Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Route of the Hiawatha

Yesterday, a dozen of us rode the Hiawatha. It was easily one of the coolest things I have ever done in my entire life. Homeschool P.E. is awesome.

Originally, it was part of the last of the great transcontinental railroads. Construction of this portion of the line, which was to finally link the midwest with the northwest by crossing the rugged Bitterroot Mountains, began in 1906. Even after the rails were completed, through ten tunnels and over seven high trestle bridges, the bitter winter temperatures were so extreme that the very biggest of the steam locomotives could not make the trip. The boilers would simply cool off and not be able to provide sufficient power to push through the heavy snow.

Finally, the Milwaukee Line, with their superior new electrical engines, began to run trains over the route. The passenger trains dubbed this particular portion of the line The Route of the Hiawatha and it was famed as one of the most breathtaking scenic stretches of railroad in the country. As the demand for passenger rail service began to taper off, the line was turned over to freight trains, the last of them running in 1980.

After 1980, the rail line was abandoned for over a decade, until a new breed of bike path began to emerge, the rail-to-trail project. Completed in 2002 and widely recognized as the crown jewel of the rail-to-trail paths, the second incarnation of The Route of the Hiawatha covers fifteen miles of pristine wilderness, from the top of Lookout Pass on the Montana-Idaho border, almost to the town of Wallace, Idaho. The railroad ties have been removed and the trail is hard-packed dirt and gravel. The grade is quite mild, as it would have to be for trains to traverse it. The tunnels are still intact, with the longest being nearly two miles long. The trestle bridges provide spectacular overlook points. It is a truly breathtaking route.

And yesterday, we rode it. It was myself and my two kids(11 and 8), Nance and her two youngest (13 and 11), Scott and Jen and their four oldest (13, 11, 10 and 8).

I will add some photos when I get them from Nance, the only one with a camera, and with them, I will share some of the stories. It was a grand adventure, the kind that kids will remember for the rest of their lives. We didn't have nearly enough headlamps to go around, which made the tunnels a little tricky. Have you ever tried to ride a bike in pitch blackness, eyes perceiving only a small portal of light in the distance for direction? Have you ever tried to help a crying eight year old girl who has crashed her bike--in total darkness?

But there was more. There was berry-picking and the odd discovery of two small apple trees covered with delicious ripe fruit where a mining camp had once stood. There was the thrill of looking over the edge of the trestle bridges, straight down into the evergreen forest--the trees have a unique beauty from the top. There was the unforgettable experience of us three women and Elli, walking our bikes through the long tunnel on the way back, the women singing old hymns in three part harmony with the sound bouncing around our heads like an old stone cathedral, but much cooler, while the little girl a few paces in front of us led the way with a single, weak headlamp--singing our praises to God from within the belly of a mountain. Amazing.

We rode seven and a half miles down--only halfway due to a late start and small children on single-speed bikes--then turned around and rode the same route back up. More stories, photos and sore muscles to come.


Sherry C said...

Go to the website and click into the photo gallery. This will give you a very good idea of what we experienced yesterday--except that our trip was done under dreary grey skies that drizzled on us frequently. The air temperature outside didn't make it above sixty degrees, and in the tunnels, it was quite a bit colder yet. We were bundled up and wearing gloves, but we didn't mind. It was spectacular.

Mister Ed T said...

Yes, the photos are awesome. Must have been a real treat! Glad you could do it.

CML_Shearings said...

The Hallelujah Hikers have talked about doing this, since one of the members so loved it when she & her husband rode the whole way. She too said the tricky part was the lack of light in the tunnels. So glad you all were able to experience this - even in cool, wet weather.

Sherry C said...

Oh, Cary, do it! You guys would love it. But do it before October 5th this year, as that is closing day for the season, and make sure you each have your own headlamp and extra batteries.

Eagle-eye Di said...

It sounds like you had quite the adventurous trip,one with real memories for the kids to tell their kids later in life.It must have been breath taking for picture taking.Too bad you didn't have your camera for it.I will enjoy seeing the pictures you post from your friend's camera.

Eagle-eye Di said...

Ok so I didn't read the comments first to see that you have some pictures posted.Will get in and do that now.

Eagle-eye Di said...

ok so where is the website for the pics?I guess its a senior moment.

Sherry C said...

Auntie D--just click on the link for The Route of the Hiawatha that I have in my post. I don't have photos of my own posted--but thought people might enjoy seeing the photos on the official website, as they give a great overview of what the experience is like. When you get to the website, just click on "Photos." Enjoy!