Revisiting the shadow

Lake McDonald.

Apologies for the dramatic title; and while shadows (for once present, as this weekend is not overcast and rainy) played a prominent role in this latest trip, I am primarily speaking about that concept of the shadow found in one of my favorite poems.

It took far too long, and far too much agony, to decide on a trip this time.  Yes, conditions are making life complex, and most of the trips I had in mind for this time of year are for various reasons not so possible, but I live where I do.  When I lived in Ohio or Iowa such indecision was acceptable; here it is not.  Eventually, and with much, much patience on M’s part, I decided on three days of meanderings on foot and packraft, from Apgar north to the border and back.  No snow, plenty of walking, good training.

Training is of course the main reason for my nervous indecision.  In three weeks and a few hours from right now I’ll be starting the classic, and given the unknowns I’d be foolish if I weren’t worried about the integrity of my preparations.  At the same time, it could be quite the spoiler to let things go adrift at this point, due to fear of failure.  I did come home a day early, but my feet hurt and my at the same time my legs feel fresh, all of which adds up to a good sign.  Not only do I need to be physically strong in three weeks, with enough but too much training between then and now, as well as enough but not too much rest (given how hard some of these trips have been on tendons and ligaments, resting is not the simplest of topics), I need to be mentally prepared.  There will be fear and intimidation, but if I go into the race with the right frame of mind I know things will go well.

Inflating the boat at Apgar on Friday morning.

For me, the rules governing mental reserves are in this respect quite similar to those governing physical ones.  The size of my capacity is built up in a cyclical process which ebbs and flows ever upward, and can be surprisingly dynamic.  Huge gains can be had in a short time if things are properly balanced, and at the same time large holes can with ease be dug if mistakes are made.  In the end that’s why I came home early yesterday; I was only having so much fun, and in this case fun is more relevant than just fun.

Setting off.  Light and cloud were consistently extraordinary for the whole trip.

M and I woke up early and made it to Apgar by 730 Friday morning.  Lower Logging Lake had one spot available at the close of business Thursday, and I didn’t want to get scooped.  Mid-June is the start of tourist backpacking season in Glacier, and the prodigious snowpack is causing many parties to be rerouted into the relatively few spots without snow or problematic creek crossings.  Places like the Quartz Lakes and Belly River area have been busy lately.  I got my permit, and decided that paddling from Apgar to Fish Creek was more stylish than walking, so that’s what I did.  It reinforced, for the first of several times during the trip, that the primary benefit of packrafting in the lower 48 is not efficiency, as too many trails create faster options on foot, but rather being able to see the same areas in dramatically different ways.

Once I found a decent system, I was surprised and pleased to be able to fit three days of gear and the raft and paddle into my new Golite Jam.  Key to this was rolling the boat into a longer, thinner package.  Tarp and bug net go loose in the bottom of the pack, then raft on one side, blue dry sack (with quilt, socks, hats and fleece) and XS thermarest next to it.  Food on top. 

I took out at the ranger boat house, wended my way through the campground, and up the road towards Howe Ridge.

Low altitude beargrass is coming out now.

Howe Ridge proved to be a very enjoyable hike.  The southern third has been cleared this season, but the northern two-thirds has not seen a trail crew in quite some time.  (I believe Sam can tell us more.)  It all burned recently, and the ethereal skeletons-above green-below combined with a quiet and moderately challenging trail finding and footing to give a great experience.  Good training too, crawling over all the deadfall.  Only once did I get further than 10 feet away from the trail, but it required a lot of constant attention to find.

Lower Camas Creek ford.

Hoping back into maintained trail, and seeing people, was a bit jarring.  Glacier, for all it’s popularity, it a very lonely place for 9+ months out of the year.  The lower Camas trail had not been much walked however, due to the very proper warnings about the above ford.  Big cobbles on the bottom, too.  I bushwacked upstream to the base of the lake, inflated the boat, and did a lazy crossing.  I think you could go to the same place and find a place to wade (without swimming, maybe) safely.

Packraft’s eye view.

I hoofed it a few more miles downstream, with only elk and deer tracks along with one set of ranger footprints (gov-issue boots) to keep my company.  Lots of flowers and birds, generally spring turning rapidly to summer looking.  I inflated the boat and jumped back into the creek at the first opportunity, and even though the meandering ways were much slower than walking the trail out, it was worth it.  Flooded willows, open vistas, broods of Canada goslings on the move.  A great easy float.

