A trail quiz

First, a quiz: which of the following trails have seen human work and construction, and which never have?

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Second; animal trails are very important for backcountry walkers.  They always form the most efficient route from one place to another, the trick is finding enough of the animal mind to know what and where those places are.  Just the other week an elk trail took me to a major spring I never knew existed, despite having walked within a quarter mile of it on close to ten separate occasions.  That seemingly year-round water source reshuffles how I think about that particular nexus of ridges and canyons.  Geology moves water, water realigns animal activity, and some mix of both creates how humans came to see, know, and travel through wild landscapes.  It is a lot simpler, while tired and hot and counting the hours to an iced coffee, to leave the moment while walking a human trail.  Grades tend to be more predictable, footing more secure, routing more homogenous.  All of these have often been on the landscape so long that the antecedent influence of the landscape disappears.

This distinction will be an important one in 2021.  Visitation and general interest in the wild world was climbing in the decade prior to the pandemic.  Having the state of the world throw the virtues of being outside in ones face has, anecdotally and as far as the data can suggest, wrought a large and potentially lasting increase in outdoor engagement.  It has also, it would seem, provided both the time and the impetus for contemplating this part of our national landscape.  

It is easy to forget what Thoreau meant when we wrote “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Wildness here means, in brief, all that which is beyond the scope of human direction and imagination.  The more technocratic nature writers have, over the past 30 years, forgotten (or, I suggest while trying to withhold snideness, never gotten to know) the pragmatic side of wild places.  That regardless of lines we as humans draw on maps or in our laws, animals, plants, the landscape as a whole will continue to do as it wants, and if left largely alone in a big enough space, stay wild.  What each of us may find appealing is as Cronon says a “cultural invention,” but so is everything.  The basic subjectivity our any particular human experience with the wild does nothing to break up either the existence of the wild outside us, or it’s fundamental unknowability.

And that is, of course, the point.

Last, the answers: the first photo is a human trail, with the path cleared through the trees and cut logs being rather obvious; the second and third images are of the same elk trail, about a mile apart; the final image is on an official trail, but this particular stretch has not I think ever seen a tool.  The final three images were all carved by significant yearly elk traffic.  The bottom photo is within a major N-S running valley that is a major migration corridor.  There is only one logical place to put a trail in the alpine section of the valley.  The trail depicted in the middle two photos is ~4 miles long, and save for one steep hill could easily be ridden in a mountain bike.  It travels between a major water source and a series of sheltered south facing hillsides which form a significant bit of winter range for a small herd.  On the first photo, if you go back 200 years I reckon there was an elk, deer, and sheep trail right about where the current human path is cut, and these days I guess that many times more elk than humans walk it each calendar year.

Essential Skills: Garment zipper replacement

Replacing a zipper, generally in a full zip jacket, is one of the most common and thus, most essential serious gear repairs you’ll do.  Serious in this case being roughly defined as requiring more than tape or glue to manage.  The zipper on my 4 year old Haglofs Pile hoody recently died, providing a good tutorial on how to effect this repair.

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The first step in any repair is preventative maintenance.  With jacket zippers, the first step here is to buy garments made from good materials.  #5 YKK zips are a good place to start (# refers to size, bigger meaning larger, and the number can generally be found on the back of the slider, bottom stop, or both).  #3 zippers are in full zip jackets a invitation to a short product life.  Zippers fail when the materials wear, so keeping the teeth clean and not yanking too much both go a decent way towards maximizing function.  When separation begins to occur (see above), often a worn slider is at fault.  The metal of the slider wears ever so slightly, enough that it doesn’t fully engage the teeth when pulled up.  Engage the zipper, and bend the two halves together with pliers (this page has good photos).

With my jacket, this did not get the job done.   Wear to the plastic teeth, combined with fraying on the bottom stop, prevented things from seating properly, making total replacement the only option.  As I outline below, this isn’t too difficult or time consuming, but it is also not the most basic repair.  Companies with good warranties and repair policies (e.g Patagonia) will replace zippers, often for free.  Companies with mediocre policies (e.g. OR) will usually send you a new jacket).  Companies with less good policies (e.g. Arc’teryx) will often give you the run around before replacing the garment.  For me repair is both better style and better for the environment.  Knowing I wanted to put a beefier zipper into this specific jacket (packed size and weight not being a concern), I ordered up a #8 YKK coil zip as a replacement, and got out the knife.

