Things from 2021

Astute readers may have noticed that, back in mid spring, photo quality here took a turn.  The previous fall my long standing iPhone 5se took a dive (literally, on main stream in Escalante) and after 4 months of tape holding chunks of the screen in, reliability mandated a new phone.  I’d spent the winter putting that off, pondering if I could really make the leap I wanted to.  A client (in 6th grade) showed me how the rudimentary browser on his flip phone worked, and that put me over the edge.  The next day I headed to work with a bricklike (8 oz!)m brand new ($240!) Kyocera DuraXV Xtreme in my pocket.

From a reasonable perspective, the Kyocera is a joke.  Texting takes forever, just like it did in 2007.  The camera is 5MP and has dodgy autofocus.  The browser works, on most websites, most of the time.  Checking stock at Home Depot doesn’t really work, but I can look at the weather in one button push, and read The Atlantic, 15 words a screen.  After a few articles your thumb will be sore.  A few weeks ago a QR code only menu at a brewery shut me down, and people of all ages roll their eyes on a daily basis.  I enjoy slapping the thing shut, metaphorically and literally.   I enjoy how it is a functional phone, and semi-functional as anything else.  I enjoy, perversely, it being heavy and big enough I will never forget it is in my pocket.

The reason I wanted an inconvenient phone is the same reason I took a break from writing here for the final three months of the year; to make daily life as simple as possible.  And by simple, I mean unadorned, basic, with as few sources of stimuli as possible.  M and I had little more than a year being parents before the national crisis that began with Trump and has continued through covid; I imagine either one would be sufficient to make the atmosphere around my daily life seem quite thin enough.  As is, things have been diffusely, unrecoverably frantic the past two years, and following my gut into the flip phone opened the door for me to prune more emphatically and intentionally.  For that reason, the Kyocera was the most significant item of 2021.

Apart from the pandemic (and Jan 6th which, as cultural phenomena are increasingly difficult to view separately), the most memorable thing about 2021, was the very hot start to the summer.  The first weekend after the Bob Open I took a trip to the Little Belts to stay in a lookout tower and explore more of Tenderfoot Creek.  The car thermometer kissed 100F sweeping south of Great Falls, and I went straight from typical Montana late spring to atypical Montana August in the space of 5 days.  Mercifully actual August gave us a big break, but an almost uninterrrupted two months that was almost too hot to hike in had me logging more river miles than any previous summer.  I bought a canoe, took out the new family packraft almost daily, and even partially learned to row my parents new 13 foot raft.  By Thanksgiving weekend, when Little Bear and I bikerafted Scotty Brown to River Bend and back on the Blackfoot, and I found myself scheming to fit just one more float trip in before everything froze did I realize the hierarchy which had in 2021 emerged.  I’ve often looked around our domain and wondered what out of the several mountains of gear I’d dispense with last.  2021 answered that: it would be the boats.  Which is helpful, because there is always more possibilites than either time or money.

The yard is currently buried in snow and ice, with the stack of canoes crowned with a tarp, that is frosted and frozen generously.  We have our quasi tree house, an 11 by 7 foot platform six feet off the ground, cantilevered off the garage, one other corner a 4 by 4 post atop a concrete wall, the other lag bolted to an englemann spruce, who proliferate in the old parts of town, planted after the ponderosas were cut for fuel and timber back around the time of statehood.  Englemanns grow faster, and do fine in town as they no longer have to contend with fire (if we ever have a Marshall fire situation all those ~110 year old spruces will be a massive liability).  They have a stately sway during windstorms, and if you’re in the garage during gusts above 40 mph you can listen to that tree creak the whole structure ever so slightly.

The kids playhouse has been under the tree house since before the platform existed, and was a hodgepodge of scrap lumber with a window and entrance(s) that required climbing through one of a number of tires.  The kids have taken to forest service cabins so well they wanted one of the their own, so this fall saw a total rennovation.  Now the playhouse has a bed, workbench, and tool rack inside, two big windows, and a kid sized (50″ by 18″) door.  I’m not sure I’ll ever chink the logs, as no one seems to mind that.  My favorite feature is the 5″ microgabel with cosmetic log raftertails over the door and front window, especially the past few weeks, as it has been piled high with snow.

Next to the backyard cabin is the wood pile, next to that the side entrance to the garage, and next to that the wood and tool shed.  The side entrance used to be a full door, before I walled off the back half of the dirt floor garage to be the ski and bike room and workshop.  Now the side entrance has a half door, to keep the deer out of the yard, and to which I had to add a deadbolt, as the gusts concentrate and cycle so strongly through the covered passage they regularly blew open the regular catch.  The garage itself is something of a mystery, with dimensional lumbar and very old pine planking on the sides, and rather newer 2 by 4s in the roof.  The uphill wall is, on the outside, set on concrete footers that are a good 30 inches below grade, demanding that it has been around long enough for the alley to acrue that much dirt.  Digging that out a few years ago to add enough flashing that most of the spring melt no longer seeps through the wall was a horrible job.

