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.

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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)

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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.

The Fantasy

Make no mistake, this is a silly boat.  Just as it has been a silly, unusual, and in some respects unpleasant summer.  The heat rolled in at the very beginning of June, and baked me thoroughly during an exploratory trip on the upper reaches of Tenderfoot Creek.  With the exception of a cool and rainy two days at a lookout in the Yaak, we made it through June and July with hardly any days much below 90, something that dropped rivers fast and brought on heat fatigue six weeks before I expect it.  These days I have little interest in backpacking in temps above 80, and really, only modest interest in doing so in temps above 60.  Combine high temps with kids who are too big to carry but not big enough to walk all day, and with the new oar rig my parents bought this spring, and we had little reason to not do a river trip most days all summer.  So that is what we did.  Since melt I’ve logged 10 separate trips to various stretches of the Blackfoot, and enjoyed circumstances nudging firmly my already developing interest in paddling as an art and end to itself, rather than a convenient and enjoyable means of wilderness transportation.

This being true, it was logical that in early July I bought a new boat, a solo whitewater canoe, one of the more esoteric genres out there.  The Mad River Fantasy is of a different era.  My boat might have been made 30 years ago, or as recently as 24.  It is 13 feet long, has 5 inches of rocker, is deep by the standards of a conventional canoe, but is on the shallow side for a whitewater boat.  The perhaps 7 feet of flat surface along the length progresses up in a somewhat less than shallow arch, with a distinct transition to almost, but not quite, straight sides that climb to the gunnels.  The stern cuts up earlier than the bow, the sum of these parts being a craft which on first entry was quite terrifying.  Held flat the bottom spins at the slightly thought, and I struggled mightily to get it to go straight.  I knew for the first that I would want to take out the original outfitting, as I cannot get on with kneeling on a pedestal for any length of time.  While I was at it, I thought I might try to alter the handling and make it more traditional, which I did by shortening the front and rear thwarts by 2 inches each.

This dropped the rocker, which improved tracking and hull speed, but doing so and then measuring and building the seat and center thwart turned the subtle flare through the midsection to tumblehome (ie the widest bit was below the gunnels), which made the Fantasy horrendously tippy.  A few folks, myself included, got suddenly dumped into the local pond due to my hackery.  So I tried again, figuring out after some experimentation that I could maintain the original width in the middle, and still pull the ends in.  This tamped down the rocker while keeping the flare, which is what allows the boat to have any real stability at all.

And the Fantasy does have stability.  That hull arch wiggles freely over 8-10 inches, something one can only tame via embracing it.  After his first ride, Little Cloud has refused to get in the “tippy nu” again.  With the flare restored that wiggle ends when the sides are dipped into the water, meaning that the Fantasy is (rather like skis) most stable in an arc.  And bulleting a 13 foot piece of wood and plastic into an eddy is very fun.   As shown above, I settled on a mix of a traditional bench seat and kneeling thwart.  I can sit normally and paddle relaxed, often cross legged with knees braced into the side.  After my first extended trip in the boat I had bruised from this, so glued in some 5mm foam.  I left the foam knee cups from the original outfitting, and have the seat high enough I can kneel with my legs crossed or feet under the seat when I want more emphatic control.

A canoe like this is an anti-packraft, in that packrafts can benefit from but never demand active piloting.  The Fantasy is, still, exhausting to paddle.  It does not yet, and may never, feel efficient on something like mixed flatwater and class II, but it provides me an entirely different experience, and that learning enriches my current appreciation for moving water perfectly.

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Bark River Micro Canadian re-scale

For the past four years my Micro Canadian has always been one of my very favorite objects.  It blends practicality and elegance in a way which few other categories of things can.  Restlessness, and extreme specialization (river rescue), are the only real reasons I’ve used anything else.  To address the former I bought a Bark River Ringtail this past winter (the brown handled knife with the ring, above), the idea being the Micro is a bit short on edge length and blade volume where processing game is concerned.  The Ringtail is very good for that, and has reminded me that if the Micro has any shortcoming, it is the blunter angle of the tip, which makes for a cutting bit whose acuity erodes quickly.

