Packrafting defined


St. Mary Lake from 500′ up.  50 mph winds and oceanic swells.

I was introduced to boating and skiing early in life, in the normal ways: canoeing, whitewater rafting, downhill skiing in area, XC skiing on track skis.  All were fun for short periods, but none resonated especially well.  Until the last few years, that is.  Backcountry skiing revealed skis as an enhancement for exploration, rather than a hindrance.  Like a mountain bike.  Two years ago it was love at third or fourth sight.

Boating has taken quite a bit longer.  In the hierarchy of outdoor pursuits the human-powered descending of rivers exists in the upper echelons with respect to the literature it has produced.  Twain, Powell, Ellsworth Kolb, Katie Lee, Abbey, Dimock; all give ample evidence that floating a watercourse seems to be an especially good way of experiencing the landscape.  It has also always struck me as indecently decadent, ponderous, and constrained, objections rooted in aesthetics as much as financial and logistical concerns.  I’ve never liked having more equipment than strictly necessary, and shuttles are at best necessary evils.  And while the kinesthetic and technical aspects of skiing and especially mountain biking are seductive, I increasing enjoy such things primarily as a means to the end of seeing large slices of the world.

A good pair of shoes is the most essential piece of equipment.

At first packrafting was the obvious, water-based equivalent of skis and bikes: portable technology to enhance foot-based travel.  Packrafts are such things, but they’re much more.

I’ve been continually frustrated by my inability, since July, to adequately capture the fantastically intimate details one sees from a packraft.  Being low and in the river, the clear water of the Rockies, and the ability to float small streams and thus follow drainages in a very definitive fashion.  Ryan Jordan has written some resonant words, and put a item on my to-do list, about following lakes chains in the Beartooths.  And he is absolutely right, floating down a drainage and seeing the landscape shaped and reshaped on its own terms, rather than a human trail builders, is a singular aesthetic and metaphysical experience.  In the modern world, with so few real wilderness floats, packrafting goes back through Powell to Lewis, Clark, and the anonymous voyageurs in that it unites efficient wilderness travel and contemplative, experiential profundity.

The upper St. Mary River, near my put in on Saturday.

All that is why I drove for far too long yesterday to hike up to and descend the St. Mary river, from up near the cascade down from Gunsight Lake down to the lake itself.  I wrote some concrete beta on the packrafting forum, which fails utterly to communicate the experience.  That me-to-others lacuna is in turn exacerbated by the fact that my camera stayed tucked in my drybag for the duration.  It was cold, snow was flying, I was wearing neoprene gloves under Gore-tex mittens, and by the time I paddled along the lake for a stretch and took out at the beach I was darn cold and my mostly-empty All-Pack was encrusted in a 1/8″ thick carapace of verglass.  I want a waterproof HD helmet cam.

This is what they do to bridges in Glacier for the winter.  Stream crossings do a lot to give a place back to the wild.

All of which is to say that packrafting is a paradigm changing activity.  Yesterday is a perfect example; the intensity of 5-6 hours in the forest and on the water matches much longer trips on trail only.  Add the wonder of emphatic weather and an empty park (the ranger was closing the road behind me as I left), and you have a single-day out that cannot easily be improved.

So yes, you ought to get a packraft. They’re almost as cool as 4×4 trucks.

Fear and Trembling (in praise of the off-season)

“He had faith by virtue of the absurd, for all human calculation ceased long ago.”
-Soren Kierkegaard

Glacier National Park was called the Alps of the Americas not only to lure rich easterners away from Europe, but because the high peaks that make up the crown of the continent hold forth with a singular aesthetic.  Unlike the taller mountains of the Colorado Rockies, Sierras, or Wind Rivers, Glacier’s mountains are not only the icing on the cake of larger massifs.  They, like the Tetons, rise straight from the plains, foothills utterly absent, abrupt in a way that “go west young man” stereotypes would have midwestern children believe all mountains do.  Unlike the comparably small Tetons, which as a singular ridge constitute an isolated if craggy geologic exception, the mountains of Glacier National Park are at once unified and expansive.  There are many high peaks possessed of that singular, Matterhornian architecture which makes for such good photos.  There are also many appropriately deep and dark valleys, and said valleys are spread amongst and between the peaks such that it is possible to get well and truly situated in the depths of the range, something not possible in the Tetons, where any high vantage provides a view of either the Wyoming or Idaho plains.

