Hunting with Malice

It is rather common in my part of the world to hear that wolves are ruining the elk hunting.  Elk numbers are down due to wolves, is the refrain, which goes along nicely with the “Smoke a Pack a Day” bumper stickers.

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Table from Ripple and Beschta 2012. Trophic Cascades in Yellowstone: The first 15 years after wolf reintroduction. Biological Conservation 145:1 (215-213)

There is little reason to think that anyone knows this for sure.  The above figures, from Yellowstone Park, suggest that elk numbers have declined since wolf reintroduction, an idea which is intuitively valid.  Yellowstone may have the best such data of any area in the northern Rockies, but even these numbers should be viewed as suspect.  Comments in the article that a recent movement of elk herds to more wooded terrain having biased the numbers downward reveals the funding driven and inexact method used to count elk in Yellowstone: a few people in late autumn flying low in a plane.  The statistical margins of error are rather larger than those for Cottonwood sprouts along the Lamar.

Outside Yellowstone, reports vary widely.  Elk numbers are down in the southern Bitterroots, but up in the Gallatins.  Down (or is it up?) in the Cabinets, but holding steady (or up?) in the Bob Marshall.  A big part of the problem is that, like in Yellowstone, there’s high expectation put on the numbers, but little money directed towards making sure they’re solid.  Even the supposedly large increase in wolves west of the Divide in Montana is speculative, because Fish, Wildlife and Parks has exactly one biologist on the job.  Of course, sample size is a problem here as well.  While wolves naturally reestablished themselves in Glacier in the early eighties, reintroduction efforts starting in 1995 really built genetic momentum, and a decade and a half is an eye-blink when it comes to the population dynamics of large mammals.

For these reasons, I don’t put much stock in protestations that wolves are ruining elk hunting.  As intuitively obvious as wolves altering elk movements is, it is equally obvious that this movement would be away from river bottoms and open areas and into steeper and thicker terrain, a conclusion the aforementioned study would seem to support.  In other words, wolves are likely to move elk away from the places hunters can easily go.  This is as true for road hunters in trucks and on ATVs as it is for hunters on horses.  Complaints about low elk yields in the Whitefish range, i.e. not being able to shoot them from a logging road, are thus the same as those of low yields from the Sun River country (i.e. not being able to shoot them within 100 yards of your horse).

And even if the wolves are drastically reducing elk numbers, as they might well be, I see it as no fit target for indignation.  Wolf and elk populations, or so we assume, have always run on countervailing and ultimately complimentary cycles.  Lots of elk mean that wolves eat lots, means that wolves have more pups, means they eat even more elk, means the elk population dips, means that some wolves starve, means the elk population goes back up.  Again, it is intuitively evident that the reintroduction and reacclimation of a climax predator would prompt wilder vacillations.  The assumption that management exists, almost as such, for the purpose of human recreation is the same idea which led to wolves being eradicated in the first place.  Some folks still think this is a valid way to view the world.  If the events of the past half century have not persuaded them otherwise, there isn’t anything left for me to say here.  As Abbey wrote: “This is a courageous view, admirable in its simplicity and power, and with the weight of all modern history behind it.  It is also quite insane.”

This in the end is my problem with wolf hunting.  It may be sound science, but the cultural forces arrayed in support of it have, either intentionally or by accident, removed many of the tools which would allow a better answer to that question.  But wolf hunting is, these days and at best, motivated by science in a tertiary fashion.  Primarily wolf hunting is driven by the same fear of the unknown, kneejerk anthropocentrism, and simple bloodlust which annihilated the bison herds and drove Grizzlies to the brink of extinction.  Secondarily it is part of the same historical forces which ended the Salmon runs and damned Glen Canyon.  The forces which to this day create prairie dog and coyote “hunting” as acceptable sporting activities.  This I will not accept or participate in.

Wolf hunting does not have to be this way.  Were the debate less polarized more space for knowledge might exist, and hunters might harvest predators out of respect, sound management, and the desire for a nice rug, rather than a centuries-old vendetta.  Perhaps we’ll get there in my lifetime.

