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).

 

Astral again

Last summer I bought what ended up being one of my favorites shoes ever; the Astral Brewer.  All of the limitations, and virtues, I noted in my review last summer have held true.  The lack of a little extra structure in the sides of the forefoot has gotten me pinched on numerous occasions.  The lack of a heal counter hasn’t been an issue while walking, but has threatened to pull the shoe off a few times in both mud and thick brush.  The rubber is very good, but the tread can be sketchy in mud and downright scary on loose over hardpack.  And while the upper fabric has manged over the past year, it doesn’t have much life left.

And I don’t really care, because the combo of zero drop, the right stiffness, and plenty of toe room is simply sublime, and simply not available in many other shoes.

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So I invested in the TR1 Merge, Astral’s midtop hiking shoe.  The tread pattern is more aggressive, the midsole 5mm thicker, the toe and heel have a rand, and the upper has a bit of padding in the ankle and tongue.  Weight, for my size 12, is 14.1 oz per shoe.

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The Merge does not have a heel counter, but on first glance the rand and doubled fabric provides a nice degree of stability the Brewer lacks.  It will be interesting to see if this breaks down at all.  I’m quite excited about the lightly padded ankle coverage, in a nonwaterproof package that doesn’t pretend to roll abrasion protection into the ephemeral notion of “support”.  I’m bummed by the thin stripes of pure foam in the sole, as the non-rubber areas of the Brewer have made for a few pokey experiences with cactus.

Overall, I could hardly be more excited.  Shoes over the past 5 years have only seem to come with more and more compromises for backpackers who like stout, minimalist shoes.  Exceptions are a big deal.

 

FAQ: so I want to start packrafting..

Another frequent question is how to get started packrafting.  Due to right time, right place a decade ago, and the guidebook, I’ve become one of the promoters of packrafting in the lower 48, which is fine.  Due to the slant of content here, the inquiries I receive are essentially always from someone with a backpacking/wilderness background, with maybe some canoeing experience, but generally no whitewater experience of note.  Which was pretty much exactly where I was in 2010.  With that in mind, the follow is geared towards someone without specific whitewater background (e.g. safety techniques, reading complex water) and with explicit ambition to make packrafting a wilderness pursuit.  This will be a distinct path from, for instance, the many people getting into packrafting these days who come from a whitewater background and want another tool to expand accessibility, with backcountry a secondary consideration.  The following is an expansion of this post from 3 years ago.

The first thing to do on your packraft journey remains getting a boat.  Doing this first makes sense, as the investment will require detailed and critical consideration of what draws you to packrafting.  If you’ve journeyed to the brink already you probably have a good idea of what your interested might be, but to further refine those and provide some solid history and safety information, a copy of Roman Dial’s Packrafting! is highly, highly recommended.  Roman may or may not have a few hard copies left.  Used ones appear to be selling for ~$80 (!), so an ebook may be the best option.

It is worth reading Luc’s take (and the detailed discussion in the comments) on the current Alpacka line up.  My hot take is that all but the most conservative boaters (in both inclination and likely terrain) will be best served by getting something with a fixed whitewater deck, thigh straps, and the cargo fly.  The lure of class III and IV is a powerful one, both for the trip options it provides and for how damn fun it can be.  If you have background in something like mountain biking or skiing you should be acquainted with how easily and deeply you’ve been draw to double blacks and chunky rock rolls, and should make a long term packraft choice accordingly.  My now 5 year old Yak (now called the classic) continues to not be the limiting factor on a wide variety of class IV water, though if I were to buy new today I’d get a Gnarwhal.  The Caribou is an attractive option for folks who are quite certain they won’t go beyond class II, or will only do so rarely.

In summary:

  • Alpacka Classic with WW deck and cargo fly for 70% of folks.  Add thigh straps.
  • Alpacka Caribou for mild, warm water only.
  • Alpacka Gnarwhal/Wolverine/Expedition for those who know they’ll chase class IV down the road.

From what I’ve seen of the other options on the market, the reduced cost just isn’t worth the long term downsides of reduced material quality and especially design performance.  Kokopelli rafts don’t paddle as well as Alpacka boats, and everyone I know who has built a DIY Packraft has spent weeks chasing tiny leaks and ended up with a floor that rips far too easily.