Moods of road walking.

I still had miles of walking on the closed-to-cars Inside North Fork road, and some trails miles, to go.  It was 1800 by the time I packed up and got going, and the maths did not looks especially favorable  for not walking up the dense brush of Logging Creek at dusk.  Add that to hurting feet, monotonous walking, and mosquitoes and you have a ripe environment for the shadow.  Between the essence and descent indeed.

Over the years I’ve gotten to know Mr. Shadow well, and for me the battle is always to embrace the process without being a defiant slave to it.  In my younger, less-secure days (mostly as a climber) I tended to either give it entirely or do things I didn’t really want to do just to prove to myself that I was free from self-doubt and fear.  Neither is an especially happy path.  so I walked along on Friday night, enjoying the surroundings while at the same time stewing in all the reasons why doing this, then, now was silly.  All a moot point, I needed to make miles, find a place to camp, eat, and sleep.  I hadn’t finished pack until after midnight the previous night and woken early, and the combo was not doing my mood any favors.

I was already resolved to not go up to Logging Creek.  Hiking in that kind of brush, at this time of year and that hour of the day, in Grizz country, it just silly.  This conviction was reinforced when, a half mile before Logging Creek, I heard a vigorous and pine-cone-loosening scramble from one of the Ponderosas off the road.  Too big to be a squirrel, perhaps a martin?  Nope, a black bear cub, recognizable by it’s cute little head sticking out in profile 70 feet up.  Damn it, where’s mom?!

I stopped, started yelling loudly, and put my head on a swivel.  No momma bear.  Hastily, I decided to creep forward and get outta there fast.  Then I noticed mom off in the woods 50 feet away, me exactly between her and baby.  That was stupid.  Never letting her get out of sight, I broke into a swift trot down the road.  She didn’t move a muscle, and I got off lucky.  Black bears aren’t as likely to be aggressive, but she was a big black bear, and I should have backed off a bit or at least waited to see if she appeared.  Of course as M pointed out last night by the time I noticed that cub she could have already been behind me.  That’s the third black bear in 13 months whose presence I’ve only noticed because of the scrambling of cubs climbing a tree.  Something to watch out for.

I should note that this miscalculation didn’t do much to improve my mood.

When I did reach LogginG Creek campground, I found out why the Inside road isn’t yet open.  The campground was entirely flooded by Logging Creek, as was an impressive amount of forest, and 150 meter of road I had to wade through.  Burrrr.  I continued on to Quartz Creek, also closed but not flooded.  The mosquitoes were out in force.  I was glad I brought a bug bivvy, made dinner by the creek to maximize the breeze, and fell asleep quickly.  Birds woke me up at 500, but I had placed my tarp in a shady spot and went back to sleep until 700.

The lower Quartz Lake bridge is quite the engineering feat.

The next morning was very pleasant.  Coffee and junk food for breakfast put me in a good mood, as did the scenic meadows heading up Quartz Creek.  I had one swift, crotch deep ford to do, but the gravel bottom made it pretty casual.  I was tempted to inflate the boat and hop back in at the above bridge, but decided to save that for another day, continue on to Bowman Lake, and head down to Polebridge, calling the trip a day early.  I was expending too much mental energy, and the glimpse I got of the huge North Fork the night before had me not so excited about floating it, as the third day plan was based around.

I should note that I’m quite the control freak, which is why moving water, especially fast moving water, is not my favorite thing.  Mountain biking and skiing only became fun when I developed enough skill in both to have reliable control.  I’m not there yet in a boat, if I can ever be on something like a swift early-summer creek.

The trails of Glacier go on forever.

Once I got within 2 miles of Bowman Lake I began seeing people every 200 meters.  It must be summer.

Can’t have too many Bowman pictures.

Swift-water fears aside, Bowman Creek looked too inviting.  I figured I might be able to float a third of it.  Views from the road and previous experience suggested that once it emerged into a burned area in the lower reaches the wood would make it un-fun and un-safe.

I didn’t make it quite that far.  I had some lovely, clear meanders, then the unvisited lower Bowman Lake (or perhaps Bowman Pond is better), then more nice meanders.  Then the banks steepened I was flying down over waves, dodging tress, and punching a diagonal hole before screaming into an eddy on the wrong side of the creek and pulling out.  A ferry across to the road side of the creek looked no good, with swift water and essentially no eddies.  So unwilling to run the creek at such a level or chance a sketchy ferry I pulled the pack off the boat, broke down and stashed the paddle, and bushwacked upstream to a good crossing.  Packing the boat required putting my headnet on, as did the bushwack to find the road.

