The chill of White Bird Hill

June 25, 2010

June 16

It had been a wind snapping, tent flapping night as the strong north winds persisted throughout the night. Rain had accompanied the wind, along with chilly temperatures. It was not raining as we woke up, but proceeded to start up again just before I began to roll up my tent.

A now sealed mine shaft in the Snake River canyon

The narrow Snake River canyon opened up past Riggins. In a few places we passed mine shaft openings in the hills. A sign above one claimed a significant bounty once extracted from its depths.



Minus the wind, this would have been a pleasant ride to the town of White Bird. But the rain, narrow shoulder and too frequent truck passings made it a chore.

Just before White Bird, we turned off onto the “Old Highway 95”. It was a quiet, peaceful road that gave me the sense I was sneaking into town through the back door.

With a population of just over 100 people, White Bird seemed to be a one lane town. Just as we pulled next to the only restaurant/bar in town, the rain fell harder. Lunch, we decided, was indoors.

The Sportsman’s Bar & Restaurant was a “is-what-it-is” kind of place. Bar in the front (with patrons watching old westerns on TV) and the restaurant in the back. In between those two areas was the kitchen, office space and stock room. The decor on the walls ranged from a sketch of John Wayne to a photograph of a 1950s Daytona Beach motorcycle rider. The floor was a patchwork of old and new(er) tile.

Pure vegetarians would have taken one look at the menu and gone out and eaten in the rain. I gave up abstention from red meat for an hour and ate a hamburger.

White Bird is at the base of what was to be our biggest climb to date, a roughly 2500 foot (close to 1/2 mile) gain in elevation. So it wasn’t surprising that the cook/owner had some advice to dispense about the climb. “It will take you 3 hours to do it.” “Most people do it fresh in the morning.” “Stay high on the turns in the switchbacks, you’ll work less going up.”

Leaving dry cover we pedaled down a peopleless street into some grassland to begin our long ascent. The restaurant’s outside thermometer read in the low 50s.

White Bird battlefield. The Nez Perce hid in the foreground, watching the Cavalry approach over the ridge.

To me, quiet, steady rain dampens not only the ground, but also noise, creating a calm, muted environment to pedal in. In this state of being we came across the White Bird Battlefield a mile out of town. We stopped and looked up a grassy, sloping ridge where the first skirmish of the Nez Perce War of 1877 took place. The serene setting, a gray, overcast day, silent only for the sounds of birds, made me imagine what might have been the calm and the tension before the fight.



Lewis and Clark first met the Nez Perce on their 1805 journey west. By the mid-1800s, more and more white people moved into Nez Perce lands seeking furs and farms. Seeking to avoid conflict, the Nez Perce agreed to give up half of their lands, which as that point totaled nearly 15 million acres. Then, they discovery of gold in the area attraced more settlers and the Nez Perce agreed to give up even more of their lands. Some Nez Perce grew tired of this ongoing loss of land and resisted an ultimatum to move onto a reservation. The US government sent troops to force compliance with the ultimatum. It was at White Bird where the Calvary and the natives first met. Upon seeing the troops the Nez Perce raised a white flag and approached, yet a calvary volunteer fired a shot, thus beginning in a 4 month war. The Nez Perce won this first battle, but were eventually overrun by the army. Some escaped to Canada, but most surrendered and were sent to live in what now is Oklahoma.

The map showed the climb as a series of swiggles, and as we moved on I could see the path of ascent. White guard rails marked each turn in the switchback. Far off to the left I could see the path of the main highway that had been cut into the side of the mountain. Our road was to join it for the last mile of the ascent. At the point we were starting our climb, it had already risen high above the town–I had a long way to go.

Other than the occasional drone of trucks climbing the main highway, my climb was peaceful and serene. There was no traffic on this road, so I could bike right down the middle. The birds continued singing their melodic songs.

I kept climbing, and kept seeing more switchbacks above me. As I headed up the westward leg of the switchback, cold winds chilled me and slowed progress. Turning the corner and heading east, pedaling became easier and warmer.

I merged back into the main highway and achingly moved up the final portion of the climb. “White Bird Hill,” the sign at the summit read. Seemed like a mountain to me, I thought.

Our route had us taking an equally quiet road on the way down. Mark didn’t have the map, so I decided to wait for him so he didn’t miss the turnoff.

During my climb I had lost sight of Mark, so I figured it would be awhile before he made the summit. Realizing I would begin to lose the body heat generated by the climb, I put extra layers of clothes on and tried to shelter myself from the wind as best I could.

I must have been a sorry sight–a lone cyclist standing in an empty pulloff at the top of a chilly summit. A minivan pulled off the road turned my way and stopped. “Are you OK?” asked the woman after rolling down her window. “Yes, I’m just waiting for my friend to come up the pass.” “I just came up the pass and I didn’t see him,” she replied. “We’re coming up the old road,” I answered. “That’s good. Are you going down the old road?” she queried. I nodded yes. “My husband and I live in the first subdivision 4 miles down the road. Let us know if you have any problems.” I thanked her and she drove away.

I kept looking down the road for the tiny splash of yellow which would signify Mark edging near the summit. More time passed. Another car entered the pulloff and swung around to meet me. Another woman with the same questions and concerns, except this time I did not seem to convince her when I said I thought Mark was doing fine. “I live in the ranch just below the pass.” she offered. I can check the switchbacks for him before I head home.” Her concerned looks compelled me to authorize the search.

This caring woman did indeed go out of her way to find Mark, told him I was waiting above, and gave him some encouragement that he was nearly done.

Already cold from the wait, I mentally prepared for the coast down, knowing that I would not pedal/generate body heat until the bottom. Despite my chill, I could not help but stop one more time and gaze at the beautiful valley we had just climbed up.

I had that chilled-to-the-bone feeling as I headed down. I tried to find a happy medium between not traveling too fast and generating a cold wind and getting to the bottom as fast as I could. I began dropping through a forest defined by subtle shades of green. Then a vista opened up to a broad valley below. At the bottom of the descent I was relieved to begin pedaling again, put my head down and focused on the town 4 miles away. We checked into the first motel we saw and got the last room available.


The serene gloom from White Bird Hill

As I rode higher I would look back at the path and view I had taken. To the left were hills of subtle shades of green. Back in the distance beyond White Bird, dark clouds were brooding over the mountains behind it. 


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