To go with your boat, you’ll need a PFD.  I still find the MTI Vibe and ideal balance of weight, fit, and features.  The Astral V8 is popular, but much harder to pack easily.  The Astral YTV is comparable to the Vibe.  The MTI Journey is cheap and light, and gets the job done.

For a paddle, I would use money wisely and jump straight to a Werner touring paddle, like the Shuna, in four piece.  You pay double for a glass Werner, compared to a plastic Aquabound, but the increase in performance and satisfaction is exponential.  Personally, I’ve found the reduced weight and durability of the touring paddles to be a fine trade relative to the whitewater paddles.  I also find the finer feather adjustment mechanism very nice when dealing with headwinds (more feather equals easier paddling in strong winds).  Plenty of folks paddle harder than I do and are harder on their gear, and will prefer the whitewater paddles.  210cm is a great all around length.  Shorter is more nimble in whitewater, while the longer lengths feel more relaxed and efficient when putting on the miles.  After 9 years my Shuna is noticeably loose in the joints.  When I replace it (with another Shuna) I’ll probably go down to 205 or 200.

Lastly, drysuits.  I’ve done the overwhelming majority of my boating without one.  I’ve also gotten really, really, really cold in a packraft many, many times.  My tolerance for such shenanigans is high, both through adaptation and because I don’t get cold particularly easily.  I imagine the vast majority of people would have found my practices deeply unpleasant, unsafe, or both, and probably quit as a result.  Which is to say that most aspiring packrafters should get a quality drysuit.  My ancient one is old enough that the seam tape is starting to delaminate.  When I go to replace it I’ll get this one.

In summary:

  • A lightish, fitted PFD without rescue features is the most practical choice.
  • Invest in a high quality paddle.
  • Get a drysuit if you live in a cold place, plan to paddle serious whitewater (or whitewater seriously), and if you get cold easily.  If 2 or 3 of these apply, a drysuit is mandatory.  Get one with a relief zip and socks.

The final consideration for new packrafters is education and skill development.  There are obvious things, like being able to read water, execute a line through a rapid, and set safety.  There are also less obvious things, like being able to portage efficiently, transition well and consistently, and properly evaluate hazard and your own mental state.  Whitewater is different than most other mountain sports, in how deeply you’re immersed in the will of the world, and packrafting in the backcountry is different than other kinds of paddling in that you’re often on small, manky, brushy waters with little if any current beta and lots of potential snags and hazards.  Safety is one thing in such an environment, in that making good decisions is impossible without experience, but efficiency is another thing altogether, and plays a huge part in big picture safety, too.  Things like choosing a place to put in on a new creek or river, whether to scout or portage an obstacle on the left or right, whether to portage big or small, can all add up to hours saved or used over a day.  And that kind of experience cannot be had anywhere other than first hand.

An ideal hypothetical progression for a current backpacker and aspiring packrafter, one who lives in Ohio or Iowa (as I used to) might be the following:

  • Obsess.  Read lots of stuff, watch lots of videos.
  • Get your boat, paddle, PFD, and drysuit.
  • Go out on local lakes and slow rivers.  Practice paddling.  Practice launching your boat.  Do a whole lot of practice flips and reentries in water deep enough you can’t touch bottom.  Then practice a whole lot of reentries in moving water.
  • So some local hike or bike rafting trips, both day and overnight.  Practice organizing, packing, and transitioning.  Figure out how to balance your boat, what dry bags you’ll want and how you will use them.  Maybe buy a new pack to fit all your toys.  Get creative with familiar landscapes.
  • Plan a big trip out west.  A two trip trip, with one easier, shorter, less committing hike and float first, to get things further dialed, is a good way to go.  In Montana, doing a few days on the North Fork of the Flathead or Dearborn before hiking in and floating the South Fork of the Flathead is a logical progression.  In Utah, doing a stretch of the Green or San Juan before the Escalante makes sense.
  • Take a packraft-specific Swiftwater Rescue class.
  • Decide where you want to expand your skills.  Take a whitewater specific trip to seek out difficult day and overnight runs.  Go on a big water trip, like the Salmon or Grand Canyon.  Do a spring skirafting trip, or a fall bikerafting trip.
  • Go to Alaska, and float something that puts you 50+ miles from the road in any direction, on a wholly trail-less route.