Impressive elk shed.

I’m becoming disturbingly familiar with walking the Bowman Lake road.  At least I know the landmarks now, and had boated past the most wooded and thus mosquito-infested stretch.  The only unknown now was whether M had noticed my train of special spot messages (usually meant to denote a camp) and assumed it meant I wanted to return to basecamp (home).

Fortunately, the Polebridge Ranger Station has a pay phone, and I had brought a debit card (to buy snacks at the Polebridge Mercantile).  I quick voicemail insured my rescue, eventually.

I paused on the bridge to watch the river.

 

 

Said snacks: coke, beer, brat baked in a pastry (amazing!), Guacamole-bacon pastry (excellent!).

As it turns out M had picked up extra hours at work, so my voicemail was quite necessary.  After some very nice munching, beer drinking, and people and cloud watching from the bench on the store’s porch M called the store, and the gent working fetched me to the phone: I was to be rescued that day.  M arrived, we got dinner in Whitefish, and I slept in our bed last night.

It was yet another excellent trip with a satisfying end.  I think that when I look back on it this spring will be remembered fondly.

A few little things

Rare orchids in GNP this past Sunday.  Photo, and plant sleuthing, by M.

I just finished another really good hill interval workout, and am drinking a Mighty Arrow while waiting for chicken to cook (seared, then baked in BBQ sauce, hot sauce, and root beer).  My resting pulse right now, and the way my legs feel, get me thinking I’ve been doing things right in the last two months.  But only time will tell.

This weekend is the last big training traverse before the classic.  The weekend after that a friend is getting married in Whitefish, and the weekend after that is the weekend before I fly up.  I’ll do some hard stuff on those weekends, but things designed more to sharpen the edge than to place the final few bricks.  Our peculiar spring (now summer) keeps making trip planning complex.  Rivers are high, enough that making packrafting an integral part of a trip freaks me out a bit.  Yet for all that snow melt, we haven’t had a sustained period of warm days and cool nights for over two weeks, and the recent wet slides I saw the weekend before last give me pause when I think about crossing certain passes.  Good mental training, and hauling all the extra snow gear and doing all that postholing has built a great power base, but it’s still a bit hard to embrace.  I must remember that the training is the meal, and the race merely the after-meal coffee.

On a largely unrelated note, I took a slow moment at work this afternoon (what would the internet be without them?) to examine my all-time post view stats (since switching to wordpress last fall).  The results are encouraging.  Of course gear reviews dominate the top 10 (the Marquette BC has been a popular subject, as has the Crossleather), but the number one post is my trip report from three weeks ago.  The second most popular is this meditation of the purpose of gear and outdoor adventure in our lives.  The former took off thanks to a bunch of secondary and tertiary traffic on twitter and a shockingly wide array of blogs, while the later resonated and got a lot of traffic from BPL.  All of that, and the intelligent discussion which ensued, is thanks to you readers.  So thank you all, very much.

Lastly, I’d like to recommend my new favorite pair of shorts.  I have the storm color, which is very nice, and can be seen in action here.   Yes, they are assiniely expensive.  And yet, like most things Patagonia, the great fabric and superlative design and fit make the price quite worthwhile once you have them on.  They’re comfy, tough, dry very fast, and just fit great.  For your information.

Learn to ride a bike

You may have seen this, as it seems to be well into going viral, but it’s just too relevant not to post:

Relevant because, beyond the obvious, I’ve worked with several kids over the years who made it to 9, 10, even 12 years old without the opportunity to learn to ride a bike. I think I can say that, transcending just about all classism that might be relevant in the US, such a thing is very sad.

Yellowstone Winter Use Plan: Comment Now

The Yellowstone draft winter use plan(s) are up online, and the 60 day comment period is open now.  You can read the draft and use the parks electronic comment form here.  As the report itself says, the draft option which the NPS selects is likely to shape winter use of the park for decades to come (assuming it stands up to legal challenge).  So, I strongly encourage everyone to comment now.  In the following text I attempt to sum up the various options (though pages v thru x of the executive summary do a pretty good job of that already).

The NPS has presented us with 7 plans for winter use by humans of the park, which vary considerably according to the extent to which they permit motorized use.  All plans would allow ski and snowshoe traffic, and would continue to keep the northern road from Gardiner to Cook City open year round.

