South Fork Flathead flow guide

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This was originally posted almost three years ago, but I’m bumping and updating it in light of record-setting low flows which will seriously effect packrafting this summer and fall.  I’ll include specific predictions for when I think each section will cease to be floatable, and some trip recommendations.

The wilderness portion of the South Fork can be divided into four or five sections, each with a different character:

1) confluence to Big Prairie pack bridge
2) Big Prairie to White River
3) White River to Salmon Forks
4) Salmon Forks to Black Bear Creek
5) Black Bear Creek to Mid Creek takeout

They are described below in turn. All cfs references are to the Twin Creeks gauge.  (This gauge is below the Spotted Bear river, so it does measure quite a bit more water than you’d see above Meadow Creek, but it is a reliable indicator nonetheless.)

1) This section is open, meandering, with big views, good camping, and often extensive log jams. At flows much below 1200 cfs this section gets pretty draggy, and packraft speeds will likely average below 2 mph. At around 8000 cfs this section is a laugh, and speeds approach 5 mph.  For 2015, I wouldn’t recommend floating this section much past mid-July.

2) Below Big Prairie things get a bit more constricted, and Burnt Park has what are two of the cruxier rapids at lower flows (between river miles 8 and 10.5). At 5000cfs or above these get washed out and are noticeable only as slightly bigger wave trains. Low water speeds (below 1500cfs) are 2-2.5 mph, while around 8000cfs speeds likely approach 8mph in the more constricted sections. Below river mile 11 things mellow out and the river from here to Big Salmon is very similar.  Again, much past mid-July will be very slow for this section, this year.  There are plenty of deep sections that are fine below 1000 cfs, but also plenty of gravel bars and rock gardens which will get very slow.

3) From White River to Salmon Forks the river splits the difference between the first and fourth sections. At lower flows, there are plenty of braids and gravel bars set within low dirt hills, and no obstacles of consequence. Speeds below 1500cfs approach 3 mph. Below 800cfs, they’re closer to 2, with lots of rocks to avoid.  For 2015, avoid this section beyond August 1st.

4) Below Salmon Forks (the entrance of Big Salmon Creek) the river becomes more concentrated, with steep pine-covered walls. This is probably the point below which floating is decent at just about any level. Speeds between 1000 and 1500cfs are around 3mph. At lower levels floating is mellow. Above 5000 or so cfs things get pushy, with the many riffles morphing into larger and larger rapids.  This section is good floating even at 500 cfs in early October, and should be fine floating all year.

5) In the short stretch between Black Bear Creek and the Mid Creek takeout are several tricky bedrock rapids and micro-gorges, which are worth paying heed at any level. Speeds are relatively fast, and the fishing is excellent. Watch out for the final takeout warning sign, which is well above river level and midway through the rapid right after the takeout gravel bar.  Meadow Creek gorge is pretty fun packrafting at low water, and the silver lining of 2015 is that it’s in good runnable shape right now, and should remain so all summer.

Normal July packraft trips in the Bob often involve hiking into and floating either Youngs or Danaher Creek down into the South Fork.  And for good reason, as these trips which see the drainage grow and evolve are the best in the Bob.  This year they are just not going to work.  Danaher is probably only good for another week, if that, and lower Youngs for perhaps a bit longer.  For alternate July routes I’d concentrate on the lower South Fork, and the Middle Fork.  As of this typing the Middle at West Glacier is at 2300 cfs, just a hair above what I consider the ideal level for a full run of all the great whitewater from Schafer to Bear Creek.  In what is shaping up to be the worst boating summer in quite some time, this is just about the only silver lining to be had.

15 days

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Little Bear (aka the kid) is due in 15 days. With no immediate signs of arrival, but with very hot weather, a very pregnant M, and some caution due we took a 28 hour vacation to a cabin up the North Fork, and around Glacier generally.

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When it’s 99 and you don’t have air conditioning the last thing you want is an oven pumping out heat, so I gathered wood and roasted our pork shoulder, corn, and garlic scapes outside. This shoulder was the cheapest boneless cut the store had: little more than a dollar a pound. It got a dry rub of salt, white sugar, and curry powder and sat in the fridge for four days. At the cabin I rinsed the meat, let the wood burn down to hot coals, and slapped it on the grill. The first four flips each got a generous amount of BBQ sauce. The key here is to never cook it with flame, just heat. I didn’t have a second feeder fire and a shovel to refresh the coals, which would have been ideal, but I made due. After almost two hours it was nicely blackened and dripping with juice and flavor.

