Seek Outside Divide 4500 by the numbers

This is generation two of Seek Outside’s backpacking/all purpose pack, the Divide.  Specs on this one are ~4500 cubic inches.  35 inches of unrolled height along the back panel, 32 inches of effective height (shown in first photo, below) with two rolls of the roll top.  Top circumference is 40.5 inches, bottom is 36.  The bottom panel is a trapezoid, with a 14 inch side against the user, 10 inch side on the front, and six inch side sides.

This is the pack fully loaded, with a Voile XLM shovel blade in the front pocket.  Fabric is X42, in the very fetching new olive color.

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The Divide is “optimized” for a 24 inch frame, which means that the top of the cordura/hypalon pockets which hold the frame in place are 24 inches above the bottom of the pack.  I have a nearly 21 inch torso, and while the pack would settle a bit with a load heavier than the blankets I used for these photos, this length still gives me functional load lifters up to around 50 pounds.  I used this same frame at 24 inches for this trip, and only wanted a wee bit more height when we took on 8 liters of water at the start of day 4.  You can run either 2 or 4 inch extensions, but that will put the bag higher and create a bit of empty space below.

For hunting packouts, or if I need more load carriage and extra cargo space for backpacking, I’ll run four inch extensions, pictured at left.  You can install extensions with a totally loaded pack.  This puts the load lifter up by my ears, and allows for some gear to be strapped on a la an old external frame pack.  Of course this makes the side pockets mostly unreachable.  Otherwise (middle photo) they are very easy to use.

The virtue of this shorter, wider design is that you can get your capacity by making the pack taller and skinnier, or shorter and fatter.  The far right photo shows the pack rolled down to the top of the frame and not compressed at all, an ideal setup for bushwacking.

One of several “why didn’t I think of that” features on the Divide is the Horizon cross stay, which is a length of 7075 bar, in a webbing and velcro sleeve.  It attaches across and behind the frame, and is curved to prevent emphatic stuffing of the pack from pushing into ones back.  The first versions of the Unaweep and Divide were in essence frameless packs with a frame added, and having only a layer of fabric between the user and load created issue if said load wasn’t carefully put together.  I’ve been messing with a stay in this spot for a while now, with success, but this is a far simpler and cleaner way of adding it.

The side pockets have a scalloped panel in the base, and user-replacable shock cord.  Again, a very clean and simple to build design that I should have thought up years ago.  There is a drain slot in the lower corner, vital in truly waterproof fabrics like X42.

The two fixed compression straps work via aluminum “bachelor buckles” which are light and unbreakable.  They will come unhitched if they aren’t tight.  The top strap attached via the same method, as do the detachable lower lash straps.  These buckles are great here, as when not in use they leave only a loop of webbing behind.

The roll top can be clipped to itself, and the side straps normally dedicated to the roll top clipped across as a third compression strap, attached to a compression panel, or removed entirely.

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The Divide addresses a number of small quarrels I had with the original Unaweep.  The most obvious is the bottom panel, which is tapered both in and up.  This will be much less likely to snag stuff while downclimbing rock and brush.

One of the byproducts of this tapered bottom is that I’ll be running the belt in the lower grommet.  This extra slack allows for a better wrap around the user and thus better load carriage.  In spite of this I always ran the Unaweep in the upper grommet to keep snags to a minimum.  The new Divide also features a large, prominent, and bomber haul loop.

Yesterday I wrote about the potential complexities of getting stuff for free, and how it isn’t just Christmas-like days when boxes of shiny new radness appear.  I did get this pack for free, after my Unaweep (which I also got for free) developed a warranty issue.  Yesterday was absolutely like Christmas, when I busted open the cardboard box and pulled out a pretty new pack which, as I delved into the details, only became more and more awesome.  With Little Bear about, and sleep no longer something taken entirely for granted, I’m much less inclined to throw hours into sewing projects, and it’s nice to have folks down in Colorado who make the pack I wanted, and make it better in terms of features and construction than I could.

Shills and ambassadors

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Seek Outside BT2.  Didn’t pay for the mid, and Seek Outside fast-tracked a prototype nest so we didn’t get munched by sandflies last winter.  Such treatment is both a privilege and a burden.

