Fortine: Unlucky for Some
Apgar Campground to Whitefish, Montana: (56kms)
Still concerned by the weight we were carrying, we had decided to have one last shedding of things we wouldn’t need before we would hit the Rockies and the long climbs. The next morning we headed straight to the post office in West Glacier on our way out.
Still somewhat doubting our ability to climb, we had now become quite mercenary. Somehow we found another 4kgs between us to post forward to Bellingham. We left West Glacier a little later than anticipated but feeling a little bit more confident about the upcoming climbs. We rode Highway 2 out of town to the turnoff on Lake 5 Road. The air was thick with smoke making breathing unpleasant. After a bit of gravel, we crossed Blackenship Bridge over the Flathead River and found our way out onto the 486, where after a short climb, a lovely long downhill stretch took us into Columbia Falls. We stopped at the large Smith’s Supermarket and bought some hot food for lunch, which we ate in the small park across the street.
Not wanting to go backwards to pick up the route again, we cycled down to Highway 2 again and followed it to Halfmoon Road. After a pretty big hill, we found ourselves out of the traffic and zigzagged our way across to Whitefish the back way. The town was much bigger than we expected and very touristy. It did, however, have plenty of interesting pubs and craft breweries! We found a seat at Casey’s and had a beer while Sharyn checked out accommodation. It was a bit out of our league though, so we contacted The Whitefish Bike Retreat, they had a free shuttle service for cyclists who stayed there.
A young girl picked us up and we put our bikes and gear in the back of her pickup truck and headed out of town – quite some way! The Bike Retreat is set back in the forest about 10kms off the highway, not quite what we were expecting, nor was the frosty reception from the young girl on the desk, we’d obviously came at a bad time, although it wasn’t apparent why to us. The campsite she gave us was as far away from the 2 toilets cum showers as you could get. Set back amongst a stand of trees on the edge of the forest, it was a campsite in name only. We had to clear a space amongst the close-standing trees on a very uneven, pot-holed ground. We weren’t impressed. The place was clearly for mountain bikers who bought their own campers and slept in them. Not much thought was given to people who wanted to use a tent and camp. We listened for bears intently that night!
Whitefish Bike Retreat to Fortine, Montana: (68kms)
The next morning we gathered our things and got the first shuttle back into Whitefish. We crowded in with a few foreign bikepackers who were riding the Pacific Crest Trail, an almighty difficult task.
We had gotten a good look at Highway 93 on our way out and back from the Bike Retreat. It was a particularly busy road with almost no shoulder. Why the ACA would send us down here was a mystery. There was a little relief though with a diversion onto the much smaller Twin Bridges Road, 5 or 6kms out of town. This led us onto the picturesque Farm To Market Road, but eventually it emptied back out onto the 93 after some 15kms.
Our first chance to get off the truck-heavy highway came at pretty Stillwater Lake where we immediately turned off and rested on the deck of a bar overlooking the lake. We were both a bit frazzled and wondering how much longer we’d have to peddle without a shoulder on this nutter of a road. It seemed almost everyone, trucks included, were speeding well over the limit, frantically trying to get somewhere with little heed to theirs or anyone else’s safety.
Somewhere before the small town of Stryker, we ran into Robert again. He was chatting with a fellow tourer heading in the opposite direction. We had seen a few going the other way, but the highway was always too busy to cross and chat. After taking some photos, we headed off together with Robert. He effortlessly rolled on ahead of us, but we felt no need to keep up.
Just before Dickey Lake, the road widened and we were gifted a nice, wide shoulder. We were so relieved to see it that our demeanours brightened up instantly. With new vigour, we pressed onto the tiny hamlet of Fortine and rolled into town to find the front verandah of Jerry’s Bar and Restaurant full of admiring locals.
Jerry’s Bar had a small campground to one side where we’d spend the night. We soon parked the bikes, still elated we’d gotten here safely, and ordered a couple of beers. The locals soon invited us over to chat and find out all about us. They were very happy to hear that we were country folk as well. They found us a seat, bought us some beers and away we went!
An hour or so later, Robert (who had stayed longer at a small cafe some miles back using his computer) rolled in and, somewhat bemused, joined the party.
The conversation had been varied and sometimes hilarious, until that is, the topic of the fires came up. We learnt that there were several uncontained fires not far from where we were, and that our route for the next 5 days or so would take us right through the middle of them. A fellow from Washington State told us that the smoke was much worse the further west you went and that he’d come east to avoid the thick blanket of smoke that cloaked his hometown. This really hit home as we thought the smoke around here was pretty bad. We were hoping that a change of wind direction would clear it up, but there were so many fires burning out of control now that it didn’t matter anymore which direction the wind blew, we’d have to cycle through it.
This had now become one of those times where we’d have to make a pretty hard decision. We had chosen the Route to see the Rockies and cycle Going to the Sun Road. Sadly, at the moment we weren’t going to see anything. Going to the Sun Road had been a great experience and my number one priority, but the hazy skies had taken the shine off of it somewhat. Now we would be cycling The Rockies and not be able to see much at all as far as the scenery goes. It was a cruel blow to our expectations, we never thought for an instant that we wouldn’t cross The Rockies. We had spent the last 4 months and 3,500kms psyching ourselves up for the climbs, imagining what the views would be like from the top of the passes. Now we had to make a decision on whether it was safe enough to attempt them.
Over our years of travel we’d become used to taking calculated risks, but trying to outrun wildfires on loaded bicycles seemed a little bit crazy, considering our next few nights would be spent camping in small campsites in the same forests that were burning. Neither of us had done this much work and spent so much effort to just turn around, but the more we learnt, the more it seemed it had to be. It was a difficult decision to make, one of our hardest and I personally, was gutted. We would turn back and maybe never know if we were good enough to climb the passes. It would be no easy decision to live with.
We lay in our tent, our decision final, we’d go back to Whitefish tomorrow and get a train to Seattle. We could always ride the islands up to Bellingham in the meantime. Sleep was a long time coming!
Fortine to Whitefish, Montana: (Pickup truck)
In the morning, one of the ladies we talked to last night helped arrange a ride for us back to Whitefish. Bruce, the bar manager at Jerry’s helped put our gear in his pickup truck and drove us back to the railroad station.
Sharyn booked our tickets and bought a couple of boxes to put our gear in, as is necessary here. With our gear boxed and checked in, we headed into town to while away the time until tonight’s train arrived. We didn’t have to walk far, we found The Great Northern Bar and Grill just down the street and the lady who had helped us arrange a ride this morning was there with her husband at the bar.
So that’s how it remained until the train arrived. We had been still pretty upset about stopping and the beers, as usual, helped take our minds off of things for a while.