The Glacier Divide route: a sketch

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A trend has emerged lately, to construct a high route through a given range, the idea being to create a rugged backpacking path which is non or minimally technical, and maximizes scenic value.  No route will ever be definitive, but a high route should be as close to a one-stop-shop for an experienced visiting hiker as is practical.

Roper’s effort in the Sierra got things started, and recently at least two proposals for the Wind Rivers have emerged.  The following is my proposal for Glacier National Park.  A detailed map can be examined here.

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I’m not going to present exhaustive information, as such effort quite simply take the fun out of life.  I did try to draw that Hillmap line as well as I could in the places (i.e. off trail) where it will matter.  The following are a few routes-specific details for consideration.

-I have not done the east ridge up to Grizzly Mountain, but on the map and from the saddle by Bearhead it doesn’t look too bad.

-The chimney between Red Eagle Meadows and Almost-a-dog Pass is an unavoidable technical crux, and may have aspirants carrying an axe and crampons well into August on some years.  There is no alternative, and when properly prepared it isn’t a big deal.

-The diversion east to Florance Falls is inelegant and introduces the only real bushwacking on the route.  The south ridge of Gunsight Mountain may well go at a reasonable standard, in which case it would be the preferred route.  A diversion over the Sperry Chalet, Comeau Pass, and the Floral Park route is also an option, but longer.

-There are a large number of potential diversions from the Highline Trail, but none of them are more elegant than the trail itself.

-There are a number of potential variations in the route between West Flattop and the Guardhouse traverse.

-I have not done the final stretch from Hole-in-the-Wall around Custer to the border.

-Generally speaking, aside from the Almost-a-dog chimney and sections of the Guardhouse traverse, and perhaps the ridges detailed above, nothing on this route requires spikes on a normal August 1st, and nothing is harder than class 3 (if the correct route is taken).

Some broader, logistical details.

-GNP does issue undesignated backcountry permits for trips such as these.  Expect to be asked to carry a bear can, and to be viewed with some skepticism and be questioned accordingly.  If you can present well, you will get permits to camp up high in the good stuff.

-The obvious best way to handle the northern end of this is to drop down to Cameron Lake and bushwack around the lake to the road, but this requires an illegal entry into Canada.  Backtracking and hiking out either Boulder Pass or back to Bowman Lake is probably preferred.  Bushwacking directly down to Upper Kintla is a very, very bad idea.

-No point in Glacier is come summer very far from a road, and thus doing chunks of this route is very appealing.  Logan Pass to Highway 2 is the better half, and quite a bit harder overall.

-A fit and experienced crew will do this onsight in 7-9 days if they manage to not get hosed by the weather.  Less motivated folks could easily spend the same time on the southern half.  I’ll throw out a challenge and say that sub 100 hours for the whole thing is quite possible with proper fitness and experience.

-Though water is quite abundant, there will be a number of 2-7 hour dry stretches.

-Though not really technical, and with stretches of surprisingly mild terrain in many stretches, the extensive scree and sidehilling will be quite wearing for even the best prepared hikers.  Light loads are recommended.

Have at it people.

One of those places

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If you get out and about and live in the American west for long enough, odds are you’ve collected a few categories of favorite places. There are the most spectacular and most memorable places, and the places worth an annual visit because they make such pleasing routes. There can be remarkably little overlap between these two. There is also a list of life places, of hypothetical home sites, places you’d buy first if the government ever fire-saled off public land and/or you and a group of trusted kindred were looking for a satisfying place to ride out the apocalypse.

For me, the Belly River makes all three lists, and is very near the top of the last one.

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The first time I went in the normal way, down from the highway and along the river to the meadow and the ranger station, it was winter and the wind and snow and rain howled for 72 hours. With the whole length of the meadow for acceleration, precip forced its way into every crack of the cabin, and we stuffed the door gaps with folded paper to seal out drafts. I left wondering why the hell the early 20th century pioneers, who were usually pretty damn clever, had built the fucking thing in the windiest spot available.

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With a bit more experience across the seasons, including full summer and one fully calm winter day, I can now see that aesthetics weren’t the only factor, just the largest one. There’s also Gable Creek, hammering along right behind the station, supplying beautiful music and, thanks to a clever pipe, gravity-fed indoor plumbing.