On the downhill side of the garage is the shed, a 7 by 12 foot room set on a slab, and into which I’ve crammed as much wood, odd stuff, and tools as will fit in a semi organized fashion.  This last requirement has expanded and evolved rapidly in the last few years, as building things (both for the house and otherwise) has become my primary interest.  I’ve been sewing, mostly backpacks, with a decent degree of seriousness for over a decade, such that my knowledge there has reached the point where problem solving is generally flooded over by execution and refinement.  This last, otherwise known as precision and consistency, has never been a strong suit, something woodworking has revealed in a most uncompromising manor.  So at last I find myself focusing on my stitch lines in preference to the big picture, and spending plenty of time learning to make truly exact cuts.  This fall a new island went into the kitchen, and a built in cabinet finally filled a hole in the wall upstairs.  I found a used miter saw, cheap, and built a bench into the wall of the shed onto which it bolted, and then a roof extension to keep the rain and snow off.  More recently, I found out just how much the blown air from the orbital sander freezes fingers, even with gloves on.  M and I beginning to mull much longer term plans for a garage rebuild that would provide indoor work space.  I have a canoe paddle, my prettiest yet, that will have to wait until March or so to get wet.

What does this mean for this year, 2022?  I have not and will not abandon the blog, though content will likely remain sparse.  I thought I might miss the process of writing weekly, and was surprised when I did not, at all.  I am working on a substantial revision of Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, that will encompass both more territory and the ways my knowledge overall has expanded in the past 4 years.  As always, I hope to sew and sell backpacks, though once I’ve worked through the current backlog custom work will be on hold indefinitely, as priorities have made holding to even the most expansive deadlines impossible, something that is unlikely to change for at least a number of years.  The phone experiment taught me that even with what seemed like a fairly simple life there was much work on that front to be done, that I needed to make some hard choices to do fewer things better.   And on that front, I am quite excited for the snow to keep building up, eventually thaw, and show us how the year will develop.

Montana’s early rifle

We’re in the second half of September, which means that in three Montana hunting districts, rifle season has started for deer and elk.  This is, I believe, the earliest season anywhere in North America for these animals, aside from special tags.  The mystique, or more accurately malarkey, surrounding these three districts is considerable, and the surge of interest this time of year makes it a good to flesh out the myths.  Between deer, elk, and that one bison tag three years ago I’ve killed (and crucially, packed out) at least two big game animals in each district, and particularly in the Bob spent exponentially more days in each zone doing things without a rifle in hand.

Zone 316 encompasses the area north and northeast of Yellowstone.  Geographically 316 can be cut in half, with the western half being the upper drainages of Hellroaring and Slough Creek, and eastern half being the lake, forest, and alpine rock of the Beartooth Plateau.  The former is classic alpine meadow and forest terrain, and hunts accordingly.  As is the case with all three zones, deer and elk are present, but sparse.  Here especially, it is common to complain about wolves having eaten all the elk since 1995.  While it is surely true wolves have both reduced overall numbers and changed elk behavior, I get the sense that hunters have been complaining about wolves stealing prey well back towards the last ice age, when one imagines short faced bears and the like gave humans something more pressing to lament.  Elk in mountain environments tend to not form the large, easy to hunt herds they do in the plains, and as a consequence are not so vocal during the rut.  Take one valley as a whole, and 10% will be good elk habitat, and 10% of that will in turn have elk at any given time.  Deer are more widely, yet more sparsely distributed.  The stats tell the story; for over 400 hunter days, 27 deer were shot in 316 last year.  The eastern half of 316 is the most difficult place to find deer and elk I’ve yet hunted.  The forest is thick, the terrain rugged, and the deer and elk present, but sparse.  Effort, consistency, and good tactics make a difference here, but probability and luck are essential.

As is the case anywhere in these three zones, getting off the trail makes a big difference, and in turn, getting the meat back to the trail is maybe the chief difficulty.  A three mile walk through slabs and blowdown, followed by a 5-12 mile trail hike, all with 80+ pounds on your back, is not a superhuman feat, but is a product of long term investments in physical prowess and planning.  With the packout process being as difficult, and in many cases more protracted, than finding and shooting a critter, it should be given the priority in both preparation and prestige that it deserves.  On a related note, I’ve found whitetails in all three of these zones, though they are thin and geographically limited in 316.  Using an OTC regional whitetail doe tag to bring about a multiday packout is a pure inversion of typical hunting priorities.  On another related note, bikes can be used to expedite packing in and out in zone 280, and packrafts are of limited use in 150 and 316.

