Monday, July 13, 2015

To the Peak of Sex and Beyond

The Coeur d'Alene Range of the Bitterroot Mountains
View to the West and South from the Sex Peak Lookout
Five foot by two foot Panorama

Sunday morning, Kevin offered me the chance of a lifetime.  He wanted to go to Sex Peak and take me with him.  How could I say no?  Little did I know that there is an actual mountain top in the Coeur d'Alene range named "Sex Peak."  Nor did I know that there was a US Forest Service lookout tower on said peak.  Normally, when Kevin wants to go to a mountain top, it's because he wants to play Ham Radio operator, so I took my Kindle, my camera, and my coffee mug in the truck, and was ready to go.  Kevin brought our diabetic MinPin Harley along for the ride.  We suspect that Harley's healthy siblings treat him poorly when we leave all the dogs alone. Harley is going blind from his diabetic induced cataracts, and tends to bump into furniture, walls, other dogs, etc, which the others do not appreciate.

On the way, we stopped by the home of the owner of the Llano Theatre, the wonderful movie house here in Plains, which Kevin and I visit almost every week.  I was doing some printing for the theater, but was having trouble getting my various software programs to work.  This had caused me no end of frustration both Saturday and Sunday morning, and my blood pressure was rising accordingly.  Long story short, I really needed a day away from the computer.

After dropping off my work, and stopping at the dump to drop off the week's garbage, we continued west on Highway 200 to Thompson Falls.  It was at this point I learned that Kevin really didn't know exactly where Sex Peak is.  Well, that's what modern technology is all about, right?  Just try to ask your vehicle's navigation system to get you to Sex Peak.  I dare you.  That's right, it didn't work for us, either.  Well, our smart phones have internet capability.  Just look it up on line.  What???  I'm not getting a 4G signal?  I was beginning to think that modern technology and I just were not getting along.  Kevin, using his own phone, was able to find a link to show driving directions, but that link refused to open.  When in doubt, ask someone human, preferably face to face.

Having learned that we needed to continue west from Thompson Falls, our new objective was the road that follows Big Beaver Creek.  I'm not making this up.  If you want to get to Sex Peak, you have to go up Big Beaver Creek.  Quite a way up Big Beaver Creek, as it turns out.  Eventually you will reach a junction where Forest Service Road 2222 takes off to the right, and you'll see a sign telling you that the lookout is 12 miles ahead.  Of course, if you don't turn at this junction, you'll see a sign saying that the lookout is 14 miles ahead.  Apparently, once you're way up Big Beaver Creek, all roads lead to Sex Peak.

You didn't think the sign would actually say Sex Peak, did you?
How long do you think that sign would last?

The Lookout is no longer being used by the Forest Service as a fire watch tower, but is available for rental at a rate of $35 a night.  Supposedly it can sleep four people, but they'd have to be awfully friendly, it seems to me.  In any event, if people can rent the tower, it makes sense to me that you should be able to drive your soccer mom van all the way up to the summit.  Road 2222 was not, however, the smoothest road I've ever been on.  Not the worst, either, not even the worst we followed on this trip, but I'll get to that in a minute or two.  We'd been driving quite some time when we came upon the sign shown above.  Oh goody, that meant we had covered eight miles of bad road and had only four more to go.  It's hard for me to imagine most families driving their car up this road.  I'm not sure why, as growing up we drove our cars up mountain roads much worse than this.  But folks today are pretty soft, seems to me.

Eventually, we passed a gate and made the final climb to the lookout.  I've been to several lookouts over the years, and this was by far the easiest to reach by motor vehicle.  There is an outhouse next to the parking area, something I'm not used to seeing at other lookouts, but there is no water any where nearby (remember, we left Big Beaver Creek twelve miles back), so you have to bring all the water you feel you're going to need if you plan on staying overnight.  But the view!  Just look at that panorama at the head of the page.  I stood on the lookout's balcony and took nine individual shots that were merged into that panorama.  Of course, that is the point of a lookout--you're there to watch for any fire that might get started in the forest below.  And if you're into building cairns, there's a lot of rock here to use.  Other ways to spend your time, according to the rental website, include star gazing, wildlife viewing, and even mountain biking.  

Just down the road a ways, we found quite a huckleberry patch, and stopped long enough to pick berries both for immediate eating, and for some baking I'll do later today (or maybe tomorrow).   I have to say that I really don't recommend trying to pick huckleberries when you're wearing a walking cast boot designed to keep your foot and ankle immobile.  I speak from experience.

On the way back down the mountain, we decided to go out the back way (remember the 14 mile sign back on Big Beaver Road?).  This road was much smoother than the way we ascended the mountain, and much more suitable for regular cars.  So much smoother, that it's probably shorter in time even though longer in distance.  At the bottom of the grade we faced a decision:  10 miles to Highway 200 and home, or 6 miles to the State Line.  Well, that was easy.  Head west into Idaho.