Haglofs did a good job making the zipper both well sewn in an fairly easy to remove.  The strip of grosgrain is the key here: remove the little bartack on either end, cut out a few inches of stitching on one end, and at this point the thread is thin enough you can just rip the rest of the stitch line in a good yank.  The zipper itself is sewn directly to the fleece with another line of stitching, similarly slowly cut out a few inches with a knife or seam ripper, then give it a rip.

The only tricky part of sewing the new zipper on is the tendency of fleece to stretch, especially if your machine doesn’t have a walking foot.  Pins aren’t a bad idea to prevent this, or use stitch lines in the garment as reference marks, sewing 3-5 inches at a time and making sure the fabric doesn’t stretch.  If you let the fleece stretch, the zipper will get longer than it should, and the fit will be weird.  Once you’ve stitched the zipper in on either side via a plain seam, and in this case reused the zipper flap, again via a plain seam, flip the garment back right side out (top photo) and top stitch through the folded seam to lock everything in place.

Simple, easy, and now you can fix your own stuff.  Once practiced this is a ~20 minute job.

Marin San Quentin tire clearance

It is not really possible to have too much tire clearance on a mountain bike.  Clearance adds versatility, with tires being the fastest and most drastic way to alter the performance of your bike, and especially in the mud, excessive clearance has little downside.  The one significant downside, the demand clearance places on chainstay length and drivetrain compatibility, has been decently addressed by machined chainstay yokes, 1x drivetrains, and wider rear hub spacing.   Sadly, the bike industry is governed by fashion rather than product longevity, with most bikes being designed for the minimum current trends deem acceptable.

Fortunately, there are exceptions.

Plus (read ~3″ wide) tires are a fashion that peaked and rapidly waned.  Tires this fat are a bit much for the manicured trails which have become the industries ideal.  As the San Quentin frame demonstrates, it is very possible to make a bike with plenty of tire clearance, short chainstays (425mm), that also works with the largest chainring you’d ever want to run (I bet you could squeak a 36t in there).  I wouldn’t have purchased the frame without plenty of rumors to this effect, but wanted to put up photos confirming it.  So here they are.

This is a Teraveil Coronado on the stock i29mm rims, set up tubeless and with a good ~week to stretch.  The Coronado is both truly 3″wide, and quite tall, especially on these narrower rims.  As you can see, seatstay and downtube clearance are good, and chainstay clearance is adequate.  It is possible that with such a voluminous tire one might run into trouble with wider rims.

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The San Quentin has truly come alive with these tires.  The stock Flow Snaps grip well, but have a very floppy sidewall, and the lack of both sturdiness and volume made them a big skittish and lacking in support.  I always wanted more, especially on the front, while creeping down steep stuff.  The Coronados, even in the supple casing, are nicely stout, and the tread pattern suits the volume well, gripping well enough and being quite fast.  I did flip the front for better braking traction.

It is also worth following up on my previous difficulties getting the Flow Snaps to go tubeless.  I never fund a sustainable setup, and went back to tubes out of annoyance.  After chasing a few issues with getting the Coronados set up, I can say that both the stock rim strips and tires were the source of my original problems.  The rim strips valve hole was too large to seal well with a Stans valve stem, and the Flow Snap sidewalls never stopped leaking a bit of sealant.  An unfortunate spec shortcut that could be frustrating for someone buying the base model San Quentin as their first mountain bike.

Old mud

In a recent interview, father of hellbiking Roman Dial said ( to paraphrase) that he became interested in wilderness biking because walking was too simple.  Off trails, cycling punishes poor route choices, while the speed and effort differences between good walking and bad walking terrain are exponentially less.  This is why the 1997 Nat Geo article will remain one of the most staggering, nigh uncomprehensible, and influential wilderness trips of all time.   Since my own mountain biking career petered out into hobbyhood a decade ago, I’ve been in denial about Roman’s insight, and semi-intentionally avoided reckoning with what it would mean to embrace what hellbiking would mean in the lower 48.  A lot of this is logistical; it being difficult to find public lands where biking is legal off official routes.  Some of it had to do with equipment; full fat bikes are great, but they’re often overkill for wild terrain and almost always too heavy for the extensive pushing and carrying.  But most of it was my reluctance to go all in on the ambiguity, on potentially handicapping myself massively on a route, and having an extensive learning curve before mistakes and failing ceased to be the default.

