Alpacka Explorer 42 review

We spent a lot of time thinking about this one.  Our need for a second large packraft, to compliment our Double Duck, was obvious.  You really can’t paddle more difficult water with a kid in your lap, one previous option to getting both kids out of the front of the Duck, and we needed to get both kids out of the Duck.  That boat wasn’t made for hauling, and the small tubes in the front start to drag and drastically reduce maneuverability with much above 50 pounds.  Both kids (now 3 and 6) do fit in the Duck, and can often get along in tight quarters, but being able to separate them is a key strategic asset. 

I saw two distinct approaches; a smaller boat to minimize weight for backcountry stuff, or a bigger boat that would be able to carry both kids well into the future.  This last approach could minimize weight as well, if the second adult came along in a smaller raft.  

We thought long about the Mule, at 7.3 pounds (plain floor with cargo fly) and 52 inch inner length.  That size would carry one kid, for at least a while.  We thought less long about the 70 inch long and 13+ pound Forager, mostly due to weight, but also the reduced options committing to a big raft would involve.  We eliminated the Oryx over concerns the length/width ratio and seating would not be good in whitewater.  The Ex42, with 62 inch and 8.3 pound (with cargo fly), seemed like the ideal compromise; big enough for two kids, more than big enough for one, probably big enough for two adults occasionally, and small enough to paddle solo when need or desire dictated, and well suited to hauling that moose out of the Bob when I finally draw.  The Ex42 is also a good bit cheaper than the Forager or Oryx.  

All that has proven to be a wise estimate.

The high volume cargo hull has performed exceptionally across circumstances.  Two kids, one kid, one kid plus mountain bike, two kids plus overnight gear inside, a second adult, or just alone with day gear, the Explorer 42 paddles well everywhere.  It is fast, for a packraft, on flatwater, but pivots well and navigates class III no problem.  The long flat section of the hull does tend to spear into waves and features of a certain size, an inevitable tendency given the dimensions, one notably not meaningfully exacerbated by weight and or passengers in the bow.  On class IIish scale features the boat is quite dry.  I do appreciate how the hull design packs a lot of float into modest length, a relevant consideration for running skinny water, and for reducing the consequences of a wrap.  My only issue is the extent to which the stern section protrudes further into the waterline than other packrafts, and thus is more likely to get hung up than seems strictly necessary.  The same long flat section of hull makes it almost, sorta possible to edge the Ex42, canoe style.   It still paddles like a packraft, but varies enough from the main line to be interesting for the packraft connoisseur.  

Detailing, such as it is, is primarily good.  The long, thick seat works well providing additional stiffness (laterally and longitudinally) and keeping two passengers off the rocks and out of the water.  The kids do dispute the right to sit on the leading edge, suggesting that the ideal two kid outfitting would involve a full length seat, or an additional scout seat to take up that forward space.  For our use thus far, I don’t mind the lack of any sort of backband or support, but those with less ideal seated posture have wanted this.  The only modification I’ve made is gluing in a rear grab handle right above the end of the cargo zipper.  I find the roll out and grab maneuver essential on swift and tight creeks, and the lash points down near the point of the stern are utterly useless in this respect.  Perhaps they are down there to provide a grab loop for rescuing swimmers?  Speaking of that cargo zipper, for all the irritation it can create with micro leaks, having one on a family boat is mandatory.  Packing for an overnight with multiple kids is dead easy with the cargo fly, approaching or perhaps exceeding the ease of a canoe or big raft.  Most encouragingly, the build quality seems to be improved over out past Alpackas.  This is the first of the now six boats we’ve had from them that didn’t have some sort of wrinkle or oddity in the taping.  

We anticipate having the Ex42 still in heavy rotation many years hence.  We may not need to buy another multiperson raft again, as LB has been keen enough building his solo paddling skills that by the time both kids don’t fit in the Ex42 together, he’ll more often than not be paddling himself.

National Parks; the future is still now

The national parks are crowded, or rather, they have been.  The pandemic reduced and altered visitation in potentially unexpected ways which are worth pondering.  Anecdotally, visitation is back close to or has exceeded the previous records, which were generally set in the latter half of the last decade.  This seems to be the COVID outdoor boom complimenting and exacerbating the already-in-progress parks and hiking boom, itself set in motion by the yet to be fully quantified combination of social media culture, industrial tourism, and urban malaise.

