Montana Senate Bill 143

The Montana state legislature is a peculiar, somewhat anachronistic critter.  Meeting for 90 days every other year, our state still has true citizen legislators.  This often means they lack what might be called expertise in certain subjects, but it also means that they are generally very accessible and open to public feedback.

Montana being Montana, outdoor and especially hunting related legislation garners much interest.  SB 143 is an example of something which gathered momentum very quickly, and I was sad to miss out on the first committee hearing yesterday afternoon (currently being stuck at home due to one of my clients testing positive for COVID).  It is a terrible piece of legislation, that would follow the example of several other western states (New Mexico being the clearest example) by setting aside a significant pool of elk and deer tags for those non-residents who contract with a guide.  As I will detail below, I think this issue goes well beyond simple questions of outfitter preference, and for that reason is very timely.  Currently we’re in wait and see mode, as to whether the bill will make it out of committee, and if so, how the senate might vote.  You can track this, and access contact info for the committee folks here; and read the bill at the bottom of this page.

Dear members of the Fish and Game committee:

I am writing to object to much of Senate Bill 143.  As a Montana hunter and resident I believe both that favoring outfitters with draw allocations is not desirable nor in the states interest, and that doing so would move Montana hunting in an unhealthy and ultimately unsustainable direction.

As you are no doubt aware hunting in the western US is in the midst of something of a paradoxical crisis.  Nationally, the number of hunters has been declining for some time, with the eldest two generations currently representing an outsized percentage of hunters.  This begs the question of a steep decline in hunting and conservation revenue, due to how strongly many Fish and Game departments rely on tag sales, and how far Pittman-Robertson revenue is embedded nationally.  At the same time, hunting demand in western states such as Montana has increased, or at the very least deepened, with the interests of what we might call core hunters significantly accelerating demand for limited-entry hunts.  In Montana it seems that most if not all non-resident deer and elk hunting will be in that category soon, if not already.

Montana residents have consistently and for a long time favored opportunity in their game management.  Opportunity in the specific sense of long seasons and modest if any restrictions aside from season itself.  Non-resident hunters lack the same consistency of voice, but anecdotally it seems they value the same thing in their visits to Montana.  Being able to hunt where, when, and largely as they wish promotes the independence of spirit out of which our collective nostalgia for hunting and the outdoor springs, and is congruent with the egalitarian spirit of the North American model of wildlife conservation.

The cliff upon which hunting currently sits has to do with demand, and demand for a certain kind of hunting experience.    Making those ways of hunting, hunting in big wild landscapes, hunting for animals in close to their ancient context, more difficult to access will do damage to hunting that will not be felt for decades.  For aspirant hunters concerned with context and experience, diminished opportunity is an enormous barrier to entry.  Simply put, being able to both purchase expertise via an outfitter, as well as purchase the opportunity itself via increased draw odds creates a both economic and logistical barrier that will not serve hunting well into the future.

Yours,

Dave Chenault

Helena, MT

Click to access SB0143.pdf

On managing

Our town is wonderful for many reasons, not least of which is it being just east of the Continental Divide and right amongst the westernmost tendrils of the prairie. Proper contiguous mountains, with mountain snowpack, is right beyond the horizon, while our valley winter is often clear, brisk, and low snow. Sun has been more prominent than usual the past month, bleeding the sage and ponderosa forests dry and creating unusual conditions. I have one route further east, which I’ve been pondering for eight years or so, and the current hard and dry, cool but not cold conditions got me looking at maps last week and, as they often do, things fell together after hours of looking at the maps, and the clean, logical, and stylish way to go through that area was obvious. Some rushed gear prep, and I was ready to go, until the day before, when I woke with fatigue that didn’t dissipate through the morning, and for the past few days have been home with a cold, rather than out sleeping under the odd juniper or cottonwood.

It has been a long time since I’ve been sick; close to if not over a year. In light of the volume, sustained nature, and overall magnitude of the past year’s stress this is simply astounding. Writing it, now, sitting upstairs, looking out at snow tinkling down and recalling the toilet paper rush, stay at home order, learning to do my job all over again, and then the cascading case numbers, election and attempted coup, I wonder that I survived at all. Then I recall that humans generally survive things because they have no other palatable, actionable alternative, and that over the past year I have done a lot of things right.

The first thing I did back in the third week of March was jettison my morning workout schedule. All winter I had woken an hour before everyone else to carry a weighted pack around the neighborhood in the dark. More sleep, and more time with M after the kids had gone to bed, were both more important for stress management, and almost immediately I had enough spare time to ski and build stone walls in the yard, so physical exertion and time outside were not in shortcoming. This has remained the schedule to this day. Not good for the consistency of my aerobic fitness (something which, frankly, bugs my ego far more than it prevents me from doing things I would like to do), but very good for my head and our family integrity. M and I celebrated our 17th anniversary while in Utah this past October. We’ve always been good at experiencing intimacy and contentment while doing not much at all, something that has been invaluable during the many blank evenings this winter, when the weight of the heaving world had us capable of little but sitting and weighting for disparate parts of ourselves to catch up and stick themselves back on.

Another thing that was quickly cast off the essentials list was a few layers of essential daily order. Those who have been guests over the years know that we are not tidy people, and that has increased to an extent that would be appalling were the benefits of simpler headspace not so indispensable. In years past I’ve been fanatical about unpacking, organizing and maintenance, precisely because one can never predict when those perfect conditions just snap into place, and tweaking a modified bike drivetrain or regluing skins 48 hours before departure is far less than ideal. But, one of things I’ll carry out of 2020 is that things being less than ideal do not prevent just going and still thriving. A week before we put on the Salmon this May my drysuit had the same torn ankle gasket it had had for 18 months, and the latex booties I glued on worked well and proved an essential addition (until the seam tape inside the legs started delaminating after the third hot spring soak; those who have seen my old drysuit will not find that surprising).

My current fatigue is the logical outgrowth of 10 months running close to empty, something pushed over by the horror of January 6th. Stress and its children, anxiety and depression, are logical entities, but they do not work in a linear fashion, and their timeline is usually one that does not easily accommodate human impatience and apprehension. Indeed, this aspect of mental health is the first which comes to mind when I look for an example of how our self-referential, solipsistic quest to achieve definitive self-understanding through genetics will always come up short. There are no backwards facing answers to managing anxiety and depression. Managing symptoms day to day creates space, longer term, for both new habits and for resolution with the past. Sometimes that resolution comes through understanding, and sometimes it amounts to nothing more specific than a vague assurance that this uncomfortable part of ones personhood will remain in the shadows, a source of fear and pain, but at least predictable.

As a nation and a world we’re on the cusp of a dangerous time, with the vaccine campaign and departure of President Trump likely to provide a painful reminder that even the most momentous and deservedly anticipated events are, in moments of heightened need, all but guaranteed to fall short. No switch will click and tell us when things have returned to normal (emotionally an impossibility), or when to start seeking out old comforts and putting them back in to new lives. Perhaps proper leadership will create spaces for community spirit, that will in turn make moving on in life less defensive, more supported, and thus more likely to be properly deliberative (the denial embodied in knee-jerk “reopenings” early this summer would be an example of the exact opposite). But, in the US at least we have a pile of bad habits to undo, something that will not happen easily.

For my own part, looking down into the backyard as snow accumulation just starts to become visible, I have embodied evidence of both extremes. April was a good month for yard projects, as M and I appropriately sought grounding in one of the most direct and literal things we could control. I added lines to my hands in the process of that chainsawing, digging, and rock carrying, and both on me and on the ground the results should endure for a lifetime. I can also look out and see the mess which has accumulated through more recent inaction, and it is difficult in that mess to not see impatience for moving on. Things left undone are both evidence of a world pulled apart, as well as how well we did to hold it together under extraordinary circumstances. The most important thing is not loose either in the rush towards a more congenial future.

Much thanks

In spite of, or because of, it all, there are many objects for thank today.  I want to thank all of you.  With few exceptions writing has been tough this year.  With a head crowded enough that bare basics are generally daunting enough, and big, unpleasant, hard to grasp things doing that clogging, putting thoughts in order has on a daily basis been pushed down the road.  Which is ok, just not ideal for composition.

Even so, conversation here, and with readers and friends over text and email, has been a highlight, and a reminder of what we all had and still have.  So thanks for that.

Anyone who orders some straps between now and Monday, and would like a few stickers as well, just say which ones you would like in the order comments.

A bad year

This was the closest I came to writing a 2018 in review post.  I didn’t avoid it because I wasn’t happy with the year, nor because I struggled from within the fog of the moment to sum it all up, but because I was worried about the year which was to come.  These fears were far more justified than I could have understood 365 days ago, and if 2019 remains the most difficult year of my adult life I’ll count myself fortunate.

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In the empty days before kids, jobs, and the ambitions which birth full onset adulthood M and I often went to a Forest Service cabin for either Thanksgiving or Solstice.  We’d always bring snowshoes or skis or a boat or whatever gear conditions suggested, and in the beginning went in with considerable ambition.  This was quickly blunted when more often than not we’d spend 3, 4, even 5 days and not go much beyond the buildings orbit more than a handful of times.  I’d chop wood or hunt rabbits for exercise, but mostly we slept, read books, did a puzzle, cooked, and generally did as close to nothing as preference allowed.  Our souls caught back up, often only just, and that was before the unending haste of parenthood.

That haste, that lack of free interpersonal air, is what I struggle with most as a parent, and it’s lack is the last thing I still regularly miss and morn.  For a bunch of reasons I went into the New Year’s holiday last year more depleted than usual, and exited it without substantive rest.  Work continued to be hard, M continued to work evenings, and I tried and failed on a major ski trip, due to inadequate preparation.  A few weeks after that, having perculated in the stress and all the questions about the future which it birthed, the bottom fell out.  I came home from an all day training on President’s Day, gave M the keys to the gun safe, and told her to hide them somewhere I’d never be able to find.

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The next weeks, really the next months, passed in a clouded morass I still find difficult to remember.  I just looked, and am still shocked I wrote one post here in April, and nothing at all in May.  I asked for the key back at the very end of March, when I finally trusted myself to be away from home overnight, floating the lower Dearborn, and shooting a few squirrels.  That, and the Maah Daah Hey trip in early April, resorted home in the most general fashion, but instinct kept me hunkered close to to myself until well into June.  I hadn’t given up those keys because I was explicitly worried I’d be tempted to kill myself, it was more a gesture of commitment, a daily reminder of what was happening.  Even if that period of depression passed in 5-6 weeks, the memory of it still scares me, like very little else ever does.  I’m a professional at all this after all, I counsel depressed teenagers 5 days a week.

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Over the summer I got out.  We took the family to the Black Hills, and the Continental Divide, and to Glacier, and things went well.  I did a big trip in the Bob I’d had on the mental list for years, and revisited the top of the Chinese Wall.  I was reassured that no matter how severely and irrevocably I had changed, many other things had not, and that in the future I could be both the fragile thing I now was as well as the thing I had been before, fluid and competent enough to only worry about what was necessary, right now.