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Other activities included reading, fishing, shooting cardboard, sleeping poorly, and a much needed rain shower at Logan Pass which dropped temperatures down into the 60s.  If summer continues this hot I will not be pleased.  Now we’re back home, with not much to do and everything to wait for.

Apgar Mountains circumpe/adlel

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If you’re in the Glacier area with a bike and packraft, and have a hot day to dispense with, this loop is a good way to do it. Something around 35 miles and in the 5-8 hour range depending on the river level and how fast you ride, it has good scenery, convenient logistics, and consistently fast riding terrain and the river will both keep you cool.
IMG_1158After riding up the Camas Road in the park (paved, climbs steadily for most of the way, light traffic) cross the bridge over the North Fork of the Flathead, walk down to the gravel bar, and do the obligatory bikerafting gear explosion.  The North Fork between this bridge and the confluence has a few rapids which are no joke at higher levels, as well as some pretty broad and slow stretches, so picking the right flow is tricky.  Between 3000 and 5000 cfs is my suggestion; any bigger and the rapids get hairy with a bike on board (and portaging would be tiresome due to short cliffs), any smaller (like the 2700 I had recently) and the beginning and ending stretches are slow.

I’d also recommend getting a not too late start.  The North Fork usually generates fairly stiff upriver winds starting around 1600, which can make the few miles before the confluence frustrating.

The confluence of the North and Middle Forks is easy to spot, as it is right upstream of Blankenship bridge, the first bridge you’ll have seen since the put in.  Take out on the small gravel bar at river left right at the confluence and put your bike back together.  The old Flathead ranger station road, in Glacier, is atop the hill above the confluence, and is the only real dirt trail in the park open to bikes.  It’s a short but steep push on a fisherman’s trail up the hill, and a mostly fast ride back to the trailhead, dirt road, Quarter-Circle bridge over McDonald Creek, and the bike path back to Apgar.

This trail is gentle enough to do on a ‘cross bike.  I you have a road bike, take out at Blankenship and ride east (well graded gravel) back to highway 2 a few miles east of West Glacier.  A longer and more properly mountain bike version of this would be to ride the inside North Fork road from Fish Creek campground north to a mile or so past Logging Creek, where the river can be accessed via a very short bushwack.  This route is on the long end of what is possible for a day trip, and would make a fine overnighter.  The NPS boundary is the middle of the river, so as long as you camp on the west bank (and not in someones yard) you are legal.

IMG_1160In the name of practicality (Chariot towing) I recently put gears back on the Karate Monkey.  Up front are the same Sugino cranks and 20/30/38 chainrings I’ve had for years.  The 20 is a steel Race Face, 30 a steel Surly, and both have massive miles with no visible wear.  My back wheel is the same Mike C-built Arch on Hope SS I’ve ridden for seven years.  It suffered it’s first casualty on this recent trip; I nipple which broke off inside the rim.  Considering the miles I’d call that a good record.  I used to be able to fit 7 gears, barely, but six is more conservative and the only option now that the edge of the freewheel splines wore a hair.  Using cogs from various low end cassettes I have a 14-34 spread, though the jumps wouldn’t make the cadence-sensitive happy.  Shifting happens via an X9 twistie for the front, and a Durace/Paul friction thumbie for the rear.  XT derailleurs both.

A dual stay light pack

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As good as the Unaweep is, and every time I use any other pack I’m reminded at just how good and how versatile it is, there are inherent limits to the design.  Namely, the size and external presence of the frame.  There are rather few instances in which this is an issue, but problems exist simply to be solved.  Eventually.

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I’ve been enamored with the suspension in this pack, with a few significant reservations.  As readers observed, the foam pad is so wide it inhibits ideal hipbelt wrap.  Unexpectedly, the single stay ended up being the limiting factor, as at certain weights it presents a point pressure against the lumbar, even with three layers of padding between it and the user.  This version has two stays, six inches apart, and a foam panel slot 8 inches wide.  As can be seen above, the belt attaches with velcro a la Gossamer Gear, so the pack can be run without the stays.  The shoulder straps attach with 1 inch webbing, which makes attaching them easier and allows me to swap straps.

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I’ve become a firm believer in wide and thin packs, so the back on this one is 12 inches wide.  Felled seams throughout.  I did outsmart myself a bit here, as with no structure beyond the 8 inch center panel there is nothing to prevent the 2 inch strips on either side from barreling out and making the pack far fatter.  I improvised and sewed a velcro sleeve inside the full width of the back, which currently holds a 1/4 inch by 12 inch steel rod.  Not an elegant solution, but functional.

