Evolution of the Tamarisk; load carriage

I am delighted to report that the Tamarisk is finished.  If by finished I mean that the prototype I completed a month ago and have been testing exhaustively since requires almost no changes.  The patterns can now be set in stone, and the road towards production begin.  This may not be a short road: I’m still trying to nail down a foam supplier who will provide relatively small wholesale quantities of the exact right thickness and density; I’ve all but resigned myself to sourcing the best ladderlocks and quick release buckles from different sources; I’m using this prototype to see if this stuff might be a substitute for 500D Cordura on the pockets and suspension components.   All that and everything else might yet take months, but having the shape, features, and especially suspension where I want it to be is deeply satisfying.

The first goal for this pack, when I started working on it almost 3 years ago, was to have a ~50 liter package that would carry 50 pounds but be optimized for 20-30.  More specifically, I wanted a hipbelt and harness wouldn’t feel clumsy with a daypack type load, and would also be substantive enough that the structure of the suspension (a single stay in this) would be the limiting factor in load carriage.  To make sure that this can be checked off as mission accomplished, I’ve spent the last week and half using my workday workout time (6-7 am) to load the pack with ever increasing weight for the same 4 mile loop.  This isn’t enormously exciting, but does allow for an extended and exacting focus on just how the various elements in the pack respond to another 5 pound increase.  The last three mornings have seen this number creep above 50, this morning, in the form of a painters drop cloth in the bottom, and 26 liters of water on top.  This is a lot, enough to get me sweating even on the flats, at -10 F.  My 4 inch wide, sub 8 ounce hipbelt has been holding firm around my hips, the single stay just beginning to bounce vertically in the way I’ve to recognize as how you want to see a suspension system using aluminum start to reach its limit.

The definitive beginning to defining load carriage in a backpack remains Ryan Jordan’s 2003 article on torso collapse in packs, the thesis being that when a correctly sized pack looses a certain amount of its torso length (10% being a useful threshold) to load induced collapse, the load limit of that pack has been reached.  The other dimension of that puzzle, one which took me the better part of a decade to fully understand, is that the ability of the hipbelt to resist slipping and appropriately contour to the user must at least keep pace with the suspension.  A hanging belt with the right mix of flexible yet supportive structure is the abbreviated answer here, and leaves one with the fairly simple design challenge of optimizing vertical structure for the weight to be carried.  In this case, a single 3mm by 13mm 7075 stay.

It is the simplest suspension system I could design, because it minimizes things like the number of fabric panels and yards of thread, as well as because there are as few performance elements in action as possible.  The theoretical and practical limits of that single stay are in the Tamarisk identical, which is why I’m content that I did what I wanted.

 

Forward the consumer

I have profoundly mixed memories of my first Outdoor Retailer.  The barely 1 year old Little Bear had an ear infection come on while we were hiking in Glacier just before, was cranky on the drive down to SLC through the night, and the next night required a hasty visit to first urgent care and then the only open pharmacy.  He looks understandably haggard in this post.  On the other side, I had great fun, and learned in way only first experiences can bring.  A majority of the items I featured in that post are in our closets today, in one version or another, or used to be before they broke in one way or another.  Subsequent shows have been bigger (SHOT), weirder (Utah Hunt Expo), and more fun (NAHBS), but I don’t expect anything else to ever rival seeing all that stuff, my stuff, in one place, with all the associated culture.

Culture; will all the positive and negative connotations.

One of the points of contention, about the new Big Gear Show and about OR for a number of years, has been access for the general public.  Trade shows started as a place for shops to see and order next years stuff.  This is antiquated.  Purchasing and product cycles are far more dynamic, driven increasingly by direct to consumer.  I think the BGS folks are correct to make a distinction between the lifestyification of outdoor gear and more core hardgoods.  Lifestyle gear gets a pass, but still.  If it weren’t for those at the edge, little of interest would have happened with outdoor gear.  The “outdoor industry” has long been guilty of myopia as to how broad and variegated that edge can be, just as it as an entity has been guilty about the future of retail and indeed trade shows.  We’re still amongst the experiment of local shops surviving the onslaught of Amazon and Frontc***ntry.com (1), but evidence suggests that if they can, it will be on the backs of service and community, boot fitting and beta.  For a few decades these places have made it into the black via apparel sales, but if these shops go too far that direction, they won’t have aquaseal, repair buckles, and emergency tent stakes anymore, nor staff who know the on the trail relevance of shoe drop.