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We went back to the woods for New Year’s this year, and though the hours were loud and full of trucks thundering on the wood floor, and worry about the small child staying clear of the wood stove, they were also full and silent, with the larches regally circumscribing the grey sky, snow falling thick and silent, the river whispering in the near distance, immutable.  Little Bear and I put the thin snow cover to use on a loop, packrafting down and walking back, launching off shelf ice and seeing a hundred elk across the meadow.  We walked up a hill, on top of which I saw wolves way back in an October when we had only just moved north.  We passed the cutbank and bushes up which a mountain lion had jumped as I biked by, a 3 month old LB in the trailer.  We backpaddled to stay dry in the same little rapids I’ve floated at least times in the past 10 years, and through all of it I was forced, no, allowed, to contemplate how much I had changed and how little it had changed and how in the difference between those two there was all at once nothing and absolutely everything.

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Pondering how a river, a mountain range, a forest can highlight human transience and the fragility of identity is one thing.  A simple and safe thing, in the staid flats of adulthood.  It is something else again post-parenthood, when the ways in which other humans shape your personhood cannot be more obvious.  In the past two years both my home life and my job as a psychotherapist have eroded me, the cobbles of my identity clattering and coming to rest well within sight, but never again within reach.  It’s taken that long too see how that can be a change, and not a diminution.

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It snowed all night our last night at the cabin, and the hour plus south back to pavement and civilization provided the full spectrum of winter driving, as we drove into and back out of the orographic shadow.  Sticky dense snow gave way to nothing, which gave way to rain on ice and then deeper, heavier, wetter snow on ice.  Engine braking and patience kept us out of the ditch, and towards the end the toddler fell asleep.  Town had no snow at all, and finally the world seemed just as it should.

The grand IPA shootout

The familiarity of Safeway is comforting, insofar as finding oranges and beer and granola bars in the same place sands down differences east west and south.  But difference cannot be completely hidden; produce in Montana is generally expensive and often poor, and last week when I wandered through the store in Spearfish, SD fogged by the need for second breakfast, I was shocked awake by the distinctive orange font of Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale.  One of my all time, long time favorites, prominently not sold in Montana.

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My coming of legal drinking age coincided with the craft brewery scene in the US really taking off, and thus my tastes have evolved and consolidated along with greater variety available in grocery stores, and more and better local breweries everywhere we’ve lived.  A dozen years ago Prescott Brewery Company was still a novel experience.  Today not having a local micro would be notable, and here in Helena we have five local options, though we still PBCs superlative fish and chips.

That said, as I documented during last years father’s day brewery tour, local beer in the western US is still profoundly uneven, a polite way of saying bad.  An inevitable product of population density and time lag, but that last (and only) occasion I visited the Bell’s mothership in Michigan not quite a decade ago was a potent reminder that their beers were significantly more polished and consistent (e.g. better) than anything available in Missoula or the Flathead at the same time.

This has begun to change.  Kettlehouses Double Haul IPA remains rather one dimensional (as do many west coast IPAs), but it is no longer the puckeringly unbalanced swill it was in 2008.  The Flathead has at least three quality (in some ways superlative) breweries to counter the horrid tourist trap which is Great Northern Brewing.  And here in Helena we have one of the oldest, and best, breweries in Montana, Blackfoot.  Blackfoots flagship Single Malt IPA has long been the touchstone for both balanced and sophisticated IPAs, and for Montana microbrews generally.  Blackfoot doesn’t bottle or can, but you can get Single Malt on tap in a big enough range of stores (e.g. Mackenzie River Pizza) that it can and has garnered a regional following.  When I brought a few bottles of both Two-Hearted Ale and Dogfish 90 Minute home last week, doing a blind taste test against Single Malt was their natural use.

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It would be difficult to summon more worthy competition.  90 Minute IPA has been called the best beer in America, albeit a long time ago, and perhaps more than any other beer has been responsible for normalizing hop-forwardness.  It’s role in US beer history is worth reading about.  Two-Hearted Ale has been around almost as long, and if anything has enjoyed a more exalted and durable reputation.  It is both the IPA for no-hop fans and the mass-market micro even beer snobs cannot but adore.  That it is unapologetically hoppy, richly floral, as well as balanced and almost sessionable makes Two-Hearted the standard by which IPAs are judged.

For father’s day dinner I pitted a bottle each of Two-Hearted and 90 Minute against a growler of Single Malt.  Each bottle was well within sell-by date, and the growler had been filled at the Blackfoot taproom 24 hours before.  I was sober and well rested at the start, and sequed into a luxurious dinner 1/3 of the way through.  It was not a struggle to finish three excellent beers, though I was readily reminded that each is 7% or strong ABV.

On that note:

  • Two Hearted Ale is 7% abv and 55 IBU
  • 90 Minute IPA is 9% abv and 90 IBU
  • Single Malt IPA is 6.9% abv and 55 IBU

Meredith poured into premarked glasses, recorded their contents, and was nicely implacable in the face of my speculation about which might be which.

From the first sip, and for the first third of each glass, C was quite different, while A and B were indistinguishable.  C was subtly darker in appearance, and significantly more coppery and earthy, with a crisp and edgier bite.  As the ~80 minutes wore on, the beer warmed, and my palate got fuller C took more effort to drink.  It took six strong sips until A and B began to separate themselves, with B keeping it’s initial mellowness, balancing the floral notes and bite in a way which A did not as the glasses emptied.  In the end all three beers remained enjoyable, but the hierarchy was clear; B, A, C.

A was Two-Hearted, B was Single Malt, and C was 90 Minute.

It’s not entirely fair to compare an Imperial IPA to two less burly beers, and my voting it to the bottom is likely as much about the setting (3 beers at once) and personal preference as anything.  Two Hearted and Single Mart are as identical and direct a comparison as possible, and both are outstanding.  Is my preference about the subtle ways Single Malt is better, or just about familiarity?  In either case, after this experiment I’m more happy than ever to have Blackfoot down the street, and to have so many good beers locally and regionally.

Shit that works; lifestyle addition

The Wayback Machine doesn’t travel back to when I can first recall the concept of “lifestyle” in outdoor clothing and gear.  It was a North Face catalogue, late 80s or early 90s, talking about a woman from Alaska or the Yukon or Wyoming or some similarly very far from Ohio place, who had fallen out of her boat during a casual afternoon cruise, and survived the ensuing hypothermia in a fairly matter of fact way because, as the catalogue told us, she had thrown on her North Face gear that morning.  Just like any morning.

There is just as much truth and utility as there is malarkey in that thought-picture.

Modern lightweight gear, especially technical clothing, doesn’t make sense in day to day life.  Lighter fabrics get slowly chewed by footwell vibration and dusty floors, less than mega zippers loose metal too fast and split into obsolescence, and fancy insulation engineered for performance first quickly compresses under the monolithic weight of seatbelts and routine.  And yet, that 10 ounce down jacket hides in the corner of a 15 liter bag, with space for lunch and a nalgene.  Pea coats and lambswool sweaters wear well and look better, but feel stolid in the face of unplanned hikes, extended side trips to the park, and the drizzle which catches you walking home late.  Outdoor clothing is the frame without which the house of the industry would not exist, and it’s axiomatic amongst those on the inside that the vast majority of that clothing is sold to non-core users, to better blend on the brewery deck.

But, the best part of modern living are places where the line between daily routine and Big Trips in the Big Places is not so clear.  Once of my absolute favorite things remains solo trips across a big, unknown-to-me stretch of roadless country where I see no recent evidence of other humans.  Some of my other favorite things are riding pump track with my 3 year old son, taking the whole family to the bakery for brunch, tearing out non-native shrubs in our yard, and sinking days that add up to years into a job which is intellectually challenging and emotionally fulfilling.  I want all of these things, and with the purer forms of wilderness adventure being such time-queens, it feels better to absorb the landscape in smaller daily increments, which are best catered to on walks and bike rides and diversions which don’t necessitate a full wardrobe change.  Little kids don’t often go far, and by adult standards they never go fast, but that lack of the need for gear which serves against serious consequences also means you won’t be generating serious heat.  On toddler hikes at toddler pace, best pack a warm coat.

My elitist reservation remains in the form of a question; who can be immersed in all of that, see the air change week to week from the same park, same mid-walk vista, same mountain top, and not in the end both wonder how the landscape sings together and want to go out, far out, to find out more onself?  And that is my problem with the new, third or fourth wave lifestyle outdoor brands; that they’ve making shiny crap that is good for the coffee shop and the hike to Delicate Arch, and whose lack of seriousness is predicated on the rare devotee who will graduate to the more core brands when necessary.  It seems both wasteful and to assume less of humanity than it hopefully deserves.  I understand that practically I would not want every Satruday-noon latte hiker to take five years of labor and become technically skilled backcountry travelers.  Things would get crowded out there eventually.  I just can’t fathom how at least most of them would not eventually want to at least try to get there.  How could you not love straight espresso, and why not have four shots rather than two, when the only consequence is getting more done, and a bit of occasional vibration?

Shit still works, and some of the shit that works well in the variegated, civilized by choice life isn’t necessarily what really works for pure backcountry.  So this edition focuses on those things which wouldn’t be too far amiss, and certainly possess the quality, on a 10 day unsupported trip, while also not being entirely awkward accessorizing a meeting, and whose sweet spot is in the middle: cabin trips, drinks outside in inclement weather, strolls which double into 10 milers.  They’re among the things I use the most, making them most fitting of the title.

Haglofs Pile Hoody

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Fleece is the obvious choice for one-coat fits-most use outside, and this one is the most versatile of the many I’ve tried.  Trim enough and in colors that qualify as business casual (in Montana), with the signature Haglofs hood and outstanding attention to detail (flawless pocket zips and mesh), the meat of the Pile Hoody is the 380 grams/meter fabric, which for those less than ideally nerdy translates to damn thick.  It isn’t windproof, but the modern paradigm of active insulation which started nearly two decades ago with puffy fleece tells us that more, more air-permeable insulation is more versatile and more comfortable more often than less static warmth with integral windproofing.  The Pile Hoody is too cold when the wind really kicks up below freezing, and too warm above 50 or 55F, but a simple and easy choice for most anything in between.  Not a cheap fleece, though in the US Backcountry.com seems to put them on sale predictably.

Spyderco Dragonfly

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I’ve written often about what makes a good knife, and for the past three years the simple fact has been that the Dragonfly is in my pocket 97% of the time, regardless of setting.  Enough that the clip-side end of the handle has faded from sun exposure.  I’ve re-profiled the edge as convex, which makes sharpening a 45 seconds, every couple weeks affair.  Regardless of who sandy, linty, or bloody the knife has been the lock has never done anything other than engage with a crisp snap.  It’s functioned so well for so long that in the last year I just had to tempt fate, and have battened and pried with it a fair bit, out of mere curiosity.  No issues thus far, save some scratches.  I’d still prefer that the rampant dimples and texture be much reduced in the name of easy cleaning, but otherwise I can’t say a bad thing.  And you can still buy one for 60 bucks, a very good deal.

Yeti Rambler

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Yes, it’s a tiny 30 dollar water bottle, from the company that gave us the 300 dollar cooler and the 40 dollar bucket.  It’s as easy to dislike Yeti (especially after you’ve seen them at a trade show) as it is to not find someone claiming their gear isn’t well made.  The 18 oz Rambler is just big enough for a 6 cup Bialetti and a tray of ice, the ideal companion for a summer work day.  My other favorite use is making road trip cowboy coffee; add boiling water and a bunch of grounds, shake, let sit for 10 (or 30) minutes, pour, and enjoy.  I did partially break the handle off the lid doing this, having to resort to extra leverage on a fence after making coffee, overtightening the lid, and then driving up 5000 vertical feet and back down 6 in the space of an hour.  The glue fix on the lid has held  ever since, and I still got my coffee, so we chalk that one up to acceptably survival of user error.  Most importantly, the 18 ozer is a visually and tactically satisfying shape, especially in stainless, unlike (for instance) Hydroflasks, which on the shelf appear as a thought-provokingly complete range of alien sex toys.

