Nothin’

Sometimes imagination fails, even in the face of skepticism.  One can for instance, almost imagine the canyon above as a tasty series of drops provided the water volume was increased 10 times over.  Imagining when and how often that might actually occur, in the face of an open drainage basin of modest size, is more difficult.  Every 3 years?  Every 5 years?  For a two weeks stretch, or two days?  The creek, bank to bank, and the limited extent of the past 50 million years of erosion, does not provide the wilderness boater much optimism.

The sat photos were not exactly encouraging, when one used tree footprints to extrapolate the creek span.  But last year I was surprised, massively and consistently, with what was floatable.  So I gathered an excessive amount of gear for a day outing and got going.

Most of that stuff got nothing but a ride there and back; drysuit, boat, paddle, PFD, various bags of various dimensions and properties.  My shoes got used well, pushing my bike up eroded ATV grades, sticking to the pedals over last hunting seasons horse pocks, sticking to wet limestone as I traversed along each chute and drop, keeping going until the very end of the canyon, for the sake of completeness and in the hope of seeing something that would justify inflating the boat.  A few places came close, but for all the aesthetic appeal and promise of fun, no stretch promised both 50 continuous yards of boating and rock well padded enough I wouldn’t be begging for a cut.  There was the spring, most of the way to the head of the canyon, gushing through the moss growing out a seam in the limestone, equaling half the volume coming down the main stream.  There was also that final half mile, back down the hill I had pushed up first thing, hopping rocks and dodging rut to rut, hanging my nose ahead of the stem to keep the front tire stuck to the steepest of the dusty descents.  In the end, it was not nuthin.

Tenderfoot Creek packrafting

Tenderfoot Creek is the largest west-running drainage in the Little Belt mountains.  Like the mountains themselves, it is a unique and somewhat obscure place.  It has a public lands story which is worth reading about.  As detailed last week, I’ve been mulling this post for a while.  I discovered (for myself) floating the creek in the best way possible; looking at a map and then going and doing it.  I’ve been back a few times since, and the trips have always been stellar.  The Smith River, into which Tenderfoot flows, has long been exceedingly popular, as an easy, scenic, remote-ish, road accessed float.  The Tenderfoot is far from popular at the moment, though as a fishing and hunting destination it is coming that way.  As a floating destination the time to establish a public use history has arrived.

Tenderfoot itself can be easily split into three distinction sections with significantly different characters.  Upstream from the ranch bridge at the outlet of the South Fork of Tenderfoot Creek at least as far as Rugby Creek the creek is zippy and busy (~100 ft/mile of drop), with continuous class II++ action, and typical for small steepish creeks, complex and fast decision making.  The half mile below the bridge drops into an unexpected, shallow, and very steep gorge (below), with a series of rapids culminating in the 12 foot Tenderfoot Falls.  This gorge (250 ft/mile) often has vertical cliffs coming out of the water on both sides with the creek 10-15 feet across, and very few places to scout or portage.  Wood is a very real concern.

tfoot

A few hundred yards below the falls is the best/only public road access to the creek, and the meandering ~10 miles down to the Smith are far mellower in gradient (40 ft/mile) and hazard.  There are riffles, and as with any smallish backcountry stream wood and brush to worry about, but the Tenderfoot seems far cleaner than most in the genre, at least until a big fire comes through.  Backcountry packrafting is inherently not beginner boating, but the lower Tenderfoot is ideal basic intermediate terrain.

Access and creating routes and loops in the area is not simple.  Road access from the south, down the South Fork, is a good if not short drive from the pavement, and this road can be driven in a passenger car when dry, and if piloted with skill.  That said, folks have been rather surprised to see our FWD Saturn down there.  Hike in access and route possibilities from Monument Ridge to the north is excellent for the packrafter, and I find the drive in along Logging Creek to be the more enjoyable.  The largest obstacle to coherent routes is that floating on the Smith requires a permit, and furthermore, the final ~half mile of the creek passes through private land (owned by the Wilkes Bros, in fact).  Montana stream access law permits wading upstream within the ordinary high water bounds, which is realistic at all but very high flows if you care to float to the Smith without a permit to continue downstream.