Zone 150 is the classic Bob Marshall Wilderness, and encompasses most of the South Fork drainage and the upper reaches of the Middle Fork.  This is a large area, with everything between river bottom willow busting (see above w/r/t whitetails) and tundra spot and stalk.  As with 316, elk are there but tough to find, and generally (but by no means exclusively) found up high on late summer feed, far from established trails.  Remarkably, only 17 deer came out of 150 last year, reflective I think of hunter interest, not the relative abundance of actual deer.  Similarly with zone 280, the upper reaches of the North Fork of the Blackfoot, with only 12 deer killed.  That these numbers are so much lower than in 316 is the biggest surprise of this whole project.

The final and most enduring myth about hunting these early rifle zones is that you will surely be eaten by a grizzly bear.  While I’ve yet to see wolves in any of the three zones during hunting season, I have seen at least one grizz in each, generally up high while glassing.  Watching a sow and three fat silver-black cubs feeding vigorously for hours from the summit of Red Mountain remains a career highlight.  And there is very concrete reason to worry while hunting in each, given that creeping through thick stuff and meadow edges at dusk and dawn are ideal ways to both kill elk and run into a bear.  Aside from balancing this inherent contradiction moment to moment, the best advice in my book is to be quick and vigilant about carcass care and meat hanging.  Get things cut up and moved quick.  When at all possible, butcher somewhere with decent visibility.  It may be wise, under certain circumstances, to pass on certain shots so as to avoid leaving a carcass unmanaged overnight.  At the very least, match your ammo, shot placement, and effective range to make darn sure a shot at dusk gets anchored fast.

Early rifle hunting in these zones is and is not what big game hunting might have been 250 years ago.  On the one hand, records suggest there was never a huge abundance of big game in the mountains, which is why tribes made long journeys past these places to hunt along the river breaks and prairies.  On the other hand, while hunt success in these areas is modest, hunt pressure is still a factor.  You might shot something off the trail across the meadow at dawn, but most animals will know well when hunting season starts, and just as do in midwestern cornfields, adjust their habits accordingly.  Nonetheless a reasonable bit of effort and more importantly, planning should guarantee a 5 day hunt during which you do not see another human, and where the interplay between your skill and animal wit is translated by nothing other than the weather and terrain.  If this is the marker of success, rather than number and quality of critters seen, the early rifle hunts are as sure a bet as exists in big game hunting.

Bark River Micro Canadian re-scale

For the past four years my Micro Canadian has always been one of my very favorite objects.  It blends practicality and elegance in a way which few other categories of things can.  Restlessness, and extreme specialization (river rescue), are the only real reasons I’ve used anything else.  To address the former I bought a Bark River Ringtail this past winter (the brown handled knife with the ring, above), the idea being the Micro is a bit short on edge length and blade volume where processing game is concerned.  The Ringtail is very good for that, and has reminded me that if the Micro has any shortcoming, it is the blunter angle of the tip, which makes for a cutting bit whose acuity erodes quickly.

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My parents chose a gorgeous stabilized wood burl for the handle (scales) when they bought me the Micro, and over the years the wood has suffered, with many damper outings causing swelling, and after enough cycles, cracking.  A few weeks ago, one of these cracks propagated far enough towards one of the pins, and the front of one scale fell off.  The knife worked fine without it, and a few hours after sending an email to Bark River about a repair the idea to make new scales myself was firmly stuck in my head.  So I pondered that for another few days, then ordered some safety yellow pieces of G10, 1/8″ thick.  To this day, several weeks after sending the email, I still haven’t heard back from Bark River.

G10 was an easy (and cheap, on sale!) choice, being durable and impermeable.  1/8″ is a hair thinner than the wood scales, something I figured would slim down the somewhat blocky/squarish cross section of the handle as stock.  While I was at it, I knew I wanted to make the scales extend ever so slightly further towards the blade, to give my thump a bit more purchase.

After punching the pins out of the blade and cleaning it up, I clamped the blade to the front of the stacked scales and used that as a template to drill the holes.  I sharpied the outline to the scales, rough cut that out with a coping saw (both scales still together, then epoxied the whole thing together.  In spite of being very careful with alignment one of the rear holes was off a bit, and getting the whole mess together required a bit of last minute swearing and elbow grease.

