icycle helmet laws are as rare as cheap lake frontage in North Idaho, but the Route of the Hiawatha is a notable exception. Riders are required to be equipped with helmets as well as lights while riding the 15-mile rail-trail, which features seven towering trestles and 10 tunnels. The reasons became clear to several Spokane cyclists on Aug. 21. “From day one of our partnership with the Forest Service, we’ve always had a strong policy that helmets and lights are required on the trail,” said Phil Edholm of Lookout Pass Ski area, which currently has the contract to operate the trail that follows the abandoned Milwaukee Road right of way across the Montana-Idaho border. A major trail attraction is the 1.7-mile St. Paul Pass Tunnel, which is so long that it becomes pitch black inside and the temperature stays in the 50s even on a hot summer days. But the tunnel became a nightmare two weeks ago for several Spokane riders as they responded to screams in the darkness.
“It was our first time to the trail and we were having a wonderful ride,” said Kristine Walker, who was pedaling the trail with her husband, Steve, and their children, Blake and Karina.
Another Spokane couple had already stopped to help a man who was lying unconscious with his face in water along the side of the tunnel.
He had not been wearing a helmet and his adult-age daughter was unable to help in the darkness because neither of them was equipped with lights.
“They had just pulled his head out of the water and Steve was about ready to start CPR when he came to,” she said.
The man who was assisting went out the tunnel one direction to seek help and Blake and Kristine headed out the other directions for help while Steve, Karina and the other woman started peeling off clothing in the cold, damp tunnel to help ward off hypothermia in the victim, who wasn’t even wearing a shirt.
“It took a while to get help and by that time our lights were wearing down and a lot of us were getting cold,” Kristine said. “Karina was down to a tank top and Steve had no shirt on and the other lady had even taken off her pants to help insulate the man from the cold.
“At one point there were nine people helping and, it’s funny, they were all from Spokane.”
The trail rangers responded as quickly as possible, Edholm said, noting that the first vehicle on the scene was an attendant’s personal truck.
Eventually the victim was put on a stabilizing board, trucked out of the tunnel and to Lookout Pass, where an ambulance was waiting to take the patient to the hospital in Kellogg.
The man was released that evening, Edholm said. “He had a concussion.”
The incident left the Walker family chilled, bloody, shaken and wondering if more precautions ought to be taken at this backcountry tourist attraction that doesn’t have electricity or even cell phone service.
At the very least, Kristine suggested, there ought to be barrels at each end of the long tunnel with emergency blankets that Good Samaritans could use to help keep an accident victim warm until help arrived.
“And what happens when people disobey the rules requiring helmets and lights,” she said. “These were the only two people we saw without helmets, but we saw a lot of people without lights.”
Edholm said that trail rangers are instructed to make contact with anyone who breaks the rules.
In this case, the man and his daughter were met by a trail marshal at the top of the trail and told they needed helmets and lights, he said.
“That Saturday was a near record day and we sold 606 trail passes,” Edholm said. “But Sunday the numbers were down and we had lots of gear for people to rent at the Lookout Pass office.
“The trail marshal told the man and his daughter to wait a minute and he’d look to see if any extra helmets and lights might have been left at the trailhead where the shuttle bus stops. But when he came back, the man and woman had gone.”
Lookout Pass’s contract for managing the trail is up for renewal this year. Edholm praised the work the trail marshals have been doing in the six years since the trail was enhanced by the Forest Service and opened to the public.
“There are eight signs on the trail listing the safety requirements,” he pointed out. “We have two vehicles fully stocked with first aid equipment and people trained as first responders.
“A very large sign at trailhead reminds people that helmets and lights are required and then as a backup, there’s another sign down the trail 150 feet that repeats those rules.
“We care very much about everybody who experiences the trail. We don’t want anyone to get hurt. But they have to help us by taking a little individual responsibility.”
In this particular case, he said, a light might have prevented the accident while a helmet may have mitigated a traumatic situation for the victim and everyone else involved into an everyday minor mishap.