Pieces and pieces

US rivers in the contiguous 48

Most readers here enjoy starting at maps. The above visual rendering of the rivers in the lower 48 is a good one for nostalgia, and the general aesthetic value of fact. A massive, scrollable version can be found here. Discussion of the technical aspects of the image-map, which is beyond me, can be found here.

I did an exceptionally useful mod to my Gossamer Gear Gorilla, which much improves its weight transfer for those occasions where you might be carrying well over 30 pounds.

An article of mine on minimalist footwear for shoulder season backpacking just went up on Toe Salad, which is a somewhat gross name for a good website on shoe-geekery.  Not anything I haven’t written before, but a short summation of all my ideas on the subject.

I also wrote an account of how the Bob Open came to be for Gossamer Gear.

Lastly, in preparation for the fast-approaching elk and deer season, I painted the stocks of both my Remington 700 and our new Handi rifle.  Both were boring black plastic and needed a more inspiring presentation.  Aluma Hyde II in OD green got the job done.

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A nice matte finish.  Aluma Hyde isn’t primarily meant for plastic, and thus the aggressive heat setting which most sources seem to recommend (i.e. baking in an oven for a few hours) is not appropriate.  I followed the factory directions, cleaning thoroughly and doing a series of thin coats with brief heat application between each.  We don’t own a heat gun or hair dryer, so I waved a lit MSR Pocket Rocket under each item for a minute or two as they hunt suspended on wires in our open garage.  This worked well.  To finish things off, and avoid the weeks long air cure Aluma Hyde entails, I suspended the items in front of our open oven, with the oven set on 200.  Using the bits of wire left over from painting, I hung the stocks from the handles of skillets on the range.  A kettle full of water worked as a counterweight.  A few hours, and another week of curing in the safe after assembly, did the trick.

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Aesthetic only, but I like it.  As they say, there are many others like them, but these rifles are mine.

The Remington is a stock SPS in .30-06, with a 3×9 Leupold, and a prefit Pachmyr recoil pad (which also lengthened the LOP a bit).  At 8 pounds all up, it’s the elk gun.  The H&R is a compact .243, to which we added an aftermarket adult-sized buttstock.  The result is a nice compact 20 inch barrel and factory iron sights.  It’s the deer gun.

As the elk go

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There is no question that I’ve grown more cautious as I’ve grown older, both in the woods and generally. Speaking to the former, I like to think that increased wisdom accounts for most. I’m better able to realize the full consequences of the more reckless things I’ve done, as well as visualize the long term impacts. An example of the later would be mountain biking. I will never ride technical terrain again like I did in 2008. Even if we move to Utah, Arizona, or another place likely to bring my skill level back up to where it once was, I’ve had too many concussions in my life, and would strongly prefer to not have another. Yes skill and mindset mitigates the risk inherent in riding stuff like National, but age has and will no doubt continue to slow my mind enough without the added speed from lawn darting myself into hard dirt. An example of the former is boating. I’ve packrafted enough creeks in the last three years to realize that much of my first year success, on runs like Upper Rattlesnake, had a lot to do with luck. Steep and technical creeks are risky, and while that risk can be mitigated, I’m realizing ever more clearly that the laborious and exacting process of doing so is no longer a priority.

I prefer to move through the woods differently.

IMG_8281Pinchot Creek, scouting from an elk trail.

There is a point in human explorations beyond which objectives become rather contrived, with the focus on seeking out difficulty within the landscape rather than traveling through it on its own terms.  Whitewater, steep skiing, climbing, canyoneering and indeed most anything involving ropes qualifies here.  There is virtue in these things, but taken too far their focus becomes myopic.  And while the added hazard is not as straightforward as most think, such activities do carry more risk.  As my understanding of how the world fits together, and of my own mortality, increases I find myself drawn to quieter explorations undertaken on the lands’ own terms.  As Evan Hill of Hill People Gear said in a recent discussion (about risk): “For me, the ideal is roaming the backcountry, mostly off trail, and being a natural part of the landscape. Sometimes high, sometimes low, mostly where the other animals are, sometimes a place that just looks intriguing. The risk of injuring myself and the difficulty of extraction add to the commitment I make to being a part of that natural landscape and living by its rules. My belief is that our life in civilization is a subset of that larger world, always subject to its rules – though we sometimes forget that reality when we are resting in the collective insurance policy of close proximity to others. I go out to remind myself, to strengthen my connection to that larger reality, and to cultivate the intuitive faculties that are dulled by life in the hive.”

