This is not a business

But I am asking you to buy things.
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Back in 2010 the end of grad school and move to a new place, with what was finally and undeniably a real job, properly prompted introspection.  One prominent result was upgrading this blog to WordPress and taking it far more seriously.  What I’ve gotten from that commitment has been priceless; a sporadic freelance writing career that has brought both money and interesting projects, collaborations with publications and companies testing and refining outdoor gear, a far more nuanced understanding of myself, and most significantly a community of readers whose depth of commitment and breadth of background never fails to amaze me on the relatively rare occasions when it and I come face to face.  I’m an introvert, something I only poorly understood and could not embrace 7 years ago.  If I wasn’t, I’d probably spend less time writing to and for intimate strangers and more time face to face with strangers in living rooms and bars.

These intangible benefits could not have been purchased in any way other than time and concentration invested over years.  I’ve never made a cent directly from Bedrock & Paradox, and aside from writing gigs for other publications no secondary income either.  To be mild I’ve never been a fan of crowd sourcing, affiliate links, native advertising, and so many of the trappings of our current age.  I like working for a living, doing actual things, getting money without sleight of hand.  I’m also not comfortable asking for donations or doing any kind of subscription service.  On the one hand I’m small potatoes and monetizing in that way just seems insulting to you, the readers.  On the other, there are more demands on my time than ever, something which isn’t going to change, and there are some projects I’d like to push forward now, which require additional funding.

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So this is the compromise, three stickers designed by my lovely wife M, the shadowy figure which has made so much of Bedrock & Paradox possible since the beginning.  We’re selling them for $1.50 each, with graduated shipping charges for US and international buyers.  I won’t make too much money on each order, but I will make some, and all of it will go directly towards equipment necessary to get the next phase of Bedrock & Paradox off the ground.  They’re the best vinyl stickers we could find, the samples having survived many rounds in the dishwasher.  They’ll last quite a while wherever you decide to put them, and will hopefully both help us out while both giving you something of substance and making more explicit the bond between reader and author.  Because as ornery as I often am, I wouldn’t keep doing this without knowing I was reaching who I am.

As an additional thank you for investing, and for accompanying us over the years, we’re holding a pack giveaway.  One lucky person will get custody of the most recent version of the 610 pack, shown below and detailed here.  It fits a ~20 inch torso, and will come with shoulder straps, foam pad, and hipbelt.  Pockets exist for dual stays, but you’ll have to supply those.  Full details can be found on the sticker page or the new Bedrock & Paradox store.

Why isn’t this a business?  Because I don’t want to make money, I want to do things, and doing those things happens to require a bit more capitol than we currently have ready access to.  Making money requires compromise for the sake of efficiency, scale, and sensibility.  Long term I have no interest in those things, only in making exactly what I want to make, as best as I can make it.  That is what the stickers exist to fund, and that is what you’ll be voting for if you buy some.

Posted in N.O.S., North Fork Packs | 24 Comments

2017 Bob Open, planning from afar

As things stand today, the family and I will almost certainly be at the start of the 2017 Bob Open, if for no other reason than we rented the (superlatively gorgeous) forest service cabin at the start for the nights of the 26th and 27th.  I’m less certain I’ll actually start the course, but knowing what the obvious routes are and what an extraordinary winter Montana has had it will be difficult to say no.

Not having been in Montana since early November, I find myself in the new to me situation of having to assess conditions and plan from a distance.  Though naturally having done this for each of the last six Mays makes generalizing data to what is on the ground quite a bit easier.

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Of all the Snotels in the Bob I find Badger Pass the most useful, for reasons discussed here.  While I won’t be going especially close to the pass itself, it should give me a decent ideal of how much and more importantly what kind of snow I might find on the passes I will go over.

Badger tells us that a lot of snow fell in the Bob this winter.  More importantly, it tells us that unless a truly remarkable heat wave rolls in there will still be lots of snow at the end of May.  The top graph tells it best, showing snow depth holding steady over the past 30 days, while snow water equivalent slowly increased.  This tells me that the ~80 inches of snow currently lurking in the spruce up at Badger is exceedingly dense and solid, and will take a long time to melt even with warm temperatures.  For the Open I’ll expect snow down to 5000 feet, maybe lower in the trees on north facing slopes, and well over 6 feet in most places above 6500.  Navigational challenges will be a bit more extensive than usual.

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It seems likely that lower and low-mid elevation snow will be well cleared out by a fairly warm April, as steadily high but not egregious flows on both relevant rivers show.  This removes the unlikely, but after a winter like one not improbable, scenario of snow persisting below 5000 feet well into May and even June.  Flows this high for this long also mean a high probability of wood being moved around, not necessarily of more wood jams, but certainly in different places.  So much snow does mean that increased deadfall on trails is a certainty.  Only the weather close to go time will determine how big the rivers and streams in fact are.  As the Snotel sites tell us there is still more than enough middle and high altitude snow to make things truly huge, but the elimination of low altitude snow does mean that it will take a more sustained warm period to really bring the waterways up.