All you need by way of drinks containers is this, a Nalgene silo, and a big Dromedary bag.

Human Gear Capcap

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It has a whimsical name, and will close to double the price of your nalgene; unless your water bottle fleet is mostly domesticated from the many free ranging, well seasoned nalgenes of the world.  I found the bottle pictured above nine years ago, melting out of the snow atop Lolo Pass.  The 48 oz size is my favorite, in spite of them being almost too unwieldy in both height and weight.  My recent criteria for building pack side pockets is that they need to provide secure, one-handed silo storage, and if they do that, they’ll do just about anything else.  The Capcap preserves the original nalgene functionality, and adds being able to drink, without spilling, while hiking at full tilt.  I bought two, at full retail, and don’t go into the woods without one, and often both.

The grand Helena brewery tour

Montana brewery laws take some getting used to.  The Kafka-ishiousness does not approach Utah levels, and the peculiarity has quite inadvertently given birth to an institution which adds a lot to a quiet, family-centric, even staid city like Helena.  Before recent beer and pretzel adventures are further discussed, some juridical background is in order.

In Montana a nano-brewery, as defined by law, produces less than 100 barrels a year.  A nano-brewery license allows a brewery to give away unlimited free samples between 8am and 2am, sell beer for customers to take home during the same period, and distribute beer to retailers, wholesalers, and the public using only their own equipment and employees.  There aren’t many nano breweries in Montana; you only get 12,400 proper pints out of 100 barrels, which doesn’t cover much overhead.

A domestic brewery license allows up to 60,000 barrels a year, and has the same restrictions as a nano brewery, with a significant exception that 48 ounces per person per day may be sold at the brewery, between 10am and 8pm.  This is important.  Montana caps the number of liquor (bar) licenses in a given municipality, caps which have generally not been adjusted since the 70s.  Bar owners, and their lobbyists, have been through several scuffles with brewery owners, and their lobbyists.  Bar owners see the worth of their business being diluted.  Brewery owners similarly see a threat to their new, and often thriving, businesses.  As of 2018 the argument seems to be in stalemate, waiting for the next (biannual, and only 90 day) legislative session.

Most breweries are as the Times says neighborhood pubs in function, if not quite in name, and the hours and quantity restrictions have made the brewery scene a well-behaved, even demure affair.  Most folks can get buzzed on three pints, especially when they’re an IPA or Porter well above 7%, but outright or at least strident drunkenness is almost unheard of.  As a rule Montana breweries welcome children, with many having games to occupy the young and old, and are generally a good place to have a fairly quiet conversation with your guests.  When you visit, expect the server to ask and write your name on a small card, which you’ll be asked to retain to track your consumption, paying when you leave.  They occupy a different, and for many superior, niche than bars.

Our first stop on a recent afternoon tour of all five local breweries was Helena’s newest, Crooked Furrow.  Industrial chique is the rule in breweries, with all five pubs prominent in galvanized steel inside and out.  Crooked is the most outstanding in this regard, and with a concrete floor and lots of metal is only the furniture and a nice coat of paint departed from a premium livestock facility.  The back yard is fenced, with fresh sod, and the family-friendly vibe is further burnished by abundant toys and changing tables in both and women’s and men’s bathrooms.  Crooked isn’t filling growlers yet, a wise precaution given their popularity.  On a recent Friday evening we gave them a pass entirely, as their small parking lot and the whole surrounding block was entirely packed.  On our tour we visited them first, in hopes that early afternoon would mitigate the lack of space, but their ~900 square feet was all but standing room only.  As another rule Montana breweries are family affairs, the fruition of personal ambition long-held, not financed by speculators.  Crooked is emblematic of a problem this creates; the almost immediate popularity that befits good beer fills spaces and pads margins, but makes for a lower growth ceiling than necessary, as well as a (potential) loss of customers who enjoy being able to hear themselves think.

Regardless, Crooked has excellent beer.  The Bitter is satisfying crisp and bracing, and authentically 4% and 40 IBUs.  The Coffee Oatmeal Stout was warm and substantive, drinking one was filling, but not overly formidable, and I certainly could have had a few more, had the mission not demanded better pacing.  The New England Pale Ale (pictured well above) was light and easy without lacking in novelty.  Crooked is worth the trip, though for the part of Helena who lives like we do up on the hill, it is a trip, with the brewery hidden in plain site next to a junk lot behind Sportsman’s Warehouse.  It won’t be often, but I will be back.  Bonus; they serve everything in both 8 oz and 16 oz pours, with the former being just enough for a comprehensive taste.

Next on our list was Helena’s second newest brewery, Snow Hop.  Located in the heart of suburbia, unlike Crooked Snow Hop is within plausible and pleasant walking distance for a good number of folks.  The interior is bright, but a hair smaller than Crooked, and lacking in outdoor seating.  Universally the beers were close, but a ring or two wide of the mark.  The Vanilla Stout was more syrupy than I prefer, the Stellar IPA good without being especially lively or fresh, and the Kolsch workmanlike in its lightness.  The Medusa was more outstanding, a hoppy rye pale ale infused with a peppy juniper finish.  A bit heavy and a tad cloying, it was an interesting yet one-and-done sort of beer.  The Grodziskie is also worth elaboration.  A light ale brewed with smoked malt, the taste itself was not noteworthy, save the distinct and for me unique nasal finish, as if the just removed glass had been replaced under your nose by a freshly boiled kielbasa.  I like kielbasa, but try as I might I could not find this particular sensation very pleasant.  Perhaps the high carbonation traditional to the brew, and distinctly lacking in the Snow Hop version, buffers the sensory transition.