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Bottom diameter is 32 inches.  Top diameter is 36.  Height is 34.  Standard feature set includes twin daisy chains from 3/8 inch webbing, two side pockets, and an inside zippered pocket.

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Main fabric is X33, which remains a favorite.  The bottom is X51, a great heavy use fabric.  Side pockets, inside pocket, and the exterior of the pad sleeve are WX20, which is light and flexible.  I’m using an old Gossamer Gear belt, and Mountain Hardwear shoulder straps.  Stays are 1/8 inch by 1 inch 7075-T6, which is the only way to go.  Blue foam from Walmart.

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I’ve only put a limited number of miles into it, but thus far it is promising.  The idea is to have the option to run enough suspension when the pack is totally full of heavy stuff (see top picture, with 2 days of packrafting and fishing stuff), and also run it frameless as well as beltless for smaller trips.  To this end the torso length is a half inch undersized.

I’ll keep ya’ll updated.

Fruits and mercy

R0002119 “For centuries, highways had been deceiving us. We were like that queen who determined to move among her subjects so that she might learn for herself whether or not they rejoiced in her reign. Her courtiers took advantage of her innocence to garland the road she traveled and set dancers in her path. Led forward of their halter, she saw nothing of her kingdom and could not know that over the countryside the famished were cursing her.

Even so have we been making our way along the winding roads. Road avoid the barren lands, the rocks, the sands. They shape themselves to man’s needs and run from stream to stream. They lead the farmer from his barns to his wheatfields, receive at the thresholds of stables the sleepy cattle and pour them forth at dawn into meadows of alfalfa. They join village to village, for between villages marriages are made.

And even when a road hazards its way over the desert, you will see it make a thousand detours to take its pleasure at the oases. Thus, led astray by the divagations of roads, as by other indulgent fictions, having in the course of our travels skirted so many well-watered lands, so many orchards, so many meadows, we have from the beginning of time embellished the picture of our prison. We have elected to believe that our planet was merciful and fruitful.”

-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand, and Stars R0002128 Familiarity is a danger.  Friday evening I left home knowing where I would park and how long it would take to get there, and left the trailhead in the late daylight 24 hours before the solstice knowing, to within five minutes, how long I’d walk before camp.  The most unexpected thing about the next morning was being woken up, very early and yet still in the light, by a snowshoe hare hopping slowly over gravel 10 feet from my ears.  I told the hare it was fortunate I had left all shotguns at home before turning over and sleeping for another hour.

The miles that day were dusty, full of hardpacked dirt and gravel which poked me through my thin, old shoes.  I sweated as the sun rose, broken barely every hour by small high clouds moving slowly.  I stopped at choice streams to rinse my head, soak my hat and bandana, and fill and drink my bottle from water I did not care to treat for safety.  My goal for the day was not short, and in spite of however many trips in the past five years still mistook one butte for another and though I was three miles closer.  And for all that the walking still felt effortless.  On days like that one I could hike for the rest of my life and hardly need to eat again. R0002146 That night I floated, fished, floated, fished some more, dragged two trout up into the rocks and partially decapitated them with a rock, for dinner, and kept floating.  Every bend, wave, run, and pink-red cobble was memory trickling up my legs like spiders.  I camped in a new spot, but only new because I’d floated past it last year, twice, with the idea that it’d get good early morning light and had a long flat gravel bar with plenty of firewood. I gutted fish with a rescue knife, wrapped them in foil, drenched them in salt and oil, and listened the the flesh crackle and smelled the skin burn under the influence of cottonwood and pine sticks, baked crisp and clean, burning under snows, floods, and the long late spring sun.

Twelve hours later I was 10 miles downriver, huddled in the lee of a limestone pinnacle reached via a waist deep wade, trying to keep the shadow my rod away from trout 15 feet deep when another packrafter came past.

“How far is the take out?”

“Not far.”

And she was gone.

I casted for another few minutes, my too light streamer impotent against the current and against fish hiding deep from the chilly morning, before a hasty wade and stuffing everything back into my pack.  Hurried paddling revealed the take out two big bends further, and the packrafter standing on cobbles still getting her gear in order.

J works for the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, and this is the first time she’s traveled from one side of the place to another, starting south at the North Fork Blackfoot trailhead five days ago with her friend.  She’s a paddler but rented this packraft, and is in proper awe of seeing the most brilliant boat in action for the first time.  We make the few miles back to the cars in short minutes, chatting all the while, and I’m so thankful for this pure conduit back to my own beginner’s mind that I don’t want to leave, even when the beers are empty and we’re standing around the parking lot with flies covering our legs and the bouquet of horse shit heavy in the air. R0002142 The sentence I cut off the head of Saint-Ex’s first paragraph is “The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.”  I have no doubt he was correct, but that did not contribute to the sense of decorum which was the only thing holding me back from mooning the five Piper Cubs which buzzed the South Fork in formation, 200 feet up, mid-Saturday afternoon.

