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Wallace Inn News

Taking the High Road

November 01, 2010

Business Today More: Travel, by David Mc

Okay, so before I started, I was a little afraid of the Hiawatha Trail in Idaho (a mountainous state in the US, bordering Canada), given its long, dark tunnels, high trestles and gravel roadbed. Well, turns out that the tunnel is more like fun. But it’s also haunted….I think. The trestles sure are tall. The railroad history is killer good and the scenery is wow. Also, there’s the town of Wallace for diversion.

We’re talking Idaho here. Home of, um, potatoes? Actually, it’s gems. Idaho’s nickname is the Gem State because nearly every known gem has been found there. It’s also believed to be the only place other than the Himalaya where you can get six- pointed star garnets.

Wallace is in the northern panhandle. It’s got a funky history (the last bordello closed in 1988 and is now a museum since the girls left, like the three bears, with dinner still on the table). It’s got fantastic restaurants and an amazing silver mine tour. It’s also got the Coeur d’Alene Trail for cyclists on road bikes who want asphalt and the occasional moose and coyote. It’s got livable 4,000 square foot houses selling for $70,000, which is probably a quarter of what they would cost elsewhere else. Aw heck, I might just move there.

And so we come to the Hiawatha Trail. This follows the old Milwaukee Road route, named after the Hiawatha trains which were named after the allegedly very fast (American) Indian. Building the 15 miles of this route bankrupted the railroad and eventually, the trains stopped coming. The tracks were ripped up and the trail was turned into a park, and now you can rent all the gear (bikes, helmets, lights) and transportation (shuttle bus) you need.

It’s a fantastic way to spend a day, especially if you are a serious fan of railroads. Like most folks visiting here, we rented the whole works, including the shuttle, and were dropped off at the top end of the trail. It’s 15 miles of gentle downhill which means you hardly pedal but it’s not so steep as to be an issue.

First up, though, is that 1.7 mile tunnel. It’s long and dark but you can see the light at the end of the tunnel (pun unintended) and that keeps you stable. And, of course, you’ve got a light on the bike. The crews who built the tunnel back in the early 1900s started from either end, one crew in Montana, the other in Idaho. It was a race, and Idaho won. And when they met in the middle, the two tunnels were only an inch off centre.

It’s cold in there, around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Voices of other cyclists echo and fuse sounding like a whale song, and the magnified sound of bike brakes resemble the noise of train wheels squealing on the tracks. But when I look back, there’s nobody behind me. Yes, the tunnel is haunted.

There are another eight tunnels of varying length and seven trestles. Trestles are tall bridges and the highest, Kelly Creek Trestle, is 230 feet off the valley floor.

To get the full experience, one needs to go to the wire rail, get a death grip on it, and look down. Also look up and across, where the low, rolling Bitterroot mountains stretch like waves to the horizon.

But wait. There’s more. Some 46 historical plaques tell us about the construction, the towns and the wildlife. And especially about the 1910 fire, perhaps the largest in US history, which burned down 3 million acres. There are some seriously grim stories about people hiding out in the tunnels for a week. An entire town of 120 people hid in one while a forest ranger kept 45 others inside, at gunpoint, in another.

Here’s what one of the plaques says: “It was so huge that a massive cloud of smoke spread throughout Southern Canada and the Northern United States all the way to the St Lawrence Waterway. The darkness from this smoke was so bad that for five days, artificial lighting had to be used from Butte, Montana including Chicago to Watertown, New York.”

In addition to the Hiawatha, one should take a day to see Wallace. If it looks like an old western movie set, that’s because the town is on the National Historic Register. Legend goes that the federal government wanted to put the I-90 highway through the town. The people fought back for two decades, roping in the Historic Register. Along the way, the town’s illegal gambling houses and bordellos were—surprise, surprise—raided. But in the end, the highway was built to one side and the town centre remained intact. If you think the place looks vaguely familiar, it is because the films Heaven’s Gate (an epic flop) and Dante’s Peak (not a critic favorite but fun) were both filmed here.

If you like ribs with history, do stop at the Snakepit Restaurant down the highway. And catch the 1890s melodrama at the Sixth Street theatre, where you hiss, boo and pitch popcorn at the villain and cheer the heroes. A total giggle.

But, really, all I want to do in these parts is ride my bike. Besides the Hiawatha, there’s the 72-mile-long Coeur d’Alene Trail. Again, it’s got history, a lot of it truly funky. The whole area is one of the richest silver mining territories on the planet. There are still a few working mines but, for decades, mine waste was just dropped wherever and poison fell from ore trails along the tracks.

The railroad (this time, the Union Pacific) eventually stopped running trains here but the little matter of the poison remained. The railroad had two choices: to spend billions digging out all the poison or cover it with plastic, dirt, gravel and asphalt for a mere $65 million and turn the right of way over to the state and the local Coeur d’Alene Indians for a park. Guess which they chose?

Today, the trail stretches from Mullen, a little mining town near the Montana border, to Plummer, a town on the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation near the Washington border. Traversing it is like going on safari, with constantly changing scenery. Most folks stop somewhere in the middle—Wallace or Kellogg—and break up the riding over a two days.

Whichever you do it, you start in a narrow mountain canyon with steep walls thick with cedar, tamarack and aspen; then come out after Wallace into a wide plain where you see mounds of tailings and what’s left of the mines; and then go into wetlands (where I spot a moose in the creek not 10 feet from my front tire) and visit the Old Mission State Park at Cataldo. From there, one goes onto Harrison, a funky town with great ice cream, and over Chatcolet Bridge as it crosses the St. Joe River on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

The Chatcolet Bridge is another giggle. The original swing bridge is now stationary and covered by a sort of stair-step that is supposed to ease the climb up but only makes the trip down more than a bit exhilarating unless you’re standing on your brakes. Finally, you climb some 600 feet over four miles to the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation through thick forest with lake views. We did it in the rain and wound up at a cafe where my friend, with a shower cap over her bike helmet and giant bread bags on her legs, became camera fodder for the locals. Well, after all the pictures we’ve clicked of local folks on trips, I figure turnabout is only fair. All in all, Idaho offers many reasons to visit. But beware, some never do leave.

As for me, that $70,000 house in Wallace looks awfully tempting.

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