Words and Photos by: Eric Melson
There are places in our lives that cling to us like static-laundry fresh from a dryer. McCall, Idaho is that place for me.
I had the fortune of living in McCall for two summers while working as a Wilderness Ranger in the nearby Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, living out of a backpack for ten days at a time roaming the largest contiguous block of protected land in the lower 48 states. My schedule was such that after my work “hitch” I had 4-6 days off to recover, restock, repack and then head out on another trek clearing trail with two-person crosscut saws and axes. The commute to the trailhead sometimes took an entire day to penetrate into the vast backcountry, pressing me to navigate the gnarly and narrow access roads using old Forest Service maps and intuition.
McCall is also the place where my current and longstanding relationship was formed. Back then, Eva and I were dating long-distance. She was finishing up grad school in Missoula, Montana and I was starting a career in conservation in Idaho. McCall was our meet up spot. Eva would visit for a week at a time and we would squeeze every hour out of my off days exploring new places, peaks, rivers and hot springs until I had to load up the truck and head back into the woods.
The mountain roads to these places and trailheads pass through tiny hamlet towns like Warren, Yellow Pine, and Edwardsburg where hidden cabins house hermits and bold signs stating “this house is protected by guns and God, trespass and you‘ll meet both”.
So last year, when Eva asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday weekend I said, “let‘s go bikepacking in McCall.” I wanted to revisit the places that left impressions on me from a different angle. Pedaling instead of driving, slowing down, soaking in the scenery and the immensity of the landscape I hoped to gain a bigger perspective on the interconnectedness of it all and share that experience with my best friend and partner. Another trip of a lifetime, here we go.
We cooked up a route that allowed us to begin and end in downtown McCall. We parked our van at the Forest Service office where I used to work then packed our bags and pedaled east through town toward Lick Creek Summit. The few miles of pavement around the southern end of Payette Lake warmed us up and when asphalt turned to dusty gravel we downshifted and got into the rhythm.
Bikepacking for me isn‘t about pushing myself. It‘s not about speed or endurance or distance or competition. It‘s about the pace, the place, and connection. When you ride a bike, you‘re in it. You‘re not protected by an air-conditioned pod, a barrier to the wind and smells and weather. You‘re in it, subject to all conditions possible. You‘re vulnerable in some ways, free in others.
When we summited the first of our seven passes a few hours after pedaling down main street McCall, we stopped in the shade and took in the granite domes and toothy spires of the alpine. The beargrass was just starting to pop. Lupine, penstemon and Indian paintbrush turned the green canvas orange, purple and royal blue. Snow in the shaded nooks contrasts the mosaic. To think, we have three more days of this? How lucky can we be...
Coasting down the east side of Lick Creek Summit, it‘s hard to concentrate on the rocky, dusty road as you get swallowed up by a massive granite canyon leading several thousand feet down to the Secesh River and eventually Yellow Pine. The road slowly smooth‘s out and coasting turns to pedaling up and over gentle mounds until you reach the confluence of the Secesh and the South Fork Salmon Rivers. We skinny dipped in the swirling waters, gin-clear as Chinook Salmon swam past us on their 900-mile journey upriver to spawn.
Back on the bikes, objective: Yellow Pine. Night one, my 31st birthday. If you‘ve never heard of Yellow Pine, Idaho then you‘ve never heard of Yellow Pine, Idaho. Or maybe you‘re a harmonica aficionado and you‘ve been to the Harmonica Festival....Or maybe you‘ve played golf on the 9-hole course...or gotten a burger at the Corner Bar...or put in to paddle the East Fork South Fork River. Yellow Pine is...well, Yellow Pine. Put it on your list and do all the things. There‘s really good camping here too, I recommend a nap on the picnic table.
To my surprise when woke up my Niner BSB RDO had been decorated with party lights and a random assortment of knick-knacks and gifts Eva had been carrying with her for this very occasion. Before we left, she coerced our friends into giving me something for my birthday that she could pack on the trip. They came through big time – shots of tequila, a custom birthday shirt, a hamburger bell, beer cozies, and a hilarious card made for one of the more memorable birthdays I‘ve ever had. We laughed and I modeled the swag and then we packed back up for a pedal over the next big mountain pass and into Big Creek Guard Station.
More climbing, this time a longer and steadier climb with several false summits. But the views! Totally worth it, especially because we felt like we owned the road. We hadn‘t been passed by a single vehicle in hours. Wait...there‘s a white diesel truck hauling a horse trailer behind us...yep, it‘s Patrick, a buddy from the Forest Service, hauling mules and horses into Big Creek for the season. Patrick (and his critters) would be the only folks we‘d see on our second day riding from Yellow Pine to the South Fork River via Elk Summit. The drop into the South Fork is wild BTW...on the brakes the entire time, it‘s steep, loose and very rocky. Stay focused here if you‘re on skinny tires. Take breaks to relax your hands and marvel at your surroundings.
We were pretty smoked by the time we rolled into Shiefer Campground so we made a quick meal and called it a day knowing our third and final day would be even longer to get out of the canyon and back to McCall.
Our last day started with a big pull of a climb, up to the top of the South Salmon Canyon and through Warren, where we stopped for lunch and a frosty cold beer at the Baum Shelter. Warren is a trip; a relic of the past gold mining camps barely hanging on with ATV and tourist traffic curious about what‘s over the hill north from McCall. Belly full of grease and beer, we were ready to hammer the last stage of the route back into McCall.
There is some reprieve after you leave Warren – you hit pavement. I say some reprieve because you still have to climb over Secesh Summit and pace yourself on the not-so-flat section around Payette Lake back into town. Your head sees the Lake and thinks “we‘re there!” but your legs will say “can‘t do it, won‘t do it” at which point you have to tell your legs “shut up and do what I tell you!” Once you hit the bike path though, you can relax because you know sushi and ice cream are within reach.
The way we planned and rode the route, each day got progressively harder and longer. The 160 miles was cut up into three days and two nights to fit into a long weekend. July is ideal but you‘ll want to check with the Forest Service to see if all the passes are clear of snow. It‘s also nice to have some solid saddle time and feel fit enough to push over the long climbs and not feel too horrible at the end of the day. If you‘re interested in heading up this route, know there are several multiple-hour climbs over high mountain passes. Once you leave McCall plan to be in full-on backcountry mode – help is a loooong way off even though you‘re on roads and pass through places like Yellow Pine and Warren it‘s at least a day‘s drive from a hospital in every direction so plan accordingly and be smart.
I rolled my Niner BSB RDO with Revelate bags and tubeless 42c WTB Resolute tires. I appreciated having disc brakes on the descents and being able to run my tire pressure low-ish to smooth out the chatter. The SRAM Apex 1x drivetrain was rad, but I swapped out the stock 42t chainring for a smaller 38t for a little lower climbing gear. 38x42 was money for this trip.
If I were to do this trip again, I would hands down take my new RLT Steel which carried me through a 600-kilometer bikepacking trek in northern Ethiopia earlier this year. The carbon RDO is light and responsive, but you simply cannot beat the steel feel of the RLT. That bike is butter, and I‘d spread it all over this and many other remote backcountry routes.