What a Snow Job!

Monday, November 12, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Missoula, MT to Coeur d'Alene, ID
As we've been doing in the past several days (and expected to be doing on this trip), we were keeping an eye on the weather today.  The gem of the narrow Idaho panhandle, Coeur d'Alene (pop. 44,137) was our destination for the day, and a winter weather advisory had been issued for the city and nearby areas.  But we had a letterbox to plant in Montana before we could continue west.

We spent more than two hours examining various locations in Missoula which proved to be unsuitable—a state park, a cemetery with nothing but hundreds of flush markers, half a dozen local parks.  We began to worry that our poor little letterbox might not find a good home in Montana.  Then we went to the city's main cemetery, a much more interesting and welcoming place of rest.  And there at the end of Mulberry Lane was a mature hardwood tree that had grown a cradle just to shelter our letterbox.  So there we left it and finally departed from Missoula about noon.  The temperature was 26°, the skies overcast.

By following the weather reports (with the excellent Weather Channel iPhone app), we knew it had been snowing in Coeur d'Alene since early morning.  Forecasts called for temperatures warming as the day moved into afternoon and little concern about accumulation of snow or ice on roadways.  All was well as we drove across the remainder of I-90 in Montana, admiring the snow-decorated mountains along this scenic stretch.

About 15 miles from the Idaho border, we began climbing toward Lookout Pass (el. 4,860 ft).  As we went up, the temperature began to fall, as did light snow.  Though the landscape next to the road was coated in snow, the road remained clear—for a while.  By the time we reached 4,000 ft, snowfall had become heavier and visibility was impaired.
Getting closer...
As we approached the pass, a pull-out area was provided for large trucks to examine their loads and equipment and install tire chains if needed.  Snow was falling determinedly and attaching itself to the roadway, despite the optimistic forecast we had been following.

We made it to Idaho but we can't see it.
As we entered the state of Idaho, we began our descent from the pass, treading softly on the increasingly icy roads but seeing little of the state due to the fog hovering over the mountains.  Two runaway truck ramps within a mile of each other convincingly conveyed the risks of this steep grade in icy conditions.

Descending below 3,000 ft, we saw the snow turn to rain, the temperature rise, and thought we'd dodged the bullet.  There were only 55 more miles between us and Coeur d'Alene.  As we were to learn, however, these would not be across a flat, level Nebraska plain.  Oh, no.  We were still making our way through the Bitteroot Mountains.  And we had to climb up to another pass before arriving at our destination.
Maybe we should pass on this one.
This time it was the 4th of July Pass at 3,081 feet.  As we started climbing again to reach the pass, snowfall became heavier and visibility was seriously affected, as was the road surface.  Conditions had deteriorated significantly, and just before we reached the top, we passed a car overturned in a ditch.

Only 18 miles to Coeur d'Alene, a road sign promised.  Snow fell steadily and began having its way with the road as we crawled slowly down an icy 6.5% grade.  We monitored the GPS screen as the 'miles to go' reading squeezed out fractions of miles at an achingly slow pace.
Not there yet
Idaho had one more little surprise for us before we finally reached our hotel—an area of strong crosswinds.  We found ourselves occasionally forgetting to breathe as we struggled through these challenging conditions, finally arriving at the hotel around 3 p.m., Pacific Time.  We had 'gained' an hour in this experience, one which we would just as soon have passed on.

Exhausted, we found early dinner at a local restaurant and settled in for the night, quite surprised when we were ready to head for bed and discovered it wasn't quite 8:00 yet.

Tomorrow we'll do some letterboxing in Idaho before traveling just across the border into Spokane, Washington.
  • Miles driven:  218
  • Letterboxes:  F 1, P 1
  • Weather:  19° to 34°, overcast, rain, snow, fog
  • States:  2 (MT, ID)
  • # of times Clark Fork River crossed I-90:  32
  • Knuckles bitten:  20
  • When we want a repeat of today's journey:  never