Therefore, shows should embrace the public.  All the smaller outdoor shops or businesses I’ve known are very aware that a small percentage of customers, the hardcore, the fans, drive a vast percentage of revenue.  These are the people who switch packs every 5 months, kill trail runners every 90 days, and need a new setup or two every .7 ski seasons.  They are the soul of the outdoor industry, not the insiders who buy everything at prodeal and are jaded by highlight reels and having to explain, year after year, what PTFE stands for.  The objection is that users, exposed to new and upcoming stuff, will leave shops hanging with unsold inventory.  My rebuttal is twofold: enthusiasm is more valuable in the long run than sales, and that hardgoods will be less prone to fashion and whim anyway.  I’ve had several spirited discussions with product folks over the years about the value, or not, of discussing development while existing products are still sitting in inventory.  It’s not diplomatic, or even sensical, but my reply has always been that good product will trump all else.  Product cycles can take a haircut, and the “industry” as a whole could do with a reminder that for them, in the 21st century, unedited, conventional capitalism has little place.

But maybe that’s why I didn’t want to be in the outdoor industry after all.

 

1: Is it responsible and sustainable for outdoor websites to subsidize themselves off such negative influences in the form of affiliate sales?

Straps back in stock

IMG_8719.jpg

Packraft straps are back in stock, now in either rainbow or gold with black buckle.  Stocking stuffer, or tool to tie poorly behaved guests up in the shed?  In any case fully seasonally appropriate.

In other consumerist news, a new outdoor trade show launched recently.  Back in SLC, and supposedly excluding apparel and the many extraneous lifestyle exhibitors which have swollen Outdoor Retailer in the past decade.  They’re talking a strong and potentially relevant game:

“The outdoor industry was forged by men and women who took the same risks in business as they did on rivers and mountains. They refused to accept the status quo. They built gear that would keep their friends safer, dryer, faster, warmer. They were the scrappy, selling gear out of the back of their cars and met once a year in Reno for some commerce and community.  Years later, the outdoors has become mainstream. Mass markets love our plaid, our fleece, our sandals. The outdoor lifestyle is a way of life for tens of millions of people. But our industry is at a crossroads. Big boxes are failing our brands. Amazon is suffocating our local gear shops. The big are getting bigger. And private equity and Wall Street investors are threatening the soul of our industry.  The Big Gear Show is a show for the rest of us – the innovators, the start-ups, the domestic manufacturers, and the local gear shops where the staff walk the talk, bringing in novices and sending out enthusiasts.”

I’m very open to all of this, along with the perhaps logical extension that things like running, which the Outdoor Industry Association has long used to make participation numbers appear to grow, are no more outdoor activities than golf.  Growing the metaphorical tent is good, but needs to happen properly.  Core users, the kind who would like to attend trade shows and be part of the community (a prime virtue of trade shows according to every poll SNEWS ever does), are the more valuable area of growth, and the people who sink big funds into hard goods anyway.  Too long has the outdoor industry, and outdoor shops, slung along like a remora on the belly of the general public who like nifty jackets for the coffee shop.  Refocusing on the core of the industry can’t happen, in my view, without investing in the soul of the whole industry, which employees often forget is not them.

To whit; the thought of an OR a closer drive than Denver and without all the BS of Wolverine boots and the towering TNF booth, interests me, as a longtime nerd and member of the general public.  So then, how to use that to sell the stoke (ha) and not leave shops stuck with old stock?

More tomorrow.

Evolution of the Tamarisk; prolegomena

It all started with this video, shot on location 9 years and 2 months ago up on Blue Mountain above Missoula, down on the middle Bitterroot, and most significantly, along the North Fork of the Flathead upstream of Kintla Creek.  That trip, planned off the back of a job interview which changed my life, was done with no advanced knowledge and perhaps 10 minutes looking at a map.  I don’t think I’d ever been north of Bowman before, and discovered the patrol trail north of the Kishenehn Ranger station the good way, by stumbling into it when I expected to bushwack.  I had assumed the out and back to the border would be an overnighter, but with a trail all the way, the elevated streamflow (rain) and my rudimentary floating experience I went to the border by early afternoon, and then way downstream of Kintla before I realized it, road walked miles back upstream in the dark, and ended up sleeping in the Xterra at the Quartz Creek campground.  I killed a bit of time the next morning floating lower McDonald Creek, and in less than 24 hours had done one of my all-time favorite packraft routes and then heard elk bugling, both for the first time.

