The five-foot tarp

R0010622A five foot wide tarp is a dead useful thing to have around, for emergency use, hiding from the weather to cook or glass (above), or for a primary solo shelter which will force one to use good site selection and pitching techniques.  It’s also an excellent and relatively cheap and easy MYOG (make ya own geah) project.

Why 5 feet wide?  Most silnylons are between 62 and 58 inches wide per yard.  Subtract between 1 and 2 inches for side seams, selvedge, and cutting the sides parallel and you end up with a tarp about 5 feet wide.  Anything wider requires a lot more material and a large horizontal seam, which if you’re like me you’ll find challenging to keep straight and parallel.  I let the pros make bigger shelters for me.

For a 5 foot by 9 foot tarp you’ll need 3 yards of fabric, plus a little extra.  Why a little extra? Because I highly recommend bonded and then sewn tieouts for these little tarps.  So long as there is not a nick point for a tear to start silnylon is dead strong, and you’ll be amazed at the tension with which you can pitch it.  Needle holes can serve as such a failure point, and one of the only out and out failures from the factory I’ve had in my professional gear testing life was on a silnylon tarp whose tieouts were sewn without any reinforcement panels, and with a too-large needle.  One of the side guy points tore several feet along the stitch line under tension while pitching it in the back yard.

R0011059Bonded reinforcement panels are simple with silnylon.  You’ll need the extra bits of silnylon cut into triangles (I make 6″ by 6″ squares, then cut them in half), 100% silicone, mineral spirits, a brush, plastic grocery bags, and a few heavy flat bottomed objects.  Use this technique on both the main tarp and the reinforcement patch.  Let both dry for a few minutes, then press, weight, and let dry overnight.

I put ten patches on this particular tarp; four in the corners, two centered on the short sides, and two each every three feet along the long edges.  More than this is I think overkill.  Center patches for tieouts can be handy, but aren’t necessary and take more work (they need to seam sealed after sewing).


After the reinforcing patches have cured, sewing the edge seams is next.  I roll the edge once, sew, then roll again and sew.  To keep the tarp as wide as possible these seams are as small as is practical, around 3/8″.  Small needles and fine 100% polyester embroidery thread are more than adequate for this job.

After the seams are finished, bartack on the webbing loops.  I used 5/8″ polypro webbing, which is lighter and absorbs less water than nylon, and is more than strong enough.  The tack on the seam is load bearing, and goes through six layer of fabric for strength.  The secondary lines of stitching are for insurance purposes.  I put linelocs on the corners for ease of use.

It’s worth noting that not all silnylon is created equal.  The good stuff will feel silky and have a substantial coating on both sides.  The less-good stuff will be more crinkly and slicker.  The reinforcements on this tarp were cut from sil I bought from Bear Paw Wilderness Designs, which did not seem to be good stuff.  I reordered from Ripstop by the Roll, which was more satisfactory.

Camping with such a small tarp is quite practical, even in bad weather, but requires the use of good pitching technique and when the wind kicks up, trees for shelter.  I took this one on my sheep hunt last month, and on both evenings had to repitch during the night to get more protection from blown precipitation.  Had I been more conservative from the start that would not have been necessary.  After each repitch I slept well and myself and my gear stayed dry.

The real value of a small tarp like this is as an emergency shelter.  It will not take too many forced nights out (or planning nights without a sleeping bag) to make you realize that the condensation make mylar bivy sacks less than ideal.  Better to have a tarp which can keep the wind off and keep you dry by allowing your clothing to breath.  As such, making your 5 foot tarp out of bright fabric, for signalling purposes, is something worth considering.  This tarp fits into a softball sized stuff sack and is therefore a practical companion for ski tours and other day outings when emergency shelter might make a big difference.

For those who don’t care to build their own, quality options are available from Oware (50 dollars, basic tieouts) and Mountain Laurel Designs (100 dollars, deluxe tieouts).

Roasted venison BBQ

An easy and versatile recipe which works well with larger roasts which might be a bit on the tough side. In this case, the whole bone-out front shoulder from an old mule deer doe: tons of flavor, but not particularly tender when cooked rare.


First thing you’ll need is the venison marinating in the rub, in a ziplock, for 4-5 days in the fridge. The rub is made with a very large amount of sea salt and brown sugar (perhaps as much as a quarter cup each for a 5+ pound roast), and a merely large amount each of paprika, curry powder, garlic powder, and coriander. A bit of olive oil will help the spices stick in a more even manner.

Second you’ll need some fatty animal stock, in this case chicken stock I made at home. This is the key to making things moist, so you’ll need quite a bit, probably a quart and a half for a 5 pounder.


Put some oil in a cast iron skillet and give the roast a nice brown, then put the roast in a big baking dish, with the stock, and cover with a tight fitting lid. Use some beer or bourbon or whiskey to deglaze the pan into the stock.