I’ve come to think of this ideal as traveling as the elk go.  Elk are reasonable, dignified creatures whose habits match well with human capabilities.  Bears and Moose are prone to impulsive, early and late season slogs over high and snowy passes.  They pick good routes, but not easy ones.  Deer avoid the high country.  Following deer trails almost always lacks purpose.  The abilities of sheep and goats (especially) strain or exceed those of the most trained humans.  Wise people follow sheep and goats trails cautiously.  Elk trails are simply the best; they take wise and purposive ways through major landscape features.  You’ll learn faster and better following elk trails than those of any other animal.

This past Saturday, I packed a large load of whitewater gear ten miles back to fill another blank on the map for my packrafting guidebook.  Projects can be a burden, but their structures gets you into places for which ease and prudence would never provide the impetus.  On Saturday I first found myself carrying around beaver dams and log piles, then miles downstream gravel bar hopping and portaging the most continuous boulder garden rapids I’ve seen in Glacier.  The steep, ~mile stretch I skipped had marvelous elk trails leading across the gravel bars and through the woods from one moderate ford to another.  The elk travel the river corridor much as a timid boater (me) does; floating the moderate sections and skipping the woody and hard stuff.  We found a similarly elegant and intricate route last August, weaving though some of the more rugged mid-elevation terrain in the park.

There is value to be gained from exceeding the mandate of the elk, namely that under duress your execution will default to a middling level in all things, and the only preemptive solution is to expand your upper threshold.  The best way to move fast and safely down fourth class in a downpour is to be comfortable running it out on 5.9, and the best way to safely paddle harder stuff is to practice.  To that end, I sucked it up and ran the burly last miles of the canyon, including one drop where I did exactly what I was worried about.  The current slammed me into the wall, with the shale thankfully not cutting my boat.  I reverted to slightly above my safe level of training and leaned into the wall, kept the water from flipping me, didn’t drop my paddle, and shoved off with one hand for an ugly if upright run.

Everything in moderation, including moderation, but when in doubt go as the elk go.

Solo is safer

First, let us define our terms: solo mean alone, and safer means less likely to die.

Most discussions of safety in backcountry activities are based on a naively passive and fundamentally flawed understanding of how accidents happen.  Show me 10, or 20, backcountry accidents and 9, or 19, times I’ll show you situations where bad or casual decisions got the whole mess started.  Backcountry is by definition a bad place to get hurt, and while there are any number of hypothetical injuries which might only delay ones schedule, even something like a sprained ankle makes the likelihood of further problems greater.

Safety discussions must therefore focus almost exclusively on prevention.  To stereotype, less experienced backcountry travelers spend their time researching and buying an 80 dollar pre-packaged first aid kit.  More experienced travelers practice being outside so they’ll have the physical and mental abilities to not need first aid.  A simple example would be tailoring macro and mezzo route choices to your abilities.  A micro example would be not panicking and recovering when you loose your feet on a stream crossing, and knowing how to fall so that the inevitable slip doesn’t result in a stick impaled in your leg.  The particulars of this difference are almost unquantifiable, so let us look at some examples.

Griz country: There are no statistics which I’ve seen that suggest hiking with two, or even three, people is safer than hiking solo.  Hiking with four or more does seem to be statistically safer.  My interpretation of this is that only with four people is the visual and aural footprint of the group so big that situational awareness can be discarded.  Solo or with a partner the need to evaluate the situation before and while on the trail is the same; look for sign, determine if you’re in problematic terrain, and if you get too close to a bear act deliberately.  Most people would be safer solo because they’d either be more aware in the moment, or not go into high-risk areas in the first place.  Indeed, it would be easy to make a case that for most people hiking in Griz country in groups of two is less safe than being alone.