Getting free stuff is awesome.  And not primarily because you don’t have to buy it yourself, though as someone who went down a not especially lucrative career path my gear closet(s) would be far more modest than they are today if I had to pay, or pay full retail, for all of it.  Getting free stuff from companies is great because it’s a potent act of personal validation.  I’ve yet to meet anyone deep into the outdoor adventure world who does not have a profound level of emotional investment.  From folks who make a living as full time guides or competitive athletes to weekend warriors from the midwest, this stuff gets deep into your head.  Outdoor adventure is also, rightfully, a poorly understood and necessarily modest endeavor.  Unless someone was on the trip with you, or has climbed or skied the same route under comparable conditions, recognition from friends, family, and the social medias ends up being both shallow and hollow.

There is no question that being a “product ambassador” makes you biased, though the nature of that bias will vary widely.  And being an ambassador is not the same as getting free stuff.  Smaller companies send free stuff out to folks directly, usually not expecting it back, and with a tacit or explicit understanding that they’ll get some press in exchange.  Some times this works out well for everyone involved, including the reader.  Some times it does not. On a few occasions it is purely transparent bullshit.  The passionate, educated section of the internet will separate the wheat from the chaff, and the casual, majority section of the market will drive hasty reviews by folks who don’t bother to understand the product (or set it up properly).  Companies will understand where their investment is best cultivated, especially the bigger ones who disperse their free stuff through marketing agencies, and traffic and influence will continue to drive publicity.  Some folks will bend their integrity for publicity, and some will not.

Being an ambassador will make you biased, or at least has made me biased, because you’ll hopefully come to like and respect the people behind the company you’re representing.  Over the past two years of many emails and texts, and one face to face meeting over the greasiest breakfast in Kalispell, Kevin Timm at Seek Outside has become my friend.  When he gives me something I don’t think about using it well and providing concise feedback and incisive online exposure because I want to keep the gravy train coming my way, I do it because when a friend does something nice for me I want to return the favor as best I can.  It’s a more extensive, and more intimate, relationship than most people have with companies, though in the Instagram age that may no longer be the case.

Seek Outside is an exception here, in that they don’t plan internet identity politics particularly hard or well.  In that respect I like to think that they and I are well suited to each other.  Companies select ambassadors to get product feedback, but also to make a lifestyle statement.  These selections are carefully made, and while the more curated online ambassador content distorts reality and is inherently dishonest, quite a lot of it serves to celebrate the great things more “average” folks get up to.  Favoring B list athletes who are more articulate over the reverse can only be a good thing, even if a contributing factor is all too often the way certain physical attributes fit cultural archetypes, especially for women.

No HMG hashtag on this one.

There is nothing overtly sinister about ambassador programs, if anything native advertising on the internet makes more overt that which has always been present.  It’s fairly rare that raw lies and nonsense gets pedaled in the realm of outdoor equipment promotion.  Rather, the sort of distortions and laziness which happen just about everyday compound, multiply, and over time become part of received wisdom.  Is cuben fiber a good pack fabric? Yes.  Is it revolutionary?  No.  Do most people need a four-season or even three-season tent? No. Do you sleep better with a bit of overkill overhead?  Yep.  Was that powder turn in the photo as rad as it looks?  Indeed.  Was it one of only half a dozen such turns during a ten hour day?  Rather.  Reality has often not been great for selling things, and that has not changed.  What has become more in evidence is just how far lifestyle promotion and brand identification programs go towards making money.  Whether the more moral dimensions of how a given company chooses to deploy capitalism will influence your purchase is up to you.

Oversnow travel tools overview and update

This is a brief revisitation and update of an article I wrote for BackpackingLight three years ago. We’re having a proper winter here in NW Montana, and having Little Bear has significantly changed when and how we go outside, so discussing recent changes in the tools for oversnow travel seems relevant.

It’s worth emphasizing that the three categories I use, fatbikes, snowshoes, and skis, have remarkably little overlap.  Each is best suited to a range of conditions which, with few exceptions (fatbikes and skate skis, for instance) is distinct.  It’s also worth emphasizing that oversnow travel is tough.  Fatbiking and snowshoeing are strenuous versions of their summer analogues, and skiing in all forms requires at least a little strength and quite a lot of technique.  Pick the appropriate tool, not just for your terrain, but for the kind of learning curve in which you’ll realistically invest.

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Fatbikes have exploded in popularity since 2012, though the vast majority of this has been a widening, rather than depending, of the market insofar as actual backcountry travel is concerned.  Gear options have become more and better, with narrow-wide single chainrings and cassettes which go above 40 teeth simplifying bikes while still providing very low gears.  Tire diversity has also improved enormously.  However, the utility of fatbikes has always been restricted, however low the gearing, to packed trails (and thus to human-influenced, rather non-wilderness settings, with a few notable exceptions), until very recently.  These truly fat fat tires might be the biggest development in wild oversnow travel in decades.