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Last and most importantly, enjoy the progression,  You only get to do these things for the first time once.

FAQ: packrafting with kids

A number of years ago I removed the Contact button from the front page here, and hid my email link in the Fine Print.  This has been effective, cutting out the overwhelming majority of the knucklehead emails (“Can you plan my whole Glacier backpack for me?”) which used to be almost daily, while not impacting the other emails (“We just did _____ like you wrote about last year and it was amazing.”) which are one of the absolute highlights of maintaining this website.  As my focus and content here have evolved, a few questions have become more and more frequent.  They are without exception good questions, which is to say they are nuanced and not subject to an easy or quick answer.  Hence this new series, which will seek to answer these in nonreductive, long form.

The most frequent of these, by far, is some variation of “my partner and I just found out we’re pregnant, and are wondering how/if we can take our kid packrafting the summer after this coming summer.”  A less frequent but still common variation is, “My kid is 3 and backpacking/hiking is complex/tough.   I’ve never packrafted before and am wondering if it would be a good and reliable and easier way to get our family out into the woods more often.”

My answer to this second question is always: yes.  Absolutely.  Do it as soon as circumstances allow.

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Elaborating why overlaps, to an overwhelming extent, with why packrafting is such a good activity for so many people and so many families.  Or put another way, why a packraft is the right boat choice for so many people and so many families, even if you may not end up backpacking your boat often, or at all.  The answer is portability and ease, ease of both deployment and transport, as well as of paddling.  Packrafts are the ideal beginner craft in moving water, being uniquely both forgiving and powerful.  What other boat (or indeed, tool for human powered travel of any type) is both able to sooth a nervous neophyte and facilitate the growth of technical skills without promulgating too many bad habits?  In being this they are ideal kid craft.  A toddler can tilt over the edge to splash and stare without risk of tipping, and you the adult can steer that same boat and toddler through rapids with a generous safety margin.

In a similar vein; parents find out quickly that one of the most frequent impediments to family trips in the woods is the exhaustion brought on by logistics.  Packing, unpacking, cleaning, storing, and then finding and repacking all the right things can take up enough energy for just you, especially for a backcountry multisport trip.  The varied and often somewhat mysterious needs of a tiny person (how many changes of clothes? how warm, and how cool?) multiply this.  A packraft is the lightest, easiest boat to transport, which is essential backpacking, and darn handy when (for instance) fitting the gear and boats for 3 adults and 2 kids into a single vehicle for the shuttle to the start of a slackcountry float, or just when chucking an afternoons picnic and gear into the car for an afternoon at the lake.  Maintained gas mileage, no trailer, no rooftop rigging, and a nice light boat to carry.  You can bring along packrafting gear on the off chance of a lake float with no real added hassle.  Again; we use the heck out of our packrafts, moreso now with two kids than before.

Now that Little Bear is 5 and Little Cloud 2.5, backpacking is almost at its most complex.  The bear is a very good hiker for his age and size, and the Cloud can still (exhaustingly) be carried in the backpack.  Both prefer river trips, in no small part because of the generic kid affinity for water.  Floating also seems to better scale with the way they process the world, whereas walking often makes things seem too big (I imagine).  Next summer the Cloud will be practically uncarriable, and I bet floats will be even more preferred, by everyone.  Parents, understandably, focus their initial worry on the safety of their kids in the backcountry, along with how well kid logistics can be matched to their old, now dead, pre-kid ambitions for family outings.  The better question to answer is what schedules and modes of travel fit best with small minds and rapidly forming imaginations.

It is possible to start packrafting with your kids well before they are 1.  Our experience has been that somewhere around 14-16 months old has them being able to sit on their own in the front of a larger open boat, with the coordination necessary to not accidentally hurl themselves out.  Paddling with a toddler on your lap (as shown above, on my first solo with kid float) is quite possible, but less than ideal for a number of reasons, first among them the probability you’ll eventually whack them in the face with your paddle.