The season for floating the Tenderfoot has been hard to pin down.  May, and most if not all of June, seem to be a sure bet.  I imagine April, in early years, and early July, in late melt years, are almost often workable.  The Smith has several gauges, but I’ve never been able to generalize these levels to those observable on the Tenderfoot.  The creek has a big drainage, but none of it is especially high altitude, and almost all of it is heavily timbered.  Lots of snow can build up and linger, with melt off responding more to temperature than solar energy.

It is a special place.  Be careful.

The question

Last week I had the pleasure to be rained on, atop a broad mountain ridge.  Having driven several hours through plains reaching 100 degrees, I found on reaching the top that summer weather had come along with the early summer heat.  Stopped in the car by snow lingering in the trees, I assembled bike and backpack and pedaled up and along in a driving rain, sprinting, inasmuch as one ever could uphill carrying a 40 liter load, when the lightning count got short.  That evening I stayed indoors, watching the sun set over one range, while illuminating another I had never quite known to be in range.

The next day I wandered down a ridge, trying and failing to avoid the prodigious deadfall, and forded a cold creek.  There was a cliff just upstream, a fence just down, and the boulders were the size of ovens and tried to take my feet.  I’ve floated this creek twice before, and a third example has me no closer to correlating apparent conditions with flows.  On this occasion, with only a distant spangling of snow the creek was full, and eagerly crawled around the next bend.   Holes and waves grabbed and tugged, and previously simple plops had me wheelieing downstream, moves out of synch with what the creek had.  The biggest drops were, befitting the theme of this year, stuffed with wood.  In the canyon now, I had to drag my boat upstream, chest deep in thin eddies, to a spot with enough latitude to ferry across and climb a manky chute to the rim.  

KIMG0036 (2)

This creek, and this place, are phenomenal.  And in equal parts, ephemeral.  The season for floating is short.  The access is indistinct, and none of the ways in are short.  The setting is big, with a scale and a profusion of trees that flattens out the mountains and hides them in front of you, until you’re downclimbing through old growth spruce, kicking granite lumps down to the elk paths, or following up one of the fall line horse trails.  The place is, in short, one of those ranges whose incremental obscurity combines with scenery a few notches off of what we find most accessible, and keeps it unnoticed.  The lack of capitol letter designations, of the W and NP, helps.

The duality of name brand designation, and especially the associated marketing, has in the past decade established itself far too well.  Protection from resource extraction and development was as complicated as protection from tourist development a half century ago.  Protection from the information and attention economy has proven a task more difficult than either.  If the essence of the wild is, in brief, in novelty relative to human experience, how can we humans protect it from ourselves?

The easy answer is to shut up.  Documentation killing mystery is in the internet age as basic as one plus one.  And when it comes to the place here mentioned, I’ve mostly done that, though if I were truly committed to wouldn’t drop enough hints and photographs to easily guide those with a bit of knowledge.  The more complex answer has to do with the future, and the seeming inevitability of restrictions.  Across the west parks and forests have management and travel plans that have not been substantively updated in decades.  Added traffic is forcing this process, and making for updates that must be both sweeping and potentially radical.  Having no track record of a use like packrafting (or cycling) makes for a shortage of leverage when the time comes, and while hiding things from land managers which are new and potentially controversial can work well for a long time, increasingly is does not seem to be a sustainable approach.

I made my choice over 4 years ago, when I put the full(ish) version of the Crown guidebook up for sale.  Whether and how this will prove a good influence, long term, has yet to be decided.  And because of that I struggle; what level of conversation and documentation is most appropriate, long term, for other places?

2021 Bob Open report

Moore photo.

This, the 10th Bob Marshall Wilderness Open, took place under the influence of unusual weather.  This can be said most years, which is the point of going in late May rather than July, but was in 2021 more true than normal.  10 days out from the start a large storm moved through, with precipitation concentrated along the Rocky Mountain Front, with the original start point up the South Fork of the Teton just north of the epicenter.  Several feet of snow fell up high over a period of 48 hours, began to melt during a brief warming spell, and then saw another 6-12 inches before the end of the weekend.  Due to possible access and avalanche issues I called the start south to the Home Gulch campground with 6 days to go, and all of the 25 people who lined up had both snow accumulation and snow melt in mind.  Additionally, several prodigious wind events from the winter had left exceptional deadfall littered throughout the Bob complex.  Snow, stream crossings, and deadfall were all more urgent and variegated route factors than usual.