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My parents chose a gorgeous stabilized wood burl for the handle (scales) when they bought me the Micro, and over the years the wood has suffered, with many damper outings causing swelling, and after enough cycles, cracking.  A few weeks ago, one of these cracks propagated far enough towards one of the pins, and the front of one scale fell off.  The knife worked fine without it, and a few hours after sending an email to Bark River about a repair the idea to make new scales myself was firmly stuck in my head.  So I pondered that for another few days, then ordered some safety yellow pieces of G10, 1/8″ thick.  To this day, several weeks after sending the email, I still haven’t heard back from Bark River.

G10 was an easy (and cheap, on sale!) choice, being durable and impermeable.  1/8″ is a hair thinner than the wood scales, something I figured would slim down the somewhat blocky/squarish cross section of the handle as stock.  While I was at it, I knew I wanted to make the scales extend ever so slightly further towards the blade, to give my thump a bit more purchase.

After punching the pins out of the blade and cleaning it up, I clamped the blade to the front of the stacked scales and used that as a template to drill the holes.  I sharpied the outline to the scales, rough cut that out with a coping saw (both scales still together, then epoxied the whole thing together.  In spite of being very careful with alignment one of the rear holes was off a bit, and getting the whole mess together required a bit of last minute swearing and elbow grease.

After the epoxy was set finish work was the simple yet tricky matter of lots of sanding.  G10 sands well; I used an orbit sander with 220 grit for the initial stuff, and finished things off with lots of hand sanding.  I used a 1″ dowel as the template for the finger grooves, which worked well.  I am very pleased with how the whole thing came together.

The past four years of fixing things, renovations, and projects have seen home ownership being a huge catalyst for me embracing making stuff as equal parts an end and a means.  Something like this, which I carry virtually everywhere I go, every day, seems set to serve as a reminder of the many rewards that process has shown me.  Next in this series, my adventures making canoe paddles.

The new nu

After dropping my paddle a second time I decided I must be tired.  The Catalyst is a pretty paddle, and moves around the water just as well as the laminate wood and almost invisible fiberglass coating would make you hope.  I had bought it just the day before and hadn’t quite embedded the balance point in muscle memory.  Set it down across the gunnels with the blade too far outboard, and it slips into the river quickly and quietly as an otter.  This is why you have a spare paddle stuffed under the float bag, to chase down the alpha paddle.  And this is why canoe tripping is swell, with camping kit tied under the seat you can stop miles shy of your destination when circumstances and discretion demand it.

The next morning I woke early, having fell asleep before dark, and sought to shake off fear and sore obligues.  I had done this trip before was the irony, at least the same key whitewater sections, and back when I knew far less about moving water and how to run it.  That I was in a weeks old (to me), decades old (to the world) solo canoe that was twitchy as anything explained the trepidation, as did (after the fact) the previous trip being at a much lower level, and the two swims I took the previous day.  The first had been innocuous, the sort of tip you can only do in a canoe, leveraging forward over a melon sized rock into knee deep water.  The second had been more actively confidence sapping, not because I had flipped in front of a big family group, but because I had though my balance, screaming into an eddy to cut around a sharp turn, had been good.

That second morning I knew I was running tight, something self evidently more self defeating than even in other obvious examples, like skiing steep sticky snow or pushing a bike around a rocky switchback.  I loosened up a bit after the first two Bear Creek rapids, specifically after staying upright in both, only to tip out (again) in the third, a wreck memory served as almost identical to the one over a decade before.  Pried against a hidden rock, my reactions and timing will need to get much more precise to avoid that sort of thing.  Thought it required continued focus, after that one I was able to let myself go a bit, making the several official rapids and seemingly endless secondary rapids and riffles without a flip or a particularly close call.  I ended the day thrilled with the immersion, and woke the next day to the sort of soreness only novelty brings.