A Question of Scale

Paige emailed me today asking about the progress of the Alaska move. The real and only answer is that I’ve been thinking about it, a lot. She did attach her and Luc’s argument in the affirmative.

(I heart Ronald Jenkees.)

That argument, in more prosaic terms, is that Alaska has big wilderness of a kind the lower 48 categorically does not, and that given my increasing fascination with anything less, not moving is just denial. Everything else; the isolation and darkness of winter being the most salient objections, ought to fall by the wayside given that I’ve let proximity to the wild filter every decision relating to employment or residency or school since I left undergrad.

Except that year when we moved back to Iowa for M to finish school. For while location and the spiritual and recreational resources it provides are my first priority, they are not my only one. I’ve tried, on several occasions, in different ways, and at different times, to make the outdoors a vocation. It was never ultimately satisfying. I’ve built a career, and at the moment have a very happy job, doing what I think my moral position as a human demands of me. I find it fulfilling, and would not stop or substantially alter it even if I became rich off the lottery ticket I’ve never in my life purchased. This career, and any job I can see having while pursuing it for the next ~35+ years, will require me to work pretty close to full time. The human side of it, driven as it is by relationships, demands it.

So then, given these life choices, does it make sense to move to Alaska when my primary enjoyment of it would be in 2-3 day chunks? Or it is better to stay in the lower 48, with its easier access and the resultant abundantly weekend-sized pieces of terrain, and fly to Alaska for vacation?

That is what I think about when thinking about moving to Alaska. That and the phat dance music.

The Indeterminacy of Translation

“…in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind.”

-W.V. Quine

Sandy and Larry descending to the river.

This past weekend, with three others solicited from packrafting.org, I paddled what might be the premier 2-3 (or more) day packrafting trip in the lower 48. In Montana’s Great Bear Wilderness we hiked Morrison Creek in to a point just west of Schaeffer Meadows, then packrafted out to Essex. The first day was spent hiking, with a little floating. The next two days involved 8+ hours of paddling each. River levels dropped from 1300 to around 1100 cfs over the course of the trip, at the West Glacier gauge.

The weather was consistently extraordinary.  It was nice to not worry about being too cold.

I call it perhaps the premier trip because it offers tremendous scenery, extraordinary, varied floating, world class trout fishing, and relative solitude, all with modest effort and fairly simple logistics. The drive from the Essex boat ramp to the TH is 30-40 minutes, on highway and good dirt roads. The hike in is a good horse trail, and almost entirely a gentle downhill.

I caught some trout.

The initial few miles below Schaeffer are meandering and flat, with good campsites and fishing holes. When the river turns north and the Three Forks section begins life is about to become more interesting. It took us around 3 hours to paddle the ~4-5 miles from camp to Lodgepole Creek. There are some honest rapids in those miles, which involved technical boulder dodging and slot threading at our water level. Everything was runnable, and while the crux rapids involved (for us) scouting and direct attention, the current was gentle and forgiving. More noteworthy is the steep gradient of the whole section, which when combined with the low water explains our extremely slow progress. We stayed in our boats the whole time, save one or two occasions which mandated dragging, but the steep rock dodging, pirouetting, and scooting were impressively sustained and continuous. These sections weren’t gravel bar riffles in the classic MT river fashion, but straight line, river wide steep and shallow rock (rather than boulder) gardens. While our slow pace was worrisome, I enjoyed the unique, strenuous and entertaining paddling.

Larry in the crux rapid of Three Forks.

Justin combat-boating the same.  The fisher and his partner were loaded for bear (coolers, bows, etc), and had quite the struggle in this section.

Below Lodgepole Creek the flow increased and became more consistently channeled, and this combined with a slacker gradient and a more classic pool and drop character provided much faster floating (2.5 – 3 mph). The scenery was stunning, with 90 degree bends, big limestone cliffs, hanging gardens, deep pools, crystalline water, huge fish, and a tight canyon being the rule of the day. For me, the stretch from Lodgepole to Granite Creek might have been the best of all, and worthy of a shorter loop all its own. Good gravel bar camping abounds.

The second crux rapid near the end of Three Forks.  Note human on right.

Larry in said rapid.  Sandy got pinned and flipped a few rocks higher.

Sandy in a typical pool drop riffle.