From the start groups split immediately three ways, majorities going either west along Gibson Reservoir or south up Home Gulch, and a few folks going west and south along the Beaver Creek road.  Most of the Gibson groups headed up either Straight Creek or the South Fork of the Sun River, aiming to access the North Fork Blackfoot drainage via a variety of routes; Stadler Pass, Observation Pass, or one of several ways up around the south flank of the  Scapegoat massif.  Stadler is noteworthy for being the longest and lowest of the options, and featured plenty of deadfall.  Word had gotten out to the Forest Service about the winter storms, and an early start to trail maintenance had the main trail cut all the way through Danaher meadows, well ahead of normal, and making this long route the likely quickest variation.  Observation Pass, and especially the ridge leading south, was an appealing blend of reduced distance and modest cumulative elevation gain.  The problem for these folks seems to have been in the trail down the headwaters of the Dry Fork, which down to the main trail proved to be very ill maintained indeed.  Fatigue, morale, and timing for floating the lower stretches of the Blackfoot made these routes more complicated in execution than may have at first seemed obvious.

The south flank of Scapegoat looks intimidating from a distance, but the upper valleys of the Dearborn, North Fork of the Blackfoot, and Straight Creek all reach 6500 feet on well graded trail, and past fire activity combines with higher elevation flora to make deadfall less of a concern than elsewhere.   Aspect proved crucial here, as the previous 3 warm, sunny days had melted off the previous weekends storms almost totally.  One route up to the snowy flanks might be on dirt up to 7000 feet, while another started wallowing nearly a thousand feet lower.  Most of the folks who went south from the start took a southern route around Scapegoat, with many getting there via Welcome Pass and Smith Creek, a route which due to the aforementioned minutia was almost free of deadfall and snow.  Mileage wise this was a slightly shorter line than any of the northern options, at the cost of significantly more minor passes adding up to twice or more the elevation change.  Moreso than in years past there was a clean split in the tradeoffs between these two larger options.

Several parties went for a variation of the original start, and went up the West Fork of the Sun to Nesbit Pass, not a low or low snow option, but a straightforward one given the neighborhood.   All these folks were understandably set on floating the North Fork of the Sun, and had good but not excessive levels for it.  Fate was kind given the circumstances, with the 2-4 days most spent on route lining up exactly between when the new snow melted off, and when the new and old snow, finally in the first grip of summer, truly swelled the creeks and rivers in earnest.  By 6 days after the start, the South Fork of the Sun and the North Fork of the Blackfoot were close to or above all time records for the time of year.  While a everyone had at least one big and chilly crossing, hardly anyone was really put into logistical difficulty by a ford.

The Bob Open is only tacitly a packrafting promoting vehicle, but being out there in late May almost inevitably favors the options and speed pocket floating affords.  On only two previous occasions has the quickest finisher(s) been on foot (2016 and 2020, though 2019 was bloody close).   This year the finish well outside the main complex presented two stark options in the final section; either head out the N Fork Blackfoot and float at least 40 miles straight to the finish, or come out through a Youngs Creek neighbor, and surf state land through the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA to the finish.  Several public land options existed here, with none particularly obvious, something that highlights the convenience of being inside the Bob proper.  Water levels were ideal for a fast float finish, with most folks taking between 5 and 6 hours to make the 40 miles from the end of the crux whitewater on the North Fork of the Blackfoot (something most chose to portage) to the end.  Walking, on the other hand, took quite a bit longer, with most folks making the sensible choice to end things at the edge of the proper wilderness, and those who did not putting a significant part of a day into a heinous road walk.

In the end the point of this whole endeavor, and the particulars which emanate from that end, are only defined by the folks out there walking.

My 2021 Bob Open

The thick green water of the North Fork took half a mile to give in and intermingle with the flat milky water of the main Blackfoot.  Black spruce limbs, broken ragged and hidden two dimensionally in the river floated past, the breeze pushing gently upstream.  I looked backwards and saw an intact, dead tree floating 100 yards behind, dozens of limbs proud of the water by ten feet or more, the total lack of green needles and abundant flowing moss equally obvious in the perfect afternoon clarity.  Eager to stay clear I layed into my paddle for the next three bends, after which I forgot it entirely.  In that moment, new to the humbling of the river in full flood and pursued by the landscapes ghost, I could almost hear Geoffery Rush growling “run out the sweeps.”