That trip, and what it symbolized, changed my life just as much as what became my career.  After years of pursuing overnight backcountry travel in a haphazard fashion,  mostly as a necessary evil for climbing, canyon, and mountain biking objectives, I had in our first two years in Montana fallen for backpacking hard, finding the outdoor pursuit to which my preferences and talents were best suited, and happened upon packrafting right on the cusp of whatever popularity it will, as a backcountry pursuit, ever have.  I have no doubt that the ability to do all of this 97% in first descent mode is an opportunity I’ll never get near again in my life.

I was learning about light and fast all season backpacking, skiing, and packrafting at a time when the gear and especially backpacks were not especially good.  The Golite Jam (pictured at top, on M in White River park) and Pinnacle were the standard.  HMG didn’t yet exist, no one save true garage fanatics were making packs out of cuben, and consumers could only buy Dimension Polyant by either calling the company and (literally) begging for scraps or having a connection to one of the very few people using it commercially (forever thanks to Eric at Epic Designs (now Revelate) for selling me the VX-21 which became the first North Fork pack, and throwing in a few scraps which included some of the first VX-42 to ever make it into a backpack).

It was fortuitous timing to get into backcountry travel, and making backpacks for it, right as 21st century ultralight backpacking went mainstream.  I got to learn many of the important things being out front, with little if any explicit modeling.

The Jam was pretty good as far as dimensions and features go.  To this day that design has a lot to teach us.  The various iterations also revealed, quickly and definitively, the limits of first frameless and then pad-in-pocket suspension.  My first North Fork pack was frameless, as I was still in thrall to the delusion that careful packing can make the contents the frame.  This is true, until it isn’t, and those many instances where it isn’t (most simply, when the pack isn’t full) drastically reduce the versatility of frameless packs.  The final few versions of the Jam were actually the exception to what I call the Osprey Rule, where a packs frame can support significantly more than its hipbelt/lumbar complex.  Both conceptually and in terms of sewing ability it took me a few years to get beyond having a belt which worked better than the frame, or vice versa.

When the first, frameless North Fork bag tried my patience and chaffed my hips too much I ripped out of the back panel, and gave it a rebirth with a better belt and a full sleeve, into which I put a dual layer foam sheet with a single aluminum stay laminated inside.  This supported weight decently enough, but (for a variety of reasons to be discussed in a later post) I could never get it to stick to my lumbar, and like many packs I’d like to have back for reference and nostalgia, it got cut up for other projects.

Progress in my thinking accelerated when I started working with backpack companies, first Gossamer Gear and then Seek Outside.

Much of what I’ve been trying to accomplish since has been to bring the best of these two systems together.  The old Gorilla was a pretty good do-everything pack for lightweight backpacking, but a few nuances of the dimensions and feature set, along with the materials, failed emphatically if taken too far off the beaten trail.  It was the first sub-2 pound pack I used extensively that, after I modified the hoop stay to ride directly in the belt, had a belt good enough to max out the frame.  And the old Gorilla belt wasn’t much, no contour and a single layer of foam with stretch nylon on the insides and ripstop on the outside, a lesson more than anything in the utility of the basic.  Gossamer Gear has moved with the market (helped I hope a tiny bit by my clamoring 6 years ago) and made the Silverback, which started as a tougher Gorilla but has been weighted and watered down by that companies general REI-ification, in which shelf appeal has added features of questionable utility.

Seek Outside packs set the bar for what load carriage in the pack should be, and their frame and belt design has in the six years I’ve used it continued to ask and re-ask questions about just what and how a pack could carry weight well.  I’ve been vocal to the point of perseveration on the shortcomings of the platform for lightweight backpacking, but over the past two years of pack development the question I’ve been brought back to it as a touchstone repeatedly.  The Gorilla is the best example of how to do away with traditional ultralight wing-in-seam belt architecture without being too heavy, and thus take a pack beyond the ~20-25 pound load limit such a design almost inherently has.  But how to have something slimmer, lighter, and more flexible than the bulky SO system which still meets the benchmark for long term load carriage, up to 45 pounds?