Bake in the oven at 375F for 4-5 hours. You want to get to the point where the meat can be shredded with a pair of forks. Check periodically and add liquid as necessary; there should be around 2 inches at all times.


Once done, shred the meat and mix thoroughly with the broth, then serve. This works on sandwiches, in burritos, and plated with traditional dinner sides like mashed potatoes. You can also cook it with veggies and potatoes and end up with a spin on traditional pot roast. For spice lovers, add a pile of well chopped onions and jalapenos before cooking, and serve with rice, beans, and guacamole.

Little Bear rides the wind

R0010902We still haven’t taken Little Bear backpacking, which I feel bad about. He’s proven to be a good sleeper, but still fusses and cries unpredictably and fairly often, especially during nighttime diaper changes.   Frankly, I still can’t get it out of my head what a fantastic predator call his wailing is, and thus we’ve been sticking to dayhiking only.  But that will change soon.


DSC09565The Moby wrap proved to be too slow to rig and way too hot for anything above freezing.  The Vatanai is faster to use, comfortable, and secure, but the cotton fabric soaks up sweat and after a few hours on me gets a bit nasty (and is not sustainable for overnights).  I made a copy of the Vatanai out of a thin, tightly woven and low stretch 100% rayon I found at Joanne’s (shown above), and while getting even shoulder pressure is tougher than with the thicker Vatanai, this seems like the way to go.

In either case, carrying a 14 pound infant on your front is a workout, and makes 12 mile dayhikes much more strenuous than than a pack 2-3 times as heavy.

R001074812 miles is our longer outing yet, out and back to visit artifacts from LB’s namesake before the ranger station was locked for the winter.

R0010868LB loves walking, and reliably falls asleep after 20 minutes.  When he wakes up he enjoys cooing at the wind and play of shadows in the trees, and so long as he is bundled properly seems to prefer a good stiff 15+ mph breeze.

Layering under the wrap took a bit of learning, and requires fast drying layers a bit on the light side, with pockets placed so he doesn’t have a zipper pull in his chin when he falls asleep against me.  The XXL windshell I bought to go over both of use hasn’t been used too often, but is effective and was a good idea.

R0010813As cute as his down jacket is, fleece is better for getting drooled on and is less slippery in the wrap and on a coat or pad when being changed.  The Patagonia fleece bunting is fantastic for sleeping, with easy access for diapers.

R0010973R0010909Lookout trips have been valuable tests for the real thing.  The first time, back in early September, he slept very poorly.  A few days ago in the Yaak, he slept just as well as he might at home, and even went back to sleep after a diaper change without feeding.

R0010960The most important practice is, naturally, for us.  These outings are a lot more stressful not just because we have another living being to caretake, but because of the many added things we cannot well control.  40 minute feedings along the side of the road as evening grows alarmingly close are good for building patience and a detachment from particulars which I’ve largely avoided cultivating.  Presumably it will come in very handy in a few more years.


Low percentages


Sam came back over the sage at a slow run, white mustache twitching with moisture in the bright noon air. “I like to think I’m a good judge of character,” he begins, then tells me how when he walked to the other side of the pass to get service he looked up after dialing his wife and saw two Bighorns on the steep slope above me. Probably 200 yards away, but hidden by thick pines and the roll of the land. “We’ll go up there together. If it’s a ram and a ewe, I’ll shoot first. If they’re only ewes, you shoot.”

The ridge flattened out after almost two thousand vertical of intense, slow plodding. Games trails, replete with fresh scat and tracks, had been almost too abundant. It was hard to pick just one option to lead me to the crest of the ridge, where I’d be able to walk north, play the subtle, inconsistent wind, and ideally find some bedded animals. Another fresh game trail led just along the east edge, high enough to be easy going, far enough off the crest so that you wouldn’t be skylined, no matter the angle of the viewer. The forest was thick, but open underneath, light filtered by a tight green canopy of needles, ground almost devoid of greenery. Off-grey scaly pine trucks, six to twelve inches in diameter, made the intermediary between air a dirt a multivaried cathedral library of monochromatism, where I could see everything and nothing within 200 yards. Including a patch of static texture down the hill which engendered suspicion.

I was quite sick of hunting as I contoured back along the hill into the wind, intentionally taking the path of poor visibility to stay out of the 40 mph gusts which had deafened and almost knocked me over on the ridge above. Aside from a black sow grizzly and her two fat, sleek, dark cubs on the other side of the ridge I had seen nothing bigger than squirrels, hawks, and ravens all day. I had glassed multiple basins for hours, hiked across the tallest mountain in the Bob Marshall complex, and eeked enough water to keep me up there by melting snow inside my black hydration bladder. It was getting into late afternoon, prime hunting time and in a good location, and I was struggling against fatigue and repetition to pull my eyes and head into scanning every meadow when I saw the bear.  Big, dark, and 30 yards uphill and upwind.  It stared at me.


