No bears

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This weekend I headed over the continental divide to the Sun River, to go bear hunting. Why? I’ve never shot a bear, never butchered a bear, and never eaten bear. Maybe once I have, I never will again.

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I have a number of hunting ambitions later this year, for which I need some training up, but most of all I like getting out right on the edge of winter. While it seems I always see bear sign, often lots of it, on my April and May trips, it would be a different experience specifically looking for black bears. I reckoned that the Sun River complex, which faces south and catches a bunch of sun, would be a good place to find early bears.

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I saw no bears, which was not surprising. Even in a place like the Bob, bears are rare and roam far. I saw no bear sign whatsoever, which was surprising. My current theory is that while I was able to walk 15 miles in before coming upon significant snow, we haven’t yet had enough really warm days to get the foliage greening up. The bears, by instinct, know there isn’t much to eat yet, so they’re staying in the ground another few weeks.

I did see a lot of other wildlife, starting with these two bighorn rams. The reservoir was down, more than I’ve ever seen it. Glassing open hillsides as I hiked in I saw a lot of mule deer out enjoying a sunny, windy day.

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One nice thing about being early in the Bob is that the horse traffic has yet to kick in. Though in all fairness, the elk probably contribute to trail braiding like this.

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I made my way into the North Fork drainage, and eventually up onto the well-named elk hill. Fresh elk sign was everywhere, and I saw many groups of 2-6 animals browsing along the edges of the trees. Fox, coyote, and wolf tracks were also very much in evidence.

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I had lots of good vantages for glassing, and covered plenty of lower areas, south-facing hillsides below snowpatches, which were soaked with water and the greenest stuff around. No bear tracks. No bear scat. Not promising.

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Magic happens after you’ve been hunkered down glassing for about 45 minutes. These elk fed right along the treeline 150 yards below me. For around an hour I was able to alternately glass the far meadows, and observe their progress. I was just down from the crest of the ridge, reclined against my pack and wearing a blue coat, but so long as didn’t move too much they never looked up.

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More elk, but no bears, materialized as the hour grew late. I made my way down to the river, chilled from sitting so long, made a fire, ate, drank tea, revealed in the stars, and went to bed.

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The wind had never been less than 15 mph the first day, and did not relent overnight. I woke once to pattering overhead, which I thought was rain. It was a actually a dusting of snow, and the morning was fiercely cold.

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An elk had walked 2 feet from my head sometime in the night. I retrieved my food bag and got back in the mid to make coffee.

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Now down in the flood plains and sage bottoms, I had a different angle on what I had looked over the previous day. 4 separate elk groups were feeding across the hill, moving in and out of sight through the aspens. I glassed, then walked quickly, then stopped again. Building heat was tough with so much to look at, especially when I soaked a foot crossing a stream.

Suddenly I was a grey flash. Binoculars confirmed it: not a coyote, a wolf. With three more for company, 2 light grey and one charcoal black. They moved upslope, towards the elk. One group of elk got nervous, and trotted ahead. I couldn’t see the wolves. My feet and hands were freezing. Another group of elk got nervous and trotted ahead. Still no wolves. I walked another 200 yards and looked again. Repeat. At the bitter end of foot-feeling I saw the highest group of elk sprinting, and one grey wolf arcing downhill through the sage, cutting one elk out of the group, and herding it out of sight into some aspens. I assume to its companions, who brought it down.

I thought about climbing the hill to get a view of the kill, but there wasn’t a way to do that without getting winded by the wolves, and I was not inclined to disturb them. They certainly need elk more than I do.

I moved on, content, having had a front row seat to something I’d never before seen.

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I saw more sheep on the way out, and more deer, but everything seemed to be hunkered down as the wind whipped up and the sunny day stayed bitterly cold. I headed home early, a fantastic backpacking trip in the bag, and inclined to do other things with the rest of the weekend if the bears were not yet in evidence.

I’ll be back.

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The penultimate pack

Just like with beer or coffee, every one is the penultimate.

