Walking down Bullet Canyon things would have opened up, a wide sandy plain thick with fat pinon and juniper trees, a tight band of tall cottonwoods and willows snaking along the dry wash. The north wall opens into a series of budding side canyons, that run back for perhaps half a mile before you are up at the end of the slickrock and talus against 400 foot cliffs. These canyons have deep overhangs at their heads, bays whose bottoms are never touched by rain or snow, and hardly by the wind, but face south and are high enough to be flooded by sun on even the shortest day of the year. An ideal place to spend the winter.
The point between two of those bays has a particularly deep set of ledges bedded into weaknesses at the base of the cliffs. The apex of the turn from one canyon to another has an obvious stone and mortar wall tucked into it, an ancient stick poking straight out downcanyon, hinting at a far more elaborate and transitory structure during its prime almost 1000 years ago. Closer examination reveals a gap between that wall and the cliff, through which a human can crawl, and access the walls beyond. The jailhouse itself sits below these ledge rooms, invisible while you are seated above. Small, oblong, slanted windows break the ledge walls at regular intervals, providing a narrow view of the rock slabs leading to the jailhouse. Can we call them anything other than arrow slits? They’re aimed with rude, jarring immediacy down to the approach slopes, places anyone wanting to approach (or leave) the jailhouse would have no choice but to cross. And as if to further argue back against any thesis that this was not a defensive, defendable structure, you have the face.
Painted at the height of a standing modern human’s head, the face (and the swirling, multicolored disc 20 feet to the left) are pointed such that anyone walking down the canyon could never miss them. I struggle to grasp a plainer message of watchfulness, defensiveness, perhaps of hostility.
Further down canyon, in Grand Gulch proper, I had seen many ruins built up in near impossible locations. Rooms set into ledges, like the one at jailhouse, but high up near the canyon top. Places built with rocks and mortar, places easy to see but difficult to get to, and impossible to sneak towards, places whose approach today would seemingly demand a rope or ladder. Places where you wonder how on earth they gathered the water mixing mortar would have required. Places whose effort, or both construction and getting to and from, would have made them rather less then friendly to everyday life, when that life involved tending corn in floodplains and stalking bighorns and deer with stone arrowheads.
Today we know, or think we know, that these canyons were the late fringe of the civilization that blossomed in more logical places, like Mesa Verde, closer to the mountains, to more predictable water and presumably to more consistent hunting. These people were also linked to the less logical, from a subsistence perspective, Chaco Canyon. The historical weight and, from a modern perspective, mystery of Chaco and its inhabitants still vibrates the air when you visit. Relative to the harsh, innocuous environment the buildings seems massive. The rockwork, a millenia later, is still fine. Do some study and you learn that the great kivas were roofed with timbers that must have weighed hundreds of pounds and had to have been carried 50 or more miles from the nearest such forests. We also know, or think we know, that this civilization dispersed and fell apart in violence. Our vague modern certainty is that survivors fled to places like Cedar Mesa, and brought their scars and paranoia with them. It makes for a colored, if compelling, reading of a place like jailhouse ruin.
This is a logical extension of classic loop we traveled five years ago; down the Honaker trail, packraft the San Juan River to Grand Gulch, and hike that and some association of side canyons back to the mesa top. Riding a bike from any of those trailheads down the highway and Moki dugway to the Honaker trailhead is an enjoyable and expeditious way to shuttle with only one car. In my case, I left my bike at the Bullet Canyon trailhead, which made for a 26 mile bike shuttle.
You need two separate permits for this loop; one for the river, and one for Grand Gulch. Between November 1 and February 28 the later are unlimited and self-serve at trailhead kiosks. During the warmer parts of spring and fall there is a 20 quota per trailhead, per day. These can be reserved, online, 90 days out. Looking through March and April of this year, availability is widespread, save for Kane Gulch and Bullet Canyon on April weekends. San Juan permits are unlimited outside the lottery season, April 15 through May 15. I had ~670 cfs (at Bluff) for this recent trip, which for a packraft was more than adequate, if notably slow once morning headwinds kicked up. Looking at historic averages, I think this part of the San Juan is floatable year round, though isolated evidence of shelf ice suggests it might start to freeze up during the coldest depths of winter.
The top of Cedar Mesa is above 6000 feet, making snow in the upper sections not uncommon and potentially problematic, especially on north facing aspects. Pictured above is the “crux” of Bullet Canyon, after 2 inches of snow fell the night before. I went through around 3pm, after the midday sun had melted things down, and before the snow refroze and ceased to be sticky. A few hours earlier or later would have made the going trickier, as the people and dog (!) ahead of me seemed to have found (zoom in for the flail tracks). It is certainly possible that sections like this would have enough snow to be impassable without a rope and/or specialized experience. That said, the river straddles 4000 feet and overall daytime temperatures during November and February are usually quite pleasant. I did bring a drysuit, which made floating during 3 hours of steady rain tolerable.