I went uphill tight on Sam’s shoulder.  From his description the sheep could be right there, so we went slow and glassed every succeeding roll of the ridge above for tell tale ears and horns.  Footing in the sage was delicate, and there were enough pines growing in groups of 3 and 4 to provide hiding places for animals without giving us much meaningful cover.  The wind swirled, unpreditable.  40 yards from the top, we heard a mute rifle crack.

Stopping and retreating 10 feet, I dropped my trekking pole, rifle, and pack, and pulled out my tripod and spotting scope.  The animal was close, and aside from one excitement-stabbing flash of antler and the persistent, almost invisible patch of grey I could see nothing.  Paranoia against getting busted wrestled with the need to know for certain as I set things up and slowly zoomed all the way to 33x.

Instinct took over as I yelled “Hey Bear!”, and as every backpacker would wish the big fuzzy lump of fat sprang forward in a sudden flashing roll of fat and was in full flight through the 8 foot spruce trees.  Front legs tucked back revealed a white flash of neck patch, and legs forward in full stride showed me the long straight back and tall rounded butt of a black bear.  I remembered that I was not just a backpacker in that moment, rather a hunter, and had just yelled away an opportunity at a close shot on a gorgeous big bear in a spectacular location which would have promised exactly the horrid, multi-day packout I wanted.


After cresting the ridge Sam and I split up and explored the varied and crenulated sub-ridges which ran at angles to the main complex.  No sheep to be seen as we crept along with chambered rounds.  Curiously, down on the plain to the south I saw a figure in orange moving fast, then stop and distinctly throw a hat to the ground.  Sam went down to check the trees, while I went further along the ridge.  It was 15 minutes later, when the tension of the moment had drained out and I had unchambered that round, when I turned around and made my way back towards the saddle, and saw a flash of safety orange down the rise.  The hunter attached to it was engrossed in cutting up a ram.

The deer was feeding amongst the trees, and every 30 seconds when his head came up antlers flashed into visibility.  His back, which was sleek and fat and in plain sight the whole time, gave me a visual checkpoint.  And then, in one moment of inattention away from my spotting scope, the deer was gone.

This particular bear incident is the third in as many years when due to choice or silly circumstance I let a bear go which should have got shot, though this last will remains by far the most memorable.  Two years ago I passed on a 30 yard headshot on a black bear almost on the trail above the beginnings of Meadow Creek gorge because I was convinced he would step out into full visibility, which he did not.  Last spring I went for an evening stroll with a .410 rather than a rifle, and had to just admire a big bear eating grass in the forest above town.  And now this.  I do not have bloodlust, or any particular anger against bears, but due to their mystique I very much want to kill one.  The old tale has a skinned bear so closely resembling a human that many bear hunters have only killed one before giving up the practice.  Bears are long-lived compared to anything else hunted in North America, and their curiosity and unpredictable, omnivorous ways make us rightfully see them as close to humans.  How I will react when I eat one I’ve killed is a question that can only be answered one way.


J was from West Yellowstone, and had killed a gorgeous, flaring, 1/2+ curl ram in the 5th hour of rifle season.  I congratulated him and offered to help pack out the meat.  I retrieved the gear I had dropped on the other side of the ridge and loaded a heavy ball of Bighorn into the top of my pack.  The ram would make for a heavy load in his pack, and he could give me water at his truck, and it seemed like the right thing to do.  The particulars of the stalk and shot are not mine to tell, but online reading reveals that when the sheep emerged from the trees and up high into ready visibility at least four hunters were converging from different points, and J got there first.  The ram was an extraordinary animal, with horns heavier than I ever would have thought.

With rifle and binoculars I moved a few feet off the ridge, trying to relocate the deer.  After a few minutes I did; he had sauntered uphill, closer to me, and was still feeding.  I kept an easy eye on him as moved down and away, bent double, trying to both not look like a person and find a good opening for a shot.  He seemed to know something was over there as he kept both looking my way and eating undergrowth, but he was not spooked.  At last, I rifle in my lapped crabbed crawled down under a fallen tree hung with spare strands of moss and had a clear window.  The deer’s clean grey shoulder was visible in a 8-10 inch window between trees, with his head clearly visible in another window to my right.  I settled my feet into solid divots of loose earth and old pine needles and my brain turned to auto-pilot: forearms on thighs, core solid and relaxed forward, safety off, sight picture steady breath, breath, breath, squeeze.  The rifle went off the deer bucked, then gave one great movieesque leap and disappeared with a crash downhill.

Everything was fucked up that night.  After a long sidehill on a great game trail, then 90 minutes of chest tensing still hunting through some very promising forest groves down to the creek, I made camp.  I was not paying attention, and had to repitch after my first flat spot was in the falling path of two dead and creaking trees.  Then my food hanging rope got stuck in the trees and after attempts to pull it down and shot the limb off failed, had to cut it.  Plainly, it was one of those windy nights when it was best to just call everything off and go to sleep.