It’s a joy that the South Fork of the Flathead exists, and it’s a small miracle the road stops at the N Fork Blackfoot and Meadow Creek and that Mr. Marshall and those less famous were able to have it designated a primitive area, back before Wilderness existed in law.  There’s nothing separating this valley from many others, like the main Blackfoot, Swan, or North Fork, nearby, other than that this one is more beautiful, doesn’t have a road up it, and has never been logged.  The most accessible revelation from my first trip down this river five years ago was that this was in fact what a never-logged western Montana landscape looks like, and while I’ve learned many more things since then that thought has grown no less precious.

I will always go back.

The National Bison Range

R0002096If you happen to be in Montana, driving between Kalispell and Missoula or vice versa, I recommend you take a few hours and swing by the National Bison Range.

Encompassing a low range of grassy mountains at the south end of the Mission Valley, the bison range is a beautiful place.  It has been managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service since 1908, when then president (and honorary president of the American Bison Society) Theodore Roosevelt designated it as such.  It was started with bison purchased from Charles Conrad, one of the prominent early residents of Kalispell.  These bison came to live in the Flathead, not a traditional home of bison, when a Pend d’Oreille man returned from a hunt east on the plains with four bison calves in tow.  That was in 1872.  12 years later fewer than 400 wild bison were still alive in the United States.  By 1908 the total population had grown a fair bit, due mostly to private herds like Conrad’s, but also to the presence of the US Army preventing poaching in Yellowstone National Park.  The bison did well on the range, and by the late 20s 28 bison were shipped north to Alaska, to start what is now the robust and wild Delta Junction herd.

R0002098oday the bison range is home to around 400 bison, and in early summer the bulls, not yet in rut, are content to hang out in plain site down low where the best dust wallows are to be found.

For us the range is perfect, and M at 8 months pregnant is not interested in hiking very far.  In most of the range you cannot leave your vehicle, something recent events in Yellowstone certainly endorse.  So bring binoculars and spend leisurely time looking at the coolest mammals on earth.

R0002103The range in good habitat for the full complement of native ungulates, including 1 month old pronghorn.  Elk, both deer sub-species, and bighorn sheep are also common sights.

As a hunter I can’t look at sights like these without something of an anti-Buddhist longing and sense of infamy, but at the same time hunting has made me appreciate patience and observation, and made my game eye much better.  We saw pronghorn pairs, like the one above, a half mile away up on the hills.  It’s sad to admit that in seven years of living nearby, this was only our second visit.  Surely that record will get better soon.

Bring bison back

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is currently soliciting public comments on Bison conservation and management, in what is the latest step in a protracted yet inexorable step towards reintroducing Bison into more parts of the Montana landscape.  The debate promises to be a fierce one, for reasons I’ll summarize below, and the cultural stakes are very high indeed.  For that reason I’d strongly encourage readers to peruse the plan and submit their comments. R0001745 Newborn bison calf, Yellowstone NP.

There are quite a few Plains Bison in the US, the vast majority of which are not really wildlife.  However noble in spirit, and however high and burly the fence, bison bred and raised in captivity for the purpose of meat or breeding are livestock.  There might be as many as a quarter million such bison in the US today, many of them containing at least a bit of cow genes.  The number of truly wild herds has remained quite small for the past half-century.  Many of these have colorful histories.

The House Rock herd in Northern Arizona was introduced to the high desert east of the Kaibab Plateau in the 1920s, and they happily stayed amongst the pinons and junipers until the last fifteen years, when most of the herd migrated full time up on to the Kaibab, where they spend the whole year living between 7 and 9 thousand feet.  Arizona has a goal of a consistent population of 200 bison.

The Henry Mountains herd in south-central Utah has a similar history.  They were introduced into the desert east of the Dirty Devil River in the 1940s, a harsh area with little browse or water.  The soon crossed the river and moved west, using the slopes of the Henrys as summer range, and the Burr Desert around the head of North Wash as winter range.  In the early 60s brucellosis was detected and whole herd of 71 animals captured (one assumes via helicopter, among other things) and inoculated.  Reportedly this experience increased the herds wariness, and caused them to move into the mountains full time.  The herd now numbers around 300, and is one of the more coveted and hard to get hunts in the US, with the bison renowned for being difficult to locate and stalk.  The various bull and cow hunts each fall routinely do not have 100% success rates, a noteworthy thing for a once in a lifetime hunt (Utah will not allow you to draw the tag twice) for a 1000+ pound animal which is not difficult to see from a distance.