The rest of the river to Essex maintains much the same character, with plenty of burly riffles between gentle stretches to capture your attention. The exception is the Spruce Park section, which forms the second and in most respects harder crux of the run. The section begins with a short, steep boulder rapid, with the water being concentrated enough to look pushy and demanding. We all portaged this save Justin, who made a very clean and stylish run. For the next ~1 mile the river stays in an intermittent, narrow bedrock canyon, with numerous pool drop rapids. The channel is quite narrow throughout, and the contrast in style between this section and Three Forks is at low water quite drastic. Several of the rapids were worthy of careful attention, and we found one pushy boulder slot with enough barely covered toothy conglomerate rocks that we all portaged. Our pace through Spruce slowed at the 1 mph range or slower, due to frequent scouting.

Entry rapid in Spruce Park.

It should be noted that the river rocks all appear to be coated in trout slime, and that scouting and portaging might be just as hazardous as running the harder rapids.

Spruce Park ends rather obviously as the immediate banks widen, and soon thereafter we began to see day-tripping fly fishers on the bank. The rest of the run down to Essex is an excellent winding down for a superlative trip.

Justin in a lesser rapid in Spruce Park.  He did borrow Sandy’s helmet to run the immediately above.

So what does it all mean?  Or, why packrafting?  The transition from the three days of the weekend to work today was, with the trips embeddedness in the landscape and the new school-year’s stress (for my clients and their parents), particularly heightened.  How is it that these two worlds exist, 50 miles apart as the osprey flies?

Sunday morning.  I caught that fat fish in the foggy pool the evening before.

I packraft, and recommend that more do the same, because you see things differently.  It eschews the cumbersome gaudiness of “float trips” for the lean intimacy of backpacking, but unlike so much walking on trails, takes the landscape at its own pace and on its own terms.  The epistemic footing of the gods, for those inclined to see things like Thoreau.

Trout on a stick.  Slower than poaching, but better flavor.  Use a green stick so it doesn’t char.

Insofar as translating that experience back into the civilized world (or, writing a blog post) is concerned, this not categorically more futile than ordering an espresso, or telling someone you love them.  And being in Big Wilderness does give a good sense of scale, which might help keep those other bits of intersubjectivity (or, living as such) in proper perspective and in so doing make them easier.

Larry and Sandy, last rapid before camp on Sunday.

So, I am in summary exceedingly pleased with the weekend.  In a year of excellent trips in holds up very well.  Go do it, you.

Fore to aft: 2011 Yak, 2010 Yak, 2009 Yak, 2009 Llama.

16 hours

TrailLite Designs, modified.  Those tires have been good to us, too.

Sometimes you just have to get out.  To make it happen.  As I was driving home early this morning local NPR was telling me about a winter weather warning above 6500′ this evening.  We’re sure to have many sunny days to come, but the finitude which makes northern summers so sweetly urgent will be even more in evidence until the snow falls up high to stay.  You can never do all the trips on your list, no matter where you live and how little you work, but there is a big psychological benefit to trying hard to tic them off in a focused manner.

So I arranged for a home visit yesterday afternoon, far east in the valley, and packed my tiny pack that morning.  About 40 minutes after I stopped doing billable work I was on the trail, hiking in to an alpine lake that’s been on the list all summer.

How many trout live in those logs?

Arriving, I thought I’d work the various snags by the outlet for a while and move over to the other shore once things slowed down.  They never did.  I spent 2 hours fishing ~100 yards of shore, catching trout and trout after trout.  I had a few slow periods (multiple casts without a strike) and many consecutive casts each winning a fish to hand.  I figure a caught a fish just about every other cast.  Crudely average that over two hours of almost constant fishing (slowing only twice to deal with tippet snarls) and you have a lot of fish caught.  A lot.  Like as many as I caught last year, all year.  Almost.

I stopped because I got hungry, and because it just felt excessive.  The fish were still flying at 830pm.

Taken from the same spot as the above, turned about 90 degrees left.

I don’t do much lake fishing, as it conjures up images of undynamic casting in the same spot, waiting for a fish to cruise by.  This terrain was like working a dead-still shallow river; cast to a likely spot and see what happens.  Sometimes a fish would nose into sight and slurp the fly, rewarding patient hook-setting.  Less often, one rocketed up and cleared the surface.  Frequently I was able to spot a cruising fish and cast to sight, experimenting as the evening went on with the distance from which a fish would be interested (often pretty far).  Occasionally, two or three or even four fish raced in, competing for dinner.  A few times a six incher looked set to take, only to be chased off by a ten inch (for this lake) giant.

Fly fishing doesn’t get much more fun.

As an experiment I just brought the Evernew burner, and built a stand/heat reflector of rocks.

The only flaw in my plan was leaving my fleece in the truck, as it just didn’t fit into the SUL pack.  I woke up cold several times in the night, I’m sure purely because I only had a buff as headwear.  The resultant waking fatigue was hard to shake on the way home, and the hurried shower, rush into work by 10, and ridiculously crowded day made those 16 hours in the woods all the more odd, juxtaposed with my “normal” life.

It certainly did serve to reaffirm that I live in the right place.

Sunrise coffee.  Thanks Hendrik.

Gotta do more of these.  They require a bit of maneuvering, but not as much as I often pretend.

TrailLite Designs Ebira review (and some extras)

Quite a few months ago, Thom Darrah at TrailLite Designs sent me this, free and unsolicited, to review.  Fishing season has taken quite a while to get going, but the last few weeks have been exceptional and my Ebira has gotten a ton of use.

It’s a simple idea: a shoulder sling/pouch for a tenkara rod, and a pouch for flies, line and accessories.  All carried behind the back and out of the way during even the worst bushwacking, yet quickly and easily accessible for fishing.  And like most simple, well executed ideas, it works great.  It keeps all the stuff I’d need for a day of fishing handy and ready to grab, be it for an evening after work or a pre-breakfast morning in the backcountry.

Construction and design are impeccable.  The pocket is gusseted in just the right way, the top panel is wider than the bottom, thus making it easy to get things out as well as stuff it full.  The two top loops allow shorter and taller folks to set the shoulder sling at a good length.  I replaced the stock shoulder cord, with it’s cordlock adjusters, with a fixed length of slightly thicker cord, which tangles less in my backpacking pack.  I also replaced the dual-clip plastic buckles which attach the pouch to the quiver with loops of cord, which are lighter, more low-profile and little tighter.

The Ebira is a darn handy piece of kit.  Is it worth the steep price?  That’s something you’ll have to judge for yourself.

All the stuff I bring for a day of fishing, which fills the Ebira pouch to capacity: TenkaraUSA fly box, license, floatatant, spool of 6X tippet, and bit of foam board with two level line/tippet/fly combos pre-tied and ready to go.  You don’t need more, but there’s no room for indulgence.

My fly box at the moment.  It’s the one TenkaraUSA was giving away free with orders earlier this summer, and I really like the larger, thinner compartments.  I’d do a details analysis of what I carry and why, but I don’t know the names of most of these flies (and some I tied myself).  The general theme, as showcased in the leftmost six compartments, are larger, generously-hackled dry flies.  There have lots of float and visibility for high-gradient streams.  Top right are some nymphs and odd things, which hardly ever get used, and bottom right are the tiny flies.  These come in handy upon occasion when the tiny trout are biting, fish small enough that my larger flies have hooks to big to be easily swallowed.

I should finish by saying that I’ve enjoyed fly fishing so much more since I went tenkara.  Believe the hype, because it isn’t.

And now for something completely different: wearing women’s outdoor clothing.

This is a women’s R3 Hi-Loft hoody, size XL.  I got it half off from Patagonia’s website.  As keen observers are no doubt aware, Patagonia makes many great garments with great hoods, but often only for women.  The answer I’ve discovered for this dilemma is to buy an XL, which seems to have a sleeve length between a men’s M and L, and take in the torso to fit.  As you can see in the above photo, the torso it pretty room, and as you can see from aforelinkedto catalogue shot, the hoody is cut to show off sexy hips the I simply do not have.

Fortunately this mod is easy: measure the torso and waist diameters of a few of your favorite garments that fit, and figure out how much you’ll need to take it, next remove the stitching from the hem, so you can sew through it, then invert the garment and sew a simple stitch down the middle of the side, taking out as much as you need.  You can do this in stages, trying on the garment to check fit and fine tune. On this project I sewed up to just above the armpit.  Once you have the fit correct, run a second line of stitching over the first (use thinner thread and a tight, short stitch) then cut the excess fabric off.  Singe the fleece so it won’t fuzz out, resew the hem and you’re done.  The dedicated could add a binding to the new seam, but this is for aesthetics only and I’ve never bothered.All slimmed down.

The same procedure can be used on men’s jackets with baggy torsos: I’ve made a L Essenshell pullover fit perfectly, and tightened up my Houdini and DAS parka this way.  If nervous, practice on a throw-away sweater or flannel first.

And last but not least, for the patient, page 4 from the 2011-2012 Montbell dealers workbook, featuring some raingear in which ya’ll might be interested.

I’ve got a Versatile Jacket right here, and it’s very nice.  The zips seem of especially high quality.