At low flows the San Juan is mellow and accessible for almost any level of skill and any boat. I brought my small boat to save weight on the hiking, which was a good choice. The character of the river does change notably below Slickhorn Canyon, transitioning from a muddy mountain stream, with a gravel and cobble bottom and sequential riffle where you’d expect, to a true desert river with a sticky sand bottom. Much like with the Dirty Devil or Little Missouri, the San Juan could be 50 yards wide with only a small floatable channel right against either bank. I’ve long since passed the point where negotiating such things have novelty.
Grand Gulch itself is a unique canyon, and a somewhat odd companion to its neighbor, Slickhorn. Slickhorn climbs steeply and moves through its phases fast; Grand Gulch is at least 4 times as long, climbs gradually (save at the very start and very end), and has a spectacular number of bends and abandoned meanders. For varieties sake I couldn’t help climbing out the northern fork of Water Canyon and walking the plateau over to the Government Trail, which I took back into the canyon. This was a highlight, both the rugged route finding and big views up top (one can see the Bear’s Ears, Monument Valley, Navajo mountain, and Mount Ellen all at once). Grand Gulch from the Government Trail up to Bullet is remarkably uniform, with a 10 foot wide sand bottom windy between brushy banks with almost no breaks or obstacles. There is a lot of cool canyon architecture and rock art to see in this stretch, but the scenery and walking impressed with their uniformity and general turgidity. My legs were heavy after the Water Canyon excursion, and the day after, going past Dripping and Step Canyons, I had a struggle keeping in the moment and a generally positive mindset.
It is also worth highlighting that, due to limited visibility down amongst the trees and the lack of outstanding features, keeping track of your location/progress is more nuanced than usual in canyon country (that is, assuming I’m not the only backpacker left who avoids GPS).
I did find the scenery and walking up Bullet to be exceptional, a fitting highlight on which to end the trip. The history here, to be addressed later, is absolutely something to return to, even if the additional floating and walking of Grand Gulch, relative to Slickhorn, does not make it the highest quality of additions.
A wee bit of sewing know-how is handy in the outdoor realm. And not just for fixing stuff, though that is a subject I will get to over the next month, but for the slightly more advanced (conceptually, if not always skills-wise) realm of modifying gear. Today we will confine ourselves to the introductory topic of altering the torso size of jackets and vests by taking in and (bonus points!) expanding the side seams.
Garment fit is not a matter to be taken lightly. Sub-optimal fit makes pieces less thermally efficient, less cohesive while layering, and more annoying (flapping in the wind. etc). If you have a body type or fit preferences which fall outside the norm, your are generally stuck with either just getting by, or perhaps shopping around to find a company whose patterning might better suit you, a potentially protracted and expensive procedure which is by no means a sure thing. Modifying garment fit is a surefire way to address this issue. I don’t have this problem, as I generally fit just fine in anything labeled medium, though sleeve length and hood size are both often a bit lacking. My favorite application of altering torso fit is, rather, to alter garments which aren’t my size that I have managed to purchase for cheap. In either case techniques are the same.
For the past few months I’ve been exploring a Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody as a replacement for my BD Alpine Start windshell. The Terre has promise in this area, with one glaring flaw in the voluminous torso size. Mid-waist circumference (in medium) is 3.5 inches more than the Alpine Start, which is itself on the generous side of something meant to go over a midlayer or two, but not allow too much heat loss via flappage. The Terre is meant for ocean sports, and presumably the added volume is to fit over a kiteboarding harness, but given the otherwise excellent fit (long arms and torso, excellent hood) something needed to be done. Thankfully the Terre has what most jackets and vest have; vertical seams up the center of each side right under the nadir of the underarm.
The mod is basic: measure (several times), do your math right, turn the jacket inside out, sew a vertical seam up parallel to each existing seam to take the desired amount in (taper up to the arm pit in the last ~2″), trim the excess (to a 1/2″ to 3/8″ seam allowance), singe the fabric edges, then turn the garment back right side out, fold the seam over, the fell (i.e. sew flat) parallel to your new seam to hold the excess in place and add strength. The Terre fabric is thinnish and stretchy, with this later characteristic making stress on individual seam holes more acute as I’m sewing with non-stretch thread. Felling the seam is a good call with such fabrics, or with fabrics like fleece who often don’t hold on to seams as well as more unified products. The end result, shown at top, doesn’t need to be super pretty or exact, just straight enough, and tight. Get the fit right and you’ll forget about the mod and go about your outdoor life.
Extra effort is in order when things like hem cinch cords have to be relocated. If the cord tunnel goes all around the hem, you’ll have to pull that seam out, do the above, then resew the tunnel without sewing the cord into the seam or anything similarly silly. In the case of the Terre to tunnel ended at the middle seam, so I felled it forward (towards the zipper) to make things easier. I had to relocate the little anchor loop for the cord lock, something I put off until I was felling the seam. With the seam locked in it was easy to just stuff a little fabric loop into the fell and triple pass along the way.
It is less probable that you’ll want to take a whole jacket in all the way up the sleeves, but the same procedure can in theory be used here. It is more complex, as cuffs are usually more complicated to take apart and put back together, and sleeve patterning is less likely to feature a straight seam off which to benchmark. I am much more likely to pin when taking in a sleeve, as the amount you’ll be reducing tends to vary, and the margin for error is far less (as a percentage of the whole).