Two facts about a fast walk across the Bob stayed in the front of my mind all last week.  One, that I hadn’t finished the Open since 2016, and two, that I had never been the quickest.  In both 2013 and 2016 I had been second, though 2015, by almost a solid day my longest route, remains the most enjoyable.  This encapsulated the dilemma well, especially as Saturday wore on.  By design the Open is not easily competitive.  I currently have compelling reason to think I was the fastest finisher this year, but I do not yet, and may never, know for certain.  In the moment it is a slippery, pointless, and yet essential end to pursue, if your goal is going fast.  Pointless because you can never know or control what anyone else is doing, and essential because the pure process goal of being efficient and quick often comes up short when your legs are dead, or you really would rather stay in bed a bit longer.

After deciding to move the start less than a week out, I had some rapid and fun route planning to do.  This ended up being a, if not the, highlight of the trip, as the first ~12 miles through Home and Lime Gulches were very pretty, on infrequently used trail, and the sort of places in the Bob to which I should go, but likely wouldn’t have otherwise.  Loosing the trail for 5-10 minutes in upper Home Gulch ended up being the only route finding mistake of substance I made the whole trip.

Road walking, especially on a hot day, makes it difficult to maintain momentum, but we (Tom and I) did well enough heading over to Smith Creek and the route up to Welcome Pass.  As the afternoon wore on I just could not square the pace and conditions with fatigue and our progress.  Doing some mental math about the elevation gain explained part of that, and better mileage calculations once home explained the rest.  I made Welcome after 11 hours on the move, at least 27 miles, and close to 7k of elevation gain.  Tom, who partially tore his meniscus in a bike wreck several weeks ago, had been hiking on borrowed time all day, and had told me hours before to go when/if he fell back.  At Welcome the numbers were not comfortable; 8 miles to go to the ~8200′ flank of Scapegoat, and maybe 3 hours of functional light to get there.  The map didn’t suggest the descent down the south side would be that troubling, but I still had a strong preference to at least eyeball the shadow before it was fully dark.

I sorta made it.  The crossings of the Dearborn were deep, fast, and very cold, that rivers headwaters being as high and hidden from the summer as is possible in the Bob.  I fired it up along the flats, saw a Moose up in a high meadow, and nailed a great route along the shoulder of Cave Creek the cheated me up to almost 7k on dry dirt.  The snow had, miraculously, already hardened nicely after a warm day, and the snowshoeing was as fast as it gets.  The wheels were starting to come off, attention wise, and my snowshoe binding breaking in the final ascent didn’t make things easier, but I crawled over the top just after 10pm, with enough light to tell I could just bomb off the other side, and enough time to have a snack and savor views out well east of the lights of Augusta.

The descent went from steep scree surfing to postholing through the trees to hitting the switchbacks just as they melted into the open.  My big goal for the day had been the porch of the Carmicheal cabin, but the darkness was quickly stretching the meters into miles, and I threw down camp in the shadow of the first flat spot my headlamp revealed.  I tried to eat some stuff, mostly failed, made a hot water bottle to aid in burning off the sweat in my layers, and fell asleep with twinging legs.  The moon woke me at 330am; I rolled over and went back to sleep until 5.

Dawn revealed the ridge sitting toothy and not far above me, evidence of slow legs after dark.  It was a cold morning, and I was covered in frost, happy to have brought a just warm enough sleeping bag.  I knocked off miles and several very cold creek fords before stopping in the sun for a hot coffee breakfast, designed to set this most crucial moment of the hike definitively in my mind.  The big day yesterday had been a good one, with no mistakes, and thus all the possibility of keeping things rolling all the way to the finish that afternoon.  Doing that just required lots of walking with minimal stops, which was as tough as it was simple, but by a bit after noon I rolled across the road bridge over the N Fork of the Blackfoot, sauntered down to the river, and sorted out my boating stuff while firing back a ton of food, knowing that I would not have to walk another step, and mostly just keep awake and inside my boat to the finish.