Climbing: Here we must make a distinction and restrict the discussion to true backcountry conditions, which is rather different than taking whippers on a well-cleaned crag a 2 mile hike from the road.  10 miles back, the last 2 miles of which were likely nasty talus, you should think about falling a lot differently.  Even if the rock is bullet and your gear good, the consequences of breaking a hold while running out easy terrain are a lot bigger.  In other words, your style should be a lot closer to that of a free soloist.  This is even more the case when ice or alpine climbing.  The rope team and the gear you place is more of a psychological aid than a physical one, as it serves mostly to let you climb comfortably and closer to your abilities on terrain you could theoretically solo 99 times in 100.  In this respect a partner is safer.  A partner is not safer insofar as being tied in might encourage you to treat the outing like a cragging session and pick a route too close to your limits.

Avalanche terrain: The more I learn about backcountry skiing safety the more I wonder if we think about it all wrong.  On many occasions I’ve skied things while wearing a beacon and having partners nearby when I wouldn’t even have been in the same neighborhood without them.  Given the many ways avalanches kill and main folks which beacons do nothing to prevent, I wonder how much validity this safety gear has, and if we should all be skiing things as if we were alone, with technology as a mere bonus.  The most potent consideration here is of course the extent to which social factors influence decision making and put people in places they wouldn’t otherwise go.  For full discussion see this.  In my mind the jury is very much out of whether partners make most skiers safer most of the time.

Whitewater: Another ambiguous situation.  In theory partners will help you scout things more efficiently, collect your gear if you swim, and haul you out of a strainer if you swim in a bad spot.  The first can certainly be true, but is a convenience only, as is the second.  You shouldn’t drop your paddle anyway, though eventually you will.  The third case is desperate at best, and one no one should ever be in.  As I’m to chicken to be much of a whitewater person, I’ll defer to Doug Ammons, the first person to run the Stikine solo: “The Stikine condenses the sport’s full range of experiences and challenges into a single day. It’s a gut-wrenching, threatening place — you have to have the mindset that you want to be in there alone. It’s is every bit the equivalent of soloing a major Himalayan peak.”  Read the linked-to interview and decide for yourself.

Mountain biking: Does having someone to ride out and fetch a helicopter to evac you with your broker back make you safer?  If it does that’s a kind of safety I can do without.  Ride conservative when help is more than a cell phone call and 30 minute wait away.  If you don’t having a friend to pull spinal traction will be little comfort.

In summary, there are many cases in the backcountry when being with a partner or group makes you safer.  However, they are far fewer than most people think, and when other people do lend added safety it is often for reasons different than those usually considered.  Most backcountry travelers have a disturbingly passive understanding of their own safety, and would benefit from a more rigorous consideration of short and long range safety factors.

Acquisitionalism and the lure of the insider

The internet drives gear geekery, this much we know. I recall, back in my elementary school gear geek days, the excitement when the quarterly (and no more!) Patagonia and TNF catalogues arrived. Online “research” has sped up information dissemination, and decreased our attention spans. That this has led to gear fetishization taking the place of trip planning more than ever before is I think axiomatic. The more interesting question is just how this takes places, daily.

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Bibler Eldorado eyebrown vent, as the seam seal dries in our garage. This is a damn expensive tent, even discounted.

The internet drives acquisitionalism not just because it brings all the cool new stuff so easily into view, but because the internet fosters community, and within that community one can bear witness to the acquisitions of others. The summary and quite unconscious effect of this is to drive the consumer mindset further. First by simple exposure to various stuff, some of which is bound to appeal, and second by inculcating an illusion that the mean pace of gear acquisition is significantly highly than your own. The ago-old competition to have the best lawn mower, atlatl, etc is like all things digital made more egregious.

The illusions created by the distance and depersonalization of the ‘net can be here rather dangerous. There is often no way to know if that well-versed person who flips cuben fiber, carbon bikes, or uber light mountain rifles every few months is a single anaesthesiologist making 600k a year, or merely an average joe with a disregard for credit card debt (something far more prevalent than most think, in my opinion). It’s worth noting that women make up seemingly 3% of the online gear chatter, for reasons I will not speculate on today.