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I wanted to do a couple things with this one. First, experiment with 5.3 oz/yard hybrid cuben fiber. Second, fix the mistakes/things I didn’t like about this pack. To whit; a too-short torso length (you’d think I would know better), less than ideal shoulder straps, a bit too little space. Third, build with the minimal feature set I thought would do the job for, well, everything.

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36″ circumference up to the shoulder taper, 40″ above it.  36″ tall along the back with the roll top completely undone.  11″ wide on the back, 10″ on the front.  Tall and skinny packs are cool, but I’m finally moving away from them for bushwacking.  Weight as shown, with stay, doubled ridgerest in the pad sleeve, and modified Gossamer Gear belt, is just a shade over 2 pounds.

The bottom and bottom of the pockets are VX42.  I also used a double layer patch of VX42 inside the bag as reinforcements where I attached the upper compression strap.  The outer layer of the pad sleeve, and the very top of the rolltop, are 300D diamond ripstop from Rockywoods.  I hoped it would be a lower-cost alternative to Thru Hikers 210D gripstop, but it is not as tough, and has a shiny sheen I do not like.  Not a bad fabric, but not great.  The upper part of the side pockets is said gripstop; everything else is hybrid cuben.  Which was very easy to work with, by the way.  I felled most seams, and will add some seam sealant to the bottom seams for durability.  I’m interested to see how it holds up.

The feature set amounts to one hanging inner pocket accessed via a #8 zipper on the outside, one daisy chain of 3/8″ webbing bartacked into the already felled seam, two large side pockets with paracord cinches, and two compression straps.  The zippered pocket is new for me, but after the Grand Canyon trip I really wanted my next pack to have something comparable.  The side pockets are a bit high for super easy access while walking, but I wanted them big enough to really expand the capacity (a whole hare in game bag fits easily), and high enough to not scrape along and get trashed.  Seek Outside made me a convert to the static cord arrangement, which can be manipulated while walking and allows you to lock the pocket shut when bushwacking.  The daisy chain and straps should carry anything from an ice axe and crampons to skis to a PFD with minimal fuss.  In theory, the compression straps will allow the pack to get small while keeping the pockets handy.

Lastly, I put an adjustable buckle on the rolltop closure.  The Grand Canyon showed me that this, along with plastic stiffeners in both sides of the closure, helps a lot when trying to cram a full pack shut.

As ever, I will report back.

Ex post facto

A different, unexpected racial argument has taken shape. Race, always the deepest and most volatile fault line in American history, has now become the primal grievance in our politics, the source of a narrative of persecution each side uses to make sense of the world. Liberals dwell in a world of paranoia of a white racism that has seeped out of American history in the Obama years and lurks everywhere, mostly undetectable. Conservatives dwell in a paranoia of their own, in which racism is used as a cudgel to delegitimize their core beliefs. And the horrible thing is that both of these forms of paranoia are right.

-Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

 

As a longtime supporter of President Obama, it would be disingenuous for me to say that I am not disappointed in his presidency thus far.  This disappointment has almost nothing to do with policy.  I recall sitting in our kitchen in Missoula, back in 2009, waiting for and then toasting the house vote which passed the Affordable Care Act.  Two things seemed equally obvious at that time: that the passage was an enormously significant step towards a more serious approach to national health care which could not and would not be undone, and that the acrimony caused by said passage would last a long time, and prevent the law from really making a substantive difference for a decade or more.  Both of these have come to pass.

My disappoint is rather in Mr. Obama’s failure to be a transformational leader, or at least an immediately transformational one.  Whether the march of history will make him one is as yet unknown, and likely won’t be  for decades.

What is clear today, and has been since 2008, is that Mr. Obama has the opportunity to be such a president.  Theodore Roosevelt had the person attributes to be a transformational leader.  Among other things, his wealthy background combined with his populist awareness made his trust-busting and economic program both extremely convincing and extremely effective.  He, and he alone, was able to do a generations worth of work in a year or two.  He was also president at the right time; with economic conditions that allowed him to shift the country enormously, and enough wild land and game left that he was able to make his unmatched (and possibly unmatchable) impact on conservation.  FDR had a similar position with respect to economic conditions, as did Ronald Reagan with social ones.

Reagan is worth a detour here, because the economic legacy of the Obama presidency has been and will be the death rattle of Reaganomics.  Reagan’s economic plans, most prominently massive tax cuts in his first year as president, were fradulent from the start.  They only passed because of (knowingly) false estimates on the fiscal impacts presented to Congress and the public by then OMB director David Stockman.  The rest of the Reagan presidency saw a slow walking back of these cuts, as well as an ever-growing debt which was the direct result.  GHW Bush lost to Bill Clinton in no small part because he was responsible enough to break his campaign promise and raise taxes, as a continued measure of Reaganomics damage control.  The Reagan, trickle-down, supply side myth saw a resurgance under GW Bush, who turned a budget surplus into a housing and banking crash, and whom history will forever regard as a compelling reason to go piss on William Rehnquist’s grave.

Obama then has been saddled, or blessed, with two opportunities to be a transformational president.  The first has to do with sealing the casket on Reagan’s disingenuous economic and social legacy, and figuring out how to move beyond it faster.  This movement will happen regardless, but it would be better if it happened a little faster than simply allowing those with a living memory of the 80s to die.  There is a profitable conversation to be had concerning how to balance individual agency in a democracy with the duty of government to history, but it has not been taking place in the last four years.

The second opportunity for Obama to become a transformational president is, of course, with respect to race.  Mr. Chait’s article, which is well worth your time, does an excellent job outlining just how thoroughly gray the present situation is.  Broadly put, there have been many instances of racist outcome in both political and individual outcomes since Obama became president.  Often, there has been little if any conscious intent behind them, which does nothing to lessen their severity.  Chait cites a study (you can read it here) which shows a strickingly durable correlation between conservative political affiliation in various southern states and the percentage the 1860 population which were slaves.  The greater the percentage 154 years ago, the more often the present populace votes in a conservative fashion, even when controlled for a large number of mitigating factors.  As Chait concludes:   “The Rochester study should, among other things, settle a very old and deep argument about the roots of America’s unique hostility to the welfare state. Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States; in none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.”

To negotiate race Obama must then address economic issues, and vice versa.  This goes a long way towards explaining why he has had so little outward success in doing either, and perhaps why a ways into the future his delicate and measured approach might be regarded as transformational.  Obama understands gray areas, understands complex historical factors, and understands how long entrenched social bias will hang around.  He has gone out of his way to not fall into strereotyping or make rash decisions.  Often this has looked like waffling, which is hard to stomach.  My hope is that in the end it will prove to be the right choice.

 

Hunting nausea

Lately, hunting has been a great way to feel sick to my stomach.

First, I’ve been reading a lot about sheep hunting, as I plan to hunt bighorns in one of Montana’s unlimited districts late this summer. They’re the only places in North America where anyone can buy a tag in the spring, and go hunt sheep later that year. Everywhere else requires either a lottery application, usually with a less than 1% chance of being drawn, a semi-astronomical fee to book a guided hunt, or being a resident of relevant Canadian provinces or Alaska. The Montana unlimited districts have a quota, usually 2 or 3 rams, with the season closing 48 hours after those sheep are reported as killed.

In some respects, sheep hunting needs to be this kind of esoteric, elitist exercise. There aren’t that many sheep in North American, at least relative to deer or elk, and an increasing number of hunters who want to pursue them. Sheep, and to a lesser extent goat, hunting seems to have become the epistemic equivalent of peak bagging; it takes place in hostile environments and thus provides a unique experience, as well as lending itself to obsessive list-checking.

It’s the economics associated with the management which bugs me. In Alaska or Canada, non-residents need a guide to hunt sheep. These hunts seem to run between 15 and 20 thousand dollars. While I have no doubt it is money well spent, I also have equal certainty that these hunts could be done DIY for a tenth the cost, bush plane flights included. Lower 48 hunts also have considerable costs associated with them. Most places require consecutive years of application to build up preference points. In some states the associated fee is a reasonable 20-50 dollars. In others it is closer to 200 or more. Then there is the cost of the tag itself, which for a non-resident ranges from 750 dollars here in Montana up towards 2,000 dollars in the southwestern states.

