The Blackfoot-Clearwater Question

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The Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project, an organization founded to steer the future of public lands long the southwestern edge of the Bob Marshall Complex, has reached its goal. Senator Tester introduced the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act the other week, and for fans of the area or folks just interested in what public lands advocacy and law might look like in the next 30 years, reading it is worth your time.

The text of the bill can be read here. A detailed map of the area, outlining the proposed changes, can be found here.
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In brief, three small but significant Wilderness additions will be made to the Bob, and one to the Mission Mountains complex.  A recreation area and a management area will be created along the edge of one of these additions, which will in essence allow for enhanced protection while not forbidding mountain biking.  Logging and permanent road building will be prohibited within both the new Wilderness and the Rec/Management area, except those “that the secretary [of agriculture*] determines to be necessary to control fire, insects, and diseases…”  All the land dealt with in the act are specifically withdrawn from any future public lands transfer, existing livestock grazing is grandfathered in (I don’t think this is relevant here), and a timetable is set mandating that “collaboratively developed restoration project” planning go forward.

Overall it is quite short and to the point, something both unusual in law and an increasingly common hallmark of Tester’s legislation.  The bill is a good example of why he is such a well liked Senator.  It is very much in the mold of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which has been well received by just about everyone.

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Padding Wilderness around the edges has been a trend for 20 or more years, and the Monture/Blackfoot additions shown above are good examples.  On the one hand, these valleys are quite wild (the extensive logging is just to the south) are provide year-round habitat for elk, bears, and a whole lot of deer (both Whitetail and Mule).  Ecologically it makes sense to have them as part of the Bob complex.  One could ask why the additions weren’t larger, protecting winter and spring range by going all the way to the valley bottom.  Presumably the restriction on logging and snowmachine access prevented this.  On the other hand, Wilderness is less wilderness-y when the big wooden sign is found less than a mile from the trailhead.  There is something both charming and accurate about hiking for 6 hours before you cross the imaginary threshold into the real deal.

More seriously, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Act does cut off access to some mountain bike trails.  The recreation and management areas were drawn specifically to not cut off access to one more popular (and better) ride, but Falls and Monture Creeks will be lost for biking, as will a few others.  Neither are especially good for cycling, there’s a very short window between when the snow dries from Monture and the horses beat it into a 6-8 foot wide muddy mess, and Falls is both steep and in places overgrown.  I’m more worried about 202; D, 1-2, which uses the phrase “mechanized vehicles” specifically to refer to bikes.  Insofar as any possible rollback of the blanket restriction on bikes in Wilderness is dependent upon the (historically valid) contention that “mechanical transport” was not necessarily intended to apply to bicycles and other human powered contraptions.  It seems to me that this language represents a potential legal issue, and is indicative of a troublesome movement of public consensus concerning just what mechanized and mechanical actually mean.

Purely speaking, I have little issue with bikes being banned from the Bob.  Doing so helps maintain its effective span.  I do have a huge problem with an act such as this one, drafted it would seem largely by outfitters, which makes no mention of the considerable impact wrought by pack trains, nor any mention of the ongoing problem of getting the pesky buggers to follow the existing regulations concerning pack train size.  The Blackfoot-Clearwater Act is being spun as a colloborative, win-win for all parties.  But I don’t see much evidence of the horse folks having put actual skin in the game.

In the Trump era it is difficult to know what kind of traction this bill might get.  I haven’t been able to find anything concerning what republican Senator Daines will do.  As always, now is the time to let these officials know what the people are thinking.

*Yes, in the US forests are managed by Agriculture, National Parks by Interior.  President Theodore Roosevelts deal with the devil.

The best things about Montana

In vague order of preference, because in two months we’ll at long last be back on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, living in western Colorado.  When we moved to Montana eight years it was for me to attend graduate school, the University of Montana was the best place to offer me admission, and Montana had made that list largely because of all the things M and I did not know about it.  I think we’ve used our time wisely.

1: Big Wilderness

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Aka the Crown of the Continent ecosystem of Glacier and the Bob Marshall complex, as well as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Selway-Frank Church complex.  These are the three largest roadless areas in the lower 48, and are all at least partially in Montana.  When summer roads are at their most open a strong hiker can cherry-pick trailheads and walk across any of the three in a day, but at the same time the hardest way through can even in the easiest of seasons take over a week of hard work.  In the winter, all three grow several times larger.  Outside Alaska or the northern half of Canada, there is in North America no substitute.

2: Few people

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Montana recently pushed over a million, which is few only by warped contemporary standards, but that spars-ish population is both historically responsible for the three areas outlined above being undeveloped by the time the conservation movement grew to maturity, and for their continued integrity as large and wild.  Yes, Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks form parts of the Crown and GYE, and see 3-5 million visitors annually, but that visitation is concentrated in the summer and close to the road.  Even the trailed alpine backcountry of Glacier, for which it’s been increasingly difficult to obtain overnight permits, has big areas which see a few dozen sets of feet each year.  Even the front country of those same parks has plenty of little islands, hidden in plain sight, where solitude can easily be found.