Next on our list was Lewis and Clark, the only large brewery in Helena and the only one here discussed not subject to the aforementioned rules (because it has a liquor license).  The magnitude of our mission was starting to become apparent, and I would have advised skipping this one had it not been for the snack bar.  Lewis and Clark is located in an old paint factory, with two big floors and a commodious patio.  It is a good, and generally uncrowded, place for a toddler to roam.  The snack bar has good beer brats and pizza, the crust made from a snappy mix of spent brewing grain.  Unfortunately I rarely find a beer there I like.  The lighter usuals, such as Yellowstone Golden Ale and Miner’s Gold Hefeweizen, are straightforward past the point of being soporific, and the darker standards, such as the Backcountry Scottish Ale and Big Belt Weizenbock, are turgid and thick and coat the pallet in an enduring way reminiscent of 7th grade school assemblies.

On our visit we were treated to a satisfying brat, and a satisfying loud cover bad alternating ZZ Top and Metallica.  We took refuge at the long table in the art gallery, and contemplated how the entertainment was only a Jason Aldean short of the truck-nuts triumvirate at the heart of 21st century western redneck culture.  I also took refuge in their Celebrate Montana Porter, brewed from a late 19th century recipe produced by Helena’s long-defunct Kessler Brewery.  Described as a combination of a traditional porter and a brown ale, at 5.6% and 28 IBUs it was drinkable without being heavy, interesting without being dense, the Malcolm Gladwell of dark ales.  I was revived by the quality dark beer, and M and LB were revived by a brat, but the oppression of loud music and pretentious art conversation was too much, and we made Lewis and Clark our quickest stop of the afternoon.

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Global and existential fatigue, and intoxication, were setting in at this point, so we rallied to the psychological shelter of our local, Blackfoot.  Choosing a favored brewery is not entirely unlike selecting a life partner or long term residence; it would be foolish to dismiss surface trivialities, but over the years the evolution of intimate discovery is quite as significant as how much at first glance you like the look and the taste.  Blackfoot is second closest to our house, separated by a pleasant 1 mile walk which crosses no busy streets, is possessed of a second story deck with a great view back towards our abode and the trails and trees which are immediately above it, and makes some consistently excellent beer that often exactly suits my tastes.  That they were fully decked for Pride weekend only warmed my affection further.

Blackfoot is certainly a victim of their own success at times.  Most any evening in the warmer months sees said deck in very high demand, and often avoid it when I otherwise would not because I enjoy both hearing my own thoughts and having the rampaging LB not trip the unsuspecting.  The foolproof way to enjoy prime time solitude in prime real estate is to go on a rainy or cold day, and dress for the weather.  If properly equipped the toddler never seems to mind, and you only need to drink fast enough that your beer will not become too diluted.

On this occasion I had their Baltic Porter, for the first time, a burly almost black lager, which at 8.9% (and $5 a pint) embodied everything strident about craft beer.  I filled our growler, and found out the next day that with dedication one could indeed down multiple consecutive pints, albeit with the expected consequences (namely, drunken and feeble erudition).  With Blackfoot my bed is made, and they’ll have to do a great deal before they cease to be a weekly feature in my routine.  That I have choices, and good choices in such things is a great endorsement of the current state of beer in Helena.

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Last, we made our way to 10 Mile Creek.  10 Mile is slightly closer to us, and their beer almost, kinda as good as Blackfoot.  Their space, above, is certainly far larger, nicely unpacked with tables, and consistently excellent for both being able to maintain dialogue (internal or external) and allowing children to run (the toy shelf, just out of picture left, is always well stocked).  I had a coffee porter, as mentioned one of my consistent favorites, and it was satisfying, but not glowingly so, which could sum up my stance on 10 Mile as a whole.  Do they deserve being damned by faint praise?  They do not.  Is my opinion hopelessly skewed by the bias I chose a year or more ago?  Very possibly.  But it is what it is, and while I’d encourage anyone interested enough to have read this far to visit, when I take guests on a stroll which ends in a few pints, 10 Mile has never yet been the destination.

Sentiment is a fine spice.

The family made it home well in time for dinner, with my recently foggy head chemical cleared and primed for nostalgia.  The past year has been a bracing and excellent one, and our little jaunt around a green and rainy city had done well putting all of that on display.  Pubs are and have always been about community, and that doesn’t just mean that being buzzed makes it easier to be neighbourly (though it certainly does not not mean that, either).  Insofar as the human mind would never functionally exist without others in the general, metaphysical vicinity, a thing which highlights that, which wedges space into the cracks in routine, is important.  And in no small part due to a legal quirk, Montana breweries currently do that very well.

Pushing the next button

On a few occasions last year I mentioned that, over the past decade, my happiness had generally correlated with the volume of activity, which had in turn tended to spawn more frequent and especially longer writings here.  More interest has almost always meant more words.

Thankfully, this is has ceased to be the case, as my interest in writing here has declined along with life becoming busy, busy in a way that 12 months ago I would not have been able to understand.  My job is less flexible, and more serious.  If I don’t do something there, it does not get done, and if things do not get done bad stuff tends to happen.  We also bought this house, which is big and wonderful.  The current near-record winter hasn’t just given us lots of practice shoveling, and lots of clear moments marveling at the frosted Doug Firs in our yard, it has lengthened the list of things to modify, fix, and rebuild.  I’ve never been any good with a hammer, but now I not only want to learn that, but most other things having to do with our house and how to bring a 19th century building into the 21st century.

