With dry clothes, a sandy bed, hot water bottle, and the whispering river twenty feet away I slept well, a welcome contrast to the occasional shivers the previous night. Even better, experience has shown that getting on the water at dawn on a cold morning is a false economy, so I slept past first light, made two rounds of coffee, and stoked the stove with the leftover wood. The boat was packed and inflated at 0830.
Historically the South Fork below Big Salmon Creek has been a faster float than the stretch above, and I was looking forward to banking easy miles before the Meadow Creek portage and long road walk/ski. On the way to Upper Holland, 44 hours and a lifetime before, I ran into this guy and his ski partner, who reported that the road to Bunker Creek had been plowed to facilitate salvage logging, as the whole drainage had burned hot in the Bear Creek fire last August. It was hard to wrap my mind around this, as I had picked my route not only due to mileage and avy concerns, but because it would be an opportunity to do road travel while said road was empty and unsullied. This would prove to not be the case, but as I floated past Big Salmon Creek, into the first big slow pool of the deep, incised, lower South Fork my mind was full of variables. How fast would the next 18 miles of floating be? How snowy would the three miles of the portage trail be? How much fire-culled deadfall would I find? Would the road be plowed? Would it be bare dirt, or ice? How far would it be plowed? How well would my beat-up feet hold up to hard dirt walking?
Soon enough I was distracted, both by lots of paddling, and by elk. I’ve floated this stretch in fall, twice, but it seemed lower and slower, and I kept a steady rhythm for the whole 4.5 hours, with one piss break. On two occasions I spooked groups of 20-30 elk, bedded close to the shore. The second group must have been recently harassed by wolves, because they did not want to leave the shelter of the water. I mourned adding to their stress as I bumped them repeatedly from gravel bar to gravel bar for over a mile, until the river came around to a south-facing, snow-free bank, onto which they escaped.
A few miles later I started seeing willows and streamside aspens shorn of bark, sign that something had taken up long-term residence. 50 feet later I was within 20 feet of a bull elk, struggling to quietly get my camera out of the drybag before the elk got out of his bed. I was too slow, but seeing the huge, sleek creature canter gracefully over the cobbles drove in that I had found exactly the bit of insight for which I had hoped. The South Fork, low point in a snowy wilderness, is as expected a winter haven for elk, whitetails, and wolves.
The various micro-gorges and rapids below Black Bear were of little concern at such a low level, and dragging my boat across the snow at the Meadow Creek takeout was a peculiar feeling. Every other time this places marked the beginning of the end, and was often a 45 minute walk from the car and a warm beer. On that day it was sunny and pleasant, if snowy, and I had 30+ miles and 26 hours to make it over the invisible western skyline and down to civilization.
Turns out the road was plowed, down to dirt, and was in better shape than summer. I got the first hint halfway to the trailhead, when I began running into old ski tracks. At the trail junction above the Meadow Creek bridge there were lots of ski tracks, it looked like folks had been commuting the two plus hours down the reservoir for casual, half mile ski outings. Heavy logging trucks and frozen soil looked firm and smooth enough to ride with a road bike, and I dumped my pack and sat down on the bare dirt, amazed, and took a snack break. I later learned, after running into one of the researchers, that the logging traffic had allowed the USGS predator research team to commute via trucks, rather than snowmachines, and they had left the tracks checking hair trap bait stations. But before that happened I need to walk five miles on bare dirt, most of which I did in only my liners, to save my heels. The plowing only went as far as the summer gate, and while the first few miles of the Bunker Creek road were patchy, the upper section was fully covered, and the snow was smooth and fairly fast. The gradual ascent, smooth surface, and lack of logs to dodge allowed me to get into a nice zone, and eat up the miles, ignoring my poor feet.
Life got interesting as darkness crept in to the canyon bottom, and I ran out of good road with the above log-rodeo creek crossing. Beyond that the old logging road continued most of the way to the pass, but darkness and plenty of saplings growing up in the middle made for a disorienting, tiring affair. I was determined to press on, either until I reached the final bridge, or a navigational block which prudence dictated I wait for daylight to solve. Fortuitously it was the former, which came an hour after dark. 30 feet back from the bridge the snow was flat right on the road, and I pitched the Lil’ Bug Out quickly, fired up the stove, and got in my sleeping bag. Ramen, tea, chocolate, and granola bars went down the hatch, and I fell asleep as quickly as aching feet and legs would allow. It had been a 36 mile day, evenly split between paddling and walking/skiing, and I was in a good spot to stay on time tomorrow.
I woke up to snow, and packed quickly. No coffee would be made that last morning, and the day largely passed in a haze of skiing and small obstacles solved as quickly as fuzzy mind and fingers allowed. First it was a skin failure, because I hadn’t put my skins in my sleeping bag. Which I knew was a mistake. Skins down the shirt and a 45 minute flirtation with trying to climb on wax solved that issue, as did getting up above 6500′ and into the four inches of fresh powder which had fallen overnight. Inspiration Pass was beautiful, and I could hear cars down on the highway, and get text messages out to M. Early pickup means early food and ice cream. I was grateful for tech bindings and plastic boots during the steep traverse north, and for locked heels during the steep tree skiing down into Lost Creek. I figured the summer road, within the designated snow machine zone, would have seen plenty of traffic and be a packed, fast coast. The icey road killed my legs, and I had to stop embarrasingly often, but I still made five free downhill miles in half an hour. I still had cell service on the lower road as I mixed dirt walking with a bit of skiing and plenty of deadfall hopping, and still had it on the lower road, so I could tell M it was plowed, again due to winter logging. After a mile of walking, with very painful and just plain done feet, and I came to a plowed pullout by a pond, and with M (and LB) just turning off the pavement, I felt justified in sitting down, unbuckling, and just waiting.
12 days later my blisters have mostly healed, itched, and flaked off. That afternoon we drove into Bigfork, got big plates of mexican food, drove most of the way home, with a stop for Dairy Queen, and made it on time to AquaTots, where I did not get into the pool, due to hygiene concerns with the half dozen weeping sores on each foot.
On the drive home I told M I might retire from such trips. I’ve certainly left myself no doubt that I can manage them, in most circumstances. On the other hand, this float trip was really cool, and it also wasn’t the frozen, snowy journey I’d always imagined. Maybe this coming winter I’ll take a week or more in early February, and do that thru-ski from the North Fork Blackfoot over to Danaher and all the way down the South Fork to Hungry Horse. Being away from home was hard this time, but the knowledge that the big wild world was still out there, indifferent to human timeframes and thought as ever, made coming back to my little world all the sweeter. Knowing both now as well as I do, I’ll never be able to ignore either.