This brings up the first equipment necessity; a larger open raft.  Our Double Duck is 60 inches long inside.  This is just enough space for M and I to fit with one small child (though the bow lacks the volume to make this acceptable in anything but very easy water), is ideal with myself and a 4-5 year old, and remains workable for me and both kids currently.  The Double Duck was discontinued not long after we bought it, in favor of higher volume, heavier .  This is logical, as the lack of weight carrying ability limits the Duck.  But, the low weight (~6 pounds) and packed volume is very nice when doing a proper backpack, backcountry packraft trip with small people.  With the kids getting big enough we’re looking at another large boat for next year, to do floats with one adult and one kid in each boat.  My current thought is that the Mule, at 52 inches inside, would be quite adequate in that regard.  On the other hand, getting a Forager or Gnu would let me take out both kids by myself, and the combined weight of Duck and Mule (6 and 8 pounds) is close to the combined weight of Gnu and Curiyak (11 and 4.5 pounds).  I’m drawn to the Mule because it is self bailing, and because it would double as a solo load hauler for next year, when I am sure to finally draw the unit 150 moose tag.

Final note: our Duck was bought pre-cargo fly.  It is pretty silly that our largest boat is the one without a zipper.  On family overnight floats the Yak cargo fly gets loaded heavy, something that makes packing much easier.  The downsides of the cargo fly are significant, but for a family boat having one is mandatory.

By the time kids are older than 2 the packrafting possibilities are limited only by parental imagination and ability to adapt and caretake.  Warmer weather and lower flows are obviously far simpler here.  This summer Little Bear has begun lamenting that some of our trips don’t have enough rapids, while Little Cloud has taken most of the summer to decide that being bucked and splashed is fun, rather than terrifying (and thus a reason to moan and point piteously at the shore).  Packrafting at this point becomes, in short, like any other parenting challenge.  More skill and organization on the adult end when make trips less stressful, and more frequent, fun trips will ingrain such things as normal in the minds of the children.

PFDs are obviously important.  We’ve used infant and child Stohlquist Nemos and been very pleased with the fit and float of both.  The design isn’t the most packable, guaranteeing that family backpacking loads get full Clampett.  Around 2 kids will become insistent on having your paddle, and in our experience a stick will not serve as an adequate substitute.  We bought one of these, which has proven adequately interesting, compact, and cheap.  I’ve carried it many miles, and never regretted doing so.  Other important details include a few strategic toys, which should be small, diverting, and should float!  Seeing a plastic micro excavator slowly sink out of sight is a sad, sad thing for everyone.  Keeping kids warm, dryish, and protected from the sun is as crucial in a packraft as anywhere.  Hooded layers are great for all of these things, especially when hats never seem to stay put.  The REI brand toddler and kids raingear is well fitting, affordable, and most importantly they make proper rain pants that mostly stay put on non-existent, diapered waists.  Even on hot days we never take the kids packrafting without rain gear and a fleece hoody.

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2020 is set to be second only to those great packraft exploration years of 2011 and 2012 for the number of days I’ve spent on the water, and over half of those have been kids trips.  Things like overnighting on the lower Dearborn, doing a bikeraft loop with LB on the middle Blackfoot, and 45 minute evening floats on local ponds.  For specific family reasons, along with them being so vital and joyful tools in the Montana wilderness, packrats are the absolute last piece of outdoor equipment I’d let go.

How the Dana Longbed Works

Amongst the few dozen folks worldwide who care about such things, the Dana Designs external frame packs are regarded as the pinnacle of the genre.  I spent a couple hundred field days carrying an Arcflex, and for a number of reasons gladly passed it along a decade ago.  Finding both the load carriage and feature set deficient, I can’t fathom a reason to go back to that tech, but I’m enough of a pack nerd/historian that when a Longbed popped up for cheap enough locally, it was an easy decision to buy it.

First, the numbers.  The early oughts era Dana Designs Longbed is listed as 99 liters, and 7 pounds 13 ounces, stock.  My version, with medium straps and belt, and a regular harness, breaks down as follows:

  • Belt: 14.5 oz
  • Straps: 7.3 oz (pair)
  • Bag: 3 pounds 12.6 oz
  • Harness assemblage: 8.1 oz
  • Magic wands (pair): 7 oz
  • Upper frame 4.9
  • Frame. 1 pound 3.2 oz

121.6 oz, total.  Which is heavy, by any modern standard, and really heavy by most measures.  Modern load haulers are generally 2-3 pounds lighter, in a package with similar capacity, but a more sleek feature set.  The Longbed is not sleek, as evidenced by the bag weight.  Four separate zippers, including a huge #10 U zip to access the main bag, are the main source of the overall weight, along with the huge lumbar pad and hypalon reinforced frame sleeve, which are sewn to and thus included in the main bag weight.  In this respect it is the worst of late 90s pack design, complete with floppy, non-functional mesh sides pockets, and a size that isn’t even that capacious (42 inch top circumference).

