In the past few years May has firmly become my favorite month of the year. In May Montana straddles winter and summer perfectly, presenting all the essential virtues of both with few of the downsides of either. Days are long, longer than easily used awake. Rivers and creeks and ridgetops and bowls are all full of water, the kind you want, and generally in the proper condition. Choices are, more than any other time of year, limited only by time, and by motivation.
We’ve had an extra extraordinary May this year, with excellent weather topped off the past week by a huge storm that brought record breaking precip and cold to our corner of the state. Plenty of folks don’t see the virtue in that, not the kids who wore sandals to school last Friday and saw the snow pile up all day, nor the people who used the previous sunny weekend to put in plants only to see them buried and then frozen (our corn seedlings, at 10 inches tall, stood proud for 48 hours before finally giving in to the second wave of snow, I do not think they weil recover). But those of use who love this month, and the woods generally, for its very kaleidoscopicism cannot but appreciate the unlooking way nature has kicked human routine repeatedly in the shins over the past week.
My own absence here has been much to do with this very richness of opportunity. Mountain biking dust, hiking loamy ridges through flowers, rafting clear rivers, snow biking, and powder skiing all happened in the stretch of a week.
Most significantly, the Bob Open is set for the weekend, with the most interesting and, sort of by extension, most difficult conditions in a decade on tap. The Wood Creek snotel, usually of little regard past late April when the snow burns out of the mid elevation forests, went from 2 inches to 10 inches to 4 inches back to 10 and then down to 2 inches of snow in the space of 5 days. The Dearborn River finally woke, and exceeded 1000 cfs and then 2000 cfs for the first time this year, in rapid succession, as rain and sun blasted first new and then old snow out of the headwaters. The main Blackfoot passed 8000 cfs this morning, and by the time a few of use are on it some time Sunday afternoon I imagine it will be over 10k, which will be both exciting and expedient.
Over the weekend I made the easy decision to move the start south, to a place more consistently accessible by vehicle, and lacking necessary avalanche exposure on the most obvious initial routes. For an event that embraces being a non-event having to fall back on conservative decision making seems odd, especially given that we have intentionally and deliberately, tried to avoid attention whenever possible while still being an Open event. Even before the pandemic outdoor boom I worried about the Open attracting knuckleheads, and about the to the uninitiated outrageous idea of scampering across the Bob this time of year casting packrafting in a problematic light. After all, this might be the year that sees packraft traffic on the South Fork of the Flathead force the first definitive step towards a permit system.
For the moment I can luxuriate in my planned route, selected via the usual criteria of novelty and the likelihood of sharing it with no one, and of the certainty of adventure and solitude. It was an usually beautiful winter in our valley, and the promise of a similarly beautiful spring and summer is now guaranteed. Lurking in the background is the equal certainty that this will be a summer that changes outdoor-ism in the United States forever. Pandemic restrictions, moreso but also combined with the increase in traffic, has accelerated the inevitable. On the one hand purposive neglect (by some within the system) has kept wild places wilder, restricting traffic via crowding, small parking lots, lack of toilets, poor roads, hidden and ill maintained trails. In as much as demand has forced the issue (4500 applications for advanced backcountry permits in Glacier), even more significant has been extraordinary circumstances giving managers an excuse to shift the paradigm. Glacier put a permit system in place for driving Going to the Sun Road, indeed for using the the main park entrances at all. Last year was crowded. So was 7 years ago. In 2021, we think about things differently.
It will be an important thing to keep in mind this year.