In the Shadow of Lewis and Clark
One can see why the expedition members were overjoyed when the Bitterroot mountaintop country dropped off into the Weippe (WEE-ipe) Prairie. It meant they had successfully crossed the Rockies and could now, they hoped, build boats and run a river to the coast. They were very happy also to locate the Nez Perce Indians, who provided for the half-starved men from their own stores of staples of dried salmon and a bread made from the local camass root.
Keep this kindness in mind while pedaling, for the Lolo Trail is also the route (west to east) of the famous 1877 Nez Perce retreat from their ancestral home (one that had been promised to them by the Federal Government in a treaty, in part for their historic kindness to white explorers and later settlers). With General O. O. Howard in fast pursuit, the Indians managed to avoid capture and, therefore, the hated reservation until within a scant 30 miles of the Canadian border and freedom. Recognizing the end, Nez Perce Chief Joseph uttered his memorable words: "I shall fight no more forever."
I've now pedaled these parts three times over 20 years, the first in 1979 while retracing on thin tires the 2,500-mile route of the expedition. After the second time, I finally talked about the trail with a local expert, Forest Service Ranger Dennis Elliott. You can meet him if you stop in at the Powell Ranger Station. He's the one with salt-and-pepper hair and beard, lines around the eyes from years of squinting in the out-of-doors, and an obvious and enviable love for what he does and where he lives.
Elliott was kind enough to escort me to the trailhead on his day off, gently corrected me when I commented on the huge ponderosa pine surrounding us ("Uh, this is actually a grand fir cedar stand in climax stage"), and spoke movingly of the travails experienced both by the explorers and the Nez Perce while traversing these mountains.
He also spoke movingly about how, in his estimation, I had managed to pedal the trail in the wrong direction twice. Why not begin on the western end, he argued, at the small town of Weippe (a couple bars and cafes; no real grocery, so stock up before you come), pedal east along the Lolo, and drop off Parachute Hill to Powell Ranger Station? At Lochsa Lodge, bikers can camp or grab a room and a great dinner, and then head west on U.S. 12 along the Lochsa River back toward their cars. They'll have a climb on the dirt roads back to Weippe, he continued, but it will sure be easier until then.
"But why do it that way?" I asked, not realizing that Elliott was trying to avoid mentioning the obvious.
"Well," he said slowly, his tanned face breaking into a wide smile, "it's downriver that way. You know, downhill." I checked around later and sure enough, as much as I hate to admit it, he was right; you'll enjoy a 3-percent grade along the water through a long day's ride.
If you happen to talk with Ranger Elliott, give him a message for me: Tell him I've learned to read a map.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication