There’s the cold of walking downstairs, barefooted into the crosswinds of baseboard heaters just turned on. A head fuzzy with sleep and the unguardedness of pajamas that has you wanting an extra sweater.
There’s the creeping cold; a headwind soaking into your layers and sublimating back and down your spine. After one hour you’re chilled, after another you’re cold, after a third you’re either gibbering or in dire need of a fire.
And then there’s packrafting cold; old school in an open boat and raingear on a fall morning, with wet feet and butt and one damp elbow and armpit from that paddle stroke timed exactly wrong into a wave. Cold settles in globally under every coat you brought, and flushing it from all your folds takes a solid hour, be it drinking tea in the smoke of a fire or walking hard uphill. Your torso comes to neutral, but sweat takes a long time to come as digits and nose linger just beyond sensation.
It had been two years since I’d been to the South Fork of the Flathead, and just like last time this was a short, hike in and float out hunting trip. Unlike last time I did not shoot a deer, and for some unjustifiable reason I grabbed our Double Duck rather than the Yukon Yak (and it’s deck).
What I recalled from last time was the clear water, rocks even more plain than usual just below you, slowly arriving and passing under. What I did not recall was the trees, sprigs of color erupting through the distance near and far.
At base flows of 350 cfs, which you’ll generally find in September, I don’t recommend going upstream from Big Salmon Creek, and most of the terrain between that point and Meadow Creek Gorge burned in the big fire three summers ago. Perhaps the various yellows and reds have grown more potent with the resultant fertalization. They’re certainly more obvious, but in my memory they didn’t exist before. The harsh, light, green bursts of new pine sprouts certainly didn’t.
I’ve written a lot trying to invoke this river well enough that memories match memories of memories. Hopefully if that all lines up together I’ll know what I’m seeing in 1 and 5 and 30 years when I go back. Better frozen in time, as good a reason as speculation will ever give for bringing an open boat.