Montana. Derived from the Spanish montaña (or mountainous), Montana is a state of mind as much as a place, embodying wild, untamed—the wild west. Home to the grizzly bear, Yellowstone and gobs of Ted Turner ranches, we went to Big Sky Country in seek of…what else...bigger skies! And what better place to appreciate the bountiful vistas than atop a mountain in the rustic recluse of a fire tower.
MONTANA: FIRE TOWER
A Cabin in the Sky
“Fire tower??” I hear you all saying. Let’s back up. For those not from around these parts, fire has a visceral relationship with the American West, particularly on the Idaho-Montana state line, harking back to Roosevelt, a cranky-as-a-toddler U.S. Forest Service and something called the Big Burn.
The mountain west was a tinderbox in the summer of 1910...draught...dry timber...hurricane force winds blew through and whipped up the largest fire ever seen in the U.S. After the ash fell, over 3-million acres of land had burned, towns were decimated and the U.S. government got bent on aggressively fighting fires. 20 years later, Roosevelt put American muscle to work building towers on the tippy-top of mountains and roads leading up to thus said towers. Lookouts popped up on nearly every hilltop—over 5000 of them—and the towers were manned all summer long to spot and squash early blazes.
Fast forward 80 years, high tech gadgetry now fights the front lines of fire detection, making lookouts nearly all but obsolete. While many of the lookouts have crumbled to wrack and ruin, the Forest Service had the audacious idea to protect a handful of these bueno vista hostels. A little known secret? You can have them all to yourself for as little as $30 a night! With three days in the pocket and two permits secured, we racked up the Exploros and headed to Montana.
Well, almost Montana. Montana is like an island oasis in a sea of Rocky Mountains. It’s remote even by regional standards. It’s so remote that we had to drive eight hours to northern Idaho, park the car, and then proceed to pedal into Montana—the hard way—over a 4,000’ pass. Only then did we find the Valhalla know as Montana. Here’s how we did it.
The epicenter of the “Big Burn”, Wallace, Idaho seemed as good as any place to start our fire tower tour bonanza. Nearly destroyed by the 1910 fire, the city was quickly rebuilt and today the entire town sits on the historic district with the highway buzzing with traffic overhead. Sunday morning in Wallace was tumbleweed quiet. The only action we saw was a pack of men working the hide off an elk strung from the tree just outside town. So we parked the truck in the safest place we could think of—the county sherrif’s office—racked the Exploros with gear for two nights, put a note on the truck window proclaiming “we’ll be back on Tuesday” and pointed the bikes up the old Burke-Canyon Creek road.
Wallace was and will always be mining country, where zinc, gold, lead and silver are still being siphoned from the earth’s veins by the metric ton. Over 1-BILLION ounces of silver have been mined from these hills since 1884, making it the world’s largest silver producer. But riches haven’t come peacefully. Back in 1892, a heated labor dispute ended with a keg of black powder being plunked down a flume, blowing up a building at the Frisco mine and igniting martial law for a short stint. Strewn with mining wreckage, a few rickety homes still back up against Canyon Creek. We paused at a sign taped to a window that read, “Support Lucky Friday Miners”. 100+ years later, things haven’t changed all that much.
The tarmac trickled to gravel as we pinched past the massive Burke Mine-come-ghost town; the river corridor was so narrow the once thriving Tiger Hotel spanned the gap and was built over the railway. Passing rotting timber joists, we sat back in the saddle and began the climb proper up 4,000’ to Cooper Pass where we finally found ourselves looking out into Montana.
In Montana, everything's a little bigger, a little bit grander. Far below a fat ribbon of jade-green water--the Clark Fork river--snaked through the valley floor. Jagged peaks cut the horizon sky as far as the eyes could see. In the foreground, humpy green hills bubbled up everywhere. We were going to spend the night on top of one of them, but not before finding some chow in Thompson Falls.