Adding girth is more complicated, but possible via essentially the same process. My favorite example is this early 90s ish Patagonia vest I found 2 years ago in a Butte thrift store for 50 cents. It’s a small, and I while I could technically wear it function and style demanded it be big enough to layer over something like a heavy fleece. The tricky parts were color matching the salmon fleece inside the collar (came close after 40 minutes in Joannes), splitting the sides in a non-messy way (the outer shell is some kind of monolithic poly WPB laminate, with ~80 grams/meter Polarguard and a taffeta liner), and dealing with the drawcord cinch around the arms holes. In this case I sewed the whole sandwich of materials shut, then sewed the fleece strips to each before felling as mentioned above. I punted on extending the cinch sleeves across the fleece panels, as that wasn’t really necessary to preserve function. A nice bonus here is that a pair of jacket sleeves always has enough length to make side panel additions. A few years ago I found a woman’s large Nano Air jacket for $10, older, but in very fine shape. This one I could not really wear at all, so after a bit of playing around I cut off the sleeves, sewed the arm holes shut, and added 4″ wide panels to each side, giving me a functional vest for 10 bucks and 45 minutes of enjoyable futzing.
Most importantly, modifying (and repairing) things feels more satisfying in this transient, hyper-consumerist age.
I’ve used the 2 person Hilight quite a bit in the last year, with performance quite as I expected it to be, perhaps one or two things surprising. This makes for something of a dull write up; it is a quality tent, well conceived, with defined limits. There a few things that could be done better, but so long as one chooses it wisely, the Hilight will make for a good shelter.
Dimensions are the first concern, and really the only area where I think Black Diamond went wrong in the design. 82 inches is simply too short for anyone of average (5’8″ or more) height. I fit in the Hilight, sleeping diagonally when using it as a solo tent, which is how I imagine 90+ of people use it. That is fine, but I think it would make more sense to stretch it a bit, while making it narrower, perhaps even symmetrical. Rather than being 82 inches long, 42 inches wide at the foot, and 50 inches wide at the head, give it the 87 inch length of the Eldorado, and a uniform 48, 46, or even 44 inch width. Two people are going to be in full bivy/alpine mode using the Hilight anyway, so going halfway to providing comfortable room doesn’t seem logical, when a longer and narrower footprint would only be better for both a duo and a soloist.
I’ve been quite pleased with the performance of the Hilight. Snowshedding is a natural strength of little wedge tents like this one, with the near vertical lower walls, and while I (somewhat annoyingly) avoided big snow storms on trips this past, modest snowfalls sluff off unnoticed. I anticipate performance in heavier snows to be more than acceptable. Performance in wind is a bigger question with wedge, and with the Hilight especially, given the wing pole over the doors. In sustained 30-40 mph winds the Hilight has proven very stable, especially when the side guy points are used. It is a very quiet tent under these conditions, with impressively little movement. I look forward to testing it, the wing pole especially, in harsher conditions, but realistically those don’t happen very often. I’d currently take the Hilight most anywhere, anytime in the mountains and be comfortable that with reasonable sight selection and prep I’d do fine.
Ventilation and condensation, and mild weather performance generally, has been an area of unexpected strength and satisfaction. Seeking ease of pitch and total bug protection I took the Hilight on a weeklong packraft trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon, as well as on an early September elk hunting trip on the prairie badlands of eastern Montana. The former trip ended up being quite warm, somewhat rainy, and had a huge number of ticks. It was really nice to zip into my tent after an evening when I pulled half a dozen or more bloodsuckers off me, and nicer still to have good venting for a whole rainy evening and wake up with almost no condensation. The Middle Fork isn’t a humid environment, but on a permitted river tip one often camps out of necessity closer to the water than ideal moisture management would dictate, and in the Hilight this just wasn’t an issue, due to both the generous venting and the fabric. It was very warm on the elk hunt, and still buggy, which had me appreciating a full tent rather than a tarp, with a full panel of mesh I could leave open to the wind on nights that barely got into the 50s.
Because the venting is so effective, and because resewing and sealing will be a bit of a job, I have yet to get around to cutting the top tunnel vent out. I remain convinced the big, dual flaps make it redundant, but have yet to actually conduct that experiment. Even if I can drop 6 ounces from the canopy, the Hilight is never going to be the choice for truly light and fast trips, unless they involve multiple nights camped on deep snow. Being able to stomp a platform, then use your poles to anchor one side and your skis the other makes this type of tent the clear choice for deep snow camping and ski mountaineering. I would like the corner stake loops to be just a hair bigger. The 104mm wide tails of my spring skis just barely do not fit, though adding cord loops is no big deal.
The accessorizing of the Hilight is something I appreciated every time I used it this past year. As mentioned in the initial post, the stakes are excellent. It is nice to not have to replace, or augment, the stock stakes of a new $400 tent. The guyline is also high quality, and reflective, something I appreciated deeply on the second night of the elk hunt, when darkness and a final futile stalk caught me 3 miles from my tent on a very dark night. I had pitched it atop a knoll precisely to manage this eventuality, but with no moon each knob and ridge becomes like the others, and in my very tired state I was really psyched when my headlamp picked up glowing cord across the coulee, especially as my stash of food and water was inside. In gnarly conditions one could use more cord, but one might well go years with the stock amount being entirely adequate.
