The ordinary, the extraordinary

Starting after the end, which may end up being the beginning all over again. On Saturday morning I didn’t want to road walk a bunch, so rode M’s road bike up to the construction site below Packer’s Roost, locked it to a tree, bushwacked around the road crew, and continued on.  Which meant that yesterday evening I had to get it back.  In the rain.  The above setup, with a strap to lock the front brake and four more to tie the bike to the rack, cramped my right pedal stroke but otherwise worked very well.

Mineral Creek is cold, fast, and filled with foot-grabbing cobbles.  The planks aren’t in the bridge yet, but the un-acrophobic can still use it.  It doesn’t sway too much.

Snow started early going up Flattop Mountain.  You can see the still snowed-in Going-to-the-Sun road in the distance.

Going on these trips is becoming almost disconcertingly routine.  Ordinary.  Flattop was full in with snow, feet upon feet.  I went across it last summer, and thus even though finding traces of the trail was almost impossible I knew it didn’t matter.  Snowshoe generally north and things will work themselves out.  It rained for most of this stretch so no pictures were taken.  Head forward, walk, look around, walk, walk.

I decided to not follow the trail through the Fifty Mountain camp.  The trail north of there skirts steep walls with recent wet avalanche activity.  Plus, when snow covers brush and deadfall one ought to take advantage.  I dropped straight off the north end of the ridge to 5500′ and contoured north to link back up with the trail.  The contouring was easy, the ridge would have been too had I not dropped right into the cliff bands.

The ice axe got used here.  Once I got down and far enough away I saw that avoiding this would have been easy, but it provided some good entertainment.

Sadly, the crux of the day was about to come, in an as-usual for these trips unexpected location.  The big open slope the summer trail easily crosses was striped with alternating slide paths and alders patches.  I ought to have dropped to the valley floor immediately, but instead stubbornly clung to the level of the trail at the far end and slowly traversed.  I did almost hit the trail right on when it finally emerged from the snow and entered the trees, but that precision had not been worth the effort.

Looking back into the Upper Waterton from the slide path of slothful struggle.

The rest of the day was simple: follow the trail to Waterton Lake and Goat Haunt.

The lakez that way.

The valley is well-treed and north trending, so there was lots of snow at disturbingly low elevations, then lots of trail in the trees.  Trail in the trees, is for me and at the end of a long draining day, the mind killer.  I find it exceedingly hard to focus on the neat, little things as I ought.  Instead I focus on silly things, like how much my feet hurt.  Waaah!

Made it.

The extraordinary contrast between this trip, walking, and the one last summer (video link above) where I boated most of the river, was the views.  I had few back in the woods, and none of them sweeping or definitive.  One more vote for packrafting there.

A ranger directed me to the very civilized shelter complex at Goat Haunt.  Concrete floored lean-tos, with a dock and big visitor pavilion 30 feet away.  Fiberglass benches, lights, and bathrooms with running water.  Amazing!  I fired up the Clikstand T2 (on test) to make soup and something extraordinary happened.

The stove’s good, but this had much to do with the greater forces abroad in the land.  Sally the backcountry ranger came to visit, as I was the only non-employee at Goat Haunt that evening, and anyone out backpacking with this much snow is a bit out of the ordinary.  In the course of an hour, we learned that not only had we ran into each other last summer (on the above trip), but that she had graduated from Oberlin in the same class as my sister, and had rented the house next door to ours all last winter.  We spent months regarding each others car stickers with interest, but criminally lacked the initiative to say hello!  Thankfully the universe gave another chance, and for me added an extraordinary and unexpected layer to what had already been a superlative trip.

The rain stopped, Sally bid me goodbye, and I built a fire in the fireplace to better contemplate the favors of the world.

It was a full and rich evening, looking out over the end of the lake.

That’s the pavilion from the lean-to.  Still light enough to read at 2200!  I slept well, but the light and birds woke me up at 450.  I got a bit more sleep, but the morning looked gorgeous and it was time to get moving.

Lots of bear fur for genetic tracking this spring.

Lake Janet resplendent.

Thunderbird Pond full of ice.

T-bird pond again.  Avalanches don’t mess, version 1.

The slope up to Brown’s was hard enough in mid-morning that crampons and axe were prudent.

Avalanches don’t mess, version 2.  Brown’s Pass is a huge catchment basin, and looked 20+ feet of buried.

The descent from Brown’s was the only bit of route finding for the day that had me worried.  I recalled cliffs from last summer, but hiking on a dry trail is like being driven somewhere new and sitting in the back seat: you’re not going to notice much of use in getting there again on your own.  Fortunately I had been following two sets of track from a few days before, coming the other direction.  The stretch from Hawksbill had shown me that they knew the trail very well, and that I wanted them on my team.  They, and some big picture common sense, got me through the cliffs and waterfalls with ease.

