After 32 years as a Nevada Educator, it was time to explore new options and retire. Yes, after 40 years school would be starting without me. What to do that was different; I have run 100 mile races, been a backcountry ranger, and spent a month climbing Denali. After hours of YouTube, I immersed myself in the world of gravel bikes, 650B wheels, and babyheads! For over a year I went to local bike shops looking for my bike of the future. Gravel bikes were popular and they never seemed to get my size. Finally as school was almost out for the year I found my bike, a Salsa Journeyman Apex. My bike was bright, shiny, and pink.
My wonder steed and I went to our first gravel grinder the next week. Over the river and through the woods we went flying through creeks and grinding up hills of loose gravel. I was exhausted after 65 miles, but had a great time. Now it was time to explore the real purpose of the bike. Bikepacking is using your bike to transport you over dirt and gravel roads with the option of camping. Some people start in Canada each year and about a month later arrive at the border of Mexico, mere mortals take longer!
I chose to sign up for Intro to Dirt Touring taught by Adventure Cycling. Adventure Cycling has a proven track record when it comes to bicycle adventures, and as a bonus it was taught in Montana. I’d have the opportunity to go to Glacier National Park as well as learn more about my bike, and how to use it for camping.
I arrived in Whitefish, Montana two weeks before the class started. My initial impressions of Glacier National Park was lots of driving, people, and full parking lots. I explored the East side of the park and found fewer people, and more wildlife. I’d also arrived at a time that would optimize the dark skies in the park.
Whitefish has about 50 miles of mountain bike trails not far from downtown. We rode these on an almost daily basis. The trails are shared with runners, walkers, and cyclists; a wonderful place to ride. A pink gravel bike drew some interesting glances.
For the class we would be going on a five day adventure, carrying all of our food and gear on our bikes. Basically you had the option of towing a trailer, panniers (like road touring), or bikepacking style bags. I chose to go with bags, but was concerned about room when I received a photo of our group gear necessary for the trip. Our two group leaders showed us how they packed their bikes. Both had ridden from Canada to Mexico as well as other long trails in the US. Most of us were comfortable on bikes, but none of us had done a lot of bikepacking. The group leaders and the majority of the participants had gone with panniers.
Monday was our shakedown ride and we loaded our bikes with all of our gear as well as the group gear. For me this would be the first time I had ridden my Journeyman fully loaded. With some apprehension I stuffed my bags and got on my incredibly heavy bike, I didn’t fall over and soon was on the trail. The bike handled well going uphill and downhill! I came around a corner and saw 4 of our group huddled around a bike. The panniers had become loose and we worked together to try to fix the problem. We had a myriad of multi-tools, but not the needed part, so zipties came to the rescue in the end.
We all successfully managed to finish the short trip without incident. Our lunch stop provided a time to learn more procedures we’d use on our trip. We went over stove safety, water purification methods, and bear safety. Arriving back at the Bike Retreat I think we all felt better prepared for the upcoming trip. That night we were assigned cooking groups, and went over the route for the next day. 38 miles with a stop at a grocery store to get food. Each cooking group was responsible to plan and cook their assigned meals.
The next morning most of us had made modifications to our setup and we enjoyed the ride to Glacier Falls, even the time on the highway. We stopped in a park opposite the grocery store and prepared to get food for our assigned meals. We weren’t using prepared freeze dried meals, or working from a standard menu. Each cooking group would do a breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As we wondered through the store it became evident that bikepackers were not as concerned with weight as much as backpackers were. We were looking at cans and other heavy items, we still had to find a way to get everything on our bikes though.
Everything fit and we biked the remaining 14 miles to our campsite along the North Fork of the Flathead River. If we crossed the river we’d be in Glacier National Park. It was a warm night and I left the fly off my High Side 1 person tent so I could see the stars. The quilt I was using performed well.
Morning came, and we packed our lunches for the day and had a 17 mile uphill route to the town of Polebridge, there were even rumors of showers. The ride was great as we rode together in groups of two and three. Polebridge is very small, downtown Polebridge consisted of 2 main buildings, the Mercentile and the saloon. We went about 2 blocks away and camped on the lawn at the North Fork Hostel. The hostel was off the grid, but we did get quick warm showers.
We went over the route for the next day, 25 miles of up and more up! We’d be going over Red Meadow Pass and the profile looked almost straight up in places. Red Meadow Pass was one of the memorable places for those going from Canada to Mexico.
Since we opted to sleep under the stars without rainfly, our tents had a little moisture as we packed them up. We debated about getting a pastry at the Mercentile but decided to push onward to get over the pass. As advertised we went up and up, just before the pass it got really steep and some of us walked as others pushed on. The lake at the top of the pass provided a great place for lunch and we zipped downhill to our campsite at Upper Whitehead Lake.
By now we were all comfortable with the routine and my cooking group had dinner, we served experimental spaghetti with red lentils in the sauce. And Nutella s’mores, complete with marshmallows. Dinner was a hit, but we haven’t been invited on the Food Network yet. The lake was a popular spot for other campers as well and we had one of our nosier camps that night.
Up the next morning for our 25 mile ride back to the Bike Retreat, most of the way would be downhill. Kind of bittersweet, we would have no more long uphill grinds but our group would all be disbanding to their homes and we’d go back to our “regular” lives. The ride was pretty easy except for the logging trucks that filled the air with dust reminiscent of Burning Man. In my group we all resorted to bandanas and buffs to try to filter the air. Everyone arrived safely, we turned in our group gear and said our good-byes.
REPORT CARD – how did everything do?
Bike – My Journeyman was geared too high for bikepacking so I worked with Glacier Cyclery and we put on a smaller chain ring, it climbs like a champ now. I’ll probably add panniers if I am going on extended trips.
Tent – TheHigh Side 1 Person Tent proved to be a great bikepacking tent. The poles folded into a very small bundle so it would easily fit it in bikepacking bags. The double wall design worked well for hot and cold days. I had the smallest packed tent on the trip and I could sit up and move around in the tent. The High Side worked very well.
Sleeping Bag – I tried something new and went with a quilt. The quilt worked great on warm nights, but also performed well on the frosty mornings that we encountered. As a stomach sleeper I got better sleep than twisting in a regular sleeping bag. The Nitro Quilt 800 (35 degrees) provided great warmth and it packed into a very small space.
Jacket – The Whitney Down Hoodie squeezed into really small spaces on the bike and was appreciated on the frosty mornings. With it’s hood I anticipated using the hoodie with the quilt if I got cold during the night.
Bikepacking – I really enjoyed bikepacking, you were in nature, but everything wasn’t on your back. I ate better than I ever have on a backpacking trip and was able to see more country than if I was walking. Our group leaders pointed out how the terrain we were experiencing would be very similar to that of the Tour Divide the trail from Canada to Mexico. I now feel that I am prepared to take much longer trips on my bike.
For more stories by Jim Berryman-Shafer, visit his website.