There are a lot of lighter, in some cases drastically lighter, double wall tents newly on the market which pencil out as functionally very close to the Hilight. For a lot of users those options, with less robust fabrics, fussier pitches, and worse weather resistance, are probably a better option. I just like the Hilight, added weight be damned, because it is both (surprisingly) versatile, and because it has every appearance of lasting a decade or more. Shelter options are interesting, but I don’t find them especially sexy, and having the Hilight available to tick every non-family tent box I require is both a practical and aesthetic virtue.
I did not much miss travel this past year. Or, to be more precise, I was more than content with staying in Montana (two trips excepted), and ran out of both energy and creativity before I ran out of options. As I think about 2021, my eye keeps coming back to the home state, and the many places I would still like to go, and the ways I might fit those trips into the next 12 months. My resolution from the beginning of the pandemic has only grown stronger, after a summer of a few intensely memorable trips within a couple hundred miles of home.
So why not do more of those?
There is a mountain range near to town, which tends to hide in plain sight, and has some truly exceptional canyons and trails that very few human eyes ever see. I’ve done a few trips there, each one having been exceptional, and while I’ve yet to settle on the exact route, something a little more extensive in early summer will be a priority. I’ve made a reservation to spur me along towards that end. I’ll share impressions when it happens, but never details, there being enough knows out in the world as is.
There are also a lot of rivers in Montana, with many hiding in plain sight once they put the mountains below the horizon. Again I have no definitive plans, but with the smaller child getting big enough that backpacking will become ever more difficult, the boating phase of family development should be in full force this year. We bought a canoe this past year, and have another packraft on the way in a few weeks, so we should use them a bunch. On that note, a full Escalante float really ought to happen this year.
And on the subject of packrafting, there are still two major creeks in Glacier I have yet to float. And I’m pretty certain that both of them will be very worthwhile. Restrictions in the park this past year took both off the table, so there is a special urgency and poignancy to being able to get into those pieces of backcountry, one of whom is amongst the handful of named drainages in the park into which I have never set foot. And on the subject of packrafting, a year with minimal socialization has me contemplating the privilege of being around likeminded folks. Spending the summer solstice in the center of the universe with the relevant folks and as much beer as we dare to carry is an idea that won’t quite leave my head.
I am also hopeful of, finally, having some more packs go out the door. Tamarisk 0.2, above, is headed out the door tomorrow. While I did not intend to put a full year of testing into version 0.1, having the confidence that it both works so well across applications and that the individual components hold up so well is an unexpected luxury. Mark 0.2 is a wee bit bigger (as requested) than 0.1, and than the production model will be. It scales nicely, looks good, and carries (with the final alterations to the hipbelt) even better.
On that commercial note, I should mention that stock of gold packraft straps has grown quite thin after the holiday surge. 3 pairs, to be exact. Anyone who has been wedded to that color but not moved to act ought to do so now. Anyone with thoughts about what color should appear next, to compliment the rainbow (which will be stocked perpetually), do comment.
If 2020 was a merciless device which distilled everything already there, into a cold cutting clear hypnotic as overnight ice on an alpine lake, what I learned in the past 12 months was that I did not lack for time. I lack for energy, and for the headspace to use what time I have as well as I would like. This has only accelerated in the last 5 years, as life has filled up with responsibility. Freedom without boundary flows in all directions and disappears as a quick rain in the desert. Build choice into a frame, four lines of duty, obligation, scarcity, and immanence, and coherence comes fast, making freedom comprehensible.
18 months ago I had enduring questions about what my place in adventure would be, given the shortcomings limited days in the field would inevitably bring. When backpacking big miles, there is no substitute for time on feet, and out in wild, technical terrain presence of mind equals safety. How much would my wild mind dull, as years pass and big trips became ever less frequent? A few traverses that summer, and especially the Isle Royale trip that fall, did much to put my fears to ground. In the woods my purpose was clearer and more accessible, moment to moment, than ever before, and any slowness desk hours had put into my legs were more than compensated by confidence and better planning.
I flowed through the swamps and ridges of Isle Royale, and when mid-May opened this year, the virus loomed a little less unknown, and Will invited me on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the timing seemed ideal. It was a difficult trip, the most sustained difficult whitewater I’d ever paddled on that blurringly full first day, but the space between the challenges and what I was able to welcome had never been thinner. The stillness which lingered has lasted to this day, and ran through what was the most technically challenging and accomplished season of paddling I’ve had yet.
