Auroral

A lot of hyperbole and purposive lies have been written about the road up to Polebridge, Montana. I suppose the road is rough if you never drive on gravel, but it usually takes right around an hour to drive the 45 miles from our driveway to the Mercantile, if we don’t get stuck behind traffic. Contrary to the claims of one writer, I have never seen Bighorns along the road, nor has anyone I know. What you do find in Polebridge is remoteness. The road is just un-smooth enough and long enough to break the seal on normal society. Even the cleanest tourist realizes that having a bakery, store, and bar in such a place is not something to be taken lightly.

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M and I headed north last night to get a good, light-free look at the aurora borealis, which was forecasted to be very visible. It was not, at least when we were still awake. What we did find was the Northern Lights Saloon, open for their last pizza night of the year.

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The Lights is an old cabin with a kitchen and restroom grafted on to the back. In mid-summer, the bar and tables inside are empty, the picnic tables out front in the shade full. On this cold and clear September night the outside was empty, and the small bar and five tables full to overflowing.

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The Lights has a good kitchen, beer on tap, an excellent whiskey selection, and a very old cash register which still works. We stood around the wood stove, warming our feet, drinking beer, and talking to friends until a table opened up.

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Thecla, one of the servers, was named after her grandmother, who homesteaded in Wyoming and became a postmaster when women weren’t normally hired because no one else was available, and the office in Washington didn’t know how to gender her name.  M took St. Thecla, who miraculously survived burning at the skate and a sentence to be eaten by wild beasts, as her confirmation saint.

We ate pizza, drank more beer, and more whiskey than I’ve had in a long time (not saying much).  The intimate night seemed both solemn and joyful.  We toasted ourselves, and 11 years of marriage next month.  We toasted our friends, and reacquainting with them after a good summer.  We toasted Rob Kehrer, Cody Roman, Ted Leach, and everything having to do with finitude and memory.  We toasted choices and fate, which had led us to that place, on that night and in that manner.

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And afterwards we went outside and looked at the stars.

nine/50

“We know that America cannot be made strong by leadership which reacts only to the needs or the irritations or the frustrations of the moment. True leadership must provide for the next decade and not merely the next day.”

-President Lyndon Johnson, upon signing the Wilderness Act

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Somehow it felt appropriate to contemplate the Wilderness Act yesterday. All the valedictory pronouncements made last week, on the 50th anniversary of its signing, seemed a bit soupy until I looked at them through the filter of our last, shameful, decade of American history.

I was in History of Early Modern Philosophy at Grinnell College when news of the 9/11 attacks went public. I remember trying to check CNNs website, the first occasion I had ever done so, and it being down. I recall Allen Schrift’s Cultural Critique seminar that afternoon, at which he made attendance optional, and where we had a discussion about the appropriate federal reaction(s), and the utility of punishment and/or vengeance.

I do not think it is a contentious statement to say that as a country, most of our reactions to the 9/11 attack have made us weaker, both intra and inter nationally. The debacle of Bush foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan is axiomatic, and the role that being at war playing in getting George W a second term which in turn exacerbated other problems (such as partisanship and the Great Recession) is only incrementally more debatable.

Less spectacular, but more widely pernicious, have been things like increased airport and border security, and more overt and aggressive counter-terrorism and intelligence work. While certain measures in these areas were surely needed, it has always seemed that the majority of their intended effect was internal reassurance. Rather than feeling like a country at war via public calls for enlistment and national sacrifice, we the US spent the 00s feeling like a country at war because of the Orwellian elements which became ever more pervasive in our daily lives. The result is that we Americans do not trust ourselves as much, do not trust the world as much, and have spent the last six years with a President who has wasted most of his considerable potential attempting, with minimal success, to fix a mess his predecessor created.

The US needs to become accustomed to a different position on the world stage. More importantly, we the citizens therein need to become content with a very different national self-image. The current narrative of American Exceptionalism assumes that our position as best-in-the-world GDP during the 1770s, built on New England mercantilism, and our position as best-in-the-world GDP in the 1950s, built on post WWII internationalism, went uninterrupted in the centuries between. Instead, both periods were aberrations, twists of global-historical fate which came into being based on many things, only a few of which were subject to direct, national control. The contemporary view of national self-worth built directly upon a narrow, currency-based idea of capitalism will not take us to places we want to go over the next half-century. A collective, national, unconscious rebellion against the inevitable move towards something else goes a long way towards explaining the Bush myopia, as well as the ever-more virulent anti-Obamaism (racial integration being as good a proxy as any for categorical cultural change in the USA).

