Shamrock Tour® - Kalispell, Montana

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Sprawled just north of Flathead Lake in northwest Montana, Kalispell is a terrific spot for a shamrock base. To the east, you have the magnificent Rockies and Glacier National Park; north and west, the rambling peaks of the Salish and Cabinet Ranges; and then the 28-by-15-mile lake and the Mission Range to the south. Mountains, lakes, and great roads - what's not to like? Four days, four leaves of the Shamrock.

Tour 1: "To Yaak and Back"

A saying in these parts, "to Yaak and back," means a long journey, although Yaak is less than 100 miles from Kalispell. I'm meeting Skip, Maggie and Sasha at the Buffalo Café in Whitefish for breakfast, but what we've all forgotten is, it's Labor Day. The Buffalo is closed, and we have to relocate to another eatery around the corner.

Mike arrives, as do Eric, Annabelle, and Tribble, a speed-crazed Yorkshire terrier. "He used to duck his head inside the tank bag whenever we went over 40," says Eric. "So we got him the goggles."

We're six bikes heading north on US 93 to Trego though Sasha has to turn his magnificent Vincent for home. Highway 93 is a mostly straight two-laner running to the Canadian border, but at Trego, we turn west on Montana 353, and the difference is dramatic. The narrow, bumpy pavement heads off into dense forest, climbing into the Salish Mountains. This is logging country and the tires of over-laden trucks have hammered deep troughs into the tarmac. Maggie and Eric/Annabelle/Tribble lead the way, both riding R 1150 GS Adventures, which float over the undulations. Mike's Guzzi and Skip's Ducati shudder and lurch over the tarmac ripples while I bounce along behind on my Sprint ST.

"Lucky it's a holiday," says Mike when we pull into the Libby Dam Visitor Center to expel some of our breakfast coffee. "No log trucks." These roads can be deadly on weekdays. The truck drivers are mostly self-employed and paid by the load. Motorcycles are just speed bumps to them…

Instead of following the dam access road north, we turn west toward Libby, splitting north on Montana 567 just before the US 2 intersection. Warm sunlight filters through the tall evergreens that tower over the road as we wind uphill. This would be a fast road but for the surface, beaten by trucks and split by frost heaves. It's a real workout trying to stay with the two GSs through the undulating corners, but I can catch them on the short straights. The incline flattens and the road straightens as Yaak's nearly famous Dirty Shame Saloon comes into view. The only other edifice is a general store in shambles. Yaak, we discover, is a Kootenai Indian word for arrow; and the town is named after the Yaak River, which cuts through their territory just like one.

Inside, the walls of the ramshackle Dirty Shame are lined with banknotes, and the clientele eye us coolly, especially when we order Pepsis and water. They're welcome to think what they will, but we know bikes and beers don't mix.

From Yaak, Montana 337 takes us east, skirting steep, wooded hillsides and precipitous cliffs. We break through the trees at Yaak Summit and look out over a glorious valley of dark conifers. Here, the clear-cuts are much less evident than the carnage in Canada's Kootenay Mountains to the north. From here, 337 snakes down through the valley to Lake Koocanusa, a steep-sided blue-water basin longer than the horizon.

And on the road from Rexford to Eureka, I learn the answer to a question that's been bugging me since I got here. All the white-painted metal crosses at the roadside, obviously indicating road fatalities, are part of a statewide, accident reduction program organized by the Lions Club. Timely reminders…

The others having dispersed, Skip, Mike and I wash down the day's throat dust with a cold one beside the shimmering waters of Stillwater Lake. A grand day out.

Tour 2: Mist Opportunities

I know something's not right when I step outside the hotel the next morning to find the Sprint covered in white ash. The wind has swung round, bringing in smoke from forest fires burning to the northeast, and there's an acrid taste in the hazy air. I point the Triumph west, downwind, on US 2, hoping to outrun the smoke, but the whole region is draped. I pull off at McGregor Lake to take some snaps, but smoke obscures it like dense fog.

I pause at a gas station in Libby to fuel up for the ride through the Cabinet Mountains. An archetypal lumber town, Libby has two distinguishing features: a massive statue of an eagle dominating the eastern approach, and that endangered American icon, a drive-in movie theater. Montana 56 turns south just before Troy, and the broad two-laner winds lazily toward the distant hazy humps of the Cabinets. It's a recreation access corridor, and the road is lined with RV parks, private lakeside properties and fishing stores. Further south, these fade out as I leave the lakes behind, but the mountains never seem to get closer, shrouded as they are in their smoky brown blanket.

Montana 200 picks up 56 just before Noxon on the Flathead River, and I try some more photography across the water at Trout Creek. I can just make out the massive escarpment of Flat Iron Ridge as it tumbles to the roadside above the river near Thompson Falls, but so much of it is just haze.

Then just before Plains (or Wild Horse Plains, to give its full name) a yard full of colorful cement ornaments catches my eye. The "Closed" sign is out and I'm peering over the fence when Bill Haun appears. Seventy something, rail thin, and missing teeth, Bill invites me in. "Want a beer? I'm having one." Not when I'm riding. Bill then tells me his life story, especially the saga of his cement lawn-ornament business and the many franchises it's spawned. "I don't charge them," he says. In spite of myself, I can't resist snapping shots of Bill's motorcycle-riding cement pigs, although I pass on some of his saucier creations.

North from Plains, Montana 28 takes me across the Flathead Reservation, a vast, golden grassland sea, and toward one of my favorite views: the western approach to Flathead Lake at Elmo. Alas, like most of the day, the lake is lost in smoke.

