Friday, June 5, 2009

Day 1 - Starting from Fort Missoula

Fort Missoula
This is a panorama taken at Fort Missoula. [I'm learning how to stitch digital photos together.]

I've realized for some time, but this trip is already reminding me, how difficult it is to capture the bigness of a place in a single photo. Maybe the panoramas will help. Click on the pictures to see a bigger view. In this particular photo, downtown Missoula is about 5 or six miles ahead, just left of the big tree which is about in the center of the picture. I'm standing near the museum at the fort. The fort today has many beautiful buildings. Many came after Moss and the Corps. Perhaps they had a view similar to the one captured in the photo.

I started early (6:15 a.m.) but not as early as the Corps. They began at 5:40 a.m. It had never occurred to me how time consuming it must have been to get all twenty riders loaded up and ready to go. While I'm sure they had their routines, moving that many men must have been quite an undertaking. Experiencing this trip it opening my eyes and making me understand the bicycle corps in a deeper, richer way. Exactly what I was hoping for. Today, the open, empty space between Fort Missoula and downtown Missoula is filled with homes, malls, streets and other businesses. In 1897 the fort was much more isolated from the rest of Missoula.

This is the Higgins St. bridge that the Corps crossed as they rode into downtown.

Downtown Missoula
Moss tells that "a crowd that had risen earlier than usual in order to bid the corps godspeed gave us a hearty cheer." Missoula remains a very bicycle-friendly town. Once I got to the downtown I headed to the headquarters of Adventure Cycling, an organization which promotes bicycle touring and bicycle friendliness. They publish a wonderful magazine that I highly recommend. They are also well known amongst bicycle tourists for maps they make of routes throughout America. I hoped I might get lucky and find somebody there. Maybe somebody will be interested in my project. No such luck, it was too early, so I stuck two business cards (with the address of this website) between the double doors at the entrance and left. Later on, I received an e-mail from Greg Siple, the art director for AC. He liked this site and wondered if I was the person who left the cards. Later on, in a phone conversation, I learned more about Greg's interest in the bicycle corps and the discoveries he has made. I also found out it is Greg who takes the incredible portraits of the bicyclists who pass through Missoula for the section of the AC magazine and website called the Portrait Gallery. I'm still kicking myself for not having waited.

is the next place the Corps mentions passing through. In 1897, Bonner was the end of the line for logs floating down the Blackfoot River. A huge mill there processed the timber, much of which was then sent on to mines in Anaconda and Helena. It is ironic that such a beautiful town is, today, so close to a SuperFund site. The feds are cleaning up the Blackfoot which has over a century of accumulated bad chemicals from a dam which was built in nearby Milltown. Boos reported that the riders made it to Bonner "in good time" and left the line of the Northern Pacific hoping to avoid bad roads and steep grades.

McNamara's Crossing
Boos describes running up "this beautiful mountain river for several hours on excellent roads and easy grades". This stretch has lost none of it's beauty. As I rode the thought "Wow!" kept going through my mind. Boos and Moss both tell that when the Corps reached McNamara's crossing they found that the bridge which could carry them across was washed out. Both men report being ferried across, eight at a time, by some loggers. A pen and ink sketch of this crossing can be sen on Day 1.

Camas Prairie
Boos says, "leaving the Blackfoot behind and crossing the low range between [McNamara's Crossing] and the low range...we reached the summit and saw the beautiful valley laying below us...we were charmed, the meadows and low lands being covered with a sea of blue flowers, from which the valley takes its name.

The Camas Prairie was indeed charming, breathtakingly beautiful in fact, and I was pleased to find that the Camas flowers were still growing in abundance in the prairie.

The Corps reached Potomac at 11 o'clock, about the same time I did, which is surprising taking into account their ferry ride across the Blackfoot. I chalk up my long trip to the time I took stopping and taking pictures. The Corps began to eat lunch when Moss noticed an approaching storm. The men quickly packed up and began riding as hard as they could, hoping to avoid a drenching such as they had received the year before on their trip to Yellowstone.

At Potomac I met up with Ray who had helped me this winter trying to locate Cottonwood. Cottonwood is where the Corps camped the first night and I felt I ought to know where it was. I found Ray totally randomly, after Googling up "Potomac". He's got a website dedicated to his mule-packing sideline. It was a serendipitous connection. After a few e-mails explaining why I wanted to find Cottonwood, I was able to get Ray excited about the bicycle corps. He talked with two old-timers who live in the Potomac area. In the course of our corespondance I realized I wasn't even close in my guesses as to the whereabouts of Cottonwood. But, Ray and his buddies nailed the location of the long-gone town (the confluence of Cottonwood Creek and the Little Blackfoot).