These criticisms would be valid for almost any pack of that era, making the more interesting question why this most modern of external frame packs might have something to teach us still.  As mentioned in the posts cited above, making a frame both rigid enough for load hauling and not massively heavy is challenging.  On the one hand the 19 oz Dana frame is porky.  On the other, it is more rigid than something like the Seek Outside Revolution, is at 29 inches taller, and that 19 oz figure includes totally rigid cross bracing.  With a modern belt removing 5-6 ounces, and a less complex overall harness design cutting something close to 2 pounds, the Dana frame might be a more coherent package than it first appears.  

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With the top bar at full extension the Dana frame is a full 36 inches tall, a full ten inches beyond most modern hunting frames.  It is also lighter, shorter, and narrower than something like the Barney’s Freighter frame.  The other argument for external frames, beyond the virtues of tubing over stays, has always the footprint of the frame.  The 26″ by 12″ footprint of modern hunting packs (Stone Glacier, Kifaru, etc) equals, when loaded 10 inches deep, 3120 cubic inches, about half a carefully boned out elk, and more weight than most people will be able to carry over rough terrain.  A load bearing footprint beyond this is handy for loads less easily tamed.  A bison hide is an example with which I have personal experience, or a moose quarter or rack of ribs (which many places in Alaska must come out of the field bone in), which explains Barney’s enduring popularity up north.

For myself, I’ve long wanted to experiment with a larger platform for family load hauling, and the Dana frame makes an ideal platform.  

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Carrying the Longbed in stock form does not make me at all nostalgic for my old ArcFlex.  The external frame is indeed more forgiving of poor packing.  I loaded up a five gallon bucket of iron window weights, resulting in a load too heavy to stand under without rolling over and crawling upright (a boundary I’ve found that for me is right around 100 pounds).  The adhesive properties of the aggressive lumbar pad and thick, soft hipbelt were immediately obvious, as were their longer term impacts, having to cinch things repeatedly as you travel and motion and gravity combine to help things compress.  

The years have taught me that the rough contours of hips require different sorts of padding compared to the less sensitive, and often concave depths of the lumbar.  But I still struggle to see lumbar pads as anything other than a crutch for fit issues.  I’m excited to experiment with the frame.  I’m also excited to put lumbar pads in the bin until something unforeseen comes along.  Dana packs remain the apotheosis of that design, and this pack not suiting me injects confidence into my dismissal.

It

There is a meadow hidden below the center of the universe.  Going north, towards the sawtoothed limestone knobs and canyons you might for the expanse of sky miss entirely, a burnt bog curves in unison with the river.  To the eye water is held distinct from vegetation by a 10 foot band of cobbles.  The pine corpses and elk-high undergrowth hide the capillaries that peel off and return, inevitably, to the river.  The meadow in turn hugs the bog, 6 feet taller, flat and dry, built of tight, tough grass knitting together ancestral cobbles.  That grass runs a few hundred yards, north and south, and a third of that east and west, between the bog and the steeper bank, spangled with fireweed and riven with elk paths, that leads to the center of the universe.  Humans might never know about the meadow, hidden as it is between their likely paths, but the elk, deer, and moose are well acquianted.  Judging by their scat.

I’d prefer to die about 60 years hence.  Ideally M and I will both stop in our sleep, simultaneously, never having known an adult moment apart.  I’d prefer to be buried in the meadow, in the shallowest grave imaginable, my limbs, head, and torso mangled and scattered, for the birds, coyotes, and whatever bears might still be awake on the idealized cusp of winter.  I need to discuss the desirability, logistics, and legality with my wife, who may not share the depth of my passion with it, and eventually with our sons, who assuming health and fitness will be the natural choices to haul us back that far.  Or perhaps, in a violation of laws for which I’d preemptively ask trespass, they could swoop low and let us slip from an aircraft.  The questions, when the next or third or seventh spring flood hence finally swept our bones downriver, would be good ones.

My assuming that it will still look the same more than half a century from now is deeply problematic.

