The 2022 Open started at Blackleaf Canyon on the Rocky Mountain Front, and ran either to the Rattlesnake trailhead outside Missoula, or looped back to finish at the start, with a mandatory checkpoint at the confluence of Youngs and Danaher Creeks. 9 folks took the start, with several planning for alternate routes.
2022 had started as a mild winter with average precip, a snowpack which hung around with significantly above average tenacity after a cool and very wet April and May. Participants reported significantly more mid-elevation snow than has been seen at the Open, likely since the record winter of 2010-11. Mild temps and significant rain leading up to memorial day weekend saw rivers and creek reasonably large and cresting through early Sunday. Floating on course was fast, and creek crossings challenging. Large amounts of rain hit the northern half of the Bob on Sunday and Monday, while the southern half was largely spared.
Significant blowdown continues to be a feature of late May in the Bob, with high winds the past two winters contributing to very significant navigation and travel issues on routes which do not see annual trail crews. As one participant put it: “Progress slowed to a crawl; a crawl that took place on, below, or between tree trunks. Without a suitably-sized pack, I had ample items (PFD, snowshoes, paddles, boat) attached to the outside of my pack to serve as velcro. After an hour or so, there was little indication that we had made forward progress, other than some sticks in my shirt that appeared to have come from a tree slightly behind me. We still occasionally shouted for bears—it might have been primarily out of hope that one would come and mercifully end our suffering—then gave even that up as clearly nothing bigger than a squirrel had attempted to cross this landscape in years. ” Even with average blowdown loads out of winters to come, this will be a concern for several more years at least.
Everyone started day one with the goal of finishing the North Fork Sun float before dark. Two passes, snow, and the aformentioned blowdown meant that no one quite got there. At 1500 cfs the North Fork is fast and pushy. Some of the bedrock ledges in the middle sections wash out, others grow more concerning hydraulics. As rivers in the Bob go the North Fork is cleaner than most, but at 5-6 mph wood comes on fast. Not necessarily explicitly technical paddling, but highly technical decision making, the sort of thing which a fast wilderness trip both depends on, for safety and coherence, and can make difficult through the fog of the moment.
At various points on day 2 everyone headed towards Stadler Pass, which leads to Camp Creek meadows on the Danaher, and is the lowest and most straightforward break in the Continental Divide between Rogers Pass and Spotted Bear. In sharp contrast to most everything across the North Fork Sun valley, Stadler has not burned recently, and thus usually has little in the way of deadfall. If you can hold the trail through the snowy pass the grade stays mild, and only occasional views between old growth hints at being close to the alpine. The Danaher trail provided the major directional choice for packrafters on this course, especially for anyone headed west to the Rattlesnake. Three major, significantly different floats would lead to the main big Blackfoot and a fast float to the Clark Fork. The North Fork of the Blackfoot was the longest option, with the least elevation gain, and aside from the whitewater section around the Wilderness boundary the most straighforward. Going west to the Clearwater promised the shortest miles, at the price of big fords along Youngs Creek, some road walking, and more than a little lake paddling. One of several routes over to Monture Creek would split the difference, and the potential price of unknown wood floating lower Monture.
The two folks who eventually finished the full route here diverged, and would finish an hour apart. By the end of day 3 one camped at River Junction, where the North Fork flows into the Big Blackfoot, and thus had a straightforward 53 mile float on the Blackfoot, before a few miles on the Clark Fork and a good trail over Jumbo saddle to the finish. The other camped outside Seeley Lake, and had 20 few miles on the Blackfoot, but almost as many on the Clearwater, at least a quarter of which were on lakes, and all of which were a good bit slower. And thus the tale of that hour was told. As one finisher wrote:
“The Open for me is the highlight of my outdoor adventure year. It is the thing I’ve been unconsciously working towards since I discovered the magic of moving through complex terrain, combining all the necessary skills that give one Mountain Sense. It is a unique opportunity to rise to a true challenge that is only made possible by the participation of other like minded characters. I try hard in most mountain missions, but I am able access a deeper level of try-hard during an Open. The various thru hikes, river trips, and climbing expeditions I have done, or at least attempted, have created similar conditions, but the Open has an additional element that separates itself from other efforts. I am struggling to define that element here, but it probably has something to do with both the collaboration with fellow participants and the pseudo-competition factor. Whatever it is, I fucking love it.”
It is surely not a coincidence that both finishers live in Missoula, and were thus traveling home in the most literal sense. This years route was disorganized, which was my mistake. These less tasteful elements, the redundant travel of a loop or the less pure/more civilized miles to the Rattlesnake, served to highlight the role desire and motivation will always play in such an inherently unpleasant journey. Things are always easier, especially on the back half of such a trip, if finishing is as easy as bailing.