My favorite shoes

This fall I’ve been wearing little other than the Astral TR1 Merge, and for the sort of walking I like to do these days, they are far and away the best pair of shoes I’ve ever had.

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While they don’t have a tremendous number of miles on them, almost all of those miles have been off trail.  They went elk hunting in the Montana prairie badlands, did an alpine traverse on broken granite, went hiking, biking, and climbing in the Colorado Plateau, and have spent more time bushwacking and traversing limestones ridges close to home.  All of those are more abusive on shoes than average, in their own way, and the shoes are holding up perfectly thus far.

Traction across mediums has been excellent.  The lugs grip loose soil, either straight on or sidehill, while having enough surface area for good friction on bare rock.  The rubber is soft enough, without wearing too fast.  The midsole is thick and protective enough, without any hinge points, and without feeling unnatural or slow.  They’re supportive enough, for me, for technical mountain biking using flat pedals, but I can tolerate far softer shoes in all areas than most.  Significantly, the modest padding and added material in the heel and toebox have improved both hold and protection; I’ve not experienced any of the unpleasant talus bites I got often in the Brewers.  The only real flaw is the open mesh used in the toungue, which extends down into the toebox just enough to become a magnet for cheatgrass seeds and a conduit for sand.

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For me, they’ve been supportive enough to carry a 70 pound pack on a few occasions (deer pack out, as well as a family backpack load with a toddler on top).  For me and my feet, support means  enough padding and structure to insulate my feet from the terrain, even when I’m suddenly 50% again my own weight, while being pliable enough to not cause hot spots.  Zero drop is a big part of the later, as is the lack of illusory things like ankle support.  The Merges work for me because they’re a coherent package, the level of support, degree of structure, even the sole and rubber all working to serve one particular style of walking.

That style is a light footed one, based on balancing over terrain and using weaknesses and variations for purchase.  Smearing across the loose wet sidehill, rather the kicking steps.  Working the stable pieces of a talus slope, rather than digging through and into the loosest parts to make steps.  This style is as much about strength and ability as it is about the type and style of trip.  People who regularly take big packs into rough terrain are more often drawn to stiff boots due to pace, and indeed due to their line through a place.  This isn’t to say that fast line, fluid pace shoes are not compatible with a big pack, simply that melding such shoes with a heavy pack requires more than simple strength.  It requires a skillset, and that combination is due to how learning conventionally evolves has historically been uncommon.

That is changing, and as fluid line choice under expedition conditions works further toward the norm, I hope shoes like the Merge remain around as options.

The Frank Open 2021

Bonanza to Fenn Ranger Station.  Saturday April 24th, 0600 MDT. (?)

That’s 126 straight line miles.

Here’s what is in my head about this.  First, that is a big route.  Probably close to 200 miles on the ground.  Second, that time frame has the obvious potential to be quite challenging.  Third, and most important, I don’t know much about the area.  I don’t know which trailheads are plowed regularly, which roads get lots of snow machine traffic, how the more open terrain does or does not melt off come early spring.  I have my guesses about all of these things, but a decade of the Bob Open has taught me repeatedly that guesses aren’t ideal for the organizational aspect.  Adding to the complications, the shuttle from one end to the other is massive, and even six months out we’d all be fools to expect anything in particular of the Coronavirus.

For all of these reasons the Frank Open really isn’t going to be an Open in the sense we’ve come to expect.  Even moreso than usual, this is a route I’ve been eyeing for a long time, and if other people want to get in on all or part, that would be neat.  Ideally, and with health concerns permitting, we’d be able to figure out a way to make the driving less irksome.

This is almost a packraft mandatory route.  There are a handful of ways to use bridges, but the rivers (and in late April I assume streams) are several notches bigger than in the Bob.  I chose the start point based on things I want to float, which brings up the second complication, river permits.  Having one for stretches of the Middle Fork will make a lot of sense in many cases.  As of today, there is almost full availability for the relevant week.