I really like riding my fatbike, but snowmachine and groomed nordic trails aren’t my favored terrain, which is why my bike gets more use in summer than winter, and why for over three years it’s experienced almost no alterations in its build.  Narrower rims work well on gravel, sand, and rocks, but wider tires made square by wide rims is without question the way to go for snow.  If the genre continues to mature, and 5+ inch tires do allow for riding truly off the groomed in a range of snowy circumstances, I’ll get reinterested in winter biking in a hurry.  Until then fatbiking will continue to grow in popularity for at least another five years, as it is much easier to learn than nordic skiing, often faster, and better suited to the spotty winter snow coverage which a large percentage of the human populace must needs start to see as normal.

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Snowshoes have changed hardly at all in the last few years, not a surprising thing for such a staid and I assume low-money category.  I summarized my own views just the other day, and while I’d like to see a binding similar to that older MSR widely available, and in a lighter snowshoe, there is clearly not much demand for such a binding, and I don’t use snowshoes enough to pay a premium price for premium weight/performance ratios.  For the moment, Northern Lites provides excellent light snowshoes, MSR makes the best high traction snowshoes, and Tubbs makes affordable snowshoes, as well as options in the often neglected but handy 36 inch length.  Snowshoes will continue to have a place in tight and steep terrain, and for mixed snow and dirt trips, but their justifiable popularity with novices will remains their main reason for existing, which will sadly keep innovation at a minimum.  I don’t expect much interest in this area anytime soon.

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A lot of interesting stuff has happened with backcountry skis in the last three years.  Most of this has been driven by growth in the alpine touring market, developments which in my book only indirectly serve the genuine backcountry market.  Thankfully skimo boots and bindings have been an exception.

Luc recently composed a summary with which I agree and need not bother repeating in detail.  In summary skinny, metal-edged skis are good.  Waxable is best if you don’t have too much wet snow to manage.  SNS/BC/etc systems are crap.  3 pin bindings aren’t bad, but the boots keep getting worse.  Serious, non-field repairable rips are not uncommon amongst folks who put serious torque and flex into these systems, and aside from the all-but extinct full leather pin boots no alternatives seem to exist.

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This leaves the tech toe and skimo boot system, which I’m currently revisiting.  I don’t like the compromised kick a rigid sole provides, and I really don’t like the gymnastics required to get a plastic shell to not create hotspots, but the low weight, warmth, and control add up to a package which is hard to compete against.  The 169cm Fischer Outbound Wax and Plum 145 combo pictured here is a little more than 2.5 pounds a ski.  It has enough camber to give a bit of rebound to a diagonal stride, and is stiff enough for decent edging.  How this rig will play out on multiday trips is yet to be seen, but with 3/4 length 50mm mohair skins it is a kickass chariot hauler.

Canyoneering and accidents

A few weeks ago a few folks got stuck in a relatively remote canyon in Utah.  They had driven 3+ hours off the pavement, descended a technical slot canyon (which is pretty moderate, save the rap which is usually a 60 meter drop off a rock stack), and proceeded down a very pretty canyon to the exit.  Said exit is described on the map as a “5.4 hueco wall.”  Unfortunately it faces north and as it never gets sun in January, never melts off, even weeks after snowfall.  Unable to climb the wall, and unable to find another way out (the nearest alternate on that side of the drainage is ~5 miles downcanyon and easy to walk past), they called for rescue, presumably (public details are thin) after many cold and stressful hours.

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As the above photo of M on this exit a few years ago shows, “hueco wall” sells the situation a bit short.  Thirty feet of sandy 50 degree slab lead to a short, vertical pitch with big pockets and several very strategic carved (by modern humans) dishes.  The two moves M pulled to grab that nice fat ledge she has with her right hand are probably 5.2, but the exposure and fall consequence enhance gravity quite a bit.  I soloed it, hauled packs, and gave M a belay, and when pulling the moves was quite glad to have multiple ascents of the same exit and multiple decades of rock climbing under my belt, especially with rather dusty skills.

Canyoneering in the Colorado Plateau is one of the funnest things in the realms of outdoor adventure, but like packrafting wilderness in the northern mountains (another, slightly colder and more intense funnererer thing) the dynamic of the activity lends itself to folks getting in over their heads.

