The Bob Open started undefined years ago, at whatever time in the early to mid oughts I first heard about the Wilderness Classic. That skillset was far enough away that I couldn’t really identify how to get from where I was to where I could go to Alaska and cross 150 miles of wilderness, quickly and safely. That desire stayed in the back of my head for years, as I went through a bunch of different outdoor pursuits. Then in 2009 we were living in Missoula and Ryan Jordan at BPL posted about Le Parcour de Wild, an October traverse of the Bob complex from south to north. I teamed up with Kevin Sawchuk, and while he was the experienced and more fit side of the team, I held my own and we finished the trip in some tough conditions. The next spring I did an aborted crossing of Yellowstone, which showed what was possible. That summer, in 2010, I finally got a packraft, and by the following spring I was well into the final preparation for the Classic. This trip was the prototype for the Bob Open, and proved the integrity of the concept which continues to this day.
All of which is to say that I had no excuses this year. In my seventh year of this kind of trip, and sixth straight Memorial Day in the Bob itself nerves, mistakes, and anything other than solid execution of a solid plan would just not do.
Plenty of folks, 18 in total, showed up Saturday morning to toe the line. I recognized plenty of potentially fast folks, and plenty of the nerves I felt acutely in past years. Les and Micah, the Helena ultrarunners, as well as Abby, Jason, and Fred, the Teton adventure racers, took off running. Derek took off in the opposite direction as everyone else. Most of us settled into a solid 3.5 mph walk down the hard and scenic dirt road along the Dearborn River. This felt pretty fast once the same speed translated to the singletrack along the Dearborn. A lot of people had, on the forum in the weeks before the start, professed to be on a three day plan for the crossing over to Cedar Creek. I was as well, M was set to meet me there at 7 pm Monday night, and had few illusions about just how fast that schedule would require each hour to be. So I kept pushing as Adrian from Minnesota drifted off the front.
A coffee and ramen break was in order once I broke off to cross the Dearborn and go up Whitetail Creek, into the very headwaters of the North Fork of the Blackfoot. Good speed is one thing, calorie debt four hours in another. Mike, John and Thad arrived as I was putting my stove away. They were in good spirits indeed, but I was in a mood to just walk, and didn’t wait after wading the very cold stream.
Oft-used horse trails in the Bob are generally not pleasant walking, either broad, dusty, and hard enough to abuse the legs, or narrower, muddy, and ankle-twisting. The Whitetail Creek trail was not either of these things, and obviously used more frequently by elk and bears than anything else. It had been rerouted in the last decade or so, to in the modern style actually have switchbacks, and in some places the critters obviously favored the old way, which caused confusion. I went 50 meters down the wrong way to make certain, and seeing fresh elk sign followed the old trail uphill. There was deadfall but the 15 foot corridor through the pines was obvious, and led up into a steep sage sidehill, with a dozen bull elk visible at 80 meters. Traversing to get a better view I caused an explosion in the scrub 20 meters up to the right; an enormous Grizzly ass, running away from me, spring fat vibrating furiously. Apparently bull elk aren’t too fussed by big bears at medium distances. Said elk were far more bothered by me as I followed their tracks, contouring up through aspens and an open hillside, from which I could here Mike et al down below, and contour back down to meet the trail with minimal bushwacking.
Yesterdays video might not make the boating on the North Fork of the Blackfoot seem appealing, and the willow bashing and watching out for portages was constant. I completely missed that mountain goat until I was reviewing clips days later. But, it was fun, the sort of low-volume, moderate-speed, busy boating I love and with which I’ve become so familiar. The five miles I floated until the river gorged up and the wood got much worse were no faster, or slower, than walking the good trail, but the value of an hour long alteration in mental and physical exertion was massive. I took out, hiked another hour, cooked dinner high above the North and Dry Fork confluence, then kept rolling up the valley into the evening.
Initial planning had me thinking about making the foot of Danaher the first night, and hiking into the dark to do so, but I had miscounted those miles, and had very tired feet after a long and speedy day with a not-light pack, so I made camp at dark, at the first spot near water.
One bar before bed was not enough; my body couldn’t make heat well, and I woke after 45 minutes, shivering, and procrastinated a bit longer before stumbling out into the dark in socks, pulling my food bag down, eating more chocolate, and firing up the stove to make a hot water bottle. Which ensured I fell asleep quickly and slept well, at least until a little after 5am when it got light and the birds woke up. A further hour of rest did little to prevent packing, and the initial miles over the Dry Fork divide, from being a clumsy affair. My mind was not sharp, and my ankles wobbly, and the miles came slower than it seemed like they should have.
Danaher Meadows is a magic place, emblematic of the Bob in its expanse and blend of the gentle with the rugged. Whitetail and Mule Deer ran ahead of my wake, and sandhill cranes crooned roughly from the far side of the bog. I have plenty of nostalgia for the place, having passed through in 2009 with Kevin and 2011 on the proto-Open. The weather was immaculate, but my feet were still slow, and the morning continued to pass faster than I wished.
So I did what often happens in the face of fatigue, but solo in the backcountry never should: I made a stupid decision, and put in on the creek shortly after the end of the meadows. Things were fast for about 500 yards, before the oxbows bends began at the level of the spruce forest, with the predictable result of massive compound logjams at each bend, usually accompanied by a slow portage through the willows on moose trails. After over an hour of flailing I gave up and headed back to the trail, having confirmed at last that the conventional wisdom concerning Danaher was correct. I was hastily rerigging the boat, at the usual putin, when some trees cracked and Tyler walked up. He and Seth had walked over Straight and Elbow passes the day before, and camped on the far side of the Observation that night. That morning they had followed the tracks of the Teton crew, benefiting from the nights hard freeze. It seemed obvious to me that if his mindset held he’d finish, and I felt bad about being cranky and anti-social. We went our separate ways, he on trail, me at last rafting a stretch I knew to be efficient.