This will also be a ski or snowshoe mandatory route, though I am guessing that in a normal year there is a surprising amount of dirt walking to be had.

Interested?  Get in touch.

Seek Outside Flight One trouble shooting

The Seek Outside Flight One is a ~50 liter, reasonably featured ~2.5 pound backpack designed to carry loads over 30 pounds well.  Better load carriage and more coherent features than a Windrider 3400, and a burlier build than a Gossamer Gear Gorilla.  In short, a modern lightweight backpack; an increasingly busy class, with the relevant reference point being the Rogue Pando Zoro, a point to which I’ll return in closing.

Unfortunately the Flight One combines a major design flaw with a major construction/patterning issue, the result being the carriage of the belt and lumbar pad not matching the other parts of the pack.  I modified a Flight bag recently for a friend, following Philip’s mod detailed here, an easy job others may wish to emulate.

The Flight One uses an internal U frame, made from thin, solid aluminum rod, with a top piece of alu tube, that pushes on and makes it into a solid rectangle.  The frame fits into a full internal sleeve, very tightly. This tight fit and the 7000 series alloy rod make the frame solid, springy, with an excellent degree of twisting flex.  It’s a really nice solution to the modern pack problem.  The problem is in the lumbar and belt arrangement.  The belt comes in two halves, and adjusts for width with velcro.  It velcros behind the lumbar pad, a la classic Dana Designs.  Dana packs had a very stiff belt, and ran the main alu stay into the lumbar pad itself, both of which prevented sagging.

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The Flight sags quite a bit, mainly because (as seen in the top photo) the lumbar opening is 3/4″ too large.  As seen in the above photo, when I have 40 pounds in the pack, this slack hinges out immediately, effectively reducing the torso length of the pack by over an inch.  In theory a 24 inch tall frame, the longest Seek offers on the flight, ought to be good for all but the tallest users.  But that is a narrow if, and 22.5 inches is, for a taller but not beyond average person like myself, a fast problem at loads around 30 pounds.

Taking the bottom seam out and sewing the pad tighter would be one way to deal with that issue, but removing and resewing structural seams is a bit dodgy on relatively light fabrics like X21.  Instead, my friend obtained extensions for the frame, and I removed the load lifter buckles and haul strap and sewed them 2 inches taller.  A non-reversible modification, but simple and effective.

It’s illustrative to return here to the Zoro, which has had its issues, and takes a quite different approach to the belt-frame interface, using snaps to connect a hanging belt to the base seam, something quite similar to what Seek (re)introduced to the public with their original packs.  Quite simply, I think this is the best way to go about building a pack, both because the connection methods tend to eliminate the possibility for stretch and sag, and because I don’t think lumbar pads really bring anything to the table in terms of enhancing load carriage (whether the lumbar benefits from different kinds of padding relative to the hips is a separate question).

 

Astral again

Last summer I bought what ended up being one of my favorites shoes ever; the Astral Brewer.  All of the limitations, and virtues, I noted in my review last summer have held true.  The lack of a little extra structure in the sides of the forefoot has gotten me pinched on numerous occasions.  The lack of a heal counter hasn’t been an issue while walking, but has threatened to pull the shoe off a few times in both mud and thick brush.  The rubber is very good, but the tread can be sketchy in mud and downright scary on loose over hardpack.  And while the upper fabric has manged over the past year, it doesn’t have much life left.

And I don’t really care, because the combo of zero drop, the right stiffness, and plenty of toe room is simply sublime, and simply not available in many other shoes.

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So I invested in the TR1 Merge, Astral’s midtop hiking shoe.  The tread pattern is more aggressive, the midsole 5mm thicker, the toe and heel have a rand, and the upper has a bit of padding in the ankle and tongue.  Weight, for my size 12, is 14.1 oz per shoe.

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The Merge does not have a heel counter, but on first glance the rand and doubled fabric provides a nice degree of stability the Brewer lacks.  It will be interesting to see if this breaks down at all.  I’m quite excited about the lightly padded ankle coverage, in a nonwaterproof package that doesn’t pretend to roll abrasion protection into the ephemeral notion of “support”.  I’m bummed by the thin stripes of pure foam in the sole, as the non-rubber areas of the Brewer have made for a few pokey experiences with cactus.

Overall, I could hardly be more excited.  Shoes over the past 5 years have only seem to come with more and more compromises for backpackers who like stout, minimalist shoes.  Exceptions are a big deal.

 

FAQ: so I want to start packrafting..

Another frequent question is how to get started packrafting.  Due to right time, right place a decade ago, and the guidebook, I’ve become one of the promoters of packrafting in the lower 48, which is fine.  Due to the slant of content here, the inquiries I receive are essentially always from someone with a backpacking/wilderness background, with maybe some canoeing experience, but generally no whitewater experience of note.  Which was pretty much exactly where I was in 2010.  With that in mind, the follow is geared towards someone without specific whitewater background (e.g. safety techniques, reading complex water) and with explicit ambition to make packrafting a wilderness pursuit.  This will be a distinct path from, for instance, the many people getting into packrafting these days who come from a whitewater background and want another tool to expand accessibility, with backcountry a secondary consideration.  The following is an expansion of this post from 3 years ago.

The first thing to do on your packraft journey remains getting a boat.  Doing this first makes sense, as the investment will require detailed and critical consideration of what draws you to packrafting.  If you’ve journeyed to the brink already you probably have a good idea of what your interested might be, but to further refine those and provide some solid history and safety information, a copy of Roman Dial’s Packrafting! is highly, highly recommended.  Roman may or may not have a few hard copies left.  Used ones appear to be selling for ~$80 (!), so an ebook may be the best option.

It is worth reading Luc’s take (and the detailed discussion in the comments) on the current Alpacka line up.  My hot take is that all but the most conservative boaters (in both inclination and likely terrain) will be best served by getting something with a fixed whitewater deck, thigh straps, and the cargo fly.  The lure of class III and IV is a powerful one, both for the trip options it provides and for how damn fun it can be.  If you have background in something like mountain biking or skiing you should be acquainted with how easily and deeply you’ve been draw to double blacks and chunky rock rolls, and should make a long term packraft choice accordingly.  My now 5 year old Yak (now called the classic) continues to not be the limiting factor on a wide variety of class IV water, though if I were to buy new today I’d get a Gnarwhal.  The Caribou is an attractive option for folks who are quite certain they won’t go beyond class II, or will only do so rarely.

In summary:

  • Alpacka Classic with WW deck and cargo fly for 70% of folks.  Add thigh straps.
  • Alpacka Caribou for mild, warm water only.
  • Alpacka Gnarwhal/Wolverine/Expedition for those who know they’ll chase class IV down the road.

From what I’ve seen of the other options on the market, the reduced cost just isn’t worth the long term downsides of reduced material quality and especially design performance.  Kokopelli rafts don’t paddle as well as Alpacka boats, and everyone I know who has built a DIY Packraft has spent weeks chasing tiny leaks and ended up with a floor that rips far too easily.

To go with your boat, you’ll need a PFD.  I still find the MTI Vibe and ideal balance of weight, fit, and features.  The Astral V8 is popular, but much harder to pack easily.  The Astral YTV is comparable to the Vibe.  The MTI Journey is cheap and light, and gets the job done.

For a paddle, I would use money wisely and jump straight to a Werner touring paddle, like the Shuna, in four piece.  You pay double for a glass Werner, compared to a plastic Aquabound, but the increase in performance and satisfaction is exponential.  Personally, I’ve found the reduced weight and durability of the touring paddles to be a fine trade relative to the whitewater paddles.  I also find the finer feather adjustment mechanism very nice when dealing with headwinds (more feather equals easier paddling in strong winds).  Plenty of folks paddle harder than I do and are harder on their gear, and will prefer the whitewater paddles.  210cm is a great all around length.  Shorter is more nimble in whitewater, while the longer lengths feel more relaxed and efficient when putting on the miles.  After 9 years my Shuna is noticeably loose in the joints.  When I replace it (with another Shuna) I’ll probably go down to 205 or 200.

