58.9 mi / 12.1 mph / 1880 ft. climbing
Home: Swan Lake National Forest Campground
Ok, sorry, I lied about last night being out last encounter with hiker/biker site thieves. No, last night’s guys didn’t come back, this was a guy whose tent had already been set up here for a couple nights, but who we hadn’t seen. This morning, I finally see him, and he’s packing up to leave. He’s wearing a plush cotton hoodie, something no hiker or biker actually carries with them, as much as we wish we could. And yep, he gathers all his packed gear onto the picnic table, with no backpack in sight in which to pack it (and he certainly didn’t have a bicycle with him). He walks off, and sure enough, 5 minutes later, returns with his car to pick up his gear.
I point this out to Rett, and without saying anything she walks up to take a photo of his license plate, ostensibly for the comment card the hosts have been encouraging us to send to the superintendent. Not too surprisingly, this sets him off. “Oh, you bikers think you’re so special!…You have to be such a fucking Karen and ruin things for everyone…I’ve hiked 6000 miles in the last year” (uh, ok. Are you hiking now?) Basically it was the vulgar rantings of a guy who is pissed that someone called him out for doing something wrong.
I was relatively silent as he and Rett continued the back-and-forth (once emotion has made any teachable moment pass, I, unlike Rett, find it pointless to engage, though to her credit she was responding much more rationally and calmly than his f-bomb laced tirades). So the best part was when he misinterpreted my relative silence as anything but 100% agreement with Rett, and made a bros-before-hoes play to get me on his side: “I feel sorry that you have to live with someone like her”. LOL, yeah, it really sucks having this awesome woman out here hiking and biking through a national park with me, who also sticks up for what’s right, and by the way I noticed you’re here alone.
Oh wait, no, the best part was when he told the usual lie that the campground host told him it was ok to camp in the hiker/biker site, and that he was going to go over to the host site and wait for us there to prove he was right. Uh, ok, sure? Even though I was 99% confident there was no way he was going to the host, just to satisfy myself I checked two different host sites on the way out, and of course he was at neither.
Anyway, forget about that ass, we need to bust our own asses out of Glacier. Living inside the National Park for the last three and a half weeks has been very inexpensive, at least when we were in places that we were allowed to camp. Well, the “grocery” bills were fairly insane, but “lodging” at $10-$16/night helped make up for that. But move just outside the park, and the lodging costs are what becomes insane, especially if we want a few nights under a roof to reset as we usually do when ending a lengthy outdoor-living phase like this.
So Rett endorsed the idea to extend the outdoor-living phase for another four nights, with much bigger miles between stops than we’re used to. All in order to make it to the still-pricey but not eye-poppingly-pricey city of Helena, where we would finally get a shower with no one else’s hair in it.
The ride to Hungry Horse and its grocery store was easier this time, now that we knew all the twists and turns of the oddly-not-on-Google-Maps bike path that keeps you close to, but not in high-traffic US-2.
Leaving the grocery store we got some of the best road-ahead advice we’ve ever gotten from a civilian. She was clearly a cyclist, because she knew exactly where the shoulders and bike path ended, and knew precisely how long “The Canyon” (as locals call it, we learned) was. These weren’t even answers to my questions, since lack-of-Internet meant I was way under-researched, so the fact that she provided answers to questions I didn’t even know to ask was invaluable. Anyway, The Canyon, which is a 1-mile section where 4-lane-with-shoulders US-2 shrinks down to 2-lane-without-shoulders, sucked. But it sucked a lot less knowing how long we’d need to power through it, and knowing that it was something people here ride and survive. By the time we breathlessly heaved ourselves into the first sliver of shoulder when it reappeared, a long line of backed up vehicles passed, but at least no one threw anything at us.