These two examples are worth contrasting with the third major wild herd in the US, the one in Yellowstone National Park.  Yellowstone maintains a population of between 3000 and 5000 bison year to year.  The Kaibab and Henry herds are both limited by terrain, it’s difficult to see either expanding in size or range due to natural restraints (read: surrounded by desert).  Historically the modest Yellowstone bison population was contiguous with the massive bison population which roamed the American plains.  Yellowstone gets a lot of snow in the winter, and as a result contains lush summer range and limited winter range.  It is reasonable to suppose that historically the majority of the bison who summered in the park migrated north or south to lower elevations come autumn.  Today concerns over brucellosis transmission and property (aka fence) destruction artificially constrict the bison’s winter range, and thus the size of the Yellowstone bison herd.  According to the Buffalo Field Campaign (granted, not the most scientific of sources) over 8500 bison have been killed by the state of Montana in the past thirty years, with the yearly total varying massively (from zero to over 1500) depending on the size of the herd and the severity of the winter within the park. This well encapsulates the obstacles facing bison reintroduction to more wild places in Montana.

The brucellosis concern is mostly, but not entirely, specious.  Elk carry the disease, but tend to not calve in the same places cattle graze, and are thus less likely to pass it along.  Brucellosis inoculation has been quite effective, and the presumption that any transplanted bison would go through quarantine removes this as a valid concern. Fence stomping and the migratory, independent nature of bison is a very valid concern, especially when contemplating the most ideal alternative (#4): “Restoration on a Large Landscape Where there are Minimal Conflicts with Livestock.”  Quite simply, I can’t imagine many areas in Montana where that might take place.  Allowing the Yellowstone bison to permanently populate the areas around West Yellowstone, Gardiner, and along the upper Gallatin River is one thing.  What to do when they attempt to move further to the Madison River valley, greater Bozeman area, and Paradise Valley is another thing.  As has happened with the Henrys, perhaps hunting pressure might keep them contained in these areas, but that seems unlikely, or at least far more complicated.

The larger question is whether larger plains areas, such as the CM Russell Wildlife Refuge, could be repopulated with bison, and if they could be contained in a sustainable way which would allow them to function as close to a wild herd as possible.  FWP does not address that question, yet.  At this stage they’re just looking for public feedback.  I let them know I’m interested in more detailed proposals for alternative four, and I suggest you do the same.

The 2015 Bob Marshall Wilderness Open report

1432608631_125845Photo by Sam Haraldson.

The 2015 Open, from the Owl Creek TH at Holland Lake to the Swift Reservoir TH, set a record for attendance with 16 starters. Under sunny and warm skies on Saturday morning the various hikers fanned out into five different drainages above Upper Holland Lake, taking diverse routes down to the South Fork the Flathead. Mike, Kevin, and John (Helena, MT), Nick and Conner (Bigfork, MT), and Morgan and Justin (NorCal) all headed down Gorden Creek and took advantage of the Big Prairie pack bridge to cross the South Fork. The middle two pairs both headed up the White River and crossed the Continental Divide at Larch Hill before descending Rock Creek to Gates Park along the North Fork of the Sun. Conner and Nick stayed west, cutting off a few miles by not using the Headquarters Creek bridge in exchange for a burly wade across the North Fork at Lick Creek. They then took Sun River pass north before cutting east through the Gateway Gorge and taking the South Fork of Birch Creek down to Swift Reservoir, and eventually the trailhead. Nick and Conner finished Tuesday night at 10pm.

Mike, Kevin, and John followed the upper White into Wall Creek, which facing north was snowy and presented route finding issues. They camped the second night at the Pentagon patrol cabin, and tackled the big climb up Switchback pass and the traverse past Dean Lake and down to the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Flathead on a sunny Monday morning after a night of hard freezing. They considered pushing on up Gateway Creek into the South Fork of Birch, but after extrapolating a 5am finish decided to camp and finish the next day, which they did, around 130pm on Tuesday.

Morgan and Justin had set out on the slow plan, with heavy and luxurious food bags, plus fishing gear which Justin put to good use. They Went over White River pass and made their way down to Gibson Reservoir before calling for a pickup Thursday afternoon completing an enjoyable traverse.

