An Edge for the Ages


I will blunder through this and generally make a hash of it, so let me start with a simple plea: if you can make, or ever have, the opportunity to travel from Northern Idaho through Glacier NP and across northern Montana, do it.  The entire route is shatteringly beautiful, diverse, and restores a sense of pride in a nation that can hold and protect lands and people such as these at the same time it argues on Wall Street and in Washington, DC.  The simple fact that we will fight and defend this land in equal measure with any other part of the country is a testament to our national fabric.  That we will also support an enlightened polity to protect some parts of it on behalf of all of us, redoubles that testament.

So first a bit about the northern edge.  We share this edge with Canada and it sprawls for around 4,000 miles, not including the shared border with Alaska.  First discussed in 1783 after the war for our independence, we agreed to a border that handled Nova Scotia down to New York (what is now Vermont) at the 45th parallel.  We further said in 1818, after another war in 1812, that a line would follow the 49th parallel as far as the headwaters of the Mississippi River. This was a bit of a problem since the headwaters of the Mississippi didn’t go that far north. Surveys ensued, we drug the Louisiana Purchase back out which gave us everything in the drainage of the Missouri River, argued some more and, in 1846 settled on the 49th parallel all the way to the Pacific.  These sorts of things can be a bit bothersome when you are arguing with your parents. I will eventually travel all of the shared border, but for now, I’m dealing with the part agreed to in 1846.

I left Sandpoint, Idaho this morning in a cold rain and climbed up the stovepipe to the Canadian border along US 2. I went on about it yesterday, but northern Idaho is great.  It is scenic and peaceful, it is lush and sparsely populated, and it is an odd little pokey thing sticking up between Montana and Washington.  I like all of that.  It also has a big section of the Kootenai River in it.  The Kootenai starts up in British Columbia, but eventually makes its way down and into the Columbia and from thence the Pacific Ocean in Oregon.  As a river it is a glorious beast of a thing.  It carries as much water as the mighty Columbia, but it does it at a much steeper grade and through much tighter spaces.  When a gold strike hit in British Columbia in the late 1800s, a guy named Edwin Bonner decided to mine the miners and he set up a ferry across the Kootenai that shortened the route to the gold for folks.  He did so well they named the town after him.  I crossed at Bonner’s Ferry, but there is a bridge there now.  Just upstream from the old ferry crossing are the West Falls of the Kootenai, and there you get a sense of the power of this river.  In addition to the 237 signs along the trail to the falls telling you how it will kill you, there is the thundering noise.  I expected, as I clambered down, some monstrous falls, when it is actually just a really tight spot and short drop.  (You can see a video of it on my Instagram @mlewis1965) But the entire river has to get through it because of the canyon walls. I got a real sense of how these rivers became barriers to migration west and why so many routes moved north or south to find ways across.  They are like the mountain passes of the Cascades and Sierras.

US 2 is turning out to be my favorite road so far on this journey around the edge.  It’s not directly on the border, but it is the closest east west road to it, and each little town has a sign on the north street where it crosses the highway that says “Canada.” The road is laid right on the ground and makes no attempt to hide the topography over which it runs.  There are no blasted cut-banks, or tunnels, or manufactured ways to avoid anything; it simply follows a route probably set out for a wagon trail at some point, and shows you the country.  For much of the way it is on, or about on, the route used by Lewis and Clark.

Riding US 2 out of northern Idaho and into Montana is a non-event.  You don’t so much cross into Montana as you simply find yourself in it.  There is no sign or great fanfare about the Big Sky state or anything.  The tarmac changes from black to brown and the speed limit changes from 60 to 70.  Not that you can safely do either for most of the time.  Likewise, the ecology remains essentially unchanged.  Deep valleys and sharp, dark canyon walls with pine forest wherever a root can grab ground is the order of the day.  It is spectacular and constant basically until you hit Kalispell, MT, fight a little traffic and come upon Glacier National Park.

Lake McDonald, Glacier NP
Lake McDonald, Glacier NP
I keep t doing my Katherine Hepburn impression…”The Looooons, the loooons”

Glacier is over a million acres and today, most of it was closed. But from the first moment after entering the west gate, it was like a church. With even limited access I found the park to be unlike any other I have visited.  We share it with Canada as it crosses the 49th parallel and we have rules about that, but from any side and any angle, it simply stuns.  Glaciated peaks feed crashing streams that fill lakes so clear they look empty when you stare into them.  Deer walk along the roadside and eye you like you are a terrible bother, while loons and other waterfowl swim around the lakes looking at the water like I did, wondering what they are floating on.  I got to see all around McDonald Lake with all its great views, and take a couple of short hikes into the cedar and pine forests.  Locked gates kept me out of most of the park.  Without question, I will be back here in another season to spend a significant amount of time learning more.

Stopped and chatted with this crowd, but they were not interested

It’s really not fair to call my alternate route (instead of the road through the park, US 2 around its edges) a consolation prize.  The drive from West Glacier to East Glacier is practically worth an admission ticket.  You get constantly changing views of the mountains in the park, and you ride on the banks of first the Flathead River and then some river I don’t know the name of and countless other creeks for the entire route.  I don’t know how anyone who drives this road regularly ever gets anything done.  In addition to more deer, I saw a flock of turkeys, two fat coyotes and too many ducks to count. With all of that and the scenery, I felt lucky to keep the truck on the road.

The road turns south through Hungry Horse and into Essex before bending back east and heading down into Browning.  Just before you get to Browning you round a corner next to a nice little stream and bang. Big Sky unfolds corner to corner and top to bottom like a freshly laundered sheet. Gone are the jagged peaks and conifers and in their place, all at once, is sky and rolling grassland forever.  The wind comes screaming down out of the mountains and gives the old landcruiser a shove and we lope out into the vast open spaces of the Blackfeet.

The road here passes generally through the area named Camp Disappointment by Lewis and Clark on their return trip from the Pacific.   You can go to the actual camp when the four wheel drive road is open, which today it was not.  Looking back at the now sunlit snow caps of Glacier from here it is hard to see how disappointment enters into the equation, but Lewis and Clark were set on proving the Missouri drainage went past the 49th parallel all the way up to the 50th so they would have a case for us getting more land.  From their camp here, the scouts determined this was not so, hence the disappointment.

East Glacier looking from the area of Camp Disappoinment

From here on the topography is one for buffalo and Indian ponies.  The sky wraps around you and tucks itself in along the edges, and the ground rolls in subtle rises punctuated by loose folds around coulees and ponds. It’s just uneven enough that the light colors it in shadows and mottles the otherwise monochromatic grass and grain into something captivating.  And always there is the sky, which, as I cross Cut Bank Creek fills with clouds so that the fresh pastel sheet is replaced with fleece blanket.

I go way over my normal 8 hours on the wheel today, and I really don’t notice it all until I get to Hingham.  By then I’m over 9 hours in and its getting difficult to concentrate.  The toll of all the winding and gawking of the earlier part of the day is being paid.  I zoom by a pair of Pronghorn Antelope standing right on the shoulder of the road before I even realize it.  They are gorging on an early meal.  As the fleece blanket sky turns to a heavy gray wool I begin to think they know something. I finally call it a day at Havre, MT, spent but satiated.  I’ve made enough distance that it is possible tomorrow will be my last day on the edge for a while.  If I make Grand Forks, ND, that is where I turn south for Atlanta.  It will be an interesting effort tomorrow, with weather and the ghosts of the Yanktonais Sioux hanging about the entire way.  But it is the edge, and with each day on it, I learn and see more, and grow fonder and fonder of this incredible country we call home.

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