I did not see any more sheep that trip.  I drank a beer with J and headed back into the hills with full water bags, and apple, and a large piece of backstrap.  The later I ate that night, after running ridges glassing in the cold wind, rubbed with olive oil, salt, and cayenne pepper, pounded flatish and cooked directly on white-hot coals from the same huge sage plants the sheep had been making a living in.  It snowed that night, which had me up at 1am to repitch my tiny orange tarp.  Snow was good, as it would show tracks, and I spent the next day searching likely patches of timber for the at least two sheep which got away the day before.  Without success.  No fresh tracks of any kind, save one dusky grouse whom I decapitated with a 165 grain round at 20 yards.

I chambered another round and ran down the hill, worried that the deer would be gone.  After the crash, I had neither heard nor seen anything.  The forest floor was dry, strewn with pine needles, and carpeted in many places with a small shrub which often featured red patches on the leaves.  I couldn’t determine where the deer had been when I shot, and could not find any blood.

It was hard to be motivated the next morning.  The sky was intense and clear and the wind still shrieked far above, and my legs ached.  A morning on the bench above revealed nothing promising; some older tracks and some fairly fresh rubs, but no recent sign and no animals.  My mind kept wandering, no matter what I did.


With the woods preternaturally quiet and the strangeness of being two nights away from home sitting deep in my chest, I looked at my watch and decided to leave.  I had enough time to take a rough route out, glassing a new basin in the process, hit the Patagonia Outlet in Dillon to get Little Bear some clothes, and still be home only a bit after dark, when he might still be awake.

After walking in a few circles I decided it would be better to not be a hasty idiot.  I built a small cairn on a log to mark where I had been, then went back up the hill to grab my pack.  I then tracked my stalk down to my shooting position, and held a glance at where the deer had been as I walked straight to it.  I followed a few fresh tracks down the hill, keeping close the first-hand knowledge that deer tracks can be 15 feet apart when the animal was in full flight.  Two bounds down I found blood.  Bright, fresh, copious blood.  Another big step, and more blood, then a massive puddle and smear on a barkless log, then nothing.

With the heat of a bright Septmber day building and no better plan I decided to walk down the creek bed for miles.  It promised to be rough and entertaining, and maybe I cut a track or jump the odd creature seeking comfort.  Not a compelling plan, but the best my mind could stomach.


Driving home made it quickly clear that I could live with my decision to go home a day early.  It would have been gratifying to notch that particular tag, and I had a reasonable chance to do so thanks to the generosity of another, but the odds just did not work out.  I had identified the most likely spot to find a sheep and been there first thing opening day, but weather had negated that early advantage, and with the increased pressure it seemed plain that finding more animals would be a low percentage game indeed.  My remaining days were plainly better spent in pursuit of deer, elk, and bear in places where there would be far fewer hunters.  That aspect of the worst prognostications for the Tendoy hunt plainly came true, but every one I met were courteous and generous, and I left the big sage valleys with the conviction that my time and money had been well used.

I went back up the hill to bloody log and started down on another tangent, under the assumption that a deer so wounded would have no reason to do otherwise.  And there he was, lying in a pile against a big log just out of sight.  The things which make a successful hunt, including the patience to place a good shot and track the animal properly, are simple and basic.  But their reward is ineffable.

I saw no more creatures that hot day, save some very tired hunters going very slowly out on horseback, and an energetic grouse who got away.  My deer meat, in the trunk in a cooler with two blocks of ice I had purchased two days before, was still cold.  I switched shoes and got on the road, stopping for gas station pizza and iced tea to make my trip home the shortest it could be.


The question of effort in hunting is still an inscrutable one for me, with every choice open to questions of efficacy.  You can do the same thing on a different day and it might work out well, or due to fate or your lack of care or attention might just not.  Time in the woods plainly helps engender success, but the question of what best enhanced those odds is still one I do not clearly see.

I just know that when hunting goes well it is immensely rewarding.  Five hours after I left the car that Saturday I was back with a heavy pack of meat, thanks to a good plan, decent execution, and some luck.  Which is all that can be reasonably requested.

All about insulation

Insulation in outdoor clothing can be confusing.

The common question is “will ___ keep me warm during ____”, which is as understandable as it is naive (and bluntly, stupid).  Clothing does not make you warm, clothing keeps you warm, and neglecting metabolic training (ex: burning fats), proper fueling and hydration, and technique (ex: slow down in last 30 minutes before camp to minimize sweat) will always result in failure no matter how fancy your duds.