Staying awake ended up being much easier than anticipated, as the first stretch of the N Fork had at 1200 cfs some fat wave trains, meaty holes, and quick line choices through channels and wood jams.  Fun stuff, and plenty of potential for carnage.  I averaged around 10 mph for the first hour of floating, which slowed to a bit for the rest of the N Fork before picking up on the main Blackfoot, making for approximately 40 miles of floating in a hair over 5 hours.  I was paddling hard the final hour, racing to get into cell service in time to call M so the kids could do bedtime in the car, which they did.  I helped Hunter and his crew haul their raft up the hill, and they gave me a ride to the gas station at Clearwater Junction (I was assured the big cow, currently absent, is being refurbished and not gone forever).  I ate burritos and drank a beer in the grass, luxuriating in a still existence off my feet.

The final tally was right around 95 miles, 40 floating, in 33 hours and 50 minutes.  6 of those hours were in camp overnight.

The day after my feet were, oddly, about the only thing not sore, my mind being the worst off.  It has been quite a while since I’ve spent a day both awake and as useless.  Fun isn’t the thing with a pace like this, the thing is meaning.  And fully owning a goal as precious as doing this route as clean and fast as I was capable is as meaningful as it gets today.

Finding bargain used gear

Outdoor gear is expensive.  Perhaps not by the standards of motorized sports, but certainly compared to jogging or birding or reading books.  Since becoming firmly established in Montana a decade ago I have been cursed by the perceived necessity of cultivating and maintaining equipage for a wide range (mountain biking, alpine and nordic skiing, snowshoing, fly fishing, bow and rifle hunting, packrafting, backpacking, hiking, rock climbing, snow climbing, canyoneering) of pursuits.  Storing all that stuff in a coherent and useable fashion is one issue (for a future post), acquiring it without undue stress is another, a problem with good, sustainable, and not necessarily obvious strategies.

As in “going light” for any distinct activity, the first and best way to spend less on gear is to have and need less of it.  Start with clothing; you don’t need that much of it, and it is far better to buy better and less and simply have things dialed and predictable and that work for places on most days.  Beyond specialist items like a drysuit and chamois shorts the clothing I use changes little one activity and even season to the other.

When it comes to actually purchasing outdoor clothing, buying on sale and out of season goes a long ways.  This has been somewhat less the case the last few years, due to either demand or smarter wholesale purchasing, but the good sales direct from major brands often equal prodeal discounts.  But that is not interesting advice.  What we’re hear to discuss is finding truly exceptional deals on used gear, which is the way to save on the truly big ticket hard good items.

By way of example, the other day I visited a favored emporium whose specific name and location will remain a mystery.  They are not an outdoor specialist, but do sell a decent amount of consignment outdoor gear.  I’ve very occasionally found shockingly good deals there over the years, including last winter a full length Neoair Uberlight for 10 dollars.  On this recent visit I was intrigued enough to purchase a nice pair of Lake MXZ300s (sized up a full size, ideal for cold weather) for 15 dollars.  Towards the end of our (me and the 3 year old) rounds, I saw, crumpled on the floor under a rack, a distinctive combination of red and black and grey nylon in just the right shade and texture.  Further examination revealed an older, but pristine, Kokatat semi dry suit, with relief zip and fabric booties.  Even further examination revealed the zippers, gaskets, and inside laminate to be lacking in obvious issues.  Further examination once I got home revealed a Kokatat fleece onesie inside (it felt a bit bulky).  The price?

50 dollars.  This for the older, almost functional equivalent of what I bought for 750 dollars back in January.

The place to find deals like this is not an established, well stocked used gear store.  Second Wind Sports in Bozeman has the widest and deepest selection of used outdoor stuff I’ve ever seen in one place, by a large margin.  They also have, with few exceptions, the most outrageous consignment prices I’ve ever seen.  500-600 for a clapped out pair of AT skis and bindings, 240 dollars for an absolutely worked over HMG 3400, 80 for a well used Osprey daypack.  Whether this is due to demand volume, or to Brozonians wanting 100% return on their brodeals, I do not know, but I feel safe in assuming that (in a similar vein) Wabi Sabi is a much more expensive place to find used fleece jackets than it was 16 years ago.  Perceived scarcity is highly relevant here.

The same rules apply to Craigslist, Ebay, etc.  Outstanding deals can be had either when the seller is not overly worried about resale, or when they are not aware of what they have.  Ski swaps can be good places for the former, as people are often clearing the shed and motivated by timeliness over maximizing return.   For example, the Dynafit and the Fischer skis shown at top were both had for (the magic figure of) 50 bucks at separate ski swaps.   Going off topic at swaps and sales is also often a solid tactic; looking for things like camping or climbing gear, or headlamps, as people seems less picky about pricing.  The caveat with any of this is time.  There are certain places and instances where good stuff is more probable, but it is still a numbers game.