Glacier National Park has, this summer, been both an exception and an adherent to this trend.  This spring Glacier responded to government COVID policy, pandemic related staffing challenges, and the long standing crowding issues in the park with a ticketed entry and shuttle bus system.  Advanced tickets are required to go through either of the main park entrances between 0600 and 1700, and additional tickets are required to ride the shuttle buses which service Going to the Sun Road, and have historically made parking and point to point dayhikes easier to manage.  The number of total tickets made available in unclear, with the park claiming various numbers at various times, and suggesting the totals may be revised upwards as possible.  The caveat, which the park service was strident in advertising, has been that they did not anticipate parking shortages in popular areas to be much addressed by the tickets, rather they were attempting to prevent the cluster of last summer, when cars backed the .86 of a mile to the highway, with safety concerns requiring road closures

The tickets entry system appears to have exceeded expectations here.  M and I visited the park on a weekly basis from 2010 to 2016, when we lived in either Whitefish or Kalispell, and have never seen parking along the road as widely available as it has been in the past month.  Traffic in the park generally appears to be reduced, as well.  We’ve found mid-day weekend parking at Logan (not Logan’s) Pass on multiple occasions with less than 5 minutes of circling, ready parking at Sunrift Gorge at 1000 on a Sunday, and scored a campsite at Two Medicine having arrived just before noon on a Saturday.  Conclusive evidence this is not, but for me also far exceeds the threshold of the mere anecdote.  Rocky Mountain National Park implemented a broadly similar system this summer, and other parks with similar crowding and traffic issues, such as Arches, are considering it.

Glacier has been quite candid that the pandemic is simply the catalyst, or excuse, to put this into practice.  It is past time.  As I wrote four years ago, the park service has for decades been failing in its full mission, providing a volume of experiences increasingly lacking in quality and depth.  This is a global phenomenon, with places as diverse as Venice and New Zealand publicly debating how to make tourism a sustainable basis for their economies and ways of life.  The NPS’ mandate is not explicitly financial, but visitor management will be intimately tied to the policies and futures of the states and communities in which the parks reside.  No one, no one who can find a room or table that is, will prefer the Springdale, UT of today to the one of 15 years ago.  Crowding in the front country flattens the economy of a place into sameness, plain, efficient, reassuring, sameness.  The same crowding in the backcountry takes away, past a certain point, the unhuman novelty from which parks (and wild places, generally) get their appeal.

The question now is which way forward.  In Glacier, lots of people are protesting, about the inconvenience of more carefully planning their trip, of having to bend their schedules to that of anything else, or loosing money to the tourists that go somewhere more “free.”  This is the myopic American ideal of freedom, which can’t see out of its cloud well enough to avoid large trees.  My hope is that the NPS will continue their current path, and let the details evolve while the assumption of limited, higher quality visitation slowly becomes taken for granted.

Challenge Ultraweave abrasion testing

Advanced (read: non-nylon) woven fabrics have spent most of the past decade promising to upend standard performance to weight ratios, especially where backpacks are concerned.  Standard and hybrid cuben laminates have been a disappointment in this respect, with inadequate durability and poor balance between performance and cost.  The hype and rhetoric associated with hybrid cuben packs, most specifically the marketing prowess of Hyperlite Mountain Gear, has made a (perhaps the most) significant contribution towards mainstreaming non-traditional pack fabrics, which has resulted in larger interest and market share, and thus the development in recent years of more diverse options in pack fabrics.

Challenge fabrics Ultraweave* is the most interesting pack fabric of the past decade, due to both specs and availability.  100% woven dyneema has been around for almost all of that decade, and used as a halo product by several manufacturers, but maintaining this status has prevented it from being widely available, either as fabric or as a finished product.  Ultraweave, which is 2/3 pure dyneema (in essence) and 1/3 polyester promises to be a functional equivalent.  400D Ultra, for instance, claims 7600 taber cycles** and 200+ psi waterproofing at 4.65 ounces a yard.  VX42, by contrast, is 9.3 ounces a yard, an tests to 1700 cycles, while 1000D Cordura is 9.8 oz/yrd, tests to 4000 cycles, and is (approximately) 3 psi waterproof.  800D ultra is 8.1 oz/yrd, and tests to a staggering 10500 cycles.  VX42 has in the roughly 8 years it’s been widely available been my benchmark for a durable pack fabric, meaning that it is adequate for many years of consistent application in all but the most extreme uses, by which I mean canyoneering and severe scrambling and bushwacking.  Doubling that abrasion resistance while halving the weight is a paradigm altering proposition.