The process aspects of pursuits and skills have in the past been circumstantial. I’ve learned to ski and to paddle whitewater because wanted to go places and be on journeys that required these tools and techniques. This past summer of packrafting was the coalescing point for a new mindset built not just around the process of any given trip, whose better embrace is another story, but on the immediacy of the skills in question. This spring, big lonely storms amidst the height of lockdown had me avoiding objective hazard, and provided ideal conditions for getting better at flowing one turn into another on powder through the trees. This summer I read lines and placed my paddle better than ever, because that had become the first goal, and in many cases because I was paddling close enough to my limit that anything less led to some bruising swims. And this fall, with both kids obsessed with biking, I’ve looked forward to hours at the bike park, just trying to hit a berm better.
All of which sounds, when I writer it in retrospect, rather trite and obvious. Was I really so preoccupied with so much other stuff, so much external stuff, so many goals, for so long?
The answer has to simply be yes, and the trip which pushed me firmly over the line to admitting this, out loud to myself was the prairie elk hunt this September. It was on a scenically detailed bit of ground, but with the elk so legion exploration had nothing to do with getting from A to B, and everything with where along that path a bull was likely to be bedded. On the one hand that hunt was a dismal process failure, insofar as my shooting skills let me down on at least several occasions that I’ll forever regard as should-have-been-certains. On the other it was a raging success, in that opportunities were rife and I failed so close to a dead elk so many times, and was thus bludgeoned over the head with all the things I was as a hunter doing properly.
My other goals for hunting in 2020 were to kill some grouse, and put some time into being selective about a big mule deer in the local mountains. I did kill some grouse, which were tasty, and had a lot of fun days within an hour of home hiking around our northerly desert-forests looking for and at mule deer. My explicit goal, for the first time, concerned antler size, because in each year past for I can’t recall how many running I have seen one particularly large antlered and magical buck after I had filled my tag. From the perspective of inches I never saw that deer, and the one I shot was a disappointment. From the perspective of experience the kill, butchering, and walk out were everything exactly as I like about hunting, and this and the elk hunt put together clarified the blend of practice and location which makes hunting distinct from every other form of knowing in the outdoors.
It all, in short, gives me a lot of hope and interest for what might happen this year.
Add.; Not long after publishing this yesterday evening I received a text, and then an email, stating that extra vaccine doses would be available to direct care workers outside hospitals and clinics, in other words, me. So I woke up in the dark and waited in line at the fairgrounds and got Moderna stuck into my arm. That medicine went into clinical trials the first day our schools went virtual back in the spring, and is both a great story and a reminder that for all the navel gazing, flatearth mugwumpitude of 2020, contemporary science is quite amazing. Can’t really leave that off such a list as this.
For over a decade I’ve struggled to see the point of any mountain bike grips which are not either Oury or Ergon. When buying parts for the Marin I wanted to try something new, and ordered a pair of Deathgrips in thin and flangeless. The tactile experience, along with the ease of removal while futzing with components, have been very nice indeed. Nice enough that I recently put another set, thick and flangeless, of my fatbike. I don’t have enormous hands (generally right between medium and large gloves) and the thin versions are both a bit low on cushion and a bit too little to hold well in the rough. These are emphatically a gravity oriented grip, without much squish. But the ribbed thumb section is super comfy with or without gloves, and encourages body english and three dimensional steering. Not necessarily the most versatile bike grip, but a very fun option.
Under ordinary circumstances I don’t do much to restrain my coffee consumption, provided I drink it black. Caffeine being after all an almost universal performance enhancer with no socially consequent downsides, and precious few downsides at all. The chemical and psychological benefits have been even more important this year, and the Moka pot quickly makes just the kind of coffee I prefer. This fall especially it has been rare that I don’t fire it up at least twice a day.
When we moved in 3.5 years ago the little garage out back was in sad shape, and half full of odd junk. The door had long since ceased to work, and the dirt floor became vital that spring, as a record snowpack melted through the walls and flooded down under the door. Boxes stored in there were frozen to the floor for over a month. That summer I built a stone wall between the opening and the alley, demolished the door, and built a wall cutting the interior in half. The dirt floor of the bike room is handy when I spill oil, or don’t want to go back inside to piss, but a nuisance when I drop a bolt. I also dug out the three feet of wooden wall decades of erosion had placed underground, and installed layers of flashing. So now our garage keeps snowmelt out.
Among the items moved out to make way for bikes and the car was an old wooden bakers chair, which rolls, swivels and tilts on an iron base. I didn’t really look at it for another few years, until this February when I restored the base with grease, screws, and wood glue, and the seat and back with pints of linseed oil. I had intended to move it to my office at school, and finished it the weekend before the stay at home order took effect in Montana. Instead it went into the new home office, and I found that the unpadded seat was more comfortable than the succession of old and modern plush chairs I’ve used over the years. It was a happy day when I moved it into school at the end of August, and in October, when things finally got cold enough for the baseboard heater to run hot, the scent of linseed oil reemerged and lingered for days. For practical and now, nostalgic reasons, I can’t imagine ever getting rid of it.
Through both planning and luck spent more nights in lookout towers this year than any other to date. Some, like Christmas Eve in a tower just north of town, required advanced planning. Others were vacancies that popped up days in advance, and seizing them just required awareness and being flexible. Picking a favorite is not possible, as every trip was important and unique. Like this one, and this one.
