October 10, 2012
Man, this is too perfect", I thought on a Friday afternoon, watching the first winter storm of the 2011 season roll across the radar.
The weather called for up to 15 inches overnight, more in the mountains.
The plan was to drive 4 hours north, take a right up Graves Creek, then hopefully make it to the Clarence Creek Trailhead before the storm hit. From there we'd skin up to Stahl Peak Lookout in the dark, and the next day head to Mount Wam Lookout. Then, back to the 4WD Durango which would be able to make it downhill, 15 inches or not.
After the drive (and probably too many Double Hauls), we started skinning at 11:00pm, and reached Stahl at 3:00am. There was no wood to melt water, and the just-in-case fuel was running out by mid morning the next day. So, we skied a few laps and headed back down to the car.
Stahl Peak Lookout sits righteously atop a 2,000' cliff. It shouldn't be there. In fact, none of the unstaffed towers in Kootenai National Forest should be.
By the 1970's, most lookout towers around the country had been phased out of service and sat decaying. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) was dealing with lawsuits from citizens who would venture up, then hurt themselves. The Forest Service responded by issuing a order: If a tower is not in use, get rid of it. Burn it.
Kootenai National Forest responded with a standard government tactic. They dragged their feet. For 10 years. When the winds changed, Kootenai was left with the most unused lookout towers in the Northern Rockies, which they promptly started restoring for use as recreational rental cabins.
Stahl is the most recent. Wam was one of the first.
I first came across Wam on our 10 day lookout trip a few years ago. At 7,200' and some change, it was the highest tower we were set to ride to. Living up to the Whitefish Range's unpredictable weather, it starting snowing on the way up. Then, started accumulating. This was in July.
Thing is, I had never gotten over the idea of linking these two lookouts. If it were not for the area 20 miles to the east, this modest loop would be a Montana classic. But its not. No one comes to the upper Whitefish Range. A friend lived just outside Eureka for 5 years. He rode these trails daily in the summer, but never saw another mountain biker on them, and rarely saw someone on foot.
So, a few weeks ago when Aaron asked if I wanted to go on a 5 day ride that included Stahl & Wam, I casually declined. Told him we were set to run a 10 day hot springs trip, and if plans changed I'd let him know.
He was a bit shocked when my message arrived from McCall, telling tales of fires in central Idaho, and that I'd be in Eureka in a few days to meet him.
The ride didn't disappoint. Sunny almost-autumn days, chilly nights. Even with the elevation gain, the milage was so low we were never in a hurry, which meant exploring alpine lakes and huckleberry patches. And, we encountered enough fresh bear scat and wolf howls to remind us where we were.
In the end, I'll be back. Hard to say when, but it's also hard to stay away from this country for too long.
Photo 1: Stahl Peak Lookout, November 2011
Photo 2: Stahl Peak Lookout ski trip, November 2011
Photo 3: View of Stahl Peak Lookout from Mount Wam Lookout, July 2010
Photo 4: Mount Wam Lookout, July 2010
Online resource: Stahl Peak Snotel
Resource: Fortine Ranger District
On the playlist: Edward Sharpe & TMZ - I Don't Wanna Pray
Inspiration: Searching for West
Photos and map by Casey Greene. A version of this post first appeared on Casey's blog.
BIKEPACKER is written by Casey Greene and Paul Hansbarger -- Adventure Cycling staff, part-time adventure seekers and gear nerds alike. It appears intermittently on Wednesdays.