Plenty of challenges remain for us in the outdoors, especially with Littler Bear set to arrive in six weeks.  But I’ve entered the last 20% of my outdoor learning, where enjoyment and reacquaintance takes a up the lions share of time in the field, rather than learning.  Much to my surprise, I’ve found this winter that I much prefer to stay in town, and work on the house, recover from the work week, and take Little Bear on training walks to the doughnut shop and brewery.  I suppose this is called aging, or perhaps maturation.

I’ve been gradually fighting this transition for years, with many ill effects.  Stress management has become more challenging, as I find myself pulled stronger and in more directions.  Physically, my capabilities have increased but become more compartmentalized.  Long term, being better than ever at carrying heavy packs quickly seems to mean little in the face of hamstrings that have never been tighter.  Even in the face of the above paragraph, I still have a couple lifetimes worth of trips I’d like to do, in Montana alone.  In the past month I’ve been forced by the weight of circumstance to let go of these, at least for the near term, and let myself be content with lurking around town, while physically and mentally rebuilding.

Aside from letting immediate things go and taking a longer view, something house projects have forced on me like nothing before, this has taken the form of almost daily yoga and a deliberate rededication to reading books.  Yoga isn’t directly goal oriented, and certainly isn’t as fun as hiking, skiing, or mountain biking, but over the past decade my best physical efforts have always come after prolonged periods of doing yoga regularly, and I want to not be a creaky wreck in 15 years.  Actual, paper, books are a more complicated and wholistic thing.  From early elementary until 2.5 years ago I read multiple books a week, with few exceptions.  It was shockingly easy in the fog of parenting an infant to let that go, and far too easy in the last year of moving and jobs and general change to content myself with articles and forums and other net-only things.  I don’t think I need to elaborate on how relying on screens for relaxation is easy to take too far.  Neurologically I am far past my most flexible periods, but that is no reason to give up entirely.  And that is certainly what would be called maturation.

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What content this website features will continue to evolve, while what it is and means will probably stay very static.  Blogs are a form of social media; I wouldn’t write quite the same if I didn’t intend the words to be read, and wouldn’t consider just writing for myself anyway.  I’ve met far too many interesting people because of this venue, something which has happened more frequently than ever in the past years (Stans in Hanksville, the Doctor’s office last week).  But blogs are an old form of social media, fitting for an increasingly old person such as myself.  So, having found my home I am resolved to let change happen as it will.  That will mean at least a little letting go of my old identity, but with the world as it is today I want to make a point to let my real life drive content on the internet, rather than the other way around.

New old places

On the face it seemed like we struck out coming and going.  When we flew out of Helena it was clear as only a bitterly cold night can be, and the clear view of lights snaking south and east through Townsend and White Sulphur Springs to peter out halfway to North Dakota left me thinking what would have been visible, on the snowy landscape, in daylight.  By the time the sun rose we were east of Minot, well above a 10,000 foot ceiling.  White cool stars greeted us when we returned home, a delayed flight already dark when the de-icing was finishing in Minneapolis, the 8 inches of snow I dug off our car highlighting all the excitement we had missed.

The real excitement had been 21 people in my parents house, ages spanning nearly 7 decades, 16 of whom eventually caught the norovirus Little Bear picked up, either in the Minneapolis airport playground or the day before at our local library.  Getting puked on in the night was only moderated by his toddler healing, and the ease with which he repeatedly fell back asleep.  I spent New Years Eve dry heaving until the cartilage in my ribs and clavicles ached, and it wasn’t until two days after our return home that I (or M, or LB) was able to tolerate a proper meal.

I lived in southwestern Ohio from 6 months old until I graduated high school, and as the years have worn on and the waking years I’ve spent in the pinelands of western mountains and deserts have begun to outnumber those of my youth, that hardwood landscape has become ever more dizzying.  Too much sickness and too few lucid hours between drives to and from the airport helped make this visit the most disorienting yet.  The rolling patchwork farmland and valleys of Seven and Four Miles Creeks is so broken, and yet so full of trees, but with the leaves off along the fleeting rises you can see miles and miles.  My memories of Christmas, and of winter generally, has everything to do with damp dark grey tied up in wanting endless snow.  That recollection is probably true, but is also as clouded by longing that I’ve long since fulfilled as is my image of this corner of Ohio as flat.  Pull up a topo and the places I hiked, biked, and kayaked as a teen come alive with variation and steepness, helped along by 20 foot contour intervals.

What must that place have been like 300 years ago, before Daniel Boone and William Henry Harrison, when a squirrel could go from the Ohio to Lake Erie without touching the ground, and the heaving hills gave way to winding bottoms full of elk and bison?  If you mind can swap Sycamores for Cottonwoods and bean fields for sage flats the Great Miami could almost be the Little Missouri.  In my more obdurate moments I’ve spent collective hours mourning that I’ll never see the great bison herds.  As age improves my vision the list of things I’ve really missed grows, long.

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It was nice to come home.  The car was well and truly buried, but as in our absence the temperatures had not climbed out of single digits it could be swept off with a gloved hand.  The car started without hesitation, and bounced home over icey potholes at -9F.  The magic winter week of Christmas continued, with even more snow and cold, clear days.  We were in no condition to head out go skiing, but I did recover in time to do weekend battle with the ice dams two feet of snow, sub-zero lows, and poor roof insulation had given us.  I soon gave up on the ice axe, graduating to the adze end of a pulaski, which was a bit scary but not overkill.  A hammer finished the final inches without harming any shingles, overall a job just as pumpy and wet as proper ice climbing, and the view from our third story roof runs 30 miles north across the valley.