But the real significance here, and the real reason Montana remains so well-comported in this desperate age, is its distance from truly big cities.  The city closest to Montana is not even in the United States, but in Canada, namely Calgary, which is just less than 300 km from the border, and at least 400 km from most prospective destinations.  The closest US cities are Seattle (370 miles) and Salt Lake City (300 miles).  Within Montana both Billings and Missoula clear the 100,000 mark when counted honestly (i.e. not sticking to within arbitrary city limits), and in our home of the past six years (the Flathead Valley) a further 100,000 live in four large towns and the 20 by 15 mile rectangle for which Whitefish, Kalispell, Columbia Falls, and Bigfork are the four corners.  That’s a third of the states people locked up in a few small places, which means that there are many, many place in Montana which may have plenty of old logging roads blighting their appeal on the map, but also are also visited as infrequently as all but the most remote places within the big name Wilderness-es.  Combined, these first two factors give Montana a vastly different feel than Utah, Colorado, or Arizona.

3: Hunting

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If you live in Montana and don’t hunt, big game, small game, or both, you are missing out on what is without question the most distinguished and outstanding aspect of the whole state and it’s massive pantheon of outdoor opportunity.

Resident hunting licenses are dirt cheap.  As a resident you get a general deer tag and general elk tag, every year, which is good for both archery and firearms season, and is valid in 90+% of the hunting districts statewide.  Additional doe and cow tags are available over the counter, and the number you hold is more limited by how much you are willing to drive than anything else.  Still more deer and elk tags can be had via drawing, and many of those are almost guaranteed so long as you read the regulations and draw odds correctly.  Montana has legit hunting opportunities for all other native big game species, save Grizzly Bears and Bison.  Grizzly hunting will happen within the next decade, and bison hunting which doesn’t depend on winter migration out of Yellowstone got a foothold this year with a few early September permits for the headwater valleys in the Beartooths.  Moose, Mountain Goat, and Bighorn Sheep opportunities are for residents at least as good as any other western state, including the only places in the US where Bighorn permits are guaranteed.  For all of the above seasons are long, and generally speaking animals are well-distributed.  The diversity of hunts and hunting opportunities is such that imagination and lifespan form more durable caps on opportunity than anything else.

Small game hunting in Montana isn’t as sexy, but also presents unique opportunities.  For instance, three species of grouse reside in the mountains just north of our house, testament to the elevation change and diverse vegetation therein.  One could, with a three grouse bag limit, fill it with one spruce, one dusky, and one ruffed.  I haven’t done that, and likely never fill, but I’ve managed two of three on over half a dozen different occasions.  With proper motivation and access to private land, non-native pheasant and turkey could be had in the same weekend.

4: Packrafting


This goes along with big wild areas which were developed late, insofar as outside the Montana/Idaho Rockies all the big, gentler rivers in the lower 48 already had a road (or railroad) along side when the age of conservation arrived.  Whitewater outings like the Grand Canyon, or scrappy little creeks like the Dirty Devil, do not provide the same opportunity as the South Fork of the Flathead or (when the NPS removes head from ass) the Lamar and upper Yellowstone.

Relaxing, meditative travel away from roads and on non-technical terrain is one of life’s rare pleasures.

5: Winter

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Another of life’s increasingly rare pleasures is a proper winter, which piles snow fast and deep and gives a human pause to reconsider implicit supremacy, by freezing skin and making it inadvisable to leave the house, even with four-wheel drive.  As the world warms this will become and increasingly rare experience, and while increased latitude will protect Montana for a while, the states relative lack of high altitudes (compared to Colorado) will ultimately prove problematic.  In other words, while the ski areas may hang on for a bit, nordic skiing will in many places shortly be a thing of the past.  So enjoy the non-fatbike days while they last, and embrace the scary driving.

Coming next: The worst things about Montana.

The Spyderco Dragonfly 2 and the Esee Candiru

This time last year I discussed the Candiru, a knife which does a remarkable job presenting a durable hard-use package in a tiny size.  It does so at the expense of easy sharpening and precise cutting, two things which the similarly sized and shaped Spyderco Dragonfly 2 does very well.  After a year of using both it is worth elaborating on the comparison.
img_0821I carry the Dragonfly on a daily basis, as well as on almost every trip I’ve taken into the woods in the past year.  As a folder with a good pocket clip (once I took it off and made the bend more aggressive), it’s just easier to carry and access than the Candiru.  The thinner blade, and steel which holds an edge far longer, makes it more suited than the Candiru for the things I most often ask of a knife: slicing apples, packaging, and the like.  It cuts easily enough to gut a fish, or even a squirrel, though the moving parts make it harder to clean.  The needlessly abundant texturing on the handle and corrugations (“jimping” in pretentious knifespeak) on the blade significantly enhance this crud collecting tendency, without providing much real world function.  I can see corrugations for the thumb on the upper part of the blade, but like those on the Candiru they should be spaced further apart.  The Dragonfly handle should be smooth plastic, though presumably it would then look a little less cool.  These niggles aside, it’s an ideal pocket knife; being just big enough to get things done, with good ergonomics, light weight, and a reasonable price.

