Climbing, riding, and locking horns with nature

By Shannon Burke – May 1, 2013

You know you’re on a real bike adventure when you find yourself face to face with a rather large and overly protective mother mountain goat. And if you do find yourself in that situation, I recommend slowly backing away. You don’t really have a feel for how big these animals are and how intimidating they can be until you’re a couple of feet from making contact. That’s when the mind starts wondering whether those slow, deliberate strides in your direction are suddenly going to turn into a full-force charge. And it’s precisely at that moment that you have to make a serious choice: Do I shield my fine Italian over-priced carbon fiber bike from potential danger with my body or do I place it between me and those horns and hope for the best?

img2I had reached this predicament on an eight-day ride from Spokane, Washington to Missoula, Montana with a well-traveled group called “Team Dufus.” As the name indicates, these folks did not take themselves too seriously, despite their collective experience in riding across America and beyond. (The first time I rode with Team Dufus was on a tour up the California coast. They quickly let me know that they were in it for the fun and not the bragging rights when beers were ordered at lunch in Long Beach on day one. Despite my Type A tendencies, I will forever be grateful to the Dufi for teaching me the value of a touring pace!)

We were at the halfway point of the Montana tour when I met the goat, and at the highlight of the trip: Glacier National Park. The ride from Spokane to Glacier took us four days and was not without its highlights (who knew Sandpoint, Idaho, had such a nice beach!), but nothing we saw on the first half of the ride came close to the beauty of the park.

The road that traverses the park is called Going-to-the-Sun Road, and it starts off with a 10-mile, 3,000-foot climb. The grade is a challenging but manageable five to six percent the whole way up, not that you would notice or care. The scenery is much too distracting. With jagged, rocky peaks and snow-melt waterfalls in every direction, there’s no question why this road is on many a cyclist’s bucket list.

At the top of the climb is a visitor’s center that most cyclists use as the goal for the day’s journey. But the road doesn’t stop at the visitor’s center. It continues down the other side, past the Jackson Glacier Lookout and all the way down to St. Mary Lake (which looked to me like it belonged somewhere in Switzerland). Of course, making the journey down means climbing back up to the visitor’s center again, and that’s a decision not to be taken lightly.

Most of our crew decided the first climb was enough and rolled back down the mountain the way we came. A few others went down to St. Mary Lake but were already heading back up by the time I was coming down. So I found myself alone in the park (well, alone in terms of Team Dufus, but with plenty of other company as the park filled up with thousands of sightseers). And being solo was actually not a bad thing. After covering 340 miles in four straight days of hard riding, I intended to soak up the park at my own pace and take it all in. This was, after all, why we were doing this trip. I was in a postcard-perfect park, and I had my camera, my bike, and my legs. Life doesn’t get much better.

img1After stopping at all of the scenic overlooks and taking a picture of my bike at St. Mary Lake, I headed back up the mountain to the visitor center for refueling. As I rolled out of the parking lot to make the final 10-mile descent, someone yelled, “Be careful; the animals are out.” I thought to myself that that was a pretty rude way to refer to all of the tourists now crowding the road. But then again, they were a pretty noisy bunch, especially compared to the relative peace and quiet we had experienced on our early morning ascent.

As I came around the first curve after leaving the top, I saw a little pathway leading to a scenic overlook that I thought would give me the perfect vantage point to capture the epic nature of Going-to-the-Sun Road. So I rolled the bike out onto the pathway, turned a corner, and there she was: a mama goat about the size of a large sheep dog, and not at all happy about me and my bike being so close to her baby. For a moment, I thought she’d back away. As we all know, there’s nothing more intimidating than a cyclist fully decked out in Spandex. But no such luck. Instead, I was the one who backed down, begrudgingly giving up on my perfect picture but thankful that my bike and I were unscathed.

There are many great stories from that Team Dufus Montana trip—seeing the bald eagle nests, skinny-dipping in an ice cold mountain stream, the surreal “resort” that time forgot in Hot Springs, Montana—but the memory that sticks with me the most is that perfect day in Glacier National Park, the breath-taking scenery, the curvy descents, and that mama goat that called my bluff and caused me to hide behind my beloved Pinarello.

Note: If you do go to Glacier National Park for a cycling adventure, please be advised that you have to finish your climb to the Logan Pass Visitor’s Center before 11:00 a.m. You can ride downhill from the visitor’s center in either direction any time, and you can ride uphill east of the visitor’s center any time (coming back from St. Mary Lake, for example), but you cannot go uphill on the road west of the visitor’s center after 11:00 a.m. In order to make it to the visitor’s center before the cut-off time, I recommend staying at the Lake McDonald Lodge inside the park boundaries. Not only will this give you a bit of a head start on the climb, it’s also a beautiful, historic lodge in an incredible setting right on the shores of Lake McDonald.

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