I’ve been working with Superior Wilderness Designs since this spring, testing their new Big Wild load hauler.  Earlier this month I received a proto Big Big Wild, 110 liters, made from 400d Ultraweave with an 800D bottom.  My instructions were to break it, if at all possible.  The first few trips suggested that this would not be easy.  Bushwacking and talus dragging did nothing.  back surfing down cutbanks and rolling a loaded pack down hills left it similarly unscathed.  I went old school on a recent trip and lashed the loaded pack to the front of my packraft, a good reminder that running (and portaging) class IV with such an arrangement is less than ideal.  This did confirm that Ultra is as waterproof as claimed, and reinforced my main interest in D-P fabrics, back in the pre-cargo fly era.  As a side benefit, the past weeks dirt was rinsed clear and the fabric looked brand new.

It was obvious at this point that absent a slot canyon trip, field use was going to take years to significantly stress the fabric.  So I resorted to backyard testing.

We live on a paved road downtown, with steep side streets and alleys that have been left gravel due to how icey they’d be in the winter.  They are not graded often, and have plenty of ruts, grass, small, rocks, big rocks, and potholes.  My first test rig involved clipping the grab handle to the trailer hitch.  The pack, stuffed full of heavy blankets***, flopped sideways easily, which was good for testing the sides and side pockets, but didn’t concentrate forces on the base/front interface, whose fabric transition was my primary interest.  It took three laps, increasing in distance, to make a dent in the fabric, and to refine methods and better control the wear area.  I ended up with cord strung across the open hatchback from the rear roof rack bar, with locking carabiners clipped to side compression straps.  The fourth and final lap, with the pack finally secured as I wanted it, was 7/10ths of a mile.  The total test distance from the four laps was just short of 2 miles.  I made sure to not exceed 10 mph, both for safety****, and to eliminate friction/heat buildup as a source of stress.

The damage report was modest.  The second trial got a golf ball sized elliptical hole on the roll top, unsurprising, given the hard plastic in the stiffener.  This trial also wore halfway through a 3/4″ webbing compression strap where it ran against the buckle.  The final, long trial put a pin sized hole in one bottom corner, and wore notably into the bottom daisy chain, though not to the point of being a structural issue.  The 400D fabric was fuzzed up in many areas, while the 800D was essentially unscathed.  Of greatest interest, the side pockets, which were empty but consistently collected dust and rocks in the first three trials, had no holes or significant abrasions, in spite of the extensive folding caused by the drawcord being cinched.  Aside from patching the one hole, the pack was functionally unscathed.  Consistent with field use, a large amount of the dirt staining washed out when blasted my a hose, leaving the pack at a distance looking essentially new.

In summary, Ultraweave lives up to its specs, and to Challenges’ claims of it being as good or better than anything on the market.  The 400 and 800D are certainly the toughest fabrics for the weight I’ve ever seen, with the 800 being clearly tougher than anything else I’ve used, and the 400D probably being as good if not better than the traditional big guns, 1680D ballistics nylon and 1000D cordura.  The question for consumers will be, is this fabric worth the increased cost?  Rockywoods is currently selling Ultra fabrics as Diamondhide, for 15 dollars a foot.  SWD charges 35 dollars more from a 50 liter Long Haul pack in Ultra, as opposed to more conventional poly face fabric laminate.  This distinctly non-halo upcharge makes that particular option an easy choice.

*Challenge currently has their v3 spec sheet posted on their website, which lists drastically reduced taber numbers.  I have the v8 sheet, from which these numbers are taken.  As discussed here my testing supports the higher figures.

**In my frankly extensive experience abrasion resistance is by far the most important metric in a heavy use pack fabric.  Ultra tear numbers are similarly high, 114/117 lb and 187/161 lb for the 400 and 800.  1000D Cordura is 54/47 (tear, not tensile), for reference, and for me anything about 40 lb is effectively bulletproof.

