Guidebooks and South Fork access issues

IMG_0667White River from Haystack, looking west towards the South Fork of the Flathead, Bob Marshall country.

This morning I amended, with considerably reluctance, my Crown of the Continent packrafting guidebook.  There are now three short paragraphs toward the beginning, right under the obligatory disclaimer, encouraging present and future boaters to be mindful of their visual and on-the-ground impacts, build fires in appropriate spots, shit in the right spot, and so forth.

A recent conversation with the fish biologist who does research in the Pacific side of the Bob confirmed my suspicions that packrafting, on the South Fork especially, is coming under increase scrutiny.  My assumption, which is I believe shared by the forest service, is that packrafting is the only significant escalation is use of the South Fork in quite some time.  Expense and the logistical complication has kept outfitted and self-guided parties at a certain level.  Only so many folks are willing to pay 3k for a guided trip, or 1k to be packed in and out.  Even fewer are willing to hump an inflatable kayak or watermaster the ~20 miles in to floatable water under their own power.  Plenty of long time locals have done some variation of this trip, but it is fewer than you’d think, and most have only done it once.  By comparison, I’ve floated large stretches of the wilderness South Fork on seven different occasions in the past 3.5 years.

Given that I’ve repeatedly, and in public locations, recommended the South Fork, increased traffic can be no surprise.  I’m not taking much credit for it, but little things like articles and the guidebook add up.  Informed speculation postulates the land manager concerns are two-fold.  First, outfitters complain that the solitude they charge for is being impinged upon, by bright boats and people who obviously didn’t work as hard as one might think to get back there.  I’m not too sympathetic, and think the FS is already to lenient with these folks (hunting camp caches and permanent structures), but they are a force to be reckoned with.  The second concern is degradation of the wilderness experience, which is hopefully something everyone can agree on.  The appeal of the South Fork is feeling like few people have been there before.  Lines of boats, firerings, poop under rocks, and trout with dislocated mandibles do not support this.

As someone who took it upon himself to contribute to this problem, I face another version of the same problem I had when writing the guidebooks first draft: provide enough information, in a form which can accrue reliability through public acclimation, for visitors to do worthy trips on their first try, without suspending all adventure.  Given this latest bit of information concerning access, I want to give a bit of context and guidance, without swelling the book into a sermon.

It’s a timely topic for me, as I’ve been perusing Todd Martin’s Grand Canyoneering in the process of designing a backpacking trip for next month.  Todd presumably sided with me on the guidebook issue generally, assuming that increased awareness and participation is in the internet age a bigger virtue than increased exposure is a detriment.  It is worth noting that Todd chose not to be comprehensive, leaving numerous explored and unexplored canyons undescribed, while the Crown guidebook as it currently stands lists every waterway I think might be floatable.  Todd went the opposite direction from me on the issue of detail, providing the conventional mini-textbooks on human and natural history and regulations, in addition to in depth descriptions of the canyons themselves (e.g. number and length of rappels, type of anchor).  I believe that obliging readers to do background research, and leaving them with plenty of guesswork as far as the route itself is concerned, is both more sporting and tends to better cultivate personal responsibility.  It also results in a very different product; Todd’s book is over 500 pages and available for 25 bucks on Amazon, mine is a thin 22 pages and free.

It would be quite possible to write a sizable tome about packrafting around here, and the South Fork would take up a large percentage of those pages, but in the end I don’t think that would do anyone any good, and would serve the need to preserve a wild feel poorly.

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2 thoughts on “Guidebooks and South Fork access issues

  1. Gosh, no comments on this piece? I think it is one of your more important posts recently. We want to be stewards of the land. Perhaps by writing about wild places that don’t get a lot of traffic, we can encourage folks to go there — hopefully folks who will become advocates for the land. We need advocates at times so wild places don’t become reservoirs, uranium mines, cattle range, etc. Sometimes our writing causes unintended consequences, such as you shared. Where do we stop or proceed for the proper balance?

    Of course, your research for the Canyon trip will make it a special trip, because of the research you needed to do without much help from anyone. Leads to even greater satisfaction. But even the Canyon needs advocacy.

    I enjoyed your thoughts.

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