There is another, perhaps more pernicious form of this, which I’ll call the lure of the insider. It further feeds and distorts the normalization of buying ever more stuff, and lay folks can fall victim if they don’t mind the gap. The gap being the discrepancy between the purchasing power of those with access to industry discounts and those who do not. I say access because the various permutation of bro deals and good guy discounts can never be fully accounted for. In either case, the potential savings on big ticket items can be substantial.

In my case, I occasionally get free stuff, be it a project for BPL or because the perceived influence I wield here on this blog. This last doesn’t happen very often, hopefully in part because I make it a point to be hard to contact.  Pro-deals are a more substantial influence on my purchases, both their nature and their frequency.  By choice I make an exceedingly modest income, and much of the gear I’ve acquired lately would simply never have been attainable at full retail.

The first effect of this is to make me appear more affluent than I am, which given the effect size I don’t consider a big risk.  The second effect, and the more interesting, is the influence discounts have on my purchasing habits.  I don’t buy crap, or even anything in which I’m not interested, just because it is on sale, but if my third choice ski or jacket is 100 bucks less that will be a powerful argument.  The sticking point in all this is that part of every pro-deal agreement I’ve seen is a non-disclosure clause.  One prominent company, whose pro-deal is both very generous and notoriously hard to get, takes their inspiration from Fight Club: “the first rule of pro-deal is you don’t talk about pro-deal.”  While part of this is no doubt to keep them from being inundated by applications from wankers, it also distorts the market and the culture around it in a way which supports commercial excess and can only benefit gear makers.

So be a critical consumer of gear talk, in any setting.  There is no such thing as objectivity, but that does not mean that all forms of subjectivity are merely subjective or created equal.  For my own part I’ll be more open about the purchasing details in future gear posts, though for selfish reasons not as purely transparent as I might like.  I don’t want to be kicked of the free ride, and I am not afraid to admit as much.

There are benefits to all this, both generally and in my case.  My own ability to think critically about gear is undeniably enhanced by being able to use more gear, and by being able to acquire it more easily.  Uniting the focus provided by unity of perspective with a broad first hand view of the market is valuable and difficult to achieve, and anything which makes that more probable is helpful.  I also find it useful to be less attached to a purchase.  If the monetary investment is substantial and there is no easy way to recoup some of that cost it is harder to admit to yourself that something is crap.  Having a lower upfront cost makes this less likely, as does the speculative value inherent in pro-deals.  Buy something at discount, use it for a few months, sell it at 50% of MSRP.  This usually ends up being a good deal for the buyer and a modest loss over the purchase price for the seller, and allows my gear fund to chug along with minimal reinvestment needed.

All of which is a great preamble for my new role as a Gossamer Gear trail ambassador.  I’m excited, not just because I get a free pack and discounts on other stuff, but because it appears that I’ll be able to have some influence in the product development process.  Gossamer Gear has raised their game in recent years, and appears to have one of the most robust business model of the UL backpacking companies.  They also do things differently than I do, which seemed important.  There wouldn’t be much point in my feedback going to a company like HMG with whom I already agree on many things.  My hope is that in a few years Gossamer Gear can take their products in some new directions, and that I can help them do it.  Look for thoughts and numbers of the Gorilla pack whenever it arrives.

The applicability of the wilderness serape

I’ve become a convert to what I’m calling (and with all due homage to HPG) a wilderness serape.  A synthetic blanket/overbag/poncho with a light, but not too light, DWR coated nylon shell.  You can find the specs on the ugly one I made this past autumn here.
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It’s been indispensable ever since.

The serape is one of those items whose function is beyond mere weight.  At 23 ounces, it’s 20 degrees colder than a good down bag of the same weight, and hardly lighter than a DAS parka, with almost twice the insulation in the torso.  Using one might make your pack lighter, but you’ll have to think about it.

As an overbag, a serape will not provide better warmth than a down bag of the equivalent weight.  Over a down bag which is slightly lighter than might otherwise be prudent, a serape will make a sleep system warm enough, and most importantly absorb some of the moisture which would otherwise end up as frost inside your down bag.  Under the right circumstances, on a colder trip with no opportunity to dry gear for days on end, such a system could be lightest.

As a coat, the serape leaves a lot to be desired.  Wearing one while doing anything but walking in easy terrain is impractical, as is doing so out under more than a decent drizzle.  You’ll need additional insulation for such purposes.  The virtue of the serape is that it traps lots of air underneath, effecting more warmth than the equivalent insulation in a close fitting jacket.  It is also handy to have this insulation serve two purposes.

For most of the winter I’ve been bringing the serape as part of my sleep system, and a fleece or synthetic fill jacket that’s a good bit lighter than I would have otherwise brought.  The jacket is handy for layering and wearing on the go when it’s really cold.  The serape is handy for throwing over moving layers for short breaks, and for layering with the jacket for longer ones.
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Today, I hauled it along for a break while mountain biking.  My toes got a bit cold before it was time for a beer break, so I pulled the foam mat out of my pack, took off my shoes, and wrapped up.  It’s just big enough to seal body heat in, and made for a very pleasant break.
The only alteration I made to the first version was adding full velcro to the neck opening.  The amount of insulation is a good balance, and the quality of the DWR fabric is excellent.  Going with something not so light (30D), is a good idea for something that will get sat on.  I’m sure it will remain a frequent item in my pack year round.

The best reason to buy new gear

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There are three sorts of gear purchases: banal stuff you need, fun stuff you don’t need, and fun stuff you need. I suppose there’s banal stuff you don’t need, but why would you do that to yourself.

Banal stuff you need is primarily the little things which wear, or whose upgrading is unexciting but will bring a significant performance advantage. Good socks are the example on my mind, as I need some more Wooleators. Quality non-cotton undies, tubes, Stans fluid, UV protectant spray for your boat, and ski wax are all examples.

Fun stuff you don’t need is, I’m guessing, what most of us research on the internet most of the time. The dozen-odd drivetrain variations to which I’ve subjected the Karate Monkey are a good example. Any new pack purchase I contemplate these days is another. My extensive collection of windshirts is yet another. I derive function and pleasure from all of these things, but the novelty and learning process inherent in the later is far more prominent than the former.

Fun stuff you need is the best category. Need here is defined as something approaching mission-critical status. The trip could still happen without the item in question, but the way in which the trip happens is altered drastically. My number one example this winter has been the BD Currents, pictured above. Even more than the tech boots and bindings, the Currents have let me ski different things with a vastly improved level of confidence. Their purchasing process was archetypal of fun stuff you need: I thought about it for a long time, siphoned off part of the funds to fun things I didn’t need several times, before finally buckling down and pulling the trigger (when they went on super-discount). A packraft would be another example is this category, and is the old Reba I bought from Eric way back in the day.
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Why is buying gear which allows you to do more, and especially more different, trips the best way to spend your money?  First, because gear should be about doing rather than having.  The cultural truth of this cannnot be separated from the simpler physical and spiritual benefits.  Outdoor recreation should not be avarice in another guise, no matter what gear chat says.

Second, excessive adventure specialization is not a good thing, either in terms of geography or activity.  Too much time in one area leads to a diminished skillset and rampant parochialism (“the weather in Scotland/the Whites/Oz/my backyard is more challenging than anywhere!”).  Too much time doing one thing also fosters an impoverished skillset, as well as overuse injuries.

Most significantly of all, either of these things lead to excessive dependence on a small part of the picture.  If the game is to better understand an appreciate ourselves, our fellows, and our places in the world, spending hours into years staring hard at one corner of the painting is a poor way to get there.  If I got hit by a bus getting coffee tomorrow and could never walk again I’d have a hard time of it, but like to think that eventually I’d be able to handcycle, sitski, and fly fish from a wheelchair while as much zeal and satisfaction.  Getting to that point over the course of life, in good spirits and with healthy legs, seems to me like the best goal of all.