How then might the US be exception at the end of this century? Or, to put the question in a less jingoistic fashion, how might a more productive and efficacious national identity be built upon something which is essential and unique to America?

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The answer is, rather obviously, wilderness.

America is unique in that we are a large country in a temperate (read: economically desirable) part of the world which has both not despoilt all it’s wild lands and already passed the peak of industrialization. We made it through the 30s doing plenty of damage (building roads across Glacier NP and southern Utah; for example, both previously roadless), but survived that and the interstate highway boom of he 1950s with plenty of the west intact and roadless, or at least unpaved.

It is safe to say that none of the great roadless areas of the American west will ever see roads in them. It is also safe to say that the US is uniquely placed to be an international role model, for China above all, in how to build a sustainable economy and culture around leaving the greater world alone, insofar as extractive use is concerned. The Wilderness Act is a relatively rare law epitomizing future thinking, and because of this it is indeed special and worth celebrating.

So hopefully in the next 50 years America will be able to get a good start on radically redefining ourselves. Success and happiness will have to become more nuanced ideas. On a family level, net population increases and gaudy consumption will have to become shameful, on their way to being legislated out of existence without many or any de jure measures. We will have to see ourselves as exceptional, and as world leaders, in ways much less strident and much more humble.

And where better place to learn ones proper size than wilderness? Nowhere. Happy birthday Wilderness Act; now help save us.

The 2014 shoe report

Disclaimer: Several of the shoes discussed below were given to me, free and under the expectation of a published review, by the manufacturer. Others were purchased at an industry discount, while one was bought at full retail.

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Clockwise from upper left: LaSportiva Vertical K, Altra Lone Peak 1.5, LaSportiva Boulder X Mid, LaSportiva Anakonda, Patagonia Rover, Inov8 Trailroc 235.

I expect a lot from my shoes, almost universally more than any of them were designed for and more than any pair can be reasonably expected to give.  Nonetheless I refuse to compromise or soften my demands.  I don’t expect to ever find the perfect shoe, but I see no reason to stop looking.  What follows here is a discussion of all the dirt footwear I’ve used thus far in 2014.

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I gave the Anakonda pretty effusive praise last year, and followed through on that by taking them on the big trip back in March.  They performed very well during a very stern test, though they returned mostly ready for retirement.  In an ideal world I’d like a proper toe rand, but the rubber works so well that for a trip like that one I’m willing to put up with somewhat limited longevity.

The only issue, which prevented me from buying another pair, was the poorly padded upper edge on the heel pocket.  I came back from that Grand Canyon trip with a bit of achilles infammation, which among other things prevented me from going into the Bob Open with as many miles in the legs as I would’ve liked.  Going cold turkey into such a tough trip was one cause, but I’m pretty sure the harsh back edge of the shoes was another.

The tread and rubber on the Anakonda is flawless.  I cannot think of a single way in which it could be improved.  The fit is very good for me, minus the heel issue.  The upper is not bad.  When LaSportiva fixes the heel pocket I’ll be back in these shoes 90% of the time.

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I wrote a lot about the Rover for Toe Salad, and more months in them has only served to reinforce those conclusions.  They’re a great shoe.  I really like the fit.  The upper has held up well.  The tread isn’t so good in mud, but does quite well in the water and thus makes this a good packrafting shoe.  The rand and decently substantial midsole make them surprisingly comfortable with strap-on crampons.  As seen in the first photo, I’ve been running an extra insole to give them a bit more padding, which I appreciate under a heavier pack.

There with a bit more padding and the Anakonda sole would be close to perfect.  As they are, I’ll most likely be wearing the Rover when I go back to the Grand Canyon for another backpack in late October.

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The Trailrocs are a great shoe, but for me they have limited applicability.  As seen above, the upper isn’t durable enough for me to buy another pair, but the more serious factor is that they don’t have quite enough backbone to be my ideal backpacking shoe.  I’ve worn them on longer trips with a 30+ pound pack, but my legs aren’t quite there, and in such circumstances the shoes definitely add to the cumulative fatigue.  Brendan wore these on our Grand Canyon trip, an impressive testament to very strong feet and legs.