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There were and are more practical places to put the station, some very close to the one chosen over a century ago, but none, perhaps none in the whole of Glacier, quite so fine.  Water music and an unfiltered view of Mount Cleveland on the rare occasions when the clouds give up completely are worth big winter drifts.

I do maintain that whomever built the two auxiliary cabins with doors facing west was an idiot.  The main station, and the original cabin which is now a workshop, have doors which face north and east.

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All of which is to say that it was nice to visit on two consecutive weekends, and doubly nice to have my parents along this most recent trip.  We hiked in through drizzle, and over some pretty spectacularly sticky mud.  No photos that day.  We had a good fire courtesy of the old shingles, still available for kindling upon request.  The next day, we had great weather, a drier hike out, and uninterrupted views, along with a few fish caught and a close beer encounter.  (M and Dick, above, were lounging after lunch when a black bear wandered within 10 feet before they saw it.)

It was one of those times.

The 10 best packraft runs in Bob Marshall country

What a summer of packrafting it has been. Above all else, exceptional floats of all varieties have been the theme. Normally I don’t go in for lists; subjectivity makes them an absurd exercise and I intentionally do not indulge in traffic-driving techniques or cater to folks poor attention spans. The following is an amusing and challenging exercise for me, and perhaps a help to others.

To make things more rigorous, I’ve restricted myself to listing sections of no more than 10 miles.  Comparing the 40+ wilderness miles of both the South and Middle Forks against the 8-10 floatable miles of the White River or Youngs Creek stacks the deck almost to the point of meaninglessness.

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10: Middle Fork of the Flathead, origin to Cox Creek

One of the defining characteristics of packrafting should be that you feel way out there while doing it.  Unlike on the ubiquitous trails of the lower 48, while floating a wilderness river you’re traveling on the landscapes terms, much like humans of centuries past did.  One of the best places to feel this is the uppermost 10 miles of the Middle Fork of the Flathead, which starts very close to the most remote place in the Bob.  Even at a fairly big flow (~8,000 cfs at West Glacier) this stretch is impressively moderate, with few true rapids or logjams.  You can kick back and enjoy the floating, scenery, and ambiance at all once.

9: Spotted Bear River, Beaver Creek to South Fork of the Flathead

Vaguely roadside, but the quality makes up for the number of day-tripping fly fishers you’ll see.  Rowdy when the South Fork is at 5000 cfs, and just fun when it’s at 1500.  Disclaimer; along with the forks of Birch and Badger Creeks, the Spotted Bear above Dean is one of the few guaranteed to be good things in the Bob I haven’t yet run.  Pentagon to Dean probably deserves a higher spot on this list.

8: North Fork of the Sun River, Wrong Creek to Headquarters Creek

Moderate, remote, with a transitory season and just enough wood to keep you on your toes: the North Fork of the Sun is an absolutely classic packrafting river.  There’s a pretty broad range of possible flows here: the near-flood of 1700 cfs is doable, if quite exciting and too high for fishing.  Like the West Fork, 500 cfs is probably close to the lower limit in these upper stretches.

7: West Fork of the Sun River, Ahorn Creek to Gibson Reservoir

The quality and variety of this run surprised and impressed me.  Not only does it have the expected riffles, meanders, and logjams, but also a handful of fun little bedrock drops and micro-gorges.  It’s at the top of my list to re-visit next year.  Like the White, the West Fork flow drops faster and sooner than the larger rivers discussed here.  Much below 500 cfs on the South Fork Sun near Augusta is probably too little to be enjoyable.

6: South Fork of the Flathead, Bear Creek to Cedar Flats

In this final wilderness stretch the South Fork equals is not exceeds anything on the Middle Fork in depth and profundity, and forms a truly impressive valley with rapids, huge pools, hanging gardens, and some fantastic campsites.  Meadow Creek gorge bears caution and a helmet, but at low water isn’t as formidable as is commonly portrayed.  There is no disadvantage to running this stretch very low indeed, 600 cfs at Twin Creeks works just fine.