My objection is basic: while these fees may be justifiable, they are not reasonable, and the guiding provision in Alaska is nothing but xenophobic nepotism. It’s sad that in the 21st century we’re still fighting Robin Hood’s battles.

My second source of bile with respect to sheep hunting is the trophy obsession. Last week I read Duncan Gilchrist’s Montana: Land of the Giant Rams, which all sources said was a vital source of information on the unlimited districts. The chapter on that subject was very helpful, but almost every other page in the book cannot go half a paragraph without mentioning Boone and Crockett scoring. Often the reader could be forgiven for thinking she is reading a math textbook. Again, simply put, such all-encompassing focus on horn size just bugs me.

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Lastly, and more generally, I shot a snowshoe hare while out turkey hunting yesterday evening. I saw the lagomorph that morning, but with nothing but nitro turkey loads was loath to shoot, least the 2 ounces of #4 flay the critter into oblivion. That evening I packed a few #8 target loads, saw the hare in the same area (they seem to have superlative camouflage and small home ranges), and at 40 yards, from the lower barrel with a full choke installed, held the Citori a bit high. Exactly two pellets hit anywhere other than the head, the hare flopped backwards, gave a dozen kicks, and expired.

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Besides being extremely tasty if cooked well, snowshoe hares are amazing creatures to examine by hand. Those massive back feet are attached to enormous lower back muscles. The tenderloins, sitting low and inside the ribcage, are almost as large as the thighs, while the ribs and front legs are light and delicate.

I was elated to have the luck to see the hare again, and the skill to spot it early and make the shot. Walking up to it, I a wave of sickness exactly two notches above my enthusiasm washed over. I do not think it is wrong to be so happy about killing something, but I do think that having that happiness unclouded by the gravity of what you just did would not be a sign of good character.

Issues aside, I’ll keep hunting, because being in touch with that conflict, which underlies existence as such, is nothing but good.  When I cleaned the rabbit I left the head and guts on a stump at the edge of the thick brush.   When I passed back 90 minutes later, no turkeys seen, everything was gone.

One more time

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Some of you may recall when, a few years back, I experimented with Twitter. Given that I’ve recently embraced the present decade and upgraded more poor flip-phone, with it’s dying battery, for an iPhone, it seemed time to give it another go.

So I have.

Thus far I’m enjoying being able to stream music wherever I like, and not enjoying those effin tiny buttons. We’ll see if Twitter and the greater connectivity stays or goes.

A road back

For the first 10 days after getting home from the Grand Canyon I sat around and did nothing physical, except taking a few walks around town. Energy was low and everything was a bit sore, with knees and achilles being particularly creaky. There is no way to shortcut this process; when your body needs to rest it needs to do exactly that, plans and ambitions be damned.

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To that end I’ve been slowly returning to normal training in the past week. I’ve done a bit of skiing, and some rinky-dink hiking and rafting, investigating the progress of spring and trying to find some turkeys before the season opens next week.

I’ve got a fantastic base to put to use in the Bob Open, so the next step is shaping that with intervals during the week, and some big trips on the weekends. The next seven weeks is a lot of time, but it certainly isn’t too much.

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The other, equally important, aspect of this plan is psychological recovery. Attending to work and projects, spending time with M and with friends, and enjoying the smaller things. Like really good beer.

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The Fire and Blood is pretty good if you can find a bottle, while the Hennepin remains an all-time great.

Right now it’s snowing outside.  The rivers have been slowly rising all week.  South-facing stuff is melting out, while even the lowest elevation forests are still stuffed with nasty, crusty, slushy snow.  Some call it mud season, and travel south or stay home.  I call it spring in the north, where even the simplest routes are taxing, and no one seems to out but me and the animals.  I’ve come to really like April in May in Montana.

The bearable weight of backpack features

A backpack should be a sturdy bag to hold your stuff, with a suitable suspension system, and just enough straps and/or exterior accoutrements to not impede efficiency.

Efficiency in the backcountry has more to do with knowledge and experience than equipment, which makes the question simple: how little exterior stuff on your pack can you get away with?

The math here is basic: fewer accoutrements make for a lighter pack. There’s only so much to be done saving weight with frame and harness components, and sacrificing function here is short sighted. A 60-70 liter pack will use a bit less than a yard of fabric for the body and bottom, so only ounces can be cut going lighter here, and often at the expense of longevity.