Dan (Vancouver, CA) and Tanner (Bozeman) led Greg (Colorado) and myself on a route of my own design, wrapping around cross country to the frozen Lena Lake before heading over a second pass to descend Burnt and Holbrook Creeks, respectively. Dan had a packraft while Tanner did not, and fortuitous timing allowed the former to get a good view as the later swam the South Fork. Dan continued floating down to the Mid Creek takeout, making 6-7 mph, while Tanner hiked up the White River. Dan hiked around Meadow Creek gorge, and kept hiking into the night up Harrison and Corporal Creeks, making camp at 1130pm 3 miles short of the Spotted Bear river.

I descended Bartlett Creek to the South Fork, putting in on the river upstream and several hours after Dan. By the time I floated to the White River I was quite cold in my open boat, and decided to ascend the White that evening rather than float further south and climb over Pagoda Pass. I made it most of the way to the South Fork of the White, camping on a gravel bar several miles short of the camp Tanner made along the same drainage.

Meanwhile Greg had tweaked his knee on the slick beargrass traverse to Lena Lake, and after changing course to descend Big Salmon Creek and hiking until midnight to make up time, was stopped by high water in the dark at Black Bear Creek. Greg awoke from a short bivouac to find a knee not in good shape, realized that further travel was unwise, hiked and rafted out to the Spotted Bear ranger station, and arranged a ride out. Derek, traveling from Georgia and descending Pendant Lakes to Big Salmon Creek, caught up with Dan in the wee hours of Sunday morning, traveling entirely on foot. Unfortunately, he was also stopped cold by the high and fast Spotted Bear river. While Dan was able to raft across, Derek decided a ford was not possible and bailed after hiking to the ranger station downstream.

Les and Micah from Helena, along with Chase and Alex from Oregan, had also descended Pendant to Big Salmon Lake. The former pair with an ambitious plan to ascend Pagoda Pass before dark and push for a 48 hour finish. The snow in the high country made this not possible, and they camped in Helen Creek at 10pm. The next day they crossed over Pagoda and descended to the White, not far behind me and not far ahead of Mike et al. They camped below Switchback Sunday night, and made a long push out the same route Mike, Kevin, and John would travel to finish at 10pm on Monday.

Tanner was still further ahead on the same course, following the Upper White into Wall Creek and ascending Switchback pass and dropping into and crossing the Middle Fork to camp near Gooseberry Sunday night. He took a clever diversion into the Middle Fork of Birch Creek, which both saved distance and avoided the horribly horse-wrecked trail along the South Fork of Birch. Tanner finished in the early afternoon Monday.

First to finish was Dan, who reached at trailhead at 845am Monday. After crossing the Spotted Bear early Sunday morning he combined trails and bushwacking to drop north into the upper reaches of Schafer Creek, which he followed to Schafer Meadows and a packraft crossing of the Middle Fork of the Flathead. Good, muddy trail up Cox Creek took him to Badger Pass just before dark, and a bivouac near snowline on the east side when darkness made navigation problematic. The next morning a quick bit of rafting the North Fork of Birch Creek and hiking along the north shore of the reservoir had him at the TH very quickly indeed.

Lastly, I crossed the Sun on the Headquarters Creek bridge Monday morning, and took Route Creek and Nesbit Creek over into the North Fork Teton drainage, then followed that north into Phone Creek. A gorgeous meadows amongst birch groves at 6000′ compelled a stop at 8pm. I woke up refreshed the next morning, and rafting a fair bit of the South Fork of Birch Creek before paddling across the reservoir and reaching the TH at 11am.  Chase and Alex had originally planned on fording the S Fork, but decided against it and detoured south Saturday evening to Big Prairie, where they then ascended the White and followed my route to Gates Park and beyond.  They were behind schedule due to Alex’s swollen ankle, and contemplated having him picked up from the Teton road when they arrived there Wednesday night, but felt better the next morning and decided to both push on for the finish.  Like Morgan and Justin they were soaked by strong rain, and endured flooding creek crossings and a bit of hypothermia before finishing late Thursday afternoon.

Overall 2015 will stand for the wide variety of routes, widely varied scenery, and the many determined efforts put in by the various hikers to finish. The pre and post trip planning thread over at BPL is recommended for those seeking more detail, and contains links to all the trip reports from which the above information was collated.

Thoughts for new hunters

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This post is partly for Phillip, partly for other readers like him who are in the contemplation stage of hunting, and partly for my own reference as there will be some point in the near future when I’ll start to forget all the things I used to not know.  Beginners mind is a perishable thing, and worth preserving for future reference.  If you’re interested in what I think an aspiring or beginning wilderness hunter, primarily in the western US, ought to do, read on.

