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.

 

Evolution of the Tamarisk: Shoulder Straps

First: what the hell is happening with those packs, maan?

A lot.  Unfortunately, almost none of that is helping to get you a pack faster.  While the pandemic hasn’t impacted our family as directly or egregiously as it could, or still might, it has made the world more complicated.  I’ve been and remain on a slightly reduced salary, and our decision in early April for M to go back to work has been wise, in that any financial concerns have been well preempted.  What that has meant day to day is that we juggle our schedules, and that my time has been full enough that choices must be made: kid time, spouse time, meals, work, fun and exercise, yes.  Much else (e.g. cleaning, and sewing), no.

And I am ok with that.

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Hopefully one of the things we, as a society, get out of the pandemic is an easier time admitting that doing it all, especially as parents, is neither possible nor desirable.

One of the benefits of such mandatory emphatic choices, and of the necessity of managing creeping universal anxiety, has been lots of time in the woods, both on my own and with the little people.  The prototype Tamarisk has been used almost daily, even if that is only to transport rafting gear 200 yards from car to lake, or on a pint sized bikerafting trip (top photo, 5 miles on gravel, 10 miles of twisty and fast class I+).  I am more confident than ever in the design and size, and embracing the extended and indefinite timeline to tweak a few things (the belt could be a bit better, improved attachment points for a PFD).

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After 6 months of use I remain exceedingly pleased with the shoulder straps, which in packland present a problem whose answer is difficult to properly balance.  Too much padding is certainly a thing, as is too little, too stiff, and too supple.  My old Dana always chafed a little, and never really broke in enough (even after 200+ days) to conform to clavicle and armpit.  The 2012 Gorilla did almost everything right, with the thin foam being a little too stiff, and certainly far too ready to pack out.  The HPG shoulder harness was a study in how far one could get in patterning and conformity, but the Cordura facing against the user chafed and held sweat, and the thin and relatively supple foam let the webbing strap dig in once the load was big enough to stretch the Cordura.

With these three examples as limit posts, I set out a couple years ago to find something well in between them.  Most combinations of foam and materials have worked decently enough, and there is a case to be made for shoulder straps being an ancillary detail to things like the hipbelt and frame, so long as they are good enough.  But the whole point of the Tamarisk is to not just be good enough, and it is easy to recall trips like this one where anything with the least potential for discomfort will sing out to that effect, and loudly.

My current layup for the Tamarisk shoulder straps is a 5mm layer of fairly stiff EVA foam, 5mm 3D mesh turned inside out, and 500D Cordura, with a length of 3/4″ webbing bartacked every 3 inches the whole length.  The result is quite pliable, due to being well under 1/2 an inch thick, yet rigid, due to the EVA.  The thick 3D mesh makes things feel cushy, and wicks sweat (see above), both of which fight chafing during hot 12+ hour days.  Keeping the mesh inside out eliminates the traditional bane of that material, namely the extent to which it traps pine needles and debris, which build up over time no matter the cleaning efforts, eventually becoming abrasive to both clothing and skin.  The greatest cause for celebration is that testing the inverted mesh over the past two years, and this particular foam since January, has revealed no concerns with longevity whatsoever.  img_0010

The packs will come, eventually, but in this age of uncertainty I’m not making any specific promises.

Yaak skyline

The Yaak is a contradictory place, equal parts obscuring temperate forest and friendly eroded hills.  The few spiky places in the landscape draw your eye from miles and miles away.  Satellite photos reveal glacial history in series, scalloped ridges, whose pattern and line pull from afar, but on the ground, in a fire lookout, atop a gentle mountain out at the end, history is subsumed in an endless rolling of green.  The alpines select intrusion here is not noticeable on the basis of elevation, as sinuousity bends peaks down and shows how small along the curve of the earth they in fact are.  The alpine stands as a reminder of the rough core bedrocking the forest, how constancy and the living ease can split open for black cliffs and crags of talus stacked as high as their sticky grain will hold them together.

The Yaak is also, for the moment, on the slow side of history.  A century ago the list of ridges and creeks who proceed upstream from the Kootenai were ablaze with crosscuts and double bitted axes.  Trails were built, lookouts placed, telephone wire strung tree-to-tree connecting them.  The best were sharp enough, dawn to dusk, with an axe that they could leave the awkwardly flopping saw behind when maintaining trail.  Today satellites reveal a panoply of logging roads in the process of growing back into 3rd generation forest, and maps first drawn in the golden age of fire suppression show trails which the forests have entirely reclaimed.  Modern sensibilities do not so favor the inobvious, which is nothing other if not the Yaak.

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My desired route bridged the two, with a modern start straight up the road to an old lookout and miles north along a ridge just not high enough, 6000 feet in the Yaak, to stay entirely in the trees.  Topo maps disagreed on the extent and eventual fate of the trail I started on off the road; one thought it went nearly to the next ridge before peeling off west, another thought it went halfway before following a pass down to the east, another thought it went a bit further before ending on an outwardly arbitrary knob.  The Forest Service listed it in their trail inventory, but provided no further detail beyond naming the miles supposedly maintained.