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Above is the bag I used on the recent Grand Canyon trip. You can see a good photo in use here. The relatively clean exterior was driven by time constraints more than anything, as I realized that this pack wasn’t going to be quite big enough, nor carry ~40 pounds as well as the Paradox suspension.

The above bag is 1000D cordura, with a double 500D cordura bottom. Two compression straps on each side, and bottom straps (mainly to keep the frame seated. Provision for a top strap, but I rarely used one. Weight as taken on the trip was 20 ounces, not bad for a bag with a continuous 37″ circumference, and functional 36″ height.

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I took mental notes on the shortcomings, as I always do. One set of compression straps were mandatory to hold poles when not in use. A front pocket would have been nice, to hold ropes and extra clothes more securely. The roll top strap needed to be 1″ rather than 3/4″, as it got yarded on a lot when passing packs. Some form of upper organization would have been nice, either in a lid or pocket, as opening the bag to get maps and the like got old. Side pockets are not so big a deal in the desert, when you’re using a water bag with hose anyway, and they tend to get torn up.

The above panel went into a pack the same size as the canyon bag, but in different materials and with more features. The body is VX-42, and the pockets a combination of 1000D cordura and a lighter 400D ripstop. 1″ webbing for all compression straps and the daisy chains not shown. The idea here was a pack which would be durable enough for another Grand Canyon trip, waterproof enough for spring trips here in Montana, and enough load control for hunting.

The cost of these features? 12 ounces more than the previous bag, for 32 ounces total. VX-42 is 8.5 oz/yard, 1000D is 10.8. Features make the difference.

They also make building it take a lot, lot longer. Experience makes me confident that I’ll use all the stuff I put on it, but compared to the nice, clean canyon bag, the weight and complexity bum me out. Nothing comes without cost.

La Sals ski traverse

This doesn’t get done very often, and even less often in a day, with what looks like as close to ideal conditions as that very windy mountain range ever gets.

Another account here.

Little Creek mesa

If at all possible, it’s a good idea to take a few days before a big trip to get acclimated. Feel the pulse of the land, get used to the temperatures, and make sure you’re mentally switched on. For the Grand Canyon trip our permit started Tuesday, which allowed for a perfect acclimation period. I left work Friday afternoon, camped on the Montana/Idaho border, and made a friends house in Cedar City by mid-afternoon. We hung out, ate some fantastic Mexican food for dinner (something which really doesn’t exist up here), and drank some beer (Utah microbrews are becoming quite impressive). Sunday I hiked Mystery in Zion, which solo ends up being a pretty casual five hours. I camped out at Little Creek that night, and rode one of the best mountain bike trails in the world Monday morning. That afternoon I met Brendan, we ran the car shuttle, and got ready to go backpacking.

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It’s not practical to run a single-subject trial, but I think those leisurely days helped ready me for everything on the trip, immediately. It was a good use of vacation days.

It had been not quite six years since I’d last rode at Little Creek, and the first time I’d put the Mukluk tires to slickrock.  In contrast to a lot of things, like the approach trail into Mystery, not much has changed at Little Creek.  There are trail signs now, but the trail is as chunky, and in places hard to follow, as ever.  The road in gets used plenty, but requires a bit of care in the passenger car.  Internet beta exists, but not on the level of Gooseberry, the neighbor to the north.  And the slickrock camping at the vague TH is still free, unregulated, and awesome.

Little Creek has always been a great singlespeed trail, full of short stingers and power moves.  Traction on the rough, soft sandstone is unbelievable, and fat tires only enhance that.  After the first mile I aired the rear tire back up, as the level of grip I was getting at that level was excessive.

Singlespeed fatbikes are not practical creatures, especially with a wheelset that fully kitted with tires, slime tubes, rotors, etc weighs 16 pounds.  Like singlespeeds generally bikes like mine serve fun more purely than anything else.  Which made it perfectly suited to this ride.  I didn’t go far or long, but I never questioned my choice to go biking that day instead of something else.  It’d be a highlight of the year thus far if it hadn’t been overshadowed by what immediately followed.