After building my new bike, and frankly after doing almost everything I ever care to do in backpacking over the past decade, I had no tenable excuses left, and no choice but to dive in.

The route was a version of one I’d been thinking about for years and years, so naturally with being new to the intricacies and having lots of guesses invested, lots went wrong.  For the first time since 2006, when we moved to Arizona, I ran out of both tubes and patches on a ride, and limped down the final hill stopping to pump up both tired every quarter mile.  So duh: if you ride in cactus country you need tubeless tires with an excessive amount of sealant inside.  I shouldn’t have had to learn that one again.  I was also surprised to find the big river still frozen over.  Not solid, but far to thoroughly to paddle, and far too slushy to walk across.  This both made the full loop impossible, and robbed my bail option, which would have been really nice when I got into the cottonwood bottoms already dangerously low on tubes.  Lastly, and most significantly for the future, I learned that overall moisture levels will in the future be vital for viable passage.  The wash riding here will be exceptional, when things are either dry or frozen and the gumbo is locked away.  As it was experience let me keep my drivetrain intact and derailleur hanger on the bike, but only just, there being about a dozen instances when a little more pedal pressure would have brought on terminal chainsuck, derailleur dismemberment, or both.

But the deertrack and cowtrack and especially elktrack was sublime, especially that elk trail which hammered across a skinny ridgetop and surfed sandy rollers all the way down to the wash, each dip somehow just on the edge of butt to tire rideable.  The Marin, newly outfitted with 3 inch tires, performed perfectly, and when I can fix my technical mistakes and misunderestimation of the conditions, I could not be more excited to get back out there.

Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody

I’ve written an enormous amount about windshirts over the past decade, their importance in a layering system, and the associated subtleties.   To recap; outdoor clothing in general and wind layers in particular have over the past decade explored the range of breathability and overall weather protection in a comprehensive fashion.  Specific to windshirts, the frontier over the past few years has been in making a breathable fabric which is both acceptably light and acceptably tough, and most significantly does not suck up and retain too much moisture.  This last has been the primary liability of the otherwise category defining Alpine Start since in was introduced in 2014.

My 5 year old Alpine Start was getting long in the tooth, with the stock DWR all but gone and a few rips and holes.  I wanted to try something different, perhaps from a company with less evil/capitalist overtones.  The STP (Stretch Terre Planing) hoody is made from 90 grams/meter polyester, with a 4 way mechanical stretch.  Compared to the Alpine Start, which has an 80 grams/meter 93/7 nylon/spandex fabric.  7% spandex is a lot, and all things being equal, poly should absorb much less water than nylon, while potentially (all thing being equal, which they never are) being less abrasion resistant.  Dry time and moisture retention was my priority in a windshirt, so the STP fabric had my attention.

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Virtues of the fabric put aside for a moment (and it is a really good fabric), the STP hoody has a bunch of virtues that well suit backcountry activities, and a few major caveats.  The first and by far most significant downside is the torso volume, which as discussed here is positively huge for the size.  I don’t think I could live with the STP without modifying this, making it a big caveat for folks who can’t or don’t care to cut up their new 125 dollar shell.  The other caveat is the pockets, which sit right under a hipbelt.  They are nice pockets, with the interior side being mesh and the zippers well anchored and smooth running.  They are useful any time one is not wearing a pack, and I both don’t find them a problem under a hipbelt (so long as they’re empty) and don’t mind not having pockets on a windshell when I’m using a big pack.  Around town, skiing, day hiking, or biking the pockets are useful and useable, so there is the argument for that, and it is a good one.

