How to behave on the internet

The other day I read on of the lowest quality things I’ve seen online in quite some time, which is saying a great deal for several reasons. I spend a lot of time online; I have a smartphone, I work in an office at a job which often necessitates a lot of downtime, and I like to read as much as I can about my interests, something which is often best served with online content. The democratic nature of the internet necessarily brings about bad content, often due to haste and/or attempts to generate traffic/money. Neither of those things are what bothered me about the post/essay/article/thing I’ll discuss below. Rather, my objections are along the lines of my (enduring) dislike for GearJunkie.com; I do not approve on when someone who obviously knows better does something cheap because it is easy and profitable.

The following guidelines (not rules) naturally apply to “real” life face to face with real people, but most of us were socialized well enough that only the distance of screen and keyboards can tempt us into regularly and flagrently breaking them.

No ad hominem attacks.
The internet makes it very tempting to tell someone they are wrong because they are stupid. It is certainly true that the net breeds armchair experts who not infrequently dispense dangerous advice, but it is always essential to say why someone is wrong, in as specific a manner as you can manage. Doing so elevates the content of the discussion and is the most useful form of response, and admits the possibility that someone without extensive personal experience may by coincidence or good study arrive at an effective conclusion. I struggle with this one quite a bit, because as a nerd who was and is bad at team sports intellectual one-upmanship was the first and easiest way I found to participate in culturally approved male aggression. It’s not a flattering admission or behavior, and I try to hold on to a few instances of when I was on the receiving end as reminders to behave charitably. For instance, earlier this year I called out Six Moon Designs for the marketing copy they attached to their new Fusion series of packs, which said (I summarize and extrapolate) that the packs had been designed for the rigors of thruhiking in the US idiom and were thus tough enough for just about anything. It seemed to me that in doing so SMD were relying more on cliches and jingoism than fact, it being rather obvious that the PCT and CDT are tough on gear due to the number of days only, and said so. Ron Moak, SMDs head honcho, responded by calling me unprofessional and asking how many capitol L long trails I had completed. It still seem sad that the one person in the discussion best informed to quantify how and why packs break declined to say anything specific.

Make all arguments serious.
Its tempting to jump on weak arguments, for the reasons discussed above and many more.  Don’t.  While you may get personal satisfaction out of excoriating an easy target, any gain will be transitory and modest.  It is far better to restate a stronger case of what the original interlocuter should or would have said.  For example, in the post which bent my mind to this subject Wes Siler makes shorter toothbrushes the first thing he mentions in a critique of the extent to which gear and goal obsession may make ultralight backpacking a more frequent violator of what he sees as the soul of backpacking; contemplating the natural world and our place in it.  I doubt very much that any backpacker with a consequent body of experience has ever seen cutting the handle of a toothbrush as a serious means of saving weight.  It is nothing other than a decades-lived cliche, designed to invoke absurd behavior in the mind of the casual observer.  There is no content behind it.  More appriopriate examples, like using grosgrain for hipbelts, would have had less mass-market appeal, but if Mr. Siler is prepared to sacrifice accuracy and felicity for curb appeal than he deserves all the shit he gets, and more.  He commits similar sins at the end of the same paragraph, making hyperbolic statements about the privations of backpacking with a focus on a light load and the speed it allows.  The article as a whole makes it fairly plain that he knows enough to know how inaccurate his characatures are.  If he is not willing to take his subject seriously its hard to think why anyone would want to do the same with his post.

Don’t be cooler than your subject.
Otherwise known as avoiding Rolling Stone writing.  Siler mentions, out of nowhere, that rather than hike the JMT in 10 days including travel from the east coast, he’s visiting a friend in India because he owes said friend after having sold the gents car to a drug dealer.  No further explanation is given, and the reader is left to assume that because Mr. Siler has an apparently more exciting and dangerous (“cooler”) life his arguments should be given more weight.  Modesty is always the purview of a gentlewoman or man, and discretion is always the better part of valor.  If you feel the need to enhance your writing with excessive or semi-relevant anecdotes said writing is either weak or you have issues with life satisfaction which should be addressed in the private sphere.

Quote generously.
Selective quotations (quote is still a verb only) are effective only insofar as weak arguments can be buttressed by appeal to authority, and that is possible only insofar as the reader can be assumed to not be familiar with the source material.  Both are uncharitable assumptions.  Quotations should be used sparingly and faithful to the source, which usually means long, lacking in ellipses, and put in context.  Siler quotes Thoreau as promoting the “tonic of wilderness” and by way of citation links to an incomplete quotation at goodreads.com.  The implication is that the valuable things to be found in wilderness cannot be had when the trip into said wilderness is excessively planned and the route too physically ambitious.  The whole paragraph in Walden ends with the sentence “We need to witness our own limits transgressed and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”  It’s not a far stretch, especially knowing Thoreau’s penchant for marathon walks, to think that a significant component of transgressing spiritual limits has to do with both physical stress and volume of country covered.  In a similar vein, people also find it easy to forget about John Muir’s eccentric minimalism, big miles, bivy in a steam vent on Shasta, and riding out thunderstorms high in the branches of pine trees.  I’ve said it many times: were they alive today, Thoreau and Muir would be drawn to things like the Wilderness Classic, because both knew that wilderness (or Wildness, as Thoreau better stated in Walking) is a mental construct before it is a thing-in-itself.  Siler’s cheap characterization of wilderness suggests that, at best, he is trying to carve out a distinction where one does not exist.

The point of all this is to behave well and generously when interacting with fellow humans, especially when they’re ones you’ll likely never meet.  It is good practice, and good insurance for those occasions when you actually do meet e-friends unexpectedly.  Siler closes his essay with the largely unarguable point that gear innovations have not only made lighter, but gear simpler and in many cases cheaper, and that when these things happen together obstacles to wilderness tend to fall away.  Unfortunately, he was so at pains to make this point that the post mostly serves to discredit himself.  I wish him better in the future.

The guts of freedom

Two years ago I did not know how to gut and butcher a dead mammal.  I had helped gut and butcher (the sterile, slightly dishonest term would be process) deer before, and knew how to gut a fish, but those don’t come close to being the same.  I wanted to be comfortable doing this before I went hunting for big game, so I watched videos, shot small game, practiced, watched more videos, and practiced some more.