Lastly, drysuits.  I’ve done the overwhelming majority of my boating without one.  I’ve also gotten really, really, really cold in a packraft many, many times.  My tolerance for such shenanigans is high, both through adaptation and because I don’t get cold particularly easily.  I imagine the vast majority of people would have found my practices deeply unpleasant, unsafe, or both, and probably quit as a result.  Which is to say that most aspiring packrafters should get a quality drysuit.  My ancient one is old enough that the seam tape is starting to delaminate.  When I go to replace it I’ll get this one.

In summary:

  • A lightish, fitted PFD without rescue features is the most practical choice.
  • Invest in a high quality paddle.
  • Get a drysuit if you live in a cold place, plan to paddle serious whitewater (or whitewater seriously), and if you get cold easily.  If 2 or 3 of these apply, a drysuit is mandatory.  Get one with a relief zip and socks.

The final consideration for new packrafters is education and skill development.  There are obvious things, like being able to read water, execute a line through a rapid, and set safety.  There are also less obvious things, like being able to portage efficiently, transition well and consistently, and properly evaluate hazard and your own mental state.  Whitewater is different than most other mountain sports, in how deeply you’re immersed in the will of the world, and packrafting in the backcountry is different than other kinds of paddling in that you’re often on small, manky, brushy waters with little if any current beta and lots of potential snags and hazards.  Safety is one thing in such an environment, in that making good decisions is impossible without experience, but efficiency is another thing altogether, and plays a huge part in big picture safety, too.  Things like choosing a place to put in on a new creek or river, whether to scout or portage an obstacle on the left or right, whether to portage big or small, can all add up to hours saved or used over a day.  And that kind of experience cannot be had anywhere other than first hand.

An ideal hypothetical progression for a current backpacker and aspiring packrafter, one who lives in Ohio or Iowa (as I used to) might be the following:

  • Obsess.  Read lots of stuff, watch lots of videos.
  • Get your boat, paddle, PFD, and drysuit.
  • Go out on local lakes and slow rivers.  Practice paddling.  Practice launching your boat.  Do a whole lot of practice flips and reentries in water deep enough you can’t touch bottom.  Then practice a whole lot of reentries in moving water.
  • So some local hike or bike rafting trips, both day and overnight.  Practice organizing, packing, and transitioning.  Figure out how to balance your boat, what dry bags you’ll want and how you will use them.  Maybe buy a new pack to fit all your toys.  Get creative with familiar landscapes.
  • Plan a big trip out west.  A two trip trip, with one easier, shorter, less committing hike and float first, to get things further dialed, is a good way to go.  In Montana, doing a few days on the North Fork of the Flathead or Dearborn before hiking in and floating the South Fork of the Flathead is a logical progression.  In Utah, doing a stretch of the Green or San Juan before the Escalante makes sense.
  • Take a packraft-specific Swiftwater Rescue class.
  • Decide where you want to expand your skills.  Take a whitewater specific trip to seek out difficult day and overnight runs.  Go on a big water trip, like the Salmon or Grand Canyon.  Do a spring skirafting trip, or a fall bikerafting trip.
  • Go to Alaska, and float something that puts you 50+ miles from the road in any direction, on a wholly trail-less route.

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Last and most importantly, enjoy the progression,  You only get to do these things for the first time once.

FAQ: packrafting with kids

A number of years ago I removed the Contact button from the front page here, and hid my email link in the Fine Print.  This has been effective, cutting out the overwhelming majority of the knucklehead emails (“Can you plan my whole Glacier backpack for me?”) which used to be almost daily, while not impacting the other emails (“We just did _____ like you wrote about last year and it was amazing.”) which are one of the absolute highlights of maintaining this website.  As my focus and content here have evolved, a few questions have become more and more frequent.  They are without exception good questions, which is to say they are nuanced and not subject to an easy or quick answer.  Hence this new series, which will seek to answer these in nonreductive, long form.

