Fernie to Polebridge. Into Big Sky Country

After a three day break in Fernie (the last day due to illness), I set off in beautiful sunshine along a sublime minor unpaved road that follows the Elk River south. 

The road follows the old railway line – used primarily for exporting coal to the coast. The trains are unbelievably long, endless bogies full of coal going one way. 

After rejoining the main road I started to suffer from severe knee and hip pains.  I couldn’t work out the cause for a while, and then I realised belatedly that the bike shop in Fernie that worked on my brake had lowered my saddle and readjusted it without telling me.  Without a measuring tape I couldn’t find the ‘right’ position again (one that took me a long time to work out in the first place).  So I fixed it as well as I could and kept going.  Two weeks later as I write this I’m still suffering some knee pain as a result of this – but I’m a bit far away to complain to the shop…

After crossing the Elk River fort the last time and rejoining the main road the route followed a tortuous series of minor roads – I skipped some of them and stayed on the more direct route.  I’d intended to camp before the border but I felt like just pushing on and getting to Montana. 

The final stretch into Roosville, the border point was easy and straightforward.  Even the immigration officials were moderately helpful.  Or maybe from experience they knew that having a look through a bike tourers panniers is not really a pleasant activity.

Often, crossing a border is a bit disappointing, nothing but different road signs to tell you that you are in another country.  But there really is a huge difference going into Montana.  From the deep wooded valleys of British Columbia, suddenly the whole landscape seems to open up and you realise why ‘Big Sky Country’ is actually a great name for the State.

The area is also a classic post glacial landscape – the ridge to the left seems to be an eskir while the hill to the right is actually called Drumlin hill – and in true Cavan Monaghan style has a big ugly house right on top.

I was impressed by all the skid marks outside this Saloon.  Must be a good place.

The outskirts if the first town you encounter in Montana – the wonderfully named Eureka – isn’t too impressive – its a couple of miles of roadside sprawl.  Its a popular shopping area for Canadians (the US is much cheaper than Canada for almost everything).  But the tiny town centre is quite pretty, with what I discovered is a typical Montana mix of touristy shops, hippy type outlets, and rough local bars and cheap grocery stores.  I suppose it was the pain in my knee that made me forget that I’d been told it has a nice campsite, as when I arrived I followed a sign for a B&B.  I’d forgotten of course that in the US B&B usually means a more upmarket (and expensive) set-up than is usual in Ireland, but Pruett House was so nice I decided on another budget busting stay.

The next morning, fortified with an enormous breakfast, I set off on a series of beautiful local farm roads.

The road gradually became narrower, and the already light traffic gave way to an almost complete silence as I started the ascent up the first big pass on my trip down the Divide.

The tarmac gave way to dirt road and I began to wonder if I was lost as the road kept climbing with no sign of the minor track the maps promised that would lead me over the pass.  My bike computer was causing trouble so I lost track of the distance covered.  I asked the only people I met up there, an elderly couple collecting huckleberries (which grow profusely at the forest edge), where the track was.  The man looked at me suspiciously.

‘So where are you from?  You don’t sound like you’re from around here’.

‘I’m from Ireland’

‘Oh really?  My wife and me are Irish.  Well, from way back.  Somewhere’.

‘Oh’?  I replied, thinking of something intelligent to say, and failing ‘Thats nice’.

‘You do realise you are going up Grizzly country, don’t you?  That forest up there is full of ’em’.  I hope you have protection.’

‘No problem’, I said, pointing to the Bear Spray I keep on my belt’.

He laughed.  ‘Montana Grizzlies just sniff that stuff and they’ll shove it up your ass! You need something like this’ he said, opening his jacket and showing me the huge old style revolver he was carrying in his belt.  ‘Its the only thing those god damned bears understand’.

Nothing I could do but thank him for his help and carry on.  I found the track eventually – narrow and steep, it climbed up into what seemed (or maybe this was my imagination), a darker and gloomier forest.  I eventually topped off at the top of the pass, marked by an old avalanche slide.

I descended down the forest towards the campsite I’d intended staying the night.  The landscape was at first beautiful and lush:

And sometimes stark and forboding, with huge areas emptied of trees from the frequent wildfires in the area.

I got to the campsite, but after so many miles of wondering when I’d see another Grizzly, I decided to plough on to Polebridge, the tiny village that serves this vast area of mountain and forest.  It was more than 20 miles away, and it was already 5pm, but I decided to go for it.  After finishing the descent, and finding a wider road running along the western side of Glacier National Park, I was greeted with my first clear views of the magnificent Glacier mountain range.

There was still a long tough ride ahead.  It was nearly dark when I saw the light of the Polebridge mercantile, the only shop for more than 50 miles.  After helping myself to the products of the bakery, I found my way to the near legendary North Fork Hostel, the only lodging for a very long way.

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