Lower Danaher isn’t short, or short on deadfall to avoid and occasionally portage, but is beautiful, quick, and highly entertaining. I certainly had less water than five years ago, and barely more than July two years ago, but that was mostly fine. It would take longer to float the 30 miles down to Little Salmon Creek than I had anticipated, but now I was content with that.
Never during the Open have I run into so many people in the heart of the woods. First Tyler, then the Teton trio on the nice bench before the White River, and not long before dark Derek, responding to my “hey bear” call. The Teton folks, running three to a Gnu, had come to grief in the same rapid which got Spencer (and almost got me) on that July trip. I convinced the stretch down to Little Salmon was acceptably mellow, and floated most of the way with them, before running a rapid they portaged and taking out further down river. They had put in a 48 mile day on Saturday, and if they wanted to catch me that evening could plainly do so.
Derek’s “road warrior” route had given him a similarly huge first day, but mentally he looked a little done in that night, having missed the navigation a bit on White River Pass, and facing if anything a more complex task up Lion Creek. My head was tired, and I saw no value in pushing on beyond dark, and told him so. So I found the first mossy spot off the trail clear of brush, pitched my tarp, and built a little fire right on the trail to dry out and ensure good sleep. Which worked, though the thunder woke me up in the middle of the night, along with Derek’s oaths as he re-rigged his tarp to be above rather than below him.
In theory we were not quite 30 miles from the end; 2 or so miles to the Palisade Lake Trail, a little over 5 miles to the pass, 10 miles to the trailhead, 3 or 4 down the road to the Swan River, and 8 miles of river to the Cedar Creek bridge. Waking up I had the sense that these would not be fast miles. We were on the trail a bit before six, with the weather looking pretty good, and put a few miles down before shit got real on the Palisade Creek trail. If a path in the Bob is both below the alpine and “not recommended for stock” you can assume this means both skinny and muddy as well as with plenty of deadfall. We put forth good effort, but the miles did not pass quickly. We hit solid snow a few hundred vertical feet below the lake, and contoured up towards the pass on decently supportive crust, following the same pair of tracks we’d seen traces of all day. Good hiking, but still the miles did not come quickly. At last we made the pass, and even on the way down the miles did not come quickly.
The first rule for going fast in the Bob Open is to not do anything silly. The second rule is that when you do something silly anyway, try to slow down and not make it worse. I made two poor decisions in about an hour, and thankfully neither went too far wrong. From the pass a goat trail crossed the talus into some ledges, with the summer trail visible 500 feet below. A swath of steep snow cut through some trees to our left. Rather than crossing the talus to some skiable scree and going down the obvious way we detoured to the snow, which as it was north facing was hard and between 35 and 40 degrees. I quickly found out that Derek is both not a terribly experienced snow climber and a bit afraid of heights, as his descent involved a bit of swearing. But we made the trail fine and were shortly headed downhill efficiently, following grizzly shortcuts from snowy switchback to snowy switchback.
The second poor decision was when we crossed Lion Creek and ended up in a massive, pounded out outfitter camp with a faint leading downstream. After a few hundred meters of vague going it seemed obvious to me that such a well used camp could not be logically connected to such a small trail. I assumed, incorrectly, that the well used path we saw going uphill from the camp led to the main path, and we killed 20 minutes up the hill in the snow and alders trying to find it. As it turned out the left branch before the creek crossing, which I did not take, went to the main trail, which we eventually found. All this points to three things: evaluate all your assumptions before making navigational decisions, the fact that Cairn choose to leave outfitter spur trails off their maps is pretty lame, and the level of use the FS allows stock outfitters to inflict on the Bob is unacceptable.
But we had miles to make, and still those miles did not come quickly. I was a bit frustrated at the deadfall, and more frustrated by the steep and rocky trail which pounded my feet, but mostly frustrated by my inability to capture the mentality necessary to grind out the miles present to details of efficiency without excessive attachment to outcome. The Lion Creek trail is very scenic, with some spectacular waterfalls, cedar forests, and boulder gardens, but I was too preoccupied with the miles left to the road, and the probability I’d be late to meet Meredith.
In the end I was not late to meet Meredith, as the universal rule of constant forward motion dictated. Derek let me go in the final miles of trail, and I pounded out the road walking refusing to go any slower. The Swan, which I had never floated, was actually great; fast but easy, with enough logjams and weird channeled sections to keep me awake, which at that point was a serious concern. The river was the only part of the day which went a bit faster than I had thought, and at 5:55pm I floated in, done.
More than anything I’m thankful for what the Bob and Bob Open trips have given me over the years. As ever, it is great fun to watch the stories roll in. It seemed to me the first night of the trip, as it does today, that the current arrangement for the Open is close to ideal. A time slot which is convenient for most folks and gives a built-in holiday, and a time of year which will over years provide a variety of conditions. The last two years have been low on the snow and water, but 2011 and 2012 were much tougher, so who is to say what 2017 will bring? Right now my intention is keep things as is, and be there next year so veterans and newbies alike can show up if they like. I will keep praying for snow, however.