That said the confusion is quite understandable.  Outdoor marketing hardly ever emphasizes technical details, and many companies outright hide the relevant specifications (and their CS folks often don’t know them).  Appealing solely to “core” outdoor users may not be a sustainable business model for outdoor clothing even under ideal circumstances, but even if it is companies and trade industry groups have made clear that their growth strategy is not growing core users, but in making the tent bigger by bringing in marginal outdoor sports like running and area skiing.  There’s little need for the generic runner or skier to have intimate knowledge of their insulation; they can just go inside, and so long as this is the case knowledge will remain too often at arms length.

To evaluate how warm a piece of clothing might be you need three things: what sort of and how much insulation is in the piece, what shell and liner fabrics (if any) are in play, and how warm comparable pieces have proved for you in the past.  This last requires getting out a decent bit, and buying at least a few pieces of insulating clothing.  It also requires maintaining a sense of your body composition and metabolism: go from 15 to 10 percent body fat and once stopped you’ll get a lot colder a lot faster.  Assuming you know these three things, the following are general principles and suggestions for figuring out how warm a given garment might be, as well as some assorted guidelines for sorting through the noise and hype.  In no particular order.

R0000075Insulation has as much to do with stopping air flow as it does with trapping volumes of air.  The advent of Polartec Alpha and the rush to build synthetic puffies with air permeable fabrics has demonstrated this well, as does the remarkable insulting value maintained by my totally cashed out Rab Xenon, whose shell and liner (both Pertex Quantum GL) are exceptionally air impermeable.  High-dollar shell fabrics like Quantum absolutely make a jacket warmer.  I’m not sure it will ever be possible to make a fairly air permeable fabric which is downproof, but if it is it’d be interesting to see how breathable (and thus, potentially cold) a down puffy might be.

External moisture is rarely a problem for down garments unless you do something neglectful (read: fall in creek).  Ambient humidity and internal moisture are far, far more problematic.  I’ve used hydrophobic, treated down in two applications; first when I overfilled the top third of my Feathered Friends Vireo with 3 ounces of 800 FP treated down from Thru-Hiker, and second in my recently purchased Sierra Designs Better Vest.  Thus far I am not impressed.  A common scenario would have me arriving at a stop (be it to glass, fish, have a snack, or set up camp) with a bit of moisture in my system, especially under my pack.  I try to let this vent as far as possible before I get too cold, but my insulating garments inevitably end up over and covering this moisture, and having to let it pass through.  Alpha does this very well.  Lighter (sub 4 oz fill) down coats generally loose most of their loft over my back and leave me cold.  The Better Vest does exactly this, though it does puff back up (dry out) quite a bit faster.  So maybe there is something to DriDown.  In any case, “tests” like this one are at best misguided and at worst monumentally ignorant of what goes on in the field, and down still has acute weaknesses.  It also remains the only practical game in town for serious cold.

The corollary is that synthetic insulation is still a very useful thing.  All the major sorts of synthetic insulation are way more alike than they are different, save the form they come in.  Climashield maintains loft longer, due to construction, but drapes less well and thus lacks the street appeal of Primaloft.  Alpha is far less warm per weight, both due to the insulation itself and because the shells fabrics are thus far much more air permeable.  Though as I explained above the practical advantages make Alpha (and the like) a very appealing option for multi-day stuff.

I would put 240 grams/meter fleece, a generic 2 oz/800 fill hoodless down coat, and a 60 grams/meter Primaloft One/Gold jacket as roughly equivalent in warmth, if you assume the fleece has a windshirt over top.  Comparing Alpha is as mentioned problematic, but you’d probably need 90 grams/meter to be on equal footing.

Comparing fleece is a complex subject due to the many permutations beyond mere fabric weight.  One major trend over the past decade has been in hi-loft fleeces, which seek to provide more warmth for the weight.  When new these work, and the ones which are shaggy both inside and out are the faster moisture movers of the really warm stuff (think midlayer for skiing at -30).  They do loose loft with use, and there is a lot to be said for the way dense, thin-for-weight old school fleece balances insulation, weight, breathability, and longevity.  The Kiwis know this and keep using microfleece in a variety of weights, when US and now even UK companies have largely abandoned them.  Grid fleece is superior against the skin, generally, but for all-around use microfleece hasn’t really been improved upon in over two decades.  The lycra content in so much of the new stuff gives it a severe handicap.

Variations in clo rating less than .25 are generally less significant than the inter-rater variability when discussing garment warmth.  Put another way; quantifying garment warmth can only get you so far (not very).