The Forest Service, along with the first map (the one I had with me) turned out to be equally wrong.  The other two maps were a bit less mistaken as sources; by late morning my feet told me the trail made it perhaps half the stated total along the ridge, short of even the most conservative map, and ended without preamble in a saddle.  A final cut log suggested a wrap east to the edge of another steep north facing slope, cut with alder and moose trails.  Beyond that I spent a few hours lost in a mezzo haze of navigation in terrain neither infernal nor straightforward.  So long as I clung to the curve along the ridge, didn’t trip too often in the willow or slip across the sporadic talus patch, the details were mostly irrelevant.

Steep moss and a few moves up blocky granite landed me where the main ridge met the one I had been following.  A flat patch of bare rock let me eat, dry my socks, and pick pine needles out of my sleeves.  Big views of the alpine sat ahead, on the far side of a short basin.  My instinct concerning how the terrain lied to ones eyes did not disappoint, and the bushwack over to the days one road crossing took much longer than expected.  It was hot by then, and I was playing the long game juggling pace and miles with water and electrolyte intake.  I took the road down, loosing elevation and going 60 degrees off course to keep true to instinct and give my mind a rest from worrying about each footstep.  A trail, signed and maintained off the road but not mentioned on any map or inventory led straight to a hidden pass, which led to another mystery trail, a steep climb through a burn, and the days definitive entry into the alpine.

Ambiguity of route, the default of the forest, gave way to ambiguity of pace, the default of the alpine.  Here, which came first, the rocky, or the steep?  Snowfields, firm in early summer, and decaying cliff bands made the top the only place to be, picking out mountain goat tracks between the blocks and through the unexpected drop offs.  I stopped to make dinner, and drink as much ice tea mix as I could stand, at the last concentrate of melting snow, digging a hole in the tundra to collect water, which I hauled, heavy of stomach, leg, and mind, over the final tower scramble and up the last talus slope, steep enough that I didn’t see the little lookout cabin until I could hit it with a thrown rock.

Last night, and the next, would be at civilized lookouts.  Towers put up 30 feet on wooden beams for a safe view over the pines, however tall they might grow.  In the Yaak these towers have been maintained enough that they are officially tourist approved, and we tourists reserve and pay for sleeping in them.  Tonight would be in the second class of lookouts, older cabins, with wrap around glazing but also on ground level.  This one had been built up, presumably by chipper men in black and white, on a dry foundation of the 80 pound blocks that formed this, the highest summit for 50 miles.  Paint flecks lay flailed off by the recent winter, and the close interior had two wires running corner to opposite corner.  The wind accelerated as I laid down with plenty of evening light yet to spend, and I fell asleep, gusts circulating in the open door, and the wires visibly tensing and relaxing as the building continued against the wind, 9 years to go til its second century.

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I woke up the next morning rather later than expected, and in spite of or perhaps because of the uninterrupted 12 hours of sleep knew I had spent myself the day before, in a way that one or even three nights of food, water, and rest would not fix.  A problem with lookouts is wrapped up in their appeal, that above the 45th parallel and a few days past summer solstice the sun rises at 440am and sets at 11pm.  Ones eye is sent inwards as readily as to the horizon, contemplation of neither being especially easy on sleep.  The next morning I’d get another break from sunshine, with rain and fog rolling in and my soul softened with accomplishment.  But that morning it seemed I would do well to make miles while things were high and cool.

The day passed as a waking dream, as days deep beyond fatigue on a backpack often do.  Less than a week later my mind recalls snatches, moments bright with mosquito bites or jagged steps, and blanks into a green blur in between.  For the final miles I knew the last lookout was poised on the ridge ahead, but for the trees I could never see it.

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I find that important trips are put in order after the fact, as memory filters back from the hinters, and reexamination of maps, photos, and blisters sticks them to the ground.  As sap, or perhaps mud.  The 20th century logic of lookouts strung lines of sight across the land, mountains which could see as many crannies as erosion would permit, and by design or coincidence each other.  For two days I walked two sides of a triangle, on nearly every occasion the forests permitted able to see at least two, often three, of the places I would sleep.  If that older logic organized a world only recently less than infinite, my 21st century logic wrung mystery from between the roads.  And from the final lookout I could see none of them.  Not the paved ones along the creeks, nor the slinking one which caressed its way up to the trail, taking the folds as if water running in reverse.

That afternoon I took off my shoes and finished the book I had carried, chin down and back to one of the windows with which I was surrounded.  A quick glance left for the deft pinprick of the first lookout, stark on a hill who at this distance appeared simple and symmetrical.  Another glance, just ahead, for the second, a dot glazing the highest point of the ridgeline whose subtlety was for the miles lost entirely, the lookout not existent save for edges just far sharp from anything the patient wind would have made.

