The 2014 Bob Marshall Wilderness Open: It will never be the same
Sometimes you get a bad feeling, and it needs to be obeyed. Walking along the upper North Fork of the Sun River Sunday afternoon, my feet were swollen and tired. The river, quite small above Lick Creek, was not small that day. It was dark, swollen up into the willows, and churning with a swift and implacable inevitability. My memory from last year was of a nasty rapid right at Lick Creek, and enough wood in the river above it that floating probably wasn’t worthwhile. But fast progress off my feet was very tempting.
Four of us had shown up at Marias Pass the day before. Em (Spelt here) had driven out from Iowa, and Adam and Tanner had come up from Bozeman and Missoula. Big distance, big water, and the fact that I couldn’t get down south to give folks a ride from the finish had all kept numbers low. Probably a good thing, as conditions soon proved to be daunting.
Marias is a gentle, broad crossing on the Continental Divide, at 5300′. The South Fork of the Two Medicine River flows a bit west of north, which meant that the CDT up on the west side of the valley had plenty of snow, more than I anticipated. I brought snowshoes at the last minute, thinking they’d be worth it for the three extended forays above 6000′ further south, and while the discontinuous drifts that morning didn’t merit them, they did beg questions for the near future. Had the lower crossing of the Two Med been more doable, that might have been the better choice. As it was I cut off the trail early and bushwacked down to cross as soon as I thought it would be feasible, knowing the trail on the east bank would be dry and simple.
Beyond the CDT ford of the Two Med my route was brand new to me, and in a sector of the Bob into which I’d never been. The big meadows and long trail tunnels through the pines were the same as elsewhere, but the jagged N-S reefs cut the streams and trails into blocks with a different rhythm than elsewhere in the Bob. There was plenty of snow to slog even along the North Fork of Badger Creek, which foretold of a slow afternoon.
It was still a gorgeous day.
I don’t have any photos from that afternoon. The snow got real climbing out of Badger Creek, it drizzled for a while, then rained in earnest for 45 minutes as I snowshoed up Muskrat Creek. I was in go mode even before the precipitation started, as the math was not favoring my itinerary at all. On terrain like that 15-20% is knocked off my cruising speed, and regaining that amount, which amounts to going back from 2.7 mph to 3.2 mph, takes a 40% jump in effort, something I did not have the fitness to sustain for any length of time. Enjoyment of the terrain was getting lost in calculating and recalculating, until I shut that part of my brain down and told it to get absorbed in not loosing the trail. Muskrat and the climb over Badger Pass had more than enough snow to go wherever I pleased, but at some point the snow will diminish at which point you really don’t want to be postholing through thick deadfall.
Badger is one of those flat Bob passes where between the gentle terrain and thick forest you have no direct evidence it’s a pass at all. I was 30 miles in, it was around 8pm, and I was finally in the official wilderness.
There’s a delicate calculation to be made late in the evening of the first day, on this kind of trip. That last 10% of miles can do big damage, for which you’ll pay a lot later. I was already there, the push up to the pass having cost a lot, but was 10 miles behind schedule. I prefer to not hike past 9 this time of year, due to the probability of bear encounters, but the thick snow made that a bit less likely. More than that, camping in the deep snow made water inconvenient and was a claustrophobic prospect. One of the joys of this time of year is being able to zoom into the hostility of winter, and then back out again, quickly and often. I passed an outfitter camp along Strawberry Creek around 9, which had a few open and dry patches thawed around trees. I should have stopped, but instead stumbled a further 45 minutes until another spot presented itself, growing sleepy and making ever slower route finding choices.
Finally I stopped, built a fire, dried out, ate what I could of dinner and went to bed. I was very, very tired, too tired to eat especially well, which is not a good sign.
Morning always brings optimism and rested feet, and on this day the promise of packrafting. On June 1st in Montana morning also comes very early. The birds and sunrays actually woke me before 6, but I rolled over and slept for another hour, getting on the trail at seven, with cold via and shortbread for a mobile breakfast.
I had worn my snowshoes for at least eight straight miles prior to camp, and put them on for another mile, until the first crossing of Strawberry, and wore them for a bit afterwards. 10 straight miles of snowshoeable terrain was twice what I would have guessed, looking at the map. It meant hard work, plain and simple.
Strawberry had enough volume to float very high up, but looked small enough that lots of wood was likely. I probably waited a bit too long to put in, but had a great and fast float for a few miles until I got out into a burn and the wood jams started. They were never that frequent or that big, but a channel-wide strainer is what it is, be it built of one log or fifty, and after half a dozen hasty willow grabs to eddy out I had enough and bailed to the trail. Of course, that put me on the wrong side of the creek, and I had to reinflate the boat to ferry back across, at the same place the non-rafters forded easily last year.
