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Regional Road Trips

Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort, Clark Fork River Valley, Libby, Montana

overcast 32 °F

The rain patters persistently on the metal roof of the cabin, with a longer lapse of time before I hear the “plink” of the drip of water that hits the metal ash bucket I’ve set up in the kitchen. Yep. The roof leaks a bit. I don’t mind, it gives the place a certain charm of an old fashioned cabin. Of course, I’ve let my landlord know of the problem, and since I don’t have a waterfall flowing in, she’s not overly concerned. I find I like laying on my daybed and listening to the rain, it makes the writing flow easier for some reason.

The sound of the rain also means that skiing should be good tomorrow. Rain in the valley, usually means snow up on the mountain. Moisture has been hard to come by the last 40 days, and my dreams of big powder days on the mountain have been few and far between. Maybe things are changing. Today, I had one of the best days of skiing I’ve ever enjoyed. It seems my skiing ability is improving by leaps and bounds (literally), but I give the credit to my new ski pants.

Last week, I took a small trip north to Sandpoint, Idaho and Schweitzer Mountain Ski Resort. I skied a day with my friend and captain, EJ, who put me up, showed me the finer points of the mountain and the village scene. We had a fine time skiing on Schweitzer, the visibility was poor, but the mountain was in surprisingly decent condition. We made first tracks on a lot of the runs, and found decent powder off of the No. 5 lift. EJ is an awesome skier, definitely the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of trying to keep up with. He had the advantage of years of experience and knowing the mountain. In the poor lighting, I was a bit tentative, and was a lot slower on my runs. It didn’t matter, we both had fun skiing and eating at the local establishments (Thor’s Pizza will bake you a fine pizza, and Pucci’s Pub will grill you up a delicious bratwurst). The day I left, EJ kindly gave me his much used, but still serviceable old ski pants, as mine were cheap, ripped and ready for the trash. I used them the next day and skied better than I ever have before. It seems EJ’s skiing ability was still trapped in them, and I’m happy to take advantage of that.

Coming back home from Sandpoint, I took a longer and more scenic route southeast along highway 200. It follows Lake Pend Oreielle (pronounced Pond Uh Ray, French for “beautiful north Idaho lake that is surrounded by pines, reflects clouds, and inspires poetic travellers) then veers southeast and meanders along side the Clark Fork river into Montana. It was a good choice, the day was bright and sunny, and I enjoyed driving through the scenic river valley.
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The valley was another of the quintessential Montana river valley landscapes. It follows the course of the Clark Fork river, named after William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. The Cabinet mountains form the eastern valley wall, and the Bitterroot Range forms the western wall. The mountains are thickly pine forested, high and rugged. Snow caps the peaks of the higher elevations, and it was a pretty corridor for an inspired drive. The valley floor is a mix of tan, sun bleached grasses, pine forests, rocks of all sizes, and the aforementioned river. I passed through the small western towns of Clark Fork in Idaho, Thompson Falls and Plains in Montana. I really liked the look of the land in Montana, if I had the money and wanted to finally grow some roots, I’d definitely consider this region of northwest Montana. It’s very easy on the eyes and good for the soul. I turned off of 200, and drove west on Hwy 135 which led to the freeway and home. I vowed to return, as it really is one of my favorite drives in Montana.

I’ve decided to follow my own advice. In the forums, I’m always advising people driving through the U.S. to be aware that the distances of the west are vast. That driving through them takes a long time, and you don’t want to spend all of your time in a car. I try to encourage picking a well placed central area, and making many small trips from there, instead of trying to see it all. The other day, I was thinking of my own plans for March, of going down to Utah, when I realized that I was making a mistake. Here I am situated in the beautiful inland northwest, by my own choosing. I’m planning on driving 1000 miles south to visit southeast Utah (which I would enjoy), but wouldn’t I be better off exploring where I am? I mean, I‘ve come to this region for a reason, to ski and to explore this section of the country. It seemed like I would be short changing my trip here, if I squandered the rest of my time and money for a long and expensive trip to Utah. It was time to live in the present, and not in the future. As much as I want to see that area of Utah, it’s going to have to wait. There are too many areas that I want to visit here in Idaho, and Montana.