This is the soul of Montana, the Rockies generally, and much of the United States.  The two feet of snow in our yard, and the 4+ up in the mountains, will recharge the continents water table and feed elk in the Bob Marshall at the same time it supports cattle in South Dakota.  That so much of our average annual foot of water falls as snow is why Doug Firs and Ponderosa Pines have taken over from beech and maples in my mind, and helps smooth the inconvenience of steep side streets that go unplowed for weeks.  There’s a privilege to being around for the sort of winter this one is shaping into, and specifically several of the few weeks which are essential to building the kind of season that can keep a vast swath of our continent from drying to a toast by mid-August.  Did the greater Ohio valley ever have that sort of significance; does it still, and the centuries of roads and houses just make it harder to see?

The year I grew up

It’s an inherently vain exercise, but if I had to pick a favorite moment of 2017 it would be late on the second day of my bike/packrafting trip along the Dirty Devil River.  All the boat dragging, cold, and ambiguity had worn my mind to a jagged, dull edge.  I made camp near the apex of a big bend, where a riffle left a 30 foot wide gravel bar and sandy bench above, for me to pitch my tarp.  I had no precise idea where I was, and in an attempt to sooth that doubt and warm up I climbed quickly up the steep talus and ridge of stacked table tops to the top of the bend before traversing back north to get even higher and see up the big canyon I had floated past.

I knew what the narrows of Happy Canyon would look like from the inside, having been down to them 13 years earlier, and presumed my exit up Poison Springs would be obvious as the only road crossing.  Aside from that I could only very roughly guess, based on the only map I had brought along, a cell phone screenshot of the relevant section of the Utah gazetteer (1:100,000 scale, 200 foot contour intervals).  After 15 minutes of orienting and pondering, and a futile attempt to use the location function on my phone (useless without a base map), I decided that I was probably close to Happy Canyon, and thus almost certainly on schedule.  I hiked back to camp, made a fire, dried more gear, ate, and went to bed.

This is such a fond memory because it so closely mirrored my first packrafting trip on the South Fork of the Flathead.  My first camp was a few miles below the confluence of Youngs and Danaher, and with less than 1000 cfs I worked hard for the 5 miles down to the Pretty Prairie pack bridge.  It was drizzling and cold, and even wearing all my clothes I still got quite, creepingly cold.  The sun came out around noon and I pulled over at the White River to dry everything, my spirits foremost, and figure out where the hell I was.  In the pre-Cairn days the Forest Service map was the only deal around, and that day on my very first wilderness packraft I made distance and speed estimates with all consuming trepidation.

Doubt is precious in the modern world.  While it’s hard to find something out in the wild that hasn’t been documented on the internet, and harder still to deliberately ignore some or all of that information, the biggest challenge of the information age is breaking your mind free from the paths trodden before.  This isn’t to say that my loops on the Dirty Devil or Escalante were especially original, aside from the brief initial bike stretch on the former all the ground was very well trodden.  It is to say that putting together a good route and then seeing it on the ground, especially in a place you’ve long coveted and most especially without undue drama in the process, is something to treasure.

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There are many other memories I might list.  Spending two days wandering around Echo Park during the crux of spring, laying on the beach at Cosley Lake watching Little Bear throw rocks, many morning hours in Bestslope Coffee writing Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, the first night sleeping on the floor downstairs in our 128 year old house, packing my first elk out of a snowy Bob Marshall Wilderness.  And, just as many which are equally joyful, but more immediately weighty: figuring out where we wanted to live for the foreseeable future, waiting to see if our sellers were willing to discount our house such that we were willing to invest in the sort of issues which come with a thing as old as Montana itself, balancing home and the most responsible job I’ve yet had, pondering and ultimately deciding to have a second child.

It has, in short, been a year when any vestiges of un-adulthood were stripped away definitively.

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This won’t be a surprise for any regular reader.   I’ve begun to understand what busy truly is, which has necessitated quantity over quality both on this site and in my life generally.  In 11 years of being 2017 will see Bedrock & Paradox have both the fewest posts and the most traffic, not unlike this year saw the fewest trips, but the highest quality.  Neither of these things look set to change next year.

I’ve been watching the usual flood of highlight reals, awards, and end of the year compilations with the usual interest (it is a good, or at least rich, time to be a consumer of adventure and outdoor media).  A number dwell on the extent to which outdoor trips are inherently unpredictable, and how the art is in rolling with the ambiguity and as needed making lemonade out of lemons.  This is true, but much less so than most people think.  I’ve had plenty of altered adventures this year, one might more bluntly call them failures, due to things like injury or expectations out of line with circumstances.  These happen, and they’re learning experiences, but insofar as adventure outside is ultimately about exploring and better knowing the depths within, an end goal is always going to be trips that in the big picture proceed exactly as planned.  Not because nothing went askew; when I think about my A list trips this year (solo and family) every one of them was riven through with major stress and doubt about at least something.  The best trips go exactly as planned because when you get to them you’ll know enough to have removed most of the external variables, and have gone far enough towards mastering yourself that you’ll be able to push through the inner ones.  Inner and outer variables, they are not exactly the same, but neither is the barrier between them particularly definitive.

I’m talking about mastery, and to my surprise I not only fully arrived in the outdoor realm this year, I’ve been quite close to that benchmark in my job, as well.  Conveniently, the stress of parenting and owning a home have introduced goals which are years if not decades distant, making me not at risk of complacency any time soon.

And that is what I hope for from this website, to be able to continue to grow, and continue to provide plenty of interest to you, the readers.  My request for support back in April confirmed what I had long suspected, that the audience here is small by the standards of the world and of most marketing analysts, but includes people in almost all the right places.  Stickers (which are still for sale, if you’re interested) were the first step, and second one has been a long time in coming, but is nearly here.  In 2018 things are shaping up such that you’ll see my footprint in a few more places, see Bedrock & Paradox get a little more polished, and have a few more things of interest available here, both for free and for sale.

I’m looking forward to showing you.  See you next year.