Tour 3: American Miracle

I've arranged to meet Maggie at the Miracle of America Museum in Polson, at the south end of Flathead Lake. Her friend, Gil Mangels, the proprietor and curator, has promised me the inaugural firing of a 1931 Scott the museum has just acquired. I choose the west side of Flathead Lake for the one-hour journey south. Unlike the eastern shore, which is lined with private homes obscuring the view, this shoreline has contours that are more interesting and it's mostly accessible from the road.

US 93 hugs the lakeside, deeking around the numerous points and inlets, and the smoke haze still hangs on the lake. Normally it would be a brilliant crystal blue under clear sun, but el sol, struggling to break through the haze, fails to moderate the early morning chill, and when I meet Maggie in the parking lot of the MOAM, I'm quite cold.

The Museum is Gil's lifetime collection of machinery, equipment, household goods, mementoes, bric-a-brac and period ephemera. Unbelievers might use the j-word, but Gil has assembled a fascinating assortment of "nostalgiana" grouped into general themes: military vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles, radios, clothing, appliances, tools, farm machinery and on and on. In the foyer, I meet Gil's wife, Joanne, who seems quite unfazed by the enormity of the collection. Any of the guys I know who have amassed even a twentieth of Gil's Augean stable of stuff are either single or long divorced. As one TV channel says, a day at the Museum would be "time well wasted."

And so to the Scott. Recently donated by The Antique Motorcycle Club of America director, Gary Breylinger, the two-stroke twin is based on a 1908 design by Alfred Angus Scott. Isle of Man TT winners in 1912-13, Scotts were advanced machines in their early days but failed to progress, especially after Alfred Scott left the company in 1915. Gil and I spend about 20 minutes toying with the Scott's unfamiliar levers, cables and switches, but our kick-starting attempts all meet with failure. A phone call to Gary for tips, more uneducated guesswork with the controls, and a push start finally bring the Scott burbling to life. Gil chugs around the museum's backyard and struggles with the Scott's two-speed gearshift. There are lots more motorcycles in the collection, including a gorgeous Model 7 Sunbeam sidecar outfit and a Norton flat-tracker. But it's time for me to get going…

South of Polson on 93 is the National Bison Range, a grassland refuge for the lumbering beasts who gaze unconcerned as trucks rumble by. Continuing south to Missoula, the road is a heavily trafficked highway, as is 200 east to the Montana 83 turnoff. Though technically undemanding, I enjoy the relative calm of 83's almost nonexistent traffic and gentle hills. The road effectively follows the Rocky Mountain trench, a parallel trough just west of the foothills. The Rockies are obscured by the Flathead National Forest - and the ever-present pall of forest fire smoke. Twice there's a hold up at firefighting access points on the road: helicopters, trucks and tenders wait while weary crews eat at makeshift camps surrounded by tents and mobile washrooms.

For a change of pace, I pull off the road to investigate the town of Bigfork. Parked on its spruced and tidy main street is a Willys Jeepster, the civilian version of the WWII General Purpose transport. I'm just taking a picture of the shiny red ragtop when its owner appears:

"Triumph, eh? I've got a '69."
"I've got a '70," I fire back.
"I've got a 1927 Scott, too."
"I was just looking at a Scott today."
"At the museum?"
"I sold that to Gil."
"Then you must be Gary."
He is.

Tour 4: Going to the sun

Mike and Skip have volunteered to ride with me on their Nortons to make the next day's photo shoot more interesting, but the air quality is the worst yet, "hazardous" is the word used on the weather report. We ride east on US 2 through Columbia Falls to West Glacier and the park entrance, turning north to Lake McDonald. But visibility deteriorates: Most of the forest fires are in the park itself, and even staying in visual contact with the other bikes isn't easy. With no chance of any decent photography, Mike and Skip head home, but Maggie and I decide to continue. The Going to the Sun Road is a spectacular ride, even in the gloom. Sheer walls of rock rise into the smoke above the narrow winding highway, while a low stone wall is all that prevents hapless excursions into the steep valley below. It's occurred to me many times that the "safety" barriers designed for cars are actually dangerous to bikers. Though it might halt a four-wheeler, making contact with the stone barrier on the Going to the Sun Road would pitch a bike and rider into oblivion.

The air is better at Logan Pass, upwind of the worst blazes, but the massive tors and peaks surrounding the pass are impenetrably hazy. At St. Mary on the east side of the pass, the air is clear but the scenery mundane. We decide to take Montana 49 to East Glacier instead of the longer route through Browning. It's a good idea: the road swings south in a seemingly endless succession of beautiful curves. From Kiowa, the surface is less well maintained and the terrain more challenging. We sprint over open ranchland as the tarmac bobs and weaves over undulating hillocks and along barren ridges. The surface convulses with ripples, and gravel makes occasional incursions. Cattle graze at the roadside. "It's a Crackerjack road," Maggie quips. "There's a surprise round every corner."

We stop for a drink at the Isaak Walton Inn, a beautiful century-old lodge in Essex, near Marias Pass. John F. Stevens of the Great Northern Pacific Railroad named the pass after his niece. I decide I have to return to the Park for another try. The scenery at Logan Pass looked so promising in the smoky gloom.

Tour 4: Reprise

I'm lucky to get an extra day en route from Salt Lake City to Portland, Oregon, a week later. The fires are under control, and the day promises sunshine. I meet Maggie for breakfast in Bigfork, and we spin north into the Park. This time the air is clear and the meaning of "Going to the Sun" more obvious. Cut into the cliff side, the road climbs ever upward toward Logan Pass, faithfully following the contours of the rock face. The geography, more vertical than horizontal, is like a world turned on its side. At the pass, the ridges and peaks soar skyward, dwarfing the visitor center and parking lot. To the east, the craggy peaks and lush valleys almost look too real to be true, like a studio backdrop.

Montana is famous for its Big Sky and now, thanks to the firefighters, I've finally seen it.