***To simulate a decent load without any point loading and abrasion.

****I had both kids in the back seat as QC observers of pack and camera position.

Summer

A month ago I knew we were in trouble.  In the dead of winter I had plotted a lookout/packraft/hiking trip, hoping the agency optimism in opening slots so early in the summer would lead to cool isolation.  The final road was drifted in, but the scorching days I was there sublimated those into hollow, slushy nothing, and the hot afternoons back up steep bald ridges and over and through one tree per 10 meter deadfall left me hollow, in a way even the most careful retroactive application of salty fries, gatorade, beer, steak, and salad would not cure for a week or more.  At two weeks until the solstice my sun-hollowed eyes were those of August.

Summer in Montana, and I imagine in all higher latitudes, is not the same.  Sudden, excessive daylight, along with the opening of rivers and mountains via preferred human temperatures and the imminent contrast of short December breeds a mania.  A full day can end in a long dinner and still accommodate a decent bike ride or river trip before dark.  With the fullness of spring lingering green and brown and fat, there is little incentive towards moderation.  Once this June I left a long day in the office, took a non-frantic stop at home to load gear and see everyone, drove an hour, did a 12 mile ride to 10 mile paddle, and was almost back home before turning the lights on.  For me there aren’t enough electrolytes or hours of sleep or minutes for processing, and eventually I have to take a pause.

Which is less than ideal when it is this hot outside.

The other weekend that pause was an escape to the mountains and a cabin next to a cool brook.  We stopped at the splash park in Dillon, a mandatory kid destination, which was suddenly made too cold by a thick, 30 minute thunderstorm.  That night I slept out on the porch, and reveled in being woken by lightning at midnight, and in the dawn being almost too cold for my blanket.  That afternoon we launched the family circus on a new-to-us river, wife and big kid in the older big packraft, me and small kid and shuttle bike in the bigger big packraft.  Early in the run I committed the first sin of boating and waited too long to decide to not skirt the submerged log that was almost entirely blocking the right slot, and hit the left line too slowly.  The boulder drop was sucky at those too low, too early flows, and stopped the boat cold, turned us sideways, and poured in 10 gallons in a second or two.  M, whose brace hasn’t been fortified by several months of frantic river trips, spent longer in the embrace and had her boat filled to the virtual gunnels.  That afternoon it was warm enough that no human, be they 22 pounds or 170, minded being soaked.  Later on I misjudged a tight line and smashed my rear dropouts into a boulder, amazing myself with the abuse aluminum will take, and the passing bank fisherfolk with what exactly we were doing.

Riding back to the car I looked forward to guzzling a beer, not realizing until I started driving that I hadn’t looked for my watch in hours, and that somehow it was already well past the kids bedtime, and we had minimal food left in the car.  We drove 40 minutes to civilization for burgers, and the kids stayed awake the whole drive home which took until the very edge of darkness.  I cannot fairly blame them.

That evening I fumbled in our mudroom for the alley lightswitch, having in the past 6 weeks of disuse forgotten its location.

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Werner Shuna v. Corryvrecken

This past winter I finally got a new paddle.  My almost 10 year old 210cm Shuna is still going strong, with the many chips on the blade edges and loosening of the joints not really making a substantive impact amongst the rapids, but I both wanted something new and shiny, and wanted to have two top drawer paddles for both M and myself to use simultaneously.  It was never really a question to go Werner, as the Shuna has been such an unmitigated delight, but with packrafting having expanded and Werner now making their whole catalogue in 4 piece I had plenty of choices.  After much mulling I decided on a Corryvrecken in 205 cm.

The first decision was that I did not want to get a whitewater paddle.  Werner’s whitewater paddles feel substantially heavier in the hand, and don’t come with the adjustable feather of the touring paddles.  The Shuna has been burly enough for my needs, and I find the adjustable feather invaluable paddling into those inevitable afternoon headwinds, so this was an easy choice.  That said, with the Shuna already in the quiver it made sense to go in a more whitewater specific direction, with a shorter shaft and larger blades.  You can get the Corryvrecken in 200 cm, but I was worried that in a shaft that short I would loose versatility (specifically, not being able to use it comfortably with our wider 2 person packrafts).  I seriously considered getting a fancy carbon paddle, but the performance to dollar ratio seemed off, especially with the standard fiberglass blades being the most durable choice.  That Alpacka stocks the 205 Corryvrecken made the choice easier still, as I could use a discount code.

