The packout

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.

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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.

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The death of Purple

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.

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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.

Montane Allez Micro Hoodie review

Not necessarily a huge amount to say here: the Allez Micro is a hooded quarter zip baselayer shirt, made from Polartec High Efficiency, a fabric which was one of the very best innovations of the past decade.  I reviewed the Patagonia Capilene 4 hoody back in the day, when it was one of the very first pieces to use the fabric.  Later that year I bought a Capilene 4 long sleeved crew, and have used that since, when the weather gets reasonably chilly.  I ended up passing that gen 1 Cap 4 hoody along, mainly because the hood was too tight for all day comfort.  I’ve periodically missed the warmth and functionality of having a hood in that particular layer, as well as the versatility of being able to use a warmer baselayer hoody as a midlayer, too.  So I bought an Allez Micro, and have been happy.

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The main, perhaps only difference of substance between the Allez Micro and the current Patagonia Thermal Weight hoody is the hood, with the former being a single layer, and the later double.  I much prefer the reduced warmth, and enhanced moisture transport, of the single layer.  For the same reason, I much prefer no pockets on a shirt like this.  I did buy the Allez Micro in size large, which lets me wear it over a t-shirt if desires, while still being slim enough for layering.  This also makes the hood big enough to wear for days at a time, even over a variety of hats.  Sleeves and torso are very long, almost excessively so, though it makes the thumb loops fit ideally, and the fabric is light and flexible enough that some excess around the wrists goes unnoticed.

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Polartec HE was on the vanguard of the defining textile apparel trend of the past decade, and understanding how unusually, occasionally exceptionally wicking and air permeable fabrics interact as various parts of a layering apparatus.  The Allez Micro, for example, is light enough and would seem to be more than fast wicking enough to be a hot weather baselayer.  A few months ago I found myself wearing it on a windless day pushing into the 80s, even at 7000 feet, and having it rather than something like the Pulse hoody contributed significantly to my pace suffering in the heat.  Not only does the grid fabric trap air and as a result add warmth, when worn alone on a calm day, it also wicks too fast to work in hot weather, as the fabric effectively eliminates convective cooling.  That same attribute is of course it’s main virtue in the cold, and why most of the time Polartect HE works best against the skin.

Some sort of shell is often important, in cold, weather, to control evaporative rates and thus provide for some adjustment in heat and cooling.  A big virtue of HE is that it moves moisture so fast that there is a lot of foregiveness in layering.  One can, for instance wear a relatively not-breathable wind layer, to guard against stronger winds and to take advantage of the more limited moisture absorption (relative to soft shell windshirts), and get away with venting via the front zip in warmer and calmer moments.

Something like the Allez Micro also works, decently, as a midlayer over a slower wicking t-shirt, which slows down moisture transport against the skin, but speeds it up through the midlayer.  In this case, there is less wiggle room when it comes to a wind layer, but on something like a spring ski trip where one might have both hot afternoons and very cold mornings (or days), this arrangement might be the best way to cover as many conditions as possible without duplicate layers that can’t all be worn together (for instance, while sleeping).

The Allez Micro is a versatile option, and Montane did well providing the salient details, without anything extra.  Recommended.

My favorite shoes

This fall I’ve been wearing little other than the Astral TR1 Merge, and for the sort of walking I like to do these days, they are far and away the best pair of shoes I’ve ever had.

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While they don’t have a tremendous number of miles on them, almost all of those miles have been off trail.  They went elk hunting in the Montana prairie badlands, did an alpine traverse on broken granite, went hiking, biking, and climbing in the Colorado Plateau, and have spent more time bushwacking and traversing limestones ridges close to home.  All of those are more abusive on shoes than average, in their own way, and the shoes are holding up perfectly thus far.

Traction across mediums has been excellent.  The lugs grip loose soil, either straight on or sidehill, while having enough surface area for good friction on bare rock.  The rubber is soft enough, without wearing too fast.  The midsole is thick and protective enough, without any hinge points, and without feeling unnatural or slow.  They’re supportive enough, for me, for technical mountain biking using flat pedals, but I can tolerate far softer shoes in all areas than most.  Significantly, the modest padding and added material in the heel and toebox have improved both hold and protection; I’ve not experienced any of the unpleasant talus bites I got often in the Brewers.  The only real flaw is the open mesh used in the toungue, which extends down into the toebox just enough to become a magnet for cheatgrass seeds and a conduit for sand.

