This, the 10th Bob Marshall Wilderness Open, took place under the influence of unusual weather. This can be said most years, which is the point of going in late May rather than July, but was in 2021 more true than normal. 10 days out from the start a large storm moved through, with precipitation concentrated along the Rocky Mountain Front, with the original start point up the South Fork of the Teton just north of the epicenter. Several feet of snow fell up high over a period of 48 hours, began to melt during a brief warming spell, and then saw another 6-12 inches before the end of the weekend. Due to possible access and avalanche issues I called the start south to the Home Gulch campground with 6 days to go, and all of the 25 people who lined up had both snow accumulation and snow melt in mind. Additionally, several prodigious wind events from the winter had left exceptional deadfall littered throughout the Bob complex. Snow, stream crossings, and deadfall were all more urgent and variegated route factors than usual.
From the start groups split immediately three ways, majorities going either west along Gibson Reservoir or south up Home Gulch, and a few folks going west and south along the Beaver Creek road. Most of the Gibson groups headed up either Straight Creek or the South Fork of the Sun River, aiming to access the North Fork Blackfoot drainage via a variety of routes; Stadler Pass, Observation Pass, or one of several ways up around the south flank of the Scapegoat massif. Stadler is noteworthy for being the longest and lowest of the options, and featured plenty of deadfall. Word had gotten out to the Forest Service about the winter storms, and an early start to trail maintenance had the main trail cut all the way through Danaher meadows, well ahead of normal, and making this long route the likely quickest variation. Observation Pass, and especially the ridge leading south, was an appealing blend of reduced distance and modest cumulative elevation gain. The problem for these folks seems to have been in the trail down the headwaters of the Dry Fork, which down to the main trail proved to be very ill maintained indeed. Fatigue, morale, and timing for floating the lower stretches of the Blackfoot made these routes more complicated in execution than may have at first seemed obvious.
The south flank of Scapegoat looks intimidating from a distance, but the upper valleys of the Dearborn, North Fork of the Blackfoot, and Straight Creek all reach 6500 feet on well graded trail, and past fire activity combines with higher elevation flora to make deadfall less of a concern than elsewhere. Aspect proved crucial here, as the previous 3 warm, sunny days had melted off the previous weekends storms almost totally. One route up to the snowy flanks might be on dirt up to 7000 feet, while another started wallowing nearly a thousand feet lower. Most of the folks who went south from the start took a southern route around Scapegoat, with many getting there via Welcome Pass and Smith Creek, a route which due to the aforementioned minutia was almost free of deadfall and snow. Mileage wise this was a slightly shorter line than any of the northern options, at the cost of significantly more minor passes adding up to twice or more the elevation change. Moreso than in years past there was a clean split in the tradeoffs between these two larger options.
Several parties went for a variation of the original start, and went up the West Fork of the Sun to Nesbit Pass, not a low or low snow option, but a straightforward one given the neighborhood. All these folks were understandably set on floating the North Fork of the Sun, and had good but not excessive levels for it. Fate was kind given the circumstances, with the 2-4 days most spent on route lining up exactly between when the new snow melted off, and when the new and old snow, finally in the first grip of summer, truly swelled the creeks and rivers in earnest. By 6 days after the start, the South Fork of the Sun and the North Fork of the Blackfoot were close to or above all time records for the time of year. While a everyone had at least one big and chilly crossing, hardly anyone was really put into logistical difficulty by a ford.
The Bob Open is only tacitly a packrafting promoting vehicle, but being out there in late May almost inevitably favors the options and speed pocket floating affords. On only two previous occasions has the quickest finisher(s) been on foot (2016 and 2020, though 2019 was bloody close). This year the finish well outside the main complex presented two stark options in the final section; either head out the N Fork Blackfoot and float at least 40 miles straight to the finish, or come out through a Youngs Creek neighbor, and surf state land through the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA to the finish. Several public land options existed here, with none particularly obvious, something that highlights the convenience of being inside the Bob proper. Water levels were ideal for a fast float finish, with most folks taking between 5 and 6 hours to make the 40 miles from the end of the crux whitewater on the North Fork of the Blackfoot (something most chose to portage) to the end. Walking, on the other hand, took quite a bit longer, with most folks making the sensible choice to end things at the edge of the proper wilderness, and those who did not putting a significant part of a day into a heinous road walk.
In the end the point of this whole endeavor, and the particulars which emanate from that end, are only defined by the folks out there walking.