Planning wise this data doesn’t necessarily change much.  Lots of snow might prompt you away from a trail on a north facing aspect into a neighboring drainage which is likely to be more melted.  On the other hand, depending on temps in the week before more snow in live forest might be preferable to less snow in a burn, and the tons of downed trees which might there be found.  The potential for problematic stream crossings, a la 2013, certainly has my attention, as does the omnipresent question of whether to bring snowshoes or not.  Hard not to lean yes on a year like this one.

See everyone next month!

Posted in Backpacking, Packrafting, Racing | 2 Comments

The Big question

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Where to live?  A question of massive importance that for obvious reasons we’ve been pondering a lot lately.  With a kid and a lot of stuff future moves will ideally trend toward the number of digits needed to eat chicken nuggets.  We also did the van life thing before hashtags were invented, and it lacks the romance and depth the net would have it possess.  There is a lot to be said for human life and attention and understanding only having the resources to get to know a few places well, and I’ve spent plenty of time in recent weeks pondering whether I care to add another to our list.

If you’re a regular reader here regular access to the outdoors is a priority.  It has been a driving force for M and I since 2003, and we’ve yet to have cause for regret.  Location is a factor, but it is not the factor.  Along with van life I’ve spent enough time as a car-dwelling outdoor bum to realize that there is more to life and purpose, a conviction that last six months has only served to reinforce.  So while for example back in 2007 we didn’t consider my going to graduate school in a place like Missouri or Michigan that would have looked good on the resume, we’ve also never considered (too seriously) places where the income to cost of living balance is so systemically out of whack that just maintaining a permanent residence would have required major and ongoing sacrifice.  In this matter one should be a persistent dreamer, but not an ideologue.

At this point circumstance merits an interlude on the importance of timing.  I was fortunate that I applied and was accepted to grad school just as 43s negligence tanked the economy, and we were smart to have not invested in real estate when we moved to Arizona in 2006.  When I went on the market post grad school in 2010, the impact of history was still deeply felt, especially (in retrospect) in the human services sector and most importantly in the state budgets allocated too them.  I was fortunate then, in a way I can only now appreciate, that one of the few calls I got back from the many applications I sent out was from a place which both did good work and was a good place to work.  The contrast to the last month has been enormous.  My resume is a bit fatter, but the larger difference has been broadly the economy and more exactly, the ACA.  Medicaid expansion has put what I do in high demand, enough that we’ve been put in the enviable position of having many nice offers from many nice places.

So then, how to make a decision?  Professional imponderables are too specific for any meaningful comment (unless any readers are contemplating moving west for a job in the non-profit children’s mental health sector, in which case drop me a line and I’ll do all I can), so I’ll restrict the following to location and the associated benefits.

Making a choice based on activity and climate preference is obvious.  If you’re a serious, obsessive mountain biker for example I don’t see many good reasons to live anywhere other than somewhere in the four corners state.  Aside from the central mountains and far west vestiges of midwestern sprawl (aka the front range) circumstance and weather generally allows for quality riding 10-11 months a year, and in the desert the riding itself is simply the best mountain biking on earth, several orders of magnitude better than anything else in both quality and quantity.  Truly obsessive, ski-every-month folks have a more complicated decision.  Colorado makes a lot of sense for these folks, especially with an eye to the future, where models suggest high altitude will protect the dying resource which is skiable snowpack.  The cost is of course crowds both in the hills and on the way to them.  There are exceptions and workarounds to this and any other similar situation, but the trend holds true across the west: there is a price to be paid for having many desirable things close (both natural and otherwise), which is generally having to be around lots of other people.

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 9.47.30 PMFor some, or indeed many, this isn’t a big deal.  It can even be a bonus, the wealth of cultural and culinary resources available most places in Arizona or Colorado vastly exceeds even the most cosmopolitan places in Montana.  For me, getting away from people is a very big deal, and not only because my standards for backcountry crowds are far too exacting.  (4 dayhikers, 8 backpackers, and one packrafter in ~50 miles of the Escalante certainly counts as crowded.)  As I suspected of New Zealand a lower population density can be directly responsible for a more congenial populace and a daily ethos which I find to my liking.

I’ve attempted to capture this dynamic in the above chart*.  The population of a given town or area (~100,000 in the larger Flathead Valley, for example) or even the population density of the county in question, doesn’t tell the whole story.  The number of people within a 250 mile radius (striking distance for a weekend, for the motivated) is more demonstrative.  It explains why the Grand Junction area, or Flagstaff, or Moab, or even the Escalante can be as crowded as they often are even in the absence of much local population and especially local involvement in the activity du jour.

Elevation, and especially the change in vertical relief within a 20 mile radius, is also for me a huge factor in outdoor quality of life.  Higher elevation is almost always better.  It makes cool nights colder, sunny days warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and turns winter rain into snow.  When the weather doesn’t quite cooperate, on when you just want a change from the status quo, a change in elevation can provide that.  In this matter type is as important as quantity.  Grand Junction has such a large figure due to Grand Mesa, were that feature taken out the figure would be less than half of 5900 feet.  Grand Mesa is a somewhat homogenous feature, whose slopes are due to vegetation and land ownership not especially accessible.  The canyons south and north of town do provide quality terrain and close to 3000 feet of relief, but to say that the Grand Valley has a diversity of good terrain on par with Flagstaff, Escalante, Moab, or even Whitefish would be false.

