ST. PAUL PASS, Idaho – As far as triathlons go, our plan to mountain bike 28.8 miles, stroll a mile through a mining town and then play in a waterpark was pretty tame compared to what we watched Aunt Svetlana do 12 hours earlier.
Her body rebelling to the point she couldn’t even drink water, she gutted out all 140.6 miles of the Coeur d’Alene Ironman. Any whining on our little adventure and I was prepared to evoke Aunt Svetlana’s toughness to keep my family moving (or at least keep them from complaining).
I hoped I wouldn’t have to go there.
We were, after all, standing at the east trailhead of the Route of the Hiawatha, a mountain bike ride famous for being as easy as it is scenic.
But with this group, we’d definitely test that reputation. My daughter, Kenzie, is 13 and would wear a gunny sack to school before admitting anything she did with her parents was fun. My son, Alex, is 11 and thinks scenery is the stuff in the background of video games. And my wife, Kristen, is convinced bicycle seats are medieval torture devices.
We rented mountain bikes at Lookout Pass Ski Area on the Idaho-Montana border, and planned to take our sweet time pedaling through the Bitterroot Mountains.
The 14.4-mile Route of the Hiawatha, a converted rail bed, rolls gently downhill east to west through nine tunnels and over seven high trestles with postcard scenery in every direction.
“The trail is meant to be savored,” said Phil Edholm, president of Lookout Pass, which operates the trail. “You could race to the end in less than an hour, but why would you want to?”
TUNNELS AND TRESTLES
The Route of the Hiawatha couldn’t start any more dramatically. After a quick briefing from a Lookout Pass trail patroller, we entered the 1.66-mile St. Paul Pass Tunnel near Taft, Mont.
A tiny white dot in the distance signaled the end of the tunnel and our only light sources were the LED lights mounted on our handlebars.
I wasn’t quite sure how the kids would respond to the darkness, but it was evident they were plenty comfortable.
“Mom,” Kenzie said. “Alex is getting too close.”
“No, I’m not,” Alex whined back.
“Kenz, ride through the puddles,” I said. “Then we’ll know for sure.”
At some point in the tunnel we passed into Idaho and when we reached the end we were deposited next to a waterfall in Idaho Panhandle National Forests.
“It is pretty amazing when you come out of that tunnel,” said Rick Shaffer of the Friends of the Coeur d’Alene Trails, a volunteer group. “It’s like something you’d see in a movie.”
Rolling over the high trestles with views of Loop Creek far below, it’s easy to see why this was once considered one of the most scenic stretches of railroad in the country.
“It is absolutely spectacular,” Shaffer said. “And the history is pretty chewy.”
As we rolled along, the ride as easy as promised, I tried sharing some of the trail’s history.
I told the kids how the Route of the Hiawatha is named for a passenger train, the Olympian Hiawatha, which once traversed the Milwaukee Road rail line from Tacoma to Chicago. The rail line, which sat where we were riding, was abandoned in 1977 and the mile markers we were passing told how many miles lay between us and Chicago.
Alex was quiet and I confused this with interest so I continued letting him know that old mining towns used to stand along the trail.
“Dad,” he finally said. “It’s summer. I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be learning right now.”
His desire for information increased, however, when the history got a little more dramatic. We passed a trailside marker commemorating the grave of a man who died during the Great Fire of 1910.
The Big Burn scorched 3 million acres from Washington across Idaho into Montana. Trains were used to evacuate the area and some chugged up the very route we were biking.
The heat was so intense it blistered the paint on the trains and the wood trestles, now steel, burned even as trains passed over. One railroad worker got so nervous he leapt from a train.
The train pulled safely into a tunnel and waited out the fire. Everybody survived except the man who jumped.
Three of the tunnels on the trail were used as refuges during the fire, Edholm said.
The trail is dotted with dozens of interpretive signs telling the history of the Big Burn, the railroad and the mining communities.
“It really is fascinating and worth taking the time to read,” Edholm said. “That’s why I say make sure you plan so you can take your time.”
At the west end of the trail, Kristen set up a picnic of granola bars, almonds and crackers on a covered table.
Around us, fellow riders loaded their bikes onto yellow school buses and waited to be shuttled back to the east trailhead. As it turns out, Edholm says 95 percent of trail users ride one way.
Alex and Kenzie, who’d already matched the longest rides of their lives, looked on longingly.
I don’t remember who asked first because I was ignoring them. “Can we puh-leeeeez ride the shuttle?”
Then Alex added, “I’ll pay.”
Here, I got the sense, Kristen wouldn’t mind if I caved. Instead I broke out my secret weapon: The Aunt Svetlana Speech.
“Guys,” I said, trying to sound wise and motivational. “Remember what we saw Aunt Svetlana do yesterday? A 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles on her bike and a 26.2-mile run. Remember how we saw her with 13 miles to go and she was so sick she could only walk? Did she quit? No.
“We only have 12.7 miles of uphill, then it’s flat the rest of the way to the car. We’re not sick. We’re not even tired. Come on. If Aunt Svetlana can do it ...”
This is where my daughter, shoulders hunched and face frowning, interrupted and pointed at the other cyclists.
“But Dad,” she said. “The buses are right there.”
To her credit, once she realized I couldn’t be swayed or bribed, Kenzie took off without another complaint.
A competitive swimmer, she is easily the fittest member of the family and had little trouble climbing the 970 vertical feet back to the St. Paul Pass Tunnel.
Kristen cruised along with her, while I stayed back with Alex who was certain the gradual 2 percent grade was tougher than Mount Everest.
“Agghhh Dad,” he hollered at one point. “My legs! They hurt. What’s wrong?”
“Don’t worry, you’re doing great,” I said. “That’s what hard work feels like.”
While Alex rides his bike regularly around the neighborhood, this was his first experience on a multi-speed mountain bike and the struggle to find the right gears added to his frustration.
At one point a poor gear choice cost his skinny legs so much momentum he fell in the trail near the mouth of one of the tunnels. He was done, he declared.
“Go on without me,” he said melodramatically.
But this is the Route of the Hiawatha, as easy as it is scenic. He’d get it soon, I was sure, and then he’d be fine.
Then, as if on cue, I heard the crunch of tires on trail bed coming from the tunnel and from the darkness emerged a small child riding a bike with training wheels.
Alex dusted himself off, got back on his bike and didn’t complain again for the rest of the ride.
‘HARD, BUT FUN’
The change of attitude might also be credited to a little extra motivation Kristen gave the kids about halfway up the trail.
The sooner we got back to the car, the sooner we could move on to the next two legs of our triathlon: a stroll through Kellogg and a visit to Silver Rapids Waterpark. This news had the desired effect. We moved along happily stopping only for pictures.
“Like the trail, you shouldn’t rush through the area,” Shaffer said. “There is so much to do in Wallace and Kellogg and other towns. Mining tours, shops, other trails, places where you can still get a $2 beer. We even have a zip-line.
“There’s more to do than the Hiawatha.”
As it turned out, the return pedal skipped by so many people was the highlight of our adventure.
“It was fun,” Alex said as we passed the waterfall and re-entered the St. Paul Pass Tunnel. “Hard, but fun.”
My previously anti-bike wife enjoyed the ride so much she announced her desire to buy a mountain bike. Kenzie, of course, said the whole thing was miserable. But considering I caught her smiling when she didn’t think I was watching, I’m confident even she had fun.
“Everybody has a great time on that trail,” Shaffer said. “The tunnels, the trestles, the scenery, the history. There’s nothing else like it.”