The new rules for nature

There has been much discussion in the past few months about how the significant, perhaps even colossal, surge in those camping and going outside will in effect unite the insta-hipster trend of the past 5 years with the COVID-induced cabin fever and lack of options.  Those who went camping twice last year, and wouldn’t have considered it a decade ago, may well go 12 times this year.  My anecdotal experience with local traffic, as well as the availability of Forest Service rentals recently, supports this.  Accompanying this demographic shift is the expected naval-gazing guidance on the part of the Outdoor Media, much of which has been exceptionally horrible.  The following is my screed, a hope for newcomers and those newly serious in the outdoors that we will not let a rare year such as this pass by without using disruption to accelerate change, or even to shift the paradigm entirely.

1: Your stoke will not save us

Ethan Linck’s 2018 essay has become canonical in the way it summarizes and then deconstructs the founding myth of recreationalism.  In the process he casts the moral basis of outdoorish capitalism in deep doubt.  His concluding suggestion, that “…place attachment may be the only thing that cuts across socioeconomic divides to predict environmentally friendly behavior” both provides a way forward after his critique, and deals a further blow to the trophy-place ethos which so deeply pervades recreationalism in the social media era.

2: Tourism won’t fix our economy

Anyone who suggests otherwise is ignorant or disingenuous.  For every Boulder or Boise, places whose economy is not directly dependent on the nature which surrounds it, there is a Whitefish or Moab, a place where the second-order impacts of tourism has made it ever more dependent on nearby nature and ever less able to support those full time residents who make such towns, towns.  There are ways to make tourism fund teachers, answers which have nothing at all to do with selling more soft shells, and everything to do with the sort of tax policy nature-rich states have historically avoided.  When you relocate to or vacation in a place, take an extra moment to consider what that resort tax or sales tax does and does not do.

What recreation, and recreation infrastructure, might do is help change the economic paradigm of nature-rich locales, and break up the binary between the Boulders and the Moabs of the country.  For each of those two types of place there are 2 or 3 Townsends, Worlands, or Panguitchs.  Places whose 50 mile radius is as rich as anywhere when it comes to outdoor opportunity, if not outdoor spectacle, and who are generally caught in the demographic trap wrought by the nature decline in agriculture and extraction, and the moral paradox of keeping more wild places intact without sundering them all over again with publicity.  If we exit the pandemic with more jobs no longer tied to place, such places can quietly build trails and boat ramps and attract new residents who will (hopefully) be able to pay enough taxes to keep to local K-8 open without also demanding the culture-flattening presence of Starbucks.  The future of the wild world, in our lifetimes, is very much on human terms.

3:  Safety is not the same as comfort

Camping and being outside for extended periods is not about using knowledge and $$ to mimic the four walls of home.  It is about using technique and an open mind to discover new ways of being in the world.  I understand that companies can’t sell a new widget each year to further open minds, which only further highlights the extent to which capitalist recreationalism is an uneasy campmate to sustainable, wild nature.

4:  Subtle is sexy

Here I think a phallocentric metaphor is entirely appropriate: our preferences in scenery and in activities for an Outdoor Trip have become quite the same as wanting big tits and a six pack in our romantic partners.  The fantastic may have its birth in reality, but the exceptional should not define everyday reality when imaging so thoroughly disguises both the rarity and the labor inherent in such things. (end metaphor)  The Zions and Yosemites of the world are valuable because of the way they can shock complacency out of routine.  A preoccupation with the spectacular runs the very real, daily risk of making invisible the interest close by, be that interest in the terrain or in the modes of travel to which that terrain is best suited.  Red rock riding is surely the most interesting form of off-road riding, a fact which should only enhance the depth to be had in riding Iowa back roads.  Finding inspiration in the subtle, ideally closer to home, solves several problems.  It facilitates place attachment (see #1, above), it spreads out user impact (see #2), and it hopefully promotes exploration in places less definitively documented (see #6).

5:  Statistically speaking; no one shreds

Buried in some recent mountain biking press release or interview (I think it was from Trek) was a candid bite from an upper marketing person: “Statistically speaking; no one shreds.”  This is true, and in the time of the shredit an important and difficult thing to keep in mind.  Not only are these folks and the like exceptional talents and practiced professionals, they have the benefit of many, many tries, suggestive camera work, and a custom made trail.

This is a corollary to #4; a reminder of both the gap between representation and execution, and of the extent to which our society has struggled to celebrate the more contemplative forms of travel in nature.  The public side of this has created real problems, be it neophyte backcountry skiers diving right into avy terrain, or schralping giving the Sierra Club dog walkers more ammo against mountain biking.  To say nothing of the inferiority complex foisted upon ambitious newcomers.

