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Seattle-Montana link would be cyclists’ dream come true


Amy Hood, 17, of Edmonds, Wash., looks over the side of a towering train trestle on her 2004 bike trip. 
 (Courtesy of Ron Hood / The Spokesman-Review)
Amy Hood, 17, of Edmonds, Wash., looks over the side of a towering train trestle on her 2004 bike trip. (Courtesy of Ron Hood / The Spokesman-Review)

A day after school let out for summer last year, Amy Hood, 16, hit the road with her dad, Ron Hood, for some precious father-daughter time.For eight days, the pair panted, sweated, and fought bugs, heat and dehydration. They feasted on nature’s wonders, slept under the stars and cherished their priceless closeness.

“I wanted to spend time with Dad, get him all to myself,” Amy, now 17, said from her home in Edmonds, near Seattle. “And I thought it’d be a good chance to tell my friends I’d done this crazy thing.”

Amy and Ron bicycled from Lookout Pass on the Idaho-Montana border to North Bend, Wash., but few motorists saw them. The Hoods stuck to paved and gravel bike trails and railroad right-of-ways. Their eight-day ride took them through sand, mud, railroad bed rocks and tunnels, over a dam and abandoned train trestles, under barbed wire fences, and past cow pastures, sagebrush fields and pine-studded mountains.

“Some parts were really tough,” Ron said.

But some parts were so awe-inspiring that Ron returned to Wallace this year to show his wife, Beth Hood, where he and Amy had ridden. Ron and Beth biked along the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, then on a new connecting trail from Mullan to the start of the Hiawatha Trail at the east portal of the Taft Tunnel between Montana and Idaho. They followed map trails to Avery, rode the highway to St. Maries, then jumped on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes to Plummer, Harrison and back to Wallace.

“It took no effort to connect the trails,” Ron said. “I was very impressed. If they clear off the ballast (railroad rock) and get a good solid road, it would be very rideable.”

The Hoods are among hundreds, maybe even thousands, of cyclists of all abilities drawn to Idaho by the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. Jon Ruggles, president of Friends of Coeur d’Alene Trails, believes 100,000 cyclists hit the trail last year and another 20,000 rode the Hiawatha Trail.

Such high use convinced Larry Lookabill to leave Seattle for Idaho last year. Lookabill retired early from teaching at the University of Washington and moved with his wife, Mary, to Plummer to open Great Cycles Touring Co., which eventually will offer tours for people with disabilities. He searched for the right spot and said he knew he’d found it after he discovered the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes.

“It’s the nicest trail in the whole West,” Lookabill said. “It’s beautiful and flat and perfect for people who might be uncomfortable riding. We decided this is the place for us.”

John Kolbe, a Harrison resident, knew the trail was coming years before the asphalt was laid. While some of his older neighbors groused in 2000 that the town’s peace was about to end, Kolbe and his wife, Sharon Yablon, opened Pedal Pushers, a bike shop. Kolbe believes his business has doubled every year.

“I get calls constantly, so now we have a Web site – www.bikenorthidaho.com,” Kolbe said. “People ask about lodging, camping, where to eat. We’re on the cusp of change.”

Paul Donnolo, who directs the Community Action Partnership’s North Idaho operations, organized a benefit bike ride on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes two years ago before the trail’s opening was formal. Seven riders showed up for the ride the first year, 25 the second and about 75 this year.

“I personally feel that trail is a biker’s dream, and we’re pretty lucky to have it here in North Idaho,” Donnolo said. “We have people who go on our ride more for the trail than the program, but it’s a good side effect that the ride’s for a good cause.”

The trail supported benefit rides for two organizations this weekend, and the summer is just beginning. In August, 300 riders from Oregon are riding the trail as a group. Bike clubs in Seattle and Spokane are including the trail in organized rides.

“We go to a bike show in Seattle every year and people really want to know about the trail,” said Kolbe. “We give away thousands of maps.”

The interest has motivated the development of new trails and routes that connect to established trails. The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes ends in Mullan, but the Northern Pacific Railroad line continues from there into Montana. Grants from Idaho Parks and Recreation and the Federal Highway Administration enabled Friends of the Coeur d’Alene Trails to grade and groom the dirt route and add restrooms and signs along the 11 miles to Lookout Pass.

The Hiawatha Trail starts about four miles from Lookout, but an ungroomed railroad grade covers the distance. Ruggles and his group are working with Shoshone and Benewah counties, private property owners and the Potlatch Corp. to develop trails from Hiawatha’s end through Avery and St. Maries back to the Hiawatha – about 150 miles.

“We created the biggest, baddest loop,” Ruggles said, which makes a continuous bike trail from Montana to Seattle seem almost doable.

“It’d be wildly popular to have a trail to Seattle,” Kolbe said. “But there are a lot of issues.”

The Hoods discovered some of those issues on their interstate ride last year.

Ron suspected the Hiawatha Trail, which he rode in 2003, was on the old Milwaukee Railroad line. Research suggested he could ride abandoned railroad lines most of the distance from the Idaho-Montana border to the John Wayne Trail that stretches from the Columbia River near Vantage to North Bend. He picked up permits for the ride from the U.S. Department of Natural Resources, which also gave him a topographical map with alternate routes where the railroad line isn’t on public land.

He and Amy rode full-suspension mountain bikes and pulled a trailer with supplies. They rode groomed trail, the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, forest roads and some highway as well as the abandoned railroad line. The dirt and gravel route took them to a burned trestle over which they carried their bikes, through muddy tunnels and over terrain so rough and rocky the Hoods couldn’t pedal faster than 4 mph.

One uphill stretch near Ellensburg was so thick with sand and rocks, the Hoods walked and pushed their bikes for eight miles.

“That day, Amy said she was having a hard time keeping a good attitude. That was the closest she ever came to whining,” Ron said.

Their memories are sweet, despite the tough days. Their 410-mile route is a long way from working as a popular trail, they agreed. But they’re certain the day cyclists can ride from Montana to Seattle on protected trails is not too far off.

“I’d absolutely do it again,” Amy said. “But I wouldn’t follow the railroad as much.”

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