In this case scarcity has always been somewhat the driver of interest, and this year more than most, the silence of the wind and a long view were especially welcome. If a lot of my internal conversation at the beginning of the summer concerned what I would do when the pandemic had passed, my looking back at these photos and memories now has me struggling to think of trips I’d find of more interest or value, and has me psyched to plan more, close to home, for 2021.
One of the sadder days of the stay at home order was when our local shut down for several weeks. They had stayed open with much of their usual range for the first few weeks, and taking the usual walk downtown in the afternoon only to find a note saying they’d be shut for at least a while did more than most things, I am sad to admit, to bring home what we had lost. Ever since they reopened I’ve been less likely than usual to shy away from an anise biscotti or slice of lemon sake, and less likely in general to take our little city for granted.
This is a nice shirt. You would not know it was polyester until it dries much faster (and stinks more) than wool. Fit and build are ideal. Durability is decent. My 14 month old one has developed a few picks at seemingly random times, none of which have impacted presentability from a distance or not been easily sorted with scissors. That shirt still qualifies as Montana formal, and is the rare thing I can both wear to the office and on a hunting trip. Neither wicking nor insulation are quite at the level of true performance clothing, but is ideal for bike commuting, winter walks that turn cold, resort skiing, and everything in the category of lifestyle. At least around here, it counts as a Zoom shirt too.
There are a lot of sweatshirts very similar to this (discontinued) piece, but as is often the case, Patagonia does the details better. The hard faced, brushed interior polyester is both more weather resistant and more cuddly than similar pieces from other companies, and the big three panel hood, roomy but not excessive cut, and pockets (there are zippered, mesh lined pockets inside each hand pocket) make it infinitely practical. I had one years ago, sold it, regretted doing so, and picked up another this summer on Worn Wear (which is a very fun place to browse). Until things get really cold around here, it is my coat every day.
Back in September I bought a new mountain bike. This ended up being of note for a couple reasons, but I should first cover why I bought this bike, and why I almost did not buy a bike at all. While M and I generally feel quite wealthy day to day, this year in particular, abundant toy funds do not count among the reasons why. A thousand dollars is often what I spend on outdoor equipment in an entire year, much of that usually going towards either materials for projects or replacing worn out items (esp shoes). The option to get a new bike was, thus, a weighty one.
The reasons to not get a new bike centered around the expense of mountain biking, which on an entry and rolling basis outstrips everything else I like to do outside, with backcountry skiing and packrafting being the only close competitors. Ski gear can be had much cheaper used than biking stuff, and packrafting gear has less maintenance cost than either. Mountain biking is also, in sharp contrast to either skiing or packrafting, in a profoundly lame period of development, with vastly enhanced technology and cost coming together with significant access issues and a thoroughly prosaic trailbuilding ethos. The result being an outdoor pursuit with an increasingly homogenized, bourgeois edge; with berms, bike parks, ebikes, and excessive travel taking the place of skill and pushing out the influence of the wild, moving mountain biking quite far towards the golf-with-sweat side of the “adventure” pantheon, where it will in the decades to come join resort skiing and whitewater (party) rafting as camp followers of late capitalism, bound for immolation at the hands of history.
Fortunately, the reasons I wanted a new mountain bike were in most cases divorced from most of the above, either by circumstance or choice. Above all else, I wanted a new bike to have something more suitable, than either my 2011 Salsa Mukluk or 2006 Surly Karate Monkey, for some backcountry riding and hellbiking/bikerafting missions I have in mind for the coming years. I had reason to believe advances in bike geometry would prove useful here, and that starting from the ground up I could have something significantly lighter, and thus easier to push and carry, than the Mukluk with a new and lighter wheelset. While there are some access concerns locally, and most of the Helena area trails are exceedingly tame, there is within a few hours a lifetime of obscure backcountry riding, and plenty of fun trails literally half a block from our back door. I also spend a multiple days a week biking with the munchkins, which usually means horsing around at either the school playground down the street or the local pumptrack and dirt jumps. A new bike may or may not have been better suited to those things, but at the very least I’d use it all the time, if not necessarily for the primary purpose.
With all that in mind I had no shortage of options. I knew I didn’t want to spend much. I knew I’d want to heavily customize any stock build (and even so, it didn’t take long to realize a complete bike would be vastly more economical than building from scratch, assuming I could even buy what I wanted frame-only). I knew that due to weight, cost, and slow-mo precision descending concerns, along with my own desire to limit my speed and thus severity of any future crashes, I did not want any suspension. I wanted slack and low geometry, room for fat tires, and at the same time a reasonably compact frame (vertical space being the primary limiter when putting a bike on the front of a packraft). I wanted a light frame, and while it was not a deal breaker, the ability to go singlespeed would be appreciated.
I considered many options, narrowing them down to the Marin San Quentin and Rocky Mountain Growler, and ultimately went with the former due to lower cost (in the base model), 27.5 inch wheels with space for 3″ tires (not claimed, but widely reported), and availability. This last point ended up being key, as the COVID rush saw 2021 bikes snapped up with unprecedented speed. My laxity here almost saw me miss out entirely, and I ended up finding a San Quentin 1, in blue and extra large, from a shop across the country, who was then so overwhelmed with orders that they took a month to assemble box, and ship the bike. It arrived (after the shop kindly bumped it up in the que) 48 hours before we left for Utah in October, barely enough time for me to add pedals, swap contact points and brakes, and convert the wheels to tubeless (which proved highly problematic, more below).