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The Dragonfly is not a hard use knife, as the chips I’ve put in the blade show.  I can’t recall what I did to snap the last millimeter of the tip off (I’ve done this twice, actually), but I know it wasn’t prying.  The largest chip furthest down the blade was inflicted during some aggressive and targeted whittling of a 12″ larch, in order to extract a broadhead after a missed shot on a deer two days ago.  Clearly, a task for which the Candiru would have been better suited.  Even if one is reasonable and stays far, far away from the often ridiculous world of bushcraft, prepping, and zombie hunting, it’s easy to indulge in a hagiographic, almost paranoid desire to have a knife with which one could do anything up to and including build a crude cabin.  And this desire is rooted in fact, albeit a fact I encounter perhaps every 18 months, or roughly 50-60 field days.  For this reason I’ve occasionally brought the Candiru along on trips where the potential for things to go wrong seemed higher (or where fear was simply more abundant), but the lighter weight, convenience, and usually more pragmatic attributes of the Dragonfly has meant it has almost always been the knife in my pocket.

Ideally, I’d like one knife which combines the slicing and edge retention of the Dragonfly with the abuse-ability of the Candiru.  The Bark River Micro-Canadian has been the number one candidate for some time, but it violates my no-knives >100 dollars policy.  A year from now I’ll probably have purchased one, and will hopefully have glowing things to write about it.

Concerning broification

Broification: a trend in outdoor adventure sports/activities, which results in an increase in the perceived average level of mastery within a given pursuit, thus dissuading novices from pursuing any nascent interest.

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If you don’t already read Hansi Johnson’s Universal Klister I’d suggest you start, as it’s one of the most authentic outdoor blogs around.  Mr. Johnson does a bunch of stuff outside, from skiing to biking to fishing to hunting, and is deeply involved in trail and recreation advocacy and local politics (in Duluth, MN and the upper midwest).  He has a longitudinal, multifaceted perspective on the industry, and a habit of telling things as they are, which makes him an ideal candidate for inventing and disseminating the term broification, which I attempted to define above.

Johnson views and pursues broification from the perspective of an access advocate, and I would assume, as a dad.  He sees the artificial inflation of things like skiing and biking as a wedge which will separate current practitioners from future ones, and make city and town governments less likely to see outdoor pursuits as future assets.  When the predominant vision of mountain biking involves 1% terrain* and a riding style which exacerbates erosion it understandably ceases to be an example, both for many new riders and for towns who might be looking to build trails as part of a development strategy.  That >2000 dollar mountain bikes have become commonplace, and that quality <1000 dollar bikes less common, only underlines this problem.

That problem being, a significant part of the appeal here, from fishing across to overlanding, skiing, and backpacking, is being a member of an exclusive group.  Not exclusive because others are excluded intentionally or because of socioeconomic factors, but because membership is gained via skill.  That skill is had from time invested in learning the activity, and with that skill comes an enlightened perspective on the world.  You’ll hear it everywhere in the outdoor realm; ____ (cyclists, hikers, etc) are better people.  More trustworthy.  Easy to get along with.  Kinder.  The  depth of friendship with a new acquaintance is often pushed years forward if said acquaintance is made on a backpacking trip or 100 mile ride or powder day.

Johnson’s original post got a big boost last week when it was picked up by Adventure Journal.  There’s a not inconsiderable amount of irony here, as A-J would make about any top-ten list of broifying publications.  Johnson’s post led with a photo of snow-caked blue jeans, A-J a group of mountaineers way the hell up on a snowy peak.  Two decades ago living the dream entailed an old pickup and 50 dollars from the lumber yard.  Today it’s a Sprinter and “custom” mods, starting at 50,000 dollars.  The perception that things of this nature are essential, important, or even the end goal of outdoor activities is probably good for selling stuff to the initiated, but I agree with Johnson that a secondary effect is putting off a certain percentage of newbies.  Why this is a problem is another subject entirely, but I do think it is a problem.

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I’m far from convinced that the language of advertising in the outdoor industry is the most important factor.  Public land access and the structural/societal reasons why outdoor recreation remains a white and affluent world are far more significant, long and short term.  That said, broification is real.  It is real because it is a problem, and it is a problem because people lie.  They lie in advertising, and they lie on social media.  They, meaning me, lie right here though I try to not do it too often.  Outdoor sports are awesome precisely because of their accessibility.  Anyone reading this, baring significant disability or medical issue, could with a few years of hard work climb iconic, cool stuff.  Probably not 5.14, but definitely hard 5.11.  Anyone with the inclination to learn and the motivation to get out and progress could within 4-5 years do a trip like this one, as pictured above.  Anyone with a decent bike and a year or two of hard riding can go out and ride the Whole Enchilada, walking only a handful of places.

Publications and companies who artificially inflate reality may ultimately be shooting themselves in the foot, both by reducing their potential market, and by radness fatigue.  Authenticity is in the social media age a precious commodity, and broification is if anything inauthentic.

*Both in terms of skill to ride and more significantly the distribution of said terrain across the planet.

24 hours on the Middle Fork of the Flathead

  • 530pm: It takes right around 90 minutes to drive from Whitefish to the Morrison Creek trailhead.  Delays and shenanigans associated with buying a car had me rushing to leave and forgetting a bunch of food I hadn’t packed, but I won’t find that out for hours, and our new-to-us Xterra hums along paved curves and makes washboard disappear in a delightfully familiar and comforting manner.  I get to the trailhead, which is empty except for two horse trailer and a half-dozen ground squirrels, and in five minutes change shoes, put a few more things in my pack, and get walking.
  • 630pm: This is the seventh time I’ve been down Morrison Creek, though one of those times was on skis and the old growth in this upper section was eight feet deep in snow.  Whether I choose six or seven it is enough times for real familiarity; I shot a squirrel out of that tree two years ago, a grouse off that log three years ago, this creek was knee deep yet warmer five years ago.  The trail is well used and a bit muddy, but my shoes have new tread and the miles disappear easily.
  • 900pm: Pushing into the night comes with issues, and today that is a very large, blond black bear at 50 yards, clearly wanting to use the same trail I am, in the opposite direction.  Were it a griz or a mom with cubs I’ll haul up the steep hill and let it have the path while taking the long way round, but this bear is plainly trepidatious and I am tired so I yell and fire my .410 which gets it up the hill into the bushes.  As I walk by I thank it, out loud, for being courteous, and for coming upon me at a place where my not-too-alert self could see it far off.  In the further 40 minutes it takes me to get to and wade across the river and my gravel bar camp I make a point to be awake and always looking around.
  • 100am: Rain starts to fall on my face through the open door of the BT2.  I zip it shut and fall asleep before my arm is back in my bag.
  • 430am: My nightly piss has in the past five months become inexorably associated with Little Bears usual diaper change, and though I don’t have to pee too badly (bit dehydrated on the fast walk) I get up anyway and walk out onto the gravel in bare feet.  The rain and clouds have passed, a decently strong hint of the milky way is visible straight up, and the shadows of sunrise are already making and eastern horizon light.  I go back to sleep, adjusting my PFD pillow.
  • 630am: I’m awake, under a well lit and pink sky, and hungry enough that going back under is not possible.  Unfortunately I have one ramen cube,two snickers, and 4 100 calorie granola bars in my food bag.  And I also forgot my spoon.  I eat watery ramen with a stick, and one of the snickers.  At least I remembered coffee, and can rely on the double Via to make the morning normal.
  • 800am: On the water and well underway I get to the first proper rapid in the Three Forks sections.  Three Forks doesn’t make sense; the gradient and angle aren’t far different from the immediately downstream and more mellow Lodgepole-Granite section, and it isn’t really a canyon at all, but there are just enough big rocks, steep bits, and rocky intrusions to make some gorgeous and at higher water I imagine challenging sections.  I love the mellow whitewater and utter clarity of the very end of runoff, and while in an ideal world I could do with a bit more flow this section, in these conditions, is simply my favorite float, anywhere.
  • 1000am: Things just keep getting better.  This being my third run through Three Forks combines with the vastly more stable and precise 2015 Yukon Yak to make everything fairly casual-seeming read and run.  Stimulating without begin in the least scary.
  • 1230pm: I barely make it to the far side of 25 Mile Creek and get out of my boat before I piss myself.  I am no longer dehydrated.  I am hungry, and down to two granola bars for the 12-16 mile hike out.  I extend my tenkara rod and tie on a size 8 stimulator, a reliable option for this time of year, and easy to see.  I land a few 6 inchers before hitting a slow drift across a calm pocket right between the sundry channels of the 25 Mile as it crashes into the Middle Fork.  The stiff, 13 meter Daiwa takes a good bend, and I carefully exhaust, land, and thump a fat cutthroat that will be lunch.  Cut in half it just fits in the Windboiler.
  • 300pm: The cost/benefit of the added hiking miles up 25 Mile, relative to the floating you add by going below Granite Creek, is seeming questionable.  The trail goes from narrow and steeply side hilled, coated in deadfall, to muddy and chest high in thimbleberry.  The upper third turns to an old logging road, with only a narrow path through brush and alder overgrowth, obviously more maintained by moose and bears than people.  More entertaining than the wide horse paths of Morrison and Granite, but also more fatiguing.
  • 430pm: I chickened out of the first shortcut because bushwacking uphill in a decade-old clearcut seemed stupid, but I can see the Granite Creek parking lot below, and the Morrison Creek road beyond.  Only a horizontal mile, and 1400 vertical feet of loss, to the former so I dive off the road and try to only fall softly as I repeatedly loose my feet, invisible down in the brush.  The lower 2/3 of the schwack is under the timber and less thick, and the vague mile only takes 35 minutes.
  • 600pm: I was pleased with the bushwack speed, but even more pleased to pop out on the Granite trail right were it widens to old road.  Which is where Kevin and I stopped on the last morning of my very first Bob traverse, in 2009, to string a line between sapling and dry gear.  It seems I can hardly go anywhere in the Bob any more without stumbling upon nostalgia.  I am most pleased when I follow my nose and find the horse trail shortcutting up to the main road, cutting off two miles of road walking in the process.  I run 40 minutes over my 24 hour allowance, but roughly 17 miles of floating and 27 of walking during that time, along with over eight hours of quality sleep, I am quite beyond pleased to get home quickly.  But first I need a soda and cheeseburger at the Snowslip, to cure a bit of sticky mouth and light head.

The Middle Fork of the Flathead is nothing short of one of my favorite trips, ever.  Oddly, I’ve floated big section of the South Fork on more than a dozen occasions, twice the number of times I’ve been on the Middle Fork.  Logistics are simpler for the Middle Fork, at least the lower half, and while the technical challenges are both more sustained and more severe packrafts allow for low water runs which take much of sting out of the legend.  The Morrison-Granite circuit is easy for one car and gives you the very best floating, but is short and has a lot of less than stellar hiking.  I cannot report that 25 Mile changes that very much.

The best options remain to use two cars and do the easy shuttle between Bear Creek and Morrison Creek, suck it up and do the 20 mile ride between the two (half paved, on a highway with a small shoulder), or get creative and do a ridge hike and bushwack from Bear Creek to Schafer.  The Big River trail, which parallels the lower half of the Middle Fork, is more scenic and interesting than the trails along the South Fork, and is more likely to be covered in bear crap than horse crap, so that really isn’t a bad option either.  Best of all, and with a correspondingly big driving penalty, would be to shuttle to Swift Reservoir and hike in through the limestone teeth of the Sawtooth Range.  I still haven’t figured out the lowest decent flow for the much mellower half of the Middle Fork above Schafer, so getting good floating in that part without Three Forks being too gnar to packraft remains mysterious.

Bear aware, maybe

Last week a Forest Service law enforcement officer, Flathead native, and longtime recreator in bear country was killed by a bear near West Glacier.  According to rumor, and the local paper,  the bear was probably a Grizzly, and the gentleman collided with the bear while going quite fast down a gentle, tightly forested descent on his mountain bike.  The bear reacted out of surprise and fear, and the injuries were quickly fatal.

DSC00601Grizzly sow and cub, center right, a comfortable 3/4 mile away.  M photo.

There is a longstanding and vigorous campaign around here, and in the Yellowstone area, to be “bear aware.”  As presented in the handouts you’ll get in national parks, the signs you’ll see on forest service land, on the posters you’ll see in local stores, being bear aware means carrying bear spray, hiking in groups, storing ones food wisely, sleeping away from said food storage, and being careful when hiking near food sources or in noisy areas.  As a matter of public policy it is important to have a soundbite-friendly version of this to which neophytes are likely to pay attention, but I cringe 50 times a summer when I see folks sauntering around with spray clipped to their packs, out of reach and available for accidental triggering.  Spray certainly deters attacks, and for every such attack surely gives 100 hikers the poise necessary to not panic during a close encounter.  Incidental, indoor discharge is also responsible for the temporary evacuation of a building or two every summer, and while its effects aren’t deadly, bear spray is nonetheless a potent weapon carried around with a carelessness unacceptable in any other context.

Frankly, while it is unrealistic to expect the millions of tourists who roll through the Crown Ecosystem to undertake sufficient research to form their own opinions of what being prudent in bear country entails, anyone who spends a lot of time in the bear woods without plenty of research is doing themselves a disservice.

Living here, and being in those woods on a daily basis, one is almost obligated to become inured to the hazard.  This past Saturday, on a routine 2 hour hike with Little Bear, on a trail I’ve biked in the past, we came upon a black bear off in the bushes at 30 yards.  Another black bear was right behind it.  I watched them, for less time than I would have had I been without a child in a backpack, and then yelled a little to scare them off.  And they complied by disappearing in the opposite direction.  Bears probably aren’t common in this area, Grizzlies especially, but it is 10 minutes from home, and 300 yards from a group of houses.  Bears don’t easily live among us, but they live far closer far more often than most people imagine.  Grizzlies included.  Certain activities, like mountain biking, are no doubt more probable than others to produce a bad encounter, but more time spent out there increases the likelihood of running across the wrong bear, in the wrong place, and at the wrong time.  When it happens, as it did last week, neither bear nor human may be doing anything miscreant and incorrect.