The Coalition of American Canyoneers administered a survey last year, seeking to analyze the demographics and experience levels of practitioners, and released the report last month.  It’s interesting reading, if you’re into that sort of thing.

That US canyoneers, or at least US canyoneers who frequent internet forums, are majorily white oldish men who make a fair amount of money will surprise no one.  The same can be said of almost any outdoor activity.  It is no less remarkable that fully half of the respondents took up the activity in the last five years.  Hiking down skinny canyons with ropes has been around for a long time, and two decades ago “canyoneering” meant rugged backpacks like the Narrows or Buckskin Gulch.  It’s been around 15 years since Tom Jones started his online guidebook and Mike Kelsey published a technical slot guide, and 10 years was how long it took for public momentum to build.

The rest of the report has some good analysis that hint at the heuristics at play in canyoneering, but for me the most significant conclusion is that a large portion of canyoneers are folks who don’t have a large body of experience, and do have plenty of time and money to pursue their new activity.  Unsurprisingly, this is a good way to end up with lots of rescues.  Everyone makes mistakes, eventually, and some mistakes are even made more often by experts than novices, but some things can only be had by years, rather than days, in the field.  It’s almost always worth being a little patient when it comes to developing technical skills, and it is always worth reading accident reports to save yourself future grief.

Glacier backcountry permits for 2016

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Over the past few years summer backcountry permits in Glacier National Park have been increasingly problematic.  An antiquated mail-in reservation system has combined with a sharp increase in applications to create a situation which was no good for anyone.  Prospective backpackers were stuck waiting until well into May or even early June to receive confirmation or denial of their permit, and permit rangers had to deal with 1500+ paper applications.  On April 16th all those sheets of paper were mixed, put into a random stack, and processed by hand beginning at the top.  Thankfully that system will be no more.

Instead, this year applications will be online.  Reservations will be accepted starting March 15th, and processed beginning that date on a rolling basis (something I confirmed this morning in a chat with the chief permit officer).  Fees will also increase; there will be a 10 dollar non-refundable processing fee, a 30 dollar application fee which will only be charged if you are granted your request, and a 7 dollar per person/night fee (up from 5 dollars in years past).

The important thing here is the rolling application processing.  If you want popular sites at popular times, you need to put in an application on March 15th, or put yourself in the hands of walk-in permits (see below).

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Why bother with these hurdles and fees, when uncrowded and permit-free terrain is available just to the south in the Bob?  Because Glacier has the best hiking, mile for mile, in the lower 48.  Places like the Winds and Sierra have far more extensive alpine terrain, but Glacier’s is distilled to a refinement not otherwise seen.

Because the alpine terrain is so concentrated, and that which can be reached by trail so heavily used during the brief months of summer, backpackers must use designated campsites.  The number of truly alpine camps are few, to keep impact down, and therefore slots at those camps are coveted.

The NPS does do a good job of advertising what options are not taken by advanced reservations.  This map provides a clickable view of all the camps in the park, and once applications start rolling in will show how many slots are available each day all summer.  Walk-in permits are also available, beginning at 0700 the day before the trip starts.  Check the campground status chart, and get to a permit office early in the morning.  0530 is not excessive if you’re trying for a premium site.

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Boulder Pass, Hole in the Wall, Stoney Indian (above), Fifty Mountain, Lake Ellen Wilson, Morning Star Lake, and Cobalt Lake.  These are the sites you want, though Cobalt gets less pressure because it isn’t on any of the main loops hikes.  2016 is not the year for delay.

The Best Snowshoe binding yet

Snowshoes have two reasons to exist: miles which cannot be skied due to terrain, circumstances, or lack of skill; and trips where the snow miles are exceeded by non-snow miles, as snowshoes should not require anything other than ideal hiking shoes.  Because this second reason accounts for the overwhelming majority of my snowshoe use, I evaluate all snowshoe attributes on those grounds.  In this respect I’m fortunate to live where I do, as while steep singletrack in thick timber is occasionally a part of a ski trip, it’s usually a fairly brief stretch.  Folks in New England, for example, might have very different demands on and ways of conceptualizing snowshoes.

