Trail of the Hiawatha

Hiawatha Trail
I began my tri-state ride in Montana at the Trail of the Hiawatha, formerly a rail road passage that ceased operations in 1977. The tracks were removed and the bed is now a seasonally opened bike path. The trains formerly crept up the brutally steep passage crossing Northern Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains. These same mountains nearly took the lives of thHiawatha Trail Bike Seatse Lewis and Clark expedition and were named by Lewis as the root of the Bitterroot plant kept this crew from starvation.My goal for today is to test the RideOut seat. This gravel path just opened and it will be a bumpy 20 mile ride; a challenging test for any seat.Entrance to the trail begins at the nearly two mile long Taft tunnel. The tunnel itself is huge, with a ceiling of 20 feet and over 10 feet wide due to the water filled culverts on each side. As big as it is it only take a few feet down the path to be immersed in complete darkness.  This tunnel is so long one cannot see the opening at the other end.  The tunnel is cemented, but regardless water gushes from release pipes along the side, water drips constantly from the ceiling and small stalactites have formed. The ominous darkness and tremendous sound of rushing water is very disconcerting. I have two headlights and I still feel blind. I walk my bike thinking that my eyes will adjust, they don’t. With no sense of direction, I find myself veering from one water filled culvert to the next. A pair of lights comes up behind me, two more riders, and a woman’s voice calls out, “follow us”. Gratefully I hop onto my bike and fixate on their red tail lights. Pedaling as fast as my fear will let me.The expression “A light at the end of the tunnel” never had truer meaning. It starts out no bigger than a pin prick and slowly grows. Bruce Springsteen aside, one is literally “Blinded by the Light” upon exiting.You are also greeted by a spectacular view of the valley and your path down.Next comes the trestles, they look at first to be just bridges, but once you get on them, Wow!

Hiawtha Trail looking downYes, those are my feet 280 feet above the creek.

As I rode this trail, I could not help but wonder at the enormous energy needed to construct this railroad.

The tunnels were dug with pick axes and hand drills. The trestles built first with wood then each piece replaced with steel. All pre OSHA and workmen’s comp. How many men hung off the sides of these trestles bolting the giant beams into place? How many broken bones? How many crippled from standing in the ice cold water? It reminds me that America has long been built on the backs of immigrants and today, these same immigrants pick my lettuce and grapes.

To really put the Carbon Comfort seat to the test, I purposely selected my old city cruiser for the ride. This ol’girl was built before the idea of bike shocks was developed and my previous rides have been on the punishing side.  We’ll see what a change a decent seat can make.

The trail consists of 10 tunnels and 7 trestles, some big, some small. As I come up to the 9th tunnel, I hit my brakes hard. A teenaged sized moose is just inside, licking the walls for the calcium salts and other mineral deposits. She does not seem to have any interest in moving and is much bigger than I so I decide to let her lick in peace and turn around.

As previously mentioned, this rail road crosses very steep mountains; however trains in 1907 couldn’t pull the capacity they can today. So the rail bed curves around mountainsides at no more than a 1.7% grade, hence riding back up hill is a piece of cake. Hiawatha Trail Tunnel

Trail signs and mile markers line the path and I stop to read them. I learn the mile markers (1507) means miles from Chicago and indeed by the end of the trail I am 9 miles closer to that city.  Reproductions of posters from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s dot the way. Glorifying the luxury of train travel from an age when anything seemed possible with the future was just opening up. With all we have done to this world, from oil spills to nuclear waste and terror threats, it is no wonder we no longer feel such excitement about the future.

I am now back near the beginning of the ride and realize I have been so engrossed in thought, I have forgotten about my bike seat test. I have always said no pain is a good thing and 17 miles into this ride, my bottom is good. That is a good thing.

Another good thing is that after crossing thru all these tunnels, they are not as scary.  That is until the second to the last tunnel. On this one long, dark tunnel, bikes share the road with cars. At the entrance a sign tells cars to “HONK AND PROCEED WITH CAUTION”. Half way in I hear a horn.  I fly off the bike and press myself against the wall. My heart pounding but then I found myself laughing. All those movies I’ve seen where actors are fighting fights on top of trains going into tunnels or jumping from one train to the next in a tunnel, etc, etc.  Heck, if Tom Cruse can do it-so can I…..Naturally, the Forest Service trucks pass without incident.

Hiawatha TrailIn conclusion, I heartily recommend both the Trail of Hiawatha and the Carbon Comfort seat.

By Jeri Rutherford

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