The answer, as I’ll try to illustrate in the coming weeks, isn’t just about finding the right structural elements and attaching them correctly (though being satisfied that I’ve found a way to maximize the potential of a single stay is nice).  Dimensions and features all get wound together and become codependent and almost inextricable.  There are some basic rules, some of which can be bent to good effect.  Details, to follow in the coming weeks.

North Fork updates

The initial run of packraft straps has sold out!  All orders yet to be shipped will be fulfilled and sent out today.  I’ll be making more in early December; until then they’ll appear as out of stock in the store.  The second run might even be a different color.  Taking suggestions now.

moose2

Not just for boating, as demonstrated by reader, customer, and Alaskan Scott Yeats.

The development of the Tamarisk pack is proceeding, slowly, with the final area of refinement being the belt shape and foam.  In the next three weeks, expect a series of posts detailing the various features and dimensions you’ll see in the finished pack, and the experience behind them.

Isle Royale fall planning

I’ve been wanting to do something like this for ages, and a weeks ago circumstances aligned such that I’d be close (if a 12 hour detour is close) to Isle Royale in late September, making the temptation unavoidable.  Therefore, next week I’ll have 3 whole days and 2 half days, the time between when the boat I have to catch out there arrives and when the boat I have to catch back departs, to do a loop around Isle Royale.

This loop.

It’s a big deal, given how long I’ve been pondering the idea and how rare (due to travel logistics) the opportunity is.  My idea has always been to be on the island as late as I could be, and while the last full week of September isn’t quite that, given the sparse transport options after Labor Day, it is quite close.  In the almost six years since I drew up my first ultimate fall traverse idea my hiking, particularly off trail hiking, has progressed considerably.  Thus, my planned loop is only a bit over 50% trail miles, and while I’ll be using a little packraft for bay and lake crossings, bushwacking on foot will be the first priority.  With Isle Royale being so functionally remote and, for a national park outside Alaska, infrequently visited, seeing big chunks of the island not on human terms seems fitting.

The forecast is looking pretty mellow, overall.  For a trip like this the primary concerns are twofold; avoiding strong winds while floating (headwinds are slow, strong gusts can flip you); and hopefully avoiding nasty bushwacking during or immediately after a big rain (so as to not get too soaked).  I’ve packed full battle rain gear, as well as the usual clothing.  The only other special provisions for this trip are more, and more detailed maps than usual, and a prototype of the North Fork expedition pack.

It’s been a year exactly since I was this nervous about a trip. It is a wonderful thing.

Properly hiding ones paddle

A few days ago I read Dan’s account of a trip in the Caribou Mountains of BC.  Highly recommended, and guaranteed to fire the imagination.  What astonishes me is that both Dan and Will completed the trip, with hours of monstrous, worst-case bushwacking, with their paddles strapped to the outsides of their packs.  Dan lost both shaft sections, and did a bunch of wilderness paddling with his paddle blades wedged and taped to a branch.

In my book, your packraft paddle should (almost) always be inside your pack.  The exceptions being a specialty pocket which can hold the blades with mechanical certainty, or with the paddle in two sections, shafts upwards, while for instance hiking well cleared trail.  I now know of multiple people who have improvised shafts with sticks, not all with the same success Dan created, as well as multiple people who have either gone canoe style or used a pack framesheet trimmed down to sub for a lost blade.

IMG_3247

Packing a paddle in your pack is a pain, and often puts your pack at increased risk of holes.  The pack at top, a proto of what became the current Seek Outside Exposure, is 28″ tall max, which made it just possible to squeak the longer section of a Werner Shuna.  The zip opening provides little margin for error here, hence the awkward looking pack job, because it was awkward.  The smaller pack pictured immediately above is 30″ tall along the back, short enough to sit under the shoulder, tall enough to hide a paddle when cinched.

For bike rafting you don’t want a shaft tap to the back of the helmet when rolling steep slickrock, which highlights the desirability of packing the shaft along the side.  This video details the most delicate and complex load I can recall, between the raft gear, ski gear, and wood stove, but the way I packed the paddle was the same as always.  First, the bulk of the gear goes in as usual, with more maleable stuff at the bottom.  Then, the blades go in tip down along the front, with shaft pieces go in along one side right against the front corner.  This last is significant, as it both gives you a bit more height to work with (provided your pack has tapered lower corners, as it should) and moves the hard edge of the end away from the likely abrasion point.  Even so, it’s not a bad idea to have a bit of extra protection along the base of the front (as shown in last weeks pack).

