The question

Last week I had the pleasure to be rained on, atop a broad mountain ridge.  Having driven several hours through plains reaching 100 degrees, I found on reaching the top that summer weather had come along with the early summer heat.  Stopped in the car by snow lingering in the trees, I assembled bike and backpack and pedaled up and along in a driving rain, sprinting, inasmuch as one ever could uphill carrying a 40 liter load, when the lightning count got short.  That evening I stayed indoors, watching the sun set over one range, while illuminating another I had never quite known to be in range.

The next day I wandered down a ridge, trying and failing to avoid the prodigious deadfall, and forded a cold creek.  There was a cliff just upstream, a fence just down, and the boulders were the size of ovens and tried to take my feet.  I’ve floated this creek twice before, and a third example has me no closer to correlating apparent conditions with flows.  On this occasion, with only a distant spangling of snow the creek was full, and eagerly crawled around the next bend.   Holes and waves grabbed and tugged, and previously simple plops had me wheelieing downstream, moves out of synch with what the creek had.  The biggest drops were, befitting the theme of this year, stuffed with wood.  In the canyon now, I had to drag my boat upstream, chest deep in thin eddies, to a spot with enough latitude to ferry across and climb a manky chute to the rim.  

KIMG0036 (2)

This creek, and this place, are phenomenal.  And in equal parts, ephemeral.  The season for floating is short.  The access is indistinct, and none of the ways in are short.  The setting is big, with a scale and a profusion of trees that flattens out the mountains and hides them in front of you, until you’re downclimbing through old growth spruce, kicking granite lumps down to the elk paths, or following up one of the fall line horse trails.  The place is, in short, one of those ranges whose incremental obscurity combines with scenery a few notches off of what we find most accessible, and keeps it unnoticed.  The lack of capitol letter designations, of the W and NP, helps.

The duality of name brand designation, and especially the associated marketing, has in the past decade established itself far too well.  Protection from resource extraction and development was as complicated as protection from tourist development a half century ago.  Protection from the information and attention economy has proven a task more difficult than either.  If the essence of the wild is, in brief, in novelty relative to human experience, how can we humans protect it from ourselves?

The easy answer is to shut up.  Documentation killing mystery is in the internet age as basic as one plus one.  And when it comes to the place here mentioned, I’ve mostly done that, though if I were truly committed to wouldn’t drop enough hints and photographs to easily guide those with a bit of knowledge.  The more complex answer has to do with the future, and the seeming inevitability of restrictions.  Across the west parks and forests have management and travel plans that have not been substantively updated in decades.  Added traffic is forcing this process, and making for updates that must be both sweeping and potentially radical.  Having no track record of a use like packrafting (or cycling) makes for a shortage of leverage when the time comes, and while hiding things from land managers which are new and potentially controversial can work well for a long time, increasingly is does not seem to be a sustainable approach.

I made my choice over 4 years ago, when I put the full(ish) version of the Crown guidebook up for sale.  Whether and how this will prove a good influence, long term, has yet to be decided.  And because of that I struggle; what level of conversation and documentation is most appropriate, long term, for other places?

2021 Bob Open report

Moore photo.

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.

My 2021 Bob Open

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.

Finding bargain used gear

Outdoor gear is expensive.  Perhaps not by the standards of motorized sports, but certainly compared to jogging or birding or reading books.  Since becoming firmly established in Montana a decade ago I have been cursed by the perceived necessity of cultivating and maintaining equipage for a wide range (mountain biking, alpine and nordic skiing, snowshoing, fly fishing, bow and rifle hunting, packrafting, backpacking, hiking, rock climbing, snow climbing, canyoneering) of pursuits.  Storing all that stuff in a coherent and useable fashion is one issue (for a future post), acquiring it without undue stress is another, a problem with good, sustainable, and not necessarily obvious strategies.

As in “going light” for any distinct activity, the first and best way to spend less on gear is to have and need less of it.  Start with clothing; you don’t need that much of it, and it is far better to buy better and less and simply have things dialed and predictable and that work for places on most days.  Beyond specialist items like a drysuit and chamois shorts the clothing I use changes little one activity and even season to the other.