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For me, they’ve been supportive enough to carry a 70 pound pack on a few occasions (deer pack out, as well as a family backpack load with a toddler on top).  For me and my feet, support means  enough padding and structure to insulate my feet from the terrain, even when I’m suddenly 50% again my own weight, while being pliable enough to not cause hot spots.  Zero drop is a big part of the later, as is the lack of illusory things like ankle support.  The Merges work for me because they’re a coherent package, the level of support, degree of structure, even the sole and rubber all working to serve one particular style of walking.

That style is a light footed one, based on balancing over terrain and using weaknesses and variations for purchase.  Smearing across the loose wet sidehill, rather the kicking steps.  Working the stable pieces of a talus slope, rather than digging through and into the loosest parts to make steps.  This style is as much about strength and ability as it is about the type and style of trip.  People who regularly take big packs into rough terrain are more often drawn to stiff boots due to pace, and indeed due to their line through a place.  This isn’t to say that fast line, fluid pace shoes are not compatible with a big pack, simply that melding such shoes with a heavy pack requires more than simple strength.  It requires a skillset, and that combination is due to how learning conventionally evolves has historically been uncommon.

That is changing, and as fluid line choice under expedition conditions works further toward the norm, I hope shoes like the Merge remain around as options.

The Frank Open 2021

Bonanza to Fenn Ranger Station.  Saturday April 24th, 0600 MDT. (?)

That’s 126 straight line miles.

Here’s what is in my head about this.  First, that is a big route.  Probably close to 200 miles on the ground.  Second, that time frame has the obvious potential to be quite challenging.  Third, and most important, I don’t know much about the area.  I don’t know which trailheads are plowed regularly, which roads get lots of snow machine traffic, how the more open terrain does or does not melt off come early spring.  I have my guesses about all of these things, but a decade of the Bob Open has taught me repeatedly that guesses aren’t ideal for the organizational aspect.  Adding to the complications, the shuttle from one end to the other is massive, and even six months out we’d all be fools to expect anything in particular of the Coronavirus.

For all of these reasons the Frank Open really isn’t going to be an Open in the sense we’ve come to expect.  Even moreso than usual, this is a route I’ve been eyeing for a long time, and if other people want to get in on all or part, that would be neat.  Ideally, and with health concerns permitting, we’d be able to figure out a way to make the driving less irksome.

This is almost a packraft mandatory route.  There are a handful of ways to use bridges, but the rivers (and in late April I assume streams) are several notches bigger than in the Bob.  I chose the start point based on things I want to float, which brings up the second complication, river permits.  Having one for stretches of the Middle Fork will make a lot of sense in many cases.  As of today, there is almost full availability for the relevant week.

This will also be a ski or snowshoe mandatory route, though I am guessing that in a normal year there is a surprising amount of dirt walking to be had.

Interested?  Get in touch.

Hiking Kant into the 21st century

Even professionals dread Kant.  His style, especially in translation, is notoriously turgid, but the primary difficult with him is the same as with any writer pushing the edge of what language can do.  Another way to put that would be, pushing the limits of what humans can understand about the world and themselves.  Indeed, Kants most useful idea is that understanding and the world are at once the same and inextricably separate.  And this is the idea which we can take into the backcountry.

Understanding and the world are the same because, as individuals, the shape of our minds and the nature of our experience determines what we can see, what we can know, what we can experience.  Historically, this is the beginning of that horribly generic term “relativism”.  The struggle with Kant is to not allow routine to flatten this idea into sameness.  Just because we cannot see beyond our experience does not mean that things (in themselves, to use his phrase) do not exist beyond that experience.  It takes discipline and profound humility to keep the inherent limits of both individual understanding and human communication at the forefront of ones daily mind.

A prosaic example, and the one I find most difficult to verbalize, is reading and moving through terrain.  Ones experience creates possibility the first time you look into a basin: where humans might have built trails, which animals are around and how they might use the area, how the geology, climate, and flora will dictate lanes of travel.  The sheer size of any basin makes definitive understanding impossible, but (move on to Hegel) the best case in wild navigation is not found in maximal understanding of the world (which is impossible) but in maximal understanding of the self.  Sensory experience turns inward and knowledge of the self and instinctual apprehension of the terrain meld, facilitating both animal-like decision making and acceptance of pace minimally influenced by effort.

Good shoes

There is an emerging consensus is that 23% of the land on earth (excluding Antarctica) remains “unmodified by the direct effect of human activities.”  In a similar vein, the mass of humans on earth is, currently, “an order of magnitude higher than the mass of all wild mammals combined. ” Thus it seems in retrospect appropriate that several hours before dawn, we hit a deer driving to the trailhead, and equally appropriate that my shoes proved so satisfactory on the walk which followed, after we left the deer behind to die.

