Preparation comes before success, and a few weeks before the Bob Open I knew that I wouldn’t have the legs to really push things. I’ve had other priorities this spring, and like everywhere else there are no honest shortcuts in the wilderness. Last year complications put me behind schedule and strongly suggested an early exit, something I’d have been able to resist had I built in an extra half day and packed a bit more food. So the plan this year was to do a scenic tour, travel 12-14 hours a day, and have a good backpacking trip.
Justin, Morgan, M and I left Whitefish Friday afternoon on a hot and sunny day. Troublingly so, if such weather pushed into the weekend it would make the snow soft and hydration difficult. We arrived at the Hungry Bear in Condon to find that the rather substantial crew had taken over half the restaurant and were having a large footprint not entirely welcome. What I had suspected was going to prove true: this year’s attendance would set a record.
After M dropped us off at Owl Creek I pitched my tarp, chatted with folks, and did not try very hard to get a sense of who and how many. The point of this “event” is to stir complacency while fostering independence, and I liked the fact that I had only an inexact idea of who would turn up the next morning.
It turned out to be a beautiful Saturday. 16 guys (c’mon ladies) took the start, and after my shortest speech yet we were all heading up to Upper Holland Lake. I let Dan, Tanner, and Derek disappear up the trail, never to be seen again by me on this particular trip. My first variation on the main trails was a high traverse over a pass to Lena Lake, shortcutting the detours down to lower valleys. This worked well for several reasons. First, most of it faced enough south to be free of snow. Second, it was almost all at or above 7000′ and through aesthetic alpine forests and meadows, occasionally on nice game trail (some of which was outfitter-maintained). Third, I had sold Dan, Tanner, and Greg on my variation and the former two were well ahead and good enough route finders that they broke trail in all the important spots, giving me an easier ride.
The traverse went well, though it was not especially fast. Lena was totally frozen, and the trail down into the next valley deep enough in snow that it was impossible to find. I took a good guess and while I was never on it, came out onto the less snowy Shaw Creek valley 200 yards from the right junction, breaking a carbon trekking pole along the way. Tanner and Dan had not been anywhere near me, and I briefly thought I might have been sneaky enough to get ahead of them, but once I made it up to the main trail over to the pass into Burnt Creek footprints were already there.
At this point I had already revised my route. I wanted to bring a raft, and didn’t want to swim the Flathead or detour to either of the bridges, so justified that weight by intending to float north and hike up Helen Creek and over Pagoda Pass, trading an extra pass for some free fast miles. With slow legs and lots of snow, it was obvious that would be a bad idea. So opted for the sure-ur thing, and dropped straight into Bartlett Creek, which was longer than Burnt, but more open and had a nice set of cliffs to serve as a benchmark for refinding the trail. That last part sort of worked, as I found the old trail which was easy to follow but chocked with 10 years of willow growth. It eventually led to the newer trail, which was easy and enjoyable walking. Soon enough I was at the river, in my boat, then wet and cold, then taking out at the White River and hiking fast to get warm, then making camp a mile or so shy of the West Fork of the White, late on a nice evening. My feet were tired, but life seemed very good.
Sunday I woke up early, went back to sleep for a while, and still woke up early. I brewed coffee, snarfed a granola bar, put the coffee in my nalgene, and was still on the trail at 0630. 15 minutes later I had a nice fat black bear, complete with white chest flagging, at 20 yards in a meadow. The bear was in full cow mode, munching the greenest grass with intensity. I forgot to take a picture, but did stand there for 30 second thinking about how I should have bagged the traverse and done a float-out bear hunt. But without a tag or rifle, I yelled at the bear, which ran quickly, and kept going.
The choice to hike the White River valley, then the long way over Larch Hill pass proper and past My Lake, was a good one. Needle Falls is a nice piece of Yellowstone, and Brushy Park was full of elk, whitetails, and mule deer. I’d been wanting to see the Chinese Wall proper since that first trip with Kevin back in 2009, and was glad I did. As a feature it’s fame is justified, and that’s a damn good thing, because the loop around to My Lake surely added 90 minutes compared to the traverse straight over to Spotted Bear pass.
Every trip has a crux, tipping point, come-to-jesus moment. Mine was at Spotted Bear pass at 430pm, with 12 miles til Gates Park and some seriously cashed-out feet and legs. Make those miles and I’d easily be on schedule, with room to spare. Fail to do so and I’d be under the gun. In the end it’s only walking, of course, and nothing is more basic than putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how annoying. Gates Park had a bunch of elk and whitetails in the meadow by the ranger station, and a nice camp by the creek 1/3 of a mile beyond. I made dinner in a hurry, drank a lot of water and drink mix to rehydrate, and fell asleep quickly.
Sunday night was clear, and cold. I woke up shivering at 0200 to put on my hooded vest, and on purpose slept as late as I could manage. My legs were stiff and slow in the morning, something which did not improve at all the whole day. The extended snow slogging up Nesbit Creek into the Teton River drainage did not help, though the Griz who had led the way a few days previous made route finding easy. The day before I had followed either deer or mountain goats along the traverse to Larch Hill pass, and on both days was struck again by how infallible animals are at following a trail under 10 feet of snow. Griz in particular always cut switchbacks expeditiously.
I made the bit of road on the Teton River in time for a late lunch or early hot dinner, which along with 45 minutes sitting gave me enough pep to make the days third ten mile stretch up the Teton, through the forest in the rain, and over into the Birch Creek headwaters. It had stopped raining by the end of the day, when I came down into a sweeping V-valley, Alaska style, with a rugged and loud little stream surrounded by gnarled birch groves cupped by tall talus slopes. I had extra time, and if I broke my no hiking after 10pm rule could probably have made the TH. But there was a gorgeous little meadow and a bit of firewood, along with a lovely view. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the presence of mind to take out the camera until I was already under the tarp, deeply tired, but with enough energy for the final push.
The South Fork Birch Creek trail was awful, an obnoxious mix of sticky clay and iron hard horse divots. Not nice on tired ankles. The South Fork of Birch itself could not have been more different, with delightful floating that was wet, but not too wet. Even better, I got to paddle straight across the reservoir, substituting 45 minutes of flat water for 4 miles of walking. And just like that, I was done.
The sun was peaking in and out of the clouds, so I took off my shoes, yardsaled everything on the grass, put on all my clothes, and took an hour long nap. I woke up to banging, which turned out to be the same couple Tanner spoke with changing a tire on their truck, which is complicated with a fifth-wheel attached. I gave them a hand, waved goodbye, and went inside the little hut to eat my last food and avoid the rain, and 10 minutes late Mike and crew showed up. They had big smiles and beer in their truck, which filled the time nicely until M showed up and we could drive north, get chicken-fried steak at the Two Med Grill, and go home.
It was a good and remarkably no-drama, even-keeled trip, especially given how much of a grind the miles ended up being. I was quite up to my schedule, but I’ve been feeling the after-effects all week, and quite acutely. My food was good and I had just enough, I got no blisters, everything worked fine, and I was glad to have my rafting stuff, even though I used it for only a tenth of the distance. It was, simply, fun, in the sense of being a satisfying walk through an area which has over the last six years lost something of its aura, though in exchange I’ve received a commensurately deeper feel for the vagaries, charms, and rhythms of the Bob. I update the Open page a few hours ago to say that 2016 will probably not take place in the Bob, but I’ll almost certainly change my mind on that. Going back is different from going to new places, but it is no less grand.