Just ramblin’

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The last two times I’ve driven west out of Augusta, the sky has looked like this.

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Saturday was supposed to be fairly warm, but instead it rained, snowed a tiny bit, and howled east at 30 mph all day long.

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The ground looked well into spring, with no snow and the first hints of green grass, while the sky was still close to winter.

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Packrafting was not particularly appealing, even with the rivers at ideal levels.  I motivated to get on the water with a big fire and liters of hot drinks.

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The day dawned clear and grew warmer.  With plenty of time to make the distance, I took a big detour around this hill to do some hunt practice on a herd of bighorn ewes, eventually crawling within 40 yards.

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I brought my toy shotgun along to hunt small game, and ate fried and braised squirrel and onion the first night.  After stalking the sheep I was back up the hill at my pack eating chocolate when a squirrel trilled in the woods.  After some hurrying and some standing and listening I located the little fellow.  Walking over to retrieve the carcass, I found an impressive elk shed.

Which along with the squirrel haul added training weight for the pack out.

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I’ve long struggled with out and backs like this route.  Packrafting helps in that it makes things less repetitive, but I’ve still found more relevance on point-to-point trips where desire and necessity are one and the same.  Recently, this has ceased to be the case, and watching animals, hunting small game, hanging around camp, and rambling through patches off trail have become a focus, with urgency a less-frequent companion.  I see better now, and more than anything want to fill the time and stretch the hours as full as they’ll go.

This was a full 48 hours.  I drove in Friday night and hiked a few miles in by moonlight, to a meadow I’d wanted to camp in for a few years.  The wind the next day was occasionally scary; it seemed that every thirty minutes a tree fell in the distance with the sound of a shelf collapsing in a lumbar room, and once on the river I occasionally had to throw out a brace to keep the tailwind from flipping me.  I floated up within 10 feet of a fat river otter wrestling with a trout before it noticed me and dove, and arrived in a scenic grass camp amongst boulders very wet and cold.  Staying focused and warm all day sucked up a lot of calories and energy, and has left me still tired today.

The next began with a cold and wet final stretch of packrafting, and then the aforementioned diversion to stalk sheep.  It was impressive that my crabwalking downhill in diagonals, never moving too much or going directly towards the herd of 20, I was able to get within bow range fairly quickly.  And then just sit and watch them eat grass, bed down, stand up again, and chew.  And once sheep spook they run off in herd, on each others heels, wheeling as a unit with a precision which defies the human understanding of mammalian communication.  I left the other herds on that hillside alone, and followed elk trails back to the human trail, and then to the car, the road, and a cheeseburger.  It was a good weekend.

 

The ‘mid I’ve been looking for

Disclaimer: Seek Outside gave me the shelter discussed below for free in exchange for feedback.

[12/2016 update: the BT2 is now the Silvertip, with modest but significant revisions which make it more friendly to taller folks, and more likely to pitch with one long trekking pole.]

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It’s illustrative to think back to the first “cottage” shelter I purchased, one of the first MLD Trailstars, in September of 2009. I was still so little initiated in the ultralight world that I emailed Ron Bell about making one of 70D sil, to which he in essence replied “what the hell for?”  That shelter hung around the closet for a long time, eventually going down the road some time in 2011 or 2012, mostly due to the large footprint, awkward pitch, and modest interior space.

The Trailstar made it’s name with an unmatched weight to wind resistance ratio, and it survived what is still the windiest night I’ve ever spent outside remarkably quietly once I had it well staked.  That windproofing doesn’t just come from good construction, though that it a big part of it, but from a low and aerodynamic shape.  The conundrum is how to approach that degree of windproofing while also having good snow shedding abilities, traits which in ‘mids and tarp shelters seem to be at odds, especially when you introduce the further contradictory requirements of having a relatively small footprint and at the same time decent interior living space.  Oh, and it’d be nice to seal out those pesky drafts along the bottom, while still keeping the ability to raise the hem and vent as needed.

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Thankfully, it is now 2015, and Seek Outside managed to balance all of the above in the Beyond Timberline 2 person tipi, more simply known as the BT2.

The BT2 is as simple and stripped down as possible.  Seek Outside calls it “a purpose built ultralight, storm worthy, backpacking  shelter to help you to go lighter and go further in difficult terrain” and this is a good starting point for analysis.  It’s made of 30D silnylon, which has rightfully become the standard modern shelter fabric.  It’s a symmetrical hexagon, 64 inches (162cm) tall at the peak when pitched tight to the ground.  It is 108 inches wide zipper to zipper (or corner to corner), and 96 inches side to side.  It has a double-reinforced apex cone of DX40 (read: massively puncture resistant) with interior and exterior hang loops, dual doors which open via #8 non-waterproof metal YKK zippers (read: the smoothest, strongest zipper made), with sliders at both the top and bottom.  The zipper flap is a piece of 2″ grosgrain webbing with three velcro patches to keep it closed.

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The tieouts on the BT2 are worth mentioning.  They’re basic loops of 1/2″ webbing, sewn into cordura reinforcement patches on both the inside and outside, and you’ll find a loop on both the inside and outside of the tent.  You’ll also find them places 4″ up from the bottom edge of the shelter.

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This feature is significant for two reasons.   If you stake the BT2 down with the exterior loops, as is most natural, and especially if you use all twelve of the loops, the extra 4″ of silnylon will be tucked under into the interior of the shelter, forming a sod cloth or snow flap which is totally effective in sealing out all wind, as well as almost all flying insects.  Every other mid I’ve owned was cursed by massive drafts in cold winds when there was not enough snow on the ground to pile up over the bottom edge.  Seek Outside has solved this problem in a simple fashion which adds almost no weight to the shelter, and almost no complexity (read: $$) to the production process.  If you want ventilation, stake the shelter using the interior loops, and raise the pole a bit.  If you want more ventilation, extent some of the loops with a bit of cord.

Kevin Timm of Seek Outside also told me, a while ago, that the sod cloth feature helped solve another problem with silnylon shelters; sagging when wet.  Because the tie points are not loaded along a sewn and stretch-less seam, a greater degree of elasticity is preserved within the shelter system, and sagging after a night of rain is much reduced.  It is not eliminated, but I’d estimate that it is reduced by around 50%.  After a night of hard rain a further 1/2″ or so of height in the center pole brings the BT2 back up to ideal tautness.

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Pitching the BT2 is not as fast as with a square or rectangular mid, but it is darn close.  The basic hexagonal pitch shown above is the default, and good for any sort of “normal” weather.  Stakes the non-zippered corner points in a rectangle with a hair of slack between each point, insert pole and tension, stakes zipper corners, then bring pole to complete tension, and done.  A ~1 minute solo pitch is easily done after the first few attempts.

