little Big Blackfoot bikeraft loops

As opposed to the Little Blackfoot, whose headwaters are too small and brushy for good floating, the Big Blackfoot River rarely runs parallel to a road, something that makes for convenient and high quality floating.  The middle section of the Big Blackfoot and its tributaries, which is to say the bit in the Helmville/Ovando valley, downstream from the Highway 141 bridge and upstream of Russell Gates campground, are especially fruitful in this regard, as the loops and bends in the rivers combine with relatively quiet dirt roads to allow for pleasant self-shuttling via bike.  Packrafts are the obvious compliment here, but other craft can be floated with the same approach.

Access is somewhat tricky in this valley, due to the large amount of private land and moderate amount of quintessentially American property paranoia.  Access sites, highlighted below and listed north to south, are as follows:

-Scotty Brown bridge on River Junction road, which has very limited parking.

-River Junction campground, which has lots of parking but is a longish drive.

-Harry Morgan campground, 2 miles upstream from River Junction on the N Fork of the Blackfoot.

-Raymond road.

-Aunt Molly Wildlife Management Area.

-Cedar Meadows fishing access site.

blackfoot south

A favorite beginner, kid friendly bikeraft loop is Cedar Meadows to Aunt Molly.  This involves 3 miles of riding on dirt roads, and 7 miles of twisty flatwater through brushy islands and farmlands.  Not scenic in the traditional sense, but very quiet and with tons of wildlife.  Raymond road to either Cedar Meadows or Aunt Molly would extend the day nicely, but the 6 miles from Cedar to Raymond are more agricultural, and open to wind.  A canoe is a logical craft on this stretch of the Blackfoot.

The river from Raymond to River Junction is quite pretty, packed with easy class II, and due to access concerns gets little traffic.  Crafting a bikeraft loop on this stretch is logistically complicated, at least if you prefer to avoid the highway between River Junction road and Ovando.  My late summer solution has been to start biking at Harry Morgan, and end the trip by traveling upriver from the junction of the main and north forks.  The north fork is swift enough that you won’t be paddling upriver much, but the gravel bars are extensive enough that walking and/or dragging is not too bad, if a bit tedious.  count on 10 crossings in 2 miles, and on having to wade a good bit.  Harry Morgan-Raymond-River Junction is well balanced; 6 miles of biking (which a decently skilled rider with tough tires could do on a road bike), 6 miles of floating, 2 miles of upstreaming.  In a similar vein, one could float down to Scotty Brown, bike back up to River Junction, and then cross and go upstream.  This bit of road is tedious to drive, but good fun on a bike.  River Junction road historically went through to the Raymond road bridge, but the Mannix Ranch closed that a number of years ago, with Powell County having taken a 1/2 mile stretch off their list of official county roads.  (eyeroll)

blackfootnorth

Bikes can also be put to good use on the valley stretches of Monture Creek and the middle North Fork of the Blackfoot.  I had never run the bit from the later down from FS 5550 (aka the Cooper-Blackfoot road) until the Bob Open this year, and found the first ten miles down to the Dry Gulch road to be an absolute ripper at 900 cfs and above.  At 1500 it is almost continuous class III until the final few miles, with a 10 mph current.  I’ve yet to float it at low flows, though below 500 I reckon I would actually not mind having my bike on board, as opposed to leaving it in the bushes to drive up and get later.  It is possible to ride up on public land through the west bank, but there are a few private land complications and northern stretch gets very brushy following old logging roads.

Below Dry Gulch road the North Fork mellows hugely, with moderate log/brush concerns, and is a class I float all the way to the confluence.  A packraft or lightly loaded canoe could get down it, slowly, just about any time, but big boats will stay away below 400 cfs.  Some determined oar rigs line down from Harry Morgan at very low flows, due to the ease of access relative to other options.  Little Bear and I watched two SUPers go down this past weekend (at 170 cfs), and they and their fins looked to be having a nervous go of it.

Up in the Wilderness Monture Creek used to be a premier creeking run, and is now full of wood from recent fires.  This wood hasn’t made much progress downstream, and the stretch from the campground down to either highway 200 or the main Blackfoot is fairly straightforward.  I haven’t floated this one at lower water either, and imagine it would get painfully slow much past June.