With my new mindset, I felt an air of freedom and adventure. I wanted to go and explore the nearby countryside. I was inspired by my drive through the Clark Fork valley, and I wanted more. Since it hadn’t snowed for a couple of days, I decided to skip skiing and take a trip into Montana. I was studying my road atlas (one of my favorite pastimes) and found a likeable route. It followed roads I never drove on before (I love driving on new roads). The roads followed designated scenic drives (meaning scenic views). It looked to be about a 200 to 300 mile trip, perfect size to do in a couple of days. I went to bed planning to leave early the next morning.

I got up, and my well ordered mind took over. I packed clothes for one over night, a food bag for lunch and dinner (Halibut fillet on homemade whole wheat bread), got my camera, tripod, binoculars, books, etc. all ready to go, closed the windows, turned down the heat, locked the door, checked the oil in the van, and was gone within 20 minutes of waking up. I stopped for a double shot mocha for the road at Josie’s, and set my Mp3 player going with the book I was currently listening to. It was good to be back on the road.

The first day of the drive, the sky was overcast and dull. I didn’t really mind, and had a good day of driving. That’s pretty much what I did that day, drove all day listening to my book and checking out the scenery. I drove east on I-90 back into Montana, east on 135, south on 200 following along side of the Clark Fork River again. I stopped a few times along side of the river to look for wildlife. I saw some ducks, but they were too far away to identify, even with binoculars. I drove into the National Bison Range just north of Ravalli. I didn’t see any bison, only a few mule deer. The place kind of depressed me, Bison (aka Buffalo) once roamed the great plains from Canada to Mexico. Now, unless there are more of these national ranges, they have roughly a 7 mile by 7 mile box of land to roam. I guess it’s better than nothing, but I wish they had more room to roam.

I went north on highway 93 up to Polson and Flathead Lake. Flathead Lake is a large, beautiful, freshwater lake. A good portion of it was covered in ice, but from the scenic view just before Polson you could see open water. Being the largest lake in western Montana, it attracts a lot of recreational users, and I saw a lot of marinas, state parks, fishing guides, and boat sellers. Hwy 93 hugs the western shore line for over 40 miles, so I had a good chance to see the lake. In Kalispell, I turned west on US hwy 2. This road runs across the U.S. from Washington state to Michigan. It passes right through Duluth, and my home territory in Minnesota. I’ve driven most of this road in its entirety, and it was good to add on another section of it. I passed through small towns of Marion and Happy’s Inn before I got to Libby where I was to stay for the night. It was a long day of driving, with not much stopping. Some days are like that, I just felt like moving, and so that’s what I did.

The next day, I got up early. I did my research and learned that there was a recommended restaurant that boasted of home made food. I couldn’t resist the sound of a big delicious breakfast, so I made my way to the Libby Café. I was seated immediately, nobody was really up and around yet, and I ordered eggs, sausage, and huckleberry flapjacks (not to be confused with pancakes). It was very delicious, the flapjacks were a local specialty using wild huckleberries, and a sweet batter that was a perfect compliment. I enjoyed the meal, and talking with my waitress, who was very friendly and knowledgeable about the area. I thanked her and left, happy with my decision to stop. I gassed up the van, and drove away, west on hwy 2. I like Libby, it’s a nice town, with friendly people, and located in a beautiful spot. I want to go back.