After the epoxy was set finish work was the simple yet tricky matter of lots of sanding.  G10 sands well; I used an orbit sander with 220 grit for the initial stuff, and finished things off with lots of hand sanding.  I used a 1″ dowel as the template for the finger grooves, which worked well.  I am very pleased with how the whole thing came together.

The past four years of fixing things, renovations, and projects have seen home ownership being a huge catalyst for me embracing making stuff as equal parts an end and a means.  Something like this, which I carry virtually everywhere I go, every day, seems set to serve as a reminder of the many rewards that process has shown me.  Next in this series, my adventures making canoe paddles.

Accident report: near-drowning in Meadow Creek Gorge

Paddler A and B were on the fourth day of a packrafting trip on the South Fork of the Flathead at low water (a hair above 500 cfs at Twin Creeks).  They passed through the intro rapid right below the normal Meadow Creek takeout and arrived at the first serious rapid 1/2 mile later around 12pm.  This rapid is recognized by a gravel island visible in satellite photos that becomes very large at lower water.  All of the serious rapids in the gorge are formed by bedrock limestone formations, and thus the nature of these rapids change drastically from lower to higher flows.  Very low flows reveal spectacular fins, curved chambers, fluted corridors, and alter the location of cruxes within rapids.  In this case, low water reveals bedrock fins and sieves in the river left channel, making this line borderline unrunnable even for small craft, and certainly hazardous.  Paddlers A and B identified a small cobble island partway down the bedrock channel after the two channels come together, and agreed to run/line the shallow right channel, which dumbed steeply into the main channel in a way which made stopping potentially problematic.  The paddlers agreed to stop at the cobble island to regroup and potentially scout further.  The right channel proved paddleable, and both boaters were able to eddy out immediately before the channels came back together, where they reaffirmed their plan to paddle the ~100 yards to the cobble island.

Paddler A negotiated the several waves and holes in the first half of this stretch, entering the swift and narrow but uncomplicated second half, nearing the cobble island before looking back upstream and seeing paddler B pushed into an obstruction river right and flip upstream.  Paddler A paddled to the cobble island, secured boat and paddle, before wading 20 yards back upstream to grab paddler Bs boat, which was visibly floating downstream.  When paddler Bs boat was close to paddler A, paddler Bs paddle became visible ~20 yards upstream of the boat.  Shortly before paddler A was able to secure the boat, paddler Bs water bottle and hat became visible in the water, and then paddler B floating prostrate in the river.

Paddler A rapidly secured the boat and paddle on the cobble island, and returned upstream in knee deep water to grab paddler B.  Paddler B was floating face up in the river, eyes partially open, and nonresponsive.  Paddler A dragged/floated paddler B to the cobble island and checked for a pulse and breathing.  A pulse was present and strong, breathing was present, but irregular.  Paddler A dragged paddler B clear of the water, and removed the PFD to better assess breathing and injuries.  No bleeding or gross trauma was evident, and breathing remained present but irregular.  Paddler A then administered two rescue breaths, with the second visibly and audibly inflating paddler Bs lungs.  Paddler B became first visibly and then audibly responsive over the next 5 minutes, and was able to verify sensation in all limbs.  Paddler A palpated and further checked for fractures and bleeding, which were not present.  Paddler A then transported all gear through the short, swift, thigh deep channel to the bank, and then assisted Paddler B in walking through the same.  Paddler B was placed in a sleeping bag to rewarm, reporting full and normal sensation after 1 hour.  Paddler B vomited 3-4 times over this span, discharging ~2 cups of milky liquid in total.

Paddler A secured all gear in and to one backpack, leaving water and snacks accessible, and assisted Paddler B in the steep bushwack up to the trail, and the ~1.5 mile walk on trail back to the trailhead.  Paddler B reported feeling weak and light headed throughout this, taking approximately 2.5 hours to walk from the riverside to the trailhead.

While paddler B was rewarming paddler A walked up to examine and photograph the site of the pin and flip.  Paddler B was flipped against a bedrock wall on river right, which took up not quite half the width of the river.  A tooth of rock, which from downstream appeared as a detached boulder, was actually part of the wall, and separated by a small crack through which a small amount of water was able to flow.  It appeared, both from the rim and from paddler Bs recollections, that the wall may have been undercut below the surface.   Paddler B recalled first fighting to keep hold of and then discarding the paddle, in an effort to have more resources to get above water.  Paddler B recalled fighting to get left and free from the rock wall, but lost consciousness first.  Paddlers A and B think it possible, indeed probable, that paddler B was flushed loose, possibly down, after losing consciousness.  The time between the boat flipping and paddler B being flushed free was between 60 and 90 seconds.

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Looking downstream; paddler B was flipped and pinned against the large wall on river right.

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Looking down at the place paddler B flipped.

