After yesterday’s trail troubles, we take the easy but long road from Elsie on our way to Crystal Lake only to find the final trail too narrow and steep for riding. With day’s end approaching, we hustle to find an acceptable alternative, finally settling in for a beautiful sunset over Benewah Lake.
If Jesse is gregarious, Joel is polite. The second youngest of us four, he was the only one with the patience, fortitude, or whatever superpower to work full time with our dad in his cabinet business for many years. Not that we disliked our dad, just that our meticulous, sometimes critical tendencies apparently came from him. Working together wasn’t always easy.
In that capacity, Joel bore many burdens the rest of us didn’t share, to include wrapping up the business when our dad unexpectedly passed away. I think those experiences required sturdy mental machinery. Although outwardly unflappable, I see his gears always turning.
starTaken by our parents in 1987
Joel is used to a later work schedule and sleeps a little longer while Jesse and I get the fire going. We warm our hands while watching specks of light float randomly above swirling mist. Regular ripples and a subtle splash evince the many fish enjoying a morning snack of sunlit bugs.
“Look, you can see them swimming right there,” Jesse calls from the edge of the water. I approach to see small, dark fish swaying gently among a row of plants just a few feet from the water’s edge.
“If they can get by,” I say, “I’m sure we can.” A few ATVs have just rolled in from the gravel road with the usual cloud of dust. I thought the Forest Service bulletin said the road was closed but apparently it’s somewhat passable.
Jesse was telling us he saw a hard climb to Striped Peak just up the ridge trail from where we descended to the lake last night. “I don’t know …” he says uncertainly, implying it could be more than we can handle.
I am skeptical of his assessment (a trail too hard for us?) but since we’re looking for an easier day of it, it’s probably better to take the road out anyway. I look at the atlas and scroll around the little GPS screen to find connections to our Crystal Lake route from that direction.
We get on our way and pass a couple well used ATV trails a few miles down the road. They seem to head the right direction but don’t appear on my maps. I think we should avoid guesswork if we want easy riding.
I would call it ironic but at this point it’s not surprising to see the trail that is on the map, a little farther on, relatively overgrown. I sigh to myself but don’t slow down. It seems the lesser of available evils.
As we navigate the typical neglected trail obstacles—small deadfall, rocks—and push past bending brush, I imagine brothers behind me thinking, “this is his easy route?”
It doesn’t get any worse, though, and I find I’m having a good time with the minor challenges. It’s satisfying to come upon obstacles, unable to see the way through, choose to keep going anyway and come out still on top of the motorcycle.
After a bit of that the trail opens up and then intersects a wide and well used trail where we have only to contend with dust and a couple rubble fields while enjoying miles of grand ridgeline views.
Up, down, around, and finally we emerge on Highland Creek Road above a ravine. “I wouldn’t mind stopping for a break,” Jesse mentions.
“Alright,” I answer, “I’ll watch for a nice spot, probably down there along the creek.”
The first thing we see along Highland Creek is an abandoned building with tailings piled around. The “creek basin has been heavily mined, involving removal of vegetation, construction of roads and industrial development, and most importantly, discharge of waste rock into the channel.”¹ I pull to the side a moment to look closer. There’s no shade or easy creek access and I prepare to move on. Joel and Jesse seem to be parking, though.
“Did you want to stop here?” I ask.
“No,” Joel answers, “just thought you might want to get some pictures.”
That is thoughtful. Part of me does want to park, get out the tripod and wide angle lens, and find some nice perspectives on the rusted hardware that holds white weathered planks in tenuous formation. But more than that I want to keep going, get to Crystal Lake and have time there to wander around, enjoy the place and take pictures.
“Nah,” I answer.
We keep watching for a nice place along the creek but don’t see anything. “Most of Highland Creek, except for the upper headwaters areas, is lined with tailings deposits”² so I don’t think I want to spend time in this water anyway.³ We arrive shortly at East Fork Pine Creek Road and begin enjoying dust free pavement riding.
Bureau of Land Management, “Abandoned Mine Land Restoration in a North Idaho Stream,” p. 5:
From the east we turn to the west fork through an outlying Pinehurst community. My former father-in-law lived here years ago. I remember coming away from visits impressed with the genuineness of these people out among the mountains, old and young, poor by some accounts but rich in character.
It is funny how suddenly our nice pavement has turned to gravel then dirt then a creek bed—sixty miles-per-hour to six. I know we don’t have far to go before joining the main road to Latour Peak so we continue undeterred.