Overall I have been very pleased with the bike. Fortunately snow with staying power has held off for the past two months, as it has taken all that time for riding and tweaking the San Quentin to get the core elements sorted and begin to get a sense of its personality.
As promised, the San Quentin is radically different than any previous mountain bike I’ve owned. Granted, that list is short, but here the head tube angle is 5 degrees slacker, the seat tube 2 degrees steeper, and the top tube nearly 2 inches longer. The San Quentins wheelbase is not quite 4 inches longer than my Mukluk, something immediately apparent both visually and on the bike. Chainstays on the San Quentin are only 6mm short of the Karate Monkey, and the BB height (with the carbon fork on the SQ) is almost identical, testament to how forward thinking Surly was in those respects. The idea with contemporary mountain bike geometry is to make the bike longer, by both pushing the front axle further forward and increasing the share of the cockpit length taken up by the frame, as compared to the stem, while at the same time keeping the rider centered relative to both wheels by making the seat more upright. In my experience this approach fulfills all goals beautifully, and climbing and descending it is notably superior to anything I’ve ridden, with no downsides save a hair more planning required going around switchbacks. The bike feels stable, but never slow, and the whole package is fantastic at pumping through gullies and hitting berms. There is a bit of nervousness descending steep and loose stuff which I out down to the paucity of rubber up front, relative to the Mukluk. I am eager to put 3″ tires on it.
Fit did prove something of a head scratcher due to the relatively low front end. I had the 490mm Carver carbon fork waiting for the frame to arrive, but the stock suspension fork had a straight steerer and a reducer crown race, meaning I needed a new headset for the rigid fork, which was a needed upgrade anyway, as the open bearing stock headset did not inspire confidence. Even with this longer rigid fork, selected for both weight savings (5 pounds lighter than the stock suspension fork) and to preserve the slack head angle, the stack height (e.g. vertical distance from the bottom bracket to the top of the head tube) is on the low side, and with a 65 degree head angle stacking spacers under the stem eats top tube length in a hurry. I liked the steering of the 45mm stock stem, but getting the bars high enough made the bike far too short. A lot of measuring, virtual modeling, and riding the bike with the 85mm stem off the Mukluk had me take a deep breath and order a 60mm, 84 degree stem (which I run flipped on top of a 5mm spacer) and a 60mm rise bar. This gets me the cockpit length I’m used to, and the slicier steering of a shorter stem. Now, of course, I would really like a fat bike with similar handling.
The base model San Quentin coming with a square taper bb was a plus, as the whole fleet is to this day standardized around that design. I’ve killed a few of the cheaper Shimano cartridge models, but only after years of significant abuse. This allowed for some drivetrain futzing, as the 32:46 low gear which came stock is not quite low enough, and I can’t imagine running a backcountry bike without a bashguard. Bending ring teeth into workable shape with a rock is a field repair I don’t need to do again. Currently, and as pictured above, the SQ has most of the drivetrain the Mukluk has used for years; 26 tooth Surly ring, old XT derailleur, 11-42 cassette, and a Dura-Ace barcon friction shifting on a Paul mount. The stock Microshift drivetrain worked just fine, and reminded me that 9 speed great (and when it comes to performance in the mud, vastly better than 11 speed), so I put on a nice, nicely cheap, all steel Microshift 11-42, 9 speed cassette. This gives me enough granny gear, enough high gear for pavement cruising, and the most frequent ratios right in the middle. I like that the old derailleur is slim and light relative to the big Microshift, but the last few rides have drove home the virtue of having a clutch, so that will, eventually, need to be replaced.
While there is a lot to like about current geometry, there is almost as much to dislike about other trends in bikes. Internal cable routing seems both pointless and annoying (ting), and the level of specialization which means that I (a reasonably competent home mechanic) can’t even begin to figure out the type of headset needed seems excessive. But wide cassettes are cool, as is the clearance that comes with wider hub spacing. Complaints with the bike itself (aside from the cable routing) are minimal, confined to a derailleur hanger which seems a bit soft, and a seat tube that seems needlessly high, especially given modern trends with dropper posts. I’m on the shorter side of folks who will likely buy an XL, and while I have plenty of standover (and framebag space) I’ll max out at a 125mm dropper from any brand save OneUp. There is actually space for two bottles on the downtube, and given Marin’s boss-intensive approach with other frames it would be cool to see more storage tech on the San Quentin. Good bikepacking bikes need to be good mountain bikes first, and the SQ is certainly that.
I’ll keep riding until winter finally comes in earnest and shuts down the trails and pump track (if that ever happens). Priorities for spring and summer outings include a dropper, cushier tires, and a frame bag. When the time comes and I’ve had more than afternoon rides in the bag, I’ll update with a comprehensive breakdown.
