We meet for the eighth year in a row, my brothers and I, to ride and camp off our motorcycles for a few days in Idaho mountains. Fires and a funny forecast mean we aren’t sure what we’re getting into. For the first day of five, we ride from our mother’s house on forest roads to tiny Calder, Idaho, along the St. Joe then up the tributary Big Creek.
The drive from Boise to my mom’s house in the forested hills between Troy and Moscow is punctuated by fire camps and emergency services laboring under thick clouds dragging welcome showers across central Idaho meadows.
I am on my way to meet my three younger brothers for our eighth annual mountain motorcycle ride. Jeremy is making a similar drive today from Camano Island, Washington.
“Are you making us cookies?” I joke.
“Sure,” our mom answers. “Oatmeal or peanut butter?”
Brenna sent me with a letter to open each day. The first day’s letter has a picture of my little car and trailer hauling my motorcycle. It reads, “Day 1: I love you dad. Hope you have a good time camping with your brothers. From Brenna to dad.”
A bag of homemade cookies is bungie netted attop my bags as we set out.
Photo by Cheryl Reed
For one of our typical St. Joe Ranger District rides, such as we’ve not done for a few years, we might start out over Moscow Mountain. But it’s not a typical year. North Idaho is burning in a dozen places and the mountain closed until long absent rains return.
Instead we follow gravel roads toward our old countryside home on Orchard Loop Road then across the same fallow fields we crossed as kids to Spring Valley, the little local reservoir I haven’t set eyes on for a decade.
“I can’t believe how much the trees have grown in these fields,” I remark. Bare rolling hills we once sped across are now thick with trees taller than I am.
We stop there a minute and talk of adventures past. We remember when Spring Valley seemed little more than a big puddle in our back woods around which we had free reign to ride and camp. Now it has facilities and rules.
Giving a motorcycle ride once to Joel Kerley after high school football practice to his family’s house on White Pine Flats made me realize how near it is to Spring Valley. I’m leading my brothers on dirt tracks I hope still make that connection. I did warn them the day’s route is “sprinkled with hope.”
The tracks are dusty and sometimes overgrown but connect as expected.
I slow to an idle to allow three turkeys running panicked on the path ahead to find refuge. They’re indecisive so we make a little parade for a while.
We stop for a break at a large pond hidden behind trees. If it has a name, I couldn’t find it — just a video of some bass fishing here.¹ It looks like it’s well known to locals.
My old seven inch tablet is working well as a GPS this year.
From Laird Park we ride along the Palouse River over the Palouse Divide to follow Emerald Creek. We speed between open meadows and deep forest shade toward Clarkia.
Our plan to replay some greatest hits, such as Lost Lake and Marble Creek, was thwarted this year by all the fires. Nearly the whole forest district is closed, Marble Creek to Red Ives, Clarkia to Avery. The only north Idaho forest I can find open is between the St. Joe and Interstate 90 so we’re following unknown roads through the mountains to get there.
The bright red line is our new route. Maroon lines surround fire closures (square areas are generally private timber land). Yellow and orange areas represent active fires. Closures were even more extensive when I plotted the route.
The waddling porcupine and gangly juvenile moose are quicker than the turkey trio to escape the roadway, quicker than I am to brake, unzip and draw the camera.
“Do you have any butter?” I ask the lady behind the glass-top counter inside the Calder Store entrance. I already scanned the small cooler. She looks up curiously through glasses perched below frazzled grey hair.
“I don’t think so,” she starts.
“I got a glob of pitch in my hair,” I explain. “I’ve always used butter to get it out. Do you know of anything else that will work?” My brothers had kindly suggested gasoline.
“I don’t know,” she answers. “Do you think margarine will work? I’ll check with the cook. We’re expecting a lot of folks and may not have any to spare.”
She returns with a small plastic cup of butter. “Fifty cents,” she says.
“We’re close,” I assure my brothers. I brake as I see the GPS line forking from Big Creek Road and come to a stop a dozen feet past the marked trailhead.
It looks like riders have cut from road to trail at a few spots, not unusual, so we just enter between the boulders beside us and head upwards on the dirt track.
I pause to asses a steeply canted switchback, decide momentum should make it easy, then find myself tipping slowly toward a deep hole after I stall the motor. Darn.
“I’ll need some help picking this up,” I suggest as my brothers arrive a moment later. I’m standing in the hole keeping the bike from sliding further.
Photo by Jeremy Abbott
A little heave-ho gets us all safely past the pit.
“I guess it’s to discourage ATVs,” I suppose of the many poles and logs placed intentionally across the trail. This is meant to be a motorcycles-only trail but it still seems an odd solution.
Our youngest brother Jesse deserves a backwoods commendation for trucking up on the inch-and-a-half too tall, snatchy Husky. He’s burning bonus calories today.
All the debris on the trail makes the climbs and switchbacks tricky on loaded bikes. Time and teamwork finally brings us to flatter ground. I speed ahead expecting to reach an intersection but instead find full trees cut to criss-cross the trail as far as I can see. It doesn’t make sense.
We have no choice but to retreat to the road. While waiting for my brothers to arrive, I eat a few of mom’s oatmeal cookies and go to look at the trail marker, perhaps find an explanation. I am surprised to find it’s not the same trail! A new trail has recently been cut between trees and into the hill, so new the dirt is still loose, so new it’s not marked on Idaho trail maps. Its trailhead is only feet from the other. Argh.
“The trail formerly known as 44” Jeremy decides to call the subject of our last hour-and-a-half. A sign would have been nice. I already planned an alternate route to Elsie Lake, should something like this happen, but we lost a lot of time on Former 44 and decide just to follow the road up Big Creek to a campsite.
The road turns to an ATV track for a hundred yards then to rocky singletrack with a bit of exposure. It’s beautiful but we’re done with climbs and switchbacks for the day.
We settle into a nice spot along the creek about a mile from the road’s end. I regarded the many back-and-forth brother messages about cords and tarps with mild ridicule. Who needs all that? Now they’re the only thing allowing us to enjoy the evening instead of ducking into tents to escape rain. Good call, guys.
We knew restrictions might keep us from having a fire so I brought a small lantern we could circle around for a bit of warm light.
Photo by Jeremy Abbott
Joel went the extra mile and brought a campfire centerpiece. We complete the experience by throwing trash into our “fire.”
Respite from a night of rain gives us time to pack up. Thick clouds suggest a wet day of riding. “At least it won’t be dusty,” I suggest enthusiastically. We’re hopeful rain will permit a real one so we leave our make-believe fire behind for others.