The rest was, like the day before, walking forward.

Another trip in the bag.

Taking stock: day trips are bullshit

I’ve had a few ideas washing around my head for a while, and wanted to share some on my new favorite music, and result of both is the following video.  Going through the material I realized that I’ve had quite a good 2011 thus far, and it also struck me that the numerous multiday trips are almost without exception the most memorable.  Day trips, however nice, always seem to come up short

The beginning of the year was marked with many, many days of excellent powder skiing.  A few stand out, but I didn’t go camping enough.  Part of it was laziness and lassitude and inertia, part a lack of confidence in my avy skills (and that many of the best routes are avy prone, also that big traverses take longer in winter).  I did improve my skiing a lot, and resolution number one for next winter is to jump fully into winter ski traverses.

Spring, meaning warmer temps and consolidating snowpack, came very late and inconsistently this year.  My training for the GrizPerson suffered a major hiccup when I ran into a tree skiing Brown Mountain and was out of action for several weeks.  Bill and I still had a good showing, and have a big list of things to do better (and thus be faster) next year.  I got sick right after that race, and took a while to recover, but the last five weeks have been outstanding, both from a training and from a quality-of-adventure standpoint.

Those two juxtaposed and held up to decide plans for this weekend were further illuminated by Jill’s timely post.  Adventure can often be good training, and training can be made adventurous, but sometimes you have to choose one over the other.  I skipped some good ski days in March to train on the bike, a choice made easier by my still-sore leg.  That, and with the Wilderness Classic starting in little more than a month, am obliged to choose my weekend endeavors carefully.  Fortunately the necessity of time on the feet matches well with adventuring, so I’ll be off in the wilds of Glacier for 50 miles this weekend.

All of which is to say that while my season has not been without imperfections, I’m feeling in a good place, and have had an exceedingly enriching time (big hard traverses and the word fun seem an awkward match).  Nights in the woods are the key.

The hardest trip I’ve ever done (yet)

Let me begin at the end.  After catching a wrong turn and finally making it out of Holland Creek canyon, the horse trail contoured around the hillside and dropped into the foothills.  The lake was somewhere off to the right in the haze of lodgepoles.  I had 1.5 to 2 miles left.  My feet hurt and I was in go mode, trying to keep a rapid cadence, not trip on a rock, and not be too preoccupied with either identifying which turn was our turn around point from skiing earlier this year, or on just how much I was going to yell when I could finally take this fucking pack off.

Suddenly M appeared around the next bend.  She kissed me but wisely did not hug (she knows how icky I get).  We walked back at the much slower pace.  She took the camera and stopped to take pictures of flowers.  She took my pack.  Life came crashing back to normal.  I took her picture with the pack on by the Owl Creek TH sign, sat in the grass by the truck, and quietly cried tears of relief and exultation.

She drove home,  It got sunny.  I decided putting my soaking shoes back on was worth it, and we stopped for soda, beer, and a cheeseburger at the Hungry Bear Bar, and on the long straight road north to Swan Lake I spent a lot of time staring blankly out the window.

Big pack at Monture Creek TH.  Packraft, PFD, paddle, skis, and crampons meant that eating didn’t make it much lighter.

I was more nervous about this trip than any since the Thorofare trip last May.  But unlike that trip, where I was able to relax by late the penultimate afternoon, having passed all major obstacles, this route applied tension right through to the end.  I never relaxed out there, and for a while this edginess annoyed me, as given the cold and rain and postholing and deadfall this weekend didn’t need to be more taut.  I’ve now decided that this was entirely appropriate, and the right way to go through with it.  There were a lot of ways and places to mess up, and the consequences of a turned ankle, fall, or swim were ghastly.

So I was glad to get underway Saturday morning, if wracked with doubt.  The glory of a traverse is that retreat is sufficiently inconvenient that you’re unlikely to indulge without very good reason.  I thought about not bothering with the trip at all below Limestone Pass.  After passing through the slow snow and tough mid-elevation route finding over that pass I thought about bailing over Dry Fork divide and down to the North Fork Blackfoot TH.  I especially thought about bailing down to Meadow Creek when I discovered how nice a level the South Fork was at (fast, but not pushy, ~3000 cfs I’m guessing very roughly).

I never had a good enough reason to do any of these, so I didn’t.

After a mile the trail up to Limestone ran into snowy meadows and I lost the trail.  I rounded the ridge to the left too soon and ended up with some skis-off, steep and icey postholing in lodgepole thickets.  Eventually I ran into this conveniently melted avalanche chute and went up it until I found the trail on the melted side.