Otherwise the fit and detailing are excellent.  The torso and arm length are both above average.  The minimal cuff detailing, with just a little bit of elastic sewn in, leans in to the strength of the fabric being fast drying.  The little cord thumb loops, unlike so many shirts, are actually big enough to fit over a (gloved!) thumb, and due to this and sleeve length are both useful and easy to ignore when you want to.  The hood is big (not helmet big), and while it lacks a rear draw cord the patterning and soft fabric work to keep it out of your eyes, and the drawcords are external and easy to cinch.  The cords are non-stretch ribbon, and the cord locks anchored bits of neoprene.  They are not easy to loosen, requiring two hands, but the whole interface is secure, and very low profile.  A similar system on a hardshell might go a long way towards solving the dreaded blizzard induced cord end to the face.

Anecdotally the STP fabric has been very fast drying.  On colder but not frigid, humid days I get a bit of bogginess in the Alpine Start which has never been ideal.  My first attempt at quantifying this difference did not endorse my intuitive conclusion, so I’ll be using the STP as a platform for further investigations there.  My assumption is that I’ll use it a ton this spring and summer, and report back.

The counter argument is that pricey, esoteric windshirts like this are chasing minute performance gains which may or may not exist, and that something like the standby, nylon windshirt is the more versatile option and better investment.  And it is hard to argue against that.  No question, something like the Windveil (or Patagonia Houdini) get too sweaty for a lot of activities, particularly winter activities, when the balance between enough protection to not get chilled but not too much is very fine indeed.  On the other hand, when the Windveil gets wet it doesn’t suck up too much water, dries fast, and still blocks the wind.  My sense is still that a more breathable option better fits into the performance sweet spot, but there is also no arguing that most if not all of my windshirt acquisitions over the last half decade have been about geekery, rather than strictly about function.  My aspiration this spring is to make that idea more objective.

Windshirt dry times mini-study

A crucial attribute of windshirts, particularly for backcountry (which is to say, multiday) use is moisture retention and drying speed.  If the most common, indeed only criticism of windshirts as a concept is that they can be viewed as redundant relative to a waterproof hardshell, the rejoinder to that criticism is that unlike a hardshell, a windshirt can be left on almost all the time.  A good windshirt will have an ideal blend of breathability and weatherproofing for the given user and use case.  Drying quickly nicely accompanies breathability where garment utility is concerned, and minimal moisture retention reduced the penalty of using the windshirt as an extra layer when true waterproof protection is required.

My benchmark for a number of years has been a static soak and dry test.  In this case, I took four windshirts I regularly use, immersed them in a sink of water, vigorously kneeded them to ensure total saturation, then allowed them to sit drapped over a metal rack in a 62 degree (F) house for 3 hours.  Weight, dry, soaked, and at one hour intervals post soaking, was taken to the nearest 10th of an ounce.   The test subjects were: a Patagonia Stretch Terre Planing hoody, new three months ago, with significant potions of fabric removed from each side to bring in the torso diameter; a 2014 Black Diamond Alpine Start hoody, heavily used; a 2016 Rab Windveil, extensively used but with a good DWR still active; and a 2018 Patagonia Airshed pullover cut down to a vest, and with the chest pocket removed.

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Dry time and moisture retention are, as will be discussed shortly, closely related but not the same thing.  Similarly, this test is not reflective of common field conditions, and ignores the more realistic metric of dry time while under the influence of body heat (i.e. while worn).  Years ago I ran the same test with both static and dynamic (worn) dry times, and found that while wearing the windshirt significantly accelerated dry times it did so at rates which hewed closely to those observed under static conditions.  Variations in the heat an individual can put out in a given situation, be that due to variances in metabolism, weather, or circumstances (i.e. how tired and depleted they might be) are going to be more relevant here than anything else.  A static test, such as this one, is more comfortable, less time consuming, and in my experience provides just as much actionable data.

On the face of it each of the four windshirts behaved similarly, soaking up a significant amount of water weight before taking 3 hours to become almost totally dry.  There are a few significant aberrations, the first one being that the Airshed gains significantly more than the other three when taken as a percentage of dry weight.  The Airshed gained 140% (2 oz up to 4.8), while the rest were in the 75-80% range.  This is surprising, and the difference cannot be entirely blamed on the double layer of stretch fabric at the back hem, which as the dry test went on stayed drastically wetter longer than the main Airshed fabric.  Indeed, the .4 oz from dry  at the 2 hour mark was by feel due entirely due to this strip of fabric.  So I need to replace this bit soon, and maybe that extra ~60% of gain was due to this little detail.