IMG_3588So what’s good out there?  The lightest versions of grid fleece, like Capilene 4 or the new Sitka Core LW, make fantastic baselayers.  For midlayers for moving, microfleece around 160 grams/meter is hard to beat.  Rab just discontinued their Micro Pull-On, and if you don’t already I’d highly recommend snagging one.  I’d like to see them make a vest version, too.  There are many shirts like it but in typical Rab fashion the evolved cut puts it above the rest.  There is still a lot to be said for the versatility of a lighter synthetic jacket, and again Rab lead the field with the Xenon X, which has all the right features and light, windproof fabric.  I’d love to see a 80 or 100 gram/meter Xenon, in the old Quantum GL fabric.  It took me a while, but I’ve really warmed up to the Rab Strata, and their new 120 gram/meter Alpha jacket will likely be excellent for ski touring and the like (weight notwithstanding).

I’ve never been a fan of the down sweaters, as especially once loft is degraded they have too little warmth for the weight.  So I’m a fan of the recent trend to make sewn through jackets with 4 or so ounces of fill.  Much more practical.  Some folks will need a massive, baffled parka, but most can do fine with a 4 oz/fill down hoody in addition to the fleece or synthetic they already have.

So, good luck cutting through the nonsense.

Little Bear goes to Granite Park

R0010531Some places are a big deal.

R0010594Even after his best (longest) night of sleep yet, it is still really easy to stay home and avoid the dis-ease that comes with doing anything new.

But that’s not very fun.

DSC09529What used to be a simple and rather prosaic, if exceptionally scenic, dayhike is now a somewhat daunting task.  And a much more fulfilling and enjoyable (and with a 13+ pound infant in a wrap, strenuous) one.

R0010555We still haven’t taken him backpacking, but that’s hopefully very soon.  Every day is new and nothing can be taken for granted.


Planning pile: Tendoy Bighorn hunt

I’m nervous about being rusty.  It’s been almost 3 months since I went backpacking, and while taken as a whole it isn’t exactly a perishable skill, the profusion of little things which come together to make a backcountry trip go smoothly make it easy to forget stuff.  So I’ve got a nice pile on the couch in the guest room to ruminate upon for the next 24 hours before I shove it in a pack.  It already took longer than it ought to both remember and then find tent stakes.

Some background is in order, starting with why sheep hunting is such a big deal to hunters.  The obvious answer is scarcity: there are less than a thousand bighorn tags available in the lower 48, and a lot of folks who apply for them every year.  Premium units (read: places that have particularly large-horned sheep in fairly accessible places) take somewhere near a decade of applying before your odds go above 1%.  But why so much demand?  I’m not entirely sure.  I think part of it has to do with how many hunters seem to be hunters only, and will never visit sheep and goat country without a tag in their pocket.

In any case, when my application for a ewe tag (in the best-odds unit in Montana) was denied this summer I started thinking seriously about this hunt.  Sheep were pushed perilously close to extinction by the early 20th century (at least on sub-species was extirpated), and repopulation efforts have in the past fifty years become serious business, as states have realized that more sheep in the hills means more revenue from tag sales and the increased traffic that comes with greater prestige as a hunting destination.  Unfortunately sheep are fragile, at least when it comes to diseases which are often carried by domestic livestock, and many herds (both reintroduced and native) have been plagued by die-offs.  Exposure to domestic sheep leads to an outbreak which often takes out over half the population, a serious matter when even the most robust of the herds in Montana are genetically isolated to a large degree.

In the light of serial die-offs Montana Fish and Wildlife, for lack of a better option, has decided to kill off the entire Tendoy Mountains herd via hunting, and reintroduce other sheep which will hopefully be healthy.  An unlimited number of tags were sold in the first two weeks of August (rumor is that it was 314 total).  With an estimated 30-40 sheep after the most recent epidemic, things were always going to be interesting.  Lots of pressure and the bad behavior which often follows was predicted, and in at least a few instances seems to have taken place.  My first goal for any backpack hunt is to see no one else, which had me thinking long and hard about whether I wanted to do this, but in the end opportunity ran out.  The only way to learn more about sheep hunting is to do it, so in a few days I’m off for the rifle opener, hopefully with a plan to avoid too many people while still having a decent chance at a sheep.  Worst case, I get a good dusky grouse hunt in while backpacking in a place I’ve always wanted to go.

R0010523Weight is a priority because the Tendoys are high, and I am not in good shape.  Over the past month when the choice has been between a morning workout and playing with Little Bear so M can sleep for another hour, I’ve always chosen the later.  There have been lots of stroller walks with a heavy pack, but I know my legs and feet are going to suffer on this trip.  Highlight, going from top left to bottom right, are as follows.

Sierras Designs Dridown Better vest and Rab Strata hoodie, which will probably be overkill, but glassing at 9000′ can be cold.  Bringing both also allows a lighter sleeping bag.

Rain gear is a Haglofs Ozo and Wild Things wind pants, as usual.  Work layers are Patagonia Rock Craft pants, and the Sitka lightweight Core hoodie, which is very nice (review will appear at Rokslide late this month).  The BD Alpine Start is of course coming too, as every time I haven’t taken it on a trip in the last 18 months I’ve regretted it.