As promised, the new paddle feels quite distinct from the old.  Tight new joints are welcome.  The shorter length is without question less comfy in the big boats, and in the smaller ones on hours-long mellow paddles.  It is also sharper and faster in whitewater.  The Corry blade is just over 100 square cm larger, a distinction which is very evident.  I’m not yet strong enough to turn the big blade over for hours on flatwater, but the added backbone when bracing and steering, especially in aerated water, has been a huge positive.  Using the longer Shuna for mellower stuff and the shorter Corry in the steeps has worked just as well as you would think.

As a bonus, I can mix and match the blades.  The Corry gets a good bit of its length from the blades, so the Shuna blades on the shorter shaft make for a rather short 198 cm paddle.  The Corry blades on the longer shaft makes for a lengthy 214 cm paddle, which does work nicely for pushing our Explorer 42 fast on moving water.

The fade on the new blades is pretty fun, too.

Montana stream access law and use

The fact of increased outdoor recreation in Montana, prompted by the pandemic and ancillary effects, has yet to be fully established.  Compelling evidence has begun to accumulate, in things like real estate prices, hunting tag applications, and forest service cabin reservations.  What has already been firmly established is the appearance and assumption of increased recreation pressure, and one of the more notable impacts thus far has been increased signing along streams and rivers.  Because of this, and what I will call aggressive signage practice, it is worth examining Montana stream access law in detail.

One can read the law itself, which is remarkably concise and direct, here.  One can read an exhaustive and illuminating historical overview of the law here.  One can read a more concise and modern, political discussion of the history here.

I was in graduate school taking a winter term course on the state legislative process in January 2009, and got well side tracked from lobbying about sex offender treatment by the bridge bill controversy, a series of competing bills which ultimately was resolved by codifying access to waterways via any public road bridge.  Talking to Kendall Van Dyk, then state representative and now with the Montana Land Reliance, I didn’t really get it.  After years of floating and exploring Montana rivers and streams, I do get it.  In the Curran case (discussed below) the Montana Supreme Court stated that “…any surface waters that are capable of recreational use may be so used by the public without regard to streambed ownership or navigability for recreational purposes.”  This broad ruling is massively significant for the scope of present and future access it provides, but for many of the rivers and creeks in Montana, that access is significantly truncated without meaningful accessibility.  

The Dearborn River is an ideal example.  At top is Little Cloud, looking cute on the lower Dearborn this past weekend.  Virtually all of the Dearborn outside the Bob flows through private land, and because of Montana law, anyone can float, fish, and camp along it provided they do so below the ordinary high water mark.  Were it not for access from the 3 highway bridges, this ~50 mile stretch of river would not be accessible to the public.  The Dearborn was the river in question during the Curran case, which involved a rancher with extensive holding attempting to exclude public use within his property boundaries.  Fortunately, the supreme court used the case to establish very broad and deeply rooted stream access rights.KIMG0075 (2)

The picture above was taken the same day, along the Dearborn, about 3 miles before it empties into the Missouri.  It is the most egregious example of many I’ve seen the past month, of signage aggressively suggesting if not outright intruding into what is technically public ground, that is, ground below the ordinary high water mark.  In the past 12 months, be it along the Dearborn, North Fork of the Blackfoot, or North Fork of the Flathead, relatively high traffic rivers with patchwork private holdings have seen a significant increase in both signage, and in aggressive sign placement.  

Fortunately, there are easy fixes.  First, educate yourself on the law, and obey it.  Recognize that many rivers, like the Dearborn, aren’t going to have many appealing campsites truly below the high water mark.  Avoid being one of the majority of campers who push this limit.  Also recognize that many rivers, like the N Fork of the Flathead, won’t have many good camps below the high water mark when the water is in fact high.  At 9000 cfs options will be limited, so plan on camping on a patch of forest service land.  Second, report violations like the one above.  Fish and Wildlife can hear about what amounts to fisherperson harassment.  One can also, via the Montana Cadastral, look up the property owner and contact them directly to politely request legal and neighborly signage and fencing (the wire above is owned by Mr. Brady Vardemann, 12208 Greenwood Ave N Seattle WA).  

If the legal history of stream access in Montana has taught us nothing else, it is that nothing short of constant vigilance can guard against erosion of this right.

 

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.  

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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.