Snowshoe bindings for backpacking must be free pivot, that is the binding and snowshoe must move independently with limited or no resistance.  Running snowshoes, otherwise ideal for shoulder season backpacking due to weight, usually have recoiling bindings, which in slushy conditions is a great way to soak the back of your legs from heel to pack.  They must also be immune, as far as possible, from icing, which translates as having no uncoated nylon or fabric components.  MSR snowshoe bindings, and the other companies like Northern Lites, which use a similar design, do both of these things well by using rubber straps with metal buckles, and a urethene or PVC frame.  Unfortunately these bindings fail at the third and equally important task, having a secure yet pressure-free attachment to soft trail running shoes.

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I’ve used current MSR snowshoes quite a bit with trail runners, and this combo gets the job done until conditions are cold or you have to snowshoe for more than four hours straight.  Do both at the same time and your feet will not be pleased, especially if any sidehilling or steepish terrain is involved.  The main MSR straps have to be in a constant state of tension to keep the tooth of the metal buckle from detaching, and with soft shoes and cold weather these bindings are a recipe for frostnip.

Thankfully I found a 50 dollar solution at the best used gear sale on earth a few years ago, in the form of some very old MSR Denalis.  As the photo shows, the midfoot binding is a piece of urethene with metal hooks riveted to the top, through which a urethene strap laces.  This bindings provide a secure fit that doesn’t slip or freeze, doesn’t require a tight fit, and is comfortable in soft shoes for a whole day.  Using them for the last few years has shown that my snowshoe needs are for the moment met definitely.

I’m not sure how old these Denalis are, but they’re darn old.  The oldest Wayback capture with a good picture is 2004, and by then the bindings already resembled the current versions.  Apparently I was fortunate to find these in such good condition, as I’m not aware of anything equivalent which is currently made.  If someone does, please let us know.

As for the other two snowshoe decision points: size and traction, I tend to be an all or nothing sort of person.  If you want ‘shoes for deep winter in the trees where the snow is likely to be light, you really cannot go too big.  36 inchers are not excessive in powder, even for light folks.  You can however have too much traction, as extensive crampons and steel rails add weight and tend to make that nice downhill powder slide jerky.  For spring and early summer you want the opposite; compact, agile, light, and plenty of traction.  The snowshoes shown above have enough traction for morning passes, though they’re a fair bit behind the class-leading MSR Ascent series, and are a bit on the large (specifically, wide) side.  In the end I’m content to have a fatbike and quiver of skis, but only care to have one pair of snowshoes, and these are it.

610 pack, the evolution

My best, conservative, estimate is that since 2009 I’ve built roughly 30 backpacks, and owned a further ~20, which were either purchased retail or given to me for review or prototyping.  This is a large number, especially considering that at the moment we only (!) have eleven packs in house, a mere two of which predate this period of my backpack obsession.  There have been a handful of bags that made it to the finished stage but due to flaws in conception or errors in execution never made it into the field, but otherwise all of these approximately fifty packs have seen significant miles, before they meet the inevitable end of sale, modification, or scrappage.  On the one hand using all these has been a joyful and educational process.  My original pack had a lot of things in common with the ones I’m building today, but it also demonstrates how much I’ve learned about fit, suspension, and features.  I used that pack, with its thin shoulder straps and 1.5″ webbing belt for my very first traverse of the Bob, and while I did fine sustainable load carriage was highly dependent upon shoulder strength and a willingness to suffer.

While I have the umpteenth package from Rockywoods arriving shortly for yet another pack modification, I find myself with less time for uninterrupted sewing than ever before, and a marked desire to sort out the pack quiver and be done with it, at least for a while, opening up a bit of space in the closet in the process.

I could make due with two packs for everything, especially now that the majority of outings require the added bulk of a diaper bag.  The first would be a very large one on the Seek Outside suspension.  That end of the quiver is undergoing revision, and will be discussed in an upcoming post.

The second pack would be a tall, slim pack around 30 liters, one that can serve as a daypack for just about any size outing, as well as light duty overnights.  This is the pack I’ve built most often, and written about frequently, so imagine my surprise when the most recent version, which was built from scraps and whose dimension were in some ways a matter of accident and circumstance, is the best yet, and might be one I can live with for a few years at least.

Similar things could have been said about the very first pack in the 610 series, the white pack in the first photo series,and had I been smart enough to leave that bag alone once I got a satisfactory pair of shoulder straps on it I likely wouldn’t have enough content to make this the long post that it is.  Unfortunately I didn’t bother to write down the precise dimensions of that packs panels, so I can’t be sure what made it so good.  The vital ingredients were a thin but not too thin profile, curves that ran in all three dimensions for good aesthetic and definitive snag-proofing, and a gentle increase in circumference from top to bottom, for easy loading.  That was also the pack where I discovered curved side panels, a crucial feature which I did not invent (our Cold Cold World Ozone has a mild version) but did publicize, and which a few companies have since adopted.