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The BT2 has mid-panel stake points throughout, and by using each of theses and pulling them tight after the initial pitching the shape become aggressively conical and the BT2 becomes miniature tipi shelter.  As I wrote a few years ago this lack of vertical corners facilitates windproofing, something the BT2 does exceedingly well.  It equals the MLD Solomid in this area, and comes darn close to the Trailstar, while providing a lot more interior space.  Thus far the winter of 2014-15 has not cooperated and given me a big snowstorm on a trip, but I’m confident the BT2 will do just fine in that area.

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All that said, it’s important to bear in mind that the BT2 is not a large shelter, nor designed to be a palace for playing cards and waiting out weather.  For one comparison, see the above photo and know that I’m 5’11”. For another, consider that the 108″ corner to corner length of the BT2 is equal to the actual width of the BD Megalight (BD still modestly claims 86″, which accurately reflects the useable width), the length of the MLD Solomid, and is just shy of the 103″ length of the old Golite Shangrila 2.  It’s well shy of the 110-140″ length of the Trailstar.  The BT2 is in it’s 96″ functional length shorter than almost all other comparable mids, a feat it accomplishes by keeping the walls steep.  I have plenty of space to avoid the walls with both the head and foot of my sleeping bag, but again I’m 5’11”.  If you are 6’5″ and sleep atop a 3″ air mat you might push the available length pretty close.

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At 25 ounces for the canopy, the BT2 is light enough and small enough to be a reasonable solo shelter in bad weather.  It fits two no problem, though with only modest room to spare.  Seek Outside makes a nice nest for the BT2 in case of serious bug pressure, but with the sod clothes most won’t need it.  A nice side benefit of the nest is that the walls are high enough, and set far enough from the shelter canopy, that you’re protected from condensation.

Condensation deserves a word, as it’s an inevitable fact of life in single wall shelters.  Vent properly, and anticipate conditions, and you should be able to avoid the worst of it.  The camp pictured immediately above was cold and close to a river, ideal moisture conditions.  It was also blowing 30-40 mph and gusting a bit of snow all night, so fully battening down the hatches and just venting the bottom of the down wind door about 8 inches kept it to a minimum.  The night before, pictured further up, was also close to a lot of water, had more modest winds, and a few torrential rain showers in the early morning.  I left both doors 1/3 open for most of the night, which gave me enough shelter when the rain came up and plenty of ventilation.  Proactive, thoughtful technique works much better than built in vents, which unless they’re really big (Shagrila 2, Seek Outside’s LBO) do just about nothing.

The BT2 is a backpackers shelter, not a campers tent.  It prioritizes function and has just enough convenience to not impede useability.  Beyond the foul weather performance, which I’ve found simply exceptional, I find the minimalist aesthetic hugely appealing.  Based on the first four months of use, I’d say that the BT2 is perfect, and haven’t found a single improvement to suggest to Seek Outside.  And that is a rare thing.

The downsides are minimal and inherent: it’s a floorless shelter, which some folks don’t like.  It requires a pole height which is taller than almost all trekking poles, thus requiring a paddle, specialized pole, or two poles lashed together.  It does not offer an excess of space or feel-good features.  It just offers function, and if that is what you like, you’ll probably want a BT2.  For 230 bucks and a bomber, made in the USA shelter, that is a bargain.

Skurka’s Core 13

Most gear is something to which I pay little attention.  Packs are a fascination and thus an object of consistent experimentation, even if for example I currently have five very solid 3000+ cubic inch ones in the closet right now.  Most other things, such as stoves and shelters, are boxes to be checked once before moving on.  So long as I have a few which work well, interest is largely absent.

DSC07087August: baselayer t-shirt, Alpine Start hoody, running shorts.

The glaring exception is clothing, towards which I put too much time and money.  Outdoor clothing is hard to get right; why else would there be so much of it?  Even when we can avoid the impulse to merely pursue the novel and fashionable (the answer to the previous question, as well as to why most outdoor brands and shops are able to stay in business), it is easy to build up a seemingly redundant closet in the quest to have an ideal system.  Andrew Skurka recently took a good swing at cutting through the noise, asserting that one could backpack in all 3 seasons (read: outside deep winter) with only 13 items of clothing.  It’s a good departure for discussion, as well as a way to stay the madness of excessive clothing acquisition.  In the following I’ll look at Skurka’s suggestions, and make a few comments of my own.

Before I get started, I need to mention the first rule of being an intelligent consumer of outdoor clothing: pay attention to fabric weight.  I’ll reference it constantly below.  Good clothing companies today make fabric weight a prominent part of their web and marketing copy.  If they don’t, I approach them with trepidation.  If they won’t or can’t tell me over their chat or via email, I don’t buy their stuff.  (Get your house in order First Lite.)

Skurka’s 13 items are as follows. with links to the relevant posts:

  1. short sleeved shirt
  2. long sleeved shirt
  3. bug shirt
  4. running shorts
  5. pants
  6. underwear
  7. fleece top
  8. insulated jacket
  9. insulated pants
  10. rain jacket
  11. rain pants
  12.  sleeping shirt
  13. sleeping bottoms

The first or core layers of 3 season clothing serve to protect externally from sun, bugs, and abrasion, and internally from chafing and temperature regulation issues.  The first six items on the above list all fall into this category.  In his various posts, Skurka highlights the extent to which these objectives can conflict.  Short or long sleeved baselayer shirts are a good example.  In this application merino wool has, in the last decade, become the fabric of reference due to its superior moisture managing properties.  Merino is not inherently warmer than various synthetics when wet, despite frequent claims to the contrary, but it does manage evaporative cooling by absorbing sweat into the wool fibers and releasing them in a moderated fashion.  Merino also does an excellent job of resisting odor, though given enough use between washings it is not immune to bacterial growth.  The only reason, aside from cost, merino has not taken over completely is the difficulty of balancing performance and longevity.  Thicker merinos (>150 grams/meter) have too much fiber and hold too much moisture too long.  I’ve written them off for anything aside from casual, town use, and know exactly no one including cold-blooded light sweaters who having used sub 150 gram wool have any desire to go back.  The problem with thinner merino is poor abrasion resistance, something to which Skurka aludes both in writing and in pictures.  The latest and best solution is to blend polyester with the wool, two examples being Rab Meco 120 and Patagonia Merino 1, both of which are 65% merino and 35% polyester, and 120 grams per square meter (3.5 ounces per square yard).  These shirts are identical in function and appearance, and blend the characteristics of modern merino and polyester fairly well.  They dry fast, but not as quick as the lightest pure poly fabrics, while still having a modicum of moisture buffering.  They resist stink well, but not as well as pure wool.  They’re tougher than the pure wools of comparable weights, but not as durable as pure polyester.  They are currently my preference in shirts for all conditions above 20 degrees F, at which point I swap over to the warmer Capilene 4.

IMG_0515Also August: same short, same t-shirt, and a 70/30 cotton/poly shirt for sun and bugs.

Skurka does an excellent job encapsulating the problems with bug shirts, and I have nothing to add, other than that I dislike heavy bug pressure more than any other adverse environmental factor, and go out of my way to avoid them both by altering my routes to camp in suitable places, and not visiting certain areas at certain times of year.

For 3 season backpacking, Skurka correctly identifies that pants are more often used for leg protection than for warmth.  I could see making due with one pair for everything, though two would be better.  A ~200 grams/meter pair with a bit of stretch (less than 10% lycra content, such as the Black Diamond Modernist Rock jeans) are good for colder weather and abusive applications, while warm weather pants are ideally in the 120 grams/meter range.  Fabrics this thin are not inherently strong, so they should be built as tough as weight requirements allows: 100% nylon plain weave or taslan.  Pants like these are not easy to find, fishing pants seem to be the most likely candidates.  Aside from gloves and socks, pants are the garment which wears out first and most often.  Light nylon pants won’t last forever, perhaps 2-3 years for me, but their ability to dry fast and not cause swamp ass when it’s 85F out more than justifies the cost.

R0001297Lace closure from a destroyed pair of Patagonia board shorts added to BD Rock jeans.  The best pant/short closure, in my book.  I also removed the belt loops from these pants to eliminate all possible pressure points.

Now, a brief digression concerning pant features.  As with just about anything, less is more, though not absolutely.  Waist bands should be wide and slick.  I see no reason for belts (under any circumstances).  Buttons are a good way to close pants, the Patagonia ones which are sewn on with a length of 3/8″ webbing are the best, as thread always seems to wear out.  I really like the closure system on Patagonia board shorts; the lighter, shorter Minimalist Wavefarers are great if you can find them on sale.  Plain stretch waist bands are good if done properly, but most companies integrate too much stretch into these pants  and they end up sagging under heavy packs, which is no good.

Rise through the crotch of pants (and shorts) should be low.  The old style of waists up by the belly don’t actually add more protection, they just add an extra 2 inches above the natural waist for the pants to sag.  This often co-occurs with the aforementioned excess stretch.

Back pockets on pants are useless, except insofar as they function as a double seat (which is something I’d like to see more of, a la the old Patagonia Stand-Up pants).  Front pockets in the jeans model are fine, though I could do without them for the rest of my life.  Cargo pockets are the best, so long as they’re baffled or pleated just enough but not too much, and places up high so your snickers and knives aren’t knee-dragging all day.  Most importantly, cargo pockets should zip forward to open, and back to close.  That almost no clothing designers have had buskwacking unzip their zip-back-to-open cargo pockets is something I cannot understand.

IMG_1085Off trail in the Grand Canyon: thanks to harsh undergrowth and rock scrambling light, quick drying pants are mandatory.

Skurka and I disagree on the particulars of layer 7, though we agree on the principle that folks often need a fourth layer beyond the basic trinity of baselayer, insulated jacket, and rain jacket.  I’ve long been a fan of a light softshell windshirt, something which both functions as a light insulating layer and provides a degree of wind and precipitation resistance.  The issue with early iterations of this idea, like the Patagonia Traverse and before that the Cloudveil Veiled Peak anorak, were fabrics which were too thick and had too much lycra, thus holding too much water and drying too slowly.  The Black Diamond Alpine Start has been a favorite since it came out.  There are a few things I’d change, but the fabric is simply amazing.  It breathes well enough to be a bug and shade shirt so long as you’re not moving too hard, and at a very light 80 grams/meter is astoundingly tough.  Skurka casts aspersions on the traditional tightly woven nylon windshirts for having a narrower window of proper use, and I agree.  The Houdini et al. are on the verge of irrelevance.

There is a lot to be said for a plain 100 weight fleece shirt or vest.  Classic microfleece is great because it traps a ton of air for the weight, and has no lycra, so it dries super fast.  Simple is best, as mesh backed pockets and lycra binding trap water.  You can get these super-cheap from places like LL Bean and Target, but my favorite currently is the Rab Micro Pull-On.  The Micro uses particularly light fleece (160 grams/meter versus the more common 200), and fits incredibly well, especially through the shoulders and arms.  A fleece shirt is a key second layer for cold rain, packrafting, and people who get cold easily. I can’t see myself doing without either the windshirt or the fleece shirt, and not infrequently use both on the same trip.

IMG_0785Cold rain in the mountains; good rain gear and nice fleece shirt under it are both vital.

Insulated coats aren’t too complicated, down for dry places, synthetic for wetter ones.  I’ve only had a limited amount of experience, but thus far I’m not impressed with the types of dri-down.  Alpha and the other more breathable synthetics are very promising.  My main advice here is to pay attention to insulation weight, and not be too much of a gram counter in this area.  If I’m bringing a warm jacket, I want it to be warm.  60 grams/meter synthetic fills are summer weight, 100 is more versatile.  200 weight fleece is roughly as warm as 60 grams/meter Primaloft, which is roughly as warm as a hooded down sweater with 2-3 ounces of 800 fill.  I disagree with Skurka about needing insulated pants for 3 season stuff; I haven’t used my Primaloft pants at all for over a year, including winter.

IMG_3483Insulated jackets should have a nice big, adjustable hood, and plenty (3+) of pockets.  I like internal drop pockets for drying and warming gear on all such coats.  BD Stance Belay hoody shown.

Rain gear is a frequently misunderstood subject, such that I’m done having sympathy for people who don’t understand how it works and then complain about it “failing.”  Modern WPB fabrics are not breathable enough to keep up with perspiration most of the time, but you can overwhelm just about any garment under all but truly cold conditions if you try hard enough.  Anyone who’s worn a totally unbreathable parka under a variety of conditions will know just how breathable Goretex et al actually is, and hopefully quit bitchin’ about how it doesn’t work.  Skurka is absolutely correct to highlight the importance of DWR, and the extent to which it limits the utility of WPB garments on expeditions.  However, most of us with rarely if ever do a trip long enough and far enough between towns to truly make this an issue.