There were four levels of snowiness on this trip, each with its own route finding demands and imperatives.  At roughly 6000′ and above (lower on north facing aspects, and bit higher on southerly ones) there was enough snow, say consistently 6 or more feet, that deadfall and other irregularities wer buried along with all signs of the trail.  Trying to follow the trail was largely fruitless, skiing was easy, so going from A to B line of sight was best.  Below 5000′ (again, very dependent on aspect and sun exposure) the trails were either clear or with only intermittent patches of snow.  Occasionally enough to be slow and annoying, but never enough to provide even a hint of route finding trouble.  The ~1000′ between was a pain.  Not enough snow to cover impediments, so you really want to be on the trail, but melted out enough (tree wells, weird drifts, snow bridges over streams) that skiing was not especially safe.

Limestone Pass.  A highly recommended destination.  Yep, it’s almost June.

I got punished by all of them.  The 8.5 miles up Monture had flowers, mud, and the middle Monture gorge running high and fast.  It also had plenty of unpleasant postholing.  As mentioned above I miffed the first transition heading up to Limestone, and if anything did worse on the way back down, dropping out of the nice snow zone into mandatory postholing and bushwacking back and forth along a stream drainage.  Finally I said fuck it and climbed up the north side to look for the trail, and in a classic head slapper moment found it within 50 meters.  Thankfully day 2 was all dry or almost dry trail (and by dry I mean snow free) and river, though log jams in the lower reaches of Danaher (thanks Ryan!) kept the excitement high.

Prepping to put in to Danaher Creek at upper Basin Flats.  I hiked until almost 10pm the night before, and though about not pitched my tarp.  It started drizzling sometimes in the night, and that rain turned to snow around 3am.  I woke up to a sagging tarp and 3″ of wet fresh.

I had the first big celebration of the trip when I floated into the confluence with Youngs Creek at 11am on Sunday.  The next few hours would be the easiest moving hours of the trip, and the upper South Fork is already one of my favorite places on earth.  So big, so powerful that describing it with words or images is today still too daunting.  After making a video of my trip last August, I gave up, and hardly wrote a word.  The caliber of experience was the same, with vastly higher water.  I made quick and easy time, five hours from confluence to Big Salmon Creek, including a 45 minute warming fire and soup break on a gravel bar.  I floated past my awesome first camp from last year, the long I built my fire next to was almost under water (it had been ~25 feet up the shore), and the snag from which I caught my dinner was visible as only the subtlest of ripples on the surface.  The numerous places where, last August, I had been forced to haul the boat down gravel bars were this weekend swift and smooth.  I was cold, that damp all-pervading low-level cold that goes with packrafting in the rain, and avoided all the waves and riffles I could to keep from getting colder, but as always packrafting added a surprising dimension and profound depth to the trip.

I was excited to see the extensive corral fence of the Big Salmon ranger station, which meant I could get out, dance in the sand to wake up my sleeping feet, pack up, and get moving to get warm.  I visited the ranger station, used their outhouse, read a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks magazine from 2000, and kept moving.  All day it had, in classic Bob fashion, gone back and forth between raining and not with little discernible pattern, but along the shores of Big Salmon Lake (picture a slightly shorter Bowman Lake without a road leading to it) it stopped raining and warmed enough that for the first time all trip, I took off my rain shell.  Fighting through the deadfalls with skis on my pack kept me honest, but I nonetheless made the head of the lake, my theoretical destination, by 630pm.  Still in go-mode, I pushed on, resolving to hike at least another hour.  Banking miles against tomorrow would prove to be wise.

I found a gorgeous meadow camp at the base of an avalanche chute, ran a few elk out of trees, made dinner, hung the food, pitched the tarp, and collapsed.  It was still light enough at 945 that I could read the map without a light under my light blue tarp.  There were miles to make tomorrow, but I was in a good position, and Pendant Pass into Upper Holland was a thousand feet lower than Limestone.  I fell asleep fast, and slept hard, well, and easily until dawn.

Skis and Black Bear tracks on the last mile of trail before the Pendant Creek junction.  Bears are excellent route finders, and can save a winter traveler a lot of bother when trying to follow a snowed-in trail.