I eventually revised the futzed that DX 40 pack into oblivion, which was fine as that fabric had a fatal flaw.  Several similar packs followed, some of which I have no photos of, as well as a few like the Gossamer Gear Gorilla which were different in size but ended being influential in suspension or features.  The Gorilla and the blue and green VX07 and 210 denier gridstop pack both reminded me that burly fabrics and a clean exterior are beneficial for a pack which will get used all the time, as both were fatally shredded in separate outings in Utah slot canyons.

The 2014 version of the 610 was supposed to be my return to the original, with the addition of a few key features like a full side zip and luxury shoulder straps (from the deceased Gorilla).  The mix of VX42 and X51 fabrics worked well, but I screwed up the hipbelt attachment and got a little too fancy with the panel shaping, and after a year of solid use the lure of the scrap bin was too great.

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All things fabric are subject to change, but the latest version of the 610 is the best yet.

The versatile suspension, discussed here, has proven to be excellent.  Without stays or belt the pack is light and flexible, and with them (how I run it the majority of the time) it can carry anything I’m likely to put in it, including 35 pounds of water and fleece jackets for training walks.  Most importantly the panel dimensions, discussed in detail here, are perfect.

I did change the main side zip out, replacing the #8 coil with a dual slider #10 aquaguard (taken from the now defunct Stone Glacier Solo).  The #8 slipped teeth on a few occasions when closed with force, compelling evidence that it wasn’t going to last.  I also switched out the aluminum hook buckle for the top strap for a little plastic triglide/carabiner hybrid, which came with the Kuiu Ultra 1800 I purchased on sale a few months ago.  The nice thing about this is that it can be detached with one hand (though not with gloves), but unlike the hook stays put when the top strap is loose.  Unless I’m lashing something large on top, I usually just loosen and then slide it to the side when opening to drawcord.  Finally, the refinement of attaching the top strap with a three-bar slider has the unexpected benefit of allowing said strap to be shortened and the excess tucked down inside the back panel, thus allowing you to both have a strap long enough for anything you might carry, as well as a strap which doesn’t flap like mad in the breeze when no excess cargo is being carried.

The whole point of making your own packs is to have exactly what you want; it certainly is not a good way to save either time or money.  While in the end the benefit to me has been deepening my knowledge, it is nice when years of practice gives you something that works as well as this pack does.

 

Forest Service cabins of Montana

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You should know about the forest service cabins in Montana.  Retired patrol cabins, ranger stations, fire lookouts, and private residences which have gone into public hands, they’re one of the great secrets of public lands recreation in North America.

Why am I writing about these cabins now?  Because the Forest Services takes reservations a half year in advance, and summer is six months away.

Most cabins can be driven to, as can the vast majority of lookouts, making them ideal for rest or preparation at the start or end of a backcountry trip, destination for visiting friends or relatives, and most especially for a relaxed weekend away.  Or has been our case recently, pseudo-camping trips with an infant.  M and I have gone on a number of cabin trips intending to hike vigorously and see much of the surrounding area, but that never seems to work out.

These days I make a point to pack at least one good, thick book and plenty of luxury food, while M prefers to pack a jigsaw puzzle.  Little Bear, who has been to four cabins, has yet to express preferences beyond a few toys/objects for drool.  My favorite cabins and lookouts are therefore ones in cool locations and with pleasant facilities, that provide the correct mix of luxury and immersion in the wild.

Aside from reservations in advance, cabin trips require a modest amount of preparation and planning.  A handful have electricity, and running or at least pump water on site, but as a rule you can expect a pit toilet, and plan on bringing all your own water.  If you’re making, and more importantly doing dishes for, fancy meals I’d suggest a minimum of 2 gallons per person, per day.  If you need some extra containers, plastic kerosene jugs are watertight, fairly cheap, and the appropriate blue color.

Other things to bring on almost any cabin or lookout trip include slippers (especially in winter), plenty of coffee and tea, fresh batteries in your headlamp, a battery or propane powered lantern, and a good skillet.  Most cabins are well stocked with dishes and cutlery, and many have a nice selection of cast iron, but sometimes the skillets are a bit rough.  A saw and hatchet or axe in the vehicle are a good idea.  The later to cut out any deadfall which might try to block the road, the former as a backup.  Only once has the axe at a cabin been missing, but when you were planning on cooking on the woodstove, and can’t split wood, life gets complicated.  On that note, be sure to bring some newspaper for tinder, cabins are often short of this crucial commodity.