I remain a fan of Goretex, including the oft-maligned Paclite 2.5 layer laminate.  Goretex seems more durable and more consistent than eVent or PU coatings, and I think the rigorous and innovation-stifling certification process Gore insists upon does result in better face fabrics, which overall improves durability and DWR performance.

IMG_0955Hoods are vital, and the Haglofs Ozo remains one of the best ever.

Rain jackets need phenomenal hoods, nothing less is acceptable.  Big stiffened brims, three point cinches which don’t gutter rain into your face, and enough room for hats and hoods are all must-haves.  There are lots of seemingly good rain coats I’ve rejected out of hand due to bad hoods.  Aside from this and nice long articulated sleeves and a long hem, all other features are optional.  I can do without any pockets just fine, prefer anoraks to full zips, and dislike pit zips (though the to-the-hem cagoule-style zips OR and Arc’teryx use works well).  Rain pants need knee-high or higher side zips so they can put on with shoes on.

I don’t wear rain gear unless it’s raining, I’m in a packraft, or I’m walking through high and soaking brush.  This promotes rain gear longevity.  Pant fabrics should be a bit heavier than jacket fabrics.

I used to regard sleep clothes with disdain, and still hardly ever bring them, but they do have a place, especially for folks (like M) who don’t produce as much body heat.  She has convinced me fairly recently that there’s a massive difference between the two of us in this regard, and that damp clothes at the end of a day take a lot out of her.  So I’m learning things and getting a heavier pack as I age.

IMG_1028Women, especially women with low body fat, need more warmth and often more layers.

Clothing systems will always be evolving, especially given that we’re is a period of legitimately rapid innovation in fabrics.  Neoshell and Gore Active are two things I’d like to try and haven’t yet, among many others.  That being the case, the following are what I use today, with parenthetical substitutions for those items no longer in production.

 

  1. Rab Meco 120 short sleeve
  2. Rab Meco 120 long sleeve
  3. ExOfficio Impervio (haven’t used, deferring to Skurka)
  4. Patagonia Minimalist Wavefarer or Patagonia Strider
  5. BD Modernist Rock jeans or Patagonia RPS or BD Highball (haven’t tried last two)
  6. Patagonia Capilene 2 boxer-briefs
  7. Rab Micro Pull-On
  8. Rab Strata Hoodie or Montbell Thermawrap Pro
  9. BD Stance Belay or Patagonia R1 tights
  10. Haglofs Gram Comp II pull (haven’t used, yet)
  11. BD Liquid Point
  12.  Patagonia Capilene 4 crew
  13. Patagonia Capilene 2

Everyone will have their preferences, but function shouldn’t be subservient to fashion or sentimentality.  In the end only experience will tell you what works

 

The curious Strata Hoodie

Polartec Alpha was developed for the military, as an insulation which would form the core of a garment that would, as an insulator, better straddle the divide between static and dynamic warmth.  Alpha does this by being more air-permeable than synthetic fill insulations such as Primaloft and Climashield, and at the same time more svelt (and thus better suited to shelled jackets) than fleece.  Polartec says, “By placing patented low density fibers between air permeable woven layers we created a more efficient fabric for regulating warmth and transferring moisture.”

R0001282The Strata fits fine, and has the well shaped Rab hood which I quite like.

Warmth in the outdoors is often understood as an overly simple concept.  Static warmth for a dry, stationary body requires only decent fueling and hydration and enough layers.  Dynamic warmth, where said body is in various states of motion through varied environments, is governed by the same rules, but they are interrupted by the need to protect from external, while venting and moving internal, moisture.  Achieving a balance between external protection and internal insulation is, most of the time, the key to sustainable activities in the outdoors.

Passable solutions to the various permutations of the moisture problem have no doubt existed for millennia.  Pretty good ones have existed in the modern clothing paradigm for decades.  What continues to be an occasional complication is finding a way to balance protection and insulation across a range of settings with minimal items of clothing, and with minimal alterations within the items carried.  It is in this area where Alpha might make sense for some outdoor uses.

Alpha is not as warm for a given weight as the down and synthetic fill insulations to which we’ve become accustomed.  The Rab Strata Hoodie weighs about a pound in size medium, 3-4 ounces heavier than the almost identically featured Rab Xenon X.  The Xenon not only has a lighter weight (60 g/meter v. 80 for the Strata) of warmer Primaloft One insulation, it has a lightly lighter and far less air-permeable shell and liner fabric.  One of the marketing saws for Alpha jackets, and the Toray-made clone used by Patagonia and Kuiu, is that the structure of the insulation does not demand the densely woven nylons which have become standard for Primaloft.  This may or may not be the case, but I tend to believe that for an Alpha jacket to function coherently as a unit the liner and shell must do what they can to keep pace with the insulation.  If Alpha can breath better and wick faster than the liner, moisture will stay stuck inside, against the wearer.  If the liner and insulation can move moisture faster than the shell, or at least much faster, water vapor will become trapped inside, and in cold enough weather, freeze solid.

R0001293The neon material is a solid, uncoated nylong ripstop.  They grey fabric is mesh.

The Strata Hoodie does not do any of these things, and the liner (zoned mesh and light nylon ripstop) and shell (nylon plain weave with a textured inner face) seem ideally matched.  The Strata moves moisture several times faster than the Xenon X.

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R0001296I’m not sure the little mesh panels in the neck and hood make much difference, but they are impressively well designed and executed.

This comes at a cost, and that cost is static warmth.  The outdoor garment industry has taken a enhanced interest in breathability in recent years, one result being the many more, more air permeable garments available.  Polartec Neoshell in the hardshell realm, woven windshirts like the Alpine Start, and Polartec Alpha are all examples.  Breathability happens via moisture transport, and moisture within clothing systems happens via evaporation, which necessitates evaporative cooling.  One of the reasons the Xenon and Xenon X jackets have made their reputation as the warmest garments of their class is the very air impermeable Pertex Quantum liner and shell.  Summit a windy ridge after a sweaty climb and throw on the Xenon X and you’ll get immediate and considerable shelter from the wind.

The disadvantage is that the Quantum shells will also hold that sweat inside, and it will take time and often an external heat source of consequence to dry the jacket out completely.  It is in these circumstances that I’ve become enamored with the Strata.  It often provides enough extra warmth and wind resistance to serve as a resting or skiing-down jacket, while still moving moisture.  The difference between how dry the Strata will keep me over the course of a day skinning and skiing laps compared with the Xenon is considerable.  Similar things can be said when hiking slowly in moderate cold, or hard in serious cold.  Worn over appropriate base and wind layers, these combinations are very effective, and impressively free from the need for constant adjustment.