5: North Fork Blackfoot, first pack bridge to last road bridge

This almost doesn’t count as a wilderness run, and thus isn’t quite proper packrafting, but it is a fantastic whitewater run in a gorgeous setting.  At the levels suggested it is the hardest run listed here, and a perfect skills test ideally suited to the virtues of a packraft.  It goes at 250 cfs, while I imagine anything above 500 is quite pushy and another level of difficulty entirely.  350 is probably a good compromise.

4: South Fork of the Flathead, Big Prairie to the White River

Taken as a whole the South Fork is without question the best packraft in the Bob, but which section you prefer will always be a good subject for debate.  I like to split the difference and have the big views of the uppermost section with a taste of the whitewater, deep pools, and brilliant cobbles of the lower sections.  And this stretch has ridiculous fishing.  It’s good at any level between 1000 and 10,000 cfs at Twin Creeks, but somewhere around 4000 is probably the best compromise of a fast river and good whitewater action with clear water and good fishing.

3: The White River, South Fork White confluence to the South Fork of the Flathead

The White is an ideal packrafting river; incised in a broad valley away from heavy trees with a continuous but not steep gradient.  The result is a rollercoaster of continuous moderate whitewater with minimal concern about wood.  It’s probably just as good up to, if not above, Needle Falls, but I haven’t gotten there yet.  Adding to the mystique in the fact that the White is the most remote river in the Bob.  Ideal packrafting levels are around 4-5000 cfs on the South Fork at Twin Creeks.

2: Middle Fork of the Flathead, Schafer Meadows to Granite Creek

The Middle Fork is a big river with an even bigger basin.  As mentioned, the upper half, from Strawberry Creek down to Schafer, meanders through hills and gentle valleys with big views and mild water.  The lower half is another matter, and runs between steep forested walls with almost no respite.  The Three Forks section between the end of Schafer and Morrison Creek is the steepest few miles on the river, and features several very challenging boulder garden rapids.  It is also gorgeous, with kaleidoscopic cobbles and huge dark pools.  Morrison to Granite is much milder, but similarly scenic.  An ideal packrafting level is between 2000 and 4000 cfs at West Glacier, higher if you’re skilled, lower if you’re less so.

1: Youngs Creek, from Hahn Creek to the South Fork

Little did I know that my first packraft in the Bob would be the best around.  Youngs is small, clean, fairly technical, and absolutely gorgeous.  2-3000 cfs on the South Fork is a good level, lower if you’re less experienced on whitewater.

The Spirit of Backpacking

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Where is the spirit of backpacking?

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Out there, of course.

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It’s in the soft guys in boonie hats, sitting and sweating in the middle of that steep pitch up to Ptarmigan Lake, a third of the way to their camp, on the first night of their trip.

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It’s the three guys with Walmart packs, and the leader a 5 foot long car camping tent lashed under his lid, hiking fast uphill taking cell phone pics, 14 miles into a 20 mile day.

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It’s the brothers from San Francisco, finding out the hard way that you can’t easily rehydrate dried pinto beans in one evening, that summer sausage fried in its own grease only tastes good for a few days, and that their food bags are so heavy their hang lifts a bench off the ground when the rope is anchored to it.

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It’s Nick, who just finished the CDT in three months, subsisting on a thousand dollar grant from his college, candy bars horded from his meal plan, and Colorado weed sold on the trail.  He’s a triple crowner at 21.

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It’s M and I,  with an un-ideal permit and a trip cut short the second day, because time on the trail doesn’t always have to mean suffering feet.

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It’s me Friday night, in the dark under a tarp as the rain pours down, alone with the invisible bears, thinking about Rob, and getting up the next morning and soloing Three Forks at a muddy 1900 cfs, running everything.

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What is the spirit of backpacking? Go back to the top, and read again.

Hiking with ghosts

IMG_0609Rob Kehrer is dead. Based on reports I assume he and the other founding member of Team Heavy, Greg Mills, hiked around the Tana River canyon and put back in on the river, where Rob was quickly flipped by a boil or whirlpool, became separated from his packraft, and drowned and/or succumbed to hypothermia before he could reach the shore.  In a PFD and rain gear, and on a very big and cold river, caution is necessary but not sufficient.  The same can be said for any sort of wilderness trip, even ones far less outrageous than the Wilderness Classic, and indeed for life itself.