The first alternative is the “no action” alternative, which would allow the current interim plan to expire, thus leaving the park with no rule permitting motorized OSV (over snow vehicle) traffic.  Beyond NPS administrative use, all motorized winter OSV travel would be illegal.  The draft notes that parks such as Glacier, Rainer, and Lassen (in northern CA) are managed in such a fashion.  They also note that because OSV traffic has been so constant for so long, implementation of this alternative could provide a baseline for animal activity, air quality, and the like which has in modern times not been accessible.  This last point is a very good one, and while the comparison to Glacier is not a good one (the mountains and avalanches of Glacier keep much of the park inaccessible in winter in a way applicable to very few areas of Yellowstone) the comparison to the gentle terrain of Lassen is not bad (though the volumes of interest are quite different).

Alternative 2 would essentially continue the status quo, with limits on the numbers of snowmobiles and snowcoaches per day, with mandatory guiding for all parties, and fairly strict technological restrictions (no two-stokes).  Alternative 3 is identical, save rolling snowmachine numbers back to 2004 levels (about three times the most recent limits).

Alternative 4 contains an interesting provision, wherein the roads from Mammoth and West Yellowstone would be plowed in to Madison and Old Faithful, and open to commerical shuttle vans.  Any van is quieter than the archaic and very load snowcoaches currently is use to schlep folks in to Old Faithful, and this provision also admits that at least a substaintial part of the motivation to not plow the thin snowpack in to Old Faithful has to do with charging exorbitant rates for snowcoach rides.

Alternative 5 phases out snowmachines by the 2014/15 season, replacing them with snowcoaches that would have to meet emissions requirements.  I don’t know enough to contextualize these requirements and thus establish their rigor.

Alternatives 6 and 7 would establish limits on snowmachine and snowcoach use that would vary throughout the season, presumably (I have not read the entire, hundreds of pages document) providing for more slots around holiday periods, etc.  Alternative 6 would allow for some private snowmachine use, alternative 7 would not.  Alternative 7 is the NPS’ preferred alternative, and includes the questionable provision that “…OSV concessioners could have the potential to increase their daily limits if they include newer, cleaner, technologies in their fleets.”

I wrote in support of the no-action alternative.  More because I suspect this plan and it’s merits will not be well voiced in the face of the economic issues (Cody and West will be screaming that their economies will die) sure to dominate the debate.  The current level of OSV travel seems to be fairly innocuous, and even when you consider that animals are more stressed and are typically restricted to areas close to the roads the current level of motorized traffic likely pales in comparison to summer hoards.

My argument, of course, is that our modern world is spiritually small enough, our wild lands full of snowmachine trails, our lazy demons catered to all so thoroughly by law and custom.  For our national parks to remain bastions to and for higher ideals is entirely appropriate.  In summer its hard to hike for more than 3 days in Yellowstone without crossing a road.  In winter, absent regular snowmachine traffic, a 10 day traverse would be possible with barely a sign of humanity in evidence.  I would hope that there is enough traction against myopathy in the general public to see that as a virtue, even if you yourself never partake.

My second choice would be alternative 4.  The snowcoaches are a goofy, if romantic, and avaricious artifice.  If Yellowstone is to be accessible for “everyone” in the winter it should be fiscally accessible as well.  It’s not mentioned in the draft, but I’d like to see (and encourage all socialists to write as much) for-profit concessions banned from national parks in perpetuity, and camping fees permanently frozen at $5 a night (2010 dollars adjusted for inflation).

It should also be noted that snowbiking is not mentioned anywhere in the first 36 pages of the draft (and I imagine not at all elsewhere in it).  If you think snowbiking is an appropriate use of the park, now is the time to say so.

Comments are open until July 13th.  Get involved.  Decisions are made by those who show up.

“Be Brave, Be Strong” book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire!

First, Dan and canyon crew are on fire with this trip. Serious FOMO warning.

Second, Enel requested that I hold forth on the subject of firearms (guns!) as a backcountry safety tool.

Since moving up to Griz country I’ve thought a fair bit about the various ways in which one might defend oneself against hostile critters. I’m restricting my analysis to animals, for the simple reason that defense against humans is a much more complex topic. When I’m in real wilderness out west I think I’m as safe as I’m ever in my life likely to get w/r/t other people. If I hiked the AT in the mid-Atlantic I might feel differently.