We skittered on down Cooper Pass and burned up 20 miles into town where we found Minnie’s Cafe/Fly shop/Guided Fishing Trips, pretty much the only game in town to get some grub/flies/guides. Minnie’s gets 4.5 stars on Tripadvisor and has a perennial stable of characters lined up at the bar, strapped with pistols and bowie knives to prove it if you disagree. Little side note: I like to wear black spandex for not only its slimming qualities, but also for its known discreteness amongst the locals. So of course, we in our spandex saddled up to the bar next to the guns and knives. If you’re game, get the Minnie Big Burger … that’s a full pound of beef on a 10” bun for $17. I opted for the fish burger and fries and wasn’t disappointed.
4,000’ (and 4,000 calories) under the belt, it was time to do it all over again and we pedaled west over towards Cougar Peak Lookout. Now the whole idea of camping in a fire tower has that glossy salon-quality travel magazine appeal to it. But unlike Sunset Magazine subscribers, we weren’t about to conquer the hill by auto...we were going to pedal it … all 15 miles ... 4,000’ ... 22 switchbacks ... 13% grade ... holy-crap-what-did-we-sign-up-for route. Nonetheless, after 2 ½ hours in the pain cave, we finally crawled out onto the crumbling summit and got to enjoy those Sunset Magazine views, replete with a bed and wood stove, all protected under the 360° glass cab. We put a pot on and watched the fiery sunset eclipse into the night over the Bitterroot mountains to the west. It_was_un_real!
What goes up, must go down, and the following morning we scorched back down the Cougar Tower forest road and rumbled into Trout Creek—the proclaimed huckleberry capital of Montana—to refuel our engines. We got to talking with Connie, our server, about bears, bear spray, bear food and everything ursa. “Fellas, it’s not the bears you need to worry about...it’s the wolves!” See, timber wolves were reintroduced back in ‘95 and have adapted with overwhelming exuberance, feasting on the region’s fecund moose and elk. Furthermore, wolves hunt in packs and can be much more precocious than bear. There are tales of wolves bounding into town, chasing elk on hunts gone wild. While we saw several piles of bear poop, we saw no makers of the poop and never once saw evidence of the wolf...which is probably the way the wolf liked it.
Onward to Gem
Gem Lookout sits at equal elevation as Cougar, but climbs so in half the mileage. Following the pythagorean theorem of pain, we established this would suck roughly twice fold than the day before. And suck it did; it nearly sucked all the air in the valley to power our lungs up the rocky 16% grade to Gem Lookout.
Thank god our jaws were agape from the climb – it made the jaw-dropping views from Gem’s 14’x14’ live-in cab a lot less effort on our part. A light drizzle chilled us to the bone on the way up, so we got right to work fire building and soon enough, we were dining on the finest in freeze dried cuisine paired with an aged Bourbon. Life couldn’t get much better than that.
But the climbing wasn’t done. To get off the mountain and into Idaho, the following morning we climbed yet another 1,500’ up to the State line where we chatted with hunters about bear, elk, deer and the finer points of hunting mammals with bow and arrow and musket. Then down-down-down, we rapidly shed elevation as we plunged off the range and eased into Prichard for one last meal on the road.
Prichard Tavern…what can I say…to get there, you have to be well on your way to the middle of nowhere, which was exactly where we found it. But if you happen to be ‘in that neck of the woods’, make a point of stopping by. The ambiance is second to … not anything I’ve ever seen but everything you’d expect from a hole in the wall: Deer skin drapes, a bar wrapped in ostrich skin, a raging fireplace ornamented with bottles of rare scotch and taxidermied woodland creatures … guns hung from elk racks. The menu matched the ambience. Feeling ambitious, I ordered the rocky mountain oysters. Fortunately, it was coming off the menu and I settled for the special.
Fueled for the final climb into town, we rode the final stretch and descended into Wallace to find the truck wasn’t A) impounded or B) on blocks. Win-win! Celebration? We dropped by the Red Light Garage for huckleberry shakes – a sweet compote elixir that took the sting out of our saddle sores and lactic-filled quads.
Northern Montana sports a dozen or so fire towers, scattered along the horizon. We barely scratched the patina off the surface of what’s available and got ourselves to a pair of towers that matched our own timeline and objective. But for those with a little creativity and some upfront planning, the options are innumerable. Got some gumption? Like to climb? Get a map, sit back in the saddle, and get ready for some stunning views. Where will you ride?