When it comes to actually purchasing outdoor clothing, buying on sale and out of season goes a long ways.  This has been somewhat less the case the last few years, due to either demand or smarter wholesale purchasing, but the good sales direct from major brands often equal prodeal discounts.  But that is not interesting advice.  What we’re hear to discuss is finding truly exceptional deals on used gear, which is the way to save on the truly big ticket hard good items.

By way of example, the other day I visited a favored emporium whose specific name and location will remain a mystery.  They are not an outdoor specialist, but do sell a decent amount of consignment outdoor gear.  I’ve very occasionally found shockingly good deals there over the years, including last winter a full length Neoair Uberlight for 10 dollars.  On this recent visit I was intrigued enough to purchase a nice pair of Lake MXZ300s (sized up a full size, ideal for cold weather) for 15 dollars.  Towards the end of our (me and the 3 year old) rounds, I saw, crumpled on the floor under a rack, a distinctive combination of red and black and grey nylon in just the right shade and texture.  Further examination revealed an older, but pristine, Kokatat semi dry suit, with relief zip and fabric booties.  Even further examination revealed the zippers, gaskets, and inside laminate to be lacking in obvious issues.  Further examination once I got home revealed a Kokatat fleece onesie inside (it felt a bit bulky).  The price?

50 dollars.  This for the older, almost functional equivalent of what I bought for 750 dollars back in January.

The place to find deals like this is not an established, well stocked used gear store.  Second Wind Sports in Bozeman has the widest and deepest selection of used outdoor stuff I’ve ever seen in one place, by a large margin.  They also have, with few exceptions, the most outrageous consignment prices I’ve ever seen.  500-600 for a clapped out pair of AT skis and bindings, 240 dollars for an absolutely worked over HMG 3400, 80 for a well used Osprey daypack.  Whether this is due to demand volume, or to Brozonians wanting 100% return on their brodeals, I do not know, but I feel safe in assuming that (in a similar vein) Wabi Sabi is a much more expensive place to find used fleece jackets than it was 16 years ago.  Perceived scarcity is highly relevant here.

The same rules apply to Craigslist, Ebay, etc.  Outstanding deals can be had either when the seller is not overly worried about resale, or when they are not aware of what they have.  Ski swaps can be good places for the former, as people are often clearing the shed and motivated by timeliness over maximizing return.   For example, the Dynafit and the Fischer skis shown at top were both had for (the magic figure of) 50 bucks at separate ski swaps.   Going off topic at swaps and sales is also often a solid tactic; looking for things like camping or climbing gear, or headlamps, as people seems less picky about pricing.  The caveat with any of this is time.  There are certain places and instances where good stuff is more probable, but it is still a numbers game.

The other caveat, especially with hard goods, is that a certain, considerable amount of technical background is immensely helpful.  Being able to recognize what a thing is at a glance, and then evaluate if it is in suitable condition and at a price that suits you, potentially all in a few moments while the rush of a swap goes on around you, is not simple.  And the best way to violate the first rule, above, is to buy something just because it is a good deal.

Finally, it is worthwhile to consider which expensive gear items are unapologetically worth it.  For years I’ve used a heavy, ancient (bought in 2004 for $99), janky, increasingly leaky, drysuit, without a relief zipper.  Since buying a new, much lighter one this winter I’ve both brought it more often (as it actually takes up less space than my boat), and been warmer and even drier.  Should have done that quite a while ago.  There are plenty of other examples, things that either make an appreciable difference while in the woods, or enable a whole new pursuit, that for me are always more fulfilling purchases than just another jacket.

My favorite

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.

A Walk in the Woods

There was some trepidation associated with the start.   We had three long term ideas of mine intersecting; crossing the Bob on the tail end of winter, combining the South and Middle Forks in one trip, and doing (another) big skiraft.  We also had very large and heavy packs, our inability to get everything inside, and the evolving order of crap strapped outside as the days wore away, giving evidence of this as new mental terrain.