The other noteworthy variation is how much slower the STP hoody dried at hour 2, relative to the Alpine Start.  Judging by feel, this was due to the more elaborate detailing, namely the two lower hand pockets and associated layers of fabric, zipper, flaps, and so forth.  My biggest take away, or reminder, from this little project was that under those rare field conditions when things are getting soaked and resoaked, details like cuffs, hem complexity, and the number of pockets and flaps add up to make a big difference in dry time, and thus, warmth and overall functionality.  The project also taught me that advancements or changes in fabrics may have not amounted to substantive improvements in this area.  The Airshed fabric, on its own, may perhaps dry faster than similarly light fabrics, but I do not have the data to say so.  And while intuitively the STP fabric seems to retain less moisture in use than the Alpine Start, I need more information before I can say that is anything other than confirmation bias.

Seems like I need to do more laps around the block with drenched clothing.

Grand Juan Honaker logistics

This is a logical extension of classic loop we traveled five years ago; down the Honaker trail, packraft the San Juan River to Grand Gulch, and hike that and some association of side canyons back to the mesa top.  Riding a bike from any of those trailheads down the highway and Moki dugway to the Honaker trailhead is an enjoyable and expeditious way to shuttle with only one car.  In my case, I left my bike at the Bullet Canyon trailhead, which made for a 26 mile bike shuttle.

You need two separate permits for this loop; one for the river, and one for Grand Gulch.  Between November 1 and February 28 the later are unlimited and self-serve at trailhead kiosks.  During the warmer parts of spring and fall there is a 20 quota per trailhead, per day.  These can be reserved, online, 90 days out.  Looking through March and April of this year, availability is widespread, save for Kane Gulch and Bullet Canyon on April weekends.  San Juan permits are unlimited outside the lottery season, April 15 through May 15.  I had ~670 cfs (at Bluff) for this recent trip, which for a packraft was more than adequate, if notably slow once morning headwinds kicked up.  Looking at historic averages, I think this part of the San Juan is floatable year round, though isolated evidence of shelf ice suggests it might start to freeze up during the coldest depths of winter.

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The top of Cedar Mesa is above 6000 feet, making snow in the upper sections not uncommon and potentially problematic, especially on north facing aspects.  Pictured above is the “crux” of Bullet Canyon, after 2 inches of snow fell the night before.  I went through around 3pm, after the midday sun had melted things down, and before the snow refroze and ceased to be sticky.  A few hours earlier or later would have made the going trickier, as the people and dog (!) ahead of me seemed to have found (zoom in for the flail tracks).  It is certainly possible that sections like this would have enough snow to be impassable without a rope and/or specialized experience.   That said, the river straddles 4000 feet and overall daytime temperatures during November and February are usually quite pleasant.  I did bring a drysuit, which made floating during 3 hours of steady rain tolerable.

At low flows the San Juan is mellow and accessible for almost any level of skill and any boat.  I brought my small boat to save weight on the hiking, which was a good choice.  The character of the river does change notably below Slickhorn Canyon, transitioning from a muddy mountain stream, with a gravel and cobble bottom and sequential riffle where you’d expect, to a true desert river with a sticky sand bottom.  Much like with the Dirty Devil or Little Missouri, the San Juan could be 50 yards wide with only a small floatable channel right against either bank.  I’ve long since passed the point where negotiating such things have novelty.