The snow was crunchy, crisp toe snagging crust over three inches of powder, freeze dried into substancelessness by weeks of sunny days, cold nights and wind. But I saw the buck before I heard him. Antlers moving through gaps, left to right, the faint, neat snap of hooves echoing behind. It was the penultimate evening of deer season, deep towards the winter solstice, and while it was neither as frigid nor as snowy as distant dreams tend to suggest, this buck was full in thrall of the rut, just as hoped. His nose was on a string, and he followed it, ears and legs and round sleek body barely keeping pace, in a wide circle around me, averaging a bit over 100 yards away for the few minutes until it ended. Just down the hill a steeper slope of living trees swallowed wholesale the fading light, the dankness of that north-facing slope having kept last decades fire away. The gentler upper slope, which ended off a limestone crag a few hundred yards above, and into which I had just sidehilled, had been blitzed by the same fire, and it’s place high up in the consistent winds had, still, kept new vegetation to knee height.
I could always see either the antlers or the white rump, and often the line the buck carried atop his back, those three deviances whose exaggerated coherence stand out from branches, rocks, and grass, and have given up so many secrets to so many hunters. I could not get a clear look at his side, and thus had no shot. My own crunching feet and readjusting of rifle against first one snag and then another had pulled his attention from nose to eyes several times. Choice and planning struggled to stay fast enough that when a half second window opened to his lungs, the rest of me would be ready for my finger. That was what I could control. Whether the buck circled such that a window would open, that was not up to me.
This is the essence, the essential moment, of hunting. When practice allows confidence then allows instinct full reign, thought falls away, a millenia-old line pulls you firmly towards and animal, and you can finally kill, with equal parts automaticness and certainty.
The buck vibrated, his life batted out of him, tense for a second, then quickly ran 12 feet and fell over. He vanished from my sight as easily as a bullet through both his lungs took him out of life.
I can see the ridgetop from many places in town. From the hill behind our house, the summit of the roll in at the bike park, the big window at the end of the hall by by my office; in the right light morning or evening the line stands against the hills behind, dark in rockiness and burned timber. I wonder if many in town have the context to look out and see it. In my old office I could see it seated at my desk, and one of teachers though my compliment there enamored of the parking lot, so well do the distant mountains become routine.
From the ridgetop, during daylight, town fades into the middle distance, and the immediacy of ridges blending stays most easily in the mind. At night, the lights of civilization flood across the flats and well up into the hills, and my camp that night felt on the edge of a dark precipice that all but positioned me such that I could, if I wanted, piss off the edge down into someones back yard. I had realized, 20 minutes from home, that I had not packed a headlamp. Two flashlights and all the annoying traffic lights kept me from turning around, and I felt acutely that one lack of tool and technology as I cut the buck apart with a light grasped in my teeth. Having to dedicate a hand to shining the beam where I wanted it seemed worthy of only a short experiment, so I let the abundant snow and slackening wind put a camp for me in a big closets worth of flat between the rocks. I built a fire, and used that light to melt snow for water and stare, at the distant light strings of familiar roads, and at the somehow less familiar stars as they emerged to compete with the moon.
It was cold up there that night, something my abundant winter sleeping bag let me ignore. The meat, hung from a branch all night, was frozen solid, and held it’s shape in my pack all the way back.
I’ve cracked three nalgene bottles in the past two decades. The first was a classic 1 liter in milky plastic, before lexan invaded REI and college lecture halls. It was ancient and wrapped in duct tape, and split radially when I dropped it in the Sylvan Lake parking lot, which was sad. I think I was relegated to old juice jugs for the rest of that summers rock bumming. The second was a few years later, Elephant Butte in Arches, at the flat sandstone base of the exit rap. I got lazy, it might have been the third lap that day and the 40th that year, and let a single kink in the opposite strand rise 30 feet in the air. I spent 10 minutes trying to huck a partially full 48oz silo through that loop, tied to the other end, before it shattered into pieces striking the rock. The third was just the other week, when I gave Purple a stout whack on a tree, to split loose the ice which had layered inside after a 10 degree evening. Purple cracked, and functionally, was no more.
We found Purple on this trip seven years ago, in the midst of the talus along the west side of Norris Mountain. Purple has been around a lot, on my first successful elk hunt, most memorably. And this is why I’ve always like nalgene bottles. They aren’t invincible, but they’re close enough, in the face of accidents and hot water and intentional abuse, that over the years deep memories accumulate. Purple has the sticker from our Double Duck, and the one from that place with best coffee porter, and the stack Jamie sent me after I proofed their gorgeous map. I don’t quite have any ideas what I’ll do with it, but I’m certainly not ready to just put it in the trash.
Without Purple, we have perhaps nine or ten nalgenes in the house. Some are hiding in dark corners. A few sit in the mud room and are used daily. I believe, years ago, I bought one of them. Another was a gift. Several more were freebz at trade shows. The rest, a solid majority, were found in the wild, taken home, cleaned, sterilized, restickered as needed over time, and adopted. And for the pleasure of keeping fewer gatorade or smartwater bottles out of the wild, I’ll gladly keep hauling the ounces.