The thick green water of the North Fork took half a mile to give in and intermingle with the flat milky water of the main Blackfoot. Black spruce limbs, broken ragged and hidden two dimensionally in the river floated past, the breeze pushing gently upstream. I looked backwards and saw an intact, dead tree floating 100 yards behind, dozens of limbs proud of the water by ten feet or more, the total lack of green needles and abundant flowing moss equally obvious in the perfect afternoon clarity. Eager to stay clear I layed into my paddle for the next three bends, after which I forgot it entirely. In that moment, new to the humbling of the river in full flood and pursued by the landscapes ghost, I could almost hear Geoffery Rush growling “run out the sweeps.”
Two facts about a fast walk across the Bob stayed in the front of my mind all last week. One, that I hadn’t finished the Open since 2016, and two, that I had never been the quickest. In both 2013 and 2016 I had been second, though 2015, by almost a solid day my longest route, remains the most enjoyable. This encapsulated the dilemma well, especially as Saturday wore on. By design the Open is not easily competitive. I currently have compelling reason to think I was the fastest finisher this year, but I do not yet, and may never, know for certain. In the moment it is a slippery, pointless, and yet essential end to pursue, if your goal is going fast. Pointless because you can never know or control what anyone else is doing, and essential because the pure process goal of being efficient and quick often comes up short when your legs are dead, or you really would rather stay in bed a bit longer.
After deciding to move the start less than a week out, I had some rapid and fun route planning to do. This ended up being a, if not the, highlight of the trip, as the first ~12 miles through Home and Lime Gulches were very pretty, on infrequently used trail, and the sort of places in the Bob to which I should go, but likely wouldn’t have otherwise. Loosing the trail for 5-10 minutes in upper Home Gulch ended up being the only route finding mistake of substance I made the whole trip.
Road walking, especially on a hot day, makes it difficult to maintain momentum, but we (Tom and I) did well enough heading over to Smith Creek and the route up to Welcome Pass. As the afternoon wore on I just could not square the pace and conditions with fatigue and our progress. Doing some mental math about the elevation gain explained part of that, and better mileage calculations once home explained the rest. I made Welcome after 11 hours on the move, at least 27 miles, and close to 7k of elevation gain. Tom, who partially tore his meniscus in a bike wreck several weeks ago, had been hiking on borrowed time all day, and had told me hours before to go when/if he fell back. At Welcome the numbers were not comfortable; 8 miles to go to the ~8200′ flank of Scapegoat, and maybe 3 hours of functional light to get there. The map didn’t suggest the descent down the south side would be that troubling, but I still had a strong preference to at least eyeball the shadow before it was fully dark.
I sorta made it. The crossings of the Dearborn were deep, fast, and very cold, that rivers headwaters being as high and hidden from the summer as is possible in the Bob. I fired it up along the flats, saw a Moose up in a high meadow, and nailed a great route along the shoulder of Cave Creek the cheated me up to almost 7k on dry dirt. The snow had, miraculously, already hardened nicely after a warm day, and the snowshoeing was as fast as it gets. The wheels were starting to come off, attention wise, and my snowshoe binding breaking in the final ascent didn’t make things easier, but I crawled over the top just after 10pm, with enough light to tell I could just bomb off the other side, and enough time to have a snack and savor views out well east of the lights of Augusta.
The descent went from steep scree surfing to postholing through the trees to hitting the switchbacks just as they melted into the open. My big goal for the day had been the porch of the Carmicheal cabin, but the darkness was quickly stretching the meters into miles, and I threw down camp in the shadow of the first flat spot my headlamp revealed. I tried to eat some stuff, mostly failed, made a hot water bottle to aid in burning off the sweat in my layers, and fell asleep with twinging legs. The moon woke me at 330am; I rolled over and went back to sleep until 5.
Dawn revealed the ridge sitting toothy and not far above me, evidence of slow legs after dark. It was a cold morning, and I was covered in frost, happy to have brought a just warm enough sleeping bag. I knocked off miles and several very cold creek fords before stopping in the sun for a hot coffee breakfast, designed to set this most crucial moment of the hike definitively in my mind. The big day yesterday had been a good one, with no mistakes, and thus all the possibility of keeping things rolling all the way to the finish that afternoon. Doing that just required lots of walking with minimal stops, which was as tough as it was simple, but by a bit after noon I rolled across the road bridge over the N Fork of the Blackfoot, sauntered down to the river, and sorted out my boating stuff while firing back a ton of food, knowing that I would not have to walk another step, and mostly just keep awake and inside my boat to the finish.
Staying awake ended up being much easier than anticipated, as the first stretch of the N Fork had at 1200 cfs some fat wave trains, meaty holes, and quick line choices through channels and wood jams. Fun stuff, and plenty of potential for carnage. I averaged around 10 mph for the first hour of floating, which slowed to a bit for the rest of the N Fork before picking up on the main Blackfoot, making for approximately 40 miles of floating in a hair over 5 hours. I was paddling hard the final hour, racing to get into cell service in time to call M so the kids could do bedtime in the car, which they did. I helped Hunter and his crew haul their raft up the hill, and they gave me a ride to the gas station at Clearwater Junction (I was assured the big cow, currently absent, is being refurbished and not gone forever). I ate burritos and drank a beer in the grass, luxuriating in a still existence off my feet.
The final tally was right around 95 miles, 40 floating, in 33 hours and 50 minutes. 6 of those hours were in camp overnight.
The day after my feet were, oddly, about the only thing not sore, my mind being the worst off. It has been quite a while since I’ve spent a day both awake and as useless. Fun isn’t the thing with a pace like this, the thing is meaning. And fully owning a goal as precious as doing this route as clean and fast as I was capable is as meaningful as it gets today.
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