Ray doesn't need to tell you twice he spent a career running a dairy farm. His handshake kinda says it all. In short, he has the kind of grip that leaves you thinking he's got hydraulics in his sleeve. I think he could easily have crushed my forefinger into my pinkie if he had powered-up full-squeeze-mode (see reaction in photo above). Today Ray is semi-retired working at many odd jobs, and competing with his beloved mules -- not the least of which is "Willie". Ray is one of the many "real" Americans I've met on this trip. Visiting with him, you soon realize he's got tremendous strength beyond those devastating mitts.

The location of Sunset, like Cottonwood, was elusive, but I found it. Boos tells us "the town of Sunset was reached in due time and here again we were forced to dismount and climb a long hill afoot." Sunset, it turns out, had two or three locations. None of the Sunsets survived. The Sunset of 1897, the one the Corps travelled past, is today, part of a swanky resort called the Paws Up Ranch. At Paws Up it will cost you "starting at $725" (according to their website) to stay at Tent City (aka a "luxury canvas community"). Go to their website and you'll see these ain't no Wal-Mart tents you're bunked up in. Check out the glasses of chablais on the distressed cowboy endtable.

Still digesting the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches I mooched off of Ray, I felt sort of funny riding through a place where nature is served up "on a silver platter". I moved across the Ranch as fast as I could. The Sunset of 1897 was where the restored (by Paws Up) Morris house is now. (e-mail me if you want details how I know this). By the way, Morris Ranch house rents for "starting from $2,935" a night in late summer. Nothing against the tents but I think this is a better deal. I can picture Moss and the fellas whooping it up here.

Sure enough there was a long hill right after the Morris house ("Sunset"). This dirt road is called the Sunset Hill Road and I suspect it's been there a long time. Like the Corps, I had to walk my bike up it. It was about this point I began to think I should have trained a little harder this winter. Ray, I might mention, back at Potomac, looked at me and asked, "So, you didn't train for this ride, did you?"

The great thing about nearly 300 pounds of bicycle, panniers and belly is places like the other side of Sunset Hill Road. Downhill through beautiful pines and aspen. Intellectually, you know gravity is doing all the work but emotionally you still feel like Lance Armstrong.

This picture isn't Clearwater but close to it. The dirt road (Sunset Hill Road) runs back into Highway 200 about two miles from this location. Moss says they passed the Clearwater Post Office about dusk. Boos describes getting rained on as they reached the top of the hill back around Sunset then "we found a fair road with a downgrade, made up some lost time and left the muddy hill behind..." This is pretty much what I experienced, except the road wasn't muddy. The Corps made good time on a "long desolate flat" which I'm assuming is the same dirt road I pedaled along the Blackfoot river. It was anything but desolate traveling through tall, shady trees. "Good time was made and we soon rolled into Clearwater, crossing the river by that name on a good bridge." As I crossed over the bridge I wondered how old it was. My question was answered at the top of the girders on the other side. 1907. I think Boos meant that the Corps crossed the Blackfoot, not the Clearwater. Accuse me of sloppy deduction, but I think this road and the location of this bridge are where the Corps rode.


When I finally spotted Cottonwood Creek flowing into the Blackfoot, the location the map tells us Cottonwood was (photo at right), I thought, "That looks like a place I'd like to camp". I keep using the adjective "beautiful" but that's what this location is. The picture does not do it justice. I'm glad I saw it in the evening, in the cool June air, from my bicycle.

Yes, we confirmed it's location on the 1938 map (see blog June 4), but part of me needs more proof this was the place. Could Cottonwood, like Sunset, have been in different locations? Perhaps. For now I'll abandon historical accuracy and say, I think this was Cottonwood just because it looked so magical, so ethereal, when I saw it tonight. The perfect place to end the first day's journey. This place had to be it.

The Corps camped at Cottonwood at the end of Day 1 but I pushed on. Boos wrote and waking up on Day 2 and riding in a heavy fog, "We had fair time and were soon in another mountain valley dotted with numerous lakes on which many ducks were resting." I saw many lakes and ducks too, although my camera didn't have a zoom powerful enough to get a close-up.