The disadvantage of the Strata is in turn the lack of warmth, which is not due entirely to the increased air permeability.  Patagonia hyped their Nano Air (which we can safely view as darn close in function to Alpha jackets, just with stretch), as the equal to Primaloft coats provided a very wind resistant shell (i.e. hardshell) was put over it when needed.  My anecdotal experience is that this is not the case.  80 g/meter Alpha is significantly less warm than 60 g/meter Primaloft One, even when the two are compared strictly on terms of static warmth.

All this of course begs the question of whether the performance gains of the Strata could be united with a shell which is more wind resistant, or an insulation which is warmer.  Would a partial mesh liner work with Climashield Apex, which is more robust than Primaloft and almost as warm?  Would a chest and shoulder area with greater wind resistance significantly hamper the moisture transport of Alpha insulation?  There are a number of such intriguing questions which might be answered by new garments in the next few years.

As a matter of backcountry policy, the Strata is often a very useful critter, but in most circumstances requires an additional insulating layer.  What will best serve as a companion here, providing enough warmth without too much additional weight, bulk and complication, I have not yet decided.  Fleece works well enough, but does not directly address the need for additional wind resistance, and insofar as both are bulky and suited to use on the go this combination is duplicative.  Another, more traditional synthetic fill shell makes sense, but results in a heavy and bulky system.  My hope, for spring hunting, hiking, and skiing, is to use a down vest in and outside the Strata.  I will report back.

Altra Lone Peak 1.5: half brilliance, half crap

Disclaimer: I bought these shoes with my own money at full retail, and for the past six months have not used them as the manufacturer intended. I make no apologies for asking a lot from my shoes, nor for emphatic feelings about this most important item.

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Altra is about to release version 2.5 of their Lone Peak trail runner, a shoe which has been quite influential since it was released. It was probably the first of what is becoming the latest, and I think the best, trend in light outdoor shoes: zero drop, moderate cushion shoes made of durable materials. Based on my experience with the 1.5s, the notoriety is justified. There is a lot to like, really like, about these shoes, which makes the less desirable things stand out all the more.

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The best thing about the 1.5s is the midsole.  The level of cushion, stiffness, and the zero drop are for me perfect.  There’s enough beef for carrying a 40 pound pack in difficult terrain, while still being flexible and low enough to not loose the sleekness and speed for which light shoes exist.  They are quite simply the most comfortable hiking and backpacking shoe I’ve ever had.

The problem with the 1.5s, which dampens the aforementioned virtues considerably, is the poor durability of the mesh fabric.  Aware of this issue and wanting to protect my investment, I put on a coating of aquaseal before wearing them on the trail, and have added more on four different occasions since.  As shown here, this has kept pace with wear, but only just.  I expect mesh to wear before anything else, but the Altra mesh quite simply sucks.

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To go along with the zero drop approach, the Altra toebox is wide and anatomic, which is easily seen in the above photo, which shows a more traditional trail shoe (the La Sportiva Bushido) at right.  The wide toebox is more comfortable, and only sacrifices a small amount of agility and precision in technical terrain.  I have a middling forefoot and a narrow heel, and found the Altra to fit very well throughout.

The toebox does not hold the 1.5s back in rough country; that task is unfortunately accomplished by the lackluster tread pattern and the absolutely awful rubber, which manages to both wear quickly and have poor traction.  On wet rocks the 1.5s are nothing short of frightening, and I hope that in the new versions Altra has simply discarded both and started over.

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Altra does get the rest of the details right.  The velcro gaiter trap is a brilliant feature which is well done.  I’ve never found a glue-on gaiter patch which didn’t eventually fall off, and this solves that problem in a low-profile way which you’ll never notice when it is not in use.  Other good stuff includes the laces, which stay tied well, and the burly rubberized fabric used in the toe bumper.

Will the Lone Peak 2.5 (due in July) improve upon these glaring flaws?  I really hope so.  I bought the Bushidos above right before we left for New Zealand, strictly because I was worried that the Lone Peaks would not last the whole trip, as well as some dis-ease about taking their poor traction fly fishing and mountain hunting.  The Bushidos have the unmatched rubber and tread which Sportiva does so well (they’re probably 2-3 standard deviations better than anything else on the market, including Inov8), but after using the Lone Peaks all fall even 6mm of drop feels weird, as does the narrow toebox.  If Altra put good rubber on the Lone Peaks, I’d be willing to put up with bad mesh, even at 120 dollars a pair.  If they also fixed the durability issue, I’d be in shoe heaven.

New Zealand: in conclusion

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DSC09214Photo series by M.

I’ve long been skeptical of the short-term ethos of “traveling” as it exists for the first world bourgeoisie; getting to know a place takes months, years, and thus even the best prepared journey guarantees tourism, and all the worst things which come with it.  That said, New Zealand is the first place where without having lived there for a while I know, am positive, that I’ll go back to.

The South Island is a pleasant place to be.  This is not a surprise; there’s few enough people in a big enough space for patience and politeness to still be the default, and a socialist-ish safety net whose assumption and validity is safe enough in the public eye that life seems secure.  The US, for compelling historical reasons, has not yet been able to figure either of these things out.

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Kiwis take their coffee seriously, and as a whole it is better in all forms than in the States.  Exhibit A would be Jed’s Coffee bags, which are far and away the best way to have trail coffee I’ve ever encountered.  Each bag is pyramid shaped, made of fine mesh, and contains a lot of very good, fine ground coffee.  You get french-press quality flavor, with tea-easy cleanup.  Phenomenal.  Both Dick and I preferred the 4 and 5, but found the 5 harder to obtain.

The Long Black is another Kiwi invention of simple, stunningly obvious genius.  Putting two espresso shots over a bit of hot water (rather than the reverse) makes the Americano seem like the craven tightrope between straight espresso and plain black coffee which it is.  I’ve yet to bother my favorite local barrista with this one, but I’ll have to try soon.

The Long Black is best enjoyed in one of the airy roadside cafes which dot New Zealand.  In the States, the intersection of two solitary, empty yet important highways is most often marked by a gas station and diner.  On the South Island the cafes weren’t always immaculately scrubbed, but they were clean, well-lighted places with good coffee, baked goods, meat pies, and an inviting atmosphere which encouraged one to linger.

