Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Ride on the Wild Side

July 28

Wallace, Idaho--Mile 9,000

We are in Wallace (pop. 960) to ride the Route of the Hiawatha, one of the most scenic and unusual Rail-to-Trails bicycling experiences in the country. The bicycle trail follows a fifteen mile section of the old Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad that ran through the Bitterroot Mountains from 1911 until the line went bankrupt in 1977. It includes seven tunnels and ten tall steel trestles. Riders need to have strong lights on their bicycles, because some of the tunnels are very long. The trail is managed by Lookout Pass Ski Area, which is happy to rent us lights for our bicycles ($5 for the lights, $9 to ride the trail).

The first tunnel starts within a few hundred yards of the parking lot, and it is 1.6 miles long. Narrow ditches on either side of the trail carry water that drips from above and flows from springs along the tunnel walls. Reflectors curbside help us avoid falling into the ditches. We walk our bicycles into the tunnel for about five minutes, while our eyes adjust to the absolute blackness, which is not fully penetrated by the little lights we rented, partly because it is foggy in there. Then we hop on our bicycles and ride slowly through the darkness. It is an eerie feeling, and both of us are quite surprised at how long 1.6 miles feels when ridden without scenery to mark its passage.

We emerge into the bright sunlight at tunnel's end to find wildflowers in bloom and a waterfall cascading down the side of the mountain we just rode through. The scenery is spectacular—we ride through tall conifer-covered mountains, past the sites of old mines and long-gone mining towns. We ride over trestles that are 100 to 230 feet tall, and up to 850 feet long.
Being suspended in air above a deep mountain valley is a most exhilarating feeling.

All along the path there are interpretive signs that tell the stories of the building of this railroad line, the trains that ran on it (including the trail's namesake, the luxurious Hiawatha, named for Longfellow's Indian), and the railroad and mining towns that once lay along the trail. We learn about the Great Fire of 1910, which burned over three million acres of forest, from Montana all across Northern Idaho to Seattle. The fire was whipped into a roaring inferno by tornado force winds, and at least 86 people who could not outrun it perished in the flames. It blazed over the rail route we are riding while it was under construction, and a supervisor saved his crew of 45 by ordering them all to pile into an abandoned mine shaft, where they huddled for a day until the fire passed. Other rail workers perished.

The trail lies on a portion of the line which became the longest electrified mainline railroad in the world, yet hardly anything remains of the depots, switching stations, power poles or lines. There is scant evidence of the railroad's past glory, as scavengers have carted off all of value, and nature has covered the rest.

The trail descends just 1,000 feet over fifteen miles, from 4,200 to 3,200 feet. We begin the ride thinking we will do a round trip ride. But, by the end of the ride, we decide to take the easy way out, and ride the shuttle back to the top of the trail.
The bus doesn't take us all the way back to the parking lot. It bounces along 20 miles of dirt roads to the end of the 1.6 mile tunnel, which we ride through to get back to the parking lot. With seven tunnels worth of experience, it is much easier this time--we don our jackets (that tunnel is cold!), turn on our lights, and make it back through in about half the time it took us when we first started.

Wallace is in the heart of the Silver Valley, where over a billion ounces of silver have been mined in the past hundred years or so. The city bills itself as the "Silver Capital of the World." Other minerals have also been mined here, as well, and independent sources (not just the Wallace Chamber of Commerce) have called it one of the top ten mining districts in world history. It would be a shame to leave Wallace without seeing a silver mine, so we are glad we have just enough time to get back to our hotel, shower off the mud that spattered on us in the tunnel, and make it to the last Sierra Silver Mine Tour of the day.

We are the only people who show up, so we get our own private tour. We hop on a trolley, the driver takes us around town, and then up a hill to the mine, where we meet our mine tour guide, Russ. He is a retired miner, with fourteen years experience in the mines around Wallace, and more time doing other types of mining around the country. His dad was a miner, and there was no question that he would follow in his father's footsteps. Although he is retired, mining is in his blood—he likes to pan for gold with his family in his free time. He never gets much, but always gets something—just enough to keep him coming back for more, he says.

The mine we tour never really produced enough silver to be very profitable, but after it was abandoned by the mining company, it was used as a training mine for high school students in the 1970s and 1980s. All the students graduating from the mining program were guaranteed jobs in local mines. The program was discontinued when the price of silver plunged, and local mines cut back their operations.
Russ tells us he had two of the graduates from the high school program on tours. One worked in the mines for three or four years, then got an easier job, the other was a woman who only worked in a mine for a few months, hated it, and went back to school for a nursing degree. Russ told her that was the smartest thing she ever could have done.

Russ shows us through the mine and demonstrates how several very loud and dangerous pieces of mining equipment are used—a pneumatic drill that cuts through stone, a scoop that clears blasted rock chunks out of a mine passage, and a big shovel device that flings rocks into a cart. Each time the shovel flips up to fling its load, the machine jumps with a big jolt, threatening to toss Russ along with the rocks. It takes a lot of skill to wrangle this equipment without losing fingers or breaking bones. And, the noise is tremendous, even with our fingers plugging our ears (Russ uses more professional ear protection).

We feel fortunate to see the mine through the eyes of someone with so much experience and pride in the mining profession. It is always a pleasure to learn from someone who loves the work they do, no matter what that work may be. Russ is an enthusiastic teacher, we are eager learners, and we end up with yet another fascinating adventure to add to what was already a spectacular day.

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