salmon River valley, which the Shoshone people called “Tom-Agit-Pah,” or “big fish water.” Golden sunflowers grew in abundance, but they weren't the only color in the landscape. Beyond the swift river, flowing wide and green through the valley, the mountains towered over everything, carpeted with every shade of green, yellow and red. The hills rolled smoothly, surreally, into the horizon, cradling the river as it slithered along. I wondered if maybe I'd made a wrong turn and rolled onto Mars.
It was nearly six before Jesse and Daniel pulled up to our campsite in Riggins, "The Whitewater Capital of the World."
“Look!” Dan said grinning, “how do you like it?” He held up his new Camelbak, with its flexible tube positioned in his lap for easy accessibility. “It's great—now I can ride in my easy chair and drink without lifting my hands from the handlebars. I like Camelbaks!”
“We also figured out what's been wrong with the chains all this time,” Jesse said. “It’s because we had to combine three chains to make one long enough for each recumbent. We used master-link chains, and on those you’re only supposed to ‘break’ the chain at one particular link." He showed me a notched piece. "Otherwise the rest get weakened. And when I was putting all those lengths of chain together for my bike, I didn’t know the exact right length. So I had to keep taking them apart and putting it together, and I didn’t always use the master link. The places it’s been popping are places where I’d taken it apart without the master."
“So, did you get a new chain?”
“No, but I think I replaced all the problem links. I’m sure it will be okay now.” I hoped he was right.
The evening was beautiful; after a short but furious storm, everything got cool and the air was fresh. The sunset was a blazing purple sky behind Schoolmarm Peak. (Someone had had fun naming the mountains around here: next to Schoolmarm Peak and Preacher Mountain was Whiskey Butte.)
“You know, guys?” I said, as we were getting ready for bed. “I really liked getting here early—and not having to ride in the heat. Tomorrow's gonna be even longer, and it’s gonna be mostly uphill, too. So I'd really like to get started early. I mean, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, but I'd like to pull out of here as soon as it’s light enough to see. As long as it's as hot as it's been, I'd like to not ride in the afternoon.”
“Well, we can get up early too,” said Jesse. “What time?”
“Wait a sec, Jesse,” said Daniel. “Maybe you can get up early, but you haven't consulted me yet!”
“I’d like to leave at dawn,” I said, “so let’s see. Now that we’re back in Mountain Time, the sun'll probably rise at 5:00, but won’t get over the mountains till 5:30. So 5:30, I guess.”
“I dunno...” said Dan.
“We'll do it,” Jesse said firmly.
“So—um—do you want me to wake you up around 4:15 when I get up?” I asked.
“I really don’t know about this, Jesse,” moaned Daniel.
“Oh stop it!” said Jesse. “Sure—see you tomorrow at 4:15!”
The Salmon River sang us to sleep, and the wind blew gently through my open door as night fell in Riggins, Idaho.
The morning was dark and still when I woke up. The campground was clothed in the blue-gray light of day before dawn, and I could hear the river flowing below. I said softly to the guys, “It’s 4:15—time to get up.”
“Wha... Huh?” I assumed it was Jesse, but it was hard to tell.
“Are you guys up?”
“Hey Jesse…Dan…it’s 4:15! Rise and shine.”
“…I’ll rise, but no one’s gonna make me shine.” It was Dan this time. I waited a few more minutes, but there were no more sounds from the tent.
“Hey guys—time to get up. Or, I mean you don’t have to, but if you wanna leave early...”
“All right, all right, I’m up now.” Jesse sounded more awake, and there were rustles coming from their direction. Satisfied that they were up, I started taking down my tent and packing up in the half-light.
In a moment I heard Dan. “Hey! Wait a minute here.” He was sitting in the door of the tent, rubbing his eyes. “Wait just one minute: it’s dark out here! Do you expect me to get up in the dark??”
“C’mon Daniel, what did you think it was gonna be? Now, move on out so I can get out too.” Jesse was the more awake of the two.
“If I fall off my bike or something because I was so tired, it'll be you guys’ fault!” said Daniel, aggrieved.
"But feel how nice and cool it is!" I said brightly, as we pedaled out of the campground at 5:40. "In fact, I could almost put on my fleece."
"Yeah," said Dan darkly. "You wake us up any earlier next time, and we'll get frostbite."