Thursday, July 24, 2008

Route of the Hiawatha

At the beginning of the trail, after I shed my fleece and raincoat from the tunnel...

The Taft Tunnel, the beginning and end of the trail. 1.7 miles of complete darkness (and I only passed 5 people, all in the beginning).

Looking down, through the trestle boards. It's hard to comprehend depth or height when looking straight up or down, but it was pretty darn high.

One of the longer trestles, seen from another one, across the way.

I lugged my bike (or my Mazda did) across the country specifically so that I could ride one trail: The Hiawatha. I read about the Hiawatha a bunch of places, but I think I might have originally found it online this past winter during some random search. The Hiawatha is a rails to trails project that crosses from Montana into Idaho (at Lookout Pass, off of I-90). There is a very long tunnel at the beginning, which you do twice, and then over a dozen more tunnels and trestles. The view looked stunning, and I wanted to do it.

Hiawatha Trail info
Check out the pictures on their website.

It was supposed to rain on Tuesday, so I went early hoping to miss the storms and hail, figuring they would be worse up high. As it was, it was overcast, which I figured would actually be nice, and cool. I went to the Lookout Mountain Ski Area to buy a trail pass (which you could also get from a trail marshall while riding), get some more info., and buy a shuttle pass for the ride back. 32 miles, with half of them uphill, is still a bit out of my riding range at altitude. So, about 10am, I was off.

The first tunnel, The Taft, was the longest, darkest, strangest thing I have ever done. I knew it would be dark, and they require headlights. I had enough foresight to also bring along my headlamp, in case of headlight failure, but I ended up needing both and then some. About fifty feet in, it was like being in the belly of the beast. It was cold, about 40 degrees, damp, dripping. There were puddles of mud on the gravel trail, and gulleys for drainage on the sides that i was worried I would somehow pedal into. Now, the tunnel is pretty straight, I think, but I had no concept of what straight meant when I was in complete darkness. Even with two lights, I only got about six feet of poor light in front of me. I was worried about coming up on people, but when I did, their lights were visible from pretty far away (and they were walking their bikes). It was difficult to ride, because you could not go fast or you would outride your lights. It was creepy, and even though there was a lot of sound (the gravel, the water dripping), it seemed like one of the most silent things I had ever done. I could see my breath occasionally in the light. My glasses were fogging up. And it seemed almost interminable. I did not look at my watch, or even look at I shifted gears. I was very focused on riding straight, staying in the center, and looking out for things. The light at the end of the tunnel has never been a more appropriate phrase.

Immediately upon exiting, there was a gorgeous waterfall, and then I rode. The trail is comprised of all gravel, washed out and rutted more than others in some spots, but very good condition, and wide (like a jeep trail). 3 miles at the top, right after the first tunnel) is shared with traffic. In the second tunnel, which was probably the second longest, I saw a sign before going in that cars should honk their horns before entering. Luckily, I was not too far in when I heard the honk, though still in pitch blackness in a one-lane, train-size tunnel. I pulled all the way over and the truck passed.

In the next tunnel, about a third of the way in, I encountered a deer. I think we startled one another. I did not want him to panic and run towards me, so I spoke softly and pedaled slowly, very slowly, and he would walk a ways. Then, I would not be able to hear him. It was so dark, I was worried that he would stand still and then I would ride up on him, startling us both. But eventually, we both made it out of the tunnel, though that was slow going. The tunnels after that were shorter, with very few pitch black spots. The challenge then was letting your eyes adjust enough to keep going.

The trestles were pretty awesome. The whole trail had signs telling its story as a railroad. I rode over a valley with a stream, wildflowers on the sides. I saw some stunning birds, and deer upon another occasion (the deer running 50 feet ahead of me for a mile or two, stopping occasionally to look at me, and then running on-- our own small game). I passed other people occasionally, knowing two groups were behind me, three in front, and some headed the opposite direction.

The rain only came at the very end, and only in small droplets. I caught the first shuttle, went back up the mountain, and then rode the long tunnel again back to my car. The second time, it felt much different. There were more people in it, so the light was bit better, or at least it was not so solitary. I knew better what to expect and found myself riding much more quickly. It felt a little more exhilarating and a little less like riding through a coffin. On the shuttle, I was the only person who had completed the ride (everyone else was headed up to start). An older woman (yep, there were kids and grandmothers on the trail) told me she had gotten into the tunnel and had to turn around., True, it is not for the claustrophobic, or the faint at heart.

But it was one of the coolest rides I have ever taken. Well worth the bike.

No comments: