Heavenly creatures

A cliche title for a (by my previous standards) cliche outing.

Ali and Ranger Megan had an idea; climb Heaven’s Peak from Camas Creek. Perhaps there would be no bushwacking. Why not? M came home from work Saturday night with a nasty headache which had not abated by our 0430 wakeup, so I went by myself. We/I were to meet them at Arrow Lake no later than 0900.

Camas Creek, one of the Night of the Grizzlies locations, is something of a hidden gem; just over the ridge from the McDonald Valley, strung with trails which are rarely trodden.  I’ve packrafted there, and walked across its frozen lakes, but had never been beyond Arrow Lake, nor been there in summer.

It’s nice, and wild, with overgrown trails and a healthy population of Devil’s Club (including right in the Arrow Lake campground).

Megan and Ali are both park geeks: longtime employees who have explored corner after corner and have endless stories to tell.  Ali has apparently been a reader since the wolverine trips this winter, and kept unnerving me by referencing content here (“That tarp looks bigger in person..”).  Hi Ali!  Now quit procrastinating and get back to work (she’s in Bozeman for grad school).

They had competingly awesome hats: Megan with NPS beanie at left, Ali with the hat that wears you at right.

I started over Howe Ridge at 0640, and made camp by 0901.  By 11 or so we had left the trail near the bend between Arrow and Camas Lakes, and were beginning 2000′ of relentless elevation gain up a gully, in perhaps 3/4 of a mile.

There was no brush, just plenty of chances to drop rocks on each other. Going back to help Megan over a bulge Ali brushed a microwave-sized boulder, which leaped out of the loose dirt and would have done some serious damage, had Ali not pulled a ninja move; turning and catching it like a shortstop in kickball. It busted into four chunks, one of which stayed put and the other three Meg was able to dodge.

Damage was a split thumb nail, a lot of blood, some new holes in a very well-used Patagonia windshirt, and further elevation of Ali’s badassedness.

The gully petered out into steep veg slopes near the crest, which was gained very abruptly. A good goat trail led up another 2k to the summit.

The views were absurd.

I have mixed feelings about climbing peaks generally, and the route, lacking totally though it was in bushwacking, was a mixed bag.  The ridge was cool, the gully only somewhat entertaining.  But the chief virtue of summits, being able to see stuff and link experienced terrain into a more coherent whole, is one which Heaven’s fulfills in spades.

Our camp is obscured by that green bump on the descending ridge.

We succeeded in not getting blown off the ridge, and headed down.  The gully was not any faster in that direction.

We made camp by dark, ate, talked, and went to sleep.  The next day Megan had a house to go buy and Ali had class on Tuesday.  I finished coffee and stretched sore legs, caught a few fish off that log pile in Trout Lake, and was home not long after noon.

They may be the mountains, but they’re also just what we do on the weekends.

Internal Wars, Tenkara Wars

My day job as a social worker is rooted in paradox. The perception of an empathic provider is a prolegomena to effective mental health treatment, which is not something suited to fakery. At the same time, we as professionals must maintain a distance, to be able to make effective, “objective” decisions on matters of treatment and for our own well-being. Like all fair and true balancing acts this is impossible, the very idea on many levels absurd. Achieving it is not a static state of enlightenment but an unending and drunken walk down a tilted sidewalk. Which is why, yesterday, I called in sick with a case of oncorhynchustitis.

My fishing rods: TenkaraUSA Amago (first gen) above, Daiwa Soyokaze 27 below.

I should first mention that, as evidenced here, my camera did not die from last weekends swim. The camera in a ziplock of rice trick works; I’ve had to use it twice in the last month.

Perfect.  Too bad you can’t legally packraft it when the water is high enough. (Hint.)

I had a sense it would be a good day. Every evening the last week over has progressed in crispness, and on a particularly early morning riding to work last week I even wore a long-sleeved shirt. Autumnal morning giving over to summer warmth around noon or one is perfect fishing weather; unlike earlier in August, the chill stays in the water such that they will bite all day.