R0013227

DSC09863

The larger point here is to have a pack that’s big enough to fit everything without the packing having to be excruciatingly exact.  As shown above, I’ve learned (repeatedly) that a really big pack is not a bad thing.  We made things work on this trip, but a bigger pack for things like paddle pieces and PFDs would have made things simpler and more secure.  There is some rudimentary complexity to making a huge pack unclumsy, but it can be done.

My ultimate hunting pack

Last month a reader contacted me about a pack bag for a Seek Outside frame, mentioning these bags as inspiration.  Primary use for the pack would be elk hunting in the Olympics, with capacity and simplicity as main design priorities, along with side pockets which would hold a sizeable tripod and 80mm+ objective spotting scope.  After some discussion, we agreed that I’d try to thread the needle and make side pockets which could both hold these hefty optics, and provide on the fly access to water bottles, backpacking style.

This was a enjoyable project, being in essence the 6th or 7th refinement of a set of dimensions I’ve settled on as ideal for an expedition pack, while tweaking features and materials based on experience.  Hunting, and then packing, elk in coastal rainforest is one of the more demanding activities I can imagine in terms of pack durability and weatherproofing, making the excellent X50 tactical fabric (in ranger green) an easy choice.  In the tactical series the x-ply is a kevlar thread, and far flatter than the traditional dacron, in theory removing it as an abrasion point.  Is does add tear strength, though I can’t see this being useful in the field given the toughness of the face fabric.  The base reinforcement is 500D Cordura, and wraps up the top a few inches for max security while sliding down talus and alder thickets.

Side pockets are 500D Cordura, and 20 inches tall on the front face.  They attach to the uppermost compression strap, and are fully dimensioned with square bases, 5 inches deep on the front edge, 4 inches on the user edge.  I don’t own a big eye, but as seen below they swallow two 48oz nalgenes with room for at least another, when the main bag is crammed full.

Harperpack1

Harperpack3

Bag dimensions are almost identical to the packs in the bison post; 42 inch lower circumference (8 inch depth), 50 inch upper circumference (12-13 inch depth), and a 40-42 inch unrolled height against the user.  This large amount of upward taper makes the ~90 liter at full height bag more like 55 liters when rolled all the way to the top of the frame.  This makes a smaller load less floppy, and enhances carry in meat shelf mode, as the lower part of the bag can’t get cantilevered that far out from your back.  The customer asked, in response to my commenting that this was a moderately large bag, what one could do to make a pack even bigger.  A lower circumference approaching 50 inches would add a huge amount of volume, and you could certainly make the bag taller, which I’ve never tried.  Presumably even with stiff xpac fabric and a roll top, at some point you reach a literal tipping point where stability goes downhill.  With Seek frames you can stack extensions, and a custom job on a 30 inch frame could probably get close to 50 inches without issue, in the process truly getting into bivy bag territory.

Harperpack2

Truly custom pack building is the most satisfying type, as well as the most nerve wracking.  Perhaps with enough experience I’ll cease to worry so much about meeting expectations with brand new designs, though at that point the fun level might decline in tandem.  For the moment it’s hard to resist adding a personal anxiety tax each time I agree to such a project.

And hey, it’s September.  Time to go sheep hunting (in only a few days).  Almost sad I won’t be getting this bag dirty myself.

Introducing North Fork Packraft straps

The astute will have noticed months ago that I’m in the process of launching a pack company, North Fork.  I’m pleased to report that it is going very well indeed, in spite of no overt public evidence of progress.   Two years ago I sketched out a detailed idea of the two packs I wanted to build, and have spent the time since making prototypes to re-examine every relevant detail.  Just because I’d spent the prior decade as a hobbiest settling on my own preferences for wilderness packs did not mean those ideas were the best way of doing things.  This experimentation and development process has been immensely satisfying, largely because I freed myself from all time constraints.  I’d make as many packs, and do as many trips, as necessary for me to be content.