The above video, by Meat Eater’s Steven Rinella, is the clearest, more thorough overview I’ve yet seen. As he mentions at the beginning, you don’t have to do it this way (see below), but practicing gutting exactly as Rinella does here will give you a solid foundation which can be applied to anything, from rabbits to deer, and then tailored to the species you hunt the most.

Randy Newberg’s video, below, takes the task of gutting and butchering to the next level, both in that it shows how to break down the animal into transportable parts, and shows a common and efficacious shortcut to the basic gutting methodology as espoused by Rinella.

It takes very few animals butchered to realize how remarkably similar mammals are to one another. And presumably, to humans. In the past few months, a lot of people have told me that they like eating game meat, but don’t want to have to take it apart themselves. Mostly, I think this reticence has to do with not being acquainted with how basic the procedure is. Minimal experience makes it quite simple. I can understand reluctance to hunt for your own meat; it’s a multifaceted discipline and few of those facets are themselves anything other than time consuming, and all of them must be grasped well before you head out. I have less patience for brute squeamishness related to not wanting to (quite literally) get your hands bloody. Setting the ethical dimensions of vegetarianism aside* for a moment, it’s safe to say that everyone has dirty hands insofar as they eat dead things (including dead plants). I do not approve of consciously remaining distant from this fact. It is, and should be, unpleasant killing and cutting apart something which was until very recently running around the woods. But I’m not sure that becoming numb to the blood is any worse than refusing to better know how your food comes to you.

It’s not the easiest thing to learn to do, but I’d encourage everyone to at least get educated on this subject. It is a humbling and empowering task.

* I don’t think plants dying feed other creatures is morally distinct from animals dying to do the same, but that’s a topic for another day.

A note on poststructural wilderness

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Last night I had something of a fever-dream flashback. It was no doubt enhanced by the sinus cold which has had me on the couch for the last 72 hours, but the effect was unmistakable: all of a sudden I came out of the haze of this weekends illness, through the chilly fog of coastal northern California, and into Bill Devall’s living room over a decade ago. I was between my junior and senior year of undergrad, and had secured a modest grant to write about modern environmentalism under the guidance of one of the founders of Deep Ecology. Having just come off two semesters of 19th and 20th century continental philosophy, I was well equipped to tell Bill how (for example) Kant had been filtered by Nietzsche into Derrida.

I was not equipped to elucidate the cultural divide brewing at time in environmental philosophy, and instead spent a lot of that cold summer listening to Bill and his colleagues. In summary, their complaints were the same as those raised by Kenneth Brower, son of the late Dave Brower, in a recent piece published by Outside.

Just as Mr. Brower says of wilderness, so I say when I try to sum up his arguments here: I know these debates when I see them. But 12 years on I still don’t fully understand them, where they came from, and why they remain such a big deal. Brower mentions “deconstructionists” and that “Their dogma has brought to the study of environmental history what deconstructionist theory brought to English departments across the land: surpassingly beautiful subject matter…is subjected to barren formulas and rendered a wasteland.”

My undergrad professors told me that the only people who used “deconstructionist” as a plural noun were those whose understanding was insufficient for the task of parsing and interpreting the variegated thinkers at work in the post-Foucaltian/Derridian world. A number of these folks used and use deconstruction as a method, but too many wilderness folks were all too willing to see outwardly confusing ideas wrapped in continental cafe smoke and, as Brower does in a low act of intellectual laziness, dismiss them with ad hominem attacks.

To keep my historical divergences brief; it is useful to deconstruct the idea of wilderness which is as of late 2014 given so much legal and cultural force in America. Langford and Hayden, instrumental figures in founding Yellowstone and the American NPS, had ideas about the worth of wilderness which were products of their time. So too did Theodore Roosevelt, Bob Marshall, Howard Zahniser, and of course David Brower himself. All of these biases are worth investigating and critiquing, and this process used as inspiration for the future. (As is the fact that of all the ready names I was able to dredge out of my mind, none of them were female or non-white). Complaining about this process is like those folks who, when Avatar came out in 2009, were dismayed that they wouldn’t be able to enjoy it as harmless entertainment after the profoundly racist tropes upon which the film was built were pointed out to them. Or, to be less prosaic, like those people who would rather not consider why so many well-of white western couples prefer to only adopt brown babies from third world countries (because poverty in the first world is genetically linked to degree of moral corruptness which is in turn linked to being not-white).

Wilderness, insofar as it only exists as a human idea, is of course a tainted concept, and will always remain so.

The real area of conflict is not, of course, in the historical dimensions of deconstruction applied to environmental thought, but in the ontological ones. The Derridian follow-up to any historical investigation of wilderness would be, as Brower hints at, a reminder that wilderness is a cultural construct which does not exist outside the human mind. Such statements do not mean that wilderness as a physical entity does not exist, at all, outside the human mind, merely that we are incapable of understanding, thinking, and talking about it in any other terms. Deer might have interesting things to tell humans about wilderness, but we cannot ask them. And if we could it is quite possible that we would never be equipped to gain anything from the conversation. The point here is that any discussion of wilderness where a party leans back on their interpretation as having better access to the Truth of wilderness is suspect. Said party is exercising, or attempting to exercise, hegemony of one form or another. In Brower’s case here, it is by claiming to have a better understanding of how wilderness as we know it was created.

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In the end this is a self-defeating argument. Brower would do better to focus on why his understanding of wilderness, and that of Dave Foreman, for instance, is preferable and more valuable than than those of the “deconstructionists” whom he abuses in his article.

Readers here may be familiar with the dislike I have for Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden.  Brower might consider Marris a deconstructionist; and regardless my critique of Marris is one I think he would have been better off making against William Cronon and others.  Marris makes the obvious historical deconstruction of wilderness, and then concludes that this idea ought to be changed for the 21st century, largely because we humans have learned better and will be able to better manage wild places for ourselves and other animals in the near and distant futures.  It’s a myopic argument which bypasses what I see as the central conclusion, which ought to be drawn before all others, of the environmental movement from 1870 to the present.  We humans are bad at knowing what we don’t know, and we should keep the largest tracts of wilderness around as is possible because we have no way of knowing what we’ll learn from them in the future.  And if precedent is any guide, we’ll get important things from wilderness, soon.