And yesterday was perfect, perfect for thinking as a whole day spent working up a single stream can be. Perfect because I did something right for myself. Perfect because a mild and short bushwack got me a freestone creek within (distant) sight of the road that probably gets fished five times in two years. Perfect because (once again, I might be getting good at this) I caught way more fish than I can count (50-70 in six hours), and, cliche though it might be, perfect because I caught the biggest fish of the year thus far, out of the most unlikely of small but deep pools, cut under the snarled roots of an old cottonwood.  It was the fourth cast of the day, I had caught ~10 inchers on casts two and three, which seemed big enough given the circumstances, and was awful glad I had picked the Amago first (for the extra reach).  I barely kept that fish out of several different snags, and landed and released him still full of awe and the camera still in my pack.  I know that, skinny though it was, that cutthroat was nothing less than 20 inches.  Almost as long as the first segment of the Amago, and huge for the creeks I like to fish.

Only fish photo of the day.  Usually I feel too bad delaying their release.  It is fundamentally a barbarous sport.

No other fish came close to rivaling that giant, but in the next 1.5 miles, as I worked my way upstream, the cutts seemed to be several standard deviations bigger than their cousins further downstream in the same creek.  ~10 inchers were the mean, and without exception they fought like bull trout.  Often two raced each other, out of the rocks below a riffle, the victor airing it out before it realized it was hooked.  As the sun rose above the ridges my mind sunk into the rhythm of fishing, absorbed in nuances of water and cobbles as daily detritus (work, shit to clean at home, country music lyrics) floated in one ear and, never without much delay, out the other.  It was pretty warm by late afternoon, when I reached my destination, stowed my gear, and walked a few miles of trail back to the truck.  I was out of water, out of food, out of will, had scratched all my daily itches, and just needed a soda.  Five years ago I thought that, come forty or fifty, I’d have the patience, no doubt born from a lack of cartilage, to focus on fly fishing.  That I’ve aged faster than anticipated is, hopefully, as good a sign for my spiritual development as it is for the long-term health of my knees (which feel great).

Tenkara has become, besides “…the most extraordinary advance in backcountry gear in the past decade,” and beyond “…the 2,000 year old fad,” a matter of some contention.  Any fad whose criticism which reaches a certain threshold of vociferation has substance behind it.  In this respect tenkara is no different than fixed gears, fat bikes, cuben fiber, or putting bacon on everything.  Tenkara has not only been bashed and dismissed roundly in 2012, but has become the object of a curious turf war over how it will be defined (e.g. market share).  TenkaraUSA introduced tenkara to the world outside Japan (see “fad” link, above), and as of this writing is the number one Google result.  Number three, behind wikipedia, is TenkaraBum, which began as a blog with the most comprehensive range of rod reviews and has quickly morphed into a retailer.  My Soyokaze was imported and sold to me by TenkaraBum (with exemplary customer service, and including a free level line).

The debate can be best understood by seeing this, and then reading this (no permalinks, you want the August 29 and 30 entries).

For my own part, the Amago and the Soko27 (which are very far apart in function, as far as trout rods go) are both very nice.  I’ve been using the former for two years, and am continuously impressed with how such a big and in many ways powerful fancy stick can be so easy to wave around all day, and make catching a wide range of fish fun and satisfying.  (The praise of tenkara, by Ryan and others, is not at all hype.)  The Soko27 is great off the bat for tight places and small fish, but is growing on me as a more multifaceted tool.  It has a lively, zingy cast and while it does demand attention, can land larger trout and is very fun in the process.  I switched from the Amago to the Soyo halfway through yesterday, more to have a change than because the stream or fish got that much smaller, and appreciate the different experience.  Equally good and capable in its own niche, and a welcome bit of diversity.  I will address the cork grip controversy, thus: I don’t find there to be any substantive difference in grip between the cork Amago and the merely textured Soko, but do find the small overall diameter of the later to be less than ideal in certain situations.

So beware the hype.  You might get caught in the misinformation, or even worse, left out of something profound entirely.

Arc’teryx Neutro Visor review

Reviewing a very expensive hat, on a blog.  Doesn’t get more outdorky.  But if you’re not here for that exactly, best move along yesterday.

The Neutro in action. I’ve always held the conviction that whomever names Arc’teryx products wanted to be Jean-Luc Picard.

