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.

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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.

Essential Skills: Garment zipper replacement

Replacing a zipper, generally in a full zip jacket, is one of the most common and thus, most essential serious gear repairs you’ll do.  Serious in this case being roughly defined as requiring more than tape or glue to manage.  The zipper on my 4 year old Haglofs Pile hoody recently died, providing a good tutorial on how to effect this repair.

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The first step in any repair is preventative maintenance.  With jacket zippers, the first step here is to buy garments made from good materials.  #5 YKK zips are a good place to start (# refers to size, bigger meaning larger, and the number can generally be found on the back of the slider, bottom stop, or both).  #3 zippers are in full zip jackets a invitation to a short product life.  Zippers fail when the materials wear, so keeping the teeth clean and not yanking too much both go a decent way towards maximizing function.  When separation begins to occur (see above), often a worn slider is at fault.  The metal of the slider wears ever so slightly, enough that it doesn’t fully engage the teeth when pulled up.  Engage the zipper, and bend the two halves together with pliers (this page has good photos).

With my jacket, this did not get the job done.   Wear to the plastic teeth, combined with fraying on the bottom stop, prevented things from seating properly, making total replacement the only option.  As I outline below, this isn’t too difficult or time consuming, but it is also not the most basic repair.  Companies with good warranties and repair policies (e.g Patagonia) will replace zippers, often for free.  Companies with mediocre policies (e.g. OR) will usually send you a new jacket).  Companies with less good policies (e.g. Arc’teryx) will often give you the run around before replacing the garment.  For me repair is both better style and better for the environment.  Knowing I wanted to put a beefier zipper into this specific jacket (packed size and weight not being a concern), I ordered up a #8 YKK coil zip as a replacement, and got out the knife.

Haglofs did a good job making the zipper both well sewn in an fairly easy to remove.  The strip of grosgrain is the key here: remove the little bartack on either end, cut out a few inches of stitching on one end, and at this point the thread is thin enough you can just rip the rest of the stitch line in a good yank.  The zipper itself is sewn directly to the fleece with another line of stitching, similarly slowly cut out a few inches with a knife or seam ripper, then give it a rip.

The only tricky part of sewing the new zipper on is the tendency of fleece to stretch, especially if your machine doesn’t have a walking foot.  Pins aren’t a bad idea to prevent this, or use stitch lines in the garment as reference marks, sewing 3-5 inches at a time and making sure the fabric doesn’t stretch.  If you let the fleece stretch, the zipper will get longer than it should, and the fit will be weird.  Once you’ve stitched the zipper in on either side via a plain seam, and in this case reused the zipper flap, again via a plain seam, flip the garment back right side out (top photo) and top stitch through the folded seam to lock everything in place.

Simple, easy, and now you can fix your own stuff.  Once practiced this is a ~20 minute job.

The Maah Daah Hey

The US, and I imagine the world, needs more trails like this.  Strictly speaking the MDH has national park caliber scenery, as it passes through two units of a national park.  Theodore Roosevelt is an obscure national park, getting as many visits in a busy year as Glacier does in an average June, and probably wouldn’t have been designated at all had it not been so intimately associated with the most important conservationist in American history.  And that is the point.  The terrain of the Little Missouri badlands is subtle and immensely nuanced.  It is an easy place to overlook, and as the huge increase in gas pads and roads between this visit (in April 2019) and my first visit (October 2005) indicate, an easy place for the wild mind of the nation to forget, and by extension, neglect.  Long, immersive trails in other such locations would go a very long way towards fostering appreciation of and interaction with the many wild places that are still left, sandwiched between civilization.

That trip two years ago was a big deal.  It was an idea that had been rolling around in my head for over a decade, and is still unfinished.  It was the first big trip after a difficult winter acclimating to life as a parent of two kids, rather than one.  Due to fitness, I elected to walk rather than bike, and that slower pace, in theory less stylistic, made for a slower and more contemplative journey.  There isn’t much flat on the MDH, but even so the walking is easy and relaxing.  Floating the Little Mo is similarly simple right up to the edge of dullness, and thus all that trip I had hours to look and think, even more than usual on a solo backpack.

I’m looking forward to getting back, sometime.

SWD Big Wild by the numbers

It is tough for me not to be effusive to the point of utterly lacking objectivity about this pack, which Superior Wilderness Designs sent me (for free) to evaluate.  Design and construction are polished, clean and professional without being showy, and represent the absolute best of the burgeoning made in the US cottage backpack industry.   And if that weren’t enough to stir my heart, this particular model is largish, burly, simple, and versatile.  It is where I’ve wanted ultralight packs to go for over a decade, and seeing what is likely the first fully realized incarnation of that, at least that I’ve seen in person, is exciting.  So I’ll be holding off on substantive impressions for a while.  What follows are the facts for this prototype.