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The center of the universe is what it is, beyond anything else, because it is so far from anything.  You can get there in a day, once the trailheads have melted out completely and with a considerable amount of effort.  But it is deep enough to not fit easily into civilized schedules.  A bit ago, while amidst one of the those simple trips which take a day to nibble at the fatty edges of the landscape, it struck me that it had been years since I last stood foot on the center.  And once that thought took hold I really did not have a choice; I had to go, as soon as possible.

Little boats make getting to the center more digestible and more pleasant.  They are also how I made my first visit, a decade ago.  Water drops fast this time of year, and the window of sufficient flow was already almost closed.

So I decided to do something unreasonable.  Our loop 6 years ago took us a solid, if not hurried, three days.  If I woke very early I had a day and almost a full half.  So I brought my heavy boat, whose additional flotation would make shallow streams faster.  I brought lots of snacks, but no stove, and the simplest sleep system around, with the ideal of hiking late, and sleeping little.  I woke before 5, got on the trail before 7, and blew up my boat at Danaher Creek before noon.  The first miles of Danaher began the revelation that my years long absence from these particular stretches had in my perception sent time appropriately forward.  The constant water, presumably focused in the massive late spring flood of 2018, had sent the channel moving trees.  Larger creeks, entrenched in low gradient spruce, are generally good (read: convenient) floating while they stay in equilibrium.  Historically aberrant surges sharpen and elongate the outside of bends, and often send many large trees across the whole channel.  Danaher had several new, complex portages which had not existed between 2010 and 2016.  Particularly big surges, and the particularly big log jams they occasionally cause, occasionally use enough force that they persuade the creek to take an entirely new channel, barreling straight across an established meander, undercutting trees and disappearing under the resulting ladder of logs and branches.  Danaher did this once, presumably two years ago, and has subsequently partially recovered the original course, splitting the flow in a way whose depth did not well serve my needs.

Lower Danaher was familiar, easy for me to become lost in memories, tied to that run, in which I caught fish, and that gravel bar, where we slept.  The upper South Fork was the same, but moreso, and I pulled over at the innocuous gravel bar where I stopped for the first night of that first trip, 9 years and 11 months ago, so soaked with novelty I worried I might melt into the ground and cease to be.  On this trip I was also damp, with the more mundane creeping cold of splashy packrafting and wearing too few clothes for how long and well the cloud cover persisted.  Like the second day of that first trip, which dawned rainy and stayed cold, and on which I first pulled over at the center of the universe, the at that time feathered and steep gravel fans where the White flows into the South Fork, I relished at last finding sun to stand, full in the face.

The center of the center is the triangle flat between the rivers, built high and well by history, and currently standing flat and monolithic, almost beyond mature ponderosa pines, spare knee high grass, a trail arcing through.  Towards the north end, as the bank heaves and drops, a stand of larch takes over.  My presence was quick, steady strides held in reserve so I could dry out from the float, look at all I could without tripping, and get psyched for big miles into the dark.  Unlike 8 or 7 years ago I don’t have foot power to burn, so I followed the dirt gradually to the horizon, almost making the crest by full night.  I did have enough fitness, from the current year of fun, to keep momentum on even the steepest stretches, and kept my mind intact until fatigue and the nervous descent of dark.  Hiking by headlamp in deep summer subalpine is not wise in Grizzly country, and after an hour I let ambition give way to instinct, and crawled into the lumpy grass under a spruce 20 yards off the trail, laid my bag atop my deflated boat, and fell asleep quickly.

Something like 45 miles in 18 hours made for a pleasing tally.

The next day I cruised over White River Pass in the dawn cool, wearing all my clothes well down to treeline.  In one of the grown in avalanche paths I heard the now familiar XXL-squirrel scratching of Black Bear cubs being sent up a tree.  Fortunately, with their mother still further off the trail.  My calves were getting dead by the creek crossing at the bottom of the hill, but by then the finale of the trip was easily understood.  A flat mile, some slow floating, and the final 5 very gradually up hill.  The floating, on the West Fork of the Sun, ended up being very slow indeed, ~450 cfs downstream at the gauge, things close to evenly split between the West and South fork of South, is enough to make progress and more than enough to see the valley as only floating allows, but not enough for packrafting to be faster than hiking.  Neither my feet nor my eyes minded.