I am a lazy fly fisher. I like to fish when it’s easy, during the low and clear water of high summer and early fall. Those conditions have taken far longer than usual to arrive this summer, but in the last three weeks things have taken off, with alacrity.

My family arrived for a visit on Friday, and after a lazy morning of catching up we got out into Glacier. My mom gave my stepdad Dick an Amago for his birthday, which he had yet to try out. We had an evening hour before we needed to make our dinner reservation at the Belton Chalet, and stopped off at McDonald Creek by Avalanche to get a line wet. Given it’s location, I assumed it’d be heavily fished and at best serve as a snag-free place to practice casting. To my surprise, I caught a little cutthroat without really paying attention within a minute or two, and another half-dozen by the time we left. Dick got skunked, but was figuring out the mechanics of casting quickly.

The next day we prepped for a backpacking trip and got a campsite at Two Medicine. Dick and I headed out for an hour in the early evening, and had all our expectations exceeded by a rash of small, vibrant Brook Trout in a feeding frenzy. In a little over an hour we brought roughly 50 to hand between the two of us, and while none were bigger than 10 inches, I get no deficit of pleasure watching a 6″ brookie heave itself a body length clear of the stream in the process of taking my fly. It was a magic evening, and once again, surprisingly, in a location which could hardly be easier to reach.

Lastly, yesterday morning M, my sister, and her boyfriend woke up at Lake Francis in the Glacier backcountry. While the women were still asleep I pulled out my rod and in the course of twenty minutes landed two fat browns as the sun came up over the Livingston Range.

So now I’m all about fishing, for at least another six weeks, and will spend my time watching videos like the one above, thinking about fly tying, and scheming about the next creek to hit.

Quiet secrets

Pre-park artifact in Glacier NP.

I was all set to go down the South Fork of the Flathead this (for me 3-day) weekend.  Hiking, boating, fly fishing, and in sharp contrast to last year, warm weather.  Work got done last week, we bought a second car Thursday, and Friday afternoon I ran around, bought food, and got all packed up.  M was all set to wake up early to drop me off, but it just isn’t what I wanted to do.  We slept in, had a leisurely morning, and on Saturday I took the packraft, tenkara rod, and new-to-us car and went fishing.

Bull trout?  I caught Cutts and Brookies in the same small, steep stream.

Normally I’m pretty adverse to keep secrets, but with fishing it seems a bit more appropriate.  I’ll just say that this creek is hard to fish.  This time of year it’s steep, clear,  and cold.  Its bottom is primarily big, slick, foot grabbing cobbles, and on this late water year there’s still almost enough water to make it packraftable (at a high level of difficulty), thus you can’t wade across just anywhere.  The lush hardwood forest along the banks make bushwacking in from the shore tough, and hang over to snag backcasts.  I lost a lot of tippet and half a dozen brown elk caddis flies yesterday.  The fish are small, strike hard and quickly, and live in tiny mid-stream eddies and under big, complex log piles.  I spent two hours fishing up along 100 yards of creek, bringing a couple dozen 4 to 12 inch trout to hand.

It’s my favorite sort of fishing to do.  And as a hint, this great creek in in Glacier NP, legal to fish (of course), and you’ll need a boat or a long walk to access it.  That’s all I’m saying.

Danni Coffman near Triple Divide Pass.  M photo.

I rolled into West Glacier late Saturday afternoon, looking for iced coffee.  A fortuitous text from Danni had me attending a trail fundraiser, sitting in the grass under the sun, and drinking lots of beer.  An excellent Bavarian Pilsner reaffirmed my opinion that Blackfoot is the best brewery in Montana, at the moment.  (Even if they’re located in a river basin on the other side of the divide from their namesake.)  One thing led to another, and M and I joined Danni and Angie on a hike in Glacier yesterday.  More superlative weather, great company, fat marmots, and prolific wildflowers made for a great day.  We walked from Cut Bank to St. Mary via Triple Divide and the Red Eagle Creek trail, and though my feet got sore faster than they should (still not recovered from the classic!) the lovely quasi-tundra meadows in the last few miles were a pleasant surprise which nicely finished a wonderfully varied hike.

[vimeo 27443696]

Even though the weather and conditions would have been absolutely ideal, not going into the South Fork was the right thing to do.  Beyond being, still, tired from the classic, I just didn’t want to be out alone this weekend.  Some times my work makes me want to run away and hide from humanity, but after days like Friday (when a client who had been making profound progress relapsed, spectacularly) when the frailty of human life and the lengths and depths to which interpersonal trauma can run is made to me all too obvious, I need to be around others.  And on that count, this weekend was ideal.