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Grand Gulch itself is a unique canyon, and a somewhat odd companion to its neighbor, Slickhorn.  Slickhorn climbs steeply and moves through its phases fast; Grand Gulch is at least 4 times as long, climbs gradually (save at the very start and very end), and has a spectacular number of bends and abandoned meanders.  For varieties sake I couldn’t help climbing out the northern fork of Water Canyon and walking the plateau over to the Government Trail, which I took back into the canyon.  This was a highlight, both the rugged route finding and big views up top (one can see the Bear’s Ears, Monument Valley, Navajo mountain, and Mount Ellen all at once).  Grand Gulch from the Government Trail up to Bullet is remarkably uniform, with a 10 foot wide sand bottom windy between brushy banks with almost no breaks or obstacles.  There is a lot of cool canyon architecture and rock art to see in this stretch, but the scenery and walking impressed with their uniformity and general turgidity.  My legs were heavy after the Water Canyon excursion, and the day after, going past Dripping and Step Canyons, I had a struggle keeping in the moment and a generally positive mindset.

It is also worth highlighting that, due to limited visibility down amongst the trees and the lack of outstanding features, keeping track of your location/progress is more nuanced than usual in canyon country (that is, assuming I’m not the only backpacker left who avoids GPS).

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I did find the scenery and walking up Bullet to be exceptional, a fitting highlight on which to end the trip.  The history here, to be addressed later, is absolutely something to return to, even if the additional floating and walking of Grand Gulch, relative to Slickhorn, does not make it the highest quality of additions.

The next year

I did not much miss travel this past year.  Or, to be more precise, I was more than content with staying in Montana (two trips excepted), and ran out of both energy and creativity before I ran out of options.  As I think about 2021, my eye keeps coming back to the home state, and the many places I would still like to go, and the ways I might fit those trips into the next 12 months.  My resolution from the beginning of the pandemic has only grown stronger, after a summer of a few intensely memorable trips within a couple hundred miles of home.

So why not do more of those?

There is a mountain range near to town, which tends to hide in plain sight, and has some truly exceptional canyons and trails that very few human eyes ever see.  I’ve done a few trips there, each one having been exceptional, and while I’ve yet to settle on the exact route, something a little more extensive in early summer will be a priority.  I’ve made a reservation to spur me along towards that end.  I’ll share impressions when it happens, but never details, there being enough knows out in the world as is.

There are also a lot of rivers in Montana, with many hiding in plain sight once they put the mountains below the horizon.  Again I have no definitive plans, but with the smaller child getting big enough that backpacking will become ever more difficult, the boating phase of family development should be in full force this year.  We bought a canoe this past year, and have another packraft on the way in a few weeks, so we should use them a bunch.  On that note, a full Escalante float really ought to happen this year.

And on the subject of packrafting, there are still two major creeks in Glacier I have yet to float.  And I’m pretty certain that both of them will be very worthwhile.  Restrictions in the park this past year took both off the table, so there is a special urgency and poignancy to being able to get into those pieces of backcountry, one of whom is amongst the handful of named drainages in the park into which I have never set foot.  And on the subject of packrafting, a year with minimal socialization has me contemplating the privilege of being around likeminded folks.  Spending the summer solstice in the center of the universe with the relevant folks and as much beer as we dare to carry is an idea that won’t quite leave my head.

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I am also hopeful of, finally, having some more packs go out the door.  Tamarisk 0.2, above, is headed out the door tomorrow.  While I did not intend to put a full year of testing into version 0.1, having the confidence that it both works so well across applications and that the individual components hold up so well is an unexpected luxury.  Mark 0.2 is a wee bit bigger (as requested) than 0.1, and than the production model will be.  It scales nicely, looks good, and carries (with the final alterations to the hipbelt) even better.

On that commercial note, I should mention that stock of gold packraft straps has grown quite thin after the holiday surge. 3 pairs, to be exact. Anyone who has been wedded to that color but not moved to act ought to do so now. Anyone with thoughts about what color should appear next, to compliment the rainbow (which will be stocked perpetually), do comment.

Progression 2020

If 2020 was a merciless device which distilled everything already there, into a cold cutting clear hypnotic as overnight ice on an alpine lake, what I learned in the past 12 months was that I did not lack for time. I lack for energy, and for the headspace to use what time I have as well as I would like. This has only accelerated in the last 5 years, as life has filled up with responsibility. Freedom without boundary flows in all directions and disappears as a quick rain in the desert. Build choice into a frame, four lines of duty, obligation, scarcity, and immanence, and coherence comes fast, making freedom comprehensible.