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Looking upstream from midway down the rapid, with the pinning wall readily visible.  This photo shows the extensive erosion of the limestone bedrock which forms undercut and dangerous features which emerge at low flows.

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Looking upstream from the end of the rapid.  The cobble island where paddler A retrieved paddler B is just out of sight to the lookers right.

The rapids and current in Meadow Creek gorge were, in retrospect, beyond paddler Bs skill level.  Paddler A had been down the gorge before, running all the rapids, at a higher but still low water level.  This, and likely other, rapids in the gorge seem to abate in difficulty as the water drops before the technicality increases again as bedrock features emerge.  Significantly, low water reveals the extensive nature of undercut and sieve-like bedrock in the gorge rapids, something which highlights the hazard of a swim at all water levels.

It is difficult to see what the team could have done differently, aside from not being there in the first place.  Assessing paddler skill and readiness is a complex topic on both an individual and group level.  Paddler A (who was me, if that is not yet clear) did not see the obvious hazard of the wall which flipped and pinned paddler B (who was my mother), either as an obstacle or an entrapment hazard.  With this problem not recognized, our safety options were limited.  With a different frame of vision I might have recognized that her flip was as dangerous as it was, but even so getting up there to assist more directly would not have improved the response time, and even if it had been the rock walls would have rendered such a response ineffective in terms of getting her out of the river faster.

The whole situation is scary, in the short term because she almost died, and in the longer term, as it gives me reason to question a whole lot of decision making over the past decade.  I’ve waited weeks to post this, both because the process of reliving it is upsetting, and because I wanted plenty of space to ensure I had the most dispassionate and longest perspective I could.  For that reason, everything above the photos has been written and sitting in the drafts folder for two weeks, with me ignoring this website.

As poor as our collective decision making was, in the moment both our responses left little room for improvement.  We will never know, but it seems a reasonable assumption that her fighting to get river left and above water helped at least a bit in her not staying pinned.  The rescue experience is the most clear cut example, of quite a few over the past two decades, of how invaluable an intense and high quality wilderness first responder course can be.  I lucked out, two decades ago, to have as my WFR instructor a former army medic who took the psychology of the responder very seriously.  My patient during the night scenario feigned a compound femur fracture, on a 30 degree hillside in slick Appalachia, with total seriousness, and his acted screams can to this day easily bring back my failures that evening.  When I saw a blue PFD floating towards me, the response was entirely objective, and in the end, simple.  My WFR recert classes were not as vivid, and had they been my only experience, I don’t think my response to crises would have been anywhere near as reliable.

The whole thing has me thinking, with more clarity and urgency, about just how to comprehensively teach safety in the outdoors.

Alpacka Explorer 42 review

We spent a lot of time thinking about this one.  Our need for a second large packraft, to compliment our Double Duck, was obvious.  You really can’t paddle more difficult water with a kid in your lap, one previous option to getting both kids out of the front of the Duck, and we needed to get both kids out of the Duck.  That boat wasn’t made for hauling, and the small tubes in the front start to drag and drastically reduce maneuverability with much above 50 pounds.  Both kids (now 3 and 6) do fit in the Duck, and can often get along in tight quarters, but being able to separate them is a key strategic asset. 

I saw two distinct approaches; a smaller boat to minimize weight for backcountry stuff, or a bigger boat that would be able to carry both kids well into the future.  This last approach could minimize weight as well, if the second adult came along in a smaller raft.  

We thought long about the Mule, at 7.3 pounds (plain floor with cargo fly) and 52 inch inner length.  That size would carry one kid, for at least a while.  We thought less long about the 70 inch long and 13+ pound Forager, mostly due to weight, but also the reduced options committing to a big raft would involve.  We eliminated the Oryx over concerns the length/width ratio and seating would not be good in whitewater.  The Ex42, with 62 inch and 8.3 pound (with cargo fly), seemed like the ideal compromise; big enough for two kids, more than big enough for one, probably big enough for two adults occasionally, and small enough to paddle solo when need or desire dictated, and well suited to hauling that moose out of the Bob when I finally draw.  The Ex42 is also a good bit cheaper than the Forager or Oryx.  

All that has proven to be a wise estimate.