It is tempting to glow over the ~10 hours of work the last day entailed because, even though my mind was focused on particular after particular in the effort to secure the easiest footing and stay on the trail, the all-enveloping process of such hard travel blends the salient moments into one large sea of remote struggle and achievement.  It is not the state of mind often found amongst cars and buildings, and thus writing about it seems a bit obscene.  None of the miles yesterday, save the last three on bare dirt, were easy.  Big Salmon Creek curved a hair almost immediately after I left camp, and that in combination with dropping to a gentler, more treed slope allowed the rotten drifts to proliferate.  I was in for miles of slow and steady slogging and cursing before I finally found enough snow to ski.

Waterfalls in the Bob never cease to be awesome.

When I finally did put on skis, right after this waterfall, following the trail became a concern.  I figured that until I got established in Pendant Creek, I ought to try and stay with the official program to make my life easier.  Fortunately, the aforementioned bear gave me a tow all the way to the junction, and after dealing with the hardest creek crossing of the trip (6-10 foot snow walls on either side) I was wandering up the final climb before the final descent.  I lost the trail, found it, and lost it again, but that was only just a distraction from the amazingly sloggarific going.  The skis, heavier by far than snowshoes, carried more than used, and thus up to that point of questionable worth, proved themselves in 4-8″ or fresh snow turned that day into sticky mashed potatoes by rain.  The Hoks slide right out of each trench, and have just enough float to get by.  I crested the pass in a micro-blizzard, sent a Spot point to signal M to come get me, and linked long diagonal skid-turns down to the still-frozen lake.

The last navigational challenge was to be the cliffs and switchbacks on the initial descent from Upper Holland.  I took of skis and put on crampons, and began an interesting act of exploration: who would be the better route finder, griz or moose?  Sometime within the last few days a fair-sized griz had come down from the lake, and even more amazingly, earlier that morning a moose had come up to the lake (still frozen solid and drifted in thick, what was it hoping to find?!).  Their tracks occasionally diverged, but mostly conspired to help me find the trail.  I was glad to have hauled the weight of crampons on a few steep and hard sections with nasty drops.  But soon enough the ‘pons were off and I was moving downhill on mud and rocks as fast as my tired legs would go.  A bit below the snow line I saw fresh sneaker tracks in the mud (women out morrell hunting, according to M), and soon enough ran into M herself, was at the truck, and was home on the couch drinking soda, showered, with a massive spread of gear drying in the basement.

Yes, I was fucking tired.

Why the hardest trip yet?  Because difficulty lives on the sliding scale of experience and imagination.  Two years ago I never would have even thought of this trip.  Then I did Le Parcour with Kevin, the Thorofare trip, and my eyes started to be opened.  I started packrafting.  A year ago I might have thought of this trip, but never would have had the boldness to do it.  Starting out Saturday I knew I could do this trip, and for all the doubt and lurking hazard and suffering going back into the tunnel which is the slogging execution of grand plans was visiting a familiar friend.  For all the misery of slow miles, especially on Monday, I never doubted that I would make it.  I just wondered how much would be required.

And that is, in the end, the point.

SW Bob Memorial Traverse: A Trip Planning Case Study

So I want to plan a trip for this coming, three day, weekend.  A precious thing, those three days, to be used wisely (hence the above image, which has nothing to do with the conditions I’ll find on my trip).

It’s much more accurate say that I’ve been planning this trip, for a couple months.  Albiet vaguely, turning over routes in my head, watching the snowpack melt and the rivers rise.  I’ve been observing conditions out in the field, and seeing how they generalize back to online information sources.  Based on all this I’ve seized odd moments, most often driving to appointments at work, to consider what gear I might bring along.  Only now, less than a week out, do I start to do concrete planning, and start to put actually pieces of gear in my pack.

Not everyone’s speed, but how I prefer to operate.

Now that image I expect to see this weekend.  That’s from just on the east side of Limestone Pass, looking down into the Upper Danaher Valley.  I’ve settled on my route, and for a variety of reasons impressively little of it will be new to me.

Extra-hiking circumstances shape route selection, inevitably.  In this case, I’m going to a party with grad school friends in Missoula on Friday night, and while I though about waking early to drive to a TH on the east side of the Bob, doing so after a night of drinking (and skipping Bernice’s for supplies) is not a good idea.  It would also mean a lot of extra driving.

I also need M, whose tireless shuttle driving and support makes virtually all my trips possible, to pick me up Monday evening with a minimum of inconvenience.  This dictates the exit point.  I want three full days, but don’t intend to go at race pace (ie no more than 14-6 hours on the move per day), so the distance should be 60-90 miles, depending on conditions.  Conditions are likely to be challenging, so I’m going for a route of around 70 miles.

This route. 