As far as bears go I agree with Eric’s assessment that carrying a weapon, be it a firearm or pepper spray, is primarily psychological. Grizzly freak us out not because they’re more statistically likely than any other animal to hurt us, but because they could if they chose predate upon us with disconcerting ease. I don’t think we humans like being reminded of our proper place amongst the food chain.

I bought my first ever can of bear spray about 11 months ago, specifically because I was going into a griz-rich area alone soon after the bears woke up, and could safely assume I’d be the first humans any bears I might come across would have seen that year. The record of pepper spray seems to be pretty good, though the max range of Counter Assault is advertised as 30-32 feet, and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee recommends a “…spray distance of 25+ feet to reach the bear at a distance sufficient for the bear to react to effects of the active ingredients in bear spray in time to divert its charge and retreat.”  In short, pepper spray does not inspire a huge amount of confidence, and in application demands a very steady nerve.

The second option is marine flares, either handheld or in a pistol-type launcher.  Apparently these are used in Russian and Alaska, and have been officially recommended in Canada (until people kept burning themselves with the handheld ones).  Seems effective, and the thought of being able to reload and have something non-lethal to shoot at a bear is comforting.

The third option is to carry a gun.  As fo 14 months ago, one of the major downsides to this, being unable to lawfully carry them in national parks, quietly went away.  The pros amount to being able to administer lethal force when necessary, the cons primarily weight and having to be skilled and calm enough to aim well.  As Eric noted, the minimal gun I’d consider carrying for self-defense against big animals (bears or otherwise) is at least 40 oz (and has some punishing recoil).  I’ve also reliably heard that should you need to kill a grizzly in self-defense, and I assume this would apply to anything in hunting-forbidden national parks, the paperwork required to substantiate your situation in not to be trifled with.

In summary, all options for self-defense weapons are deeply flawed.  I might buy a flare gun to replace the pepper spray I lost last month, or do what I did for years and go without.  I’d like to own a stainless S&W .44, but the weight penalty alone would make me hesitate to carry it often.  In the end, the best defense is knowing the area into which you’re going, the likely behaviors of the big animals therein, and an acceptance that as in all things in life strange, unpredictable, and shitty things might just happen.

 

Postscript:

In his email Eric mentioned that “There are literally many, many, many more folks walking around armed than I ever dreamed of.”  True, this is America, and the 2nd amendment exists so that we can overthrow the government if need be.  My grandfather taught me to shoot, and be responsible about it, when I was little (7? can’t recall, really).  It was a big, big deal when in his eyes I was old and mature enough to shoot a .22.  I’ve always been comfortable around and appreciative of guns, even if I’ve never been drawn to them as many are.  That being said, I recall folks in Arizona being more ostentatious about owning guns than any other place I’ve lived, by quite a bit.  My cynical analysis of this is that many people move to Arizona and try a bit too hard to recapture the wild west, often by riding horses of trails over their skill level with a brand new .44 in a leather holster.  One of the things I love about Montana is that while almost everyone has guns, and hunting is more a part of the cultural fabric than anywhere else I know, shooting and hunting just aren’t a big deal.  Which once you’re an adult is usually the way it should be.

Why Roubaix is the greatest

I imagine that the overwhelming majority of ya’ll, out there, know that the road race Paris-Roubaix was run yesterday.  If for no other reason than I already mentioned the winner, Johan Vansummeren.  I’ve been drawn into following pro road racing over the last year, and in it’s good moments has become a far, far more rewarding and time consuming pursuit than other things I’m loath to admit I read (occasionally!  very occasionally!) on the ‘net.  Once you pass a certain threshold of knowledge and familarity, it really does become quite enthralling.

One feature of Paris-Roubiax is the fanatic, creepy romanticism given over to the race, its mystique, and its history.  Other races get comparable treatment, however.  A perhaps unique feature of the Roubaix build-up is the obsession with “new” technology, which when combined with more of the aforementioned almost erotic obsession with roundish rocks makes the whole thing a particular event for the fan.

But why all the bother?  Why all the obsession with gnarly stretches of the route and equipment?  Sounds a lot like mountain biking to me.

And Paris-Roubiax is as close to mountain biking as pro road racing gets: therein lies the appeal, the aura, and the obsession.  As numerous pundits, professional and amateur point out, P-R is so hard that more than 50% of the field finishing is considered a good or easy year.  It all points to the greatest interest in sport being struggles against obstacles super human.  Having a course that punishes lazy equipment choices is good, too.