The used-to-be-road climbs out of the old creek bed and goes overland before we come to a crossing of Pine Creek’s west fork. We head through without hesitating. I’m bounced around and almost put off balance—bigger than usual river rocks, I guess.
The trail turns pleasant, undulating through trees that grow dense enough to suppress undergrowth. I think it might be nice to stop and walk here a moment.
We aren’t long in the trees before the trail veers back across the creek. It’s not a big creek but again it’s rough. I’m dabbing a foot left, right, left, working to stay up across slippery rocks.
Riding the GS 1200 in terrain like this is all about momentum management. There’s no dirt-bike-slow gear. The dry clutch can’t be feathered much so you just have to go. As long as you can keep the front pointed down the trail, the just-go thing works surprisingly well.
But as soon as the front starts careening off rocks, logs and such, the magic of momentum is lost. The Great and Powerful Oz is replaced by a man cowering behind a curtain. That is how this creek is making me feel. Joel and Jesse are doing great, riding right through, but my anxiety level is rising.
I tip half-over in the middle of the next crossing before I can find stable footing. I fight to right it, finish crossing and yell back grimly, “the trail probably comes back to the creek in fifty feet.”
As it turns out, it actually does. I’m back at the creek for the next crossing and can see my brothers still finishing the previous crossing! Since I’ve turned sissy, I walk out and begin moving underwater rocks aside. When Joel and Jesse appear I ask if they’ll stand ready to lend a hand while I ride through.
Across the deeper middle I start to lose my footing on a jumble of rocks. My brothers push while I strain with my legs and mutter expletives to get out of the water and up the bank.
Joel and Jesse ride through without much difficulty. Go Team 250! Team GS, on the other hand, is struggling against grumpiness. I prefer my exercise in smaller doses.
We finally leave the creek behind to ride leisurely through the forest until a sharp turn up loose rocks demands momentum. I speed around the corner up the climb and suddenly have to swerve around a root ledge. I don’t see the small stump in time to avoid it.
I lay in the brush until Joel and Jesse can effect a rescue. The weight of the bike seems to be concentrated on the foot peg resting on my ankle. I think Joel and Jesse are alarmed when they see me pinned and I tell them “it kind of hurts.”
We get things stood up and are glad to see the only harm is to the motorcycle, a fog light snapped from its mount. (Truthfully, glad isn’t exactly my feeling but I want to be positive.) I take a moment to collect myself then take another run at the little hill. My brothers help push me—a lot of that this year—over the unavoidable root.
That climb lands us on the road up to Latour Peak which begins wide and poof-dusty before settling down to a jeep trail through mountainside trees. Tight switchbacks keep us entertained through a few thousand feet of elevation gain until we arrive at a series of trenches near the top. I fear a repeat of yesterday but find they’re not as deep. I drag bottom on some but make it through with Joel and Jesse covering my six.
From here there should be a single track trail across the ridges over to Crystal Lake. The maps I planned with seem to be some years separated from reality so I’m not betting on anything. We take a break on the ridge below Latour Peak then head to the trail.
Lesser mountains are like a rough sea around us. We look out into the blue distance as we navigate grassy tracks around a few trees. This isn’t bad at all. Then we pass the motorcycles-only gate. The trail narrows as the ridge rises to a rocky crest ahead and high above. It’s a rough looking climb, more than we care to tackle.
That is okay. This was anticipated and we haven’t come far. I punch in the alternate route, we make a matter-of-fact U-turn and begin down Boise Creek Road toward Rochat Road.
Winding down the narrow gravel road from Latour, I’m surprised around one corner by a large, dark mass on the side of the road. I’m startled when it rises. In a moment I realize it’s a moose and her calf so I stop and watch as they run together up the hill into the trees.
Like Moon Pass, Rochat Road runs from Interstate 90 down to the St. Joe River Highway and is similarly busy and dusty. We join the pyroclastic flow as far as Sheep Springs Overlook near Crystal Lake. We pull off there to regroup and I am glad to see the sun is still high in the sky—we should have time to play.
The pictures I found online of the trail into Crystal Lake were of mellow dirt paths through grass. They were narrow but not rocky or steep. I’m hopeful.
We find the trailhead beyond an iron gate at the top of a short hill of loose rocks. Shoot, that looks narrow. And I’ll have to hit it fast to make the hill.