The most frequent of these, by far, is some variation of “my partner and I just found out we’re pregnant, and are wondering how/if we can take our kid packrafting the summer after this coming summer.”  A less frequent but still common variation is, “My kid is 3 and backpacking/hiking is complex/tough.   I’ve never packrafted before and am wondering if it would be a good and reliable and easier way to get our family out into the woods more often.”

My answer to this second question is always: yes.  Absolutely.  Do it as soon as circumstances allow.

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Elaborating why overlaps, to an overwhelming extent, with why packrafting is such a good activity for so many people and so many families.  Or put another way, why a packraft is the right boat choice for so many people and so many families, even if you may not end up backpacking your boat often, or at all.  The answer is portability and ease, ease of both deployment and transport, as well as of paddling.  Packrafts are the ideal beginner craft in moving water, being uniquely both forgiving and powerful.  What other boat (or indeed, tool for human powered travel of any type) is both able to sooth a nervous neophyte and facilitate the growth of technical skills without promulgating too many bad habits?  In being this they are ideal kid craft.  A toddler can tilt over the edge to splash and stare without risk of tipping, and you the adult can steer that same boat and toddler through rapids with a generous safety margin.

In a similar vein; parents find out quickly that one of the most frequent impediments to family trips in the woods is the exhaustion brought on by logistics.  Packing, unpacking, cleaning, storing, and then finding and repacking all the right things can take up enough energy for just you, especially for a backcountry multisport trip.  The varied and often somewhat mysterious needs of a tiny person (how many changes of clothes? how warm, and how cool?) multiply this.  A packraft is the lightest, easiest boat to transport, which is essential backpacking, and darn handy when (for instance) fitting the gear and boats for 3 adults and 2 kids into a single vehicle for the shuttle to the start of a slackcountry float, or just when chucking an afternoons picnic and gear into the car for an afternoon at the lake.  Maintained gas mileage, no trailer, no rooftop rigging, and a nice light boat to carry.  You can bring along packrafting gear on the off chance of a lake float with no real added hassle.  Again; we use the heck out of our packrafts, moreso now with two kids than before.

Now that Little Bear is 5 and Little Cloud 2.5, backpacking is almost at its most complex.  The bear is a very good hiker for his age and size, and the Cloud can still (exhaustingly) be carried in the backpack.  Both prefer river trips, in no small part because of the generic kid affinity for water.  Floating also seems to better scale with the way they process the world, whereas walking often makes things seem too big (I imagine).  Next summer the Cloud will be practically uncarriable, and I bet floats will be even more preferred, by everyone.  Parents, understandably, focus their initial worry on the safety of their kids in the backcountry, along with how well kid logistics can be matched to their old, now dead, pre-kid ambitions for family outings.  The better question to answer is what schedules and modes of travel fit best with small minds and rapidly forming imaginations.

It is possible to start packrafting with your kids well before they are 1.  Our experience has been that somewhere around 14-16 months old has them being able to sit on their own in the front of a larger open boat, with the coordination necessary to not accidentally hurl themselves out.  Paddling with a toddler on your lap (as shown above, on my first solo with kid float) is quite possible, but less than ideal for a number of reasons, first among them the probability you’ll eventually whack them in the face with your paddle.

This brings up the first equipment necessity; a larger open raft.  Our Double Duck is 60 inches long inside.  This is just enough space for M and I to fit with one small child (though the bow lacks the volume to make this acceptable in anything but very easy water), is ideal with myself and a 4-5 year old, and remains workable for me and both kids currently.  The Double Duck was discontinued not long after we bought it, in favor of higher volume, heavier .  This is logical, as the lack of weight carrying ability limits the Duck.  But, the low weight (~6 pounds) and packed volume is very nice when doing a proper backpack, backcountry packraft trip with small people.  With the kids getting big enough we’re looking at another large boat for next year, to do floats with one adult and one kid in each boat.  My current thought is that the Mule, at 52 inches inside, would be quite adequate in that regard.  On the other hand, getting a Forager or Gnu would let me take out both kids by myself, and the combined weight of Duck and Mule (6 and 8 pounds) is close to the combined weight of Gnu and Curiyak (11 and 4.5 pounds).  I’m drawn to the Mule because it is self bailing, and because it would double as a solo load hauler for next year, when I am sure to finally draw the unit 150 moose tag.

