It’s impossible to travel across The United States without being reminded time and again of the horrendous injustice inflicted on the Native Americans who lived on this land centuries before European settlers ever set foot here. Yesterday we learnt about lives of cattle ranchers in the Big Hole Valley – today we found out what happened to the Nez Perce tribe whose homeland lay to the east in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
Sadly the story is a familiar one – growing conflicts between settlers and Native Americans see the latter given a reservation that includes much of their ancestral land. But then gold is discovered and the reservation is reduced dramatically to a tenth of its original size. Five bands of Nez Perce refuse to sign the new treaty, conflicts mount, settlers are killed and the US army is brought in to sort out the non-compliant Chiefs.
The Nez Perce fled to the Big Hole Valley to join their allies, the Crow, following a trail they had used for centuries to hunt buffalo. But the army wasn’t giving up that easily, with a major battle taking place at Big Hole. The battlefield is now a National Park (the tepee poles above mark the site of the camp) and we were given excellent background information by one of the staff, herself a member of the Nez Perce tribe. It was good to hear that work is being done to preserve the traditions and culture of the tribe, including the publication of a dictionary recording their language and children being taught traditional skills.
We leave the battlefield and cycle through lush woodland glades flush with wild flowers, streams and beaver dams. We are following the Chief Joseph path, named after one of the Chiefs who refused to sign the treaty. Soon the coniferous woodland comes right up to the road and the climb steepens. We reach the top at 7,241 feet, just a hundred yards or so from the border with Idaho.
After the climb comes the reward – nearly twelve miles of continuous downhill – one of the most dramatic descents of the entire ride. I try desperately to beat my fastest speed – riding into the Big Hole Valley a couple of days back – but despite frantic pedalling I cannot get the Surly above 42 mph. Terry’s maximum speed for this trip so far is 45mph, Mike on his recumbent has topped 48 mph.
At lunch in Sula we meet a group of bikers come to ride the Chief Joseph pass both ways, just for fun. Afterwards they drive off to tackle another big climb elsewhere. Madness. At least we get some flat sections in between to relax a little. And there us always something to see. Just outside Sula we come across a herd of mountain goats, but still no sign of the Big Horn Sheep for which these valleys are famous. Later we read that although their numbers have increased since the forties to around 5,000 animals, pneumonia is sweeping through the population.
With the temperature rising into the 90s in the afternoon drastic action is needed to cool down, so a Mike and I avoid the fishing boats and jump into the Bitterroot – bitterly cold, but just the job. Later we go off route to avoid the busy road to Hamilton and are treated to great views of the river valley from the adjacent hills. It makes a great change not to have the constant roar of pick- up trucks blasting by. We camp at the Angler’s Roost, next to the fast-flowing Bitterroot river and drink beer while the sky puts on a an impromptu light show.
Today’s miles: 72 miles
Miles since First Landing: 3392