6: Leave your phone in the car

Photographing is not the same as seeing, and taking a photo of a previous photo a sort of experiential poison.  As DeLillo wrote; “Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender.  We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future.  We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception.  It literally colors our vision.  A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”  Or Turner; “I had become a tourist to my own experience.”

Turner wrote his Aura essay close to 30 years ago, and to put it simply, it is well worth contemplating how his ideas (and those of Walter Benjamin) might be extended to the age of the gram.  My suggested experiment is to, at least once, go on a keystone trip (whatever that means for you) in totally novel terrain without media devices, without taking photos or video.  You might learn something about seeing.

7: Adventure is founded in vision

My closing rule (ha) is the outgrowth of leaving ones camera at home, and my personal favorite discovery from the past decade relating to how I experience the outdoors: within the limits of my human life, the possibilities for adventure, exploration, for experiencing aura, will always be truncated by my own perspective, by my vision, experience, and lack of imagination, before it is limited or circumscribed by the miles of trails, number of ridges or creeks, or variety of trees.  There is a consistent tension between reserving the unknown for the future and seizing the moment in the name of uncertainty.  What cuts across that whole debate is that beta should be approached with abundant caution in an age when commerce, more than anything, is pushing us towards easy archiving of, well, everything.  If, to summarize, aura is the gateway to profundity and thus to place attachment, any coherent future of conservation is grounded in turning away from apps, waypoints, and indeed excessive and insulating technology.

Happy solstice.

 

 

Basal outdoor skills

A few days ago I was exploring some of the exceptional, hidden limestone cliffs we have locally, and following some mountain goat tracks up a scree slope led to option soloing up broken gullies and sticky slabs.  While liebacking off crisp solution pockets and smearing floppy shoes up sharp corrugations my mind went backwards.  To Paul Preuss, Norman Clyde, Herb and Jan Conn.  To ropes that might have broken, slippy ovals without a nose, and pre-War tennis shoes.  To pushing on and up towards that intriguing ridge, guided by experience, an eye for a line, and the necessity of being able to downclimb should those first two come up short.

There is an easy distinction between hard and soft skills in the outdoors.  Hard skills are doing things: tying knots, pitching shelters, taking a bearing.  Soft skills most commonly have to do with group dynamics and communication, but can also pertain to decision making.  Taking a bearing has limited utility if one’s group cannot agree on the best route across a valley, as does a well pitched shelter in a poorly chosen location.  This is all very well, but from an educational perspective I’ve long thought that a third class of skills underpin both the technical and heuristic, giving them both context and coherence.

It turned out that my line did not go.  The progression of ledge and slab ended around the corner in a monolithic line of pockets and implied edges.  I’ll return, some day, with the full sack of modernity, most prominently either a traverse in to a toprope anchor, or bolts.  Or maybe doubles of microcams and pink tricams, triples of small wires, helmet, and healthy fear.  Messner’s murder of the impossible has long since come to pass, with technology and the mindset of 30 years ago requiring a significant leap of imagination to consider the virtues of rock climbing as a pursuit where turnkey safety is not always an option.  The ubiquity and quality of gear has made safety an objective attribute, not entirely on or off, but often quite close to black and white.  As I turned to find a way down it did occur that a rope would have been expedient.  But in the manner of Preuss, for whom even rappelling was cheating, I poked over a series of ledges, downclimbed a tree, scratched across a hanging dirt slope, and jammed down a clean, overhanging corner to the scree slopes, creek bottom, and then the road.  For that hour in the vertical safety was under my feet, and between by eyes and the surface.  Can that smear hold my weight?  Will that flake come loose?  Can I reserve the next 5 moves, if the five after prove too much?

It is easy to view the safety brought on my kinaesthetic awareness, training, and judgment as part of the mechanical skills of climbing, outgrowth of hard skills and sibling to tying a clove hitch or placing a Stopper in an offset crack.  In this account the physical side of not falling is heads to the tails of a sound rope and protection network.  With climbing as the ultimate control sport, an activity in which the brakes are by default stomped to the floor, it is an easy assumption to make.  Whitewater boating is in many ways the opposite of climbing, where flow and the speed and rhythm imposed from without are the default.  Safety in whitewater has to do with instinct and preemption coming together and thus knowing when to stop, and when to let go.  Scouting, setting safety, and portaging can make running a rapid as painstaking and calculated as a 5 hour trad lead, and in either case the structural elements are a best set on a shaky foundation if judgement, self-knowledge, and process, what I think of as the basal outdoor skills, are not solid.

