Plans for an easygoing day go the way such plans usually do. We take an unexpected run at Windy Ridge and make an unexpected visit to one of our 2010 campsites. “Unexpected” is the word of the day. We conclude the day laughing around a fire under tall cedars. All’s well that ends well.
“Bighorn-Weitas (usually called Weitas Creek), with 260,000 acres, is the largest Roadless Area entirely within the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests Boundary.”¹ The dearth of roads means our direction will continue on trails.
After a lazy morning of mental reparations and trail confirmations, we ride back across the wide creek, over the bridge, and find our way around the Guard Station to the head of Trail 20. We are glad to find it an easygoing, singletrack meander between ferns and cedars.
Our mirth is soon diminished, however, by another exposure high above the creek. Like last night, slipping off trail could be disastrous. Since Joel experienced most of last night’s struggles, navigating the loaded KLR along exposed singletrack in the dark, Jeremy and I are going to let him call the shots today.
“I’d rather not,” Joel says apologetically.
“That’s totally cool,” Jeremy reassures enthusiastically.
“Before we turn back,” I suggest, “let me run ahead and see how it goes. If it’s just this bit, we can help each other by and then keep going.” I’m hopeful because the trail has been mellow this far.
I run ahead several minutes, cross a trail bridge over the creek and stop there at a bend in the river where a couple TW 200s are parked. I surmise from gear left behind that the riders are fishing somewhere.
The trail here begins climbing up the drainage. Most of the terrain back here looks steep. I think of riding farther but decide, since I’ve already come miles from my brothers, this will have to do.
I report on my reconnoitering: uncertainty. We vote to find a risk-free route.
This time we stop at that Guard Station¹ we passed on the way in. Walking across the long plank porch to pull open the creaking screen door sounds like a scene from The Waltons.
“Ice tea?” We are greeted by Mark and Linda, station hosts. “It’s a southern thing,” they explain. They’re from Florida. We gladly accept.
When we ask about our Plan B, to follow Trail 20 the other direction out to Road 250 along the North Fork of the Clearwater, we’re referred to Gary of Weitas Creek Outfitters² who happens to be here today.
Gary’s outfitting area is one of America’s premiere hunting and fishing destinations.
The lands are a Western Mecca for hunters and ﬁshermen. They ﬁnd in roadless areas the highest quality of elk, and other big game as well as headwaters for many of the state’s blue-ribbon trout streams … the Wild Clearwater Country serves as the most important core area in the Northern Rockies and Southern Canadian Rockies for large forest carnivores.¹
Gary tells us some about those “large forest carnivores,” the bears in the area, while giving us the bad news about Trail 20. Its bridge across the North Fork to the road is closed.² Plan B is blocked.
Even if we could get around the closure to cross the bridge, we’re warned the trail that direction also has dangerous areas. In fact, someone recently died there too!
The Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office said Joseph Rust from Belmont, California was traveling on the Weitas Creek trail on a mountain bike with his son and a family friend when he lost control of the bike. Rust was thrown off the bike and over the 100 foot cliff into Weitas Creek. When deputies arrived they found Rust was already dead.¹
KLEW-TV, “California man dies after being thrown from bike” (July 23, 2009):
It looks like we need to devise a Plan C, a plan arrived at quickly since there’s just one alternative, a long Forest Service road. Unfortunately, it will send us many miles farther from the day’s destination before we can come back around.
We follow the road from the Guard Station back by our campsite and begin climbing over the mountains. We are spread out to avoid dusting each other so I don’t notice when the KLR dumps Joel on the ground around a rocky switchback.
starPhoto by Jeremy Abbott
While last night provided several opportunities for mishap, it’s the gravel road ride that inflicts first damage.
starPhoto by Jeremy Abbott
As we climb higher and higher, farther and farther, on a road that’s deteriorating instead of joining other mountain thoroughfares, I grow suspicious of this direction. I saw a car pass our campsite this morning and assumed it was arriving on the main road. I didn’t see another road so didn’t think twice about heading this way (Lean-to Ridge Road 555).
