Friday evening I was tired. On weeks like this past my work does not afford me much mental rest, and I despite plans to the contrary I did not have the wherewithall to pack and get out on the trail that evening. The plan had been for me to get out in time for the roller derby bout Saturday evening, and then go do an adventure with M on Saturday. There were many good options for a day trip, but I suspected I’d need an overnight to be satisfied. Gear to test, silence to experience, so forth.
Eventually a plan was hatched, ice cream was consumed, books were read, my pack was packed, and I went to sleep. M dropped me off at the base area of Big Mountain around 900, and I walked, snowshoed, postholed, and packrafted my way in Apgar in just less than 24 hours.
It was a good idea. Both days this weekend were sunny and warm, hot by our current standards, with winds that (apparently) downed trees and telephone poles throughout western Montana, almost blew me off my feet on the summit of Big Mountain, and when they came upstream made paddling the North Fork Saturday evening a lot harder than it already was.
We’ve had a windy year generally, as evidenced by some formidable and durable cornices on this anonymous ridge overlooking Big Creek. Those are not small trees.
Aside from the wind and excellent views, snowshoeing off the mountain and down into the lower, melted and thus civilized reaches of Big Creek was non-eventful. I did need to drop off my fireroad and bushwack down across the creek on one occasion, which led me through the unpleasant zones of ever more rotten snow. In the video you can see one of the fun sink-to-the-waist moments when I would hit a hollow patch.
The floatability of Big Creek had been a large question in my mind. The volume (from driving past the mouth on Wednesday) and gradient were good, but given that the whole lower drainage had burned within the last decade I was concerned that wood would render things slow, dangerous, terrifying, or all of the above. I had wet and cold feet when I hit dry dirt just before Hallowat Creek, so I walked a further half mile to get warm and scope the creek. It looked good, so I bushwacked through the deadfall (the wind blew a tree over ~50 feet from me, the first of three that would fall close by that day), suited up, and put in. The water was fast and pushy, affording no downtime and little time not maneuvering to avoid holes, logs, or to setup for ideal positioning around the next bend. The dilemma in such creeks is that with few eddies and willow-lined banks, getting early notice of log jams is crucial. You want to be on the outside of a bend to get first look, but in the case of partial jams that always sit on the outside right after a bend, a rapid ferry either to avoid the wood or eddy out and portage is the order of the day.
I was having fun and making excellent time in the water, but soon the portages became more numerous and their placement on the creek less generous with its room for error. On the last one (shown in the vid) a particularly fast and narrow bend dumped me right above two nasty logs with no eddies in sight. A Harlequin duck pair was camped on an almost totally submerged gravel bar, are were not pleased as I came screaming in to land, ripping the deck early and jumping out into knee deep water, trying to hold on to the boat, paddle, and stay upright. I shouldered the boat, got out, and decided that Big Creek and I were done. A larger supply of patience and nerves could have made the float work, but I’m a chicken and control freak and just wasn’t having fun any more.
Seven more miles on foot down the dirt road was good classic training.
I couldn’t walk away from my fear completely, the North Fork of the Flathead really needed to be floated to stay on schedule, and was running huge and unleashed at 12,000 cfs (last weekend it was between 3,000 and 4!). I made sure to attach the pack to the boat, and my PFD to me, especially well before putting in.
For such a huge level, my progress downstream was not screamingly fast. Much of this was due to the maddening, fierce upstream gusts, which caught whichever light, high side of my boat/pack was available and tried to spin me around. Sinking a paddle blade to stay facing downstream often resulted in an annoying auto-ferry to one side or the other. Compounding this, my Aquabound comes stock with one mild feather setting, which means the blade in the air caught massive resistance and made paddling forward strenuous enough that my elbows ached by the time I took out at the confluence with the Middle Fork. (I’m drilling a new hole this evening to fix that issue.)
