Rain, Overboard, Crash, Laughs on Hiawatha Bike, Blackfoot Float
Where do I begin on this one? Two women overboard? Biking in the dark on an almost two-mile long tunnel? A bike crash? Rain? Hot springs?
It was a wet weekend, a very wet weekend or to be more precise, a Sunday and two weekdays, which started after having breakfast with our hubbies for Father’s Day (leave time 10:30 a.m.) before heading out for a rainy drive to Missoula to pick up Susan, who was on her way from two days in Hamilton with her husband. We were glad we decided to forgo hiking Rogers pass for the milder and less wet Kim Williams trail in Missoula.
Missoula was just a bit overcast, so the three-mile hike along the Clark Fork River was pleasant. We all remarked at how fresh and wonderful the breeze felt as we enjoyed the river walk. We didn’t have time to hike up Mount Sentinel, so we had to save that for another day.
Now that we had Susan, we had 11 of our ladies with one more (June) after we got to Quinn’s Hot springs in Paradise, Montana, where we would sty the night. We arrived at just after 4 p.m., giving us time to check in, get settled, and then head to dinner at the Harwood House. As the person with the reservation, Katie had to sign that we wouldn’t lose any towels (had to check them out and back in with the desk), lose any keys or “play chicken” in the highway, realizing that the speed limit was 70 mph. Fees were $40 for a “lost” or “stolen” towel and $10 for keys.
Katie and June both remembered the look of the old hot springs, bar and Harwood House restaurant, having lived in Western Montana (June in Plains and Katie in Alberton and Superior) in the late 70s and early 80s. It was pretty shabby back then, but everything is quite nice now with new cabins, even across the highway along the river (these cabins are pricier with the river view but also right next to the RR tracks).
Our meal at the Harwood House was quite good, just as Mary N told us it would be. The soups everyone particularly commented on. Then those who wanted to soak, headed for the pools, while others relaxed on the edge and enjoyed a pleasant evening that only produced a few sprinkles before an early bedtime before our big ride. We knew that the next day would probably bring showers, however, with a 70 percent chance predicted.
The next day, some of us had an 8 a.m. breakfast at the Harwood House (the earliest they open with no place else for miles to have a bite) while others ate in their rooms before we hit the road at 9 a.m. for Lookout Pass and our Hiawatha Bike Trail ride. We gained an hour going into Idaho, which is on Pacific time, so we arrived at 9:30 a.m. to pick up our lunches (our lunches came in a nice Hiawatha Trail souvenir day pack), passes, shuttle tickets, bikes and helmets. I must say it was a bit disorganized: they didn’t have the right number of lunches ready, they left off lettuce on a veggie sandwich instead of a turkey one (had to be remade due to Bonnie’s lettuce allergy), gave us 11 instead of 12 bikes (luckily, we counted before we left) and then didn’t put a headlamp on the last bike (which we didn’t discover until we got to the trailhead). Again, luckily, one of the trail marshals had an extra light as those tunnels are dark.
A funny side note: many of us hadn’t ridden bikes in a while, so we were asking how to change gears, etc. on the bikes. Susan asked so many questions, that the trail marshal finally said, “I think you are a good candidate for walking your bike. At least through the tunnels.” Ha ha! P. S. Susan had no issues with her bike.
It was 10:15 a.m. before we really started as we all rode around a bit getting used to the bikes. (Another side note: they only have a one-stall toilet for both sexes, so it takes a while for a group). Then we faced the first obstacle right off the bat: the looooong tunnel. June led us into the tunnel walking our bikes so that our eyes could get adjusted before we headed out. This was a very good idea as we had heard from Anita about her crashing and two of the Canadians also said they crashed in the tunnel. We made sure to take our sunglasses off and turn on both our headlamps and the bike headlights.
Our first hour and a half was glorious, cloudy but a nice 60-degree temperature. We leisurely pedaled and stopped at each interpretive sign to read about the history. Unfortunately, the trail crew had places large rocks to slow riders before each of the interpretive signs, and Catherine hit one as she attempted to go between two rather narrowly spaced boulders. Luckily, she wasn't hurt. But we told her she would have a souvenir bruise of her trip.