If the arc of human knowledge as it’s best which went from Hume to Hegel, to Nietzsche to Derrida to us has done anything, it is show that human knowledge can be self-aware; can define things that it knows and things that it does not know, and maintain those distinctions during everyday life.  It’s not necessarily a comfortable position, but when we have decent thinkers like Brower and Marris throwing up their hands and diving off the boat (albeit in different directions), little good is accomplished.  I’ve long thought that the post-Hegel/Nietzsche project of revaluing human values leads inevitably towards environmental ethics, insofar as that discipline at its best is concerned with critiquing anthropocentric views of the world.  Combining an ethical understanding of the world which is explicitly anti-anthropomorphic with an knowledge-system (epistemic understanding) which denies capitol T truth claims has just enough contradiction to seem correct.

Apparently, the world isn’t ready for an environmental ethics based on a post-Nietzschean, post-Quinean epistemology, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be sad about it.

Fourth of July Creek

[Warning: The following contains spoilers.]

Smith Henderson gets it.  There are a number of very good things about Henderson’s novel Fourth of July Creek, but by far the most significant is that his portrayal of northwestern Montana, and the dark insular social landscape which to this day lurks close to the surface, is absolutely dead-on.  As a social worker in NW Montana for the last four years, I’ve given up discussing details of my job with just about everyone I know or meet.  Most wouldn’t believe a lot of it if I told them, and I wasn’t surprised to hear, in an interview with NPRs Robin Young, that Henderson choose to dial back some of the details around which he built his book.  The gasoline huffing runaway who ends up in Pine Hills (youth prison) after being sexually abused by his drug addicted mother and beat up by his social worker, and the paranoid man who retreats to starving in the woods after his wife commits uncomprehensible violence have two things in common; they’re both characters in Fourth of July Creek, and it is entirely probable that their real life equivalents are alive in this place right now.

You need a good reason to live west of the mountains and north of the bastion of civilization that is Missoula.  Whenever I meet someone, either for work or socially, I ask why they ended up here.  The winters are dark and foggy, the weather unpredictable year-round, and the brightest months of the summer overrun with tourists who most often act like a different species.  Trappings of culture and conveniences like multiple places to buy pants and shoes are modest, especially compared to the traffic.  And that’s in the Flathead valley where I live, the most populous and brightest region of northwestern Montana.  Here we’re surrounded by darkly timbered tendrils of the Pacific Northwest, but have the harsh sun, wind, and open spaces of the Continental Divide almost within reach.

Northwest Montana proper is further west, in Lincoln County, where most of Henderson’s novel is set.  Lincoln is given over entirely to deep river valleys and thick forests, broken only very rarely by bare alpine basins and small towns.  While the population of Flathead County has tripled since 1960, that of Lincoln has not even grown 10%, and suffered a significant dip during the 70s and 80s (the novel is set in 1981) as the logging and mining upon which the areas population came into being saw a vast reduction in scope and productivity.

IMG_0437The central Yaak, looking east-northeast towards the Whitefish Range, Eureka, and Canada.  This is country Jeremiah Pearl, anti-hero of Fourth of July Creek, knew well.

This heart of northwest Montana is a place at once huge and small.  It takes a discerning soul and more time than most are willing to give to see the differences between the monolithically green ridges, and even from a high place the long views mainly show you just how much you can’t see.  As Henderson emphasizes again and again, it is a good place to hide from the world.

Fourth of July Creek’s protagonist, Pete Snow, has a good reason for living in the lower Yaak, near the fictional town of Tenmile (a proxy for Libby, the county seat).  His marriage fell apart under circumstances he ultimately chose to not control, so he applied to be transferred up to what remains one of the least desirable postings at Child and Family Services.  There he can live in a small cabin, do enough work to fill his hours and satisfy his conscience, commune with other men who have made similar choices (be they loggers of judges), and rarely have to answer questions.

Pete’s worldview is shaken when a mysterious boy, obviously feral in a somewhat pre-modern sense of the term, appears at the local school.  Social workers are in the book, and remain today, fixers when no one else knows what to do, and thus Pete is called in to do the more complicated things, beyond medicating the boys malnutrition.  And thus the reader is drawn into the life of Jeremiah Pearl and his son Benjamin.  Pearl is a northwest Montana legend, someone who did what many of the hard-bitten, taciturn, independent men (and the full characters are almost all men) of the region have thought  of but always shrank away from: going fully away from society and living all the way in the woods.  Having a cabin with an outhouse and no running water, and perhaps doing some spring deer poaching, is one thing.  Giving up your truck, whiskey, and deliberately chosen ties to society is quite another.  People come to northwest Montana, as both Pete and Jeremiah did initially, to place the world at a controllable distance.  To refute it entirely, as Pearl and his son do, is a categorically different step, and one worthy of inevitable suspicion.  If you’re in a bar in Missoula and can explain your residence in Lincoln County as having to do with a dedication to hunting, fishing, skiing, and writing, it is a comprehensible, even admirable, choice, if still eccentric.  Some underlying wound is nonetheless supposed to fully explicate the anti-social behavior.  Pete, and the other men who inhabit Henderson’s Tenmile, recognize and accept antisocial choices, but still Pearl’s life is one which makes them uneasy.

In the end, the novel confirms this suspicion.  Pearl believes in the end of the world, and has prepared for it with huts full of venison and ammo, and a life designed to place him beyond the knowledge of governments.  He may have started down this path out of unique or idiosyncratic beliefs, but was in the end driven to fully inhabit it by family trauma so horrific that by comparison rationality is a frail and abstract construct.  Pearl’s wife, whom he loved dearly despite mental illness, and all of their children but one contract an illness from ice chipped out of neighbors freezer and made into snocones.  Rather than go back into civilization and seek medical attention, Pearl’s wife shoots her children, and then herself.

