Adventure Scientists staffers Katya Koepsel and Ricky Jones experienced the challenges and joys of an epic cycling trip while volunteering for the Wildlife Connectivity Project. Through 2022, cyclists will document wildlife sightings and roadkill along Montana roadways. The data they collect will help wildlife and highway officials reduce and prevent vehicle-animal collisions by revealing wildlife crossing hotspots. Those hotspots are where mitigation measures such as signage or underpasses could be most effective.
Volunteers hit the road in the fall of 2019 for the first 10-day ride period of the project. In late June 2020, they rolled out again. Ricky and Katya chose a route that stretched almost 270 miles from Lewistown to Malta and back in central Montana. They expected to enjoy wide open skies, pronghorn sightings, camping on the banks of the Missouri River, and very little traffic. They did not expect mechanical bike trouble, a turtle in need, or moldy food.
In spite of the challenges, the duo returned with suntans, stories, and big plans for the next ride period, coming up August 7-16. We asked them to share their experience here.
This project needs volunteers to survey more than 11,000 miles of Montana roadways. The route options abound: You can ride along meandering river valleys, speed through forested byways, climb lung-straining mountain passes, visit wildlife refuges, and more. Ricky and Katya, why did you choose the route between Lewistown and Malta?
Ricky: I wanted to ride the prairie of Montana simply because no one else had during our first ride period. Why not? I had no idea. I’d never been east of Billings. As I poured over the map looking for possibilities, I started to think about the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Robert Pirsig’s unnamed narrator said about roads, “The best ones always connect nowhere with nowhere and have an alternate that gets you there quicker.” Instead of taking the fastest route, take the scenic one.
Katya: I think the relatively remote nature of where we would be going made the trip appealing. We’d have to carry our own water and deal with our own problems. I rode during the fall ride period and saw deer, mostly. I was eager to see different wildlife—animals I don’t really see as much.
The route contained more hill climbs than either rider expected. The prairie’s apparent flatness can be misleading. Midway through their route, the Missouri cuts through the plains. In this region of Montana, that means the landscape becomes “the Breaks,” where the grasslands abruptly fall away in rocky outcroppings, bluffs, and striped badlands. Singing birds, snakes (dead in the road), and sunshine abounded. Ricky tells us what happened next. Read more to find out.
We didn’t get very far into set up before we decided to jump in the river, bike clothes and all. The water was cool and kept the mosquitoes off. We sat for a while, cooling down, rinsing the sweat off.
There is something about that river, winding through the valleys and carrying clean, cool water. It wasn’t that hot out, but being in the river felt special. Maybe it was the magic and lore of the Missouri river, maybe we were slightly dehydrated and tired, or maybe I just hadn’t thought about our relationship to water for a while.
The second day of riding brought more hills and some trouble. Katya’s bike started acting up and she had issues shifting. But the two riders kept at it. They soon found someone in a more dire situation …
Katya: We were getting into Malta at the end of the second day and I was dead tired after biking 68 miles in the heat. Just as we biked up the last hill into town I saw a turtle starting to cross the road. There was a truck in the distance and I really didn’t want to have to record this turtle as roadkill. I was already past so I yelled back to Ricky, “You have to move this turtle! It’s going to get hit!”
Ricky pulled over quickly and was trying to nudge the turtle toward the road edge. But the turtle didn’t realize he was there to help. It kept pushing his hands away with its back feet. The truck was getting closer and it was time for Ricky to get out of the road. He got a hold of the turtle shell. It pulled in its limbs and Ricky slid it off the road. We then recorded our wildlife observation. Thankfully it wasn’t roadkill!
Katya and Ricky celebrated the rescue with beers in Malta, but then had a serious discussion about the rest of the ride. Katya’s gear shifting problem had worsened over the day, so they made a tough call. Katya would stop riding her bike and support Ricky from a vehicle while he finished out the route.
Ricky: On the third day, I was in the saddle and peddling south by 6:00 AM. Of course the wind had switched and I was fighting a headwind. But I was motivated. I got into a groove recording wildlife, pushing up the next hill, recording wildlife, cruising down the hill. Around me were 360-degree-views of the prairie. I saw pronghorn antelope, white-tailed deer, birds, snakes, sagebrush, and the occasional tractor.
I reached the top of the hill that sent me back down to the Missouri river just before 1 pm. I flew down. I could feel the cool breeze coming up from the river valley, the smell of the water and marshy floodplains. In that moment going down the hill, I made a decision. I decided to bike the whole way back to Lewistown that day. That would put my mileage at 130 miles and past an important milestone: a century ride. I’d never ridden that far in a day and I didn’t know if I was capable but I wanted to try.
Those last miles weren’t easy, I accidentally ate moldy food, nearly bonked going up a hill, and serenaded a herd of cows. But at 9:30 pm I rolled into Lewistown with almost 100 recorded wildlife and roadkill sightings.
Katya: This trip was memorable because it was something I wouldn’t normally have considered doing. I found it fun to explain our trip to people we met along the way. I’d say to future volunteers: Try something that you have always wanted to. Or something that you have never even thought about. I think in some ways that makes the best adventure.
Ricky: I spent a lot of time thinking while I was riding. I thought about what the prairie would have looked like before the highways and fences. I thought about how the pronghorn would have crossed through the landscape without worrying about cars and trucks. I thought about humans too, and how we would have traveled the grasslands and the breaks before roads, bridges, towns, and boundaries. I imagine such freedom in both perspectives. I hope that my work will help make a difference to the wildlife.
Our little 270-mile route is just a small part of this project. There are 11,200 miles of highway that need to be recorded if you count each side of the road. In August we’ll ride again, as far as we can, but we need help. If you live in Montana and are reading this, I encourage you to sign up for the project, tell your friends, and convince them to come with you.
Ricky and Katya’s route is available! Just choose the sections between Malta and Lewiston to experience your own prairie adventure. First come, first serve.
Live outside of Montana but still want to help? We have a Global Wildlife Connectivity Project and you can participate wherever you are. Apply to volunteer.