That process is, for the smaller of the two packs, beginning to wind down.  I’ve refined a simple, light, and supportive suspension system that can carry 40 pounds sustainably, involves minimal moving parts, and can be stripped down to completely frameless.  A protracted, 18 month diversion into complex side pocket design brought me right back to the basic design I started with.  Features and bag design took numerous diversions, and got back quite close to my original ideas.  That part is gratifying, that the first decade of experimentation was not misleading, but the assurance I bought in recent years only makes the original knowledge shinier.

I’m aware of exactly how full my days are, and have no intention of going down the solo cottage shop road of over committing and watching the wait times grow.  Thus, the bulk of North Fork packs will be sold as stock, and in batches, which will be available when they are available.  If things go as anticipated, the first run of Tamarisks (40 liters, technical multiday backpacking or race pack) will go live in time to be a winter solstice gift.  Development on the big, UL mission pack will continue into next year.  Ideally I’d like to sell some before next summer.

Screen Shot 2019-02-09 at 1.42.35 PM
IMG_2763

R0012815

IMG_0314

To shake out the administrative kinks, and sell a simple thing whose value I’ve tested for even longer, we’re releasing the first run of packraft straps.   A ~70 inch length of 1 inch polypro webbing with a stout ITW buckle (each straps is ~72 inch tip to tip with buckle).  I made the first versions (red, immediately above) back in the pre-cargo fly days.  They weren’t quite longer enough, so I made the second (blue, all other photos) and final version, of which several have been in use for the past seven years.

A really big, really full pack will just about max them out.  The sweet spot for the length is a full 55 liter pack, maybe 36 inches in circumference.  The poly webbing is noticeably lighter in field use than nylon.  One inch webbing provides enough friction on both the buckle and against the pack that a cobble scrapping flip will not tear your gear loose, even if that gear includes a mountain bike (been there).  I have also found out, the hard way, that just because you can fit it inside your packraft does not mean, in the name of maximized puncture resistance, you should, making packraft straps relevant for all boaters.  The straps are also handy for keeping your boat rolled tight, for tying a serious overload to your pack (bear can?  100 meter static line?), and for taming awkward loads generally.  I used one last fall to roll up a bison hide for transport, and chained three together the other week to get our new-to-us (1950s Corona, ‘natch) range tight to the dolly and down many stairs into the kitchen.

Packraft straps are shit that works.  So buy some, or make some yourself.  Small item shipping rates meant that total charges for overseas customers are a bit excessive, even with us (M and I) cutting the profit margin a good bit.  You can bartack poly webbing on a home machine, and if you do enough stitches even poly embroidery thread will hold.  I use bonded nylon tex 90, the bartacks will hold long after the buckle shatters.

This is the long-awaited second phase of what began with our stickers and guidebook 2.5 years ago.  Straps today, with stock and (occasional) custom packs to come later this year.

PS: Half the straps sold over the weekend.  Much gratitude from us for the support, and the interest in the packs to come. 

Little Missouri and Maah Daah Hey logistics and debrief

While I long ago accepted that every new trip in the woods would spawn ideas for 4 new ones, and really great trips would give birth to more, better ideas for the future, I’m quite proud at how few really vital, urgent ideas have remained un-done for years and years.  One of those few, packrafting the Little Missouri and looping it with a hike on the Maah Daah Hey trail, finally happened a few days ago.  The following are my thoughts on what worked, in terms of logistics and conditions, and what I would do differently the next time I visit this singular place.

The Little Missouri originates along the Wyoming/South Dakota border, draining much of the high pine and rock country which segues from Devil’s Tower into the Black Hills.  It flows north through prairie and badlands into the big Missouri in North Dakota.  For floaters this geography is very important; first because the Little Mo generally has two peaks from runoff, one in March or early April from (presumably) the prairies melting, the second in early June from meltoff in the lowish (6-9000 feet) headwaters.  The long term historical average peaks in March at 1200 cfs, and dips in May to 853 before bumping back up (1040) in June.  Dive into this data and you’ll enormous variation, I presume due to highly variable snowpack on the prairie, as well as the potential for a warm spring causing an early and/or protracted meltoff in the headwaters.  Getting high water is not something that can be reliably planned for, even for a broad 2-4 week window.  Second, and to get ahead of myself a bit, the Little Mo is a flat river, and thus a slow one, with the gradient (feet per mile) in the single digits.  If you’re in a packraft on such a river you want as much current as possible.