IMG_0588I met Rob in both 2011 and 2012, and on both occasions he struck me as the paradigm of how one wants to react to adversity.  We go to the woods because modern life lacks sufficient challenge to find out the important things about ourselves fast enough, and the Classic is a hyperbolic version of this iconic western bourgeois tradition; best suited for either the most thirstily introspective or the most hard-of-inner-hearing.  Robs humility, grace, generosity, and good humor in the face of both success (2011) and failure (2012) was something I aspired to, especially given the blows my own ego suffered in the Wrangells.

IMG_0591When someone dies in the mountains it’s easy to compartmentalize that death as needless, because the activity is so obviously divorced for the necessities of everyday life.  This bifurcation is particularly simple when the fatal activity is one you’ve deemed too dangerous, something the Classic certainly is for most.  The particulars are worth past and future discussion, but the move of distancing ourselves categorically from these deadly pursuits is not likely to teach us anything.  Life is deadly, and all statistics do most of the time is allow us to ignore that for one more week.  So I propose that you drink a beer for Rob this evening, a beverage whose richness and joy (alcohol, a poison) is tied up in the extent to which in excessive doses it is inimical to life.  After you drink one for Rob, drink another for all the good people still in your life, because you do not know when they will be gone.

IMG_0600One of the things I felt bound to do after ending my traverse early last week was the classic Glacier hike from Logan Pass to Granite Park chalet and down to the Loop.  These days this 12 miler, which in the summer is massively crowded, is an easy stroll, with minimal elevation change and fantastic scenery had with scandalously little effort.  When I first did the hike with my family, nearly a quarter century ago, 12 miles was a enormous distance, which explains why it of all first-decade memories remains amongst my most vivid.  It is among my most cherished not just because I can so easily recall and revisit it, but because my dad died of cancer a few years later.  Life events last week told me it had been too long since I’d been up there to pay tribute, so I went.

I recall the initial catwalk and it’s garden-hose covered safety cable.  I recall the boulders and marmots below Haystack Butte.  I recall the first clear view of the chalet across the long cirque which drains Grinnell overlook, and how far it actually was still to go.  I recall the steep rock steps leading up the chalet, running up them in excitement, and running back down to take my dads sweaty pack.  I remember sitting in the chalet, back when they still served lunch, and eating what I remember as my first-ever tuna sandwich, which explains the enduring and largely theoretical fondness I still have for tuna salad.  When I got to those steps last week I found out in a hurry that while I don’t have too many tears left my father, I can still tap into the fluid depths in the best moments.

The whole day it seemed hard to grasp that my memories of so important a person can be increasingly isolated, fleeting, and distant from what I’ve become, while the dirt, rocks, and wood boards we both walked across so many years ago remain, largely unchanged.  Time does not stop for us, and it does not flow evenly, in a manner which allows for experience and memory to be easily set in order.  It is mysterious, violent, and indifferent, like the river which killed Rob.  It is also all we have available for placing ourselves, and those for the moment with us, in order such that we can understand ourselves well enough to move forward.  A part of the current if it please us today or not, we have no choice.

Three cuts traverse

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Or; just another dayhike in Glacier. Details not made explicit to protect others future fun.

The off-trail part starts by traversing a bench.

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A vestigal terminal moraine collects snowmelt and directs it under the talus and dirt. It re-emerges as a series of springs 200 meters downhill.

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Following sheep trails, sometimes obvious, sometimes not, is the order of the day.  Along with trying to not trip as you gawk around.

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Edwards, in his climbers guide to Glacier, sprinkles in a number of comments about a route along the Continental Divide all the way through the park.  I have a few sections, some big, some small, as yet undone, and another few where a cleaner and more direct line is worth seeking out.  Eventually, I hope to have a route which will provide me and others with a very elegant and rugged backpack.

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On this day it was a bit sad to have to pass by idyllic campsites, and instead plunge back down into the valley, racing darkness and sore feet back to the car, and the drive home.

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M, as is her wont, wore injinjis and chacos, and had the dirt to show for it.  I was feeling soft and wore quasi-boots, for which I was thankful.