The Trailrocs are a comfortable training shoe which I use for dayhikes and light duty generally.  It’s beneficial to have a more flexible, minimal shoe in the stable to train your feet, and for me these are currently it.

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I really wanted to like the Vertical Ks, as the lightness and cushion of the sole are fantastic, but the forefoot is just too narrow.  Even the lacing strategy above didn’t get the job done.  Anyone want a pair of 45s, cheap?  If not I’ll keep them for short trips, or just let them gather dust.

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The Lone Peaks are the latest addition to the stable, and now have about 70 miles on them, mostly off-trail.  I find myself agreeing with Ryan’s review almost to the letter: the fit, cushion, and stiffness are all fantastic, but the upper sucks and the rubber could use some work.  I’ve already sheared off a few lugs, and in spite of aggressive aquasealing wear points emerged on the mesh over this past weekend.  Beyond spec?  Yes, but not overly so.  Hopefully the 2.0 version is better in this respect.

Unless durability is improved I can’t see investing in another pair of these, but there is a lot to like anyway.

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The Boulder X Mid remains a faithful and dependable member of the arsenal, in spite of being quite different than anything else I own.  A waterproof and stiffer shoe is good for spring and early summer snow, though if you find yourself kicking a bunch of steps in harder snow your toes will suffer (bring crampons, duh!).  I bought these in 44.5 rather than my normal 45, and while this makes them climb better the approach of hunting season and the desire for a durable and warm shoe for carrying a heavier pack in nasty terrain (while going slow and not generating as much foot heat) has me wondering if a pair in 45.5 or even 46 might be nice.  Currently I can’t wear thicker socks without running into too little toe room.

The next hunting trip these are almost certainly getting the nod.  A full rand and stiffer sole have a place off trail, especially with a larger pack.

Unlimited

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Montana has a number of unlimited bighorn sheep hunting districts. Located north of Yellowstone, they only require a tag purchased in the spring of that year, unlike every other district in the state, which require entry into a lottery. Sheep hunting being as popular as it is, success in these lotteries usually takes a decade or three of accumulating preference points. Montana’s unlimited districts provide a unique opportunity; AK residents aside, they’re the only places a US citizen can hunt sheep without spending years working the lottery or spending tens of thousands of dollars on a guided hunt. An opportunity I had to take.

After a bit of research I decided on district 300. This felt like a bit of a cop-out, as it’s a much smaller and less wild area than the districts over in the Beartooths, but a perusal of the biological publications available made it plain that I would be much more likely to see sheep there, specifically in the steep hills just north of Yellowstone.

The conventional wisdom concerning the unlimited districts, 300 in particular, is to get out days before the season opens, find a legal ram and follow him religiously, then stalk and shoot at first light on opening morning. Tales of guided scouting for weeks pre-season and tracking sheep with aircraft abound. Statistics speak a plainer story; the quota in 300 has been 2 rams for most of the last decade, and there have been numerous years when no rams have been killed. Theses places are unlimited for a reason.

As the summer schedule developed in became clear that hunting opening weekend would be out of the question. I resigned myself to eating the tag, but poor weather had the quota unfilled by the end of last week. Game was on.

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An early afternoon departure and fast drive and hike had me up on a ridge for the last bit of light Friday evening. It was a great spot, nestled between outlandish conglomerate rock pillars, bits of petrified wood everywhere, and great light on a whole mess of terrain. I glassed some cows in the low (7500′) meadows, then some not-cows nearby: elk. Getting the spotting scope on them revealed that one of the five was a nice bull. A good start. Glassing the other direction, I almost let out a yelp.  Sheep!  Two light dots eventually revealed themselves as a group of five ewes, casually moving around some steep ledges, eating a little grass.  As light faded I watched them wander into the trees (center left, above) and vanish.

A legal ram in the unlimited units must be 3/4 curl, defined as having horns long enough that a straight line drawn down from the front of the horn base and through the eye will intersect the horn tip.  Thankfully all the above sheep were plainly ewes, sparing me the need to climb closer and find them the next morning to sort out legality.  There was no reason to assume that mature rams would be hanging around a band of ewes in late summer, but seeing sheep was encouraging.

With limited water in my pack and none up on the ridge, I dropped down through thick timber in the dark and after much sidehilling on elk trails, made camp on the edge of a meadow, positioned to drop to the creek the next morning.