18 months ago I had enduring questions about what my place in adventure would be, given the shortcomings limited days in the field would inevitably bring. When backpacking big miles, there is no substitute for time on feet, and out in wild, technical terrain presence of mind equals safety. How much would my wild mind dull, as years pass and big trips became ever less frequent? A few traverses that summer, and especially the Isle Royale trip that fall, did much to put my fears to ground. In the woods my purpose was clearer and more accessible, moment to moment, than ever before, and any slowness desk hours had put into my legs were more than compensated by confidence and better planning.

I flowed through the swamps and ridges of Isle Royale, and when mid-May opened this year, the virus loomed a little less unknown, and Will invited me on the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the timing seemed ideal. It was a difficult trip, the most sustained difficult whitewater I’d ever paddled on that blurringly full first day, but the space between the challenges and what I was able to welcome had never been thinner. The stillness which lingered has lasted to this day, and ran through what was the most technically challenging and accomplished season of paddling I’ve had yet.

The process aspects of pursuits and skills have in the past been circumstantial. I’ve learned to ski and to paddle whitewater because wanted to go places and be on journeys that required these tools and techniques. This past summer of packrafting was the coalescing point for a new mindset built not just around the process of any given trip, whose better embrace is another story, but on the immediacy of the skills in question. This spring, big lonely storms amidst the height of lockdown had me avoiding objective hazard, and provided ideal conditions for getting better at flowing one turn into another on powder through the trees. This summer I read lines and placed my paddle better than ever, because that had become the first goal, and in many cases because I was paddling close enough to my limit that anything less led to some bruising swims. And this fall, with both kids obsessed with biking, I’ve looked forward to hours at the bike park, just trying to hit a berm better.

All of which sounds, when I writer it in retrospect, rather trite and obvious. Was I really so preoccupied with so much other stuff, so much external stuff, so many goals, for so long?

The answer has to simply be yes, and the trip which pushed me firmly over the line to admitting this, out loud to myself was the prairie elk hunt this September. It was on a scenically detailed bit of ground, but with the elk so legion exploration had nothing to do with getting from A to B, and everything with where along that path a bull was likely to be bedded. On the one hand that hunt was a dismal process failure, insofar as my shooting skills let me down on at least several occasions that I’ll forever regard as should-have-been-certains. On the other it was a raging success, in that opportunities were rife and I failed so close to a dead elk so many times, and was thus bludgeoned over the head with all the things I was as a hunter doing properly.

My other goals for hunting in 2020 were to kill some grouse, and put some time into being selective about a big mule deer in the local mountains. I did kill some grouse, which were tasty, and had a lot of fun days within an hour of home hiking around our northerly desert-forests looking for and at mule deer. My explicit goal, for the first time, concerned antler size, because in each year past for I can’t recall how many running I have seen one particularly large antlered and magical buck after I had filled my tag. From the perspective of inches I never saw that deer, and the one I shot was a disappointment. From the perspective of experience the kill, butchering, and walk out were everything exactly as I like about hunting, and this and the elk hunt put together clarified the blend of practice and location which makes hunting distinct from every other form of knowing in the outdoors.

It all, in short, gives me a lot of hope and interest for what might happen this year.

Things I loved this year

Add.; Not long after publishing this yesterday evening I received a text, and then an email, stating that extra vaccine doses would be available to direct care workers outside hospitals and clinics, in other words, me. So I woke up in the dark and waited in line at the fairgrounds and got Moderna stuck into my arm. That medicine went into clinical trials the first day our schools went virtual back in the spring, and is both a great story and a reminder that for all the navel gazing, flatearth mugwumpitude of 2020, contemporary science is quite amazing. Can’t really leave that off such a list as this.

DMR Deathgrips

For over a decade I’ve struggled to see the point of any mountain bike grips which are not either Oury or Ergon. When buying parts for the Marin I wanted to try something new, and ordered a pair of Deathgrips in thin and flangeless. The tactile experience, along with the ease of removal while futzing with components, have been very nice indeed. Nice enough that I recently put another set, thick and flangeless, of my fatbike. I don’t have enormous hands (generally right between medium and large gloves) and the thin versions are both a bit low on cushion and a bit too little to hold well in the rough. These are emphatically a gravity oriented grip, without much squish. But the ribbed thumb section is super comfy with or without gloves, and encourages body english and three dimensional steering. Not necessarily the most versatile bike grip, but a very fun option.

