I had this all outlined in my head, during the 90 minute walk to the put in. The ~5 miles of the North Fork of the Blackfoot spanning the Wilderness boundary was an early touchstone in my packrafting, one I sought out to test myself to the intimidating prospect of joining Forrest and Luc on the Selway. The quality was such that I went back several times in the years which followed, but the last time was four years ago, which was, significantly, a year before I acquired a new longtail packraft. I assumed that a significant upgrade in gear, and more experience, would make the river feel easier.
When I cracked a beer back at the car, I was not so sure. My swim ratio on this run is now 50%, thanks to complacence on a sideways boulder drop, and while the run was beautiful and a bit too close to just fun to engender good flow, I was certainly challenged. Digital record keeping is a handy thing; video shows that I got out of the boat without putting my head underwater, and past writing shows that the 350 cfs on this trip matched the higher level of my trip with Spencer, and was 100+ greater than that first run in 2010. The numbers help explain why I wasn’t totally nuts for bombing the initial crux stretch solo 6 weeks into owning a packraft, and make my only semi-relaxed run in the long boat support my thesis that things would feel easier this time around.
When, and how, does technology actually improve performance, and when it does, how much overall value is added? If learning and process is your first priority, outright ease isn’t in itself a big deal, but smoothness can be. Modern packrafts make whitewater easier and smoother, the extent to which you can focus on carving lines over not getting bucked makes this an improvement which appeals more to me than (for instance) suspension on a mountain bike. Maybe a good piece of that has to do with mountain bikes having brakes.
Benchmarks are important, the more harshly objective, the better. It’s nice to return to a run like this and be able to read and run with only a few pronounced nervous moments, just like it is disturbing to return to a slot and barely be able to fit through. The world doesn’t tell us anything other than about ourselves, and nature is so appealing just because more than anything else we can trust it to change only slowly. In the case of slot canyons in Navajo, or small freestone rivers fed from wilderness, which are two of the more truculently gorgeous things on earth, the immutability is of value both because of how they challenge us, and how small and fetid they make general human invention seem. I could fill the next couple decades with things utterly worth an annual visit, and floating the North Fork of the Blackfoot would be well up there.