R0010682Sow griz and two cubs, at a comfortable 1.5 miles.  I later saw them at a less comfy 120 yards.

So the first thing for proper bear awareness is the admission that bears kill humans, and not always when they are a sow with cubs or protecting a kill.  The probability is low, but it is possible that while you are out in the woods a bear might kill you through no fault of your own.

Next, admit that certain activities are less safe than others.  Anything high velocity, quiet, off trail, in the fall during hyperphagia, and in a group of less than four increases the probability of a bad injurious or fatal encounter.  Read Herrero’s Bear Attacks, and all the great data kept by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, and decide for yourself, but in my mind the evidence here in overwhelming.  That said, at least 50% of the time I am personally out in Grizzly country I’m doing at least two of these things at once, and not infrequently all of them simultaneously.

I’ve reconciled myself with that because my reading of the research tells me that the most significant factor in keeping bear encounters from turning wrong is not doing anything stupid.  Be aware of the area you’re moving through, read the situation when you do encounter a bear, and act with cold rationality.  Most of the time all this entails is not getting any closer, acting confident but non-threatening, and allowing the bear to figure out what you are.  My closest sustained encounter with a Griz was during the 2012 Bob Open, hiking through Pretty Prairie around dusk.  I was on high alert, because dusk is good time for bears, especially in the long days of spring, and that area is a good place for spring bears, with big south facing meadows and lots of deer and elk.  True to expectation, I came upon a bear as I emerged into meadow.  It took a good minute or more doing a quarter circle of me at 30 yards, standing to better look and smell several times, before winding me and running off, quickly.  I did nothing but stand still, made possible by not panicking, as I was on bear alert.  It’s worth noting that these days I would probably not hike so late into the night, alone, in that particular place at that particular time of year.  Bears can be almost anywhere at the most unlikely time, but fear evenly applied across settings sucks focus from when it can be best put to use.

Beyond this, bring spray if you want to.  It has a good track record, so long as it isn’t too windy or raining hard.  I still find the fragility of the nozzle disconcerting, and believe that 80% of folks who carry spray are putting themselves at net greater risk, due to the frequency of accidental discharge (spray on shoulder strap, alder pulls trigger, spray in face, blind hike out).  Also bring a firearms if you want to, provided you’ve trained the hell out of it.  Plenty of incidents in Alaska where a good shot saved someone from a good mauling.  That said, 75% of the rafters I saw on the South Fork of the Flathead in early August two years ago had 3-5 pound revolvers in chest rigs, and I’m very skeptical that many would have been able to shoot them well enough to do any good under duress.

IMG_0782Griz print in the Almost-a-Dog chimney, Norris Traverse.  Bears go where they want, often in very improbably places.

In summary, being bear aware is mostly about being self-aware, though having a decent knowledge of what bears do at different times is also important.  A good nights sleep in bear country shouldn’t be the result of ignorance, or even worse, a bunch of Tylenol PM.  It should be earned, over time, and while that doesn’t help the policy makers much, concerned as they must be with greatest good for greatest number, proper knowledge built on a body of experience is nonetheless the only way to really get there.  No shortcuts.

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The Bob is awesome. Video by Michael Reavis.

Anyone who’s been out in the woods a lot and has been paying attention should be aware of this problem; that even the quietest, most fleeting and “natural” of human travel in the wild has a significant impact on the plants and animals who live there full time.  And there is virtually no way, save perhaps the more abstract political/policy realms, in which that impact is anything other than negative.  This isn’t the space to debate the axiomatic, idiomatic importance of wilderness for the human soul, but it is the space to say out loud, repeatedly, that in the 21st century we humans inevitably do violence to parts of what we value when we go out to find it.  At the same time, folks like the Sustainable Trails Coalition point to considerable evidence that the architects of the Wilderness Act intended for people to not only be visitors to Wilderness, but to be catered to in the process.

So perhaps it is time to admit that the Wilderness Act needs revision.  I’ve never been in favor of stock in Wilderness, and I am no longer in favor of bicycles being admitted under certain circumstances.  Instead, lets make Wilderness wilderness and ban any substantive human presence: any buildings, any bridges, and any trail maintenance.  Shoulder areas around the areas of greatest biological integrity can have trails cut and faster-than-foot methods of travel allowed.  Many current roads can remain open, but allowed to fall into decay, and will become bicycle, stock and sub 30 mph ATV only by default.

There is precedent, in the form of the Bear Management Areas of Yellowstone and of Wildlife Management Areas nationally to name two examples, for humans being eliminated entirely from the landscape, at least on a seasonal basis.  I just don’t think it’s realistic to implement that on a grand scale, and have always been in favor of the most democratic way of capping visitation: making stuff hard to get to.  It has simply been too easy, in the midst of all the fighting over what was and was not included by the Wilderness Act, to not ask broader questions.  And as Casey said a few months ago, science and common sense are both telling us, ever more loudly, that the Wilderness Act asked the right questions, but didn’t think big enough.