The farewell tour

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Going through the lower reaches of the South Fork, down to and past Spotted Bear, I saw no one for hours. A civilized stretch of river relative to the past days, but still two hours of dirt road from anything. A raft came into view, a guy with a big hat at the hours, and a blond woman and a guy with a clumsy cast in the seats. Two riffles later I catch them, discover they had been down from Cedar Flats, 15 miles upstream, overnight. I ask the guy at the oars if the flipflops I’m wearing, found in perfect parallel on a gravel bar 4 hours ago, were his. He said yes. I ask him if he wants them back. Also yes. A minute later I knew they were flying home to Portland, tomorrow, from the grass strip a few miles downstream. The guys who had delivered their raft were picking them at the bridge, were from Whitefish, and would give me a ride home. Where was the bridge? Well, right there. Go left or you’ll run out of water.

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The night before the last day.  Fog and sore limbs.  I camped so close to my fire reluctantly, having thrown the tarp up in a hailstorm which never really let up until I was too tired to move it.

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I didn’t want to camp there because of the fish bones and skin I burnt up.  My newest and most favorite trout cooking technique: heat up a flat dry rock, oil it, and fry the trout.  Season properly, and eat.

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The South Fork of the Flathead is sacred water.  It is not an exaggeration to say that my first trip 4 years ago changed my life.

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The moral aspects of catch and release fishing grow ever more problematic in my mind.  The basics are inarguable; you’re causing fish distress for recreation, and in many ways the number of critters to whom you can cause distress, and how vigorously they express their terror, form the rubric for satisfaction.  For the moment, my solution (I still enjoy catching fish) is to fish less, and eat more.  An imperfect answer.

The major technical innovation in the fish-eating department is the Hammer gel flask pictured above.  Filling it with a spice mixture (2 parts salt, 2 parts garlic powder, 1 part paprika) results in a watertight container and a very easy method of dispensing the spice.

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The South Fork has a lot of good campsites.  Last month, Spencer, Luke and M got to witness my boorish hagiographic habits as I narrated significant bends and gravel bars (“this is where I camped in 2010; this is where I stopped to build a fire in 2011″).  A big part of the appeal floating here is moving along in a fashion recalling days 2 centuries past, and stopping wherever fancy strikes.  Given that I move at least a few people to go see the South Fork for themselves, I feel obliged to point out that it is good manners to both camp out of sight of the river (if only just), and to build fires and concentrate impact down below the high water mark.  Lining up big tents in meadows as close to the river as possible is tempting, but tacky.

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One of my missions this time was to, at last, get back to the lower gorge on Youngs Creek and find out if it was in fact as awesome as I recall it being, from that first trip an experiential eternity ago.

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It is better than I recalled.  Absolutely phenomenal, in fact, and easily one of the top five floats in the Bob.  Which is saying a great deal.

A trip highlight was hooking, and with a lot of running, landing, the above ~16 incher.  On my 9 foot Soyokaze, that is a monster of a fish, and the biggest I’ve managed to date.  It was hooked rather deeply, so went on the block as lunch.

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That mostly submerged patch of gravel was bigger in 2010, where I put in, and where the packrafting began.  Youngs in the Scout was a good way to get very wet.

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In all the trips before I had accumulated a list of pools to fish, little beaches for camping, side hikes to revisit.  I stopped for every one.

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Even the choice of entrance was not just a matter of practicality.  Holland Lake was where I first entered the Bob, on a hike right after we moved to Missoula in 2008, and where I ended this trip, which convinced me (among other things) that the Wilderness Classic was possible.

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So why all the nostalgia, and the early return?

It all began the second night, when after repeated digging, I realized I had left my food hanging rope at the previous camp.  I improvised a barely acceptable substitute out of two stuff sack cinches, a tarp guyline, and both packraft straps, but was left more befuddled than irate.  I never, ever, ever do that.  Two nights later I did the same thing: leaving that bit of three cords tied together sitting somewhere at the previous camp.

It really all began weeks ago, when as I eluded previously I was struck with an embarrassing amount of indecision about where to go, and what to do.  Sitting in camp mid-trip, meditating around the fire as the sun went down (and after I hung my food with the improvised rope), I realized that this was my last big summer traverse before I became a different person (as indicated by previously planned changes).  All a bit absurd, for a number of reasons.  First, that it took me so much bother to see things for what they are, for myself.  Second, because there are always more trips to do and places to see than human finitude will allow.  And third, because I’m already a different person.  My life has been marked by phases, moving from one outdoor interest to another.  I’m already moving a bit beyond the most intense obsession with backpacking and packrafting, though they’ve been the most enjoyable, satisfying, and will I assume prove the most enduring of all my pursuits.

