On the Road to the Sun
Rising Sun Campground to Sprague Creek Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana: (56kms)
In the morning we stumbled around the site getting ready, lowering the tent and loading our bikes, all the time trying not to wake anyone. It was 4.45am and it was quite cool. Just Mark and ourselves were the only ones up. Mark was ready quickly and set off about 20 minutes before us. Shazz and I had taken an hour to get ready and finally left in the semi-darkness.
The first 6kms of the climb were around St. Mary Lake. The pre-dawn light was getting stronger and a few cars sped past us in the gloom. The lake was stunning with its mountainous backdrop and we stopped for several photos. Going To The Sun Road had been our inspiration for doing the Northern Tier Route, so to be finally here after such a long journey was a remarkable climax of our trip so far.
Carrying less weight, we soon caught up to Mark, who was intent on staying just that bit ahead of us. So, we let him do that and took our time, taking in the expansive scenery. As dawn broke the traffic increased, people were heading to the campgrounds to get in line for any openings there would be today. They were under pressure, and it showed! I guess there have to be some advantages in riding your bike through the country.
It took us 2 and 3/4 hours to climb to the summit. It was already hot and we were sweating from our efforts. Jeff, good to his word, was sitting at the edge of the car park. He had a cheesy grin and both our rack packs with him. What a man! We were so glad to see him and so happy that we’d conquered our first high pass, it was a long, long downhill to come!
Jeff hung out for a while, then as we reloaded our bikes, he bid us farewell, we felt a little sad and very grateful to this guy. Another one of the amazingly helpful people along our way.
After getting ready and refilling our water bottles, the next thing to do was to get our photos with the bikes in front of the Continental Divide sign which gives the elevation (2500ms). This took a little time as it’s a popular thing to do, regardless of how you did it.
The ride down was stunning but had it’s moments as well. It’s even steeper on this side of the pass and the constant grip on the brakes were a killer for our wrists. The only way to get any relief was to stop and shake them out. The traffic up here was pretty calm thankfully, the road was narrow in places with only a low brick wall to stop you plummeting to your death hundreds of metres below.
Down below the tree line however, things got a lot more exciting. The slow descent made a lot of drivers irritable and the throttle went firmly to the floor once the road flattened out a bit. Once again, the narrow, shoulderless road threw up plenty of blind spots as it wound its way through the forested canyon floor. We had to take to riding in the middle of the lane and holding up traffic when we could see an approaching vehicle. This probably saved a few lives as people were intent on overtaking without being able to see around the trees which came to the road’s edge.
At one stage, two nearly fatal near misses in 3 minutes of each other convinced us we’d better get off this road as soon as possible. We’d been run off the road and narrowly avoided a head-on collision between two cars, things were getting insane, and I was getting really, really mad! To add to the chaos, a black bear ran out in front of us and made us pull over, we didn’t want to get chased by a bear as well today!
We finally arrived at Lake McDonald Resort, a little frazzled. Here we met some other tourers who had been pretty close behind us, we also ran into Mark again and decided to go and have lunch together at the resort restaurant. A couple of beers later and the nerves were quite a bit more settled. We would have liked to stay, but we were headed to the Sprague Creek Campground on the banks of Lake McDonald.
We arrived at Sprague Creek campground to find Mark (it seems to be a popular name around here), who we had met at Lake McDonald resort earlier. He was now by himself as the others had ridden on to Apgar as they needed to fly out the following day. We set our tents and got talking about touring. Mark had done a TransAm before and did his best to calm our apprehension about the passes we had to climb soon. “Just drop into your lowest granny gear, put your head down and grind away,” he said, “everyone gets to the top, just some sooner than others.” It was the kind of reassurance we had been waiting for.
We had, at least, ridden over Going to the Sun Road, a place that I had read about 18 months earlier and had set down as the main reason for choosing this route. Both of us were feeling pretty happy about completing the climb, fully realising what it meant to us after such a long build-up coming across the country. To have come so far and not be able to ride it would have been soul crushing. We’ve done it now and got the photos to prove it, but neither of us are taking our eyes off the ball. We now have to complete 5 more even harder passes before we reach our destination on the West Coast and that lingering feeling of doubt nags at us still.
Sprague Creek Campground to Apgar Campground, Montana: (15kms)
Mark had gotten away earlier than us. We were in no particular hurry as we only planned on riding the short distance into Apgar, the next campground along and at the western-most end of Lake McDonald.
With some assistance from the Park Supervisor, we found a hiker/biker site all to ourselves and quickly set the tent in the best spot. Alongside the bear box were two folding camp chairs – bonus! We grabbed them eagerly and set them up in front of our tent.
After checking out the busy Glacier NP Visitor’s Centre, we rode into the tiny town of Apgar for a coffee and something to eat. There we plenty of holidaymakers, campers and hikers meandering around the single street of the village which is basically a place to buy food and souvenirs.
We took a few photos and headed across the Flathead River to West Glacier, just outside of the park. Over here it’s activity central. You can whitewater raft, canoe, go tubing, fishing or even play a round of golf. We found a restaurant on the main street and sat in the shade of a large umbrella outside with our bikes beside us. It wasn’t long before the bikes drew some attention, and a couple of guys came over and checked them out. One of them said he’d done a TransAm and promptly told us to order anything on the menu, he’d pay for it. The menu was pretty expensive, but he was adamant. So, we ordered a hamburger each and he settled the bill for us. Content that he’d done his good deed, he abruptly headed off. Nothing much surprises us anymore when it comes to people’s hospitality out here.
That night there were several lightning strikes that started five major fires in the park. Several cabins had burnt to the ground by the time we got into Apgar for breakfast. The sky was hazy with smoke and we could see a couple of the fires across the lake.
In the afternoon we rode back over to West Glacier and found a bar selling $4 beers. We sat outside and watched the endless line of traffic go past as the park was now being evacuated. We also saw Robert, who had just managed to get through before they closed Going To The Sun Road. He wasn’t hanging around though, it was too smokey.
Later on, Sharyn was interviewed by Fox News TV about the fires in the park and how it was affecting the visitors. It was pretty obvious though how it was affecting the visitors – they all had to head elsewhere! We went back to the campground and found we had a few guests to chat with tonight. They were mostly hikers who had been evacuated from the park on the shuttle buses. It was nice to have some company again and we chatted till quite late.