Why am I detailing all this, especially the delights of the Raymond to Junction stretch?  First, because I think tastes and convenience will pose little risk of crowding.  Second, to spread some folks out at least a little bit.  Third, to establish a bit more use history in relevant spots.  Life is easy back in the wilderness without private land issues.  The more civilized bits of Montana risk going in a very problematic direction over the near future, as population growth, baby boom cash, and increased paranoia/zenophobia all combine make society more closed to strangers and the public.  So get out there, close gates, wave at folks, and be patient with the ATVs moving cows down the Helmville-Ovando road.

A daypack

After being so impressed with Ultraweave I naturally wanted to make several/a number of bags out of it.  My affinity for burlier pack fabrics goes back to the very beginning, both because I know that many of my favored activities shred lighter pack fabrics, and (more relevantly) because I have an aesthetic preference for things, especially things that I build, to have the potential to last a very long time.  For most of the last decade this has been quite hypothetical (that pack from 2010 looks awful in my today eyes), but in the last 3-4 years my knowledge has been such that I regularly make things that stand the test of time.  Making myself a pack from a fabric that could realistically last decades is today not just an ideological activity.

A daypack is not an especially exciting thing, both because day-type activities are less aspirational, and because designing and building a daypack happens on a persnickety scale.  Fit, for example, is an area where in theory a frameless little pack which will rarely carry more than 10 pounds ought to be forgiving.  Many companies making such packs in one size only would certainly suggest as much.  And yet I’ve found little packs to be difficult in this regard, having no frame and especially no belt and load lifters to take the focus off torso length, and strap size, width, and orientation.  Torso length is relevant both to maximize space, and to concentrate the sweet spot for both fit and comfort in the same location.  This pack is 20 inches exactly, an inch or a little more less than I’d make a larger pack (w/ frame, etc).  This maintains total shoulder wrap, with the pack ending just at the lower edge of my lumbar.  This feels most comfortable, most agile, and places the side pockets low enough for good access.  The upper few inches of the side panels tilt toward the user, on both sides, providing a nice shoulder hugging fit, and maintaining a trim yet generous 7 inches of constant depth.  The front panel is 9 inches wide, the back panel 10.5, with 2 inches of upsweep on the bottom panel.  It is easy to make a pack like this too skinny, in either direction, too pudgy, or to overdo the various tapers and create something with less useable space.

For all the seeming contradiction of a forever fabric and a zipper, the classic clamshell is an obvious choice with a pack this small.  It is cleaner through the brush than a rolltop or drawcord, and far faster to access.  Mid panel always seems to work best with a zipper, and this straight run and constant radius curve, along with dual #10 nickle plated sliders, maximizes durability.  Additional internal features amount to a pad sleeve against the back, a small zippered pocket (9″ by 7″), and another sleeve pocket behind the zippered pocket, handy for garbage or for isolating wet raingear from the rest of the contents.  These details, along with the cord sleeves on the side pockets, were old 200ish denier nylon from a sailbag I got free off craigslist.  Orange seemed a good color to halo through the main fabric, and having touseled accents to such a fancy pack seemed logical.

Side pockets in a small pack that legit fit a nalgene aren’t common.  These envelope a standard nalgene, and carry a 48oz cilo well enough that only a big tumble off a log (did it) will knock them free.  These are 14 inches back to front, with a 3 by 3 inch dimensioned gusset against the user side, and the remaining 11 inches fit down to 7 with a big pleat.  The single pleat restricts the pocket size with a single hard object, but expands easily with softer items, ergo a nalgene doesn’t rattle around, but you can wedge a full set of raingear in.

Hopefully five years from now my current state of knowledge doesn’t prove too antiquainted.

Nothin’

Sometimes imagination fails, even in the face of skepticism.  One can for instance, almost imagine the canyon above as a tasty series of drops provided the water volume was increased 10 times over.  Imagining when and how often that might actually occur, in the face of an open drainage basin of modest size, is more difficult.  Every 3 years?  Every 5 years?  For a two weeks stretch, or two days?  The creek, bank to bank, and the limited extent of the past 50 million years of erosion, does not provide the wilderness boater much optimism.