There was a lot of snow.  Given the sun of the past month we had assumed we’d be hiking on dirt well up Monture.  That happened, but we were also firmly in oversnow mode by the cabin 8 miles up, and that first evening camped on the last island of dirt, atop the cutbank above the creek, where a hair more southern exposure provided an island of spring in the face of the winter, which now loomed above to the west, east, and north.  The skiing, in my case, was excellent the second day, and Tom got his snowshoe revenge on the long 5 mile traverse through the trees, where my 186cm planks had me stuck multiple times climbing through the abundant deadfall.  That afternoon we were back in spring, as a twist in the trail gave us dirt, and the continued impacts of the titanic wind storms this winter made us endless mice in a matchstick puzzle.  We made the Hahn Creek cabin by 4pm, and gave ourselves a present of staying there, drying our stuff and having a leisurely dinner around the fire, and going to bed well before dark.

Things went wrong the next day.  Youngs Creek was fat, clear, and glassy, ideal conditions and a meditative float for the miles before the gorge got going.  Tom flipped in the first (and hardest) rapid, making the drop clean before being pasted on to the wall below and rolled upstream.  My difficulty in helping him after highlighted the scant eddies on this fast stretch.  We avoided that peril a few miles later when I spotted the log at the last minute.  Tom portaged, prudently, while I ducked under the far left before ferrying right around a toothy limestone block.  I didn’t quite get far enough, kissed the right edge with my left cheek, and instantly felt my boat collapse around me.  I barely made the willows with enough air to paddle.

The cut was big, 14 inches, with the final 2.5 through both the floor and the tube.  Most troubling, the cut was right up against the tube, with mere millimeters of flap to work with.  I instantly knew this was going to be an iffy repair, and not doable wedged into the willows while it snowed on us.  Tom made his way down to me as without much thought I yard sale’d all my gear in anticipation of no longer paddling.  Tom made the sensible suggestion that we load everything possible into his boat, which I would paddle down to a good camp on the South Fork, while he hiked with my awkward skis and a few other things.  That ended up not including his bear spray, which he wanted when a Griz carrying a moose carcass popped out of the brush at 25 yards.

In the end I could not repair my boat.  I don’t regret hitting the rock; I’ve done so in a functionally identical manner hundreds of times and just happened to get unlucky this time (exacerbated, perhaps, by weight inside the tubes).  I do regret not having a more extensive repair kit, and aim to cure the complacency years of doing things the same way and getting away with it has surely bred.  I’ve now cut the floor of a boat twice, and in neither occasion was patch n’ go or tyvek tape able to fix it.  I also don’t regret our quick and easy decision to bail out the Danaher and Blackfoot.  Without a bomber repair to my boat going deeper into the Bob was simply not worth considering, and Tom and I did well to not give temptation any space.

So we had a long walk out with heavy packs containing lots of stuff we weren’t going to use any more.  We did need skis and snowshoes again, shockingly close to the trailhead, and had an extra mile of snowy road walking to find the car.  By some standards the trip was a failure, due to bad luck and inadequate preparation.  By others it was a smashing success, due to good partnership and a nice place at a special time of year.  We saw no one, obviously, and left carrying the immense quiet that only comes from somewhere so before and beyond civilization.

The Youngs Creek log

Longtime readers and those who have read the guidebook know that I’m not big on packraft beta.   The judgment that comes running with first descent eyes is a prerequisite in the wilderness, and a major part of my decision to put the guide out at all was to drive education as packrafting gets (a bit?) more popular.  That said, I think about everyone 5 years ago expected packrafting to grow faster than it has, at least insofar as backcountry is concerned.  That time may have belatedly come, as Alpacka is currently running a 4 month waiting list.  What sort of boom might the Bob see this summer?

Last summer a friend of a friend took a swim in lower Youngs Creek.  lost his boat, and had a good scare.  A friend and I ran Youngs this past week, had our own adventure (more later), and got a good look at the log which prompted the Forest Service to leave to signs (propped on sticks) at different spots before the Youngs crux, warning of what is downstream.

