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.