LOST IN MONTANA - A TRUE ADVENTURE
Family rides do not sound exciting at first, but unlike most board games, you won’t be stuck forever always doing the same uneventful loop. With the American OHV system allowing legal rides in deep forests, it’s easy to live the thrill of real exploration with your kids. Just keep in mind that enduro is somewhat like Jumanji: If you start the game, you’ll have to finish. With everyone…
Having ridden with Julie, 17 years old, and Thomas, 14 years old, in Utah and Idaho for 3 weeks (see Upshift Issue 26), the whole family was ready to discover some Montana trails. Once the two CRF250x and a CRF230F were loaded on the trailer behind the pick-up truck, the camping gear packed in the trunk, we started the long drive from Boise, Idaho,to Kalispell, Montana.
Maps and Network
Our first stop in Kalispell is the Ranger Station, where we are offered a stack of maps. The ranger doesn’t know anything about dirt bikes, except that we’re supposed to stay on the designated trails, shown with a distinct pattern on the official maps. Randomly picking our first destination among these legal trails, we route a loop on our GPS. The same day, we enjoy a beautiful ride in the hills surrounding Ashley Lake, on a technical but fun single track. Most of the forks have a pole displaying the trails numbers, matching those shown on our map. The navigation is really easy, the ride beautiful, and Montana seems to be a perfect place for this kind of sporty family ride. After such a good start, we just want more and in the evening, we have no difficulty convincing François, a friend of ours who recently moved to Kalispell, to come with us on our next ride. Maps in hand, we trace a new loop. There’s no indication of difficulty on the map and to be on the safe side, we plan to do only 20 miles.
Parking and unloading the pick-up truck in the late morning in the Hungry Horse forest, we don’t imagine that this name could be a premonition of the day to come. Even the parking lot’s name, Lost Johnny, doesn’t ring a bell. We start the bikes and warm up bodies and engines on the large fire road bringing us deeper in the valley. We’re not even surprised to see a black bear in front of us. The name of this trail is Spotted Bear, after all. The placid plantigrade moves quickly out of our way, and we just laugh. It was yet another disregarded sign of the Odyssey yet to come. The first part of the trail is technical: tight corners, steep climbs with roots, and a few rocky sections. It becomes increasingly challenging as the track goes hillside and narrower. The kids are struggling a bit but they’re in the mood for the challenge, especially since they’re rewarded by the beautiful scenery of the valley. It is worth saying that, with their forgiving suspensions and their torquey engines, the CRFs help us a lot in these technical sections. At some point, the trail goes down a dry stream, with plenty of rolling rocks. It’s not so easy to take it downhill but would be close to impossible on the way up. We’re halfway now and we know that we already passed the point of no return. There’s no way back! It doesn’t seem to be a big deal, as the trail stays technical but fun to ride.
After 15 miles, a huge log acts as a natural gate, preventing any access. As a dad not being ready to show any sign of renouncement in front of his kids, I pass all the bikes around the fallen tree, fighting my way up on a slippery slope. With the elevation and the heat, doing this four times is exhausting. Luckily there’s still some water left in our bags and it’s relatively easy to cool down. The trail keeps going for a couple of miles until we reach another log. This one is bigger, and there’s no way around. We work as a team, first building some sort of steps using stones and wood. With no hospital in the immediate vicinity, nobody wants to take chances and jump over the obstacle. We opt for a slower but safer method, the kids pushing and pulling the bikes after I wheelie the front wheel over the log. It works, but it’s tiring, and again, we have to do it four times. From here, everything starts to be a real challenge: from steep climbs in rocky sections to jumps over smaller logs, we fight for every step forward. The night is yet to come but our water supply is empty. Luckily, we found a snowfield. Before trying to pass through it with our dirt bikes, we kneel down on this natural white blanket and start filling up our empty bottles. The snow doesn’t melt, even when we put the thermal bottles against the exhausts, but having something cold in the mouth feels good. Refreshed but not yet hydrated, we cross the snow with difficulties, our knobbies doing a very poor job at keeping traction on this slippery surface. Reaching the highest summit, there are more logs waiting for us. Luckily, the kids become better at jumping over the small and medium ones, or to find a way around the biggest. At this point of the ride, the night is almost here but we have good reason to believe that the four remaining miles will be easier as the trail goes down in the valley.