Wow, that was close.
starPictured on the way back
The trail starts nice just like the pictures but soon challenges us. Bigger, looser, steeper—I thought we were done with this kind of thing. We spin and claw headlong, up, up, until a mid-climb corner steals my momentum and I have to hop free of the off-balance bike. Darn.
I think I’ll walk up the last of this hill to have a little think and see where it’s taking us. Already hot from wrestling the bike, I huff and puff up the incline to emerge on a ridge over the lake. I’m surprised to see no trail onward. That’s a kink in the plan.
I walk back to my prostrate bike and wonder where Joel and Jesse are. I guess I’ll keep walking. I don’t get much farther before they appear over the rise below. We brief each other and realize we independently and simultaneously had our bikes on their sides. This trail is unkind.
I share the bad news, that we’ve been climbing toward a dead end. But there’s still hope. “Did you see that hiking trail back there?” I ask. “I guess that must be the way into the lake.”
Joel and Jesse again help get my bike up and turned around. We retreat down a couple climbs in avalanches of shale then pull in under a pine tree at the other trailhead. It looks rideable but we can’t see where it goes. “We need someone from Team 250 to scout,” I propose.
“I’ll go,” Joel answers.
“How you gonna let us know?” Jesse wonders. “How about two beeps for ‘go’,” he suggests, “and one for ‘bad’.”
“Yeah,” I joke, “one long beep and yelling if it’s bad.”
Joel takes off and Jesse and I take a seat in the shade to wait. The minutes drag on with no signals from Joel. Finally we decide there must be an issue and a couple minutes later that we should actually start walking that direction.
A half-mile on we realize we didn’t think to bring first aid or tools. Whatever the problem is, I guess it’d better not be serious.
We stop a couple times to yell “Joel” but get no response. We can see his tracks on the trail so we know the aliens, or whatever, didn’t get him before this point.
Across the slope, through the trees, descending to the lake, on we go, still no Joel. “Is that him?” Jesse asks half to himself. We’ve just heard the faint sound of a motor rev then quit.
We yell again and finally hear Joel call back. “I’m alright,” he says.
Further down the steepening trail, we finally see him. He’s struggling to get the overloaded Honda up some rocks. “I should have turned around sooner,” he says calmly before offering a harrowing account of unloading everything from the bike to turn around somewhere below by a bad ledge. It sounds nerve wracking.
We are relieved to find Joel okay. Jesse and I get behind his bike ready to push. For his part, Joel presses the starter button—click, whine, nothing—and again with the same result. Of all the times and places for a dead battery …
“I think it’s light enough we can just push it up past these rocks,” I suggest. We do that, let the battery rest a moment (hey, sometimes it works) while Joel cinches straps, but it still won’t start.
“Alright, why don’t you shift it into third or fourth gear and Jesse and I will push as fast as we can,” I say to Joel. “Pop the clutch and drop your weight onto the seat. Hopefully it will start.”
Voilà! The engine comes to life on the first try. “See you back there.” Jesse and I have a mile to walk. To speed it up, he leads in running a hundred yards at a time. I do my best to keep up but my body presents a convincing argument to slow down.
We meet back under the pine tree by our motorcycles and sit to cool off, make a new plan. Crystal Lake is out. Wherever we go instead, we need to filter more water. We drank a lot today.
Tingley Springs Campground, down the road, has a promising name. Off the trail, down the road and into the gravel lot, however, we are met with disappointment. It’s dry and dusty and there’s no spring anymore, no water.
The map shows the road crossing a few creeks as it continues down the mountain—maybe a place to camp. If not, we’ll end up at the St. Joe River and can surely find a spot there.
We begin riding and end up at the highway having passed nothing feasible. So we turn left along the river to check out the Shadowy St. Joe Campground¹ and, seeing all RVs and little dogs, exit as quick as we enter.
Afternoon is turning to evening and we aren’t having much luck. This feels a bit like year one.¹ Jesse is low on gas so we decide to run through St. Maries and look from there.
“What’s with all the weird looking people?” I ask to nobody in particular as we finish some drinks at the dilapidated gas station at the edge of St. Maries. Rude, I know. I’m just surprised that everyone pulling in could look like a carnie.
“It’s St. Maries,” Jesse answers.
We decide to head up the highway toward Heyburn State Park² to stay there if nothing presents itself along the way. It might be more RV-driving little dogs but we’re running out of light.
State Highway 5 is twisty fun. I zip ahead and stop at the first park entrance to wait for Joel and Jesse. “This good?” I ask after they’ve pulled to a stop.