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The Outdoorsmans tripod adaptor for binoculars is a brilliant piece of gear.

Water strategy would end up shaping my tactics for the whole trip.  That morning I drank up and brewed coffee by the quick and cold creek, then headed up the ridge with a gallon in my dromedary.  I felt the weight of all that water, but the day was hot with amazingly little breeze for 10,000′, and I drink a lot.  After hiking and glassing, then more hiking and glassing all morning and most of the afternoon, I needed to reverse back down to a small lake, tank up, then head west to be in position to glass some new basins that evening and the next day.  Other than this lake, and the creek down in the valley, there were no known water sources.

That’s when I screwed up.  Hefting my full drom by the hose, which you shouldn’t do, the little plastic elbow adaptor snapped.  Never mind being unable to use the hose, it’s tough to carry a gallon of water when your bag has a little hole in it.

I cut the elbow down flush with the plug which fits in the small screw cap on the drom, and cut little circular caps to fit inside out of granola bar wrapper.  This kept all but a few drops from leaking out of the full bag, and being careful to keep it upright in an outside pocket, I was back in business.

Thus far in my short hunting career, there comes a time when it’s hard to maintain focus, and easy to dwell on the other things on which your time would be better spent.  In this case, it was easy to look south, 3 miles and 2000′ lower, and think of the trout and grayling I could be catching in the serpentine meadow creeks.  I tried to stay with the task at hand, moving carefully and glassing basins, but it was still hot and having to take my pack off to drink was not efficient.

Soon enough, a clatter in the trees below; hooves on talus.  Sheep!  The trail I had been hiking was the border between the national forest and Yellowstone, and the sheep were on the park side, but animals are always exciting.  To be diplomatic I left my pack and rifle against a tree, and crept back down the trail before slowly edging into the woods where I could eyeball the herd I’d spooked.  Over a dozen bighorns, mostly ewes, with a good crop of lambs, and one ram who was miles away from 3/4 curl.  This was a relief, as I could just relax and watch the sheep feed away around the ridge.  Going back up to trail, I could see by their tracks I’d gotten within 10 feet, just over the ridge, before they saw or heard me.

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Camp that night was one for the best-ever list; a patch of tundra right at 10,000′, at the head of the drainage system I’d been hunting, 20 feet from a massive cliff.  The NPS boundary is probably 4 feet behind my tent, above, and it was an odd challenge to pick a rock-free patch of grass which wasn’t in the park.  One of the weirder things about hunting this area, as the boundary trail up on the ridge is almost unavoidable when moving between basins.

I tried to sell this Solomid last month, and am glad I didn’t as the impressive stability and quietitude in the wind was very handy that night.

Sunrise, and sunset, were both tremendous.

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Glassing the next morning, I saw the only other hunters I saw all weekend leave their horses and camp and hike up the ridge ahead of me to glass.  I’d watched them do the same thing the day before, plain as day skylined 3 miles off.  The trail would take me right by them if I kept on it, and past that back to the car, but working the terrain they’d be in seemed unlikely to be productive.

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As I contemplated my strategy, wrapped up against the very cold wind, a mountain goat wandered across the nearby cliff, eventually bedding in the far right patch of vegetation.  Right situation, wrong species, as the wind would have been good for stalking him from above.  Instead, I decided to hike back past the goat on the ridge, and drop down the slope, contouring down to the valley floor on a path which would take me through as many high alpine tree groves and open patches as possible.  The sheep I had seen yesterday had been in the trees, and much of what I had read about these areas emphasized that sheep lived in the forests, so down I went.

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Remarkably I saw no bears all weekend, but did find this very large and very fresh griz scat soon after dropping off the ridge.  A good reminder that one’s behavior while hunting is exactly what you shouldn’t do in bear country.

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The hours-long descending traverse was damn hard work.  Steep grass and dirt in open sub-alpine forest gave way to steep technical dirt slopes, a few conglomerate canyons to cross, and eventually thick dark forest.  As it had been all weekend, everywhere, the ungulate sign was dense and ubiquitous.  Sheep and elk and goats use this country hard, but finding them in the act is still tough work.

