July 18: Eureka to Libby, Montana - The Great North American Sticky Bun Hunt - CycleBlaze

July 18: Eureka to Libby, Montana

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WE WERE JUST relishing a pleasing descent today, feeling contented and generally heroic, when we caught two riders coming the other way. Each towing a trailer with a child in it. And more than a child apiece, because in spaces below the infants' bottoms they had full camping gear.

Jess and Byron were college students, young, fit and optimistic but shattered. "We rode 50 miles in a day once and it killed us," Jess complained wrily.

Jess, Byron and baby: young, fit but tired.
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They were touring Lake Koocanusa, whose banks we were about to start. They lived in Kalispel, not so far away.

Their curiosity about our own ride led to the birth of a friendship. "I'd love to do something like that," Jess said repeatedly. "That's amazing." We explained Adventure Cycling to them, took photos and agreed to keep in touch.

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Our route to the further bank of Lake Koocanusa, the side less used by what little traffic there was, took us over what we learned later was Montana's longest bridge. On the far side, as we turned left and uphill, were warnings of bears and of 40 kilometres of falling rocks. Given that the cliff rose vertically beside us and

Beware falling rocks: wear a helmet.
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that its base was a litter of boulders the size of a dog, we couldn't decide which was the greater risk. We decided it was the rocks. At least you'd see a bear first.

The cliffs had angry scars when they were close. The more distant hills were like huge green hedgehogs, their green pines standing upright tight and anonymous. Sometimes the hedgehogs showed signs of balding, for the higher part of the dome was often sparser and showed brown earth.

This was the old forest road that we rode. It stayed flat for only moments, letting us

The forest road was never flat but we had it to ourselves.
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descend only to hiccup and send us back up again. We'd hoped to hear waves kissing the rocks at the edge of the lake but the water stayed permanently far below us. There was no commercialisation, on our side or the other of the lake. A rare boat left a white stripe but that was all. There were no houses, no turn-offs, for the whole of afternoon, all the way to Libby dam.

Lake Koocanusa, devoid of commercialisation.
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The river through the valley was a killer until the 1940s. The snow melted each winter and the water rushed through the valley, carrying away people and their homes. Things came to a peak - if water can come to a peak - in the 1940s. Then work started on the dam, which coincidentally generates electricity for local towns and puts its surplus into the grod but whose main purpose is to keep the region above water.

Two bored guides showed us around. There isn't, frankly, that much to see. A dam, after all, is just a big wall with a few selective holes in it. The novelty is that it is there at all. The broad road across the top was a thoroughfare until the Twin Towers air crashes. Then, fearing travellers might chisel at the concrete, the road was closed and gated.

Creating the lake demanded international agreement, because it extends way back into Canadam which has several dams of its own. That took a decade. The paperwork, that is, not the construction.

Libby dam was built from one side outwards, a block at a time. Material was brought in by train and the line ended up running through

Libby dam: it used to have a railway through the middle.
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a hole in the dam wall. The water hadn't yet been allowed to mount. "But we didn't want a dam with a railroad running through it," one of the guides said with a rare flash of humour, "and so we moved the railroad to a new route and built a tunnel for it, the second longest in America." Moving the tracks cost a fifth of the budget.

Richard Nixon ceremonially lifted the first bucket of concrete but he arrived late and the concrete had started to set and the bucket wouldn't rise. Photos show the president and two other men tugging hard at a rope to get things shifted.

Gerald Ford had taken over by the time the dam was finished and he and someone else were given the task of pulling a huge rotary switch to start the generators.

"After the experience with Richard Nixon," the guide said with another flash of humour, "we weren't sure we could trust a president with a mains switch, so they pulled the lever you see over there and that lit a bulb in the control room and it was an engineer who turned on the generators."

The concrete of the dam is still setting. The moment it's set, it will start to deteriorate. It will last 150 years and may never reach full power. The money ran out long before the fifth generator could be finished.


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Jeff LeeI don't know if anyone talked about it in Libby, but the town is infamous as the site of one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

The town is poisoned with asbestos from the operation of a mine there.
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3 years ago
Leo WoodlandI didn't know that, no. And in such an innocent-sounding place. Such a shame that profit should count more than health and heath.
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3 years ago