I ride quickly up the access road wanting to settle on a spot before nightfall. After a mile we arrive at Benewah Campground, a collection of cleared dirt spots under thick evergreens at the edge of Benewah Lake. Following the Labor Day weekend, it’s practically vacant except for piles of firewood left behind. Very nice. We waste no time riding pell-mell through sites to pick our favorite.
We never did stop for lunch so we’re all eager for food around the fire. Jesse and I take advantage of the available showers before cooking. What luxury! It feels really good to be done for the day.
The voice in my head that spends all its time imagining the future and teasing apart the past is silent—already asleep, I think. It’s just me, my brothers and this fire. The last few days are a blur, the past and future inscrutable. I’ve jotted down quotes and notes on a little pad to help untangle and savor it all later. Right now, I’m just going to lean back with this drink, stretch out my legs and stare into the embers while dinner heats up.
The sound of Jake brakes.¹ Again and again. That’s no way to start the morning. Why so many trucks? And where is the big hill? I try to return to sleep but it’s hopeless.
Today our trip ends. None of us is hurrying to pack up. Instead, we sit around the fire and suggest names for Joel’s band, a few with more innuendo than bears repeating.
Finally I muster enough motivation to see about restoring my fog light to serviceable condition. The asymmetry bothers me. Between the epoxy and zip-ties stored under the seat, I don’t see how I can fail.
Joel and Jesse begin packing while I develop tedious methods of holding round parts pressed together for the glue to set. It doesn’t set as quickly as I expected and I find myself still fiddling with it, nothing packed up, when Joel and Jesse are ready to ride.
I give up. It’s almost whole but it’s not fair to keep us all waiting. I’ll finish it tonight. I toss the light back in the tail bag and hustle quick as I can to pack everything else.
“We still need a picture,” I say. I feel like I should hurry along but we can’t leave without a group photo. We’d never hear the end of it. I setup the tripod. We give a couple smiles, a macho look and one beating flat Jeremy for not being here. Good to go.
We return from our campsite to State Highway 5 and ride to Plummer then along highways between small Washington towns. Harvest is in full swing. Everywhere we go, trucks and combines crawl the Palouse Hills around us.
To keep us from too much pavement, I plotted a route along Skyline Drive to get us home to Moscow. I’d heard of it but never been on it, in spite of being so near to where we grew up. And after seeing “Idaho Sam’s” report of it² a few weeks ago, I knew we should try it.
We turn onto gravel and immediately climb atop the moderate ridge of dry grass. Several ATV tracks peal off from the road but with no apparent advantage, we pass them by.
“The drive winds through forests with occasional kaleidoscopic viewpoints, across the Palouse farmlands to Steptoe Butte and Kamiak Butte. There are very few ‘improvements’ to this land, although there are over 30 miles of multi-use trails.”³
“This is pretty cool,” Joel says when we pull off for a break in the shade. “I should bring Jill here to practice riding.”
There is a covered picnic area, potable water sources and several pull-outs with interpretive signs, but we don’t dally. It’s hot and we’re ready for home. We come out on Highway 95 north of Potlatch for the final stretch to Moscow.
I am glad to remove my boots, helmet and gear, sit on my mom’s couch and be entertained by her hyperactive cat. When my mom returns home from work, she is interested to hear an account of the trip but I still find more energy is needed to untangle and articulate the blur of events than I want to expend. I offer summaries and promise more later.
Of course the “last day” wasn’t really my last day. After a welcome night of rest without trail anticipation or Jake brakes, I rise early for the ride to Boise. I spent last night cleaning up the motorcycle and gluing the fog light together. The music player is charged and podcasts are loaded. I’m ready to roll.
I stop to stretch my legs above Whitebird if only to enjoy not being stuck here for five hours.¹ The trip is smooth, uneventful, though by the last fifty miles I’m anxious to park and be done a bit.
Last year reminded me of the value of downtime in a trip. If “the joy is in the journey” then the journey must be savored. Too many miles in too many days limited time for reflection, contemplation and camaraderie.
I have been sometimes distressed the last days of the trip because it seems my cure was worse than the disease. This route substituted trails for miles. The technical parts were almost all enjoyable challenges but taken together, one after another, left little downtime. I want more downtime with my brothers. If you know us, you know we can take some hours to warm up to much conversation.
And yet the challenges also provided opportunities to work together, for me to depend on them several times—a quiet camaraderie. That was good. None of us could have done the route alone. I think it was Jesse who suggested it was the year of Team Elite.
Next year, though … Next year will be relaxing. I promise.