St. Paul Pass Tunnel a.k.a. Taft Tunnel on the Montana/Idaho Border
It is summer, the sun is shining and at mid-morning the temperature hovers mid to high 70s. By afternoon at trail’s end it will be in the 80s. We have come to ride the Hiawatha rail/trail formerly part of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad’s Pacific Coast Extension completed in May 1909. Considered one of the toughest routes to survey let alone build we are able to experience 15 miles of it at its peak as the Hiawatha bike trail. The route takes us through ten tunnels and across seven high trestles. The first tunnel is Tunnel #20–the railroad numbered its tunnels east to west–the tunnel spans under The Bitterroots, crosses from Montana into Idaho and is the Milwaukee Road’s second longest tunnel on their Pacific Extension. 8,771 feet or 1.66 miles long, 19′ high and 14’9″ wide the tunnel is dark and cold…in its center as cold as 35 degrees. Needless to say bike lights front and rear, headlamps on and if you were lucky enough to bring one, jacket, fleece shirt or sweater on, sunglasses off. The ride essentially begins here with a gentle 1.7% downhill grade. We’ll be cycling back through on the uphill at the end of the day and I do wonder if the dark will be harder or easier or no different to navigate when we’ll likely be tired.
My bike light and headlamp are not as bright as I had remembered them…is it because the tunnel is darker than anything I’ve experienced or are they weak due to use and age? I’m behind a nice family. The mother is the last in the group and she has no working lights at all and suddenly I’m upon her way too close. My brakes seem to scream and echo down the length of the tunnel. The rest of the family’s lights are working but seem like dark gray shadows rather than points of light yet at times they do provide a little advance warning about shallow potholes and wet spots. Cold water occasionally splashes on us from the ceiling. I’m excited and find myself smiling at the experience. I hear conversations about looking for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. In the dark, 1.66 miles seems far and we advance slowly. Riding within the limits of vision, there is seldom need to peddle. I keep to the center of right and avoid looking at the gutter of running water along either side of the tunnel. We were warned that many a rider has ended up tangling with it and falling. I can’t really “look where I want to go” because I can’t see that far ahead but I can certainly avoid target fixation on where I know I DON’T want to go.
I hear Ani DiFranco’s voice singing in my ear “I feel a little unsteady, I don’t want no one to follow me, Except maybe you…” glad, indeed, that Klee is behind me and not someone out of control or who can’t see me well or has bad brakes. Eventually a glow appears, then a peak of green and we emerge like moles into the bright sunlight. I can’t get my sunglasses on fast enough. We stop along with several other cyclists, we admire the adjacent waterfall and look back at the West Portal from which we emerged. We take pictures of families so they don’t have to suffer contortions and chin shots of group selfies. We take our own group shots and, yes, selfies. Eventually we get back on our bikes and continue to ride The Hiawatha. Nine tunnels and seven trestles and a beautiful mountain railbed to go. This route was considered one of the most scenic rail routes in its day. Well, yes.
We share benedryl with a fellow cyclist who has gotten into something making her itch all over. Another rider supplies duct tape to a boy whose bike light mount was broken in a fall. Jenny gives a Kind Bar to a young girl she overheard telling her mother she was hungry and parcels out another to ground squirrels and chipmunks.
At trail’s end we queue up with seven school bus loads-worth of other bicyclists we are mostly jovial and tired and some of us just a bit sunburned and running out of water. So many people here yet during the ride the trail never seemed crowded. We wait our turn and get a ride back up to a point just below “THE” tunnel.
The second time through was a completely different experience for me. Even though there were people ahead of us evidenced by small arcs of light ahead and people behind evidenced by the occasional muffled echo of a voice I felt more isolated. We had to pedal for the slight uphill grade, there was less talking so the sound of bicycle tires on wet ground was the prominent sensory input. The bike lights were like small dim theatrical spots targeting a small cone of space and outside that cone complete dark. It was the closest I’ve come to sensory deprivation. It was a peaceful yet slightly foreign experience of timelessness, quiet and a tremendous sense of solitude. In this tunnel we were all alone yet not alone. This time as we emerged we were quiet. We smiled and nodded but there was no milling about, laughing or photo snapping. We emerged having experienced something of ourselves worth spending time with.
Ride the Hiawatha
More info on the the tunnel and history of the Pacific Coast Extension