Awful things happen in the world everyday; more often than we realize they happen in our own cities and neighborhoods.  American society is tasked with balancing respect for adult decision-making, even choices seemingly made with self-destruction in mind, with enforcing rules which will contain society and enable it to move forward into future generations.  Pete Snow lives this contradiction.  His alcoholism affects his job performance, to varying degrees, but his is still competent and well intentioned, and most importantly willing and capable of bringing consistency to a job where that trait is both important and usually in short supply.  He is forced to grapple with the paradoxes of his profession throughout the novel.  He breaks the rules, letting the aforementioned gas huffing abuse victim free to live with friend he made on the street, and then letting Pearl and his son go as well.  Pete sees himself in both of these cases, he is forced to when his own daughter runs away and eventually becomes embroiled in street life as a prostitute.  Pete is only one small step, one routine twist of fate, away from sliding into criminality himself, from becoming one of the people whom he is paid by the state to police.  He is far from the best equiped to deal with the situations in which he finds himself by novel’s end, but neither is he the worst.  How far does he succeed?  Henderson properly leaves the reader questioning, and for that, and writing a novel which resonated so well with me personally, I thank him.

How to make Cowboy coffee

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I grin a little everything some new gadget comes out for making good coffee in the backcountry.  As with many things, the original method is still the best, and in this particular case has the added benefit of requiring no equipment at all, aside from the pot, stove or fire, and ground coffee you already have.  Like pitching a tarp so you’ll stay dry in a storm, digging a cathole, gutting a fish, navigating off-trail, or building a fire after an all-day rain, making cowboy coffee may seem intimidating at first, but is actually quite simple.  Unlike those other things, you can get 90% of the way from cowboy coffee newb to expert without leaving your house.  It’s a skill that, given coffees performance enhancing qualities, should be considered as essential as knowing to piss downwind.

First start with a generous amount of grounds and some cold water.  As many wise folks have said, you don’t need nearly as much water to make coffee as most people think.  Fine grounds are advantageous when making cowboy coffee, they saturate faster and easier, which is the key to their reliably sinking.  I bring espresso ground beans, but there is nothing wrong with turkish either.

Combine grounds and cold water and set it to boil.  You want to give the grounds as long as possible to saturate and get heavy, as well as impart good flavor to the liquid.

Bring to a roiling boil, and keep it there for 10-15 seconds.  On most camp stoves doing this without boiling over will require a less than full pot, as well as hovering the pot over the burner using a grip, pliers, or a glove/sock.

Let the pot rest for a minute.  There are many ways, like adding a squirt of cold water or tapping the edge, to help the grounds settle, but if you’ve done the above and have a bit of patience this issue should take care of itself.

Drink.  You can decant from the pot into mugs/cups/bottles, or drink straight from the pot.  Obviously, don’t swirl or otherwise seriously disturb the coffee, or attempt to pour or drink the last few ounces at the bottom.

This is the best, and simplest, and lightest, way to get a solid cup of coffee in the backcountry.  And often a good way to impress friends and neighbors.  Practice a bit at home, and you’ll be set to go.

Perseverance of fear

The game trail had run out into nothing on the lush, cold northerly face, the fault no doubt of all the tasty green things still growing on the 55 degree slope. I put a boot sole down on frozen moss and lean a bit farther out than is comfortable. Stick, I tell my foot, and the same time eyeballing a low shrub for an emergency handhold. 2 seconds and 20 inches of torso movement later my foot skates. I land on my side at the same time my hand grabs the shrub and keeps me from sliding into the meadow below.

An hour later, on the far side of the maddening limestone scree field, with those accursed soapy rocks which, no matter how spiky, never seem to stick to each other even in the least, I have to climb the gully. With a tinkling trickle of water to my right growing bright algae I launch up away from doubt, committing to light climbing with no irreversible moves. Of course the crux is at the top, after 30 feet of smedging on sloping 1 inch edges. High right sidepull, solid, walk smears up the right wall in opposition, dink for the left foot, low to the ground as possible on a decaying patch of grass for the left hand, pull down not out, extend it into a mantel, and grab the pine branch as pebbles echo back down towards the ground, all with a 30 pound pack, rifle, and trekking poles stuck horizontally between pack and back. All reversible, except that last one.

The next morning I’ve survived the cold wind all night, slogged through drifted foot deep snow up exposed talus to gain the pass, and trashed my legs with endless up and downs on steep grass slopes heading the sub-basins within sub-basins to make it over into the next cirque. I’m eating sliced pepperoni and cheese on triscuits in a sun which is finally warm enough to take off my rain pants. Soft green-gray mule deer are feeding through the trees 100 yards above me, the first animals besides pikas and hawks I’ve seen all trip. I filled my deer tag two weeks ago, but I pull the cover off my scope, get prone on my pack, and draw a bead on the deer as they flit between the cover of twisted pines. It would be so easy, but would I want to carry one out of here. No I would not. So why the hell are you elk hunting up here?

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Driving back home Sunday, as night finally got dark at the end of a very clear day, I listened to a social work podcast talk about practice theories. Like that stalwart of the social work higher education curriculum, Human Behavior in the Social Environment (we had two obligatory semesters in grad school), the phrase “practice theory” is tied up tight with redundancy. Like Hume would say, you can’t develop a theory about something if you haven’t practiced it before, at least a little, to gain knowledge of the thing in the first place. And like Kant would say, even the most eclectic, anti-theoretical use principles to organize and guide actions, human intention being built above all else on expectation premised upon past precedent. We do stuff because we have to, and we do the stuff we do because experience suggests that a certain choice will be the most likely to get the job done.

I was way the hell up at 8000 feet in the very heart of the Bob, insofar as (shades of Abbey) the Bob has one, because I thought elk would be up there. I didn’t see any, but I did some tracks and fresh poop near a water hole in that last basin south. Had I actually wanted to kill an elk that weekend, or even a likely much smaller black bear? My theories about the Bob, and what wrinkles on paper will translate to on the ground, are developed and grounded more than well enough to know that adding a mountain of meat to the other crap I was hauling up there was not realistic. I suppose that after the regimented success of my deer hunt two weeks ago I wanted something less controlled. I found it.