How I see things, and who I am (silly though the idea is), has been irrevocably and  considerably changed by packrafting in the Bob.

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Being pleased with this realization, content with life generally, and in the face of evidence that my full attention was elsewhere, I completed floating out the South Fork, and as mentioned at the beginning, had a very easy time finding a ride home early.  Sitting in the back of that truck through the long drive along the reservoir, I studied the late afternoon light through the trees and smiled.  Such satisfaction and contentment is rare, and it felt like I had gotten away with something truly grand.

The long summer hike

It’s a good problem to have, but summer around here is getting long in the tooth. 6 weeks of good weather and 16+ hours of daylight each day must be filled, and inevitably energy runs low before either days or possibilities, no matter how insistent the looming winter is that all useable moments must be put to good use. Fitting work and life maintenance into that schedule makes summer quite hectic.

Thus, I’m excited to head out into the Bob for a little over a week, and to do so with only a modest and vague plan. I batted around all sorts of options for this week: the Teton Wilderness, northern Alberta, one of several high traverses in Glacier, but I kept coming back to the Bob, and a few days ago committed fully.

Six years ago I entered the Bob for the first time, via the trail I’ll be hiking tonight and tomorrow. It’s been the major catalyst for my learning about real wilderness travel, and as the years have gone by I’ve only wanted to spend more time there. This next week, I’m giving myself that wish, with permission to wander, and no need to end up anywhere at any particular time (save next Sunday when M will pick me up along highway 2). Should be fun.

The Front, for the future

Last year I wrote about the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, a piece of legislation still stuck in the middle of the legislative process. I still think the bill is a great example of what I wrote about yesterday, a compromise which doesn’t sacrifice the future for the present, or vice versa. There’s a great short documentary making the circuit this summer, which you can watch online, and is worth 20 of your minutes:

All of this is particularly relevant due to the recent discussions about giving federal lands over to the states. There are many cutpoints for discussion on that issue, but one is more significant than any other: while wild places may be located in Montana, Utah, and so forth, they are also in the United States, and their significance to and for the country as a whole cannot be overstated. Everyone in the country should have, as direct as is practicable, a say in their administration.

More than anything, the Front Act would take a symbolically important step towards acknowledging this, and admitting that it is important for our future.

The democratic wild

If you live near one, come August it’s impossible to not think that the American National Park system is fatally flawed. Glacier National Park, our backyard, gets around 2.5 million visitors a year. I’ve not seen a month-to-month parsing, but my guess would by that well over 80% of those folks come in the 2.5 months between the end of June and the second week of September. Yosemite, which is more popular and during the height of winter a lot more accessible to the non-ambitious visitor, gets around 60% of its roughly 3.5 million visitors in the four month of June through September. Zion National Park is a bit more popular than Glacier, and has 90% of its commonly visited sights easily accessible 10-11 months a year. It sees a comparable approximately 60% of its visitors in a five month window, May to September.

I choose these three parks because they are all quite large, and all quite popular, and all have the overhwelming majority of their traffic focused into the quite smaller percentage of their land which can be seen from a paved road, or very close to it.

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The most relevant point here is that it is impossible for so many people to be crammed into a small space, while dealing with the ambiguity and complication of a new and overwhelming place, and still behave themselves. Summer visitors to national parks do things, as a matter of routine, which they would never imagine doing at home. They stop in the middle of a busy road to take photos. They take photos of banal items, like signs and deer. They wear peculiar clothes. They feed cracker jacks to squirrels and mountain goats. They take photos with iPads, often tripping over things, and occasionally in the process falling into streams and over cliffs. They are loud; in voice, manner, and metaphysical proximity. They are rude; to families, strangers, themselves, and most egregiously the workers who give them directions, take their parks passes, and serve them coffee. Humans in national parks during the height of the summer season show everyday humanity at its langorous and unintentional worst.