The other caveat, especially with hard goods, is that a certain, considerable amount of technical background is immensely helpful.  Being able to recognize what a thing is at a glance, and then evaluate if it is in suitable condition and at a price that suits you, potentially all in a few moments while the rush of a swap goes on around you, is not simple.  And the best way to violate the first rule, above, is to buy something just because it is a good deal.

Finally, it is worthwhile to consider which expensive gear items are unapologetically worth it.  For years I’ve used a heavy, ancient (bought in 2004 for $99), janky, increasingly leaky, drysuit, without a relief zipper.  Since buying a new, much lighter one this winter I’ve both brought it more often (as it actually takes up less space than my boat), and been warmer and even drier.  Should have done that quite a while ago.  There are plenty of other examples, things that either make an appreciable difference while in the woods, or enable a whole new pursuit, that for me are always more fulfilling purchases than just another jacket.

My favorite

In the past few years May has firmly become my favorite month of the year.  In May Montana straddles winter and summer perfectly, presenting all the essential virtues of both with few of the downsides of either.  Days are long, longer than easily used awake.  Rivers and creeks and ridgetops and bowls are all full of water, the kind you want, and generally in the proper condition.  Choices are, more than any other time of year, limited only by time, and by motivation.

We’ve had an extra extraordinary May this year, with excellent weather topped off the past week by a huge storm that brought record breaking precip and cold to our corner of the state.  Plenty of folks don’t see the virtue in that, not the kids who wore sandals to school last Friday and saw the snow pile up all day, nor the people who used the previous sunny weekend to put in plants only to see them buried and then frozen (our corn seedlings, at 10 inches tall, stood proud for 48 hours before finally giving in to the second wave of snow, I do not think they weil recover).  But those of use who love this month, and the woods generally, for its very kaleidoscopicism cannot but appreciate the unlooking way nature has kicked human routine repeatedly in the shins over the past week.

My own absence here has been much to do with this very richness of opportunity.  Mountain biking dust, hiking loamy ridges through flowers, rafting clear rivers, snow biking, and powder skiing all happened in the stretch of a week.  

Most significantly, the Bob Open is set for the weekend, with the most interesting and, sort of by extension, most difficult conditions in a decade on tap.  The Wood Creek snotel, usually of little regard past late April when the snow burns out of the mid elevation forests, went from 2 inches to 10 inches to 4 inches back to 10 and then down to 2 inches of snow in the space of 5 days.  The Dearborn River finally woke, and exceeded 1000 cfs and then 2000 cfs for the first time this year, in rapid succession, as rain and sun blasted first new and then old snow out of the headwaters.  The main Blackfoot passed 8000 cfs this morning, and by the time a few of use are on it some time Sunday afternoon I imagine it will be over 10k, which will be both exciting and expedient.  

Over the weekend I made the easy decision to move the start south, to a place more consistently accessible by vehicle, and lacking necessary avalanche exposure on the most obvious initial routes.  For an event that embraces being a non-event having to fall back on conservative decision making seems odd, especially given that we have intentionally and deliberately, tried to avoid attention whenever possible while still being an Open event.  Even before the pandemic outdoor boom I worried about the Open attracting knuckleheads, and about the to the uninitiated outrageous idea of scampering across the Bob this time of year casting packrafting in a problematic light.  After all, this might be the year that sees packraft traffic on the South Fork of the Flathead force the first definitive step towards a permit system.

For the moment I can luxuriate in my planned route, selected via the usual criteria of novelty and the likelihood of sharing it with no one, and of the certainty of adventure and solitude.  It was an usually beautiful winter in our valley, and the promise of a similarly beautiful spring and summer is now guaranteed.  Lurking in the background is the equal certainty that this will be a summer that changes outdoor-ism in the United States forever.  Pandemic restrictions, moreso but also combined with the increase in traffic, has accelerated the inevitable.  On the one hand purposive neglect (by some within the system) has kept wild places wilder, restricting traffic via crowding, small parking lots, lack of toilets, poor roads, hidden and ill maintained trails.  In as much as demand has forced the issue (4500 applications for advanced backcountry permits in Glacier), even more significant has been extraordinary circumstances giving managers an excuse to shift the paradigm.  Glacier put a permit system in place for driving Going to the Sun Road, indeed for using the the main park entrances at all.  Last year was crowded.  So was 7 years ago.  In 2021, we think about things differently.