All the cabins and lookouts discussed below can be driven to with a passenger car and a reasonably skilled pilot, under summer conditions.  The other three seasons can be a whole different affair.  If in doubt call the local ranger district, and be conservative.  During our solstice visit to Ben Rover the normally well-plowed North Fork road was subject to a holiday lapse, and a half foot of new snow on our last night made the spur from the cabin back to the main road dicey for our little hatchback.  Only 8 psi dropped from the drive tires and decent skill on my part had us not getting stuck (though my parents in the 4×4 behind us would have shoved us out).

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If you’re visiting the west side of Glacier National Park, the Ben Rover cabin is highly recommended.  A little less than a mile from the Polebridge entrance station, a similar distance from the Polebridge Mercantile and Northern Lights Saloon, and around 100 meters from the North Fork of the Flathead River, the Ben is a great base for hiking, backpacking, boating, fishing, skiing, hunting, or just hanging out.  It has not very good mattresses for eight, a propane stove, oven, and lights, and a nicer kitchen and interior than many houses.  A 50 dollars a night it is in my book a total bargain.  The only reason we’ve only stayed there on two occasions is not that it’s only an hour from our house, it is that the Ben fills up early, year round.

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Challenge Cabin is another local favorite.  A winter-only rental, the location may not be prodigiously stunning, but it’s a nice cozy cabin with a moderate ski in that makes for an ideal beginner outing.  The parking area is regularly plowed and right off the highway, and the 7 miles in is all on a road which gets regular snowmachine traffic, and is even occasionally groomed.  The stovepipe was recently replaced, and now getting the cabin sauna-hot is very possible.  A small creek nearby means that in all but the coldest weather it is not necessary to melt snow.

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Casey knows a lot more than I do about lookouts in Montana, but my favorite out the few I’ve stayed in is Garver, without question.  By definition lookouts have good views, but the position of Garver Mountain makes these views better than most.  As a bonus, Garver still has its wood stove.  Just don’t try to build your fire in the oven compartment.

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If you’re at the Basin Station cabin early enough in the spring you might well see bison in the field out back, before the NPS and state wildlife comes along to haze then back into Yellowstone (the above photo is from the park, I forgot to get one of the cabin).  What Basin Station is, year round, is a charming and affordable (less than 10 dollars more a night than many campgrounds) place to stay a 10 minute drive from the park entrance.  It has bunks, a quality wood stove, and windows on three walls.  It does not get much better.

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Cabins and lookouts are a great resource.  They aren’t camping, but as family and Little Bear have shown us in the last year, some times camping is more than you want.  Cabins are a great gateway, and hopefully serve to get folks out in the wood who wouldn’t otherwise venture beyond hotels.  This being the case I hope the Forest Service continues and expands the cabin rental program, especially by adding more facilities beyond summer trailheads.  It would also be nice to the see the Park Service get involved.  Until that happens, get planning, and get your reservations in soon.

 

Dumb parent questions

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“Don’t you love him more than you thought you’d ever love anything?” is a question I’ve been asked a number of times since Little Bear was born.  At least as often as not by people who would never in any other context consider making any but the most banal inquires into my inner workings.  I usually limit my response to “Yes, I did.” as most of things I’d put after would be considered rude.  These include, but are not limited to, comments about my ability to read parenting and developmental psychology books and extrapolate how they might apply to me, and comments about the profundity and satisfaction I’ve found in a marriage which had a fairytale start and is more vibrant than ever 12 years later.

In truth, it is handy the LB is objectively as cute as he is, and in the last six weeks as demonstrative, because most of the time he remains a peculiar lump whose existence in the middle of my old life continues to recur, whose worth is largely academic, and whose virtues are mostly hypothetical.  A month ago he was enjoying a purple patch and the roses and unicorns of parenthood seemed quite real, but in the last fortnight travel and the vicissitudes of the baby mind have brought about a sleep regression which has shown parenting to be what it truly is: bullshit.

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Those friendly, idealistic questioners may be capable of a broader, more even-handed view than I am now.  More likely, they’re plus jolie d’etre honnete and incapable of admitting to anyone, including themselves, just what you loose when you have a kid.  If I had to Sophie’s Choice right now I’d keep M and give up LB, and I would not have to think about it for more than a second.