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The first night legal shooting light had passed on right around the time my feet, damp from sweat, started to get numb. I brought them back to life sprinting up the hills 1/2 mile back to camp, and danced around while I ate dinner interrupting that hurried spooning to watch an outrageous sunset cast itself across a valley and ridge thick with memory. I’m not telling, but if you’ve been around you probably recognize the above, can confirm the silliness of elk hunting where I was, and if you haven’t already should hike where I hiked and camp where I camped.

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The show continued the next morning. It was cold, and the clouds kept off direct sun all morning, probably contributing to no animals out moving around, but those basins I traversed headed south were some of the prettiest I’ve ever seen.

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By the afternoon of the second day I had had it; after huffing up to a notch in the long ridge, threading a tenuous switchbacking game trail down to the timber, and following an elk trail along the steep crest down to the west, I was through with glassing and out of water.  The loud stream 2000 feet below and a 1/3 mile distant beckoned.  There’s hunting mode, and there’s traveling mode, and the two are incompatible.  I resolved to make the river by dark, and went into hiking mode, clicking back 3.5 miles an hour at 75 steps a minute.  Moose and deer tracks in the soft dust as well as sharp canyon walls and wilting yellow thimbleberry leaves passed before and through me

The final long, gentle, straight, horse-friendly downhill to the floodplain through the dark timber was unnecessarily long, as must things are in such moments.  I almost fell asleep on my feet.  Not even the moon was enough to keep me from sleeping, which I did for 10 straight hours.

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The next morning was quintessentially coated with frost, promising a bright autumn day.  I stood slowly upright in unlaced boots and creaky calves, and grabbed the water bag and my rifle.  Always bring your rifle when you go to get water, right?  You never know.  You never do, and this morning I had been down at the rivers edge for 10 second when an elk clattered down a cutbank 100 yards up on the far side.  I stood most of the way up, mouth agape, before I realized that was counterproductive if there was a bull at the end of this string of cows.

Back into the trees, slowly, then a 20 second sprint up the deer trail to get the elk in view.  I sneak closer at the lead elk waters straight upstream in the middle of the current, cold crystal up to her belly, alternating guzzling and looking back.  Two more cows had emerged and were drinking and munching grass on the gravel bar.  I settled on to a log to watch as the two stragglers made their way into the middle of the river.  No bull appeared, but I did get to watch these last two drink and stand around 40 feet in front of me, until after a few minutes they smelled something off and went back into the forest.

That was cool.

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I made coffee and sat in the sun, drying gear, in no hurry to get underway.  Packrafting would be most pleasant after 10am, and the fishing would only get better as the day wore on.

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I visited the ranger station outhouse, with door latch cleverly made of old telephone insulators.  In the post-CCC heyday the Bob was staffed exponentially more heavily than it is today, with phone wires strung throughout in some very unlikely places.  The remnants can still be seen today; whether you see them as garbage left standing or nifty anachronisms.

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I had miles to go before my wilderness soul slept back on dirt roads, but with a boat and a clear day leisure was in order.  I stopped and fished, often, and caught many, many fish.  Dangling a big olive streamer in one of the unknowabley deep pools down towards Meadow Creek a massive apparition appeared from under a ledge, a bull trout, the river grizzly, with white edged fins and a head the size of a small shark.  The uniformity of the fish I had been catching made sense; anything smaller would have been eaten by the bull trout.  Any trip where you see pikas, elk, and a mature bull trout in three days in a success, even if you lost a lot of skin and pride along the way.  To top it off, later that afternoon I stopped and rerigged at one last deep hole, and while jiggling the aforementioned big ugly streamer hooked a huge, humpbacked cuttthroat which had me running up and down the bank, spastic leg breaking cobbles the whole way, before finally landing it.

I remain appalled at how much I enjoy the cruel theatre of catch and release fishing, and the detachment with which I’ve taken to skinning deer and tearing the guts out of the grouse is a subject of some astonishment in calmer moments.  Obviously none of these things are necessary for life, but it is just as obvious that standing back and looking at the wild world go about its business comes up short when compared to wading in and allowing blood to flow.  And I’ve got plenty of practice theories about that.

Crave nothing more fervently

“Never yield to remorse, but at once tell yourself: remorse would simply mean adding to the first act of stupidity a second.”

-Nietzsche, The Wanderer and his Shadow

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Up to this date 2014 has been a good year for contemplating death. While as many people have no doubt died in the past nine months than in any other such time, several of them have really set me back. There was Phoenix’s close brush, Rob, Cody Roman’s disappearance, and today Andreas Fransson.

Fransson was a rare combination of cutting edge athlete, contemplative individual, and talented and prolific writer. The essays and journal entries on his website add up as complete an account as currently exists of why risky activities are a vital part of the human condition. Since I began backcountry skiing not too many years ago I’ve struggled with the risk/reward balance available within that activity, just as I did with climbing and mountaineering many years ago. I quit ice and alpine climbing because that calculus didn’t add up for me, and to this minute wonder how far into skiing I’ll ever be willing to go. Fransson’s work and life (he would tell us the two cannot be coherently separated) remind me that while backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering may not balance out properly for me, they certainly did for him. When making such decisions it’s appropriate to include loved ones, but within the bounds of appropriateness the general public may only observe, read, and ponder.

As Fransson himself says at the end of the above video: After laying at the bottom of the Y Couloir in Chamonix, barely clinging to life, I realized that the end does not mean pushing until death. It means pursuing your dreams until uncertainty, risk, and adventure begin to fade. For at that point what was supposed to be magic will seem to become routine, the exact opposite of it’s intention.

How we find it is an uninterrogable choice, but we owe it to every other living person to find a way to break with routine, and thereby live a full life.

Deer Lessons

I’m far, far from an expert or even good hunter, but I’m working on it. The last year has been a fantastic journey, and for folks like me who are experienced backpacker/skier/packrafter/etc types looking to get into backcountry hunting, I offer the following for consideration.