Start in Monture Creek (an easy TH to access), up the creek for 8 miles (should be snow free), up and over Limestone Pass (7k, plenty of snow), down into Danaher Meadows (will have less snow than the projections indicate), then down Danaher to the S Fork (floating, mostly), then down the S Fork to Forks o’ Salmon (should be faast floating), up Big Salmon (walking, then snow in the trees), over the low pass to Upper Holland Lake (snow), and down to Holland Lake (snow, ice, should I bring crampons?).

Mapping software, satellite imagery, snow projections, and stream flows are all vital tools.  (I can zoom in on the upper reaches of Big Salmon, unknown to me, and see that none of the avy paths are especially threatening, the trail stays in mature timber almost the whole time.)  Otherwise the ‘net isn’t helpful; if people do these sort of trips, they don’t write about them.  A body of experience allows accurate generalizations from the abstract.

The forecast is next.  It looks crappy, but that doesn’t really change my planning.  Next is to compile a mental list of gear, start packing it, buy food, etc.

I’ll be bringing lots of stuff, so the North Fork pack is the only tool for the job.  It’s not going to be that cold at night, so I’ll bring my synthetic quilt.  I’m digging my Prolite XS right now, so that comes too.  Our new Shangrila 2 arrives tomorrow, so if the forecast deteriorates further I might bring that.  Or maybe my Montbell bivvy and a tarp, but probably the Shangrila (mixed snow and rain).

I’ll have the Hoks with universal bindings, and adjustable poles with powder baskets.  Packraft, paddle, and PFD (given the high flow and cold water).  I’m really torn on crampons, the trail down from Upper Holland is steep and sheltered and crosses a stream a few times, but I won’t need them anywhere else.

Food will be standard: ramen and potatoes for dinner, bars and lots of chocolate for lunch, bagels for breakfast (maybe Nutella, too).  Lots of coffee and extra soup.  Probably bring a cartridge stove to make mid-day hot drinks fast and easy.

Clothing is tough, as the weather could make the high crossings and packrafting spectacularly miserable.  Real raingear, LS synthetic base, softshell vest, pile hoody.  Probably some fleece tights, an extra wool hat, and maybe even an insulated vest, as I might be pushing my sleep system a bit in the worst case.  Definitely liner gloves and G-tex mitts.  That’s a lot of clothing.

Time to start packing.

Vicarious enjoyment

A few nice things to entertain and inspire. I need them; post-trip blues, mediocre weather, and a slow day at work aren’t making we want to get out of my pajamas very fast.

I have no desire to ever directly experience anything in that particular universe, but it’s nice to know that it’s out there.

Roman’s superlative guest post, on the other hand, is exactly my style. Thinking about the classic this summer, now that makes me want to get moving this AM.

Big Mountain – Apgar traverse

Friday evening I was tired.  On weeks like this past my work does not afford me much mental rest, and I despite plans to the contrary I did not have the wherewithall to pack and get out on the trail that evening.  The plan had been for me to get out in time for the roller derby bout Saturday evening, and then go do an adventure with M on Saturday.  There were many good options for a day trip, but I suspected I’d need an overnight to be satisfied.  Gear to test, silence to experience, so forth.

Eventually a plan was hatched, ice cream was consumed, books were read, my pack was packed, and I went to sleep.  M dropped me off at the base area of Big Mountain around 900, and I walked, snowshoed, postholed, and packrafted my way in Apgar in just less than 24 hours.

It was a good idea.  Both days this weekend were sunny and warm, hot by our current standards, with winds that (apparently) downed trees and telephone poles throughout western Montana, almost blew me off my feet on the summit of Big Mountain, and when they came upstream made paddling the North Fork Saturday evening a lot harder than it already was.

We’ve had a windy year generally, as evidenced by some formidable and durable cornices on this anonymous ridge overlooking Big Creek.  Those are not small trees.

Aside from the wind and excellent views, snowshoeing off the mountain and down into the lower, melted and thus civilized reaches of Big Creek was non-eventful.  I did need to drop off my fireroad and bushwack down across the creek on one occasion, which led me through the unpleasant zones of ever more rotten snow.  In the video you can see one of the fun sink-to-the-waist moments when I would hit a hollow patch.

The floatability of Big Creek had been a large question in my mind.  The volume (from driving past the mouth on Wednesday) and gradient were good, but given that the whole lower drainage had burned within the last decade I was concerned that wood would render things slow, dangerous, terrifying, or all of the above.  I had wet and cold feet when I hit dry dirt just before Hallowat Creek, so I walked a further half mile to get warm and scope the creek.  It looked good, so I bushwacked through the deadfall (the wind blew a tree over ~50 feet from me, the first of three that would fall close by that day), suited up, and put in.  The water was fast and pushy, affording no downtime and little time not maneuvering to avoid holes, logs, or to setup for ideal positioning around the next bend.  The dilemma in such creeks is that with few eddies and willow-lined banks, getting early notice of log jams is crucial.  You want to be on the outside of a bend to get first look, but in the case of partial jams that always sit on the outside right after a bend, a rapid ferry either to avoid the wood or eddy out and portage is the order of the day.