I’ve always been ambivalent about Youngs.  On the one hand it is a fun and gorgeous stretch.  On the other, it is not a trivial section, with a few tricky moves and, especially at even moderate flows, a lot of push.  Calling the South Fork of the Flathead wilderness flatwater may be accurate relative to something like the Middle Fork of the Salmon, but there are enough exceptions that especially for novices the phrase misleads, drastically.  Youngs Creek could have a lot of carnage this year if runoff doesn’t move the log.   Enough that I am moved to be specific.

youngslog

There are actually two logs (red marks at left photo).  The first is a mature lodgepole spanning almost the whole river right below The Pool, a large and later in the summer gorgeously clear eddy at the end of a long riffle.  The danger here is twofold, as running right in the riffle will put you straight into the log, and while running left provides a good setup, you still might not see the log until you’re already parked far river left.  The second log is a broken up larger spruce, which also almost spans the whole river.  Portaging is possible, but brushy, on either side.

Either log could and very possibly will move in the next six weeks.  There is still a lot of snow in the mountains.  Perhaps more significant, the record wind storms we had in west-central Montana in January and February (multiple 80+ year old trees were blown over here in town) appear to have been widespread across the southern Bob complex, at least.  We experienced exceptional blowdown and deadfall everywhere we went this past week, and a good bit of that will necessarily end up in the rivers.

As always, pay attention and be proactive.

Trip meta-planning

There are a lot of backcountry trip planning resources out there, including plenty I’ve written myself.  It is something of a fashionable thing among those of us who know too much, and a good way for those who monetize content to avoid yet another version of that same article which features how to, the best, and at least 2 digits all in the title.

On the one hand this is good.  It is easy to forget how hard the obvious used to be; things like bringing enough but not too much food, or hiking uphill on a chilly, windy day without either sweating or getting cold.  Explaining the details of fundamentals, aka teaching, helps the teacher understand and not take dogma as rote.

On the other hand planning as logistics and gear selection is reductive, in most occasions.  You are not going on a trip to not be (too) cold, you are going on a trip to learn or facilitate or achieve some far more ephemeral thing.  Identifying that can go a long ways towards purity of purpose, which can make the trip itself more enjoyable.

To immediately argue with myself; moreso than with most things there is immense and irreducible virtues in the process of finding purpose in adventure out the long way.  I’ve long been adamant here that the big virtue of backcountry endeavors is the diminution of our personhood, in the ways it is subsumed in context.  For the 21st century soul this is often a deeply novel and disconcerting thing, something I mention to both normalize that anxiety as well as suggest that finding comfort in that vastness is as worthy an end as it is elusive.  Ambiguity is healthy here.

When I think about recent trips, this one stands out as one where I achieved great satisfaction from knowing my purpose well, and because I was able to adjust in the field to prioritize the parts of my original plan which lay closest to my goal.  The day of that trip I recall with least fondness, the second, was entirely on trail and given over to making miles, after the initial paddle that morning.  Going into the trip I knew that big miles was not a way to my primary goal, nor was it something I was well prepared for.  I don’t regret that day of walking, because it set me up so well for days 3 and 4, which were very much on purpose.  The whole experience has endured as a lesson in sacrificing ambition for focus, something which is ever more difficult to do when the stakes and specialness of a trip are high.

My canyon trip a few months ago is another, rather different example.  It did not have quite the same stakes in the planning of Isle Royale, simply due to travel distance, but I also knew that the Colorado Plateau is far enough away that this would be one of two, maybe three trips there this year.  I spent a lot of time in the lead up trying to maximize the route, to make it as rad and unique as possible.  In the end I let that ideal slide away, in favor of a route that was more known and logistically and conceptually simpler.  The primary goal of that trip was not, in the end, to push and expand my knowledge, skills, or experience, but to honor my 40th birthday in a way I knew I would never find wanting in retrospect (family divergence in birthday celebrations having been something M and I have struggled to consistently unite in our marriage).  On those grounds I succeeded, even if the route itself would not, for a variety of reasons, make my personal top 10 of Utah backpacks.

In the end, clarity of purpose not only makes backcountry trip planning simpler and the trips more satisfying, the practice itself is an invaluable act of self knowledge.