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50.8 oz fully equipped; main fabric is X50

3.1 oz of straps

5.1 oz belt

43.75 inch top circ  (11 inch back, 12.75 inch front, 10 inch sides)

40 inch unrolled height

36 inch bottom circ (11 inch back, 9 inch front, 8 inch sides)

The numbers don’t tell the full story, as the shaping of the main bag is sophisticated and involved.  It is also worth highlighting how many, fully modular straps are contained in that 3 ounces.  An adaptable compression system that is durable, quick to use, and strippable without leaving a rats nest has long been an ideal.  Time will (shortly) tell how many of those boxes the Big Wild checks.

In summary. I haven’t been this excited about a backpack in a long time.

A mystery classic

I didn’t even write about this one two years ago which, on reviewing and editing the footage, was serious restraint.  One of the better alpine and packraft loops in the Bob, easily doable in 3 days.  See if you can guess what and where.

Retirement

A few months ago I spent a day snowboarding.  It did not go as I had hoped.   The reversion to being a kid, and flailing on and off the lift and down the hill, was immediate.  I slid into trees, off on slope angles to where I did not want to go, caught an edge and crashed off of tiny rocks, and had the liftie run over and ask if I was ok, twice.  Whatever I’ve learned over the past 3 decades of mountain biking, climbing, skiing, boating, and backpacking blunted the fear of novelty and let me be aware of exactly how and why I was struggling in the moment, but it did not accelerate the learning process, at least not on day one.  Perhaps I’ve watched too many Jeremy Jones movies.  After a few days contemplation I made the decisive, and I think not hasty, call to retire from snowboarding after one day.  It took me long enough to feel competent skiing, and I am not exactly swimming in free time.   And for me, abundant time has always been requisite for learning any physical pursuit.

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I made the snowboard into a lawn couch, using some skis, cedar 2x4s from an old fence, and some juniper logs.  I’ve become especially enamored with the tight, kaleidoscopic grain of the Rocky Mountain Junipers which dot the ponderosa forests around here, and whose sandy, recalcitrant poise so easily echoes the same trees and their cousins, the Utah Juniper, down on the Colorado Plateau.  For aesthetic reasons, and because I was short plain boards that were long enough, I split one particularly tall and straight juniper log in half and built it into a shelf which now sits in the renovated mudroom, and holds a stack of totes which in turn hold the vital parts of our gear arsenal: climbing hardwear, ropes, and cooking kit in three bins on the floor, then a bin each for tents, pads, drysuits and bags, and then two bins each crammed with backpacks, before a final row of larger backpacks up against the ceiling.  It’s proved a expedient arrangement; get home from a trip, explode gear to dry and clean in the aisle between the shelves and the shoe bench, then put it all away without taking more than half a step.

I belabor this because, especially now as a family, we have a lot of interests, which means a lot of things which in the interest of efficiency need to stay separate but interlocking.  Car camping requires much of the same stuff as a week long backpack hunt; an overnight float trip many of the same things as a chilly afternoon at the bike park.  Flailing to find the right drybags is bad enough prepping for a solo trip.  If the small people are reluctant enough to get out the door, spending 20 minutes to find that tiny pair of black rainpants is simply not acceptable.  Time then isn’t just given over the skill building within the activity itself, the organization and logistics which make all of those activities possible requires a considerable, and ongoing, investment.  In this world new things do not come cheap, and the money to buy the stuff is, measured over years, the least of the concerns.

My mom recently retired, in the conventional sense, from over 40 years of being a psychotherapist.  They also recently closed on a house down the road, and are deep into conversations about what boat(s) will be required for this next phase of life.   It has been quite a few years since this trip, and my postscript summary has not changed; given the combination of ideal scenery, challenge, and execution, I cannot expect to ever have a better backpacking trip.  I could likely replicate the route, or the satisfaction, even the seamless experience on such all-encompassing terrain, and I have done all of those, quite a few times, but I don’t expect to outright exceed it.  At the time I wondered, rather idly, if I might retire from backpacking with satisfaction.  I’ve reached similar positions in climbing, mountain biking, and canyoneering, with a much reduced degree of mastery, and have been content to let them go.  In outdoor pursuits knowledge and experience persist, but fitness and the sharp edge which comes with submersion do not remain.

Perhaps it is that backpacking is the ur skill for all backcountry disciplines.  Perhaps it is that walking is so basic, and physically the area in which I am most gifted.  Perhaps it is the gift of circumstance, that in the Northern Rockies backpacking is the best thing to do, particular when skiing or packrafting or hunting are spread on top.  Most likely it is that backpacking is the most fun of all of these, not in the whoop adrenaline sense of gravity power, but in the less common, enduring sense of variation beyond human determination that, for this reason, is never subject to boredom.  Having gone beyond mastery, and to a large degree beyond novelty, I find myself as much concerned with style and with monitoring the passage of time, revisiting old favorites, as I do with anything else.  And of course I have people around who need to see certain things.

I can’t imagine retiring.