When I check the GPS and map I’m dismayed to find we’ve spent the day so far heading in the wrong direction. And it dead-ends soon. The only hope of salvaging our time is to bite the bullet and take singletrack Cook Mountain Trail 627 for a couple miles to Windy Ridge which we can then follow down to Fourth of July Creek and the North Fork, a piece of the original Plan A.
I feel I’ve really screwed up, first with last night’s treacherous trail and now half-day spent going the wrong direction.
Cook Mountain Trail isn’t alarming but it isn’t easy either for loaded, low clearance bikes. In several places the trail is a rocky rut that squeezes the KLR and TW 200 to a stop. At one point we have to bend back both the shifter and rear brake on the TW for all their grinding on the inside of ruts.
Along with ruts, long hills of stairstep roots force a slow, sweltering pace. It’s not so bad on the KTM but Joel and Jeremy are taking a beating. Joel shows us sweat running like a stream out of his sleave. Gross.
“I’m gonna fly ahead and see if we’re close,” I announce when we’re stopped for a breather.
“Okay.” I don’t think there’s much more to say at this point.
I double the speed we’ve been going and probably triple the distance before I reach a grassy, treeless slope below Fox Ridge. Suddenly the front wheel drops into a hole and I’m slammed forward, straining my wrists. Water is running downhill in ditches hidden in the grass. The ground is mud.
Already irritated and overheated, the ensuing wrestling match, to extricate myself, does not create a quality moment. I don’t think to record video until after I get turned around.
As much as I don’t want the day’s riding to be a complete loss, I don’t see how we can get the other bikes this way.
After several times trying to radio them, to tell them to stop and wait, I finally happen upon Joel and Jeremy, having mutinied, intuited what I’d gone to discover, that this trail wouldn’t serve us. They are sitting in the shade of a tree sampling liquors and giggling at themselves.
“You guys made the right decision,” I assure them.
I take a few minutes to clean the mud wrestling mess, calm my nerves and catch my breath before we face our fate and begin the long retreat.
starPhoto by Jeremy Abbott
We pass last night’s campsite a third time with hardly a glance.
Back down to Weitas Creek then up into the opposite mountains, we stay on Forest Road 555, mile after mile as the sun dips low in the sky. We reach the Lolo Motorway, path of Lewis and Clark, and pass Camp Martin to retrace our 2010 steps.¹ We stop and agree we’ve reached the point where we need to take whatever campsite comes next, pretty or not.
For all the misadventure of the last 24 hours, we land a great site along mossy, fern-lined Camp Creek under huge cedars with just enough daylight for a leisurely evening. I’m much relieved.
Jeremy sets about fashioning a shelter with the tarp and mismatched poles he inadvertently brought instead of a tent, garnering the usual brother sympathy (none).
There are concrete and wooden structures scattered around, the dilapidated and overgrown remains of a 2001 Chinook Salmon acclimation facility, the “Yoosa/Camp Creek AF.” For us they are just convenient places to set our gear.
I have always stored the input and output ends of my water filter separately. Joel lets his touch. It makes me think of God’s test for Gideon’s army,¹ though I’m not sure which of us would be selected to kill Midianites.
I spend some time wading in the creek, taking pictures and rinsing my feet. It feels wonderful to be out of the riding boots.
starPhoto by Jeremy Abbott
Our mom likes to send her garden produce with us, creating the conundrum of carrying corn and potatoes in already full bags. This year, at least, it’s something small: jalapeños. Now we only wonder how to eat them. Roasted, Jeremy suggests.
The final evening chore is to make sure the gadgets will be charged for tomorrow’s adventures. The Ted Kaczynskis out there might be moved to bomb us if they saw all our electronics.
Freeze dried foods are a reliable source of fireside entertainment. Dreaming up ironic marketing slogans and comparing nutrition facts can keep us laughing for hours.
A long, convivial evening around the fire, toasting Fireball to our absent brother Jesse, is the yin to the day’s yang. It’s what it’s all about, the tie that binds.
The next morning we are refreshed. We adjust tire pressure for a day of fast roads we’ll ride to get back around to our route, back onto the plan.
Happiness eludes those with exceptional memories, studies suggest, their fate anchored to every unforgotten foible. For us not so gifted, the world begins anew today, our forgetting like a forest canopy that turns the glaring past into a dance of gentle lights.