We turned south at the first possible moment, onto MT-83, but that was annoying too with its relatively narrow shoulders 60% filled with rumble strips, so I took us off onto a many-turn path through a grid of farm roads that lights up bright on Strava’s cycling heat map. I thought maybe all the 90-degree turns were to keep us on paved roads, but the second turn brought us to gravel. No big deal, it was still a lot nicer than the highway (and rare to have an option at all in this region!)
Only when a bikepacker named Sean caught us during a cherry-eating break was my suspicion confirmed: the route is so well-used because we had “accidentally” put ourselves onto the Great Divide Mountain Bike route! Which brought to mind this question: in a mixed-surface grid like this, is Adventure Cycling trying to put Divide riders on as many gravel sections as possible (so they can take pride in their percentage of unpaved riding) or as many paved sections as possible (so their lives will be easier)? I have no idea, and neither did Sean, but he definitely hoped it was the latter! That’s our kind of non-purist!
Eventually we had to get off the untrafficed roads (what I think most Divide riders are really looking for), and return to the highway for a not-super-fun entry into Big Fork. John and Els had given it a recommendation as a cute town, but it was too good of a recommendation because it was so cute that Rett was disappointed that we couldn’t stay there (she could have spent two days visiting all the shops on the main street), since we were committed further. We settled for riverside lunch in a cute gazebo.
The uphill and highway east out of Big Fork sucked too (again, too many fast vehicles for the 2 ft. shoulder), so much that we took another alternate for a few miles. But then even though both roads seemed to be funneling to southbound MT-83, which would unfortunately be our only option for the next 80 miles, traffic there was basically suddenly ok. How did that happen? Did all the cars fall into a giant sinkhole that we’d diverted around? If so, sorry for not crying about it!
Ever since we crossed the southern end of MT-83 exactly a month ago when we were eastbound on MT-200, I’d been concerned about the advertised construction at that end, with the long line of backed-up cars that it would spit forth at long intervals indicating it was more than just a 100 yd. one-way closure. So a construction zone here up north was a complete surprise, but it turns out that a month (the last time I’d checked the state’s website) is plenty of time for new construction projects to start! Luckily it was just preliminary guardrail work, the only problem was that the pilot car leading the way went way too fast for us to keep up, but we made it through alive without the oncoming line creaming us.
It was hot by the time we got to Swan Lake, so we went directly to the day use area on the west side of the road for a fun, cooling, and unusually floaty swim before crossing to the vault-toilet-only campground on the east side. I’d reserved one of the last-available sites a few days ago, and we’d lucked into one of the best ones, shady, and with water, toilet, and bear box all nearby. It’s another of these weird Forest Service campsites with the huge RV driveway and barely room for a tent, but we were able to squeeze it in front of the picnic table. For our first non-Park dinner in a while we had cucumber salad with frozen Chinese bags (Innovasian), which double as ice bags to keep the rest of our food cool.
After dinner we walked a couple of sites down to say hello to the owners of the two touring bikes we’d seen on the way in, only to discover that there were now four. Wade and Summer were surprisingly doing almost the exact same loop around Glacier that we were doing (it’s much more an independent-planning route than an obvious standard), but they were doing it clockwise so had good advice about our counterclockwise road ahead, and were just fun to talk with. Wade rides well ahead of Summer and then waits at intervals for her to catch up, which seems very strange to us (why ride together if you aren’t riding together?), but they said they used to do it our way and they both found it more stressful (Summer feeling like she had to push to go fast enough for Wade, and Wade worrying about going too fast for Summer). Definitely feelings foreign to us, but the inspiring thing is that they communicated to come up with a solution that works for them.
Then we were shocked to see that one of the other two sharing Wade and Summer’s site was Cee, who we had camped with nine nights ago at Rising Sun in Glacier! The coincidence of crossing paths was surprising enough, but even more because when we parted ways she was heading north into Canada on the east side of the Divide, and here she was heading south on the west side. Turns out she was now doing the Great Divide route with a new companion! Another inspiring example of finding a new path if it seems better than the one you’re on.