It wasn’t but a few miles out of Libby, when I spotted a roadside park proclaiming, “Kootenai Falls and Swing Bridge.” I pulled off the highway and parked. I grabbed my camera, and decided to go for a walk, to exercise something other than my jaw muscles for the day.
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The Kootenai river is a wild, rugged, fast moving stream. I liked it immediately, as I walked through the pine forested hillside and across the railroad tracks. I could hear its rushing waters from quite a long distance away. As I neared, it got louder, and it was all I heard while I explored the park. The falls weren’t really a set of falls, so much as they were a big set of rapids. The strong current carved its way through the sharp stone, creating the channel. A huge log was up ended on one of the rock cliffs, a reminder that this river is a force to be aware of. Don’t go near it, when the water is high. I had fun climbing around on the rock ledges, and taking pictures of the falls, and the countryside. The day was chill and brisk, a good day to keep moving. The heavy, gray clouds, hung low in the sky, and snow fell intermittently throughout the day.
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I went over to the swinging bridge that crossed over the river. This was a neat bridge, a cable suspension bridge, that spanned the entire channel of the Kootenai. I couldn’t resist, remember that old Sesame St. bit, where Grover explains “Near and Far?” Well, I did the same thing, making a video of it, as I ran across the span at least 12 times (I took several takes). You can tell, I was getting wore out by the end, running that span was a lot of hard labor, especially on a full stomach. I hung out on the other side of the river, hoping a train would pass by. I had plans of taking a picture of a train from that spot, but trains never pass when you want them to. I hiked back to the van, and moved on.
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I turned south on Hwy 56. This marvelous road follows the Bull River and has the high and rugged, Cabinet mountains on the east side of the valley. The entire road is located in the Kootenai National Forest, and there were many trailheads, cross country ski loops, and campgrounds on the way. I can’t wait to come back in the fall. The Bull River is a slow moving, gravel and sand bottomed river, home to Bull Trout. It was fairly deep, and thick grasses grew on it’s banks. It made a lot of slow “S” curves and I enjoyed viewing all the twists and turns of the river. From the air, it must look like a giant snake, slowly gliding into the larger Clark Fork River.
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The rivers of the inland northwest have shown me many mirror images of the countryside in the water. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many as I have here. The Couer d’Alene river and now the Bull River and the Clark Fork have impressed me with this phenomenon. I stopped several times to take pictures of the distant cloud shrouded mountains and forest reflected in the still water. Fantastic.
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I turned south on highway 200 again, onto the same stretch of road I drove from Sandpoint, I hoped I would see a Bighorn sheep along the way. The first time I drove through, I saw several signs warning of sheep on the road, but I didn’t see any. This time, I figured my odds were better, for no reason other than I was feeling good, and the journey was pleasant so far. I was right! There they were, a group of sheep grazing on the hillside not too far away from the road. The only problem was, there was no place to stop on the road, and traffic was steady, so I didn’t stop. Oh well, I got a good picture of a sheep last year, and I was happy to at least see a few of them. It turns out that this is a wintering ground for them, and you have a good chance of seeing them from November to April.

I bought some coffee from a friendly woman in one of those tiny roadside espresso huts. She saw I had Minnesota plates, and inquired as to what I was doing out here. We made small talk as she prepared the coffee, a nice and genuine person, who likes talking to strangers. She was delighted when I gave her a big tip, as they had been few and far between that day. I was feeling good, the people of Montana and the gorgeous country will do that to a guy.

The drive was very pleasant. It had the feeling of a slow Sunday drive in late November. The gray overcast skies, and soft intermittent snow showers, muted the valley landscape. The air, cold and crisp, clouds slightly threatened that winter wasn’t far off. Winter has had a tough go of it this year so far, however, but we’ll see what February and March will bring. It was a very quiet scene, and suited the drive and my mood perfectly.

I was smart, before I left the Libby Café, I bought a big cinnamon roll for the road. Now that I had good, strong coffee to go with it, all I needed was an enjoyable place to gaze at the river while I enjoyed my snack. I pulled off of the highway and enjoyed the scenic river rushing by as I ate my roll and sipped my coffee. It was perfect. I finished off the last of my drive, and happily returned to my cabin. The little regional road trip couldn’t have gone any better if I tried. This gives me more ideas about what I’m going to do in the last couple of weeks of my stay here in Wardner.

Posted by Rhombus 15:45 Archived in USA Tagged photography

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