Final note: our Duck was bought pre-cargo fly.  It is pretty silly that our largest boat is the one without a zipper.  On family overnight floats the Yak cargo fly gets loaded heavy, something that makes packing much easier.  The downsides of the cargo fly are significant, but for a family boat having one is mandatory.

By the time kids are older than 2 the packrafting possibilities are limited only by parental imagination and ability to adapt and caretake.  Warmer weather and lower flows are obviously far simpler here.  This summer Little Bear has begun lamenting that some of our trips don’t have enough rapids, while Little Cloud has taken most of the summer to decide that being bucked and splashed is fun, rather than terrifying (and thus a reason to moan and point piteously at the shore).  Packrafting at this point becomes, in short, like any other parenting challenge.  More skill and organization on the adult end when make trips less stressful, and more frequent, fun trips will ingrain such things as normal in the minds of the children.

PFDs are obviously important.  We’ve used infant and child Stohlquist Nemos and been very pleased with the fit and float of both.  The design isn’t the most packable, guaranteeing that family backpacking loads get full Clampett.  Around 2 kids will become insistent on having your paddle, and in our experience a stick will not serve as an adequate substitute.  We bought one of these, which has proven adequately interesting, compact, and cheap.  I’ve carried it many miles, and never regretted doing so.  Other important details include a few strategic toys, which should be small, diverting, and should float!  Seeing a plastic micro excavator slowly sink out of sight is a sad, sad thing for everyone.  Keeping kids warm, dryish, and protected from the sun is as crucial in a packraft as anywhere.  Hooded layers are great for all of these things, especially when hats never seem to stay put.  The REI brand toddler and kids raingear is well fitting, affordable, and most importantly they make proper rain pants that mostly stay put on non-existent, diapered waists.  Even on hot days we never take the kids packrafting without rain gear and a fleece hoody.

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2020 is set to be second only to those great packraft exploration years of 2011 and 2012 for the number of days I’ve spent on the water, and over half of those have been kids trips.  Things like overnighting on the lower Dearborn, doing a bikeraft loop with LB on the middle Blackfoot, and 45 minute evening floats on local ponds.  For specific family reasons, along with them being so vital and joyful tools in the Montana wilderness, packrats are the absolute last piece of outdoor equipment I’d let go.

North Fork Falls Canyon

The lowest unroaded section of the North Fork of the Blackfoot is a proper packraft classic.  You can packraft it at kayak flows (~600 cfs or more), but I much prefer the pure boulder garden aesthetics and utterly clear water of true summer levels, with 350 cfs being ideal.  Casey and I got it, from half a mile above the first pack bridge to the last road bridge, a few weeks ago at exactly 350, and a more perfect butt boating whitewater experience I cannot imagine.   The geology is amazing, the rapids continuous, and lines solid but challenging.  You might even see a bear, directly or indirectly.

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If this lower stretch is the fat ideal of where packrafting is headed, that is to say technical, but accessible, the upper North Fork of the Blackfoot (upstream from the confluence with the East Fork is the sort of scrappy but eminently floatable creek that will never be popular.  The grade is gentler, but the flows required and the brush and wood make the experience even more continuous.  Unless you hit a really fortunate time in the wood cycle, floating will never be more efficient than a fast walker.

One of these will be packrafted dozens of times next year, the other maybe twice in the next decade.