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First, hunting it not backpacking. You can and often need to backpack to hunt, but the structuring goals are completely different. Embracing this is a vital first step. You can still go hunting in aesthetically interesting places, and hunting will likely push you to both slow down and consider places you’d breeze through as a backpacker, as well as crawl into some nasty holes you’d never, ever hike through on a backpacking trip where going from A to B is the priority.

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Second, get away from trails, get high, sit still, and glass. Using optics to find and then stalk game has become the technique in the western US for good reason. The corollary here is that you’ll be more likely to succeed if you hunt in and from places where glassing can be put to good use. There are places around here with lots of deer and elk, where 50 meter visibility is the best case. It’s tough to find, and not make enough noise to spook, ungulates in such terrain.

Embrace the off-trail hiking in rugged terrain, and spend time looking for unlikely places on maps.  Even in a place as big as the Bob there aren’t that many places which have good deer food and are away from where people go.  Find them and hunt there.

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I bought a full array of new optics for this fall: Meopta Meopro 6.5×32 binoculars, Minox MD50 spotting scope, Vortex Summit SS tripod, and the Outdoorsmans tripod adapter for the binoculars. The Summit has been problem free, and the compact collapsed size very nice. I’ve yet to come close to using it’s full height, so naturally the thought of something shorter and lighter enters my head, but as that isn’t possible without spending quite a bit more, I’m content. The Minox was a compromise, mainly financial. I like the size and weight (22 ounces). The 30x zoom is really not enough, and the optics could be clearer. Good enough, but it will need to be augmented with a big brother at some point. Unfortunately, that big brother will cost a grand or more.

Binoculars get used a lot more than the spotter, and thus they and the means by which they get stuck on your tripod are worth getting excited about. The Outdoorsmans adapter is expensive, but it functions flawlessly and became indispensible the first time out. The aluminum post takes a tripod adapter plate which clamps to your tripod.  The binocular stud, seen above, stays attached to the binos, and fits into the hole in the adapter.  Push down on the knurled knob to release when you’re ready to move on.  Highly recommended.

I really like the low-power Meoptas.  They have tons of eye relief, and are thus easily useable with my glasses on, and have a massive field of view.  They make it easy to move your eyes, not your binos, when scanning terrain.  Only bummer is that the diopter adjustment does not lock.  All this seems like a lot of crap to carry, but it really is borderline essential for western hunting.

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I used a Havalon all last year and this summer, and it works as intended.  The main/only virtue is having instant access to a very sharp blade.  Unfortunately everything else about it bugs me: the blades are fragile and disposable, changing one in the field with hands covered in blood is hazardous, and the folding design and grip panels on the handle are an absolute nightmare to clean.  I’m retiring it in favor of the above, an Esee Candiru.  It’s a tiny little thing with a brilliantly simple design.  I used it for almost the whole deer this weekend, only switching to the Havalon when the Candiru got a bit dull to cut through all the neck sinew.  In the future I’m bringing just the Candiru, and a ceramic sharpener.  The blade geometry is great for both skinning and boning meat, the factory scales (knife nerd for handles, orange) have just enough texture without trapping gore, and the whole package is somehow just a hair over 5 inches long without feeling small in the hand.  Solid and impressive.

Lastly, while I certainly sweated plenty packing the deer out, it was obvious that with a bit of training long, multiday packouts of deer sized animals is totally possible with a pack like the Unaweep.  This opens up a massive range of possibilities.   For reference, the four bone-in quarters plus backstraps and tenderloins were 45 pounds and took up about 30 liters of space.  Boning out the quarters would cut a decent bit of weight and cut the volume by a 1/3 if not more.  Deer certainly get bigger, but it’s safe to put larger mulies as well as the various sheep and goats in this category.  Obviously elk and moose are a different case entirely.

Look for plenty more hunting here in the next few months, and a much more exhaustive article on the subject over at BPL towards the end of the year.

A Bob Marshall buck

The whitetail I shot last November was a victory, but it was also a defeat. The victory came in learning enough about deer patterns to know where to go, and enough patience to be still enough that the deer walked right up within range. It was a failure because I had started out the season planning to shoot a big game species within the Bob Marshall complex and pack it out under human power.

Thus, the pressure was on last week when rifle season opened in the two zones which form the remote heart of the Bob. I’ve known all year that of all my outdoor goals for 2014 this is the one to which I’d become most attached.

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Thanks to a list of things more important than hunting, it was early afternoon by the time I finished the drive south, put on my pack, and started walking.  It was hot, not only hot for September, but hot by any standard this far north, and the 3000′ climb with less than continuous shade was taxing.   I crested the ridge and entered the juridical Bob (and thus legal hunting territory) out of water and feeling a few steps from done.  Tasty water was had a bit lower at a small cold lake, but the battle was now on to get rehydrated quick enough to climb back up towards the ridge and be situated and still for prime glassing light.  Tired, still dryish, and weighed down with a gallon of water to last me into tomorrow, this modest climb took longer than it should have.  I glassed two basins for the last hours of the afternoon and evening.  Aside from the swirling and inconstant wind, conditions were perfect, but I saw nothing more than the endless parade of happy chickadees and juncos (taken together the vivacious Pikas of the bird world).

Juncos have been a personal favorite since childhood in the midwest, and I love that you can find them year round in the chillier meadows of Montana.  My perch was a particularly gorgeous one, nestled amongst larch trees midway through their transition from green to yellow.  I could recall skiing the drainage 6 miles in front of me years before, following black bear tracks through the forest.  I could trace the stream to my left down into the main canyon, where it cuts a spectacular and unexpected waterfall.  I could look into the distance, 15 miles away, and recall four years of packrafting trips across the seasons.  But I hadn’t seen a deer yet, which tinged everything else with a bit of bitterness.  Hunting teaches patience very well, because the only alternative is giving up.

I set up the Solomid on a barely big enough patch of flat alpine grass, and cooked dinner 100 feet away by a big snag.  Plenty of fresh bear scat around, so caution was advised.  Hot food, tea, and plenty of extra snacks and water went down the hatch to ensure I’d be ready to go come morning.

I was.  I laid down with the doors open and watched the milky way develop, horizon to horizon, before I fell asleep for 10 straight hours.  Coffee, poptart, and walking up the hill with a headlamp only just not needed.  I had decided over dinner to focus on the back basin, a large expanse of open grass and forest patches between upper and lower lakes, with no trail closer than a mile.