E.R. Kiliburn, from Ovando, told the Missoulian that he saw the Corps riding toward Ovando early the morning of June 15, 1897. Boos was a half-mile ahead of everybody and Lt. Moss was bringing up the rear. "The Corps was in single file and scattered along the road a mile or more. All the men looked fresh and were jogging along at good speed. The sight was a pleasing one and unexpected to the residents of that country who thought the corps would follow the Hellgate river from Bonner to Garrison and then to Avon, the first supply station."

Ovando is a very small town but seems to be enjoying a bit of a revival judging from the condition of the buildings. The first site that caught my notice as I rounded a corner and rode into the town square was The Blackfoot Commercial Company building, established in 1897, the same year the Corps rode through. Unfortunately, Ovando was completely void of people. I was hoping to find someone to talk with. Maybe somebody could tell me more about Mr. Kiliburn. But the only remotely human personage I could find was a stoic looking wooden Indian standing guard at the porch of the Blackfoot Commercial Company. While having perky enough eyes, for a wooden guy, his body language told me he wasn't much up for conversation, so I kept on riding.

Ovando, Montana

About six or seven miles down a dirt road called the Helmville Road I bailed off the side and, in spite of the mosquitoes, pulled out my sleeping bag and got my first ever taste of "guerilla camping" (camping on property which could get you shot).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Location of Cottonwood, Montana Discovered

Thanks to my oldest daughter, who drove me up, I am in Missoula and getting ready for the trip. She turned right around and drove another six hours back home.

Today was a good start. Scott Simonson, map and special collections expert at the Mansfield Library at UM helped me verify the location of Cottonwood, the first town the Corps rode to. It was fun to watch Scott, who really knows the archives go to work. It took over two hours but he finally found this long-gone town. It turns out that Cottonwood was just above the confluence of the Little Blackfoot and Cottonwood Creek. The picture below shows Cottonwood on a 1938 map. Unfortunately, I was having trouble with my camera so it is a bit blurry.

The plan for tomorrow, the first day of this trip is to ride up to Salmon Lake Park which is close to where Cottonwood was. I'll probably not be able to access WiFi until I get to Helena which I hope to reach in two or three days. I am looking forward to some beautiful scenery.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Big Weigh-In

Well, I just weighed all my stuff and I think I'm a little ahead of the guy in the picture. Is that a BOB he's got loaded up?

Here's the breakdown:
me = 235 lbs.
Lughound = 35 lbs.
Loaded panniers, sleeping bag, tent etc. = 39.35 lbs.
Water = 3 X 1.5 lbs

My packed bicycle weighs 74.65 lbs.

Grand total = 318.75 lbs.

Lt. Moss and Gang
Moss was not a very big man. He only weighed 135 lbs.
I believe Findley was the heaviest of the riders. He weighed 186 lbs. on the Yellowstone trip.
"Weight of wheel packed" was 67 lbs. for Moss and 86 for Findley. The other riders packed bicycles were between 70 and 84 lbs--not to far away from my loaded cycle--which is somewhat surprising. I thought their bikes and equipment would have amounted to more. The rifles alone weighed 10 pounds. Moss did decide after the Yellowstone trip that two men would share a comb.

Army regulations required that no man weigh more than 140 pounds or be over five feet eight inches tall but General Miles made a special exception for this trip. (Sorenson, pg. 52). I am quite a bit taller (6' 5") and heavier than the Corps riders.

Getting Ready to Go

Tomorrow I'm heading up to Missoula and hope to be on the road by Friday. I plan to go to the Mansfield Library at the University of Montana as soon as I arrive to see if I can find some old railroad maps. I want to find the location of Cottonwood, which is the first town the Corps stopped at. In the 1890s the Anaconda Forest Products Company was logging in several locations close to the Blackfoot River. The downed trees were railroaded and eventually floated downstream to a mill in Bonner. Much of the timber feed the booming mining industry. Records indicate that a line joined Cottonwood to Woodworth (near present day Salmon Lake State Park) but I've not been able to nail down the precise location.

I am not the first person to retrace the Missoula to St. Louis run the Corps made in 1897. In 1974, a group led by two University of Montana faculty members, Pferron Doss and Richard Smith made the trip. Students Dave Watson, Carl Franklin, Jose Velez, Glenda Eruteya, Michael Shaw, Bryan Orr, Miriam Martin and Cheryl Ryan made ten riders all total. Smith's wife, Bernestine, drove a Winnebago sag-wagon. The group typically got up at 4 a.m. and were on the road by 5:30. They had originally planned to ride 50 miles a day, like the original Corps, but wound up averaging 77 miles a day. I have spoken with Pferron who tells me home movies (8 mm?) were made. If the movies can be found I would like to have them digitized and posted on this site.