There is another stretch of the North Fork of the Blackfoot which might get floated even less often.  The short gorge below North Fork Falls drops a little over 300 vertical feet in 6/10s of a mile.  And there are a few flat bits toward the bottom.  The rest of the gorge is a astonishingly steep, sustained, and chunky piece of water.  Years ago, pokes into the top and bottom suggested I would never have a reason to attempt it.  This year, with the volume and especially quality of my whitewater days driving poise to unprecedented levels, I couldn’t get it out of my head.  So I went to investigate.

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North Fork Falls thunders into an impressive pool set into a bell shaped chamber, with shades of the Pacific Northwest.  The first section of boulder drops gives away some of its pushiness at lower flows, though as seems to be the rule with such steep creeks, the blockiness and velocity make sieves and pins a real problem, even in water that never gets much above knee deep.  With no warm up I was reminded of this inside 100 yards, when a steep sequence halfway between a boulder garden and slide bounced me from the bedrock wall out into a boulder, at a speed which I found gave me no chance to recover.  So I flipped and swam, collecting ass and torso bruising for my bother.  I hiked back up and tried again, hitting a better line up top, and in the crux exchanging an unsustainable side bounce for a straight bow slam that stalled me and folded the boat to an alarming extent before I shoved back into the flow, arm checked the same boulder, and was rocketed down, wondering what new things I would need to learn to feel more controlled in such water, and what arm guards I ought to buy.

The rest of the run got harder, and did little to provide clear answers.  On some moves, memorably a left slide to 3 footer to hard right back ferry around a log, each stroke did just what I told it to.  On others, such as a chunky and tight double of six footers, the odd kicker rocks mid drop tried to send me either over the bars or sideways, my now throbbing right forearm repeatedly asking for discretion.  I portaged plenty, probably around 40% of the whole section, around drops which needed a little more water, drop with logs thrust out like rotten teeth, drops with obvious and obviously doable lines with sieve-y consequences or just plain too continuous to feel like a good idea solo.  Learning happened fast, and I was pleased that my arms and balance were ready.  A curving left drop to slide to hard ninety degree left eddy behind a bus sized boulder, stern hanging above a thin and thus unrunnable 8 foot flat drop to chunder.  A seived out, impossible drop with a tenuous right side 5.7 friction move to a perfectly still eddy, just enough room to point the bow downstream in midair and hit a partial boof stroke before a 5 footer.

It was, in summary, an entirely perfect run for that place and that day.  I’m left with a nose and one eye in the door, looking out and forward, wondering how and where to see the rest of this new world, and where in the summer there is still enough water.

 

It

There is a meadow hidden below the center of the universe.  Going north, towards the sawtoothed limestone knobs and canyons you might for the expanse of sky miss entirely, a burnt bog curves in unison with the river.  To the eye water is held distinct from vegetation by a 10 foot band of cobbles.  The pine corpses and elk-high undergrowth hide the capillaries that peel off and return, inevitably, to the river.  The meadow in turn hugs the bog, 6 feet taller, flat and dry, built of tight, tough grass knitting together ancestral cobbles.  That grass runs a few hundred yards, north and south, and a third of that east and west, between the bog and the steeper bank, spangled with fireweed and riven with elk paths, that leads to the center of the universe.  Humans might never know about the meadow, hidden as it is between their likely paths, but the elk, deer, and moose are well acquianted.  Judging by their scat.

I’d prefer to die about 60 years hence.  Ideally M and I will both stop in our sleep, simultaneously, never having known an adult moment apart.  I’d prefer to be buried in the meadow, in the shallowest grave imaginable, my limbs, head, and torso mangled and scattered, for the birds, coyotes, and whatever bears might still be awake on the idealized cusp of winter.  I need to discuss the desirability, logistics, and legality with my wife, who may not share the depth of my passion with it, and eventually with our sons, who assuming health and fitness will be the natural choices to haul us back that far.  Or perhaps, in a violation of laws for which I’d preemptively ask trespass, they could swoop low and let us slip from an aircraft.  The questions, when the next or third or seventh spring flood hence finally swept our bones downriver, would be good ones.

My assuming that it will still look the same more than half a century from now is deeply problematic.