Essential skills: Shoe grommets

These are still my favorite shoes ever, but a whole lot of abrasive desert mud the past few months has revealed a serious design flaw; the webbing lace loop over the instep.  By a month ago, three of the four had cut through.  This is a big deal, as on these relatively floppy shoes that tension holding the heel down is vital for foot stabilization.  Something had to be done.

This isn’t an uncommon problem, as webbing lace loops are lighter, cheaper, and often more zippy looking than metal loops or grommets.  If the shoe in question is designed well, a worn lace loop is worth fixing definitively.  All the things you usually need, save a hammer for the grommet press, is pictured below: a 1/4″ grommet kit from Joanne’s, a sharp and pointy knife, and a lighter.

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The first task is to remove the lace loop entirely.  You’ll want to use and generally enlarge the hole where the loop is sewn into the shoe, and any webbing or bulk left within the shoe will make the grommet less secure.  This is standard bartack removal, but on a small scale.  Cut all the external stitching, slide the blade in between the layers of webbing, get things as loose as possible, then keep sliding the knife in to various spots until everything comes free.  Don’t get impatient and end up with a big ol’ hole in your shoe.

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Once that is done, enlarge and melt the edges of the grommet hole.  Best security will come from exactly enough room for the grommet, no more.  Rest the inside of the shoe and press on the corner of a sturdy workbench, and pound the heck out of the grommet.  All edges should be nice and flat.  I should mention that standard grommets like this won’t work on thicker materials like burly leather boots.  This technique is generally restricted to things in the light hiker or trail runner class.

Then relace and get walking.

A trail quiz

First, a quiz: which of the following trails have seen human work and construction, and which never have?

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Second; animal trails are very important for backcountry walkers.  They always form the most efficient route from one place to another, the trick is finding enough of the animal mind to know what and where those places are.  Just the other week an elk trail took me to a major spring I never knew existed, despite having walked within a quarter mile of it on close to ten separate occasions.  That seemingly year-round water source reshuffles how I think about that particular nexus of ridges and canyons.  Geology moves water, water realigns animal activity, and some mix of both creates how humans came to see, know, and travel through wild landscapes.  It is a lot simpler, while tired and hot and counting the hours to an iced coffee, to leave the moment while walking a human trail.  Grades tend to be more predictable, footing more secure, routing more homogenous.  All of these have often been on the landscape so long that the antecedent influence of the landscape disappears.

This distinction will be an important one in 2021.  Visitation and general interest in the wild world was climbing in the decade prior to the pandemic.  Having the state of the world throw the virtues of being outside in ones face has, anecdotally and as far as the data can suggest, wrought a large and potentially lasting increase in outdoor engagement.  It has also, it would seem, provided both the time and the impetus for contemplating this part of our national landscape.  

It is easy to forget what Thoreau meant when we wrote “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Wildness here means, in brief, all that which is beyond the scope of human direction and imagination.  The more technocratic nature writers have, over the past 30 years, forgotten (or, I suggest while trying to withhold snideness, never gotten to know) the pragmatic side of wild places.  That regardless of lines we as humans draw on maps or in our laws, animals, plants, the landscape as a whole will continue to do as it wants, and if left largely alone in a big enough space, stay wild.  What each of us may find appealing is as Cronon says a “cultural invention,” but so is everything.  The basic subjectivity our any particular human experience with the wild does nothing to break up either the existence of the wild outside us, or it’s fundamental unknowability.

And that is, of course, the point.

Last, the answers: the first photo is a human trail, with the path cleared through the trees and cut logs being rather obvious; the second and third images are of the same elk trail, about a mile apart; the final image is on an official trail, but this particular stretch has not I think ever seen a tool.  The final three images were all carved by significant yearly elk traffic.  The bottom photo is within a major N-S running valley that is a major migration corridor.  There is only one logical place to put a trail in the alpine section of the valley.  The trail depicted in the middle two photos is ~4 miles long, and save for one steep hill could easily be ridden in a mountain bike.  It travels between a major water source and a series of sheltered south facing hillsides which form a significant bit of winter range for a small herd.  On the first photo, if you go back 200 years I reckon there was an elk, deer, and sheep trail right about where the current human path is cut, and these days I guess that many times more elk than humans walk it each calendar year.