The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act

An interesting example of what I wrote about a few days ago is currently afoot here in Montana, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act sponsored by our senior senator Max Baucus.  The Front is a spectacular location, where the Bob Complex meets the prairie without mediation in a tangle of limestone reefs, broad valleys, and pine forests.  You can see a bit of it here, here, and here.

You can read a summary of the bill, and most importantly look at a map of the various areas discussed, here.

The bill proposed, among other things, five big W additions to the Bob Wilderness complex.  All are in the model of most Wilderness designations in the last decade or so; little islands of mostly forested, mid-elevation land on the edge of larger, existing Wilderni.  The northermost three units sit just on the east side of the major hydrologic divide between the Teton River and N Fork Sun, and are heavily timbered drainages leading into rugged 7 and 8 thousand foot peaks.  Perfect summer and early autumn elk habitat.  The Patricks Basin unit is primarily lower elevation timber leading down to the border of the broad and gorgeous S Fork of the Sun, and I don’t know much about the southermost unit.

The other major provision of the bill is to create substantial conservation managment areas along the edge of the Bob Complex, area which is almost entirely national forest.  This designation appears to be one expression of the much discussed “wilderness lite,” which would provide the more permanent preservation of Wilderness without the restrictions on wheeled and mechanized useage.  Senator Baucus has been at pains to say that in this particular case the CMAs would do little other than making the status quo official and permanent.  Most exciting for me are the little islands of BLM land outside the NF, which would preserve and promote contiguity with the several existing state game refuges.  The NF boundary coincides very exactly with the border between forest and prairie in this area, going along with a national trend of preserving certain habitats largely to the exclusion of others.  Given that native megavertebrates like elk and Griz historically relied on the prairie for a substantial part of their annual range, its encouraging to see some small steps being taken to provide wildlife with a more complete home range.

There’s a lot of local and regional support for this.  There’s a decent amount of local objection as well, which seems to primarily consist of fear of what might come later and ideological objection to further federal regulation.  Largely due to the lack of substantive change the bill would enact, it’s been difficult for the opposition to make an especially coherent arguement.

The only serious changes I see are to recreation, especially snowmachine use.  The trails which run N-S through the Deep Creek area are ones I’ve eyed for bike use, and the change in designation would put a serious kink in any major bike route along the Front, as there is no alternative other than riding dirt roads way out into the prairie.  I guess I better do that trip this summer.

At first, and second, glances it’s hard to pin down what the ideological basis of the bill is.  That might well be its strength; its not based on much ideology at all, except perhaps the far reaching one of seeing the preservation of nature and the experience of big wild places as key to Montanas economic and spiritual future.  Neither the bill nor the numbers directly used to support it say so explicitly, but inplicit in all the rhetoric has been the contention that the emptiness promulgated by the Bobs inaccesibility and the Fronts harsh climate is at the center of what makes the area so important.  It is certainly what makes the fishing so good, the elk herds so large, and the trails so empty (at least in most places most of the year).  This is a hard thing to argue with.

Overall, I think it’s a good bill.  It punts on a number of sticky issues, chief among them water rights and irrigation.  The network of dams and canals along the front, which make farming and ranching possible, is extensive.  Gibson Reservoir, the largest on the front, is silting in at a rate comparable to Lake Mead, and will eventually cease to be useable.  The amount of snow, and thus water, in the Bob will allow Montana to ignore water issues for some time to come, but will eventually need to be dealt with.  This bill is a decent start.  If you are so inclined, you may contact Baucus here.

The third way: morals in recreation

Last week Lou Dawson of Wildsnow, who like most is best when he lets himself off the leash, wrote a worthwhile piece about the future recreation and those interested in it might play in shaping how public lands are governed in the United States.  It’s not useful for me to summarize the many salient points raised in both the article and some of the comments, you can do that for yourself.  What I will say is that Dawson’s hidden thesis seems to be that those whose primary interest in wild places is human powered recreation are in the position to chart a course between the existing poles of Wilderness preservation and mechanized recreation/ resource extraction.

The problem with this issue is that while few if any actual humans exist solely on one extreme or the other, the policy debate has encouraged rhetorical and positional absolutism.  Most of these people would, if only in a dark room, concede that human presence in wilderness has benefits, and that some controls on that impact must be in order to preserve these experiences for future generations.