That final 5 was the culminating opportunity to take some of the nostalgia I had picked up the previous day and incarnate it as experience.  My feet were tired, a few blisters forming (due to a shoe experiment finally failing),  but with a mind flexible in the face of adversity and obdurate of the inevitable progress of walking, the routine, boring, horse-poked trail felt short.  And I sat in the shade of the tailgate the drank a beer with my shoes off, just after noon.  Some things do not change with the passing of a decade.

Ending tourism

“To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit.  It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience.”

-David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster”

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If you are reading this essay, and have not read the essay by Mr. Wallace, you should.  Over roughly a decade, straddling the millenia, Wallace invented 21st century travel writing, with works on the Illinois state fair, cruise ships, and the Maine lobster festival (natch).   I mentioned these three work in this (chronological) order because I think they’re his best, and because reading them in that (chronological) order lays out easily his evolving theory of tourism, summarized in the epigraph, whose cynicism and incisiveness evolved sharply between 1994 and 2004.  While it could be said that, as a midwesterner, his sympathies were always primed to give the Illinois state fair a more generous treatment, I think it more accurate to draw a distinction between such a fair being an object of regional tourism, at best, if not just local routine, and the Maine lobster festival, an explicitly tourist event.

This distinction is important.

Beyond his emphasis on the distinction between local and capital T Tourism, you should read Wallace’s non-fiction because he is one of the best writers, ever.  I aspire as much to being able to mimic his use of language as tool, a breaker bar as weighty and crude as it is precise, as I do to his careful, entirely genuine use of situation and detail.  (” The corn starts just past the breakdown lanes and goes right up to the sky’s hem.”)  The mechanics of his writing, which is to say his style, cannot be separated from his ontology, from the way he understands and thus creates his worlds.

The foundational insight which runs through most of Wallace’s books and essays is that entertainment has, by the late 20th century, become the essential question of humanity.  It is not so much that the items on the fatter end of Maslow’s pyramid have been so well provided for as to become background, though for the bourgeois they have, as it is that entertainment has veiled food, security, and human connection so well that today we struggle to understand them through any other window.  Thus the prominent place of food in all of the three aforementioned essays, and the muted, rather squishy, and distinctly uncomfortable way physical movement is incarnated in a place like a cruise ship, state fair, or destination food festival.  Entertainment is not, first and foremost, participatory, at least in the 21st century, and this passivity is why Wallace’s object lessons are so properly lugubrious, and why modern Tourism is so consistently and gratingly at odds with things like National Parks.  Abbey’s most famous chapter in Desert Solitaire was a precursor to Wallace in this, and while at first the two may seem of an awkward lineage they share an intellectual heritage which makes the comparison as coherent as it is efficacious.

To whit: if the prime mover of tourism, of travel, of physical movement beyond the familiar, is to experience aura and garner the unquantified benefits thereof, the move for Tourism to become a form of entertainment rather than experience is a shortcut to knowledge that must always be a contradiction.  Knowing a thing, be it the view over the Maze at sunrise or a sleek prize winning calf, has never been possible via anything other than process.  And process has never been built out of anything other than time.  This is why Wallace is at his most sympathetic discussing his home state fair, and at his most lyric within that essay discussing two distinct things.  First, the livestock judgings, the core functions of a fair which are only about entertainment in the best sense; a venue for one insider to communicate experience to others.  Second, the final visual sequence of the east coast interloper being hauled through elective torture on a carnival ride.  In the first case you have pure, native entertainment, any by extension people who have staked their right to the impure diversions Wallace details elsewhere in the fair.  In the second, an abject example of intrusion, of Tourism, being roughly and justly handled.  And what might happen were Tourism to take over the become the default means of being?  That answer is Infinite Jest, in whose fictional president one has a functionally endless number of chilling parallels with Donald Trump.

So; Tourism must go.  The cheap pursuit of novelty and in it the illusion of profundity has in the social media age (Facebook as The Entertainment?  Florida as the Great Concavity?) never been not only easier, but as enveloping.  If ‘gram-ing is a complete enough facsimile for experience that many of us actually believe it, the only reason to leave home at all is to keep that facade aloft.  Thank goodness then that the pandemic made doing that at least a little less respectable, for a little while, and that maybe entertainment and Tourism will each suffer and be deflated together.