Much though I try not to believe it, these tourists are not contemptabile people. Indeed, back home they not doubt behave much as I do while immersed in the familiar routines of daily living. I must believe that they behave as they do because they cannot view a national park as home, or indeed as part of the real world. The combination of so much unaltered and spectacular, inhuman nature combines with the absurd rules and crowds of the national parks to form an un-save situation in which sane (or to use a more accurate term, normal) behavior would in context be quite insane itself.

This is the most compelling argument for a greater breadth of human-powered activities in national parks. The idea of national parks is not struggling for relevancy on a theoretical, or even on a policy level, but on a visceral one. A lot of outdoor neophytes come to parks enthusiastic, or at least curious, and I would suspect leave disappointed. The reward which comes with an involved backcountry traverse should not be dumbed down, as there is no substitute for the satisfaction of a skillset cultivated over a decade, but too many visitors experience national parks as little different than Disneyland, and anything which might help them break through to the other side of the wall will for the future be of benefit.

Anything, that is, except that which would (as the Organic Act says) negatively impact the preservation of the parks, for future generations. Its hard to have a productive conversation about this, because of the normative judgements which come hard and fast. An understandable state of affairs, as most everyone talking about this has a high level of personal investment, but not particularly helpful. Even Hayduke himself recently penned one of the more hackneyed works on the subject, largely it would seem due to his own anger at what seems like a growing cultural disengagement with wild places.

The most helpful response here is not to close the portcullis, run up the flag, and man the gates. If we cannot look at the history of the national parks and see, from George Bird Grinnell through TR, Bob Marshall, and indeed Abbey and Peacock, that personal experience with the wilderness (lower case) is a prerequisite for substantive action. The tendancy amongst the establishment over the last 40 years, as wisdom and perspective has shown how much has been lost alongside that which was gained, has been to save what is left by freezing the status quo, at all costs and against any change.

This ideal has the virtue of simplicity. It also makes any future a rather bleak affair, by removing any politcal dynamism from what are otherwise the most creative parts of the world left to us: those places where we have the least influence, over small and large scale changes. On a personal level Mr. Peacocks intentional hyperbole in the above essay can be excused. As policy, he has done himself and his cause a great disservice, as well as striking a ringing blow against intellectual honesty and for the current climate of political hysteria.

Thus far I’ve been conflating American National Parks and wilderness. Lower case wilderness is land where human influence is only visible on a secondary, or more remote, level. It can be, but is not necessarily, the same as juridical Wilderness, which is protected by the aforementioned law. There is in the US today wilderness which is not deemed as Wilderness, and Wilderness with very little wilderness left. Often this last contradiction is due to nothing more than size; in a world of the internet and interstate highway, wilderness demands a certain size so that it may well and sufficiently exceed the artificially augmented human imagination.

This is the primary importance of wilderness, and of the National Parks. Modern humans often need a vehicle of introduction and interpretation in order to become acquainted with wilderness on a visceral, intelligible level. The primary mission of national parks, and of Wilderness, is to preserve venues so that this may be possible in the future. The secondary mission is to facilitate this introduction.

Proscriptive, not normative, guidelines can be built of the tension which will always exist between these two. Should horses be allowed in Wilderness? On the one hand they make the area functionally smaller, and demand more from trail crews. On the other, they facilitate depth of immersion for folks who would otherwise not have such experiences. Should mountain bikes be allowed in Wilderness (or wilderness)? Bikes also make such areas smaller (the most compelling argument by far in my book, perhaps the only valid one). They might also increase human-wildlife conflict (though rhetoric has largely preempted research on this question). Mountain biking does promote a different and in many ways more intimate minute-to-minute relationship with the landscape than hiking, by virtue of its added complexity, and is thus in some ways a better teacher.*

These questions, and others, should be resolved with exclusive reference to the above balance. Personal, aesthetic preference has no place here, because there is too much at state.

 

* Does anyone really think Bob Marshall notched up all those 40 mile hiking days just so see could see more trees? Or that John Muir climbed volcanos and peaks merely so he could see over the next ridge? Extra-pedestrian intimacy with the wilderness has always been best served by extraordinary exertion. Were he around today Mr. Marshall would ride a mountain bike, and he would not ride it for only 20 miles a day.

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