The other week, on Big Creek, we portaged a solid stretch of the crux, a decision which revolved around two burly ledge holes set 20 yards apart.  I had little faith, maybe 10%, in my ability to hit either and not flip.  I had a bit more belief in my ability to hit the precise lines through each feature, and make a big ferry between them.  There were big features both above and below, making the run in complex and the consequences of a swim significant.  I knew my skills, knew I was tired, and knew that I had doubt.  Hard skills were the past decade of paddling, reading water, practicing rescue techniques.  Soft skills were Will and I being honest with each other about our risk assessment.  The basal skills were even more invisible; me calling what part of my fear had to do with performance anxiety, and what part had to do with accumulated fatigue and the doubt over when my clouded mind would enable me to pick good lines in a timely manner.  On my scrambling excursion, hard skills were the past 27 (!) years of off and on rock climbing, especially having previously done moves of a vastly greater physical difficulty.  Soft skills were route finding, looking at the cliff and reading which ledges linked weaknesses, and which ran out in blank slabs.  The basal skills were internal; what percentage of past and current skill was available to me in each moment, how much of my desire to find the ridgetop was tempered by a realistic assessment of reversability?

Writ large, basal outdoor skills have to do with self awareness, and in adjusting goals and decision making day to day and hour to hour to keep them in tune with capacity.  This is how risk is managed on the ground and in the moment, be it the choice to run a rapid, ski a slope, or push forward with an extra 8 miles of postholing at the end of long day.  In a mundane but more pervasive and significant way, basal outdoor skills maintain the integrity of your backcountry functioning by saving mistakes.  Loosing gear, either by letting it fall out of a pocket or by leaving it behind at stops, is shockingly common, and in the case of something like a water bottle, knife, or a good chunk of your remaining food can be significantly debilitating.  Proper nutrition and hydration is both a hard and a soft skill, but the consistent and correct application is just as significant as what you packed, and a basal skill to the core in that constant adjustment to the demands of the moment is success itself.

So too with packing, unpacking, and transitions generally.  Efficiency here can save significant time in the moment, and far more time later in the ripple effect of being able to find gear easily, not forgetting anything, and having the correct items at hand for the tasks of the day.  Each transition during the Salmon River I was somewhere between 30 to 50% faster than Will and Robert.  Part of this was hard skill, experience, having done boat to hike and boat to camp transitions many times more than either of them (Robert, in fairness, was on his first multiday trip out of his kayak).  But I think the majority was basal skill, in that I’ve cultivated and practiced highly purposive transitions for a long time.  It is one thing to quickly and skillfully pack a pack with the same gear you’ve taken on similar trips for years.  It is another to adapt principal to a new range of items and have a coherent enough rig from day one.  In the case of the Salmon trip, I had never put so much inside my packraft on a previous trip, but on the first day I had the right stuff out of the boat for the day of paddling, and had the stuff inside secured and balanced enough that portages and self-rescuing after a swim both went without abnormal difficulty.

I don’t think many adventurers get far into backcountry pursuits without becoming acquainted with the importance of self-management and execution.  I do think many people, even those with considerable experience, consistently mistake both the inherent subjectivity of these skills and more importantly, the exacting moment-to-moment control that dependence on internal processes can provide.  It’s an amorphous thing to grasp, and not something concretely taught, but recognition of basal skills as an independent class which control the application of hard and soft skills will provide more consistent backcountry performance, and thus, safety.

2020 Bob Open report

Top photo by Mike Moore.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the mass start for the 2020 Open was cancelled, a decision I made not to avoid the modest social contact at the start point but rather to discourage the still inherently problematic matter of folks traveling to Montana from out of state.  A still robust ~14 people took the start, with beginning dates spread out over roughly a week either side of Saturday, May 23.  The starting point was the Point Pleasant state forest campground south of Swan Lake; the end point the Gibson Reservoir boat ramp.

Conditions were unique, even when measured over the past 9 years of weather and snowpack.  An overall average snowpack in the Bob lingered further than usual through a cool April, and was fattened substantially by several big storms in mid-May.  Mid elevation snow was more robust than any year of the Open save 2014, and sunny temperatures had every hiker contending with the possibility of wet avalanches during alpine stretches.  Rivers saw the delayed impacts of wide temperature variations over the week of the Open, with the South Fork of the Flathead peaking at nearly 20,000 cfs on May 21, diving down to 8,000 by May 25, then climbing back to 12,000 48 hours later.  Nearly all participants avoided the highest water, and several packrafters hit the low point just right for floats of the West and South Forks of the Sun, but overarching conditions made major river fords unlikely without either a packraft or a pack bridge.

As is often the case, these crossings proved to be the major guide points of route selection, with the boat-less crossing the South Fork of the Flathead at either Meadow Creek gorge or Black Bear, and then the North Fork of the Sun at Gates park or the Klick Ranch.  Several hikers with packrafts floated the West and South Forks of the Sun River, and then Gibson Reservoir.  One packrafter floated Bunker Creek early on, and then the upper White while in transit to White River Pass.  In his words: “The short floats on Bunker Creek and the Upper White were both exciting and provided welcome rest to my haggard feet, but did not serve to expedite travel…The Upper White was skinny and fast with great views and a ton of wood. The second portage was a logjam maze that took me 20 min to navigate. In total there was maybe 10 portages, but none as shitty as that big jam. I am very pleased to have explored these sections and gain experience in skinnier water with high wood stress, but I can’t see myself doing them again.”  Nine years of the Open have shown that the major rivers, when they align even vaguely with the overall direction of travel, can vastly increase overall speed.  The second class of major creeks in the Bob are generally floatable in late May, but also generally have enough obstacles (wood, rapids) that they are rarely objectively faster than the pure foot alternative.