This winter was very robust in the big empty which spans the Montana and North Dakota border, so I was on high alert for a robust first peak.  This duly happened, with the Little Mo at Medora surging to an all-time high (for that date) of 17,000 cfs towards the end of March.  I was concerned that might be too high, and even more worried that the sticky clay soil which is ubiquitous along the MDH trail would not have dried from the very recent snow melt.  I decided to wait a bit, a little over a week, as circumstances dictated, eventually putting on the river shortly after noon on April 6th.

USGS.06336000.229450.00060..20190406.20190407.log.0.p50.pres

By early evening on the seventh I was 50 miles downstream, having been dismayed that even my modest expectations (4 mph?) for current had been optimistic.  The 6th had been calm, the 7th only mildly windy, but that was all it took to reduce headway in the 2-3 mph flow to a painfully slow margin.  With the river moving away from the trail in the northern half, I took out at the MDH ford 6 miles north of the Elkhorn Ranch site, and hiked back to Theodore Roosevelt NP.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1411.

The first thing I’ll do differently next time is consider not bringing a packraft.  There was and is huge stylistic appeal in doing a human-powered, self contained loop, but packrafts have big disadvantages on flat, meandering, and wind-exposure prairie rivers.  A genuinely windy day, like we had on the White Cliffs stretch of the Big Mo a year and a half ago, could easily flip a packraft, and fairly modest, consistent winds (like I had my first full day hiking) can grind a packraft (even a flat, lower one like the Curiyak I used) to a halt.  If I were to bring a packraft I’d try very hard to get as much water as possible.  10,000 cfs would be ideal, and with big water experience I don’t think 17,000 would be too scary (nothing beyond the usual compression waves, sand waves, and submarine log hazard).

Getting those flows at all is tricky, getting them with hikable or bikeable trail is yet trickier.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR1477.

The MDH is a sublime piece of singletrack, and currently spans almost 150 miles along the Little Mo.  When M and I first visited well over a decade ago it was only 100, connecting the two main units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which explains my initial and long standing desire to connect those two places with floating and hiking or biking.  The clay soil found throughout the area will be familiar to anyone who has ridden at 18 Road in Fruita, or done any hiking along Muddy Creek in the San Rafael Swell.  When wet it is not to be trifled with.  The badlands along the Little Mo are fantastically corrugated, and hold wind-drifted snow well after spring has happened.  I walked across plenty of drifts, and experienced consistent sticky stretches on damp, sheltered aspects.  When this lasts for 50-100 meters you can clean your shoes and pole baskets and move along.  A week earlier and I think much of the trail would have been unhikable.

I spent a bit of the 7 hour drive east thinking about the stylistic aspects of choosing to hike, rather than bike, what I knew from previous experience to be ideal mountain biking terrain.  I had a pack to test, and though that being on feet would make it easier to manage potential mud, along with letting me bring a lighter packraft.  The final stretch through the national park, with huge 360 degree views and bison for company, is also superior to the Buffalo Gap trail bypass around the park.  In the end I had no regrets, and enjoyed the different dynamic of walking speed.  In the Bob or Yellowstone you spend the better part of a day, or multiple days, traveling up, down, or across one feature in the landscape.  In the North Dakota badlands, you’ll head three drainages and cross a major plateau in the course of an hour.  The rhythm was unique.  I’m quite excited to go back and ride all of it.

Lastly, the impacts of the oil shale boom are very evident along the Little Mo.  I was using the 2005 Trail Illustrated map, which showed one section of the MDH as not crossing a road for eight miles.  There were a dozen (!) road crossings in that stretch.  The whole trip had few moments where one could float or walk for an hour and remain out of site of a well or pump.   That said, it all amounted to something which was remarkably unobtrusive.  Perhaps we’re inoculated to the sight of linear dirt strips.  Perhaps it was the loudness of the frogs at each of the many, brimming full stock tanks.  Perhaps it was the abundant wildlife (bison, bighorns, an osprey attacking canada geese, more mule and whitetail deer and pronghorn than I could easily count) which didn’t seem to mind (no elk, significantly).  With places like the Bob in my backyard it’s easy to be a snob about doing trips which never cross a road, but the Little Mo was a clear reminder that wildness can take many forms.

The place is a long way from almost anywhere, which has and will likely go a long way towards keeping it at least fairly wild.