Settling between larches next to a talus field, I glassed, and glassed, and glassed, and glassed with my binoculars on a tripod while the Pikas woke up and began an animated conversation.  A couple hours passed in what amounts to active meditation until I saw a group of three deer moving down the slope.  My hypothesis: they had spent the night feeding in the upper basin and had a good drink the early morning before heading downhill to one of a few dark, cool patches to bed.  They were moving without caution, chasing each other and frolicking as they moved down the hill.  They were far enough away and never still long enough for my 30x spotting scope to get a definitive read, but I thought the largest bodied deer was a spike or very small forkie.  They disappeared into a northish facing side of a small gully, thick with dark timber.  I watched for a further ten minutes and when I didn’t see them come out, assumed they had bedded there.  Game on.

The wind was blowing down-slope, less then ideal, but not unworkable.  I tried to move quietly and maximize cover as I lost elevation across towards the trees.  I’d need to come back up through the trees, hoping to see the deer before they saw me.  Steep wet grass on the steeper slopes and a massive profusion of dead standing beargrass stalks on the gentler slopes (which sound like muted maracas when you touch them) made this process nerve wracking.

Then, when I had over the course of 45 minutes gone 3/4 of a mile to a point right below the correct timber patch, and sun got just high enough and the wind suddenly switched 180 degrees.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

I hadn’t been feeling very good about my prospects before, and the wind felt like the last nail in my coffin.  I moved up into the trees anyway, what else could I do (?), glassing and trying to not make too much noise (impossible).  Halfway up, I assumed the deer had moved off and, with the sun rapidly making things very hot indeed, the day was over.   I heard a trickle in the rocks and moved over to collect water.  I’d refill my supplies, have a snack, and move back through the top of the basin for one last glance before heading home.  Glassing and expecting anything to move on a day hot as this seemed foolish.

After a 15 minute break I went back uphill, but deviated in my plan when I came across a good game trail moving horizontally back through the trees.  Fresh deer tracks, and, as I entered the pleasant shade, freshly used beds.  If I were a deer this was were I’d want to spend a hot last day of summer, and I silently begged forgiveness for disturbing them.  30 seconds later, I took two steps beyond the last trees and saw deer, two of them, well out across the grass slope.  The biggest one, which did indeed have small antlers, was in the rear, looking at me.

I watched him through my binoculars for 10 seconds, confirming he was indeed a he, and that he was more curious than alarmed.  I dropped my trekking poles, pulled my rifle from the gunbearer, and took off my pack.  Sitting with the pack as rest didn’t feel right, so I dropped the pack to the ground and went prone, racked a round, and as the deer looked quite a ways away held a bit high and slowly touched off the trigger: a large concussion and no sign of the deer being hit.  The shot felt good, so I must have missed high.  The deer did a 180 and was stilling looking my direction, now quartering towards.  I held right on, just in front of the near shoulder, took 4 deliberate breathes, and while trying to detach it from the rest of me, moved my right index finger slowly.

Big concussion.

The deer falls over into the beargrass, like a puppet cut by the string.

I watch through binoculars, distant, as he kicks in gentle spasms for thirty seconds and goes still.

I can only believe it because I was there.

I throw my pack on, check the motionless deer one last time, and with rifle in one hand and poles in the other hurry over.

There’s a dead deer in the grass.  I put my pack and poles down and, round chambered, edge closer and poke the deer repeatedly in a left eye which will never close again.  Dead, no matter what so much of me wants to believe.

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Happiness is more complex a thing than we’re usually inclined to admit, and at that moment my joy is tied up with completing the task and getting the parts I want off the mountain and home without spoiling, which given the ever more intense sun is not a task to be taken lightly.  I setup my tripod, balance my camera on top, and take photos as fast as I can manage, then get to work.  I don’t worry about keeping hair or grass off the meat, just getting the hide rolled back and the quarters off, into bags, and into the shade as fast as safety permits.  45 minutes after I start all four quarters, backstraps, and tenderloins are in two muslin bags, tightly knotted against the flies, which now swarm thick, and in the coolest spot I can find.  Thankfully the night up here at 7300′ was very cold, and in shade that still lingers late into the morning.  I take another, more clumsy 45 minutes to skin the skull, remove it from the neck, and cut away the lower jaw.  Last year, even in the comfort of the garage all the connective tissue made this take forever, but soon enough I’m ready.

Camp gear and spare clothing, in drybags to keep it clean, goes in the bottom on the Unaweep.  Snacks and everything else I’ll need and that can fit goes in the two pockets of the compression panel.  The two thankfully quite cool but very heavy bags of meat, bones still in, go on top of the camp gear.  Rifle and sleeping mat go under the compression panel, which I cinch as tight as I can several times over.  Skull is wrapped in a game bag and tied on top.

The pack is really, really heavy.  I know 40-50 pound packs well, from packbiking last year and the Grand Canyon this spring, among other places, and this is a lot more than that.  75, at least, and with 8 miles to go, the first two off trail though talus and steep grass and sidehilling, the walk out is intimidating.  Only one way to do it, which is step after step after step.  Carefully now, as getting the least bit out of balance with such a pack is unacceptable.  Thankfully the Unaweep balances in perfect stability and the hour of concentration it takes to climb 1000′ and contour back to the trail goes by in a fast blaze of focus.

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The six miles of trail, almost all of it a rather large descent, is far worse, with nothing to think about but how damn heavy the pack is.  I take two breaks while walking the trail out, my hips and the bottoms of my feet suffering the most.  I didn’t train for this, other than backpacking all year, and get back to the car in a hair under four hours feeling beat but not destroyed.  With some more specific conditioning it’s easy to see such efforts being reasonably routine.  Not that I want to do it again next weekend or anything.  Instead, at the car my first priority is shoes off and sandals on, followed by gear in the car and meat wrapped in two blankets in the trunk.  25 minutes down the road to the nearest store, where ice and soda and cold tea can be had.