Sleep gear will be my Feathered Friends Vireo Nano with overfill, a torso sized ridgerest (not shown), a 5′ by 9′ silnylon tarp, and a wind bivy (Montbell with Pertex Quantum top).  Having not camped out all summer, a small camp appeals, even if I get a bit damp.

Optics are the usual Meopta 6.5x32s and the Vortex Razor 11-33×50, which is new, and a very welcome upgrade over the Minox MD50.  Vortex tripod and Outdoorsmans Bino adaptor.  Pack is my modified Stone Glacier Solo, and rifle the Kimber Montana in .308.  I’ll have food for 72 hours, a ti cup, and an esbit stove.  Plenty of coffee.

Last, and most important, and thanks to grandma and grandpa, who are coming out to visit Little Bear and providing M with the backup necessary for my little outing.  It will be weird sleeping through the night again.


R0010319As you may have heard, we had a lot of fires this summer. At first the Reynolds Creek fire in Glacier was merely a curiosity; it didn’t disturb any plans we had, and was a novel alteration in a landscape we loved.

Then the big lightning storm blew in the second week of August, hundreds of fires sprouted across Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and hot winds blew not a few into legitimate conflagrations. Suddenly we were living in a haze.

R0010416Compare the above photo of Bowman Lake, from the every end of August, to this one from December of 2010.  Not appealing and, for an infant, not healthy.

Thankfully temperatures dropped just enough 10 days ago, and just enough rain fell, to clear things right in time for a lookout trip with auntie Joslyn.  She brought her ear plugs, but they weren’t enough.

R0010446R0010454The whole short saga has been a timely reminder that the quality and clearness of space around here is the most valuable thing, by far.

R0010480Crisp air that goes for miles and stings nostrils even at the tail of summer.  Rivers whose headwaters set the world standard for purity.  Green valleys marching out of sight, all of them free of human habitation.

R0010518So when cold rain rolled in yesterday evening and forced a breastfeeding family of us to go hide under the trees, no complaints were uttered.

Esee Candiru review

R0010492I hesitate to discuss knives, as they’ve become one of the major talismans of the talk-more, do-lessitude which is such a feature of outdoor culture on the internet. That is not a condemnation of individuals so much as it is a reminder, to everyone, that it is disconcertingly easy to pave the rhetorical road to hell with statements just a little beyond your personal sphere of experience. The amount of information online is such that it has never been easier to become an armchair expert. The problem with this is two-fold, first that being one promulgates technically correct but untested knowledge and thus reifies an echo chamber which both breeds and enlarges sycophants. Second, practicing theory over practice is a particular problem in outdoor pursuits as it cultivates the worst of the unhappy unconsciousness, allowing us to forget why the discipline in question came into existence in the first place.

At the same time knives are utilitarian and beautiful, sheath knives especially.  In no other tool without moving parts can you find so much versatility and utility potentially married to beauty.  I’ve carried one knife or another every day since fourth grade, and appreciate one which can do many jobs well.
R0010497The Candiru is a very small fixed blade.  It’s a hair over 5 inches long, with a 2 inch long, .125 inch (or 3.2mm) thick blade, and is made from powder coated carbon steel.  Handles (“scales”) are available, which attach with bolts.  The steel is powder coated for rust resistance, in a variety of colors (had purple been available last year I would have bought that).  You can buy the Candiru as pictured here for about 65 dollars.  A year ago this included a nylon and velcro belt sheath; today it includes a kydex (molded plastic) sheath.

The conventional wisdom concerning the carbon steel used in the Candiru is that is relatively soft, but very tough.  It dulls fast, is easy to sharpen, and because it is so un-brittle stands up to hard use extremely well.  I haven’t put much energy into researching steels, but I have found this characterization to be quite accurate over the previous year of use.  These attributes combined with the knives unique shape give the Candiru distinct strengths and weaknesses.

R0010501The Candiru is the smallest knife I can imagine being truly good for tough tasks like splitting wood.  Last week I used it, without reservations about durability or safety, to open a can of beans when we forgot a can opener.  I’ve used it, at least in part, to butcher six big game animals, and while a sharper knife like a Havalon is preferred for parting things out and fleshing a cape, the Candiru works well for basic skinning and the heavy lifting of removing quarters and heads.  The subtle curve of the knife and big, but not too big, handles make it feel larger in the hand than it looks.  In both delicate and heavy use it is remarkably comfortable and agile.

For me it’s a survival knife in the real sense of being small and light enough to carry even when you don’t think you’ll need it, but thick, large, and burly enough to do anything a knife should be expected to do.  It’s quite rare to genuinely need to split wood for a fire or cut off tree limbs to build a shelter, but over the past four years I’ve needed to do both, in situations serious enough to make me consider always bringing a small, tough knife on certain sorts of trips.  The Candiru fits this application almost ideally.