And one final piece of fetishization (the first scene of Hushovd is a nice instruction in how to ride rough terrain):

Local bullshit

BS item #1: Me being easy to spot last Saturday.

BS item #2: Spurious “breakthrough agreement” on Bison management in Yellowstone

As I’ve written before, the argument that brucellosis is carried by bison to cattle with detrimental results is a red herring. Ranchers dislike bison because they stomp their fences and generally disrupt the illusion that we as humans hold hegemony over the land. I haven’t been able to find a map of the so-called Gardiner Basin, but I’m pretty sure it’s something close to this area.  Problem is, as a two-minute perusal of the existing hunting regs will tell you, bison already hang out in that area during winter.  If this agreement amounts to anything, it would seem that Montana wants to allow more bison to be shot by hunters in an area where hunting has been legal for several years.  Problem is, in 2009 only one bison (out of over 100 tags) was actually shot in that area.

I have no problem with wild bison being hunted.  I do have a problem with management decisions being made on the basis of misinformation.  Unfortunately, the places bison actually want to go during harsh winters are the flat plains along the Yellowstone River between Gardiner and Livingston, land “owned” (and thus, fenced) by ranchers  and rich people.  The conflict is thus directly between our modern, arrogant conceptualization of property rights and a one ton critter that wants to find grass uncovered by snow.  Hunting and management are tertiary concerns.

Western Montana: A seasonal guide for outdoor recreation

The seasons dictate what we do outside and how we do it.  Outdoor recreation is at it’s best when the intersection of equipment, terrain and weather come together to provide an experience which is aesthetically interesting and spiritually satisfying.  Hauling a bike through unrideable powder or peanut butter mud does neither, nor does skiing micro-patches of summer snow or  your bases on rocks and stumps.  There are, in short, proper seasons for proper activities, and it’s a good idea to embrace them, rather than looking forward to the next, longer for thing that won’t actually come into shape for a month or more.  (Human though that urge is.)

On the other hand, there is a certain pleasure to be had in defying conventional wisdom, or at the very least in finding its ground truth for yourself.  All advice is after all a mere guide for being there yourself.  With that in mind, I present my own opinions and suggestions about what activities are best suited for the 12 months of the year, if you happen in be west of the Continental Divide in Montana.

January

Powder skiing.   Ski touring. 

February

Powder skiing.  Ski touring.  Low altitude skiing.

March

BC skiing (low altitude pack beginning to dissipate).   Bring out the bike, to ride the road.  Streams start to thaw and come up.

April

Skiing runs the gamut from corn to pow, stable to hazardous.  Good, cold boating and fishing.  First dry trails, but the biking won’t be good for a while yet.

May

Sleeper powder days, t-shirt skiing.  Dry trails below 5-k (maybe).  Rivers huge by months end.

June

Flowers, bugs, high altitude skiing.   Great boating, hiking, and biking.  Enjoy life without crowds if you’re willing to posthole.

July

Many more bugs and flowers, mountains officially “open.”  Tail end of runoff means small streams clear and floatable.  Big hikes and rides in the mountains.  Hand up the skis, the action is elsewhere.

August

High season.  Climb the mountains without snow.  Dodge crowds.  Fish high lakes, ride at altitude.

September

First snow up high, gorgeous weather at other times.  Crystalline hiking, cycling, and fishing.  Good, slow boating.

October

Winter comes to the mountains, with varied ferocity.  Bring the snowshoes and enjoy sans humans (except hunters).  The best low country mountain biking.  Fantastic fishing on warm afternoons.  Skiing will not be as good as you think, so don’t yet bother.

November

Sure to have more of all the other seasons than any single month.  In a good year the skiing will be great by months ends, in a bad year it will be -15 on Thanksgiving.  The country usually closes out, though that could be delayed until early December.

December

Cold, dark, winter.  Some of the best snow of the year, if/when it comes.

In short, Montana is coming up upon the season of all possibilities, and I am excited for it.

The 5 reasons to buy gear

Allow me to begin here at the end: gear should be a means to an end. And not just any end, but a good end. Ryan Jordan has recently written a superlative post on just this point, building on his interpretation of what a good end should be.  I agree with him, I’ve written here on several occasions that insofar as humans are basically social critters, outdoor adventures ought to be used to enhance our relations with others (perhaps most directly through enhancing the vessel, our selves).