I was having fun and making excellent time in the water, but soon the portages became more numerous and their placement on the creek less generous with its room for error.  On the last one (shown in the vid) a particularly fast and narrow bend dumped me right above two nasty logs with no eddies in sight.  A Harlequin duck pair was camped on an almost totally submerged gravel bar, are were not pleased as I came screaming in to land, ripping the deck early and jumping out into knee deep water, trying to hold on to the boat, paddle, and stay upright.  I shouldered the boat, got out, and decided that Big Creek and I were done.  A larger supply of patience and nerves could have made the float work, but I’m a chicken and control freak and just wasn’t having fun any more.

Seven more miles on foot down the dirt road was good classic training.

I couldn’t walk away from my fear completely, the North Fork of the Flathead really needed to be floated to stay on schedule, and was running huge and unleashed at 12,000 cfs (last weekend it was between 3,000 and 4!).  I made sure to attach the pack to the boat, and my PFD to me, especially well before putting in.

For such a huge level, my progress downstream was not screamingly fast.  Much of this was due to the maddening, fierce upstream gusts, which caught whichever light, high side of my boat/pack was available and tried to spin me around.  Sinking a paddle blade to stay facing downstream often resulted in an annoying auto-ferry to one side or the other.  Compounding this, my Aquabound comes stock with one mild feather setting, which means the blade in the air caught massive resistance and made paddling forward strenuous enough that my elbows ached by the time I took out at the confluence with the Middle Fork.  (I’m drilling a new hole this evening to fix that issue.)

Sunday AM camp breaking yardsale.

The Flathead at such a level was truly impressive.  At all other times quite demure, this spring day the river put me in my rightly small space, in my very small-seeming boat.  Channeling around a gravel bar resulted in a formidable back-boil that sat noticeably above the level of the main channel, and when such streams reunited the roiling eddy lines seethed, alternately flattening into nothing and twisting into whirlpools with no discernible predictability.  I found it interesting, but not very relaxing (hence the almost total lack of from the boat footage).

Above one particularly legit-looking riffle I pulled off to empty the boat, re-temper, and shake some blood back into my limbs.  I thought about scouting, but that seemed silly on the North Fork.  Putting back in, I realized that this riffle was a legit rapid.  Nervous, and so concentrated on ferrying left but not too left to thread the needles between two holes (for real, holes!) I exhaled to enjoy my positioning just in time to look ahead and see a horizon line rapidly approaching.  Oops.  That was dumb.  Instinct got me off the three foot ledge drop with no problems (and thanking the packrafting ability to skim over recirculations), but when I eddied out and looked back upstream (first shot after the Big Creek and North Fork confluence in the vid) I was pissed.  My goal for the stretch had been to hit my lines, and choose the easiest and mellowest lines through all the whitewater.  I had hit my line, but chosen it badly.

As I mentioned, I’m a control freak, and the difficulty with which one imposes control on a river is disconcerting.  Two more legit rapids followed closely, and I portaged each to make a point to myself.  The first looked easy, but the last one had some big holes and standing waves, features I would not want to paddle a packraft into, even with a drysuit and small army of safety boaters to fish me out.  Fortunately for me ease with life, the river relented a bit, and I made it down to the confluence with some ferrying around big standing waves, a mandatory run through some truly weird eddylines/boils/whirlpools, and an exchange of gazes with a moose eating willows at rivers edge 30 feet away.  Three hours after I put in I took out, cold, damp, and a bit annoyed with myself, but happy.  I got moving to shake the cold, found a gorgeous camp, cooked dinner as darkness came, and fell asleep quickly.

McDonald Creek.

The sun got me up early.  I made tea and enjoyed the view, and once moving was soon on familiar territory.  I texted M, who was to meet me at Apgar, that I was ahead of schedule, and even with plenty of photo-futzing en route was sure to beat her.  Unfortunate, as I was hungry, having on purpose brought only the bare minimum of food.

The Middle Fork was running even higher than the North Fork.  The circle bridge, which I had floated under (with lots of room to spare) this past Monday, was up to within a foot of the bridge supports.  The parking area which had been dry on Wednesday afternoon was under a foot of water.  The world, which had been sitting with perfect patience through most of March and all of April, had come rushing to life with a vociferous joy sufficiently beyond the civilized human palette that it’s a bit unsettling to witness.  A reminder that the world, in the course of its moods, will occasionally sweep away our roads, homes, and orderliness with no malice or intention.