There is a long ridge in western Montana that runs north to south for a good distance.  It is high, by Montana standards, enough to be alpine in weather and thus rockiness, above treeline due to climate rather than sheer elevation.  And it is very rocky indeed, stunningly so, in a way which quickly ground us down once we left the limited stretch with a trail along the crest.  You can’t really see this ridge from the highway, from any direction, unless you know where to look.  The foothills are big enough and the trees in the valleys more than tall enough, things which combine with a locale just far enough from anything easily recognized and make for a place minimal presence on within the information economy.  It has plenty of trails, but almost all of those go up a valley, generally stopping at the largest and lowest lake.  

The overwhelming majority of that remaining 23% will not surprise, in that taiga, desert, and high mountains are the places on earth whose utility humans came to last.  And even then, now, the Alps are run through with lifts and roads, and the Sierra covered in trails.  A hiker has to work to find a place outside the great north which isn’t predefined by human development, however threadlike.  And it should be no surprise that hiking shoes reflect that.

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By late morning we had been on our feet for 6 hours, gained 3000 feet (via trail, albeit an obscure one), dropped close a thousand several times, gained it back several times, lost a trail that was on the map, found a trail in a different place that it was supposed to be, then found a trail where it was supposed to be, making fast progress again.  It was hot for autumn, hot for any time really, and we could look west and see well into the vague fire haze and feel not a breath of wind.  The whole world seemed to hold its breath, save the squirrels and pikas.  They had no distracted moments, prepping for the winter which might begin next week, but we needed water, in a desperate, midsummer sort of way.  Well off the ridge we went, with a steep climb back up, and then into the sidehilling.  

We’re well past the golden age of trail building, and likely to the point where in developed, official wilderness (upper or lower case) new trails will happen rarely if at all.  90 years ago the CCC proved that given enough hands and money humans will build a trail anywhere, but extending this trail onto the steeper sections of the divide would have been up there with the West Rim trail in Zion.  It seemed a chicken or egg question as we picked or way across, alternatively dodging shifty blocks and tight trees; was it the slope, too steep and rocky to hold together, or was it the added height, just too far up into the weather to grow more consistent and predictable vegetation?  No answers emerged, as we continued on, learning to favor clean talus on the lee side, and to not underestimate the number of cliff bands or size of boulders which strafed across each descent.  I appreciate how my low shoes made friction moves reliable, how the cushion was just enough to blunt poor footfalls without dulling feel too far, how the tread had enough live edges, particularly side to side, and sticky enough rubber, that sidehilling beargrass and granite slabs were easy enough that I could exploit both of those for the relative flatness they provided.  The next morning, as we bushwacked down to the exit trail, hauling the shreds of our ambition, I appreciated the flexible yet padded ankles, fending off snagging alder, and again the sticky rubber, as I played across ladder logs to dodge another 30 feet of chin-high fireweed.

I was left thinking, for hours, how long it would take to train my patience back from trail pace.  We knew days before that fitting my schedule into the whole ridge was likely an impossible prospect, and my thin justification for trying it was built, without critical consideration, around extrapolating down from trail miles.  If we put forth X effort over these given hours, then dock ourselves down by a certain percentage, maybe we’ll be as close to as fast as our legs and eyes think we should be.  Those estimates ended up being very well short of what we managed, and it seemed like the opposite mentality will in the next few years be the project.

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Tom’s shoes did not treat him so kindly.  Altra Olympus’s, which in the five years since I tried them have not become any less even-trail specialists.  In retrospect I’m rather shocked by my optimism, having so recently witnessed Tom’s ankles fighting the stack height, his balance fighting the rubber, and the rapidity with which the foam part of the sole wore flat over less than 36 hours.

It is illustrative to read about biomass on earth and see that for all our supposedly reckless omnipotence, we’re less than a 16th the mass of all the bugs on earth, a third of all the segmented worms hiding where we rarely care to look.  I should have expected those deer to leap out of the darkness, crossing ditch to field, because I’ve hunted them and thus took notice of when and where they eat.  So too with the elk we heard and whose trails we followed, highways of light undergrowth following the most mature canopy from stream to bench.  I can’t see the canyons and ridges as an elk, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to guess where and if they choose to tolerate the rocky crests, or where they’d be spending this hot autumn if humans hadn’t come and built so thoroughly through the bottoms and meadows and low forests.  If days walking in the woods has any potential to go beyond solipsism it is in showing us, implacably, where our understanding of the world fails.  With that quest in mind, I’m beginning to see human trails as actively counter productive.