Assuming you have a background in hiking, backpacking, and other outdoor activities, the first thing you need to learn to do is shoot.  Rifles are the easy way here, because the learning curve is simplest, the effective range is longer, and their killing power provides for a greater margin of error than a bow.  As will be addressed later bowhunting provides some unduplicable opportunities, and if you get truly into hunting you’ll want to be able to do both, but nonetheless rifle is the simple way to start, for a variety of reasons.  The rifle question is the subject of multiple other posts, but my short answer is as follows: get a bolt action in 7mm-08, .308, .270, or .30-06.  These cartridges are versatile, and factory ammo is common and inexpensive.  Buy the first two if you’re a smaller person and/or you anticipate not hunting elk or bear often, and the later if you’re larger and/or might hunt the big critters frequently.  Get a Ruger American if you want to spend less, a Tikka T3 or Remington 700 if you want to spend a bit more, and a Kimber Montana if you want to spend still more and if you’re pretty certain you’ll get obsessed and end up with rifle weight as a priority.  Put a Leupold 6×36 scope on it, buy a bunch of ammo, and shoot a lot.

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After you get acquainted with your rifle, have it sighted in (and understand what that means), and have a bit of proficiency shooting paper, the best way to get decent at hunting is to go hunt.  Check your state regulations, find out what (if any) small game is legal at what times of year, and go hunt it.  A .22 rimfire rifle is great for this application, and the practice ammo is a lot cheaper, but there is no substitute for field use of your big game rifle.  Plus, using full power ammo to shoot squirrels and rabbits forces you to only take good head shots in order to not blow the critter into dust.  Killing small game in turn provides good practice gutting, skinning, and general field dressing which is directly applicable to big game.  Skinning (and cooking!) rabbits is perfect practice for doing to same to deer.

To that end, right along with your rifle, scope, and ammo, buy a Havalon knife and a few cotton thrift store pillow cases to use as game bags.  Shoot a lot of paper.  Shoot a lot of stumps and rocks.  Shoot, skin, butcher, cook, and eat a lot of small game.  Do this as regularly as possible for the better part of a year, or even more, then go big game hunting.

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While you’re perfecting head shots on grouse at 30 yards, and brines for squirrels, start researching how hunting works in the western US.  Listen to episode 10 of Steve Rinella’s podcast, read state regulations online, and start to understand just how complex the western hunting game actually is.  Three years ago it never would have occurred to me that the ability to persevere through and cross reference lots of PDF documents with confusing wording would be important for hunting, but it is, assuming you’ll come to pursue hunting in the same way a series climber or backpacker wants to go on road trips.  What state you live in is also of massive importance.  Phillip lives in Utah, which is great for climbing, backpacking, and canyoneering, but in most ways total shit for hunting.  The combination of a larger human population, smaller big game populations, and management which favors trophy experience over opportunity means that even Utah residents have to play the draw game for deer and elk (to say nothing of bear, moose, sheep, etc).

Montana is the opposite.  In 2014 I hunted upland game, turkey, deer, elk, black bear, and bighorn sheep, all on over the counter tags which any resident of the state can buy, for a total cost of a little over 200 dollars.  This included three deer tags: one the general over the counter tag, one a special draw doe tag, and one a regional over the counter doe tag.  This adds up to a lot of practice hunting, which played a big role in being able to go to New Zealand early this year and do relatively well.  If you live in a state like Utah, Nevada, or Arizona that has more limited opportunity, you’ll be harder put to accumulate field experience.  Or it will at least cost a lot more.

All of which is to say that knowledge is power, and the faster you can get to know your interests in hunting the faster you can develop a strategy for cultivating the opportunities you’ll want.  This will mean buying licenses in multiple states, paying out of state fees for tags, and paying money to accumulate bonus and preference points for use down the road.  It also makes sense to develop a fund for those big, rare out of state tags.  For example, I’m building points for desert bighorns and bison in Utah, neither of which I’ll have a reasonable chance of drawing for a decade or more.  So I spend ~120 dollars a year for a Utah non-resident license and bonus points for these species.  It’s a good investment because both of these hunts are unlike anything else, and are ones I want to do.  Idaho and Alaska, on the other hand, don’t have bonus points.  So I’m saving up a ~2k tag fund to pay the substantial cost of an Idaho mountain goat or Alaska bison tag for those years in the future when I’m in a position to apply for and potentially go on those hunts.

It should also be said that antlerless hunts and hunts in rugged areas with less than good odds often have excellent draw opportunities, and in some ways represent hidden opportunities so long as you’re willing to dig into the regulations and find them.