It was then quite proper that I felt small.

McDonald Creek.

Lake McDonald was quiet and windy, with businesses still closed for the season and isolated groups of tourists hunched against the chill edge taking pictures.  I used the facilities and got some water, staring into the mirror in the same bathroom where, back in September, I changed into nice clothes before driving to the interview that got me the job I’ll go to later this morning.  The most mundane places can be sentimental given context.

M arrived with hot coffee and food, and the news that she had forgotten her snowshoes, making our planned ascent to the Mount Brown lookout a matter for next weekend.  Perhaps a good thing, as I was feeling a bit hollow.

Instead, we drove up to the Polebridge Mercantile, chatted with the owners (Stuart, one half of the couple, and I share a past as employees of Missoulas homeless shelter) and ate baked goods in the yard.  We then walked up the still-closed to vehicles road to Bowman Lake flower hunting and enjoying another blue day.

Bowman Lake, mid-May, with ice.

By the time our 12 mile out and back was done I had over 40 miles on the feet in two days, and was ready to be home on the coach with food and beer.  M was nice enough to drive.

What I’m calling recovery tacos; protein maximized.  Vegetarian refried beans spread on tortillas and warmed not quite to the point of lightly toasted in the oven, steak, eggs, avocado, salsa, and potatoes.

Now it’s Monday, and raining outside, and even in the face of fatigue and the afterglow I don’t want to go to work.  After sleeping more, I’d rather be back out there.

“Be Brave, Be Strong” book review

Jill Homer, whom I am blessed to call a friend, has written a new book about her journey up to and race of the 2009 Tour Divide.  In reflecting on the 300+ page book, which I read in one sitting on Monday night, I can think of no better words to summarize it than those in the title itself: it is a very brave, very strong book indeed.

In several ways it is a simpler work than her previous book “Ghost Trails.”  The narrative arc is a straightforward chronological account of five months in 2009, beginning with Jill’s frostbite induced DNF from the Alaska Ultrasport race and ending with her arrival at the Mexican border upon completion of the Tour Divide.  The story is compact, easy to follow, and in many ways, simple.  Jill struggles with failure at the Ultrasport (failure of judgment, not of ability), the choice of leaving her job as a newspaper editor and home of Juneau, and with her longtime boyfriend breaking off their relationship of eight years.  This frequently gut-tangling story is the first part of the book.  The second is the tale of Jill journeying to Utah to visit her childhood home, train, and to rebuild enough mental fortitude to even start the Tour Divide.

I looked into his eyes; they reflected a sort of hollow exhaustion. I
wanted to tell Geoff that I didn’t know who he was. I wanted to scream that
I couldn’t be sure even he really knew who he was. But before the words
could leave my lips, I realized with a calming tremor that his explanation did
have rings of truth. Geoff and I lived in the same house in Juneau, but we
went to our separate jobs and did our separate runs and bike rides and hung
out with our different friends and co-workers. For so long, too long, we had
floated on memories and routine. There was little else to salvage. Geoff and
I hadn’t been close in a long time. But people don’t just give up eight years
like that, not like that, with hollow words in rooms lit like prison cells. I tried
to form the words to tell him that people don’t just throw away a decade of
investment in a relationship on fleeting whims. But I was again silenced by
cold realization — people do that all the time.
“So,” Geoff ’s voice cracked. “Will you still go to Utah with me?”  (p. 44)

It’s worth stopping and remembering that when she took the start in June Jill had been on crutches three months before, and while in endurance racing the mental dimension is the most important, a certain physical level is required, if for no other reason than to hold up to hours and days of effort without injury.  Jill showing up at all under extraordinarily less than ideal circumstances is the crux of the narrative, and readers may well think what I did as a race spectator back in 2009; that given her track record of tenacity once Jill began riding south a finish was fait accompli.

Thankfully for a reader it was not quite that simple, and we are treated to an intimate account of all the thrilling ups and downs of an athletic and personal feat of such magnitude.  There’s a generic pleasure here of such effective vicarious living, especially when so many of the poignant moments involve unspeakable misery.  There is also the very specific pleasure of Jill, the fearless writer, at the height of her raciocinative powers.