This is a 35 dollar visor.  It is also an exceptionally functional one.  I’ve always sweated quite a bit, and always liked visors because they’re cooler than any hat.  The glacially inexorable extension of my widow’s peaks’ prominence mean that when my hair is particularly short, like it was for a few weeks after my post-AK haircut last month, I can’t wear a visor without dabbing my head with sunblock.  Otherwise, I strongly prefer them to hats.

The reason the Neutro works so well is that, unlike every other hat or visor I’ve ever used, it has no reservoirs of wetness.  Most hats do, usually in fabric layers where the brim is sewn into the band, which is to say, exactly where you don’t want them.  It is not pleasant to take a break to cool off, and after 10 minutes put back on a hat which is dry save for a 4 by 1/2 inch swath above your brow.  In colder weather, when the sun and precip protection of a visor can be quite handy, these islands of wetness can become islands of coldness.

The Neutro eliminates this by having the brim made of thin and flexible foam inside a laminated fabric sandwich, and by using two layers of 3D mesh as the sole band fabric.  The seam along the brim is as a result sleek, and what fabric exists is both wicking and never more than a few millimeters from direct air exposure.  Brilliant and simple.

The flexible brim is a bit on the small side, still big enough to get the job done but less likely to get flipped off by high winds.  It will easily roll up and stuff into your pocket.  It works great under the hood of an insulation layer or rain jacket.  It even fits decently under a bike or paddling helmet.  The 3D mesh provides a bit of stretch, and unlike some elastics, shouldn’t loose its stretch over time.  Arc’teryx makes the Neutro in two sizes, and it is conceivable that those with exceptionally large or small heads might find themselves left out due to the modest adjustment built in.

Otherwise, I’m happy to temporarily check off one of the infinite boxes in my search for perfect gear.

The river grizzly

Resident (non-monster) Bull Trout, photo from US Fish and Wildlife.

It takes a bit of time on the stream to appreciate the coloration of trout.  In settings friendly to the human conventions of vision, above water or close to it, the collections of spots and faded colors can seem unimaginative (cutthroat), or perhaps merely pretty (brookie).  Once you’ve spent hours upon hours peering into the confounding depths of clear water moving fast over rocks and gravel, the appearance of trout makes perfect sense.

For my money, bull trout are the most beautiful fish in the Crown of the Continent.  It’s a delightful trick that the darkest of native fish are best suited and most thoroughly adapted to the clearest of clear streams.  Transparency provides the deepest shadows.  They’re called the river grizz for both their insatiable (skip to 0:48) and omnivorous appetite, as well as their sensitivity to habitat degradation.  In one of my favorite streams I catch a bull trout, usually little ones, for every three or four cutts.  Perfectly legal, though I always make a more particular effort than usual to get them back in the water as quickly and gently as possible, ergo my lack of any photos.  I do it out of proper reverence.  On average they fight a lot harder than the cutts with whom they share this particular stream, which makes my job more difficult.

I’m far from the only fly fisher in this part of the state with a mixed, conflicted, even contradictory attitude towards bull trout fishing.  Catch and release is religion here, but that faith is firmly grounded in the service of human wants.  The desire to fish for the top trout mirrors the paradox which underlies the human relationship with wild wilderness; to appreciate something for which we have so deep an affinity we want to better understand it, knowing all the while that if too many others were to do the same the possibility of anyone doing so would soon cease to exist.  The bull trout, like the grizz, are concrete evidence that this possibility still exists, their life being tied to consequential blocks of wild habitat.  So we seize on them as a connection with that part of the world we’re worried will be destroyed by the violent act of seeking intimacy.

There doesn’t appear to be any solution, other than to pay attention and be careful.

Angry August


We were sitting, M and I, this past Friday outside our favorite pizza place when our favorite, and very harried looking, bringer of spinach and garlic calzones introduced us to angry August. The time, right now, when local businesses make their year, there are lines everywhere, Alberta plates turn slowly across traffic; in short when the rest of the world finds out why we live here.

If you’ve been to Glacier you’ve driven within a quarter mile of this spot. No one fishes here. Bring a short rod and extra tippet and you’ll have lots of fun.