BD Alpine Start hoody: the final word

Black Diamond’s Alpine Start hoody hasn’t changed much in the two years it’s been on the market (and since I first wrote about it). The material, a light and tough softshell with excellent breathability and darn good weatherproofing, is unchanged and remains the heart of what is (still) the most versatile and all-around best outdoor garment I’ve ever worn.  The features have changed just a bit, with the hood having gotten better for 2016, and some of the fitment oddities (stiff front zip, odd neck cut) having remained the same.  It’s still a brilliant piece, but it is also, frustratingly, still short of perfection.

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The number of occasions in the past 26 months when I haven’t had the Alpine Start along are very few, and the only reason I can recall them so well if that almost without exception I regretted not bringing it.  I find it windproof enough for fairly cold and windy ski touring, breathable enough for summer hiking, and airy yet bugproof enough to serve as an anti-sandfly layer while fishing.  My original grey one has been canyoneering and bushwacking a bunch, and has yet to get it’s first hole.  For fabric which is 88 grams per meter that is nothing short of remarkable, and I’d suggest that anyone who suggests otherwise is operating in the realm of theory rather than reality.

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My gripes with version one concerned the hood, which had a floppy brim and cinch cords which didn’t do a good job of preserving peripheral vision, and a neck which felt narrow and set back.  This last thing didn’t bother me as much as a lot of folks, but was noticeable.  Smaller issues were the stiff #5 main zipper, and a torso which was a little shorter than ideal.  As can be seen by comparing this photo with the very first, the hood is the major object of revision.  Instead of perimeter cords which cinch near the jaw, and no rear cord whatsoever, the newer (for me, black) version has perimeter cords which are routed back to a single cordlock in the rear of the hood.  Tightening that cord cinches around the side of the face, and under the ears.  This system keep the hood tight to the head no matter how many hats you might be wearing, and work whether the coat is zipped all the way up or not, but it also pulls the hood back away from your cheeks when tightened (below I’m pointing to where the cord travels back from the edge of the hood to the cordlock).  It’s an improvement, though not ideal.  I’d prefer the extra weight of a true three-point adjustable hood, but can see why BD went a different direction.

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Unfortunately the weird neck fit still exists.  I did an experiment with my new, black Alpine Start, and used some material from the hood of my old one to add a dart to the back of the neck.  This makes a noticeable improvement, and confirms my suspicion that BD just needs to add a bit more material to solve this issue definitively.  Doing this is not a beginner project, but does help with fit.

Other objections come down to durability (the #5 zip has been flawless and smooth, so I can live with the stiffness), and preference.  The Alpine Start fits like a shirt, with sleeves and a torso which are trim and just long enough to cover baselayers, when you wear your “normal” size.  For me this is medium.  Last fall I bought a large, thinking that it’d be nice to have a more parka-like Alpine Start.  Going up a size solved the neck issue, but also made the whole thing baggy and very much not to my liking.  So I sold the green large, and bought the current black medium, which aside from larger zipper pulls and the aforementioned neck dart I intend to leave unmodified.

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Lastly, plenty of folks were curious how long the (very effective, when new) Nanosphere DWR would last.  Just this afternoon I retested my original shirt, and can say that Nanosphere does indeed wear out.  When I reviewed the original after a few months of use four ounces of water hardly leaked through the fabric during the cup test, even after two hours.  After 2+ years of use all four ounces leaked through in just over five minutes, while my new coat next to it held all the water in suspension for the full two hours, save a few drops.

So nothing lasts forever, though I still count the Alpine Start as money well spent, and would not be without one, for just about anything outside.

Thrice busted

It is a poorly understood aspect of Wilderness management that any commercial filming requires a permit, and that these permits are almost never granted.  Therefore films like this one, and perhaps this one, however modest they may be in scope and limited in commercial ambition, are almost always illegally made.  It’s a particular conflict between a 50 year old law and the new media regime, and the legal and ethical dimensions are still very much evolving.  What means commercial, these days?  Specific sponsorship and pay-per-view?  Youtube revenue?  Free gear?  Film tour notoriety?  And beyond the definition of commercial, is this restriction reasonable, and desirable?

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For Montana Wild there was little ambiguity.  Back in 2013 the Missoula-based film company was still getting on their feet, and if I recall the logos correctly had arranged a deal with a few companies to provide support for a film about fly fishing the South Fork of the Flathead, which is of course almost entirely within the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  I even posted about the trailer, which was well done, and didn’t think all that much the next summer when the video was made private, and the film itself never came to light.  I assumed they’d been appraised of the commercial permitting restriction, and had to scuttle the project.

Turns out there was quite a bit more to it, enough that a warrant was granted, computers were seized, and almost 6000 dollars in fines were paid.  Some of that had to do with the aforementioned filming issue, but reading between the lines it seems that what drove the State of Montana to put “hundreds of hours into the investigation” were the clear violations of fishing regulations depicted on film and photos, both previously publicized and private.  It was clear to me in that clip that they were targeting Bull Trout, a native species very much under threat in most of the rest of their range, in the White River and Youngs Creek, both of which are closed to such fishing.  The confiscated computers also reportedly contained evidence of landing a Bull Trout, photographing it, and then releasing it still hooked to obtain more footage.