It was wearing on towards noon thanks to the snow and log futzing, and the math was looking worse than ever. Momentum kept me from seriously considering what would have been a very pragmatic option; floating the Middle Fork down to Schafer and walking out to the highway via Skyland. It’s an excellent float that takes a long walk to access, and I could have easily been back on pavement within 24 hours, a mere hour from home. Instead I gritted my teeth and walked sore feet up and into more snow on Sun River pass, worried both about the diminishing ability to keep anywhere close to schedule, and the certainty that the North Fork of the Sun would be very big.
A bachelor herd of elk already in full velvet crashing through the ghost forest south of the pass helped me slow down and look a bit deeper into my stress level. I was not stopping to see details, not taking pictures, not having fun. Fun is a more nuanced concept on trips like this than the oh gee yeah of sex or donuts, but they always have been and always should be fun.
M was meeting me at Monture at 2pm on Tuesday, would stay late but not sleep there, and call SAR at noon Wednesday. To meet her evenly I’d need 20 miles or less left Tuesday morning. To be confident of meeting her before she left I could perhaps add 5-8 to that, if my speed didn’t crater too much after three full days. Working backwards, I needed to camp in Pretty Prairie along the South Fork of the Sun River to make that work, which meant that I would have to float all of the North Fork with minimal futzing, that afternoon. It was getting late in the afternoon, which meant among other things, floating later in the cold of the evening. There were too many mitigating factors, too little margin for error in too many places. There was a very real chance that I’d not be able to make the SAR cutoff.
I’ve always been very risk-averse, and overly introspective. I’ve also always had a tendency to bite off more than it easy to chew. Returning to walking along the trail south towards Lick Creek, it was clear that neither of these was quite sufficient.
The extra factor came on me fast as tripping on a rock. The previous weekend I officiated my sister’s wedding in my parents’ backyard; an event which more than anything had impressed upon me what a wonderful family I have. In a supreme none-coincidence, M and I have over recent months been having ever more serious conversations which that weekend had culminated in a decision, on names. These were the first choices we’d give to the son or daughter we’d start trying to have later this year. I was looking at tall the prospective risks of this trip across the Bob not merely as a human, child, friend, or husband, but as a prospective father.
I laughed at home obvious it was as tears rolled freely down my face. I’d be able to look back many years hence and know that it was on a trail in the Bob where everything changed for good.
With that settled, it was easy to let everything else go. I’ve had no small amount of ego tied up in the external aspects of having finished these trips, which is why DNFing both the Bob Open and the Classic back in 2012 was a hard thing to live with. The backcountry trips I’ve done since coming home from Alaska ~23 months ago have been the most satisfying of my life, and shown me that my erstwhile definition of success was immature. External feedback is important, as even solo backpacking doesn’t take place on a metaphysical island, but that validation at it’s best revolves around how you communicate your internal experience and what you saw and learned on the trip, which does not correlate with statistics like miles per day.
I rimwalked the canyon below Lick Creek on a game trail, and was glad I did. Two successive tight left-hand bends held first a burly rapid with no portage options, and second the largest wood jam I’ve ever seen in the Bob. As if to reward my patience, the North Fork from Wrong Creek down to Headquarters Creek was fast, moderate, and beautiful, with two wood jams to portage. I made 6 mph easily, enjoying being in the wilderness as much as I ever have.
Below the Headquarters bridge thunder and rain kicked up, and though it didn’t last long, the lack of direct sun and the upcanyon wind chilled me deeply. In raingear, I was rapidly approaching the point of no safety margin should I swim, and the rapids and refracting hydraulics around each bend in the microcanyons were large and unforgiving.
I pulled over at the invited spot and got an esbit cube lit before the shakes started. I was shivering badly enough 30 seconds later that I kept knocked twigs off as I tried to place them on top. Once the fire was roaring and had some hot soup in me, things felt better. The sun even came out. By then it was past 8pm and I had no intention of getting back on the water and re-soaking myself, but the trail was not far off up on the sage bench. Why not hike for another hour on a gorgeous evening?
So that is what I did. Relieved of the burden of making miles, and resigned to bailing out Gibson Reservoir the next day, I was free to walk as I liked, check out the abundant elk and deer (note elk at middle left in the above photo) and choose a nice campsite on a grassy knob.
I was able to eat more dinner, and went to bed very tired and very pleased.
It was cold overnight, cold enough that I got up after less than 7 hours sleep to fetch the food bag and make hot coffee. It was also a beautiful morning to be out in one of my favorite spots in the Bob.
I was excited that I might be able to cheat and float Gibson rather than walk the hard and rocky trail along the shore. Last month half the reservoir was a flowing river. Imagine my surprise when I arrived and found the water 20 feet or more higher than in this photo. That’s the story of these little reservoirs; store 7 weeks of runoff in order to irrigate for 7 months.
And that was the trip. Some shenanigans were involved in hitching a ride to a lodge and calling M to come get me, but the journey was over, and I was a different person for it. I can’t complain about that.