In the “big fire”, as they call it, it all burned. Everything of value was gone. The big fire was actually 3000 smaller fires, yes the number is correct three thousand fires. The fire destroyed three million acres of prime, old-growth forest.
The big fire
Three million acres is three times the area of the state of Rhode Island. Two towns, Taft and Grand Forks were wiped from the map. The fire destroyed one-third of Wallace. The other two-thirds was only saved by the winds that carried the destruction away from the town. Most of the destruction was in the forest. The big fire burned a billion trees. In many places, the firestorm created its own weather. Winds associated with the fires were more than one hundred miles per hour. People witnessed flaming trees (whole trees) flying through the sky.
More than ten thousand newly recruited fire-fighters attempted to control the fire with very little to show for their efforts. Eventually, the fire stopped because of a combination of running out of fuel and winter snow.
What does a one-hundred-year-old fire have to do with our travels? We spent a large part of last month in the fire zone. The towns never recovered but the forests are majestic.
Across Idaho (northern Idaho)
We didn’t expect to take this route and it was all a change of plans. As previously explained we moved quickly through eastern Washington and spent about two weeks outside of Spokane. Then to get back to our desired route we turned east through Idaho towards Missoula Montana.
The previous plan was to stay in Idaho and travel north through the Sawtooth Mountains and north through the Bitterroot Valley. Then we would cross the Bitterroot Mountains westbound on Highway 12 to Washington. Instead, we made a loop out of a straight line. The Sawtooth Mountains would have to wait for another year but we would get to see the Bitterroots.
Delayed in Spokane
We hit a snag that caused a one-week delay in Spokane. To get back on schedule we made a quick trip across Idaho and into Montana camping at Quartz Flat Campground. I had intended to spend more time on the Idaho side of the continental divide before crossing into Montana but instead, we camped at the best place, still in the mountains, in Montana, west of Missoula.
I described our stay in Spokane in this post. Kayak Adventures
While in the area, we crossed back across the divide on bicycles. Actually, I should say we crossed under the divide because we were not above ground.
We started our trip under the divide at Taft. Actually, we started at the townsite of Taft. Just to the south of the townsite is the railway and the biggest of the train tunnels that crossed under the divide. After the big fire, they tried to rebuild Taft but it failed, the townsite now sits under Interstate 90.
Route of the Hiawatha
The railway, crossing west to east north of Taft, (in 1910) hosted a special luxury train called the Hiawatha. The purpose of the train was so that well-to-do tourists could see the west. The railway also carried cargo on the same route, but not on the same trains.
Overall the railway was in use for 71 years. The big fire also destroyed the railway. To put the train through the most difficult section they built several tunnels through the mountains and several trestles across canyons. During the big fire, the train tunnels were used by trains (and people) to hide from the destruction. Without them, far more people would have died.
After the big fire, the trestles were rebuilt and the train was used again. For some reason, tourists weren’t as interested in seeing the fire-scarred land. As automobile travel increased and train travel decreased eventually the trains and the tracks were abandoned. Eventually, the railway was stripped for scrap leaving only the path, tunnels, and trestles.
Rails to trails
The Rails to trails converted the railway in 1998 to a bicycle trail. The starting point is just south of the Taft townsite at the Saint Paul’s Tunnel. From the starting point, bicycles follow the railway through the tunnels for sixteen miles all downhill, from Montana and into Idaho.
The bicycle trail follows the path of the train through some of northern Idaho’s most scenic mountains. Riders then shuttle in “antique” converted school buses back to Saint Pauls’s Tunnel for the ride back to their car.
Saint Paul’s Tunnel
Saint Paul’s Tunnel is the highest and longest tunnel on the route and crosses under the continental divide between Montana and Idaho. Overall it is 1.7 miles long, very dark, cold, and quite wet.
Lights inside the tunnels are not optional. Without them, you would see nothing. It took two and a half years to dig using the most modern equipment including steam-powered drilling machines and shovels. In nearly all the old pictures you see of the workers they are wearing raincoats because water is constantly dripping from the roof. At the exit of the tunnel, the water flows at 1500 gallons per minute.
The Taft Tunnel
The Saint Paul’s Tunnel is located under Saint Paul’s Pass, hence the name. Another name for the same tunnel is the Taft Tunnel because it is located nearest to the Taft townsite.
No smoke this year
So far our luck has held and no fires and no smoke. In 2020 we had smoke problems and even ash from forest fires landing on our RV. (We were annoyed but not in danger.) This year we haven’t had any problems (knock on wood) with fires. It has been an exceptionally wet spring here in the mountains and we are grateful.
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