The sat photos were not exactly encouraging, when one used tree footprints to extrapolate the creek span.  But last year I was surprised, massively and consistently, with what was floatable.  So I gathered an excessive amount of gear for a day outing and got going.

Most of that stuff got nothing but a ride there and back; drysuit, boat, paddle, PFD, various bags of various dimensions and properties.  My shoes got used well, pushing my bike up eroded ATV grades, sticking to the pedals over last hunting seasons horse pocks, sticking to wet limestone as I traversed along each chute and drop, keeping going until the very end of the canyon, for the sake of completeness and in the hope of seeing something that would justify inflating the boat.  A few places came close, but for all the aesthetic appeal and promise of fun, no stretch promised both 50 continuous yards of boating and rock well padded enough I wouldn’t be begging for a cut.  There was the spring, most of the way to the head of the canyon, gushing through the moss growing out a seam in the limestone, equaling half the volume coming down the main stream.  There was also that final half mile, back down the hill I had pushed up first thing, hopping rocks and dodging rut to rut, hanging my nose ahead of the stem to keep the front tire stuck to the steepest of the dusty descents.  In the end, it was not nuthin.

Tenderfoot Creek packrafting

Tenderfoot Creek is the largest west-running drainage in the Little Belt mountains.  Like the mountains themselves, it is a unique and somewhat obscure place.  It has a public lands story which is worth reading about.  As detailed last week, I’ve been mulling this post for a while.  I discovered (for myself) floating the creek in the best way possible; looking at a map and then going and doing it.  I’ve been back a few times since, and the trips have always been stellar.  The Smith River, into which Tenderfoot flows, has long been exceedingly popular, as an easy, scenic, remote-ish, road accessed float.  The Tenderfoot is far from popular at the moment, though as a fishing and hunting destination it is coming that way.  As a floating destination the time to establish a public use history has arrived.

Tenderfoot itself can be easily split into three distinction sections with significantly different characters.  Upstream from the ranch bridge at the outlet of the South Fork of Tenderfoot Creek at least as far as Rugby Creek the creek is zippy and busy (~100 ft/mile of drop), with continuous class II++ action, and typical for small steepish creeks, complex and fast decision making.  The half mile below the bridge drops into an unexpected, shallow, and very steep gorge (below), with a series of rapids culminating in the 12 foot Tenderfoot Falls.  This gorge (250 ft/mile) often has vertical cliffs coming out of the water on both sides with the creek 10-15 feet across, and very few places to scout or portage.  Wood is a very real concern.

tfoot

A few hundred yards below the falls is the best/only public road access to the creek, and the meandering ~10 miles down to the Smith are far mellower in gradient (40 ft/mile) and hazard.  There are riffles, and as with any smallish backcountry stream wood and brush to worry about, but the Tenderfoot seems far cleaner than most in the genre, at least until a big fire comes through.  Backcountry packrafting is inherently not beginner boating, but the lower Tenderfoot is ideal basic intermediate terrain.

Access and creating routes and loops in the area is not simple.  Road access from the south, down the South Fork, is a good if not short drive from the pavement, and this road can be driven in a passenger car when dry, and if piloted with skill.  That said, folks have been rather surprised to see our FWD Saturn down there.  Hike in access and route possibilities from Monument Ridge to the north is excellent for the packrafter, and I find the drive in along Logging Creek to be the more enjoyable.  The largest obstacle to coherent routes is that floating on the Smith requires a permit, and furthermore, the final ~half mile of the creek passes through private land (owned by the Wilkes Bros, in fact).  Montana stream access law permits wading upstream within the ordinary high water bounds, which is realistic at all but very high flows if you care to float to the Smith without a permit to continue downstream.

The season for floating the Tenderfoot has been hard to pin down.  May, and most if not all of June, seem to be a sure bet.  I imagine April, in early years, and early July, in late melt years, are almost often workable.  The Smith has several gauges, but I’ve never been able to generalize these levels to those observable on the Tenderfoot.  The creek has a big drainage, but none of it is especially high altitude, and almost all of it is heavily timbered.  Lots of snow can build up and linger, with melt off responding more to temperature than solar energy.