It is worth noting that were the radius extended to 30 miles Flagstaff would have a truly extraordinary 9000+ feet of relief.  It had been almost a decade since we had visited, and driving south a few weeks ago and up into the world’s largest ponderosa forest, draped around the volcanic feet of the San Francisco peaks, was a beautiful reminder of just how extraordinary that location is.  Flag is a big and, due to geography, crowded and bustling town, but isn’t yet built up to the extent of a Los Angeles, Phoenix, and even Banff where the scale of human presence has all but obliterated what was once one of the most beautiful places on earth.  I have a rule to not live anywhere with less than 4000 feet of relief within 20 miles, but it is profitable to remember that by following that rule one is almost certainly participating in the continued trend of urbanifying the unique.

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A final point worth discussing, which is a bit more difficult to capture, is where a town gets its money and the extent to which it is a resort and vacation destination.  Escalante is becoming that, against all expectations, while Whitefish is emphatically a 2nd home destination.  Which is why weren’t not moving back there, and why any home with 2 bathrooms is 350,000 or more, no matter the size (I exaggerate, barely).  Beyond COL issues, the 2nd home phenomenon tends to create a never-neverland atmosphere which long term I do not find pleasant.  Whitefish, and towns like Crested Butte, Durango, and Jackson, have their livelihood tied up in appearances.  They pull tourists, retirees, and the wealthy in because they look the picture of a western ideal made real.  Which they are, but they are made not grown, and that artificiality comes home to roost when the folks who live their can’t afford to live there, and therefore the substance of the place becomes hollow and imbalanced.

Nothing comes for free, but this question and everything I’ve written here reeks of privilege.  It’s a choice and a problem I’m grateful to have.

*Numbers from statsamerica.org, which is a fantastic use of leisure time, but necessarily doesn’t tell the whole story.  For example, I draw % of 2nd homes from the “Percent of Total Units Vacant for Seasonal or Recreational Use” which is not an exact equivocation.

Posted in Backpacking, Cultural critique, N.O.S., Social Justice Work | 18 Comments

Escalante River snap judgment

Il ne faut pas toucher aux idoles: la dorure en reste aux mains.
― Gustave Flaubert

The Highway 12 gauge is almost useless. During my trip on the Escalante this past weekend it hovered around 4 cfs, with a brief bump up to 12, a surge that likely passed me as I slept in the cottonwoods a little below Horse Canyon. I was there, a bit damp and cool, because I did not want to contain my enthusiasm. After a pleasant 20 mile bike shuttle along the Moody road, and downright bucolic stroll down Little Death Hollow and Horse, I reached The River around 730pm and was ecstatic to the point of dancing on seeing it full with clear, clear!, water. More than enough for good packrafting. With a small-tubed open boat getting wet is all but guaranteed, and getting wet an hour before dark is not such a wise way to manage ones warmth portfolio, but I’d been planing this moment for 12 years and with better than expected conditions was not going to shy away from the moment.

The Escalante and the Dirty Devil are the two big wilderness rivers of the Colorado Plateau. They run ever year, for significant stretches I now know, and unlike the numerous roadless stretches of the Green and Colorado are protected from the trailered hordes by the illusion that they rarely have enough water for good floating. By most standards that is true, at the middling level I found the Escalante this month and the Dirty back in March both are small enough that they only earn the label “river” through hydrogeographical quirks. The Dirty Devil is a desert river, with a sandy sucking floor and a watertable shallow and transient enough that it only supports willow and tamarisk. The middle section of the Escalante is a mountain stream succumbing mile after mile to the deserts embrace. From Horse Canyon to somewhere between Fence Canyon and 25 Mile Wash the bottom is gravel and cobbles, with high vegetated banks and a run and channel pattern to the meanders. This layout, with which I’m very familiar, combined with the clear water to make paddling easy. In ~28 miles of the Escalante I had to get out and drag 3 times; on a similarly long stretch of the Dirty Devil I often had to drag 3 times in 100 yards. Even from 25 Mile down to Moody Canyon, as sides of the canyon grow and close in, depositing talus in the river and thinning out the walls of green, the relative closeness of the snowpack source kept the Escalante semi-translucent, it’s current possessing a zip which that cousin to the east prominently lacks.

I wish I could recall where I first heard of and saw an Alpacka raft. I think it was on the old AK Trekking page, or perhaps in a backpage magazine blurb. After 12 years of contemplation there was no way any trip wasn’t somehow going to come up short, which is what happened this weekend. No ones fault other than circumstance. It was a great route that flowed under my feet and seat with seemingly no effort, and highlighted what Matt has been saying for a while now: don’t worry too much about the flow, and just go.

Posted in Backpacking, Bikes and biking, Packrafting | 4 Comments