All of which is to say that the mountains of Glacier are classical mountains, with all the proper metaphysical and mystical connotations.  There be dragons, indeed.

And that is in turn to say that religious inclinations are the right and proper outgrowth of time spent in Glacier, especially during the off-season, when the mountains wake from the soporific heat of summer (which is in Glacier de facto 2 months long at most) and really stretch their legs.

Triple Divide Pass, looking north into the Hudson Bay Creek drainage.  Note the bear tracks in the lower right hand corner. 

Soren Kierkegaard** was a Danish philosopher who wrote about religion and about faith.  He stands aside Plato and Nietzsche and Chuang Tzu as thinkers whose profundities are equalled by their stylist sophistication and beauty.  In Fear and Trembling he discusses the sacrifice of Abraham, and how the faith evinced therein rests on a belief in the absurd, that is, in something categorically beyond human comprehension.  Because Keirkegaard was post-Cartesian, he knew the power cogito ergo sum* held over human understanding (and thus, existence), and thus knew that placing a central tenet of religious existence beyond the reaches of human thought was at least doubly paradoxical.  As he wrote “To exist in such a way that my contrast to existence constantly expresses itself as the most beautiful and secure harmony with it- this I cannot do.  And yet, I repeatedly say, it must be wonderful to get the princess.”  This gorgeous reality has selectively reared its head in the century and half since, notably (and almost always overlooked) in the work of Edward Abbey, from which this blog takes its title and mission.

This past weekend I loaded snowshoes, two days of thin rations, and fall clothing into a newly completed pack (the umpteenth All-Pack revision) and headed through the heart of Glacier for 60 miles, on the latest of many such solo athletic and spiritual journeys.  Turning my mind off has always been a challenge; as a child I could never fall asleep without reading.  It is thus especially notable that, in 2010, I’ve weened myself off backcountry reading material, and been able to (normally) sleep just fine.  Nothing turns off the mind like the beat of walking for hours and hours in the woods, and as Kierkegaard wrote, “…faith begins precisely where thought stops…”

M graciously woke up at 630 on Saturday morning, and by 900 I was walking through the gated campground at Two Medicine, admiring abundant clouds and clean light.  It didn’t begin raining until just below the south side of Pitamakin Pass, which was amazingly snow free.  I put on my snowshoes at the summit, and full shell gear a mile down the north side.  I had pondered the necessity of bringing either, but would come to dearly rely on the presence of both.  My weather for the weekend substantially overdelivered on the forecasted 50% chance of rain, and the non-south facing passes of the second day would make the ‘shoes invaluable.

The miles between Pitamakin and the ascent to Triple Divide Pass are lost to memory and the violence it suffers at the zen hands of hiking.  The ascent of that pass is noteworthy however, as it has no switchbacks, just one 3+ mile long switch up the cirque wall.  A few of the deeper alcoves had a more easterly aspect, and these were reliably drifted full and packed with snow at a steep angle.  It was still raining, and the saturated snow made kicking steps with soft shoes easy.  I could even sink my trekking poles to the handles for self-belays, something I’d do again on similar sections going up Gunsight the next day.  In both cases steep snow (60-65 degrees, measured with an inclometer) and a 4th class runout (ie probably death in a fall) would have made harder snow a trip-stopper without an axe, alpine boots and crampons.  Those sections, perhaps 6 in all, were attention getting.

I had 31 miles to make my intended campsite on St Mary Lake, which meant I’d be night hiking.  I do that with dis-ease in Griz country, given that a startled hyperphasic bear is statistically the most dangerous to a hiker.  I saw no live bears, but lots of nearly live tracks, both black and Griz.  Some, as in the above photo, in rather unlikely places.  My off-season hiking this year has given me a ground truth understanding of what work animals do to find food.  Given the track depth, it seems Glacier bears favor night or early morning pass crossings.  So I strode along yelling “Hey ____! (bear, moose, elk, stick, mud, stump, vole, rock, etc) and singing old French camp songs.  Or what little I remember of them.

Camp was gorgeous.  On the flat rock beach of a glacial lake, it had stopped raining an hour ago, and the stars were out!  It was also gusting to 60 mph, making the fire burn fast (good for a quick dinner) and necessitating a post-dinner shelter re-pitching, complete with a lengthy quest for the heaviest drift logs and rocks I could carry.  The Trailstar is super burly once all the anchor points are guyed out, but establishing those guy points can be tricky.  The bivy sack, which I had thought about bringing days before the trip, turned out to the unlikely but best option (had I had it along).  I didn’t get the sleep until 1130, but slept well one I realized the shelter wasn’t going to blow away, just flap a lot.  The MLD guy points are burly.

