Bike overnights: Going big close to home

By Sarah Raz, photos by Josh Tack.

Whenever I think of bike tours, I think of months on the road. I think of cross-country excursions and miles and miles of pedaling and so much time on the saddle that the days run into one another and time is measured in peanut butter sandwiches. I picture tents growing weathered, tires being swapped out, calf muscles becoming staggeringly large and powerful.

My boyfriend, Josh, and I are lucky enough to work at the Adventure Cycling Association, so we can usually swing one long-ish bike trip a year. We love to take trips abroad and spend weeks on end investigating a foreign countryside by bike. The rest of the year, however, we have this thing called work to consider, so long bike tours are out of the question. But since we still love to get out and explore, we’ll often spend a weekend on a mini-bike tour or a bike overnight.

We live in Missoula, Montana, a sweet, laid-back college town just a hop, skip and a jump from the border of Canada. It’s a wonderful place; it’s surrounded by snow-covered peaks and has a long growing season (for Montana) that earned it the nickname “The Garden City.” On the three-day weekend of July 4th, we decided to check out the Rattlesnake Recreation Area. We’d pedal up the 15-mile dirt road corridor to the wilderness boundary with our backpacks in tow. From there, we’d make yet a deeper hike to visit the still snowed-in lakes of the pristine backcountry.

We started out with a technical difficulty. We were using trailers to pull our backpacks and my trailer had been having problems ever since I’d had the bright idea to pull my 180lb. friend home from a party (the weight limit is 80lbs.). We’d made it home all right, but the left back wheel hadn’t been the same since. Before we hit the trail, we had to abandon my broken trailer at the Adventure Cycling office. “Don’t worry, Josh, you’re so strong!” I said. “You can just pull both of our backpacks!” Josh is a good sport, but he didn’t look too convinced. The corridor up the Rattlesnake gets extremely steep, and our packs, loaded with food and camping equipment, were heavy.

Finally, we were off. Montana summers can be hot, but it got nice and cool as we started to climb away from town and into the mountains. The creek was bubbling next to us, and the air smelled good and fresh. At first we saw some other cyclists and hikers, but as we headed up there was just Josh and me and the flutter of birds and insects in the air. The pathway opened before us and the landscape became more rugged and high alpine. I noticed a waterfall from snowmelt to our right. I thought about how easy the riding felt and then remembered that  wasn’t carrying anything. I looked over at Josh and he just laughed. “Next time,” he said, “you’re carrying everything!”

Before I knew it, we’d reached the wilderness boundary. We stashed our bikes and trailer, strapped on our backpacks and hiked upwards a few more miles. I wished for boots instead of my light trail runners—although it was still warm, there was snow everywhere and within minutes my shoes were soaked through. Before dark, we found a place that met our three requirements to camp (flat, with a view, bear-hang tree readily available) and promptly conked out.

How much snow is there in the mountains in Montana in July? More than I’d ever imagined! The next morning after we packed up and started walking, it wasn’t long before we couldn’t locate the trail any longer due to heavy snowpack. “I think we go this way,” I said, pointing to the right. “I can just feel it!” Josh studied the map.

“Actually, I’m pretty sure we go in the other direction,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with feelings, but that’s what it looks like on the map.” We headed off with just the hush-hush of snow all around us.

Suddenly, I sensed a bit of movement in the woods and turned my head. An animal, smaller than a deer, was running along the ridgeline in near-silence and with incredible grace. Was it really a wolf? I almost couldn’t believe it. His silver-gray hair glistened and his legs seemed longer than I would have expected, almost gangly. He padded along, not really in a hurry, but not lingering either. Then he was gone. I realized I’d been holding my breath for a solid minute. I let out all the air in a giant rush.

There we were, not twenty miles from our back door, surrounded by snow and wilderness and a magnificent wild animal. I suddenly felt small and very humble. When we camped next to a frozen lake that night, I lay awake in my sleeping bag for a while, looking at the stars through the bug net. None of my worries seemed of consequence anymore, and I felt grateful for the shift in perspective.

The way home was all downhill. We crunched our way through the snow, then pulled our bikes out of their hiding spot and hooked up the trailer. “Hooray!” I said, piling my pack on Josh’s trailer, then zooming away, unencumbered. But I think it was more than the freedom from the packs that made us feel lighter. It hadn’t taken a grueling airplane ride and a month away from work to discover some remote backcountry. All we needed was a long weekend.

Check out Adventure Cycling’s new website: www.Bikeovernights.org, aimed at providing inspiration, resources, and tools for short bicycle tours (one to two nights). You’ll find stories, tips, and how-tos about embarking on short overnight cycling adventures, whether you’re traveling to a state park solo, lounging at a B&B, or taking your child on their first overnight bike adventure. Plus, you can submit your own trip report for possible publication; Adventure Cycling hopes to collect bike overnight tales from all 50 states!

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