It will be an important thing to keep in mind this year.

Unexpected turbulence

This year was one of the few mother’s days in the past decade with my mom and I in the same place, and to celebrate the occasion we went packrafting in the snow.  Our intention was the lower Dearborn, that is to say the final 20 miles down to the Missouri, which is engaging, scenic, and in a small boat straightforward.  Drizzle turned to snow going north out of town, and while descending towards Wolf Creek and seeing the snow line drop to only a few hundred feet above the creek, I rerouted.  We would paddle the next 10 miles upstream, from highway 200 to highway 287.  I had not done that stretch, but it promised few surprises, and halving our time on the water seemed a good way to ensure that even in drysuits, no one turned into a popsicle.

The float was chilly and beautiful.  It snowed lightly the entire time, only transitioning to drizzle perhaps 20 minutes before we took out.  That stretch of the Dearborn proved both predictable and surprising.  The prairie and mountain scenery was gorgeous.  The riverbed, cobbles representing the whole range of Bob Marshall geology, was enthralling.  And the floating threw out a few curveballs,  We had three barbed wire fence portages, two of which were rather hard to see from any distance.  I’ve never seen more intense beaver activity, and wood hazard, than we saw for a mile in the middle bit.  And that same flat middle section provided a lesson in surprise hazards on the river.

screenshot-map

Occasionally, rivers cut new channels.  You can see an excellent example above, from that stretch of the Dearborn.  The bands of riparian vegetation newly interrupted by the river is evidence of fairly recent turbulence, enough to cause the river to move right from the previous channel.  Anything like this is a reason to start paying extra attention, as new channels usually mean new wood and debris.  A new channel heading straight into mature forest, especially spruce, is almost always a reason to expect portages.

screenshot-2018

When to expect these, especially on a backcountry float without recent reports, is an important skill.  A simple big flow is generally not enough to reshape river channels, especially on a mountain stream or river which both have big seasonal variations and large variations of peak flows, year to year.  The Dearborn usually gets a sustained pulse in May and June.  In 2018, big snows that lingered in the prairie made that variation bigger than usual, and a sudden warm up in mid June pushed a pulse out of the high mountains that was 10 times the usual peak, and set a record for that time of year.  The same pulse drastically reshaped the lower 10 miles of Danaher Creek.

My thesis is that a pulse exponentially greater than the mean high stage introduces enough turbulence, crammed into the same space, that disruption of old channels can almost be expected.  This seems to happen more often on stretches with less gradient, which presumably have less latitude for absorbing the chaos.  Taking a deep dive on fluvial geomorphology can provide a lot of entertainment here.

A Walk in the Woods

There was some trepidation associated with the start.   We had three long term ideas of mine intersecting; crossing the Bob on the tail end of winter, combining the South and Middle Forks in one trip, and doing (another) big skiraft.  We also had very large and heavy packs, our inability to get everything inside, and the evolving order of crap strapped outside as the days wore away, giving evidence of this as new mental terrain.

There was a lot of snow.  Given the sun of the past month we had assumed we’d be hiking on dirt well up Monture.  That happened, but we were also firmly in oversnow mode by the cabin 8 miles up, and that first evening camped on the last island of dirt, atop the cutbank above the creek, where a hair more southern exposure provided an island of spring in the face of the winter, which now loomed above to the west, east, and north.  The skiing, in my case, was excellent the second day, and Tom got his snowshoe revenge on the long 5 mile traverse through the trees, where my 186cm planks had me stuck multiple times climbing through the abundant deadfall.  That afternoon we were back in spring, as a twist in the trail gave us dirt, and the continued impacts of the titanic wind storms this winter made us endless mice in a matchstick puzzle.  We made the Hahn Creek cabin by 4pm, and gave ourselves a present of staying there, drying our stuff and having a leisurely dinner around the fire, and going to bed well before dark.