A few days ago, to distract from tired and warn off the bears while hiking through thick brush at the end of a long day, M and I had the prototypical western conversation: where would we want to live.  Or to put it a different way, what would we want to change about here?  In short, we want more sun, less snow, more exposed rock, and ideally better food (eating out in the Flathead is easy, there are only about four decent choices).  Lots of places fulfill that, all of whom are south and most of which we’ve already lived in or near.  The problem is they all have no many people.  I complain, here, about crowds milder than a slow September day in RMNP or the Sierras.

So, New Mexico here we come?

Surprise Mountain Whitefish caught in the northern North Fork this past weekend. It fought hard, and I had to look it up when I got home, as I had never caught one before.

In every state there is one outdoor activity which, at it’s seasonal height, is the best thing to do, period.  In southern Arizona it is mountain biking in the winter.  In southern Utah, canyoneering in autumn.  In Montana, it is fly fishing in high and late summer.  Therefore, when in the past few weeks I’ve contemplated the myriad options available for leisure time, I always choose to fish a new creek.  We might be here, in northwest Montana, for another year or more, but we won’t be here forever.  The desert calls, and when we answer for once and for all I won’t regret not having mountain biked more Montana trails, nor having “climbed” fewer Glacier choss piles.  I will miss the summer fishing, so that it what I do while it is still available, so nearby, and so good.

Glacier cutthroat.  In three hours yesterday evening I caught him and around 59 of his little friends.

Avoiding the crowds is fairly easy this time of year, with modest effort and a few hurdles that are harder to jump.  Hiking, fishing and packrafting the Kishenehn loop on Saturday I saw no people until early afternoon on the river when the rafters finally caught up with me, and hiking Gunsight on Monday we saw only the normal assortment of hikers, with nothing odd (except all the people combining minimalist shoes and huge packs) or unctuous until the usual circus at Logan Pass.

Ellen Wilson must’ve done something right.

And with lakes like these, and weather so good you needn’t pack pants, it’s hard to blame anyone for an excess of exuberance.  On the one hand there’s little good in our smug, complacent local contempt.  On the other hand it seems the most obvious of assumptions that people only act like that on vacation, and that disingenuity I find bothersome.  What so badly needs escaping from in every aspect of your life, every fiber of your personhood?


Tragedy though it may be, it’s not hard to understand why most people think the park is closed 9 months of the year. With scarcity comes fondness and perspective. I’m still honking at people when they do dumb shit though, will continue to complain about the hot weather, hike as much as my foot will allow, and catch at least two fish from every pool I come across.

That’s what you do in August.

The ineffable South Fork

A little less than two years ago I took my first trip down the South Fork of the Flathead. To this day I haven’t written about it, I made this short video shortly thereafter and left it at that. That summer was busy with fun, but my leaving a ~ninety mile traverse of a major wilderness unexposited is uncharacteristic.

The simple truth is that I wasn’t up for the task. That trip was too big in my mind and the experience too profound. I had been back to the South Fork since, but not in summer, when the water is clearer than the air and the river beds rock which binds the vast, variegated vallies together, the regions spinal cord, is open for viewing. This past weekend I wanted to take M back, back into the South Fork and back into what is still one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever done. We saw a lot of the same things that I saw in 2010, but for a variety of reasons the experience was quite different.

There are a number of truly classic wilderness trips in the western US which should, the first time, be approached with caution: the Narrows, Royal Arch canyon, upper Pelican Valley, the summit of Telescope Peak, and the real (Wilderness) South and Middle Forks of the Flathead. Not because of difficulty or danger, but because however amazing they will be on the upteenth yearly visit, the joy of discovery on the first trip can never quite be re-experienced. I wanted M to see and feel what I had, which was of course impossible.

Instead we got roasted on the day and a half and 30+ miles hiking up to Big Prairie from the Meadow Creek TH. On that 2010 trip I had M as a shuttle driver; she dropped me at Lodgepole Creek and drove the long two gravel hours in to Spotted Bear. On our own with one car and my injured foot (from the Friday fishing stumble), an out and back on the relatively flat and smooth river trail was the only option. Only out and backs are never that cool, and my foot, which had ached all day Saturday and made walking around the grocery store slow and silly-looking, had put the whole trip into doubt and made it impossible for me to take too much weight. South of Black Bear creek the trail is almost always in meadows or recent burns, and the 90+ degree temps beat down. My foot got better as the trip went on, but the first few creek crossings had me moving at a paranoia-driven glacial pace, and with our packs of roughly equal weight, M was suffering under the load. The 18 miles to a camp at Salmon Forks took a very long time.