I awoke at 740 and got going fast, after fetching my bear bag and crawling back into my bag to make coffee.  The trail was up in the trees 50-100 feet above the lake, so I walked the rock beach for a mile so I could fully enjoy the sunrise.

My legs and feet were creaky, and I knew the day would not be short, but M was meeting me at Lake McDonald Lodge at dark, and I had miles to make.  Fortunately, though my muscular and cardio specific conditioning is lacking right now, I’ve banked the experience to make up for it.

I needed all the help I can get.  The upper reaches of Gunsight were fogged in, breaks in the clouds and rain revealed steep, stark wall on all sides and one wet point-release avalanche that slide at the ground and ran a few hundred feet, covering a line of goat tracks.  The upper mile of trail was barely distinguishable, and making it up efficiently and away from avy terrain required all of my not inconsiderable skill at micro-route finding.  When I saw the hut at the apex of the pass and went inside to make ramen with my last esbit cube, I felt like I had very much succeeded in turning aside from human calculation, and in the process completed a Masters practical examination in wilderness travel.  The traverse around the side of Lake Ellen Wilson was tough and slow, snow conditions being as abysmal as they were, but even though the pass over to the Sperry drainage was not without its thought-provoking moments, the crux had been overcome and the trip was, sore feet and quads aside, a foregone conclusion.

I was over an hour late to meet M, but she had seen my microscopic Spot progress and delayed her arrival accordingly.  The last 1.8 miles, down hard dirt trail in the dark and drizzle with failing quads, was comical for even me to witness.  My safety call had morphed from Hey Bear to cursing the trail, errant rocks, deceptive shadows, my own knackered legs, and the extravagant number of feet in a mile.  All of which was absurd.  The nearer I felt to the world, the more intimate my notice of its details, the further I was drawn into a situation in which I was cursing exactly those things I was not only powerless to change, but would never truly desire to alter.  Whatever the state of my existence during those last miles, I was exactingly aware of it.

M was waiting, light on in the cab of the truck, in the parking lot of the lodge, the white truck seeming unusually clean against the wet asphalt into which all light vanished.  I threw my pack in the back, pulled off my rain jacket and my shoes, and let my damp socks stink in the air as I enjoyed a moist, warm, quiet ride back home.  My absurd, paradoxical existence, my coexistent separateness from and dependence upon the world at large, and my enthusiastic if occasional embrace of all that uncertainty instantly made the smallest details of my marriage, employment, and quiet daily life more beautiful and more secure than they had been 36 hours previously.

No matter how sore my feet were, and 24 hours later, still are.

*I think, therefore I am.
**All quotations/citations from the 1983 Hong and Hong translation.

Cynicism

I try to not give in to it, if for no other reason that in my line of work a rosy view of the world is a prerequisite for sanity.  Today of course, doing that is difficult.

Up here in the Flathead Valley the electorate is pretty conservative.  Whitefish (the Aspen of Montana, and home of our current Democratic governor) sometimes elects a Democrat, and HD 5 (downtown Kalispell, where we live) historically splits pretty evenly, sometimes breaking one way or the other by only a few dozen votes.  Yesterday Whitefish elected a guy with ties to white supremacist groups, and the Dem in HD 5 (and one of my co-workers brothers-in-law) lost by 5+ points.  Welcome to NW Montana.

True cynicism, something I partially believe in my least hopeful moods, is this quotation: “I can’t help feeling that if Obama were a white man, the tea party wouldn’t even exist.”  It was left by a commenter on this excellent article by Tim Egan, which is the most succinct big-picture explanation I’ve yet found of the “republican wave” of 2010.  Egan isn’t the only one making the point that president Obama has (likely intentionally) sacrificed election results on the altar of policy achievement, and while Obama’s historical reputation is already secure for many reasons, the question of what carnage and nastiness 2012 will bring is wide open.

It’s easy to say that the people know how to spend their money better than the government does.  That tautology is as viscerally inarguable as it is false.  One ideal Obama espoused in 2008, and has thus far fallen short on, is raising the bar of public behavior and discourse, or making it less acrimonious by making it more substantive.  I hope that just as the president better knows better than I how to spend taxes on public projects, so to will he know how to elevate politics in the face of John Boehner.  Because I certainly don’t know how.