That said, relatively few hikers prioritized speed this year (though the speediest clocked close to 100 miles in 40 hours total time), with most taking at least one high alpine traverse for aesthetic and exploratory reasons.  Sections of the greater Pagoda ridge were most common, along with Larch Hill and the Chinese Wall, while a few folks did long ridge walks going east from the Swan Crest.  Hikers exited both Rock and Moose Creeks to the North Fork of the Sun, as well as going over White River Pass.  Cornice collapses and wet slide avoidance were consistent navigational issues up high, with many hikers either camping such that they crested passes early in the morning, or pushing on into the dark and climbing through the alpine in the middle of the night.    Warm temps made this far from a failsafe approach; as one hiker wrote: “It was 5:30 a.m. at 6,000 feet and I was in a t-shirt sweating.”  Leaving the summer trails proved essential for safe route finding.

Traditionally big fords such as Moose Creek and the West Fork of the Sun went without a hitch, due to either the window of low water or the overall experience of the most of the hikers, or perhaps both.  Though several novice teams completed the traverse, those folks were without exception long time aspirants and well prepared.  Back in early April the pandemic made the public running of an event so seemingly risky something to question, but conservative choices seemed to have been the default this year, a recognition of both the hazardous conditions on the ground and the extraordinary conditions writ large.  As one hiker wrote: “Despite many varied and unprecedented complaints with 2020 thus far, the Open felt like an unmitigated success and continues to serve as a substantial anchor for my year.  This trip was highlighted by the expected good company, a Wall ramble charged by a slightly risky line necessary to maintain full view of dramatic snowfalls, and the ever-lovely North Fork of the Sun bursting into spring.”

I did not participate in the Open this year, opting instead for a trip on totally new ground for me; the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.  This explains the less specific and personal nature of this report, as the Open is less mine than ever.  Recognizing both the continued draw of the Bob, and of the many great possibilities elsewhere in the American West, 2021 will see two Bob Opens: the traditional late May Bob Marshall traverse will continue to celebrate the place I am other have come to love so well, and an early May traverse of the Frank/Selway complex will provide a longer, less known, and potentially more technical option for those so inclined.

Expect course announcements in early 2021.

Middle Fork Salmon debrief

After a day and a half of floating, and over 30 miles and 1500′ of vertical from our put in, Marble Creek felt comforting in it’s familiarity.  We blew up and put in on a tiny side channel and were swept downstream, the thin eddies and beaver-cut willows a quick 30 feet apart.  A mile or so downstream and out along the cliffy bend we hadn’t been able to see from the trail, Will approached a horizon line, doubt turning in a second to action as a twist of his paddle snapped his boat forward over the edge.  As had become habit already, I followed, shock and acceptance simultaneous as the line revealed a glassy 15 foot drop, ending in a frothy kicker over a boulder with a further 100 yards of beefy rock dodging.  As had been the case about 20 times since the trip began it wasn’t quite the single hardest move I’d ever made in a packraft, but it was another step towards submersion in technical whitewater paddling the totality of which had me, but the end of the week, approaching rapids with an unprecedented comfort and interest.

Which is to say that it was a life changing trip, which is in the end all we can ask for?

I had an un-vague enough idea of what I was doing when I took up Will’s invitation to run the Middle Fork of the Salmon, insofar as the difficulty was concerned.  I was to leave home to meet them at 3am, and with 12 hours to go had assembled the swollen duffle a late-spring whitewater with some hiking trip required.  With one car in the shop and the other getting a flat tire at 430pm, my timeliness was in question long enough for me to contemplate alternate, closer, and less scary vacation ideas.  But Costco tire is open until 830pm, and M read by doubt well enough and made it clear I was going.  Will and I had done enough research and communication prior, based on the familiar to me process of examining maps and sat photos, that I felt we had a solid plan which would surely stretch my abilities.  We united in Stanley, where Will’s request for the local shop to set aside a map of the river resulted in Liedecker’s encyclopedic Middle Fork guidebook.  It being a bit after 10am and cold at that point, and us having a lot of packing and paddling to do, we brought it along with little consideration for the potential impact.