The high volume cargo hull has performed exceptionally across circumstances.  Two kids, one kid, one kid plus mountain bike, two kids plus overnight gear inside, a second adult, or just alone with day gear, the Explorer 42 paddles well everywhere.  It is fast, for a packraft, on flatwater, but pivots well and navigates class III no problem.  The long flat section of the hull does tend to spear into waves and features of a certain size, an inevitable tendency given the dimensions, one notably not meaningfully exacerbated by weight and or passengers in the bow.  On class IIish scale features the boat is quite dry.  I do appreciate how the hull design packs a lot of float into modest length, a relevant consideration for running skinny water, and for reducing the consequences of a wrap.  My only issue is the extent to which the stern section protrudes further into the waterline than other packrafts, and thus is more likely to get hung up than seems strictly necessary.  The same long flat section of hull makes it almost, sorta possible to edge the Ex42, canoe style.   It still paddles like a packraft, but varies enough from the main line to be interesting for the packraft connoisseur.  

Detailing, such as it is, is primarily good.  The long, thick seat works well providing additional stiffness (laterally and longitudinally) and keeping two passengers off the rocks and out of the water.  The kids do dispute the right to sit on the leading edge, suggesting that the ideal two kid outfitting would involve a full length seat, or an additional scout seat to take up that forward space.  For our use thus far, I don’t mind the lack of any sort of backband or support, but those with less ideal seated posture have wanted this.  The only modification I’ve made is gluing in a rear grab handle right above the end of the cargo zipper.  I find the roll out and grab maneuver essential on swift and tight creeks, and the lash points down near the point of the stern are utterly useless in this respect.  Perhaps they are down there to provide a grab loop for rescuing swimmers?  Speaking of that cargo zipper, for all the irritation it can create with micro leaks, having one on a family boat is mandatory.  Packing for an overnight with multiple kids is dead easy with the cargo fly, approaching or perhaps exceeding the ease of a canoe or big raft.  Most encouragingly, the build quality seems to be improved over out past Alpackas.  This is the first of the now six boats we’ve had from them that didn’t have some sort of wrinkle or oddity in the taping.  

We anticipate having the Ex42 still in heavy rotation many years hence.  We may not need to buy another multiperson raft again, as LB has been keen enough building his solo paddling skills that by the time both kids don’t fit in the Ex42 together, he’ll more often than not be paddling himself.

National Parks; the future is still now

The national parks are crowded, or rather, they have been.  The pandemic reduced and altered visitation in potentially unexpected ways which are worth pondering.  Anecdotally, visitation is back close to or has exceeded the previous records, which were generally set in the latter half of the last decade.  This seems to be the COVID outdoor boom complimenting and exacerbating the already-in-progress parks and hiking boom, itself set in motion by the yet to be fully quantified combination of social media culture, industrial tourism, and urban malaise.

Glacier National Park has, this summer, been both an exception and an adherent to this trend.  This spring Glacier responded to government COVID policy, pandemic related staffing challenges, and the long standing crowding issues in the park with a ticketed entry and shuttle bus system.  Advanced tickets are required to go through either of the main park entrances between 0600 and 1700, and additional tickets are required to ride the shuttle buses which service Going to the Sun Road, and have historically made parking and point to point dayhikes easier to manage.  The number of total tickets made available in unclear, with the park claiming various numbers at various times, and suggesting the totals may be revised upwards as possible.  The caveat, which the park service was strident in advertising, has been that they did not anticipate parking shortages in popular areas to be much addressed by the tickets, rather they were attempting to prevent the cluster of last summer, when cars backed the .86 of a mile to the highway, with safety concerns requiring road closures

The tickets entry system appears to have exceeded expectations here.  M and I visited the park on a weekly basis from 2010 to 2016, when we lived in either Whitefish or Kalispell, and have never seen parking along the road as widely available as it has been in the past month.  Traffic in the park generally appears to be reduced, as well.  We’ve found mid-day weekend parking at Logan (not Logan’s) Pass on multiple occasions with less than 5 minutes of circling, ready parking at Sunrift Gorge at 1000 on a Sunday, and scored a campsite at Two Medicine having arrived just before noon on a Saturday.  Conclusive evidence this is not, but for me also far exceeds the threshold of the mere anecdote.  Rocky Mountain National Park implemented a broadly similar system this summer, and other parks with similar crowding and traffic issues, such as Arches, are considering it.

Glacier has been quite candid that the pandemic is simply the catalyst, or excuse, to put this into practice.  It is past time.  As I wrote four years ago, the park service has for decades been failing in its full mission, providing a volume of experiences increasingly lacking in quality and depth.  This is a global phenomenon, with places as diverse as Venice and New Zealand publicly debating how to make tourism a sustainable basis for their economies and ways of life.  The NPS’ mandate is not explicitly financial, but visitor management will be intimately tied to the policies and futures of the states and communities in which the parks reside.  No one, no one who can find a room or table that is, will prefer the Springdale, UT of today to the one of 15 years ago.  Crowding in the front country flattens the economy of a place into sameness, plain, efficient, reassuring, sameness.  The same crowding in the backcountry takes away, past a certain point, the unhuman novelty from which parks (and wild places, generally) get their appeal.