Too many elk

Out on the prairie the clear night sunsets linger half an hour past those in the mountains, with light still sneaking back over the curve of the earth throwing shadows longer than human comprehension.  Elk and trees and I blended in, each another thing taller than the grass and hilltops, whose rolled edges were themselves bled from grey to dark.  I was left sitting on the grass with little sense of up or down, save knowing that like last night the milky way would soon come out quick, and the elk would continue on bugling and chirping in the unseen folds below.

The dull spaces in a day of hunting are ideal for growing doubt.  Still cool mornings knolltop and under a cliff band, early afternoon, heat rising such that all save the grasshoppers are quiet, tight to the edge of a sage field, antler tips visible out of the trees 25 yards down the hill, in bed reading satellites from shooting stars, twitching calves poking the mind awake.  Will they bed along the ridge, like yesterday?  Should I run to cut them off?  When they stir will they come this way?  Will the lead cow take the east gully over the pass, or the west?  Should I stay high and tight to the ridge, for better wind, or move down and have more coverage, if I get to draw?  If I shoot that one, should I pack out in two loads or three? Up the coulee bottom cow trails, or out along the finger ridge?  Will the rack fit inside, or go on the roof? If I miss again, what sort of person will I become?

Too many elk is one partial remedy for these questions.  With all weapons the first battle with elk is finding them.  I’ve gone weeks with nothing more immediate towards this end than not utterly dry scat.  On this hunt I arrived at midnight, first box checked in a long dirt road drive done with no wrong turns or flat tires.  I nearly ran into a spike bull standing on the road 5 miles back, and could hear this herd bugling as the moon heaved to rise.  For the three days I had to hunt, past experience was confounded almost once a waking hour, on average.  Expecting a silent walk back a simple trail to a shade tree which might have, hours hence, become a glassing location turned up an immediate crack, which turned up one of the several frighteningly tall-tined six by six bulls, walking towards me in tight pines.  Forgetting to pick a spot, I shot in front at 7 yards.

Walking up the other side of the same draw, going the opposite direction on the next night, I walked into a herd, up and about far earlier than expected.  A spike passed 10 yards below, another bull alternately fed and stared across, 10 yards above, and the fat, dark six by six with shorter, thicker, tightly hooked antlers gurgled happily to himself 15 yards down the hill.  As each day passed evening focus became more fleeting as I worked harder and harder to find time to keep up on electrolytes and down on the growing frenzy of the moment.  Action culminated the last afternoon, with two separate tall six by sixes.  The first morning I had thought them unique.  The last morning I descended a ridge from my bivouac tree and saw this one as a virtual quintuplet, one of the herd of over 100 elk and at least 30 brow tined bulls, five of whom were gobsmackingly elevated, to the extent that I could not meaningfully tell them apart.  One I saw, by luck and skills mixed, bedded just off that hanging safe meadow, my approach under, around, and behind safe in the wind.  I was above at 30 yards, he was bedded back to me, the trees had me slide and crawl much closer than I dared, even on this 25th of 26 stalks, and then bounced my good arrow over his back.

The 26th was him or his twin, bedded on the shady edge of a crumbling dirt knife, idly bugling back to the gurgler, who I had bumped into the next basin.  The stalk seemed ideal, especially with no trees between him and me peaking over the ridge, when a spike and cow bedded in thick woods blew out and down the hill.  They seemingly took the bull with them, as minutes later I found his bed empty, and myself ready for a short, steep walk back to the road and a drive home without the problem of putting antlers in the back or on the roof.   Too many elk where I did not want them, and one too few where I did.  The former was by far the more unique, common, memorable, and during the hunt frequent instance.  The later is the one which, today, sits heavier on my mind.

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The missed shot on the big bull walking towards me in the midday trees is the sort of opportunity that does not happen often.  It is as perfect an example as will ever happen of how luck and perseverance become muddied together after a few big days afield, such that the idea of them not being the same is no longer thinkable.  Had that bull walked that direction at that moment and I not been there, I would never have known.  And whether and how my having been more stealthy, or gone a different way at first light that morning, or taken 10 seconds longer to look at a rock atop a ridge an hour before, might have stirred the bull differently is as uncomprehensible as, the next day, half the herd jumping the fence to continue straight while the other half delayed, demurred, and eventually all went left, to swim in a stock pond.