It’s a vast, wonderful world out there.

Bud Moore’s Land Ethic

“Given the knowledge we had, we did the best we could.”
-Bud Moore

A unique generation is in the process of dying. People born in the lower 48 around a century ago could have, in a few cases, grown up firmly in the 19th century; without electricity or running water, without a reasonable chance of attending school beyond elementary, and with the ability to spend formative years in true wilderness. Outside Alaska, no one born in US territory after the onset of the Great Depression had the chance. The CCC and their road building saw to that. Bud Moore was one such person. Born in the Bitterroot Valley, Montana, in 1917, he spent the 1930s as one of the youngest trappers and fire fighters in what is now the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. After a stint in the Marines during World War II, he returned to permanent work with the Forest Service, and presided first hand over the introduction of commercial logging, DDT spraying to control bark beetles, and the building and eventual paving of what is today highway 12.

To be of a time to witness such a place as both biologically intact (though Grizzlies were already going extinct in the Bitterroots during the 30s, dams which stopped the salmon and steelhead did them in for good), and post logging boom is a unique historical event. To have been the administrator of many of these changes is an extraordinary position. Fortunately for posterity, Bud Moore was not only a trapper and forest service administrator, he was also a good writer. His The Lochsa Story: Land Ethics in the Bitterroot Mountains is a highly recommended read.

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In 2010 Luc Mehl, Forrest McCarthy (shown above) and I hiked down Moose Creek from Elk Summit, and packrafted the Selway down to Selway Falls the next day.  We were awed by the miles of old-growth cedar in the middle reaches of Moose Creek, obviously one the few such large groves to have escaped logging in the 20th century.  Thanks to The Lochsa Story, I now know that a combination of remoteness (the rugged Selway gorge below, the steep drop from the Elk Summit meadows above) which prevented road building, and Moore’s own caution as district ranger kept these trees from the axe.

Moore’s book is valuable first, and above all else, as an even-handed and matter-of-fact chronological account of just how much this area changed between 1940 and 1970.  Take a look back at Functional Remoteness and the map I highlighted.  The large, red centered blob in east-central Idaho is the Selway-Frank Church complex.  It is separated from the still large, narrow yellow patch to the north by highway 12, and nothing else.  Before that road was completed, and then widened and paved, this was without question the largest wilderness in the lower 48.  Want to know what every stage of this development looked and felt like, from trappers on snowshoes to age of commercial truck traffic?  Bud Moore was there, and he’ll tell you in an impressively straightforward fashion.  Moore does not whitewash the environmental consequences of the 1950s.  He discusses the fishkills and poisoned berries which resulted all but immediately from DDT spraying with an almost clinical eye for detail.  He deduces, for example, that the absence of mink in a colleagues winter traps must be due to crayfish in the Selway having been largely eradicated by the pesticide.  He doesn’t indulge in much retrospective analysis either.  As he mentioned in an interview with radio host Brian Kahn (quoted at top), “Given the knowledge we had, we did the best we could.”

Moore is similarly unsentimental, and unsparing, in his analysis of what he and his fellows did wrong:  In sick fish and in sandbars untraveled by mink lay for me the beginning of ecological wisdom in managing the land.  Everything in the ecosystem was, indeed, hooked to everything else.  This was no casual attachment of creatures to water and earth, but a delivery system capable of transporting poisons from land through its water and food chains to injure or kill all forms of life- insects, carnivores, herbivores, omnivores, and perhaps people as well.  (p.354)

The only thing Moore misses is speculation about the historical and cultural factor which led to such disasters, and speculation on the extent to which future issues might arise from these factors and their continued legacy on the ground.  This is both a strength and a weakness.  It lends the book a certain solipsistic air, while at the same time being quite practical.  The world as it exists today is after all the world in which we must live.  One gets the sense that Moore, a Rooseveltian man of action his whole life, solved problems by looking forward only.

Moore died late in 2010.  His book, published in 1996, leaves behind a forceful legacy.  While it has particular appeal to me, because I’ve been to many of the places which centrally figure, I think just about any regular reader here would enjoy the book.

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