Gear is good because it lets you go on trips and see Pitcher Plants in bogs.  Isle Royale 2010.

In practice the distinctions are much finer, and in the gear store principles are much harder to put into practice.  So then, let us discuss a few reason why you might buy some gear, and in particular examine the problematic distinctions between these motives.

1: Replacing the broken

Simple and straightforward; an existing piece of gear breaks and/or wears out, so you replace it.  Problem is that modern gear tends to be well put together, and when well selected does not break easily or wear out fast.  The exception is semi-disposable items like bike chains and ski wax, which unless you’re a serious speed-weenie are purchases requiring neither excitement nor nuance.  Thus, many purchases made under the guise of this category are probably more accurate handled by the second:

2: Upgraditis

Newer = better, yes?!  Well.  Defining better isn’t an exact art, or even an especially possible one, so it’s safe to say that novelty (not necessarily in a pejorative sense) is at the core here at least as often as functionality.  The waters here are muddied in turn when upgrading co-mingels with our next category..

3: New stuff for new pursuits

Want to take up packrafting?  Gotta get a packraft, no way around it.  (Joy!)  Better get a (good?) paddle, PFD, helmet, throw bag, drysuit, wetsuits, etc, etc while we’re at it.  Oh the bankers do love people taking up new pursuits, seldom is more money spent on gear in so short a time and with less compunction.  Of course, outside observers find it hard to see that another pair of skis, or a bike with a cumulative 3″ more travel and 1.5 degree difference in geometry, constitute anything new.  See #2.

4: Aesthetic appreciation

Some things are just cool.   I think this is a fairly noble end, provided that said items make it out on a regular basis, to have their appearance further enhanced with scratches, tears, solar fading, and soot.  Something which is highly aesthetic, tough, and (theoretically) useful goes a long way towards excusing, at least in my mind, purchases and acquisitions which may not be strictly utilitarian.

5: Experience by proxy

Gear you wish you had the impetus/courage/time/inclination to take out, but instead sits unused.  In my opinion, far and away that most sinister item on this list, though it/they can provide a catalyst for problem solving.  All that winter gear gathering dust with the tags still on?  Better go snow camping, or just let that idea go and become content with sitting around a fire in the lodge with a beer.  You’ll buy a lot of them with all those ebay proceeds.

 

There have been few days in the past decade when I haven’t had a certain gear question to turn over in my mind.  Like it or not, the curse of the thinking practitioner seems to be a near constant meditation on some combination of #2 and #3, with some #1 and occasional run ins with #4 as well.  #5 I’ve been lucky enough to avoid for the most part, though my un-sold off climbing gear might be more of #5 and less of financial prudence than I prefer to pretend.

For most of this winter it has been skis, more specifically, what ski and binding combo will I purchase for next winter?  This has been a good and healthy question.  The time frame and scope of the purchase are closely defined, and the contemplation is reinforced by weekly feedback sessions which ideally will maximize the utility and longevity of the hypothetical items in question.  (The crash yesterday gave a serious bump to releasable bindings, weight be damned.)

Growing up as a post-grad school adult has been a very good influence on this process of gear purchase contemplation.  I have student loans to pay down, a process which does not promise to go away soon, as well as a modest income which does not promise to increase substantially in the near future.  My budget for gear purchases is thus both small and well-defined.  It is as much as I need, but not enough for me to get greedy.  Because one important piece of my life with gear, something which has become increasingly clear as I’ve become older and a bit more self-aware, is the paradoxically coexisting appreciation and loathing I have for my gear.  I have a refined appreciation for what gear can do for me, bred in no small part from my penchant for doing more with less (you cannot appreciate a suspension fork until you’ve spent a year riding actual rough terrain without one).  In the same instance and via the same process, I know exactly how much easier technology can make things, and I’m not always ok with that.

Experience is paramount, as Jill has pointed out with her usual eloquence, and given the current state of our lives quality experience (read: difficult) must be manufactured.  One way to create a sufficient state of challenge is to go out in bad conditions, easy to do if you live here in Montana.  Another way is to add 5 miles (if backpacking) or 30 miles (if mtn biking) beyond your comfort/experience zone.  And yet another way is to monkey with the gear.  Take just enough clothing.  Bring only a large scale map.  Don’t do exhaustive internet research.  Just don’t let gear get in the way, because fun, insofar as it makes the lives of those around us better, is very serious business.

Exit questions:

-What categories did I overlook?

-What is the proper place of gear in your life?