It is a special place.  Be careful.

Finding bargain used gear

Outdoor gear is expensive.  Perhaps not by the standards of motorized sports, but certainly compared to jogging or birding or reading books.  Since becoming firmly established in Montana a decade ago I have been cursed by the perceived necessity of cultivating and maintaining equipage for a wide range (mountain biking, alpine and nordic skiing, snowshoing, fly fishing, bow and rifle hunting, packrafting, backpacking, hiking, rock climbing, snow climbing, canyoneering) of pursuits.  Storing all that stuff in a coherent and useable fashion is one issue (for a future post), acquiring it without undue stress is another, a problem with good, sustainable, and not necessarily obvious strategies.

As in “going light” for any distinct activity, the first and best way to spend less on gear is to have and need less of it.  Start with clothing; you don’t need that much of it, and it is far better to buy better and less and simply have things dialed and predictable and that work for places on most days.  Beyond specialist items like a drysuit and chamois shorts the clothing I use changes little one activity and even season to the other.

When it comes to actually purchasing outdoor clothing, buying on sale and out of season goes a long ways.  This has been somewhat less the case the last few years, due to either demand or smarter wholesale purchasing, but the good sales direct from major brands often equal prodeal discounts.  But that is not interesting advice.  What we’re hear to discuss is finding truly exceptional deals on used gear, which is the way to save on the truly big ticket hard good items.

By way of example, the other day I visited a favored emporium whose specific name and location will remain a mystery.  They are not an outdoor specialist, but do sell a decent amount of consignment outdoor gear.  I’ve very occasionally found shockingly good deals there over the years, including last winter a full length Neoair Uberlight for 10 dollars.  On this recent visit I was intrigued enough to purchase a nice pair of Lake MXZ300s (sized up a full size, ideal for cold weather) for 15 dollars.  Towards the end of our (me and the 3 year old) rounds, I saw, crumpled on the floor under a rack, a distinctive combination of red and black and grey nylon in just the right shade and texture.  Further examination revealed an older, but pristine, Kokatat semi dry suit, with relief zip and fabric booties.  Even further examination revealed the zippers, gaskets, and inside laminate to be lacking in obvious issues.  Further examination once I got home revealed a Kokatat fleece onesie inside (it felt a bit bulky).  The price?

50 dollars.  This for the older, almost functional equivalent of what I bought for 750 dollars back in January.

The place to find deals like this is not an established, well stocked used gear store.  Second Wind Sports in Bozeman has the widest and deepest selection of used outdoor stuff I’ve ever seen in one place, by a large margin.  They also have, with few exceptions, the most outrageous consignment prices I’ve ever seen.  500-600 for a clapped out pair of AT skis and bindings, 240 dollars for an absolutely worked over HMG 3400, 80 for a well used Osprey daypack.  Whether this is due to demand volume, or to Brozonians wanting 100% return on their brodeals, I do not know, but I feel safe in assuming that (in a similar vein) Wabi Sabi is a much more expensive place to find used fleece jackets than it was 16 years ago.  Perceived scarcity is highly relevant here.

The same rules apply to Craigslist, Ebay, etc.  Outstanding deals can be had either when the seller is not overly worried about resale, or when they are not aware of what they have.  Ski swaps can be good places for the former, as people are often clearing the shed and motivated by timeliness over maximizing return.   For example, the Dynafit and the Fischer skis shown at top were both had for (the magic figure of) 50 bucks at separate ski swaps.   Going off topic at swaps and sales is also often a solid tactic; looking for things like camping or climbing gear, or headlamps, as people seems less picky about pricing.  The caveat with any of this is time.  There are certain places and instances where good stuff is more probable, but it is still a numbers game.

The other caveat, especially with hard goods, is that a certain, considerable amount of technical background is immensely helpful.  Being able to recognize what a thing is at a glance, and then evaluate if it is in suitable condition and at a price that suits you, potentially all in a few moments while the rush of a swap goes on around you, is not simple.  And the best way to violate the first rule, above, is to buy something just because it is a good deal.