Contrast this with my first day, two years previous. It rained most of the way over Lodgepole Pass and down into Youngs Creek. The mud was foot sucking and the air cool and clear. I tried to put in at the junction with Babcock Creek, but ran out of water, only finding enough of a concentrated flow a mile below the Hahn Creek trail. That was just enough hard hiking for the day, as the rest of the trip was all downhill and a carnival of wonders for someone who had only been packrafting and fishing tenkara for 2 months. The final gorge of Young’s was beautiful and perfect, hard enough to be entertaining, easy enough to run onsight. At camp, near Gordon Creek, I had the first of many magic tenkara experiences, pulling fish after fish after fish out from under a log along the bank.

Late on the first day this year, as we strained into the distance looking for evidence of the Big Salmon drainage and wondering whether hiking so far up would be worth it, I realized we could leave our camping gear and most food in situ, and walk to Big Prairie with day loads. M and I had switched pack in the first mile, as the Jam didn’t provide enough lumbar anchoring to allow her to weight the hipbelt as she prefers. My black and white pack did that fine, but the stiff lumbar padding, designed for me, rubbed her lower vertebrae raw. Miles before she had stuffed socks between the belt and her back to provide buffer space along her spine. Walking with light loads the next day was welcome, through nice fishing on the White River and the tremendous larch and ponderosa fields south of it, though the late morning heat did wear on our resolve to make the stock bridge. We finally made the water, floated back to camp, built a fire, roasted a fish, and slept.

The final day was more leisurely, with the best floating a fishing of the trip. Personal highlights were hooking a ~16″ cutt from the packraft with the Soyokaze and getting dragged around a deep pool for 2+ minutes before it broke the tippet as I tried to land it, and seeing M do some excellent bank maneuvering to follow my lines through rapids. The 3 mile hike out wasn’t too bad, though we were really looking forward to soda and cheeseburgers by then. It wasn’t the magic of my first trip, and M is still a bit on the fence about packrafting (it is a lot of extra weight), but it was a good trip nonetheless. My foot even improved day by day. Milder weather and a point to point route would have been better.

Regardless, one of the must-do trips in the western US.

Daiwa Soyokaze 27: putting the tenkara back in tenkara

It is said that the normal progression of a fly fisherman is to go from wanting to catch any fish, to wanting to catch lots of fish, to wanting to catch big fish, to wanting to catch big, challenging, hard to catch fish. Tenkara is for people who have no need to catch big fish either because they have gotten over it or because they have never gotten into it.

-Chris Stewart

I hurt my foot. Again. Yesterday. While fishing. I suppose there are more ignominious ways to do it, but I’m still rather irate.

My fishing season is around 10-12 weeks long. I’m a fickle devotee, if not an outright hack. Yesterday was a perfect example of how and why I like to fly fish. Warm day, shorts and trail runners with neoprene socks, clear water, a tiny stream, and no sign of any other person. Brushy attractor dry flies and smallish, hungry, undiscerning cutthroats. Easy fishing, in most respects. Around here such streams also always have slick cobbled bottoms, and it was on the way back wading the main stream that I stumbled in thigh deep water, took a few lurching steps to stay upright, and strained something in the top of my left foot. M may just have to carry me in on our South Fork trip tomorrow.

Tenkara is ideal for the kind of fishing I like, which rarely has much to do with the (excellent) little video above. When I acquired a TenkaraUSA Amago a little over two years ago, my small stream preference only grew more pronounced.  Even though the Amago was at the time the longest tenkara rod available, it was and is so much easier to use in tight quarters.  While the thought of a shorter rod for tighter streams has been with me almost since the beginning, I learned to manage the extra length with slingshot casting and other tricks, buying another rod never made it very high on the priority list, and none of the available options seemed different enough to be worthwhile. Fishing is one of those things I choose to keep basic, I only have enough energy to devote geekery to a limited number of pursuits. For a more extensive overview of tenkara rods, read this.