I thought it poor form to excoriate Montana Wild in public until that last bit*, and the realization which shortly followed that I had repeatedly watched at least some of these violations, in most cases not thinking that the actions were illegal, and in all cases without considering reporting them to the relevant authorities.  Indeed, though I watched the Wild Confluence packrafting film a month ago, it didn’t occur to me until now that the explicit sponsorship of the film almost certainly makes it illegally filmed, assuming as I think one can that they did not secure and purchase a permit.

[Add: M-W has since posted a response to the FWP press release.]

This debate brings up, in a roundabout way, the Jurek-Baxter saga from this past summer.  Reknowned ultrarunner Scott Jurek finished his speed hike of the AT in Baxter State Park, where he was met by his support crew and others, and the group was collectively charged with drinking alcohol, littering, having too large a group, and filming without a permit.  If my memory is correct, Jurek ended up with a plea deal and minimal fine.  The large impact of the controversy was almost exclusively confined to the question of what commercially-related actions are and are not appropriate in wilderness, and what powers management agencies should have to regulate them.  As the parks Facebook page rather publicly and ungracefully stated at the time; “Let’s be clear and concise, Scott Jurek’s physical abilities were recognized by corporations engaged in running and outdoor related products…These “corporate events” have no place in the Park and are incongruous with the Park’s mission of resource protection, the appreciation of nature and the respect of the experience of others in the Park.”  (Substantial details left out by me for the sake of brevity, full post available in the above link.)  Baxter has a mission written into Maine state law which is quite similar to that enshrined in the Wilderness Act, so I think the debates generalize well.

Though I disagreed and disagree with the tactlessness of Baxter State Park’s Facebooking, I agreed and still agree with the content of the message.  Wilderness (and wilderness, too) are no place for commercial activity.  With large film crews increasingly a thing of the past, the potential impact is not so much in the filming, but in the publicity.  The information economy cannot be stopped, but it can be slowed.  The world cannot be made unflat, but it can have some coulees eroded back into it, which will prevent foreknowledge from being a universal thing when going into the wild.  Making a distinction between what is too much and what is not will always be deeply problematic, but that between commercial and non (however fuzzy the line) seems like as good a place as any to begin.

Land of No Use, linked to in the first paragraph, stated explicitly that the film was non-profit, and non-commercial.  As a project shot almost exclusively in Wilderness areas, they had little choice, and the finished product is a good demonstration of balancing inspiration and ambiguity.  Winter is always going to be less accessible than summer, after all.  What about Listen to the River, which on its face is only commercial insofar as it contains logo and product placement for Granite Gear and Kokopelli Packrafts?  But marketing these days is an insidious creature, and the “positive brand association…authentic adventure culture…[and] intimate exposure with core consumers”the company is selling will be dependent upon access to the right locales (roadside time lapses won’t cut it with more discerning brands and customers).  For this reason I think it is absolutely relevant to discuss this issue, and will for the foreseeable future it seems be tormented with when to turn fun online videos in to the local Forest Service and FWP offices.

 

* Catch and release fishing is ethically questionable enough, and posing fish for photos is very close to unacceptable in just about all circumstances when dealing with a fragile population of native, cold water fish.  And yes, I’ve done both.  But illegally targeting Bull Trout on the South Fork is pretty unambiguous.  If you’re chucking big stuff down deep, you’re going after them, and the rules governing where and when this is ok are very clear.

The most important backcountry skill

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The above is a screen grab from the latest episode of Meat Eater.  Whats significant here is not the episode itself, which is an excellent one, but what Steve Rinella is doing here.  A few minutes prior he shot a large-antlered, mature mule deer, fulfilling a decades long quest with a perfectly placed 392 yard shot.  After watching to make sure the deer is dead, he packs up and sheds layers for the hike over to the animal, and after taking three steps away from his shooting spot, turns back to examine where he had been, making sure nothing has been left behind.

There is no more important habit to practice, every time, in the woods.

I’ve heard of people leaving behind the usual stuff, like knives, headlamps and water bottles, more times than I can recall.  And for obvious reasons this can be a major bummer, especially as with the exception of water containers and maybe a tiny secondary light you probably don’t have spares.  I’ve also heard of rain jackets, maps, cameras, and even large percentages of remaining food left behind on accident while out backpacking.  This could be an inconvenience, or depending on circumstance could be a good deal more serious.  So in addition to always buying small, frequently used items in bright colors, always look back at the spot you used for a lunch, map, photo, or glassing break.  Make no exceptions, not for 2 hour dayhikes or ten day traverses, and you’ll be well on your way to avoiding problems before they happen.   As Steve shows, even the most exciting moment does not excuse you.