I popped out in the bottom meadows tired, covered in pine needles, out of water, and ready to be done.  The only thing I could think of doing was to keep doing the same stuff over again.  I stopped and glassed plenty on the way out, seeing more goats in the process and shooting one dusky grouse, but mostly I was ready to get a sandwich and be home.  Which, late at night, I eventually did.

There are certainly no regrets about buying the tag and getting out there.  I’m sure I made plenty of mistakes, but it seems like I did plenty of things right and majorily just did not have luck on my side.  Just seeing all the sheep and goats that I did feels quite affirming.  I may not come back to this district next fall, but I’m almost certain I’ll buy one of the unlimited tags next year.

Circles

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I started my outdoor life hiking, and to hiking I will always return. It has been as constant as just about anything else in my life.

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Glacier is an important place in my life. Decades ago during that first visit we did what most people do; hike the highline, play on the pebble beach at Apgar, see St. Mary Lake, and hike down to Hidden Lake.

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No doubt there are a number of Hidden Lakes in the northern Rockies, just like there are a lot of Cabin Creeks and Bridalveil Falls. Common names don’t, or at least shouldn’t, take away the potency of a warm haven during a hard winter, the memory of a family member back east, or the result of a long summer exploration, the moments after which these landmarks were presumably named over a century ago.

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My only memories of that first visit to Hidden Lake are of marmots in the rocks, the thin and precise gravel beach, and the mountain goats walking along said beach, refusing to move around us as we sat fishing. My mom said the mosquitoes were horrid, and we left far sooner than my isolated but vivid memories would suggest.

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There were no bugs this past weekend; just fast clouds and a wind that had us wishing we brought gloves.

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We were lucky.  Mom had called back in the winter and lucked into one availability at Sperry Chalet.  I wanted to get there via the Floral Park traverse.  She taught me to hike and backpack three decades ago, and I wanted to show her what I had done with it since.

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Floral Park isn’t the hardest dayhike in Glacier, but it’s pretty well up there.  The ascents are steep, the descents steeper, and while the off-trail section is fairly short, the constant attention you must pay to both the scene and your footing wears quickly.

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I took pains throughout the day to remind mom that we had plenty of time, and that going slow to go fast is the way to do these things.  Constant, efficient steps with all possible energy saved, and no injuries, is the method of choice.

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When it rains on the 40 degree beargrass, deliberate foot placements are no joke.  The fibrous stalks mimick a slip and slide very well indeed.

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By early afternoon we were in the glacial basin itself, the highlight of the trip, and walking over the wreckage Sperry built as it retreated.

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We took the easy way, walking over the toe of the glacier itself, which is a great way to see the varied ice and snow and the weird formations therein.  I brought a pair of microspikes, which my mom appreciated.

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Unfortunately I did not also bring my crampons, and we ended up wanting them.  The usual exit from the glacier is in late summer a short (~70 meters), gentle (25 degree max) slope up to a rock buttress.  A prominent cairn on said buttress is visible for most of the walk across the basin, a tantalizing marker of civilization.  Unfortunately the lower and steeper half of the slope had melted down into bullet ice, and with a few crevasses below, going up without spikes was a bad idea.  Alternating and throwing down the microspikes also seemed a poor choice.  Precise throwing does not run in the family.  So we were obliged to take the alternate route, skirting around the far side of the basin until moderate rock and snow slopes lead up to the pass.

This is when shit got real, and the occasional fog and drizzle we’d had most of the day closed down to intense rain, 100 meter visibility, and eventually sleet, hail, and snow.  Nothing to do in those situations but keep moving, and make extra sure you don’t tweak a knee on the limestone which was now running with water just about everywhere.  Mom was rightfully worried, having no idea where the trail was, but if the line between safety and disaster is in these situations most especially thick, it is at least very easy to see.

After some cold wet futzing around, I managed to be on a high point at the right time when the clouds lifted for 10 seconds and the large cairns which mark the trail down to the chalet could be seen.  The hour walk down was cold with no hills or even flats to generate heat, but we did have the assurance of a roof, fire, and hot dinner in front of us.

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Sperry if the kind of place the national parks need more of.  At 7 miles and 3300 feet above road, it’s just far enough out to tempt folks out a bit further than they’d otherwise go.  The location is tremendous.  The food was plentiful and excellent.  The staff, led by my friend Renee, were exceptional.  Being there during the first crack of winter into summer made it all the more appropriate and welcoming.

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What more can be said, but that it was a good trip?

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.

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