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This will of course change, and LB will continue to smile at me when I come home and be the adorable, agreeable object of attention when we go out to dinner.  He’ll continue to come along on adventures, giving us access to a new world within one of the old ones we held most dear.  I have every faith that all of this will come to pass and we’ll be a happy family for it.  I’ll try not to be anxious in the meantime, and will continue to fervently hope that the little bugger will sleep longer tonight.

 

2015 in 12 photos

January: hunting Chamois and Tahr in New Zealand
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February: backpacking the Heaphy Track

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March: early, early season packrafting on the South Fork of the Sun

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April: animals everywhere in the North Fork of the Sun

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May: my favorite route across the Bob, yet

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June: M is really, really pregnant; and it’s hot

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July: Little Bear arrives, a week late, and on M’s birthday (and I win a new packraft)

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August: we sleep less than we’re used to; eventually leaving the house gets less scary

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September: I kinda, sorta get better at hunting, and we have a gorgeous month of increasingly less-small hikes

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October: we drive from home to southern Utah, with Little Bear, in less than 24 hours and with minimal drama; we take him backpacking for the first time, and he sleeps for nine hours straight

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November: I find that deer hunting with an infant is totally possible

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December: life, at home and abroad, gets easier and more fun

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2015 in one sentence is easy; we took a spectacular hunting and backpacking trip to New Zealand, and then had and became accustomed to parenting our first child.

And some other nice stuff happened, too.

When you add on visiting family before leaving the country we were out of Montana for almost a month in Jan/Feb, and weather could not have highlighted the passed time more.  The two largest (and indeed only) storms of the winter bracketed the week before we left.  They made parking dicey, had cars getting stuck in the middle of the street downtown, and had us worried about delayed airlines schedules.  In our absence it hardly snowed at all, and only got warmer as February wore to a close.  The one multiday ski trip I attempted got cut short due to lack of snow, and I went nordic skiing exactly once.  There was skiing to be had in the high mountains well into June, but with the rivers up and trails dry hiking, mountain biking, and packrafting were far too tempting.  I once again struck out in my attempts to shoot a spring bear in the Bob, but the gorgeous sights I saw in lush and very empty places reaffirmed my conviction that sticking to ideals, however difficult, is the most satisfying way to hunt.  The route for the Bob Open proved to be the best yet; varied, aesthetic and long, with just enough adverse weather to make the crossing feel earned.  It easily jumped into my top 5 all-time list.

Summer proved to be a good one to for outdoor purposes largely miss, though strictly weather wise a bad one to be pregnant and then raise a newborn in.  June was suffocatingly hot, and the heat waves kept coming through July and August, until the inevitable fires got going and we had several memorable weeks when I worried about how long I could take Little Bear out for walks without harming his health.  The haze which was a feature for most of August well mimics the one which still envelopes my memory.  I can recall plenty of time late at night rocking Little Bear back to sleep, standing by the door and examining the Cairn map of the Bob Casey gave us; in the process quite inadvertently cementing that place in yet another way as one of my most significant landscapes on earth.

Our world clarified and grew along with the autumn, which proved to be long and gorgeous.  M’s parents came to visit and I got to go hunting, which was intense first and foremost because it was the first time I had not slept next to the little noisy lump in almost two months.  On the first trip I did not sleep through the night, but that was also because I brought a tiny tarp and the weather ended up worst than forecasted.  While the various trips further afield proved rewarding and instructive, hunting in the Bob was again the best.  Dead animal with smiling white man pictures are deservedly controversial, but I’m determined to claim them back, because joy won in accomplishment is appropriately represented in them.  My September deer hunt, where a plan perfectly executed with ideal luck had me back at the truck with a full pack within half a day of setting out, will always be a peak moment.

Reclaiming favorite parts of our old life would not begin in earnest until we had managed to take all of our new family on a road trip to backpack and camp, which we did in October, with far less stress than expected.  Our miles were modest, but when we got back home and our only regret was that our days entirely together were for a while at an end we felt that we had really accomplished something.  That sense of achievement has only grown since, right though the recent holiday season, which was the best I can recall in my life.  Not only does the evidence suggest that we can do this parenting thing, it seems that we’ll be able to do it sustainably and with a margin of error, we will in short be able to thrive.  And that is something to look forward to.

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