One of Dawson’s key points is that human experience and the passion it engenders will be essential for keeping wilderness (and Wilderness) valued.  I made a similar argument last month in my plan for Glacier National Park, arguing that the educational mission of the park should be explicitly focused on getting more people into the backcountry.  The crucial turn in my argument was that getting people out of their cars had to happen first, something on which Dawson is silent.

The balance here will be turning headless outdoor hedonism into more purposive conduct worthy of citizenship.  In other words, giving recreation a moral element.  It doesn’t seem to be too far a stretch to think that outdoor recreation would be a reliable way of inculcating this, after all everyone from hikers to climbers to hunters talks in such terms.

The question is how.

The access question which features prominently in Dawson’s argument is a good place to start.  I’m a firm believer that wild places should be subject to equality of opportunity, not equality by instant gratification.  We need big, aspirational wilderness and we need more of it.  We also need more areas which are a bit less intimidating, places to get the feet wet and build experience and skills.  As mentioned above, under certain circumstances I think the NPS is an excellent candidate to facilitate the later.  Because of their brand-name status their main corridors of travel are already subject to substantial use, shifting focus on resources to intensive non-motorized use would be a relatively easy transition.  Those people unwilling to experience great scenery on their own feet or via public transit do not get to see it, through only their own fault.  Recreation can only be a moral force if it remains sustainable, which means overwhelmingly human powered, and shrinking the current footprint of motorized use.

If only.

Recognition in the age of online adventure

It does not take much directed experience, either online or face-to-face, to conclude that communication is fundamentally flawed.  Note that I don’t need to say “human experience” of “human communication” because that would be redundant.  Because we are human we cannot speak coherently outside our own experience, and therefore any type of communication is necessarily our own.

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Bowman Lake, Glacier National Park.

Why is that, and what importance might these ideas have for outdoor adventuring in the online era?

The first question is most easily answered by mid-20th century philosophy of language, and the idea the language is an act of faith.  When someone says “that lake is sublime,” any efficacy depends on a shared understanding of not only the concept lake, but the concept sublime.  At least a little slippage is assumed and tolerated with qualitative words like sublime, but the ambiguity of what lake might mean is less often considered.  Indeed, any variation in understanding might not be considered relevant by many.  And that would be accurate, quantifing variations between one definition of lake and another is not useful, what is important is understanding the impossibility of doing so.  The more complex and nuanced the concept/emotion communicated, the greater the probability that the differences between what is said and what you experience the other person understanding will be consequential.

Why is this important?  Our default mode of understanding/communicating (yes, they might as well be the same word) is to assume that some thing-in-itself is out there independent of any communication concerning it.  If a lake lies in the woods unseen, yes?  But we humans don’t get upset when our words fail to equal the “Truth” of the thing we’re discussing, we get upset when our words fail to evoke a sufficiently comparable experience in and for the person with whom we’re communicating.

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Joy: Easy to understand?

The logical extension of viewing communication as inherently subjective and capitol P problematic, and seeing that any reference to an objective third reality is merely slight of hand, is the idea that existence does not exist without the recognition of other humans.  And by humans I mean other people enough like you.

The relevance of this to the internet’s influence on and place with distinctly analogue outdoor adventure is best seen in the pervasive attitude so lazily expressed by so many: the internet is for gathering beta and tech info, trip reports are ego, and you should go have your adventures and be quiet.

The ego charge is the most absurd.  If communication is so problematic, those best equiped to understand the deeply blended emotions behind our best trips are those who have been closest to those places (physically or psychically) themselves.  With a potential group of hopeful confidants so small, even globally, two conclusions are inevitable.  First, why would you not publicise your doings?  Second, the majority of pseudonymous-via-distance internet feedback is worthless, or at least irrelevant.

Communicating (more prosiacally known as sharing) adventures goes to the very heart of why they remain so popular is a fat age of luxury; they let us know ourselves better.  Denying this cannot but represent a profoundly blinkered attitude towards existence as such.