Along the way, we enjoyed the views into the snowy mountains, the tunnels and each trestle to its fullest, marveling at how high each was, how beautiful the firs trees’ new growth was as we gazed down on trees over 100 feet tall from trestles that were over 200 feet high. Amazing. And we had fun with all the tunnels as well. The trail has 10 tunnels (one—the long one—we went through twice) and seven trestles. At our third trestle, we sat along the edge of raised railroad ties and ate our lunch, which was 11:45 (12:45 our time). Then the rain came at the half-way mark just a half mile from lunch. Luckily, it was right at the bathroom, so we took a break and those who didn’t have rain gear on, quickly put it on. Then our pace quickened a bit as the spitting turned to a steady drizzle. In fact, the last two miles, Kuntzie, who was in the lead, started hoofing it. Some struggled to keep up, but the trail was turning muddy, putting a “Hiawatha Stripe” down our back from the mud kicked up by the rear tire. And due to the rush, we made the 1:15 bus; otherwise, we would have had another hour and a half wait in the rain for the next shuttle.
We hardly saw another soul on the trail; probably no one wanted to bike on a rainy Monday (70% chance of rain). At the end, we saw a few more headed up and a few groups passed us trying to make the early shuttle too.
The shuttle left us off before the long tunnel again, so we had to go through it second time. This time it was a bit eerie with a weird atmosphere that gave Linda a sudden headache and made others struggle to see. The rain had made the inside air extremely muggy and foggy, but we all made it out without crashing. Kuntzie, the speed demon, slowed way down too at this point, facing a bit of uphill as well as the mugginess.
It was 3:30 p.m. before we loaded all the bikes up and got back to Lookout Pass to turn the equipment back in, and head to Wallace, Idaho, for some shopping and dinner. We had to skip hiking the Polaski trail due to the weather and the lateness of the hour—there is always next time! We were going to eat at one restaurant that Katie remembered as being good, but the locals said “Not anymore” when asked if it was good, so we took their recommendation of the City Limits Pub and Brewery. Boy, did it have an interesting menu. Two gals had the homemade raviolis (fresh that morning), one with sage brown butter sauce and one with marinara and both said they were amazing. They served a lot of food, for sure. Then back to plains on a rainy evening to soak or just relax.
The next day, it was breakfast and check out by 9:30 for our raft trip, but not before saying goodbye to Susan and June, who passed on going down the river. Katie called to double check that the float down the Alberton Gorge was still on due to rain (might have raised the river too high to navigate safely) and due to predicted afternoon thunderstorms. Tiffany said we were still on. However, she didn’t’ tell us the whole story.
We arrived in Missoula at 10:45 and stopped at a coffee shop/sandwich shop to pick up lunch and then walked the one block to the raft company. We all paid and then started to gear up. It wasn’t until we had our gear and had paid that we found out we were not going down the Alberton Gorge after all but instead going down the Blackfoot. Some of us were very disappointed, more in the fact that the raft company had not told us. We should have been able to decide whether we still wanted to go or not since the Gorge wasn’t an option.
However, we accepted it as the guides had already-- at this point-- hitched up the rafts and were expecting a trip. The drive to the put in was a full 45 minutes and it drizzled a bit at times on the drive, but the day actually looked pretty good, better than predicted. It had taken us almost an hour to put on wetsuits and get ready.
We were in two rafts: Katie, Kathy, Kuntzie, Mary and Susan with two guides and Bonnie, Linda, Jeanne, Gail and Catherine in another with one guide. Bonnie was unable to paddle due to a shoulder injury. In hindsight, we should have had Bonnie in the raft with two guides to balance the paddling.
Everything went pretty well to get started; we all put on our own gear without much instruction other than to put on our lifejackets tightly. So we got into the rafts and took off, the first boat waiting for the second to get on the water.
We didn’t get any instruction as to how to hold the paddles, how to work together, what the commands were, etc., which those of us who had gone on guided trips thought a bit odd. However, Katie thought that the Blackfoot was such an easy river that maybe it wasn’t needed. Indeed, the guides briefly covered safety, explaining how to put your feet in front of you if you fall overboard and how to keep yourself upright and push up and over if you happen upon a “strainer,” a jam of logs and debris that can suck a swimmer under and catch her feet. But the guides said, “This won’t happen today.” Famous last words, that appeased Kuntzie since she doesn’t swim, and she was nervous, very unusual for Kuntzie.