Leaving the Bikes
But our hopes are quickly crushed by two new impassable logs on a very narrow path. The night is advanced now, and we need to find a way out. It sounds like a dead-end at first, and it would be very easy to just sit and let despair take over. But again, being with kids you don’t allow yourself any weakness, and after scouting the trail by foot we discover that there’s a switchback a few hundred feet ahead. The side of the hill is very steep, but pushing the bikes through this steep slope to reach the trail further down seems to be a good idea. Especially since we don’t see how steep it is in the dark! By day, we wouldn’t even have tried it. While the youngest stays on the switchback with a small red lamp to give the overall direction, the three other riders start to go down the hill, in the hollow darkness, pushing each bike blindly through rocks, branches, and old logs. Often, the bike trips over a rock and bounces over our heads, bringing us with the motorcycle in a hazardous fall. Each time, more muscle and energy is needed to recover the heavy machine and put it back in the right way. An hour and a half later, the four bikes are finally back on the trail. It’s already midnight and it’s time to rest and eat. But our mouths are so dry that nothing can be chewed, let alone swallowed. We then start the bikes again and begin the slow exploration of the forthcoming trails. Fortunately, our CRFs have lights and we can see where to put our wheels. Not for long, though: another huge log is blocking our way. We’re too weak to move it away or to carry the bikes over. We decide that, with 3 miles left, it’s safer to leave our beloved motorcycles on the trail and to hike the remaining miles. But wait a minute! When everything goes wrong it’s always a good idea to ask mom for help or advice, right? We take the time to call mum, aka Caroline, the last member of the crew who was following our slow progress using the Spot satellite app. Once she understands that we’re all in good shape, we ask her to drive from Kalispell to the parking lot with François’s car and to wait for us with a supply of water, sodas, or whatever drinks she could find. It’s time to start the hike through the forest. My daughter Julie opens the way with her cell phone light, my son Thomas and I are following, and our friend François is closing the ranks with another smartphone light.
Walking in Bear Country
From here starts a long walk in the pitch dark forest, with the heavy motocross boots and no water. The climbs are steep and the logs are slowing down our progress. Each step requires mental strength, and since we didn’t drink for a few hours, cramps are never far away. We keep singing and talking very loudly, just in case some bear would be in the immediate surroundings. Of course, we don’t have any bear spray, but we are not natural born singers either and can’t imagine any wild animal being able to stay within earshot. The light of the moon can barely penetrate the thick canopy, but the phones LEDs are bright enough. Julie and Thomas are exhausted but they’re not complaining. They know it’s a serious situation and they switched to a kind of survival mode to keep walking, giving the adults a lesson on bravery. Each time a phone gets some service, we try to call Caroline, who went alone, at midnight, in the dark forest, hiking a very steep trail full of logs in an effort to meet us halfway. She knows there might be bears, but she can’t just wait at the parking lot while we try to find our way out. Her courage is a valuable incentive to keep moving when our bodies scream that they want to stop and lay down, which is obviously not an option, especially when you’re dehydrated. At 3:30am, we meet our savior: Caroline reaches us and we drink the best sodas and water bottles of our lives. Relieved to have the whole family finally reunited, we finish the hike all together, glad to share this experience. It’s 5:30 AM when we arrive at the pick-up truck.
While we spend the next day resting, we also wonder why the ranger didn’t tell us anything about the trails not being maintained at all. Well, there’s a warning written in very small characters on the back of the maps, but in all the other states where we rode before, the legal trails were perfectly maintained. We definitely had no way to know we were going to be trapped in the forest, especially when we had taken the precautions to ask for advice from the officials in charge of the district. We didn’t take any picture to document these moments in the heart of the night, but we know that the memories will never disappear. The following day, we buy a chainsaw and are back in the forest. We find a hiking trail not shown on any maps, which allows us to climb in the overall direction of the bikes. But we’re still talking here about a 2-hour hike, with our motocross boots! Arrived at the summit, we start to cut logs, until the chain of the chainsaw breaks. At this point, and after all that we went through in this area, we’re hardly surprised by this bad luck. We call it a day and hike back. But the game is not finished yet. Twenty-four hours later, we do the hike again, with two new chains, just in case. We thought we knew what to expect, but to our surprise, the remaining logs are already cut. What is happening here? We walk faster and we’re soon relieved to find the bikes at the exact same place we left them three days ago. The noise of a two-stroke suddenly resonates in the woods as we see a group of 5 Montanans riding in our direction. They explain to us that the rangers are so understaffed that the local riders need to maintain the trails themselves. But they also state that they can’t believe that we could have gone so far on this trail, one of the most challenging in the whole state of Montana, without the help of a chainsaw. Well, at least that’s something we can be proud of!
These members of the Alpine Crew stay with us, helping the kids to go through the hardest sections on our way back. Their kindness and their dedication to this sport is a great example and makes us feel better. Arriving at the pick-up truck with our four recovered motorcycles, we no longer feel like victims, but more like winners. The kids are so relieved that they can’t stop smiling. After having been so scared and not wanting to go back to the forest or to ride ever again, the two teenagers now talk freely about their experience. On the drive back home, they explain how they feel stronger, ready for the upcoming challenges in their life. Although we obviously didn’t plan to be in such an extreme situation, riding their enduro bikes gave them the opportunity to measure themselves to the true adventure, to sharpen their spirit and their mental capacity, while tightening the bonds between the members of the family. Isn’t it what makes dirt bike riding so unique? Only those who have tried would understand, but our adventures in Montana also proved two points: First, you should never underestimate the power of nature and riding enduro is always something to take seriously. Second, never ride alone, bring a ton of water, even for a short ride, a cell phone, and a satellite device. Expect the best, but just in case, plan for the worst! Our experience also proved that, without proper maintenance, the trails in the wilderness are not only dangerous but also doomed to disappear. The moto community, who helps to maintain the actual network of trails, is an essential part of the local effort to preserve access to the wilderness for the generations to come. For at least this reason, off-road riding should be rewarded and be elevated to the status of a national cause!