Finally, it is worthwhile to consider which expensive gear items are unapologetically worth it.  For years I’ve used a heavy, ancient (bought in 2004 for $99), janky, increasingly leaky, drysuit, without a relief zipper.  Since buying a new, much lighter one this winter I’ve both brought it more often (as it actually takes up less space than my boat), and been warmer and even drier.  Should have done that quite a while ago.  There are plenty of other examples, things that either make an appreciable difference while in the woods, or enable a whole new pursuit, that for me are always more fulfilling purchases than just another jacket.

My favorite

In the past few years May has firmly become my favorite month of the year.  In May Montana straddles winter and summer perfectly, presenting all the essential virtues of both with few of the downsides of either.  Days are long, longer than easily used awake.  Rivers and creeks and ridgetops and bowls are all full of water, the kind you want, and generally in the proper condition.  Choices are, more than any other time of year, limited only by time, and by motivation.

We’ve had an extra extraordinary May this year, with excellent weather topped off the past week by a huge storm that brought record breaking precip and cold to our corner of the state.  Plenty of folks don’t see the virtue in that, not the kids who wore sandals to school last Friday and saw the snow pile up all day, nor the people who used the previous sunny weekend to put in plants only to see them buried and then frozen (our corn seedlings, at 10 inches tall, stood proud for 48 hours before finally giving in to the second wave of snow, I do not think they weil recover).  But those of use who love this month, and the woods generally, for its very kaleidoscopicism cannot but appreciate the unlooking way nature has kicked human routine repeatedly in the shins over the past week.

My own absence here has been much to do with this very richness of opportunity.  Mountain biking dust, hiking loamy ridges through flowers, rafting clear rivers, snow biking, and powder skiing all happened in the stretch of a week.  

Most significantly, the Bob Open is set for the weekend, with the most interesting and, sort of by extension, most difficult conditions in a decade on tap.  The Wood Creek snotel, usually of little regard past late April when the snow burns out of the mid elevation forests, went from 2 inches to 10 inches to 4 inches back to 10 and then down to 2 inches of snow in the space of 5 days.  The Dearborn River finally woke, and exceeded 1000 cfs and then 2000 cfs for the first time this year, in rapid succession, as rain and sun blasted first new and then old snow out of the headwaters.  The main Blackfoot passed 8000 cfs this morning, and by the time a few of use are on it some time Sunday afternoon I imagine it will be over 10k, which will be both exciting and expedient.  

Over the weekend I made the easy decision to move the start south, to a place more consistently accessible by vehicle, and lacking necessary avalanche exposure on the most obvious initial routes.  For an event that embraces being a non-event having to fall back on conservative decision making seems odd, especially given that we have intentionally and deliberately, tried to avoid attention whenever possible while still being an Open event.  Even before the pandemic outdoor boom I worried about the Open attracting knuckleheads, and about the to the uninitiated outrageous idea of scampering across the Bob this time of year casting packrafting in a problematic light.  After all, this might be the year that sees packraft traffic on the South Fork of the Flathead force the first definitive step towards a permit system.

For the moment I can luxuriate in my planned route, selected via the usual criteria of novelty and the likelihood of sharing it with no one, and of the certainty of adventure and solitude.  It was an usually beautiful winter in our valley, and the promise of a similarly beautiful spring and summer is now guaranteed.  Lurking in the background is the equal certainty that this will be a summer that changes outdoor-ism in the United States forever.  Pandemic restrictions, moreso but also combined with the increase in traffic, has accelerated the inevitable.  On the one hand purposive neglect (by some within the system) has kept wild places wilder, restricting traffic via crowding, small parking lots, lack of toilets, poor roads, hidden and ill maintained trails.  In as much as demand has forced the issue (4500 applications for advanced backcountry permits in Glacier), even more significant has been extraordinary circumstances giving managers an excuse to shift the paradigm.  Glacier put a permit system in place for driving Going to the Sun Road, indeed for using the the main park entrances at all.  Last year was crowded.  So was 7 years ago.  In 2021, we think about things differently.

It will be an important thing to keep in mind this year.

A trail quiz

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

img_1224img_1231img_1229img_9605

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.

img_1208

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.

img_1173

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.