So a mile or two into the ride as we were admiring the herons, the mergansers (including the ducklings), the osprey and the high cliffs and wildflowers, the gals in the lead boat looked back after a small rapid (all were mostly Class I with some low Class IIs), and were shocked to see that it appeared Bonnie had fallen in. Then we saw Bonnie in the boat but another person floating toward us, with feet first, just as instructed. We at first thought it was Linda as we strained to see who was on the boat and then realized it was Gail. But we saw that Bonnie was soaked. We were confused but surmised that maybe she had gotten wet trying to rescue Gail.
Cathy said, “Gail is a goner,” as we felt a sinking feeling in our gut watching her float along. Katie said, "Shouldn’t we paddle backward to try to get her?" and the guides finally said yes, but the other raft paddled forward and caught up to Gail first. However, the gals struggled to pull her into the raft. In fact, her life jacket pulled almost all of the way off, covering her face. It had not been tight enough. Now Kuntz said, “There is a headless life jacket,” as we couldn’t see Gail’s head anymore. Finally, the guide on the second raft was able to pull her in (He told the gals to "move aside" and grabbed her with ease), but we saw her just lying in the bottom of the raft, leading us to believe the cold water had brought on a heart incident since Gail has heart problems. Later we learned this was not the case. It was just that the life jacket had wedged itself around her chest and neck and the others had a hard time getting it off to put it back on right.
After what seemed an eternity, the guides and the gals in the second raft signaled that all was okay. It was now that the main guide on the first raft admitted that the guide in the second raft was brand new and that this was his first time leading a boat down this river and that he was supposed to be following the first craft’s line. In fact, our guide was only in his second season and the other guide on our boat was a newbie too.
The rest of the trip was uneventful other than Kuntzie not paddling anymore as she was holding onto the cooler’s tether rope and said she wasn't going to let go. She also said, “Why wasn’t Gail screaming? I would be!” Many of us said we would be too, but Gail is a pro and a calm head. She was cold but not injured at all and followed instructions to a tee.Her technique was textbook.
Toward the end, Susan “made” the newbie on our boat take the steering oars and be our guide. She was telling him to show us points of interest and tell us river stories, but he didn’t have any being a newbie. So she said he now had a story due to some of our gals going overboard.
When we got to the takeout, we heard the whole story: Raft 2 had gone over a “pourover,” a large rock with just a bit of water rushing over the top but enough to create a steep drop with backwater. It tossed both Bonnie and Gail over; however, the other gals were able to grab Bonnie right away, who was holding onto a tether on the side of the raft.The raft didn't have a rope on it so there was nothing for Gail to grad onto. Ironically, on bus trip to the put in spot, Jeanne had asked if the guides had ever gotten hung up on a large rock that was partially submerged. They said they hadn’t.
On the way back in the bus, we were all laughing and joking around and making a bit of fun of the guides, Zach, John and Skyler, who really deserved a bit of teasing. In fact, I think they learned a lot from our group, and we did too. Both Bonnie and Gail were cold, especially Bonnie as she was shaking. Those two had been wet for most of the 17 miles; and at the end, we all started getting a bit chilly due to the wind coming up. And on the bus, it started to pour. We had made a day of it without rain from the sky, just the rain from the rapids.
After changing at the raft company office, we headed back out to Great Falls around 5 p.m. We decided we would eat fast-food in Helena instead of stopping in Missoula before we left. And yes, we had to go through Helena instead of Lincoln as Highway 200 was closed over Rogers pass due to rivers flooding in the area. In fact, all of Augusta was flooded with other areas threatened due to the Sun River, Teton River, Missouri and many creeks overflowing. So it was Arby’s in Helena and then home.
What a wet and wild weekend we had with lots of laughs to boot and everyone safe at the end. Thank goodness.
Who went: Kathy M, Bonnie J, Linda, Gail, Kuntzie, Susan, Sue, Catherine, Jeanne, Mary S, June, Katie