It is convenient to view my lack of new antlers at home as evidence of poor hunting prowess. In some ways this is true, especially when it comes to shooting practice that was over the spring and summer, plainly inadequate.  My longbow practice this year has been focused less on volume, and on hitting a smaller target at varying ranges, and more on form and repeatability.  For me, predictability with my longbow blends exactitude and blankness is a way which strongly echos the epistemology of hunting itself.  Absorbing focus on the target must be absolute, while in the same moment free of concern about details.  Thinking about the arrow tip going someplace will always send it somewhere else; the more precise the concern, the wilder the deviation.  Concern with keeping my elbow up will send something else out of line.  With that seven yard miss I went all the way back, in the excitement of what I knew to be a dead easy opportunity, and forgot to pick a spot on that all encompassing swath of tan fur.  Which is how I shoot a yard off at 7 out.

What no one else will ever be able to know is just how far all the things I did properly over those three days went.  There were enough close calls that within the hour one had begun to drown others out.  Where there truly elk on every likely hillside, or did my walking into them so often have to do with knowledge, more than probability?  No one and nothing can tell me, and like the elk themselves, my supposed knowledge of them, their doings, wiles, and motives is not more than a reflection of myself.

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Hunters have become conditioned by modernity, and expect animals like elk to behave as liminal members of society.  They hide in obscurity, be that off in the distance our under the armpit of humans, and in either case properly run away from us, quickly and instinctively.  The vision of elk as unfogged by that fear is background noise, either in media images of elk locked away from humans on private ranches, or of elk far enough back in time that they lived in a world still primarily there own, or at least primarily not of and for humans.  Lewis and Clark hunted within miles of where I was, and that spring lived easy, at least as easily as a diet of almost straight lean game meat allows.  Their hunters were skilled, necessity and lifestyle and their place in history giving them skill I’ll always struggle to grasp, but along this stretch of the Missouri the diaries suggest that skill was not much needed.  It is easy to forget, in my current non-elkedness back home, that with my effective range pulled out to 80 yards my trip would have been perfunctory.

For three days I was the only hunter in a series of elk-filling drainages that built several hundred feet from muddy cow bottoms up through badlands to the flat tops.  The north facing slopes were filled in with ponderosa, which at this latitude and degree of aridity do an excellent pinon pine impersonation.  A few, seemingly random pockets of ground water grew old cottonwoods, whose soft and persistent leaves had a dulcet rustle as jarring, in that sharp and silent land, as cracking glass.  Elk bedded in all the likely spots right off the ridge tops, and let me get away with things that will surely never work again.  On day one I slid down a subtle grassy depression, fully past half a dozen cows and calves, and got within 40 yards of that first tall bull I spotted when lefty, a dark muddy bull with five points on his right antler and none on his left decided he didn’t like me, and spurred the herd into motion.  That afternoon a steep route up through dark pines stirred up a spike bull at 15 feet, who stood broadside and starred for over a minute before running off.  The next evening I hid behind a moo cow and closed to within 20 yards of a bull, only for the wind to shift.

Like so many dry, cracked, and lonely places in the American West, this elk country was not wilderness.  Cattle were ubiquitous.  Stock ponds and improved springs popped up hourly.  Roads, current and especially past, had at one point gone over almost every likely ridge.  Out east across the flats, the big lights of ranch buildings numbered almost to double digits.  For all of this enduring human impact, the land was quite wild.  It took almost two hours on dirt roads to get there.  Those farm lights, candescent as they were, stood also profoundly singular for the darkness everywhere else.  The milky way striped horizon to horizon with no softening at the edges, and by full dark the strands of impossible distances stood out and could be seen to intertwine.  The elk seemed to only dimly recognize what humans were, or perhaps not at all, beyond another odd thing occasionally too close for instinct.  The wildness, as Thoreau talked about, reminded me how brief my human knowledge will be, and just how small I can hope for the radiance of its luminence.  And that is something to carry at once lighter and far heavier than meat and a set of antlers.

Waters

A bit ago we bought a canoe, having searched casually all summer, and finally found the right one.  It’s a plastic Coleman, very old, and quite cheap.  Cheap enough that we didn’t feel bad surfing rocks down the Lewis River this past weekend, and old enough that the sun faded tan on the surface was revealed, by the rock scrapes, to have been a deep green in whatever decade it was new.  It’s fairly short, especially for how wide and shallow it is, with a curious molded keel inset with an aluminum tube that runs the full flat of the bottom, and is held down by plastic pillars below the front, back and middle seats.  Turgid would be one word for the sum of its performance.  Predictable would be another.  Coming back across a glassy Lewis Lake we ran into the (low) max hull speed, as abrupt and imperturbable as grounding on a log.