The question now is which way forward.  In Glacier, lots of people are protesting, about the inconvenience of more carefully planning their trip, of having to bend their schedules to that of anything else, or loosing money to the tourists that go somewhere more “free.”  This is the myopic American ideal of freedom, which can’t see out of its cloud well enough to avoid large trees.  My hope is that the NPS will continue their current path, and let the details evolve while the assumption of limited, higher quality visitation slowly becomes taken for granted.

Challenge Ultraweave abrasion testing

Advanced (read: non-nylon) woven fabrics have spent most of the past decade promising to upend standard performance to weight ratios, especially where backpacks are concerned.  Standard and hybrid cuben laminates have been a disappointment in this respect, with inadequate durability and poor balance between performance and cost.  The hype and rhetoric associated with hybrid cuben packs, most specifically the marketing prowess of Hyperlite Mountain Gear, has made a (perhaps the most) significant contribution towards mainstreaming non-traditional pack fabrics, which has resulted in larger interest and market share, and thus the development in recent years of more diverse options in pack fabrics.

Challenge fabrics Ultraweave* is the most interesting pack fabric of the past decade, due to both specs and availability.  100% woven dyneema has been around for almost all of that decade, and used as a halo product by several manufacturers, but maintaining this status has prevented it from being widely available, either as fabric or as a finished product.  Ultraweave, which is 2/3 pure dyneema (in essence) and 1/3 polyester promises to be a functional equivalent.  400D Ultra, for instance, claims 7600 taber cycles** and 200+ psi waterproofing at 4.65 ounces a yard.  VX42, by contrast, is 9.3 ounces a yard, an tests to 1700 cycles, while 1000D Cordura is 9.8 oz/yrd, tests to 4000 cycles, and is (approximately) 3 psi waterproof.  800D ultra is 8.1 oz/yrd, and tests to a staggering 10500 cycles.  VX42 has in the roughly 8 years it’s been widely available been my benchmark for a durable pack fabric, meaning that it is adequate for many years of consistent application in all but the most extreme uses, by which I mean canyoneering and severe scrambling and bushwacking.  Doubling that abrasion resistance while halving the weight is a paradigm altering proposition.

I’ve been working with Superior Wilderness Designs since this spring, testing their new Big Wild load hauler.  Earlier this month I received a proto Big Big Wild, 110 liters, made from 400d Ultraweave with an 800D bottom.  My instructions were to break it, if at all possible.  The first few trips suggested that this would not be easy.  Bushwacking and talus dragging did nothing.  back surfing down cutbanks and rolling a loaded pack down hills left it similarly unscathed.  I went old school on a recent trip and lashed the loaded pack to the front of my packraft, a good reminder that running (and portaging) class IV with such an arrangement is less than ideal.  This did confirm that Ultra is as waterproof as claimed, and reinforced my main interest in D-P fabrics, back in the pre-cargo fly era.  As a side benefit, the past weeks dirt was rinsed clear and the fabric looked brand new.

It was obvious at this point that absent a slot canyon trip, field use was going to take years to significantly stress the fabric.  So I resorted to backyard testing.

We live on a paved road downtown, with steep side streets and alleys that have been left gravel due to how icey they’d be in the winter.  They are not graded often, and have plenty of ruts, grass, small, rocks, big rocks, and potholes.  My first test rig involved clipping the grab handle to the trailer hitch.  The pack, stuffed full of heavy blankets***, flopped sideways easily, which was good for testing the sides and side pockets, but didn’t concentrate forces on the base/front interface, whose fabric transition was my primary interest.  It took three laps, increasing in distance, to make a dent in the fabric, and to refine methods and better control the wear area.  I ended up with cord strung across the open hatchback from the rear roof rack bar, with locking carabiners clipped to side compression straps.  The fourth and final lap, with the pack finally secured as I wanted it, was 7/10ths of a mile.  The total test distance from the four laps was just short of 2 miles.  I made sure to not exceed 10 mph, both for safety****, and to eliminate friction/heat buildup as a source of stress.

The damage report was modest.  The second trial got a golf ball sized elliptical hole on the roll top, unsurprising, given the hard plastic in the stiffener.  This trial also wore halfway through a 3/4″ webbing compression strap where it ran against the buckle.  The final, long trial put a pin sized hole in one bottom corner, and wore notably into the bottom daisy chain, though not to the point of being a structural issue.  The 400D fabric was fuzzed up in many areas, while the 800D was essentially unscathed.  Of greatest interest, the side pockets, which were empty but consistently collected dust and rocks in the first three trials, had no holes or significant abrasions, in spite of the extensive folding caused by the drawcord being cinched.  Aside from patching the one hole, the pack was functionally unscathed.  Consistent with field use, a large amount of the dirt staining washed out when blasted my a hose, leaving the pack at a distance looking essentially new.