New Zealand also lived up to it’s reputation as being intensely wet, and we didn’t even do any off-track hiking west of the divide.  It is then not a coincidence that Kiwi’s remain fans of fleece, as companies like Earth Sea Sky and Stoney Creek demonstrate.  After visiting a number of outdoor and hunting shops (yes, in NZ they’re separate, just like here) I couldn’t resist picking up a Stoney Creek Two-Pocket shirt, which you can see in this photo.  The hem and sleeves and long, the collar high, and the shoulders fitted in a most satisfying manner, but the thing worth noting is the fabric.  It’s microfleece, seemingly not much thicker than the Polartech Classic in my Rab Micro pull-on (160 grams/meter square), but much denser and warmer.  Stoney Creek claims it as 320 grams/meter, making it quite different than what we expect.  The shirt is suitably heavier and bulky and warm, and while not necessarily a lightweight backpacking garment will be great come November, and a fine souvenir besides.

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The downside to New Zealand is of course the enormous flight to get there, which was far easier than anticipated.  Both flights left around 5pm local, which ensures that so long as you can enjoy 14-16 hours lasting for what should only be an eight hour night, your sleep won’t go too far off.  It’s the associated airport and airline nonsense which is the worst, with fatalism the only way to survive the many lines to check baggage, clear security, and wait for the flight.

Our trip home was enhanced by a bit of time in both Auckland and Syndey, and unexpectedly by an extra day in Seattle provided by a mechanical and poor communication on service on the part of Alaska Airlines.

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Fortunately, the non-winter the west is enjoying was in full swing, and we had clear spring weather to take the ferry out to Bainbridge and enjoy sandwiches and a view of Rainier.  This city time was also a more immediate reminder that our local food options here in NW Montana are shitty.  The price we willingly pay for being delightfully far from most other things.  It it often inconvenient, but being right in amongst somewhere you dream of going is one of the most important things of all.

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Keep it public

I’ve been putting this writing off for months, because putting fingers to keys and pixels to ‘net admits that there are things which need to be said about keeping public lands public. Today, there absolutely are, and that admission is in itself a sad statement.

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I remain acutely skeptical that the current movement to transfer federal lands into state custody will ever come to anything substantive, but the opponents are sure taking the whole mess seriously, which has produced more than enough dialogue to frame the debate.

Sadly, this has mostly taken place on economic terms. The heirs of the Sagebrush Rebellion maintain that state governments and local towns are loosing potential revenue due to federal complacency, while the heirs of Roosevelt trot out vague statistics to demonstrate why states would not be able to shoulder the management burden.

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US federal land.agencies” by National Atlas of the United Stateshttp://nationalatlas.gov/printable/fedlands.html, “All Federal and Indian Lands“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, all this discussion is very much besides the point. Federal land was, starting in the late 1800s and more rapidly in the first quarter of the 20th century, set aside specifically against obvious economic motivations. Preservation was the word when the Adirondacks and Yosemite became state parks, and Yellowstone a national park. Long-term economic arguments about how tourism is superior to extractive industries only followed. That tourism is the most economically use of public lands is a fait accompli, as demonstrated by the states-rights rhetoric being restricted to only wanting a little more logging/mining/roads while maintaining or increasing tourist infrastructure. The problem is that these pro-states arguments are almost identical to those made a century ago. It’s an obscure and uncommon thesis, but the conservation/preservation, public lands ownership and use debate made the Republican party what it is today, and the zenith of that debate between 1910 and 1912 is when the GOP ceased to be the party of Lincoln and started to become the party of Reagan.

TR left the White House in 1908, denying himself a certain third term. Given that he had assumed office after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Roosevelt had a strong claim to a second elective term, as well as the sort of popularity which would have guaranteed him a win. At the national convention, Henry Cabot Lodge had to intervene multiple times to prevent TR from being nominated by acclamation. William Howard Taft, then Secretary of War, was TRs hand-picked successor, in no small part because Roosevelt thought Taft the most likely to continue his policies, Unfortunately for Taft, once elected he proved too malleable or indifferent to stand up to industry, and supported either outright or by default significant erosions of TRs conservation work. Taft fired Gifford Pinchot, and made moves to undo the designation of the enormous and visionary Tongass National Forest. TR valued these things, and the ideals they represented, so much that he was compelled to run against Taft in 1912. He failed to win the Republican nomination, and as a Bull Moose candidate in the general election outperformed Taft, splitting the vote and guaranteeing the victory of Woodrow Wilson.

The presidents who followed Wilson have mixed records on conservation, but the overarching narrative is universally in support of conservation and the value of federal lands. National Parks came to be called America’s best idea, Alaska still has a robust salmon fishery, old growth forest still exists in pockets of most western states, and free or cheap opportunities for recreation of all types could as of 2015 occupy many lifetimes. There are many particulars which could be improved, especially wildfire management, but it’s hard to see arguments against the current regime of federal land management as anything other than variations on Cliven Bundy; ahistorical, myopic, and selfish.

Folks are hesitant to say this out loud, and even more hesitant to state what I see as the central point in the debate: the states are too hasty and subject to the winds of public opinion to be good custodians of public land. This is especially true of states like Montana where term limits and biannual legislative sessions have maintained a tradition of true citizen legislators. Like the US Senate, experiencing federal land management in real time can be frustrating, but is the least-worst option. Ecosystems dwell in extra-human time scales, and thus government must be stretched a fair bit to suit it. Land conservation has in the past century been one of the largest success stories in North America. The pushback against it is probably the last kick before the death of a 20th century view about the unalloyed preeminence of the western human, an ideology about which conservation only tells a small part. Insofar as it’s a coherent entity, I can’t take it seriously, but it would be foolish to underestimate it’s advocates.

The legacy of the 21st century will be rewilding littoral areas, and cultivating a less adversarial relationship with the wild which will make it easier for predators to reassimilate. But it will not come easily or with good grace. Be patient and, where necessary, make your voice heard. In the western states that probably means now.

My contempt for brown trout

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Though I’ve been fly fishing regularly since we moved to Montana in 2008, and sporadically for close to a decade before that, I’ve never bothered to get particularly skilled at it. The twin revelations of tenkara rods and wilderness streams have largely relieved me of the need to develop a solid, precise cast. If I can avoid the smart fish which, in northwest Montana, tend to be found near the road I do, because that’s what I like doing anyway.  I’ve caught a lot of fish this way, and gained a lot of satisfaction.

In tandem with this approach has been a willful disregard, even contempt, for much of what is most easily called traditional fly fishing gear, technique, and philosophy.  Fly fishing is, above anything else, a deeply self-serious discipline, which along with the wildly expensive gear, endless rows of flies which all look the same, and funny vests makes it an easy target for derision.  Over the past few years I’ve pretty much decided that around 80% of all the mumbo jumbo considered necessary to fly fishing was a bunch of crap.