That book had a bigger impact on our trip than any other single item.  Late nights, my little bottle of Laphroaig, and lots of clean ponderosa to burn provided atmosphere for wide ranging discussion.  A few nights in, in a small meadow hanging along Loon Creek, we had gotten to know each other and ourselves enough that we could intentionally bend our different backgrounds in boating together, for comparison.  Having just revised my own guidebook it was easy to review the influence reading about our trip, mile by mile, had had thus far, and even easier to contrast that with the unknown, and deeply exciting, stretch of Loon Creek upstream, and the equally as exciting, and intimidating, sections of Loon we had hiked past that afternoon.  It might have been nice to have seen the whole main river with first descent eyes, though after the first day, which provided 1100 feet of descent and gave me a long, garggling swim through either Ramshorn or Hells Half Mile, reassurance of diminution to come was comforting.

The river itself was a constant delight, especially after the first day hardened us and our confidence.  The pace of unfolding biomes detailed, like no other place I’ve yet been, how well floating dovetails with human apprehension.  I kept remarking on the seeming poles of past accounts either failing so well to capture the place, or of me failing so well to pay attention.  The later surely, equal parts prejudice against the destination rivers of the west and their burial under commodification and folding tables, and my chosen ignorance, an act of self preservation.  There being no equal to a big, primary line through a new Wild place when every foot is new.

But as delightful as the main river was, it was the creeks we explored that stole the packrafters heart.  With comparison to my 7 years of exploration in Glacier and the Bob so near at hand the ways in which they broke the rules, or at least my rules, were bracing.  They ran straight for miles, gradients mostly clean and constant.  The lean ponderosa forests made wood almost an afterthought, at least by my standards.  Robert, a hardsheller from the PacNW, experienced the river and creeks opposite of me; nervous in the unknown skinny, at ease punching big holes.  We found beef aplenty, especially in the 4+ miles of continuous III++/IV at the bottom of Big Creek, but the evident cruxes were consistently vastly easier than any of us would have guessed.  The Big Creek gorge itself lived up to its name, but was clean enough to be read and run.  The lower Loon gorge, by topographic rights a V+/VI gnarfest, had only one feature that was just too sieve-y, woody, tight, and remote to suit our desires.  Since getting home, when my sore brain and forearms allow it, I can think of little besides the creeks, and creek miles, we didn’t see.

This was the most whitewater I’ve paddled in one trip, measured either by number or intensity of rapids, as well as by days on the water.  I made two equipment upgrades in the weeks prior, both of which ended up being crucial.  First, I replaced a partially torn ankle gasket on my drysuit with a pair of latex booties, and was able to enjoy the frigid and challenging first day with warm feet, a novelty.  For those who have known it, know that this is the same ancient, much patched drysuit as before, and that it worked just fine, though a relief zipper would have been nice.  The second upgrade was a new seat for my Yukon Yak; the extra height and flat shape were welcome as expected, the added rigidity added to the boat made a surprisingly and much welcomed difference.

Will and I, in a 2019 Wolverine and 2015 Yak respectively, both struggled with aspects of our boats.  I can’t imagine and have no desire to do that route at that level (5k, falling to 3.5k, then rising to 4.5k at MF Lodge) without my gear (especially 7 days of food) not in the cargo fly, but the zippers were a consistent nuisance.  We each had to relube at least once when the zip wouldn’t seal, and both had to apply UV Aquaseal at least twice to the upper interface between the zipper tape and the boat fabric.  My thesis here is that the presumably stretchier boat fabric pushes the welded seam hard enough, especially on a protracted whitewater outing, that micro leaks develop.  I had to patch such leaks on the morning of day 2, and again before paddling on day 6.  Any readers have similar struggles?  I also struggled with keeping my spray skirt on the boat, with it blowing off in several holes and during several more emphatic boofs.  All of it left me wondering how the folks who more regularly pursue whitewater at that level in a packraft put up with the fiddling.  Boat performance itself, or to more exact hull performance, was excellent.  The Yak is still capable of things beyond my skills and my desires.  Each of my three swims were similar, hitting a big hole with inadequate velocity, getting pitched a little sideways, and flipping upstream.  More skill would make a difference, as would more aggressive outfitting than the 1.5″ webbing, two-point thigh straps I’ve run for almost the past decade.

Our general strategy of packing somewhat heavy and stashing gear before each side trip up the creeks was effective and efficient.  I went both protein and nutrient heavy on my food, and did not regret doing so.  By day six I was tired, and with Big Creek on the menu providing the hardest paddling of the trip by a significant margin, what recovery I had been able to maintain over the days previous made the difference, allowing me to mostly keep things together and mistakes to a minimum.  I also went heavy on clothes, knowing that plenty of insulation on the river would save energy in the long term, as would having dry items to put on at the end of the day.  Were I to re-do this aspect I would go heavier still, with a bit more torso insulation under my drysuit, and camp shoes.  Due to the 3k+ vertical drop over the course of the trip, and weather changes over the week, staying warm got significantly easier.  The snow line on the morning of day 2 was only 500 feet above camp, but even with the last day being the warmest of the trip, the consistent overhead soakings in the huge rapids below Big Creek made things almost as chilly as day 1.