In summary, Ultraweave lives up to its specs, and to Challenges’ claims of it being as good or better than anything on the market.  The 400 and 800D are certainly the toughest fabrics for the weight I’ve ever seen, with the 800 being clearly tougher than anything else I’ve used, and the 400D probably being as good if not better than the traditional big guns, 1680D ballistics nylon and 1000D cordura.  The question for consumers will be, is this fabric worth the increased cost?  Rockywoods is currently selling Ultra fabrics as Diamondhide, for 15 dollars a foot.  SWD charges 35 dollars more from a 50 liter Long Haul pack in Ultra, as opposed to more conventional poly face fabric laminate.  This distinctly non-halo upcharge makes that particular option an easy choice.

*Challenge currently has their v3 spec sheet posted on their website, which lists drastically reduced taber numbers.  I have the v8 sheet, from which these numbers are taken.  As discussed here my testing supports the higher figures.

**In my frankly extensive experience abrasion resistance is by far the most important metric in a heavy use pack fabric.  Ultra tear numbers are similarly high, 114/117 lb and 187/161 lb for the 400 and 800.  1000D Cordura is 54/47 (tear, not tensile), for reference, and for me anything about 40 lb is effectively bulletproof.

***To simulate a decent load without any point loading and abrasion.

****I had both kids in the back seat as QC observers of pack and camera position.

Tenderfoot Creek packrafting

Tenderfoot Creek is the largest west-running drainage in the Little Belt mountains.  Like the mountains themselves, it is a unique and somewhat obscure place.  It has a public lands story which is worth reading about.  As detailed last week, I’ve been mulling this post for a while.  I discovered (for myself) floating the creek in the best way possible; looking at a map and then going and doing it.  I’ve been back a few times since, and the trips have always been stellar.  The Smith River, into which Tenderfoot flows, has long been exceedingly popular, as an easy, scenic, remote-ish, road accessed float.  The Tenderfoot is far from popular at the moment, though as a fishing and hunting destination it is coming that way.  As a floating destination the time to establish a public use history has arrived.

Tenderfoot itself can be easily split into three distinction sections with significantly different characters.  Upstream from the ranch bridge at the outlet of the South Fork of Tenderfoot Creek at least as far as Rugby Creek the creek is zippy and busy (~100 ft/mile of drop), with continuous class II++ action, and typical for small steepish creeks, complex and fast decision making.  The half mile below the bridge drops into an unexpected, shallow, and very steep gorge (below), with a series of rapids culminating in the 12 foot Tenderfoot Falls.  This gorge (250 ft/mile) often has vertical cliffs coming out of the water on both sides with the creek 10-15 feet across, and very few places to scout or portage.  Wood is a very real concern.

tfoot

A few hundred yards below the falls is the best/only public road access to the creek, and the meandering ~10 miles down to the Smith are far mellower in gradient (40 ft/mile) and hazard.  There are riffles, and as with any smallish backcountry stream wood and brush to worry about, but the Tenderfoot seems far cleaner than most in the genre, at least until a big fire comes through.  Backcountry packrafting is inherently not beginner boating, but the lower Tenderfoot is ideal basic intermediate terrain.

Access and creating routes and loops in the area is not simple.  Road access from the south, down the South Fork, is a good if not short drive from the pavement, and this road can be driven in a passenger car when dry, and if piloted with skill.  That said, folks have been rather surprised to see our FWD Saturn down there.  Hike in access and route possibilities from Monument Ridge to the north is excellent for the packrafter, and I find the drive in along Logging Creek to be the more enjoyable.  The largest obstacle to coherent routes is that floating on the Smith requires a permit, and furthermore, the final ~half mile of the creek passes through private land (owned by the Wilkes Bros, in fact).  Montana stream access law permits wading upstream within the ordinary high water bounds, which is realistic at all but very high flows if you care to float to the Smith without a permit to continue downstream.

The season for floating the Tenderfoot has been hard to pin down.  May, and most if not all of June, seem to be a sure bet.  I imagine April, in early years, and early July, in late melt years, are almost often workable.  The Smith has several gauges, but I’ve never been able to generalize these levels to those observable on the Tenderfoot.  The creek has a big drainage, but none of it is especially high altitude, and almost all of it is heavily timbered.  Lots of snow can build up and linger, with melt off responding more to temperature than solar energy.

It is a special place.  Be careful.

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.