Deer Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bob Marshall buck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

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

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

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

Big concussion.

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

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

I can only believe it because I was there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 610 pack, version 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a keeper.

Lost trails

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I love the Cairn maps of the Bob, they’re a massive improvement over the old Forest Service map, very readable, and have in my experience proven to be accurate. A summer wandering around with a fancy GPS on your pack will in the end get good results. Thankfully, maps can’t show everything, and the Cairn maps leave plenty of mystery to be discovered in the Bob.

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It doesn’t take long to see that deep in the Bob, trails function like roads when it comes to moving charismatic megavertebrate traffic away. Thus, if you’re hunting something other than Spruce Grouse, you’re well served by getting off the trails. Alaska has ruined me, in that it showed me what big landscapes look like without ever had any human-built paths, and when out there I always spend lots of time thinking about what parts of Montana would look like without human interference and assistance. I say the later because, naturally, critters like our trails as much as we do; they doubtless changed travel patterns considerably. They just tend to use them in the dark.

Despite the impressive number of trails throughout the Bob, and the small number of drainages left unmarked, there are plenty of pockets where large four-legged mammals have been left to blaze their own path. There are also a surprising number of forest services trails which have been abandoned to the forest, and an unsurprising number of unofficial and I would imagine illegally cut outfitter trails, usually leading from a hunting camp along a creek to that nice, untrailed saddle with good glassing locations.

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Sometimes a trail is a combination of the above, and requires a delightful amount of sleuthing to be able to guess about it’s history. A few days ago I got up in the dark, drove in a trailhead, road my bike for 45 minutes up a closed old road, stashed it in the trees, and started walking. I immediately found myself on a good trail going up the creek towards my destination. Many logs had been chainsawed out, albeit long ago, and while in a few spots the tread looked like it had been cut out, for the most part it appeared to be maintained by human (~30%) and elk/deer/bear (70%) traffic. A perfect path really; efficient enough but with engaging route finding and occasionally athletic foot placement.

The mystery trails continued all day. The path shown continued for miles through the meadows just above my spotting scope, with the same vague tread and occasional sawn log mentioned above.  The blaze metal trail markers were very occasional, placed high, and only in one direction.

I eventually surmised, based on certain detritus found along the way (i.e. a whole windshield) that the markers are to assist snowmachines in the winter (legal in this location).  Presumably the trail gets set in going one direction (easier uphills in deep powder), and can then be used in both.

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Though I saw no big game that day, I was able to harvest a few Dusky and Spruce Grouse, engage in the aforementioned trail Sherlocking, examine the rapidly changing undergrowth, see some big country far and near, and further develop my relationship with the Bob.  With a few exceptions down south in the Scapegoat, I can’t go anywhere high and mighty without looking down on a ever-denser network of memories of trips past.  And this is the definition of satisfaction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And afterwards we went outside and looked at the stars.

nine/50

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

-President Lyndon Johnson, upon signing the Wilderness Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The answer is, rather obviously, wilderness.

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

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

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

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

The 2014 shoe report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlimited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunrise, and sunset, were both tremendous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Glacier Divide route: a sketch

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A trend has emerged lately, to construct a high route through a given range, the idea being to create a rugged backpacking path which is non or minimally technical, and maximizes scenic value.  No route will ever be definitive, but a high route should be as close to a one-stop-shop for an experienced visiting hiker as is practical.

Roper’s effort in the Sierra got things started, and recently at least two proposals for the Wind Rivers have emerged.  The following is my proposal for Glacier National Park.  A detailed map can be examined here.

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I’m not going to present exhaustive information, as such effort quite simply take the fun out of life.  I did try to draw that Hillmap line as well as I could in the places (i.e. off trail) where it will matter.  The following are a few routes-specific details for consideration.

-I have not done the east ridge up to Grizzly Mountain, but on the map and from the saddle by Bearhead it doesn’t look too bad.

-The chimney between Red Eagle Meadows and Almost-a-dog Pass is an unavoidable technical crux, and may have aspirants carrying an axe and crampons well into August on some years.  There is no alternative, and when properly prepared it isn’t a big deal.

-The diversion east to Florance Falls is inelegant and introduces the only real bushwacking on the route.  The south ridge of Gunsight Mountain may well go at a reasonable standard, in which case it would be the preferred route.  A diversion over the Sperry Chalet, Comeau Pass, and the Floral Park route is also an option, but longer.

-There are a large number of potential diversions from the Highline Trail, but none of them are more elegant than the trail itself.

-There are a number of potential variations in the route between West Flattop and the Guardhouse traverse.

-I have not done the final stretch from Hole-in-the-Wall around Custer to the border.

-Generally speaking, aside from the Almost-a-dog chimney and sections of the Guardhouse traverse, and perhaps the ridges detailed above, nothing on this route requires spikes on a normal August 1st, and nothing is harder than class 3 (if the correct route is taken).

Some broader, logistical details.

-GNP does issue undesignated backcountry permits for trips such as these.  Expect to be asked to carry a bear can, and to be viewed with some skepticism and be questioned accordingly.  If you can present well, you will get permits to camp up high in the good stuff.

-The obvious best way to handle the northern end of this is to drop down to Cameron Lake and bushwack around the lake to the road, but this requires an illegal entry into Canada.  Backtracking and hiking out either Boulder Pass or back to Bowman Lake is probably preferred.  Bushwacking directly down to Upper Kintla is a very, very bad idea.

-No point in Glacier is come summer very far from a road, and thus doing chunks of this route is very appealing.  Logan Pass to Highway 2 is the better half, and quite a bit harder overall.

-A fit and experienced crew will do this onsight in 7-9 days if they manage to not get hosed by the weather.  Less motivated folks could easily spend the same time on the southern half.  I’ll throw out a challenge and say that sub 100 hours for the whole thing is quite possible with proper fitness and experience.

-Though water is quite abundant, there will be a number of 2-7 hour dry stretches.

-Though not really technical, and with stretches of surprisingly mild terrain in many stretches, the extensive scree and sidehilling will be quite wearing for even the best prepared hikers.  Light loads are recommended.

Have at it people.

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