One thing we learned on this trip is that the Forest Service isn't marking their roads as well as they used to.  Certainly not as well as they should when intrepid explorers set out to see the sights but have no maps along.  We passed a sign indicating Mile 11 (one mile from where we turned west), and then we passed a fork in the road, taking what appeared to be the better maintained choice, since neither road was marked with any kind of sign.  Well, the right fork did say the road was not maintained for cars or trailers, but we took the left fork, which soon led us to a bridge across, what else, Beaver Creek.

I hope you weren't looking for water in Beaver Creek

Shortly after crossing the bridge, we saw another milepost, 1.  What do you mean, 1?  Shouldn't that be 12?  Then came another milepost, 2.  Then 3, then 4, then a locked gate.  We're not getting to Idaho following this road.  Even if we were able to open the locked gate (and Kevin does have keys to do that in his work with the Ambulance and Fire crews), the road ahead was blocked by a good stand of trees, and we didn't have a chain saw with us.

Turn the truck around, head back toward the bridge, then the fork, and try the "not maintained" road instead.  Boy were they right. This road was barely maintained for a 4x4 pickup.  It climbed pretty steadily through thick brush until after five miles we leveled off and saw a sign stating "State Line."  No "Welcome to Idaho," or "Idaho is Just Too Great to Litter," or even "Pacific Time Zone."  Just "State Line."  Looking behind us, there was a sign saying that it was now 16 miles to Highway 200, but nothing telling us where the road ahead would lead us, or how many miles it would take to find out.

The road downhill was wide and relatively smooth, nothing like the Montana side, and we were doing quite well until we came to a place where the road had washed out.  I wondered if our four-wheel drive would get us over the impasse, but before he tried it, Kevin wisely got out of the cab to reconnoitre.  Having looked the situation over carefully, he decided we could risk the attempt, and while I held my breath (and the truck started sliding toward the abyss), he gunned it up and over and in no time at all we were back on good road. I know objectively it took no time, but as I was on the downhill side/slide, I was holding my breath and it felt as if it took forever.  Later Kevin asked if I had taken any pictures of the slide, but no, as I said, I was holding my breath, not my camera.

Further down the road we stopped at a small stream to get water for Harley.  I'm not happy with any of the photos I took of the stream, but I'm sharing this one anyway.  And a bit further on we came upon a truck with five Forest Service personnel sitting and talking.  We asked if they knew about the slide, and they assured us that someone was coming up the mountain to remedy the situation.  They were a bit amazed that 1) we had driven over it, and 2) that we had no idea where we were or where we were going.  They assured us that we were on the road down the mountain, and we would end up at Elk Creek.  (Should I mention that in a lifetime of driving around western Montana and northern Idaho, I had never heard of Elk Creek?)  A couple of miles further along, we came to another junction, and took the right fork as it seemed better traveled and frankly, in better shape.  Five miles down that road, we reached the bottom of the canyon and, I presume, Elk Creek.  Passing a couple of four-wheelers and a camp site where someone had brought in a large camping trailer, we headed down stream, only to find that it was good we were in a Ford.  We had to ford the creek, twice.  The road became increasingly narrow, and finally dropped into the creek bed itself.  Nope, not going to go there.  Turning around, we found we were now blocking the way of the four-wheelers, who were anxious to get down into that creek bed.  Better them than us.  We stopped at the campsite and spoke with Willie Nelson (well, that's who he looked like) who told us that we needed to go back up the mountain and take the other fork.  Exactly 14.9 miles from his campsite, we would find the Murray-Pritchard Road, better known to us as the Thompson Pass Road.

Back up the mountain, this time taking the left fork, and along the way we passed another Forest Service truck, this time with Fire Suppression markings, a BLM Fire Suppression Truck, three more Forest Service trucks, and a bulldozer slowly making its way up the mountain to repair the slide we'd driven over.  We also drove through a large swath of burned out forest land before we started dropping precipitously off the mountain.  

Almost exactly 15 miles from Willie Nelson, we hit pavement and turned to the left toward Murray.  I've written about Murray before, and her most famous resident Maggie Hall, AKA Molly B Damn.  Murry is an old mining town roughly ten miles into Idaho when you cross Thompson Pass south of Thompson Falls.  A friend had told me that the Sprag Pole Inn served a good meal, so Kevin pulled off the road and we had a great dinner of broasted chicken, french fries, and tossed salad.  After dinner, we continued up and over Thompson Pass and headed home.  With Kevin's scanner, we were able to hear a report of a truck heading toward us and driving erratically, speeding, crossing the double yellow line, passing on blind curves.  Kevin got on the radio and asked what we should be looking for.  The officer replied with a description of the vehicle, and it shouldn't have been hard to find.  He described our truck with one exception.  The miscreant was driving a 2014 red Ford F350 diesel.  We were driving a 2012 red Ford F350 diesel.  I'm pleased to say that we drove all the way home without ever running into our near twin.

The Thompson Pass Road on the Montana Side
What most people think a road through the mountains should look like

It was a long day, at times frustrating, but never boring.  We were doing one of the things I love best--getting out, seeing the sights, exploring roads we've not traveled before.  I kept telling Kevin how much fun I was having, and I know my blood pressure dropped considerably being away from the computer.  We'll do it again, and I'll write it up again.  Only next time we'll have maps, a cooler and lunch along for the ride.

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