Eventually, my mouth became so dry that I could not swallow, so I
reached for my water valve and took large, delicious gulps, savoring the water
even more than I had the food. As I drank, I moved around my makeshift
campsite, picking up the miscellaneous objects that had been strewn like an
unkempt yard sale around my bicycle. During my apathetic delirium the night
before, I had managed to disgorge most of the contents of my bicycle bags
all over the ground, and then left them out all night at the mercy of animals
and rain. Luckily, nothing seemed to be missing, and after about fifteen
anxious minutes, I managed to put the whole damp mess back in order. With
a couple thousand calories in my belly, I felt a blast of exuberance about my
miraculous turnaround. In reality, my skull still throbbed beneath a pounding
headache and I was still deeply dehydrated, but I felt like I had ricocheted off
my own deathbed.  (p. 296)

The narrative of personal struggle leading to and then quickly beyond personal triumph is likely the first literary trope to exist in prehistory, and “Be Brave, Be Strong” falls right on a line that runs through Homer to Shackleton and beyond.  It’s a tale exceedingly well told, and yet there is more to it than just that.  When I reviewed “Ghost Trails” several years ago I wrote

The tradition in male adventure literature (which is still a redundant term) is to gloss over the mishap and moments of panic, briefly describe the solution, and move on to other things, thus endorsing the stiff-upper-lip and tacitly reinforcing one’s own mental toughness.  Jill seems to do the opposite, the terror of the Kuskokwim River waterfall and the Farewell Burn singe a reader’s memory. 

I think this has become even more true with “Be Brave, Be Strong.”  Not only does the reader get an emotional rich and honest account of the intra-race struggles, we get a marvelously sweeping and enveloping emotional contextualization of those struggles.  I do not think that readers who have not had the pleasure of knowing Jill personally will be any less inclined than me to, when reading of her failing freewheel in the Great Divide Basin, jump through the screen and give her a push and yell down the road when the shattered ratchet mechanism finally engages.

“Be Brave, Be Strong” is a book both simple and enormously complex, a story both nuanced and quick-reading, and an adventure narrative of both personal and cultural significance.  As a sequel to “Ghost Trails” it is both a spellbinding continuation of Jill’s development as a cyclist and as a person, as well as a major step forward in the integrity of her craft.  Most of all, it elevates the joy of suffering on a bike to high intrapersonal art.  Be warned, if you have any inclination towards long searching bike rides that idea will have been sunk much deeper by the time you finish this book.

Thank you Jill, for letting us so bravely inside your life for a few moments.  More than ever we now know that it is as we suspected, a challenging and thrilling place.

Talon 11 v. Talon 22 v. Hornet 24 (v. my toes)

I do love packs!  Always have.  I like feet too.

Like the photo sez (L to R): Talon 11 (circa ’09), Hornet 24 (circa ’11), Talon 22 (circa ’07).  Feet circa ’81-present, a work in progress (of ugliness, mostly).

I got the 22 in early ’08, as that was what all the cool kids had.  It has done very well.  In the spring of 2009 I gave in to pack lust and got the 11, even though I strictly didn’t need it.  It’s proven faithful for day adventures, and generally a more frequently used size than the 22, though not big enough for overnights on foot or more gear intensive adventures (winter).

The 24 is brand new, on test for BPL (packs designed for active pursuits, 20-25 liters, claimed at less than 600 grams; we found five).  It appears to be smaller than the 22, and might be, though based on stuffing both full of the same load of towels they are very close in size, closer than the photos make it seem.  It seems like an ideal amalgamation of the 11 and 22, with the best features of both.

For instance:

-both the 11 and 24 have unpadded waist belt wings, I don’t think the padding in the 22’s does anything

-the 11 and 24 have a fixed shoulder yoke, for lightness and simplicity (folks much taller than 6′ might not like this so much)

-the 24 has a less fat and protrusive booty than the 22, but is wider than the 11

-the 24 lacks the goofy inside wallet pockets, has thinner webbing, and is generally leaner

-the 24 has much better compression than both of the others.

-the 24 has better shoulder strap padding (and the narrow straps of the old Talons) than the 11 or 22 ever had as stock

Circa ’08 Talon 44 straps and yoke on my 22.  Thicker than the stock straps and with a solid center section that increases the carry comfort substantially.  Still thin like the stock ’07-’08 22 straps.

Talon 11 straps.  Wider (pointless IMO) and lacking the united center.  Ok for a small pack.

Hornet 24 straps.  Narrow, thick foam like the 44 straps, with a layer of 3D foam/mesh on the inside to spread the load.  Very nice indeed.

24 v. 22 hip belt comparo.  Note the refined design and smaller hardware and webbing on the 24.

First summary point: Osprey hit the nail on the head with the original Talon 22 concept, and I assume they’ve made bank on it.

Second summary point: the Hornet 24 is the next, substantially improved generation of the 22.

If you want to buy a used Talon 11 and 22, head over to the Bikepacking.net forums soon.