The Flathead at such a level was truly impressive. At all other times quite demure, this spring day the river put me in my rightly small space, in my very small-seeming boat. Channeling around a gravel bar resulted in a formidable back-boil that sat noticeably above the level of the main channel, and when such streams reunited the roiling eddy lines seethed, alternately flattening into nothing and twisting into whirlpools with no discernible predictability. I found it interesting, but not very relaxing (hence the almost total lack of from the boat footage).
Above one particularly legit-looking riffle I pulled off to empty the boat, re-temper, and shake some blood back into my limbs. I thought about scouting, but that seemed silly on the North Fork. Putting back in, I realized that this riffle was a legit rapid. Nervous, and so concentrated on ferrying left but not too left to thread the needles between two holes (for real, holes!) I exhaled to enjoy my positioning just in time to look ahead and see a horizon line rapidly approaching. Oops. That was dumb. Instinct got me off the three foot ledge drop with no problems (and thanking the packrafting ability to skim over recirculations), but when I eddied out and looked back upstream (first shot after the Big Creek and North Fork confluence in the vid) I was pissed. My goal for the stretch had been to hit my lines, and choose the easiest and mellowest lines through all the whitewater. I had hit my line, but chosen it badly.
As I mentioned, I’m a control freak, and the difficulty with which one imposes control on a river is disconcerting. Two more legit rapids followed closely, and I portaged each to make a point to myself. The first looked easy, but the last one had some big holes and standing waves, features I would not want to paddle a packraft into, even with a drysuit and small army of safety boaters to fish me out. Fortunately for me ease with life, the river relented a bit, and I made it down to the confluence with some ferrying around big standing waves, a mandatory run through some truly weird eddylines/boils/whirlpools, and an exchange of gazes with a moose eating willows at rivers edge 30 feet away. Three hours after I put in I took out, cold, damp, and a bit annoyed with myself, but happy. I got moving to shake the cold, found a gorgeous camp, cooked dinner as darkness came, and fell asleep quickly.
The sun got me up early. I made tea and enjoyed the view, and once moving was soon on familiar territory. I texted M, who was to meet me at Apgar, that I was ahead of schedule, and even with plenty of photo-futzing en route was sure to beat her. Unfortunate, as I was hungry, having on purpose brought only the bare minimum of food.
The Middle Fork was running even higher than the North Fork. The circle bridge, which I had floated under (with lots of room to spare) this past Monday, was up to within a foot of the bridge supports. The parking area which had been dry on Wednesday afternoon was under a foot of water. The world, which had been sitting with perfect patience through most of March and all of April, had come rushing to life with a vociferous joy sufficiently beyond the civilized human palette that it’s a bit unsettling to witness. A reminder that the world, in the course of its moods, will occasionally sweep away our roads, homes, and orderliness with no malice or intention.
It was then quite proper that I felt small.
Lake McDonald was quiet and windy, with businesses still closed for the season and isolated groups of tourists hunched against the chill edge taking pictures. I used the facilities and got some water, staring into the mirror in the same bathroom where, back in September, I changed into nice clothes before driving to the interview that got me the job I’ll go to later this morning. The most mundane places can be sentimental given context.
M arrived with hot coffee and food, and the news that she had forgotten her snowshoes, making our planned ascent to the Mount Brown lookout a matter for next weekend. Perhaps a good thing, as I was feeling a bit hollow.
Instead, we drove up to the Polebridge Mercantile, chatted with the owners (Stuart, one half of the couple, and I share a past as employees of Missoulas homeless shelter) and ate baked goods in the yard. We then walked up the still-closed to vehicles road to Bowman Lake flower hunting and enjoying another blue day.
By the time our 12 mile out and back was done I had over 40 miles on the feet in two days, and was ready to be home on the coach with food and beer. M was nice enough to drive.
What I’m calling recovery tacos; protein maximized. Vegetarian refried beans spread on tortillas and warmed not quite to the point of lightly toasted in the oven, steak, eggs, avocado, salsa, and potatoes.
Now it’s Monday, and raining outside, and even in the face of fatigue and the afterglow I don’t want to go to work. After sleeping more, I’d rather be back out there.