There are two major ways it could be better, and I’m not sure either could be simply achieved.  First, while it is easy to sharpen (though due to edge geometry it is hard to get a truly sharp edge), it does need to sharpened very often indeed.  While with most knives heavy use on a trip necessitates bringing along a sharpener, with the Candiru a sharpener needs to come along for any trip where you’ll be doing much of anything with it.  A day of cutting slings for canyoneering anchors, fairly light work, dulls it enough that sharpening is required for continued acceptable use.  I find this to be a pain in the ass.  Second, the carbon steel rusts, quickly.  I’ve never owned a non-stainless woods knife before, and was impressed with how quickly the edge and exposed metal (due to the logo and to chips in the powder coating) rust.  A half day in a wet pants pocket will leave stains which resist anything short of a serious buff job with oil and steel wool.  Cosmetic, but annoying.

Smaller objections include the bolts on the handles, which are inset just a bit too much.  This allows them to collect flesh and gore when butchering game or cutting up fish, and their little edges make this harder to clean than is strictly necessary.  Another minor niggle is, as mentioned, the edge geometry.  I’ve tried both a convex and a standard flat secondary edge (in several different angles), and neither really made much different in the difficulty of getting a seriously sharp edge on the Candiru.  Folks who are better at sharpening than me will surely be able to do better, and I’m not sure there is any way to avoid the steep secondary angle which seems to be responsible for this while still preserving the great splitting characteristics and all-around burliness.

R0010506The Candiru is similar in many ways to my “normal” knife, the Spyderco Dragonfly 2 pictured above.  Both have similarly dimensioned blades, and handles which work bigger than they measure.  Both are very handy.  The Spyderco comes sharper from the factory, and slices better due to this and being much thinner.  Would I want to beat on in way back in the woods during a tricky situation?  Not really.

While I wouldn’t mind it if the Candiru came in a stainless steel and a perhaps subtly thinner blade, overall the design is impressively elegant and functional, and the knife a very good value.  Not a perfect purchase, but one with which I’ve been very pleased, and anticipate continuing to use hard.

North Bob Marshall forest fire roundup

As most everyone knows, the mountains of the lower 48 have over the past month produced a fire season which will be discussed for decades. However outstanding, this cannot be a surprise. The mountains of Washington, Idaho, and Montana all had a fairly to egregiously mild winter, and without fail an early spring and a very hot, long summer. Here in the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, May happened in early April and August happened in late June. The three forks of the Flathead, which drain almost all of the Crown Ecosystem west of the continental divide, have been setting all-time low flows since mid-July.

Most significantly, in the 105 years the last legendary fire season around here, humans have done just about all that we can to eliminate landscape-scale forest fires. There’s a lot more to discuss than I can get to now, but it needs to be said that the month just past, and more like it, ought to be viewed as nothing more or less than a logical consequence of this repression. And we should expect more of the same until accounts are put back to rights.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 3.53.41 PMMaps via InciWeb.

The number of fires in the northern half of the Bob has been particularly noteworthy.  The Sheep Creek fire, which threatened the community of Essex and closed Highway 2 a few times, got a lot of press, but for backcountry folks the Trail and Bear Creek fires are the most significant.  They’ll have the longest term effects, and had the broadest impact.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 3.22.47 PMThese two fires share something will all the major fires on the first map, a start and primary growth in thick, dark pine forest.  Both of these larger fires, especially Bear Creek, generated enough momentum to subsequently burn through some recent previous burns, and up into sub-alpine terrain.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 3.21.59 PMThe deeper red patches on the eastern margins of the Bear Creek fire are especially noteworthy.  The fire ran all the way up Mid Creek, which was mostly burnt up within the last decade, and spotted through sub-alpine fir into little patches in the head of Silvertip Creek.  It was eventually stopped by cooler weather and terrain like that pictured below.

IMG_0955What will these fires mean for backpackers, packrafters, skiers, and hunters?  Short term early rifle season in the Bob may be complicated for many, though the Forest Service will no doubt work to get as many roads and trails open as possible.  Rain and snow this weekend should help quite a bit.  My 1,2, and 3 options for a hunting trip in a few weeks were all affected by closures, but I’m optimistic that in 12 days I’ll be able to go where I had originally planned.

Longer term a few major trails, like the one along Meadow Creek gorge between the airstrip and Black Bear Creek, will be a lot more open (read: hot).  Big game distribution may be pushed around a bit, as what were burns this summer become great areas for feed next fall.  Most significant might be the impacts of the Bear Creek and Moose Creek fires on packrafters.  Fires, especially hot fires in dense forest, tend to put more wood into rivers in the first few years after they burn, and sections like Black Bear down through Meadow Creek have the potential, with plenty of narrow rock sections, to hold some large and nasty logjams.  Certainly something to keep in mind if you end up floating a potentially affected stretch in spring or early summer next year.


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