Bialetti Moka pot

Under ordinary circumstances I don’t do much to restrain my coffee consumption, provided I drink it black. Caffeine being after all an almost universal performance enhancer with no socially consequent downsides, and precious few downsides at all. The chemical and psychological benefits have been even more important this year, and the Moka pot quickly makes just the kind of coffee I prefer. This fall especially it has been rare that I don’t fire it up at least twice a day.

My chair

When we moved in 3.5 years ago the little garage out back was in sad shape, and half full of odd junk. The door had long since ceased to work, and the dirt floor became vital that spring, as a record snowpack melted through the walls and flooded down under the door. Boxes stored in there were frozen to the floor for over a month. That summer I built a stone wall between the opening and the alley, demolished the door, and built a wall cutting the interior in half. The dirt floor of the bike room is handy when I spill oil, or don’t want to go back inside to piss, but a nuisance when I drop a bolt. I also dug out the three feet of wooden wall decades of erosion had placed underground, and installed layers of flashing. So now our garage keeps snowmelt out.

Among the items moved out to make way for bikes and the car was an old wooden bakers chair, which rolls, swivels and tilts on an iron base. I didn’t really look at it for another few years, until this February when I restored the base with grease, screws, and wood glue, and the seat and back with pints of linseed oil. I had intended to move it to my office at school, and finished it the weekend before the stay at home order took effect in Montana. Instead it went into the new home office, and I found that the unpadded seat was more comfortable than the succession of old and modern plush chairs I’ve used over the years. It was a happy day when I moved it into school at the end of August, and in October, when things finally got cold enough for the baseboard heater to run hot, the scent of linseed oil reemerged and lingered for days. For practical and now, nostalgic reasons, I can’t imagine ever getting rid of it.

Fire lookouts

Through both planning and luck spent more nights in lookout towers this year than any other to date. Some, like Christmas Eve in a tower just north of town, required advanced planning. Others were vacancies that popped up days in advance, and seizing them just required awareness and being flexible. Picking a favorite is not possible, as every trip was important and unique. Like this one, and this one.

In this case scarcity has always been somewhat the driver of interest, and this year more than most, the silence of the wind and a long view were especially welcome. If a lot of my internal conversation at the beginning of the summer concerned what I would do when the pandemic had passed, my looking back at these photos and memories now has me struggling to think of trips I’d find of more interest or value, and has me psyched to plan more, close to home, for 2021.

The bakery

One of the sadder days of the stay at home order was when our local shut down for several weeks. They had stayed open with much of their usual range for the first few weeks, and taking the usual walk downtown in the afternoon only to find a note saying they’d be shut for at least a while did more than most things, I am sad to admit, to bring home what we had lost. Ever since they reopened I’ve been less likely than usual to shy away from an anise biscotti or slice of lemon sake, and less likely in general to take our little city for granted.

OR Feedback flannel

This is a nice shirt. You would not know it was polyester until it dries much faster (and stinks more) than wool. Fit and build are ideal. Durability is decent. My 14 month old one has developed a few picks at seemingly random times, none of which have impacted presentability from a distance or not been easily sorted with scissors. That shirt still qualifies as Montana formal, and is the rare thing I can both wear to the office and on a hunting trip. Neither wicking nor insulation are quite at the level of true performance clothing, but is ideal for bike commuting, winter walks that turn cold, resort skiing, and everything in the category of lifestyle. At least around here, it counts as a Zoom shirt too.

Patagonia Slopestyle hoody

There are a lot of sweatshirts very similar to this (discontinued) piece, but as is often the case, Patagonia does the details better. The hard faced, brushed interior polyester is both more weather resistant and more cuddly than similar pieces from other companies, and the big three panel hood, roomy but not excessive cut, and pockets (there are zippered, mesh lined pockets inside each hand pocket) make it infinitely practical. I had one years ago, sold it, regretted doing so, and picked up another this summer on Worn Wear (which is a very fun place to browse). Until things get really cold around here, it is my coat every day.