Planning wise, I’m eager to dive into options for the future.  The lower 2/3s of the Middle Fork seems a probable packrafting destination for 9 months out of the year, opening up all sorts of options in the times of year when permits are easy to get.  I’d very much like to return to lower Big Creek at the mini-golf flows of early fall, do a complete descent of Loon, and explore Pistol Creek and the Rapid River.  To say nothing of the endless, massively steep, eminently hikable ridges which provide so many routes, as well as the logical wilderness route linking the subalpine foothills of the Sawtooths all the way north to the big Cedars of the Lochsa.

 

Shorty

For a number of years I’ve wanted a short handy shotgun like my modified Tuffy, but with more ummph.  .410 is an excellent squirrel chambering, and mostly adequate for grouse and rabbit.  With these larger critters range is a practical limiter, not so much outright than with respect to pattern.  With a .410 20 yard shots on a static grouse or snowshoe are reasonable most of the time.  Moving shots are marginal without a high level of skill.  Much beyond that and one runs out of power quickly.  If a short shotgun is a practical tool because of portability, because you might bring it where and when you wouldn’t something bulkier and more refined, marginally expanding capability in a few targeted areas might be worth some extra weight.

I’d been on the lookout for a candidate for a while, and a few months ago we found a Stevens 9478 12 gauge at a pawn shop in Butte.  The folks there were quite willing to let the rather ugly little thing go for less than asking, and I think we paid $70 for it.  First step was to cut 10″ off the barrel.  This made for a cylinder bore.  I was able to unscrew the original bead sight and reinstall it, a welcome economy measure.  Next step was cutting the stock down for a straight grip, and stripping the ugly, slick, and in the end incredibly thick finish.  I left the texture a bit course and did a simple linseed oil finish, which feels nice in the hand.  Testing revealed the length of pull was too long, so I cut nearly an inch off, making it 13.5 inches, and as a test replaced the plastic back plate with a 5mm bit of dense foam, glued on.  Last mod was installing Grovtec flush cups, for the mandatory comfy carry with a sling.

Slimming the stock and reducing the LOP took off enough weight that the balance point was brought back a few inches in front of the trigger guard.  Pointing ergonomics with a shorty shotgun aren’t really a priority in the same way they would be with a full sized over/under, but as it stands the Stevens shoulders fluidly enough that tight, close shots on flushing spruce grouse seem very reasonable.  High, fast, straight away shots which seem to be the standard on ruffed grouse around here likely won’t be in the cards, but a gun like this is as a much about being present for ground sluicing blue grouse and hares 20 miles from the trailhead as anything else, and for that the just sub 5 pound weight will do very well.

I hope for an exhaustive field report in the fall.

Drones in Wilderness

You can’t fly drones in federal Wilderness.  Not much debate on that, either from the legal side, or I would contend the philosophical one.  If the essential spirit of the Wilderness Act is the tightrope of permitting/encouraging human access on the landscape while using restrictions on technology to reduce impact, aircraft restrictions are fitting.  Though drones won’t (yet) allow humans to land on a gravel bar, they do very much in the moment massively expedite the reach of the human mind.  The Wilderness consists in wildness, which in turn consists in the unknown, or human finitude.

That being said, I think it is appropriate to make a public issue of the frequent, often egregious violations of this rule.  Like when one of the best living adventure filmers does it, or even just these guys (Warning: Bro factor 1000).  Like with commercial filming permits, on first examination violations can seem innocuous.  And just like with commercial film permits, especially in Wilderness, anything beyond a cursory examination reveals the spiritual impact of commercial exposure to be considerable.

The problem in the modern area is defining commercial.  Elsewhere in the 50 Project Cody Townsend answers a reader question about film permits in Wilderness being notoriously difficult/impossible to get by saying that (paraphrase) his ski trips and youtube series are personal projects, and thus not subject to the permit requirement.  Companies like Salomon, whose logos appear in the video intro, sponsor him personally, not the project specifically.  This rational is both credible and absurd, and highlights the slippery nature of the commercial use question.  Bjarne Salen’s time does not I assume come cheap, and if isn’t being paid outright to film each ski trip, he surely enjoys a share of the youtube and sponsor revenues.  Professional cinematographers produce slicker, “better”, more accessible and evocative content, and thus their impact is greater, potentially of another category, and if so should be required to hold to commercial regulations when filming in Wilderness.

One of my favorite passsages of the Wilderness Act concerns the “increasing population” and “expanding settlement and growing mechanization” being cause to avoid “leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition.”  It seems fitting that in the information age the impact of knowledge be placed within the broader scope of mechanization, and thus legislated away for those big wild places we’ve chosen to set aside as reservoirs of the unknown.  So no drones in Wilderness, and let others know why they ought to do the same.