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I was wrong.

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Very wrong.

Dick, my stepfather, was keen to book a guide for fishing in New Zealand.  I’d figure we’d put the expense to good use by hiring someone to take us way up into the mountains, some place infrequently traveled and beautiful, where like in Montana we’d have a bunch of unsophisticated fish at our disposal.

It did not work out that way.  Turns out the non-native Brown Trout in New Zealand, at least in the lust, warm rivers near the north end of the south island, have such a luxurious environment that the headwaters are the most desirable environment.  According to our guide, the big fish chase the little fish downstream, claim a big pool for their own, and hang out in the clear water enjoying the year-round flow of bugs, and occasional mouse.  They can afford to be picky, and they have the perfect environment for being very wary.  The result is fish which are very hard to catch, and a type of fly fishing where all the tricks you read about in magazines are absolutely imperative.

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As you can imagine, quite a bit had been lost in translation when we were emailing with Mike the guide about this trip.  By the end of the day I had committed almost every foul and misdeed in the book, save catching my backcast in a tree (miraculously this didn’t happen the second day, either) and was ready to quit and hike out.  The rough terrain along the river was kicking Dick’s butt, and he didn’t have time to fish at all for the need of moving fast enough to make camp by dark.  I was getting a hasty, remedial lesson in fly casting a western rod, not something in which I had much interest.  The tenkara rods in my pack were clearly going to be of little use, both for lack of range and lack of a ton of backing for when the gargantuan trout went on a run.  We saw nothing, all trip, which Mike thought much less than five pounds, and a few which he thought in the 12-13 pound range.  (The trout pictured above was 8.5, Mike had a scale integrated into the handle of his net.)  We were throwing an 18 foot tapered leader, and only having success using a double dropper rig, which is a dry fly, with three feet of tippet tied to the hook and a nymph on the end, and another three feet of tippet and nymph tied to that.  I was not up to casting such a rig with anything approaching the range or delicacy necessary to not spook the browns, having previous considered such lengths hyperbolic at best.

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There are many outdoor activities, fly fishing being one and hunting being another, which can be done and done richly at a wide variety of difficulties.  Every activity has certain settings or modes which demand nothing less than an A game, and while submersion in an alpha environment is often intimidating and frustrating, it’s also a tremendous learning experience.  I slept poorly the night we were in the field, deeply irked that I hadn’t done enough to ensure the fishing trip I had wanted, but woke up resolved to make the best of it.  Dick stayed in camp reading, the helicopter would pick him up along with camp after it got Mike and me that afternoon.  We would fish up river, and I would try to relax enough to work near my potential and actually catch some fish.

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It almost all came together.  Mike hooked a few fish and let me land them, no mean feat with big fish who have a ton of room to run.  A different world of fishing indeed.  I even managed to tease a fish in and set the hook on one, which I also managed to land.  The practice of fishing tenkara, which requires lots of movement to land a fish, certainly applied.

The browns blended in to the dark cobbles remarkably well, but by the second afternoon I was getting the hang of it.  I saw one 100 yards upstream, feeding against a white cobble.  Fortunately, a car sized boulder 30 yards downstream provided ideal shelter.  I got close, got line out, and made a passable cast with the dropper rig far enough upstream, and the fish slurped it up.  I set the hook and the fish took off to the right and upstream.  In a panic of pre-thinking, I clamped down on the line, or perhaps got it tangled in my fingers trying to let the tension down onto the reel, and with that moment of hard resistance the hook straightened and the fish was gone.

So close, and so far.

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I’ll always be disappointed in myself for not sorting the trip better before we left for New Zealand, but you don’t know what you don’t know, usually until it is too late.  In retrospect, I’m not certain the sort of trip I wanted for the both of us was even available when and where we wanted it. What we did get was an amazing trip into a gorgeous river valley, a fantastic helicopter ride, and a serious lesson in fly fishing. I still think a lot of fly fishing is ridiculous, and I still think the extreme catch and release ethic practiced in New Zealand and elsewhere is ethically questionable, but there’s also no question that seeing the possibilities which are out there is immensely alluring, and invaluable. I know some of what I don’t know about fly fishing, and how to go about learning it.

Concerning sandflies

The sandfly is a fact of life in New Zealand. Forrest McCarthy called them the countries top predator, which is in a sense quite accurate. The “bloody sandflies” are both widespread and annoying, and coping with them requires a few special preparations.

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Thankfully, sandflies are no where near as obnoxious as mosquitoes. Yankees familiar with early summer blackflies will find that their experience will transfer well, and the sandfly is merely a small variety of blackfly. Sandflies live around water, but dislike rainfall, as well as significant wind and intense sun. Humid, still, overcast days are their playground. They like to fly, silently, around humans until they find a bit of exposed skin for bloodsucking. Their bites cannot generally be felt until it is too late, if at all. These bites generally swell up in the typical fashion 12 or so hours after being bitten, and persist for a week or two. While the strength of individual reaction varies, I found them extremely itchy for 10 or more days after the fact. Salves provide temporary relief, and are especially useful right before bed.

Unlike mosquitoes, sandflies cannot bite through thin layers of clothing, so things like gossamer woven shirts are quite adequate to keep them at bay. Long sleeves and fingerless gloves are a good idea, as are long pants. These pants must be tucked into gaiters or socks, as sandflies delight in flying up to gnaw on your shins. Knee-high socks are a good back up in case your pants become untucked from your gaiters (while fly fishing this happened during almost every river crossing). Lastly, a scarf or buff which can be tucked into your shirt and pull up over the back of a hat to cover ears, neck, and chin will be welcome during heavy sandfly pressure.

DEET is effective against sandflies, until it is washed or sweated off.

As with most bugs, my favored strategy is to avoid sandflies as much as possible. The eastern drainages in the southern Alps are primarily rock, very windy, and under heavy orographic shadow. Pretty much my favorite kind of terrain anywhere, and not coincidentally a mostly bug-free zone. The sandflies in Fiordlands were pretty bad in camp, but they didn’t really follow us out on to the water while kayaking. They were present most places on the Heaphy Track, but cooler and generally windy weather kept them mostly at bay. The trailhead in Kohaihai was just enough off the beach to be sheltered, and the sandflies there were apocalyptic. Thankfully we didn’t have that anywhere else on the hike.