All the meat made it back home in perfect shape, and as of this writing half is cut up, cleaned, wrapped, and in the chest freezer downstairs.  I’ll have rare backstrap for the third consecutive dinner tonight, after I finish processing the last two quarters.  The skull is sitting, antlers deep, in a bleach solution waiting for the final cleaning before it goes up on the wall.  Maybe I’ll change my mind in a few years, but today I’m happier with my little forkie than I could be with any corn-fed, valley-dwelling monster.  On the hike in I thought back to Lewis and Clark, and how the closest they came to starvation of their journey was the only time they really went through the mountains proper, passing from Montana into Idaho.  This contrasting with the moveable feast they found on the plains of what is now the Dakotas and eastern Montana.  One assumes, in pre-Columbian times, no one went up to alpine basins to hunt deer.  There’s not much for them to eat, and thus not that many deer.  Today those fertile valleys are artificially sewn into miles of deer buffets, and in spite of rifles and roads their are more deer than ever, and very few places left to hunt deer (or elk or bear) where their habits have not been altered, generations ago, by human-provided food.

In the Bob you still can, if you can find them.  Or, to be more maudlin, if you try hard enough and long enough dreams do come true.

The 610 pack, version 3

DSC07087Photos by M.

Two years ago I made a simple ~27 liter pack, meant for all manner of day trips and light 2-4 day stuff in fair weather.  I was never content with the simple, short drawcord closure and the torso length was a bit too small, so eventually it suffered the fate of so many packs and was sacrificed for parts.

Last year I made a more complicated version with a similarly sized main compartment and flexible suspension system.  It was a good pack, but that complication left me a bit cold, and using VX-07 turned out to be a poor choice.  Skis and a bit of canyoneering left it hole-y come spring, so out came the scissors.

Soon thereafter, I ordered a half yard each of VX-42 and X-51 from Cascade Craftworks, and the third generation was born.

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Design specs were to be as simple as possible while being able to carry skis and/or and ice axe regularly, and other stuff as needed, all while being as clean and aesthetically pleasing as possible.  Comfortable carriage of up to 25 pounds for days on end, and more for shorter stretches, was necessary, as was the ability to carry fine with a low volume 7 pound day load.

This pack, along with the Unaweep, forms a quiver of two packs for just about all of my needs.  In theory a ~50 liter lightly framed pack would be more versatile than either a 65 liter heavy hauler or a 30 liter frameless bag, but between the Unaweeps lightness and excellent light-load bearing, as well as the very small number of just-backpacking trips I do, I’ve found 50 liter packs go almost unused.

IMG_0464Note the integrated, full width lumbar pad, in this case a bit of ridgerest.  This is a feature I missed and brought back from version one.

I’ve also become a fan of wider shoulder straps, so the remains of the dearly departed Gossamer Gear Gorilla made the cut.  The feature set is a full length #8 zip with two sliders on the right side, a 5/8″ daisy tacked on to the seam on each side, a 3/4″ daisy centered on the front panel, and an interior side zippered pocket (in tan ripstop, visible above).

Three daisy chains allow just about anything to be attached to the pack.  They work particularly well for diagonal ski carry, and strapping a PFD across the back.  When not in use they blend in like they’re not there at all.  Sewing them atop seams gives the bartacks multiple layers of fabric to bite into.  For the center-back daisy I placed a folded piece of VX-42 under the fabric while I was working, and trimmed away the excess when finished.

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The side zipper allows easier access to small things without unpacking the pack, including water bottles, but this doesn’t work as well once the pack is really crammed full.  The zipper is really there for winter use, so I can set the pack down on it’s side and get out lunch without allowing the sweaty back panel to collect snow.  It’s also great for packrafting; lash the pack horizontally on the bow with the zipper facing you and access to water, snacks, camera, and throw bag are all quick and simple.

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Daisy chains are, in my book, just about mandatory for rigging while rafting.

It’s taken all of the aforementioned experimentation to arrive at the proper torso length for a pack like this.  On conventional packs I run a base of panel to straps measurement of 22 to 22.5 inches.  This is too long for a pack like this, where a bit more shoulder wrap is desirable for light load manuverability.  I built this pack with a bottom seam to midpoint of strap attachment right at 21 inches, which is dead on.

IMG_0904The top strap is 3/4″ webbing with a Sea to Summit aluminum hook/buckle.  This hooks to various points on the front daisy, providing a variable level of compression without requiring a very long strap.

Closures on little packs are tough to get right.  I’ve become a convert to rolltops on big packs because they’re clean, weatherproof, and provide some easy compression without extra stuff, but like a drawcord on small packs for the overload capacity they provide.  The problem is how to be able to run paddles out the top as seen above, while still having a weathertight load when packed normally (first photo).  The solution is the cut the main opening on an angle, and have a similarly angled, and gusseted secondary shroud which folds into the pack when not used but can be easily pulled up and cinched down.  It took some fiddling, but this has been a satisfactory solution.

IMG_0694Close-up of VX-42 (bottom) and X-51.  Side seams are triple stitched, felled, then triple stitched again, with stress points bartacked on both occasions.

There will always be something which goes wrong when building a pack, and on this one it was the hipbelt attachment.  I meant to extend the side daisys low enough to girth hitch on a belt, but as is visible above forgot until everything was completed and adding anything on was rather difficult.  It’s worth noting that the X-51 is a very stiff fabric, and a bit difficult to manipulate while sewing.  It took a few weeks of consideration, but my eventual solution was grommets in the bottom corners, initially I bolted hipbelt wings directly to the pack, which provided effective weight transfer.  I worried about having poky metal bits inside the pack, but before than became an issue too-small washers on the outside of the belt grommets caused said grommets to pull through the material mid-trip.  I fixed this by running cord from the inside the pack out the grommets and tying both halves of the belt together through the pack.  This works, and allows for a belt which can be easily removed.

Overall dimensions are a 29″ lower circumference, 33″ circumference above the shoulder taper, 27″ height against the back (not counting the secondary shroud), and a back panel width of 9″ at the bottom tapering to 8″ at the shoulders. Weight with the belt attached and a doubled foam pad in the internal sleeve is 26 ounces.

It’s a keeper.

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