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The munchkins fit easily amidships, even with the extravagant, by backpacking standards, amount of gear we brought.  If backpacking is too much action, canoeing is almost too little, and both of them got a bit bored during the long sit the first day, especially when dragging up the shallow final mile before Shoshone Lake took far longer than I had assumed.

It might be better to say that both canoeing and backpacking ask for focus too sustained for small people, or at least this is what I’ve been telling myself the past year as we’ve done so much in the woods so close to the road.  Which is to say, many car camping and cabin trips and day trips, and very little backpacking.  It is easy, as a prospective parent, to worry about the logistics of fitting little people into your favored wilderness pursuits.  It is another thing altogether to figure out how to best fit their minds, the changing way they apprehend the world, to the places you want them to see.

The last day in Yellowstone was given over to touristing: Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic overlook, playing with rocks in the Gibbon River.  Hiking the perhaps 2 miles round trip to the overlook was a success, not because of the sublime view, but because the old road out to the spur trail is runnable for small and occasionally forgetful legs, and because the studied parental eye found huckleberries near the summit.  I spend lots of time wondering; at what age does the location of those berries, flowers, and particularly interesting rocks matter?  Little Bear, now 5, talks about geology and remembers past visits, so even his worst behavior in the car 90 minutes from home seems worth the struggle.  Little Cloud, 2.5, remembers where in the cooler we stashed the cookies he prefers.

The canoe then is both a vehicle for young imaginations, and equally a way for adult visions to suit young legs and, to a lesser extent, attention spans.

 

Seek Outside Flight One trouble shooting

The Seek Outside Flight One is a ~50 liter, reasonably featured ~2.5 pound backpack designed to carry loads over 30 pounds well.  Better load carriage and more coherent features than a Windrider 3400, and a burlier build than a Gossamer Gear Gorilla.  In short, a modern lightweight backpack; an increasingly busy class, with the relevant reference point being the Rogue Pando Zoro, a point to which I’ll return in closing.

Unfortunately the Flight One combines a major design flaw with a major construction/patterning issue, the result being the carriage of the belt and lumbar pad not matching the other parts of the pack.  I modified a Flight bag recently for a friend, following Philip’s mod detailed here, an easy job others may wish to emulate.

The Flight One uses an internal U frame, made from thin, solid aluminum rod, with a top piece of alu tube, that pushes on and makes it into a solid rectangle.  The frame fits into a full internal sleeve, very tightly. This tight fit and the 7000 series alloy rod make the frame solid, springy, with an excellent degree of twisting flex.  It’s a really nice solution to the modern pack problem.  The problem is in the lumbar and belt arrangement.  The belt comes in two halves, and adjusts for width with velcro.  It velcros behind the lumbar pad, a la classic Dana Designs.  Dana packs had a very stiff belt, and ran the main alu stay into the lumbar pad itself, both of which prevented sagging.

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The Flight sags quite a bit, mainly because (as seen in the top photo) the lumbar opening is 3/4″ too large.  As seen in the above photo, when I have 40 pounds in the pack, this slack hinges out immediately, effectively reducing the torso length of the pack by over an inch.  In theory a 24 inch tall frame, the longest Seek offers on the flight, ought to be good for all but the tallest users.  But that is a narrow if, and 22.5 inches is, for a taller but not beyond average person like myself, a fast problem at loads around 30 pounds.

Taking the bottom seam out and sewing the pad tighter would be one way to deal with that issue, but removing and resewing structural seams is a bit dodgy on relatively light fabrics like X21.  Instead, my friend obtained extensions for the frame, and I removed the load lifter buckles and haul strap and sewed them 2 inches taller.  A non-reversible modification, but simple and effective.

It’s illustrative to return here to the Zoro, which has had its issues, and takes a quite different approach to the belt-frame interface, using snaps to connect a hanging belt to the base seam, something quite similar to what Seek (re)introduced to the public with their original packs.  Quite simply, I think this is the best way to go about building a pack, both because the connection methods tend to eliminate the possibility for stretch and sag, and because I don’t think lumbar pads really bring anything to the table in terms of enhancing load carriage (whether the lumbar benefits from different kinds of padding relative to the hips is a separate question).