That changed a bit when I noticed that TenkaraBum Chris Stewart was selling a range of short, soft rods designed for very small fish, and at a price a fair bit less than the TenkaraUSA offerings. I got the Soyokaze 27, the 9 footer.

It’s fantastic; almost as far removed from the Amago as the Amago was from my Orvis rod. Yesterday is a perfect example of why a lighter tenkara rod might be a good thing. I investigated a small side branch of a small creek I’d hiked this past winter. The main stem and especially the smaller fork are very steep, the first 1/2 mile of the later drops about half as much vertically as it runs horizontally, with the narrow conglomerate walls catching tons of deadfall and building with sediment a series of stairstep pools. Each pool had at least several hungry cutthroat or cutbows. Higher up the gradient relents and the willows close in, with the stream being 6-10 feet wide. Each bend, big rock and log has a pool under it, and each of these had numerous lively fish. I intended to climb and fish the stream until the fish ran out, but was short on time long before that happened.

The nine foot rod is easier to manage in such environments, and has perfectly adequate reach, but the main draw for me is that compared to the much stiffer Amago the thin Soyokaze puts me on even footing when catching five to eight inch trout. Or as even as a pursuit as barbaric as sport fishing can be. Hooking a ten inch cutt on the 27 is the functional equivalent of hooking a 20+ incher on the Amago; great care and focus is needed to land it. One ~footer I hooked, played and lost when it dove under a log was as engaging and heartbreaking as a certain monster rainbow I lost on the Blackfoot last autumn. The difference was brought home when I headed back down to the main stream and deployed the Amago to get extra reach. I hooked the biggest fish (~14 inches) of the day, and controlled and landed it with ease. Fish much smaller than a foot are, once hooked, just too easy with the Amago.

So now I have a quiver of two which should complement each other nicely with their difference. Now that a very promising fishing season is in full swing, both will be used extensively.

June trip report contest voting

Making a selection this time was even harder than last autumn. A truly excellent crop of reports. In the end I picked three, all of which happened in places with which I have very fond associations. I visited the Trinity, King range, and Mattole area during a college intership out of Arcata a decade ago, and had the fortune to explore many corners of the Grand Canyon when we lived in Prescott (a location looking more appealing with every rain shower).

Vote for your favorite below. You may only vote once (unless you are sneaky, in which case exercise restraint). Voting is open until this coming Monday at midnight, MDT.

Tommy’s Trinity Alps backpack. (photo by Tommy)


Matt’s Little Colorado River descent. I highly recommend you read all parts. (photo by Matt)


Jills NorCal bike tour. Read all sections! (photo by Jill)


June trip report contest (!)

Summer, whatever that may mean in your particular locale, is right around the corner. Here in NW Montana the rain has stopped, for the moment, the sun is shining and the rivers are running high. Snow is melting and the fat season of long easy days, crampons and shorts, tourists driving foolishly, and wide open fast trails is approaching. Even the most passionate skiers here get a bit manic for the next three months, just like the animals, we know that only the foolish and the half-dead do not stuff themselves with all good things while doing so is simple. Soon enough snow and cold will be back which, beautiful though it is, makes life more complicated.

Photo by Dan Durston

To celebrate, I’ll be holding my second vaguely-annual trip report contest. The rules are as follows:

-a report telling the story of a multi-day outdoor adventure must be composed/edited/etc, posted online, and linked to in the comments of this post by July 16th at midnight (MDT)

-said trip must have taken place at least partly in June of 2012

-depending on the number of entrants and my own whimsy, I will select a number of finalists, which will be posted here and voted on by readers for 48 hours

-the author(s) of the report with the most votes will win the race pack, which will be shipped at my expense anywhere in the world

The pack is pictured above, and in the linked-to post from last year.  Since that post I’ve added load lifters, an improved hipbelt (not yellow) and a few other things.   The pack weighs 22 oz, will fit torsos between 19 and 21 inches, and holds around 45-50 liters.  It’s pretty neat, and because of that I really want to see it in someone else’s hands.

As always, selection into the finals will favor creativity, both of the trip itself and of the way in which it is reported upon.  So go.  Do a neat trip and tell us about it.