Things went wrong the next day.  Youngs Creek was fat, clear, and glassy, ideal conditions and a meditative float for the miles before the gorge got going.  Tom flipped in the first (and hardest) rapid, making the drop clean before being pasted on to the wall below and rolled upstream.  My difficulty in helping him after highlighted the scant eddies on this fast stretch.  We avoided that peril a few miles later when I spotted the log at the last minute.  Tom portaged, prudently, while I ducked under the far left before ferrying right around a toothy limestone block.  I didn’t quite get far enough, kissed the right edge with my left cheek, and instantly felt my boat collapse around me.  I barely made the willows with enough air to paddle.

The cut was big, 14 inches, with the final 2.5 through both the floor and the tube.  Most troubling, the cut was right up against the tube, with mere millimeters of flap to work with.  I instantly knew this was going to be an iffy repair, and not doable wedged into the willows while it snowed on us.  Tom made his way down to me as without much thought I yard sale’d all my gear in anticipation of no longer paddling.  Tom made the sensible suggestion that we load everything possible into his boat, which I would paddle down to a good camp on the South Fork, while he hiked with my awkward skis and a few other things.  That ended up not including his bear spray, which he wanted when a Griz carrying a moose carcass popped out of the brush at 25 yards.

In the end I could not repair my boat.  I don’t regret hitting the rock; I’ve done so in a functionally identical manner hundreds of times and just happened to get unlucky this time (exacerbated, perhaps, by weight inside the tubes).  I do regret not having a more extensive repair kit, and aim to cure the complacency years of doing things the same way and getting away with it has surely bred.  I’ve now cut the floor of a boat twice, and in neither occasion was patch n’ go or tyvek tape able to fix it.  I also don’t regret our quick and easy decision to bail out the Danaher and Blackfoot.  Without a bomber repair to my boat going deeper into the Bob was simply not worth considering, and Tom and I did well to not give temptation any space.

So we had a long walk out with heavy packs containing lots of stuff we weren’t going to use any more.  We did need skis and snowshoes again, shockingly close to the trailhead, and had an extra mile of snowy road walking to find the car.  By some standards the trip was a failure, due to bad luck and inadequate preparation.  By others it was a smashing success, due to good partnership and a nice place at a special time of year.  We saw no one, obviously, and left carrying the immense quiet that only comes from somewhere so before and beyond civilization.

The Youngs Creek log

Longtime readers and those who have read the guidebook know that I’m not big on packraft beta.   The judgment that comes running with first descent eyes is a prerequisite in the wilderness, and a major part of my decision to put the guide out at all was to drive education as packrafting gets (a bit?) more popular.  That said, I think about everyone 5 years ago expected packrafting to grow faster than it has, at least insofar as backcountry is concerned.  That time may have belatedly come, as Alpacka is currently running a 4 month waiting list.  What sort of boom might the Bob see this summer?

Last summer a friend of a friend took a swim in lower Youngs Creek.  lost his boat, and had a good scare.  A friend and I ran Youngs this past week, had our own adventure (more later), and got a good look at the log which prompted the Forest Service to leave to signs (propped on sticks) at different spots before the Youngs crux, warning of what is downstream.

I’ve always been ambivalent about Youngs.  On the one hand it is a fun and gorgeous stretch.  On the other, it is not a trivial section, with a few tricky moves and, especially at even moderate flows, a lot of push.  Calling the South Fork of the Flathead wilderness flatwater may be accurate relative to something like the Middle Fork of the Salmon, but there are enough exceptions that especially for novices the phrase misleads, drastically.  Youngs Creek could have a lot of carnage this year if runoff doesn’t move the log.   Enough that I am moved to be specific.

youngslog

There are actually two logs (red marks at left photo).  The first is a mature lodgepole spanning almost the whole river right below The Pool, a large and later in the summer gorgeously clear eddy at the end of a long riffle.  The danger here is twofold, as running right in the riffle will put you straight into the log, and while running left provides a good setup, you still might not see the log until you’re already parked far river left.  The second log is a broken up larger spruce, which also almost spans the whole river.  Portaging is possible, but brushy, on either side.

Either log could and very possibly will move in the next six weeks.  There is still a lot of snow in the mountains.  Perhaps more significant, the record wind storms we had in west-central Montana in January and February (multiple 80+ year old trees were blown over here in town) appear to have been widespread across the southern Bob complex, at least.  We experienced exceptional blowdown and deadfall everywhere we went this past week, and a good bit of that will necessarily end up in the rivers.

As always, pay attention and be proactive.