I got 80% of my sandfly bites while fly fishing, for several reasons. First, I had arrogantly dismissed the need for gloves. Second, the DEET washed off my hands constantly. Third, my pants came untucked in the river. Fourth, the fishing was so absorbing and difficult that I ignored the flies and had little idea how bad I was getting it. Lastly, fishing puts you rather inevitably in ideal sandfly habitat. With a few extra precautions, I would have suffered much less.

In conclusion, sandflies should be prepared for well, especially if you’re visiting the wetter and more verdant parts of New Zealand.  Thankfully, they’re not as well armed as mosquitoes, and don’t produce a maddening buzz, so if you’re properly equipped they’re somewhat easy to ignore.

The 12 best miles of 2014

Not the best hikes, skis, or floats, but the best single isolated miles of travel.  The ones which are worth a lot of potentially frustrating work to find.  Presented in chronological order, with one photo and one mile for each month of 2014.  For organizational and review purposes; January was a long time ago, and big and small memories both are worth recalling in detail.

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My favorite mile of January was the frozen ice in the middle of the middle of Lake Sherburne, as M and I were headed back out after our overnight in Many Glacier.  The ice was corrogated and cracked, coated at random with sastrugi, deep black, blue and white in alternate patches, and the wind was maching at a steady 60 mph.  Fast enough to push us along at 3-10 mph, depending on the ice surface.  M understandably found the experience disconcerting, so she rode her edges pretty hard, and thus found it tiring.  Having done this sort of thing before, and being a more experienced skier, I enjoyed the free ride and the ability to sit back and relax in a setting and experience which is quite rare.

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The best mile of February was the ridge east of Whitefish Mountain Resort on the long loop Amber, Lauren and I did out from the hill and back again.  Perfect fresh powder, and a clear, blue, cold, and calm day made for fantastic skiing and a gorgeous skinning as we farmed the fingers of the ridge for turns.

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March makes for both an easy and a hard choice; it is an obvious contest between the Redwall slots in 150 Mile Canyon and Scotty’s Hollow, but which?  I’ll go with the meat of Scotty’s because the higher temperatures and exertion of the many fun obstacles to climb made the constant wetness comfortable, while in 150 we were on the edge of being cold the whole time.  This is the prettiest and most fun section of slot canyon I’ve ever seen.

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Come late April the ski hill shuts down, thanks to environmental regulations built into their lease from the Forest Service.  The ski area makes our little town what it is, good and bad inextricable, but I like that this yearly event reminds them that their hegemony over the local economy and our public lands is not complete.  It’s all the sweeter in a year like 2014, when the snowpack lingers deep and solid well into May, and April storms bring flawless powder laid out on empty slopes with huge views east into Glacier.  One late, late April storm in particular brought together the best of winter and spring all at once, and the last bit of the hike up and descent down was my favorite mile of the month.

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I have a lot of good memories tied up in Granite Park Chalet, and a quiet, solo visit via bike and skis in May is a favorite trip each year.  A good way to guarantee you won’t see anyone the whole day is to go on a weekend where valley rain turns into mountain snow not long after you leave your bike and start the hike and skin up.  It was a wet and chilly day, especially the bike descent, but the skiing was fantastic and ambiance of the spring landscape caught in the grip of one last snowstorm made the last mile up to the chalet the most memorable of the month.

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The best part of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Open is always going somewhere you, and just about anyone else, would never go otherwise.  Seeing the most remote parts of the Bob when they’re just shaking off the mantel of winter has become one of my most cherished experiences, and crossing Badger Pass on snowshoes fit the bill early this June.  I’d never been their before, and with any hint at the trail (and indeed the creek) hidden under 10+ feet of snow, the crossing felt truly wild.  These experiences are the closest we 21st century hikers can get to pre-Lewis and Clark wilderness, and those miles are thus always particularly precious.

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I’d be hard pressed to pick and exact mile (and I don’t have a good photo of it), but my favorite mile of July was floating below Burnt Park down to the White River with M, Spencer, and Luke.  We had survived our run-in with that log on that rapid in Burnt, the day was getting nice and warm, and the river was clear, fast, and perfectly gorgeous.  At the midpoint of our loop we were just about as far from a road as one can get in the Bob, and doing so in ideal style.  Floating the upper South Fork on a warm day at 5000 cfs is as good as being outdoors gets.

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I’m cheating a little by counting the mile across the Sperry Glacier with my mom as August rather than September, but it was close and the combination of the rugged, otherworldly terrain, harsh weather, being having my mom along makes it a must-pick.  More than anything, it was a world I had long wanted to show her, and doing so at last was satisfying.

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Part of the reason I have to stretch the previous entry is that the first mile of the packout on my September deer hunt in the Bob is the most obvious answer to this question for any month the whole year.  The terrain was tough, but not egregious, and the scenery was excellent, but not exceptional.  What made that mile stick out so thoroughly was the satisfaction of bringing such a long project to completion, combined with the entirely new sensation of carrying a really heavy pack through tough terrain.  The later miles, mostly on trail, hurt, but that mile I was so focused on the intricacy of moving up steep grass slopes without slipping, and down through talus and small cliffs without falling, that the weight would have gone unnoticed had it not been for how much that 80 pounds altered by gait and balance.  It’s something I look forward to getting reacquainted with, and soon.

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Picking one mile out of October is easy; the labyrinth that is the Tapeats Creek narrows upstream from Thunder River.  The novelty, the cold clear water so out of place, and the dizzying bends make it utterly unique in my experience.  Sometimes things just plain stand out, no matter how many miles you’ve hiked, and this was absolutely one of them.

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I didn’t stop to take a picture of what has become my secret deer spot down in the Blackfoot, but I shot this doe a few hours after leaving the ridge and saddle where I’ve seen different huge bucks the last two years running (both times with my buck tag already filled).  From a hiker’s eye it’s not an exceptional place, but as a hunter you can see that the ridge along the top of the short, steep, rugged, densely forested hills makes for an ideal hiding spot.  Deer can take a short evening journey into the neighboring fields to get fat on wheat (I got a pint of pure lard off the back fat of this doe), and then retreat come morning to a sunny bed with both plenty of cover and very good views of most approach angles.  I have other designs on my general season tag next year, but look forward to eventually drawing this doe tag again and returning to hunt a subtle, plain, but very cool spot.  The center of that ridge is my favorite mile from November.

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December hasn’t been a very active month, making the choice of the last mile up to upper Holland Lake with Casey and Travis another easy choice.  The snow wasn’t quite there yet in volumes ideal for skiing, but the winter ambiance was in full effect.  Looking back at the whole year, most of my favorite miles had a lot in common with this one; a combination of a spectacular big context with rich, fulfilling details, and a satisfying back-story.  I’m looking forward to next year.