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Lastly, get some good optics.  Eventually you’ll want a spotting scope, tripod, and tripod adaptor for your binoculars, but to begin get good binoculars.  Yes plenty of folks get buy without these things, especially the binos on a tripod, but if they say the tripod won’t vastly improve your effectiveness they are simply wrong.  Learning to glass effectively is vital; go out and practice, go over to Rokslide and read everything Robby Denning has written about mule deer hunting, then go back out into the field and practice some more.  This is tough to learn for a backpacker because it involves so much sitting, and I still suck at it, but modern glassing technique works, period.

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Lastly, you’ll need a good hunting backpack for backcountry hunting.  Realistically, you’ll need one even if you never backpack (overnight) hunt, because not having a pack which can move serious weight will keep you tied to within draggable distance of a road, which is a restriction that makes hunting most areas simply untenable.  Dragging a deer out also just sucks, even if the distance is only 1/2 a mile it’s better to cut the critter up in the field and carry it out.  Most backpacking packs, even the best ones, come up short when it comes to the ability to transfer big weight between shoulders and hips.  They also typically come up way short on compression, and the ability to keep a heavy load of meat up high (see photo above), which is vital for comfort and good balance over rough terrain.  These packs cost a lot, starting at 350 dollars and going up to double that figure.  Various shortcuts exist, but if you’ll be hunting a lot a pack which is durable, light enough to use as dayhunting, and which will carry out a deer in one trip is a necessity.

Good luck.  It’s worth it.

Bob Open gear talk

R0001925For the most part, the gear I used to cross the Bob this year worked well.  This is the sixth trip in as many years I’ve done through similar terrain around this time of year, so if I haven’t yet found a good system yet I’m just not paying attention.  The same basic complement of clothing, a floorless shelter, and ~25 degree sleeping bag are reliable options.  My packs have evolved considerably, with a different homemade one used each year.  That will be the subject of a later post, along with details on the bag I used this year, but the basic details are that a good frame of some kind and waterproof fabric are both highly recommended.  As can be seen my newest pack has a lid, which I found quite handy.

I used Black Diamond Liquid Point Goretex pants, which work well once I replaced the stock waistband, which does a very poor job of holding them up.  I’ve suffered by without rain pants plenty on the past, but they’re really nice to have in wet brush, to say nothing of packrafting, and the Liquid Points have a nice tough fabric, and legs zips which both make putting them on easy and allow you to vent on the go (just zip them back up before deep stream crossings).  BD is having fit issues with their first generations of clothing, but once they sort those out the great fabrics and features should really shine.

R0002053Altra Olympus 1.5 shoes were another newish piece of gear which performed well, albeit with reservations.  They’re “maximalist” zero drop jobs, with over 3cm of cushion and stack height.  Most importantly, they have the Altra last, which I find absolutely perfect.  No blisters proves that.  The extra cushion certainly seemed to fight fatigue well, but the extra height gives irregular ground surface extra leverage against your ankles, which is not welcome side hilling off trail or while slogging softer snow.  My ankles and lower legs suffered a bit of extra fatigue as a result, but overall they were at least energy neutral, and probably a net benefit.  The Lone Peaks remain a more versatile option, while the Olympus is a good trail shoe.  Most significantly, the Olympus 1.5 upper is both faster draining and more durable than the Lone Peak 1.5, providing hope that sooner than later Altra will get their shit together and push their altogether good shoes into the realm of excellent.

I broke one of my Gossamer Gear poles around noon on the first day, when it punched two feet deep into the snow and jammed against a buried log.  Not really the poles fault, so much as proof that I should have brought my much heavier and more durable alu poles.  Having only one pole for the next four snowy passes did suck, as my attempt the first night to carve a wood shim didn’t work out.

I only packrafted 12ish miles out of approximately 105, which made the 7 pounds of rafting gear a poor investment, enjoyable though those miles were.  I continue to want something between my Scout, which is of very limited utility in cold conditions, and my heavy and bulky Yukon Yak.  Putting my own deck on a Curiyak is not a project I relish, but until Alpacka comes out with a new model or Roman sells off his custom I may have to do it, one of these days.  Paddling lakes is absolutely more efficient than hiking around them, especially given how much faster and better against a headwind the 10″ tubed, non-rockered Scout is.

My food was fine, and I had enough, but I always find it logistically challenging to keep on top of consistent calorie intake.  Using sports drinks for these things is something I need to take more seriously in the future.

Lastly, while my fitness was fine and what I expected it to be, I would not have minded being so close to my limit for so much of the trip.  As I age, and with the kid due shortly, it is clear that my old approach of primarily letting fun stuff serve as de facto training is not going to get the job done.  I may have to re-take up running.

Until next time.

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