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The center of the universe is what it is, beyond anything else, because it is so far from anything.  You can get there in a day, once the trailheads have melted out completely and with a considerable amount of effort.  But it is deep enough to not fit easily into civilized schedules.  A bit ago, while amidst one of the those simple trips which take a day to nibble at the fatty edges of the landscape, it struck me that it had been years since I last stood foot on the center.  And once that thought took hold I really did not have a choice; I had to go, as soon as possible.

Little boats make getting to the center more digestible and more pleasant.  They are also how I made my first visit, a decade ago.  Water drops fast this time of year, and the window of sufficient flow was already almost closed.

So I decided to do something unreasonable.  Our loop 6 years ago took us a solid, if not hurried, three days.  If I woke very early I had a day and almost a full half.  So I brought my heavy boat, whose additional flotation would make shallow streams faster.  I brought lots of snacks, but no stove, and the simplest sleep system around, with the ideal of hiking late, and sleeping little.  I woke before 5, got on the trail before 7, and blew up my boat at Danaher Creek before noon.  The first miles of Danaher began the revelation that my years long absence from these particular stretches had in my perception sent time appropriately forward.  The constant water, presumably focused in the massive late spring flood of 2018, had sent the channel moving trees.  Larger creeks, entrenched in low gradient spruce, are generally good (read: convenient) floating while they stay in equilibrium.  Historically aberrant surges sharpen and elongate the outside of bends, and often send many large trees across the whole channel.  Danaher had several new, complex portages which had not existed between 2010 and 2016.  Particularly big surges, and the particularly big log jams they occasionally cause, occasionally use enough force that they persuade the creek to take an entirely new channel, barreling straight across an established meander, undercutting trees and disappearing under the resulting ladder of logs and branches.  Danaher did this once, presumably two years ago, and has subsequently partially recovered the original course, splitting the flow in a way whose depth did not well serve my needs.

Lower Danaher was familiar, easy for me to become lost in memories, tied to that run, in which I caught fish, and that gravel bar, where we slept.  The upper South Fork was the same, but moreso, and I pulled over at the innocuous gravel bar where I stopped for the first night of that first trip, 9 years and 11 months ago, so soaked with novelty I worried I might melt into the ground and cease to be.  On this trip I was also damp, with the more mundane creeping cold of splashy packrafting and wearing too few clothes for how long and well the cloud cover persisted.  Like the second day of that first trip, which dawned rainy and stayed cold, and on which I first pulled over at the center of the universe, the at that time feathered and steep gravel fans where the White flows into the South Fork, I relished at last finding sun to stand, full in the face.

The center of the center is the triangle flat between the rivers, built high and well by history, and currently standing flat and monolithic, almost beyond mature ponderosa pines, spare knee high grass, a trail arcing through.  Towards the north end, as the bank heaves and drops, a stand of larch takes over.  My presence was quick, steady strides held in reserve so I could dry out from the float, look at all I could without tripping, and get psyched for big miles into the dark.  Unlike 8 or 7 years ago I don’t have foot power to burn, so I followed the dirt gradually to the horizon, almost making the crest by full night.  I did have enough fitness, from the current year of fun, to keep momentum on even the steepest stretches, and kept my mind intact until fatigue and the nervous descent of dark.  Hiking by headlamp in deep summer subalpine is not wise in Grizzly country, and after an hour I let ambition give way to instinct, and crawled into the lumpy grass under a spruce 20 yards off the trail, laid my bag atop my deflated boat, and fell asleep quickly.

Something like 45 miles in 18 hours made for a pleasing tally.

The next day I cruised over White River Pass in the dawn cool, wearing all my clothes well down to treeline.  In one of the grown in avalanche paths I heard the now familiar XXL-squirrel scratching of Black Bear cubs being sent up a tree.  Fortunately, with their mother still further off the trail.  My calves were getting dead by the creek crossing at the bottom of the hill, but by then the finale of the trip was easily understood.  A flat mile, some slow floating, and the final 5 very gradually up hill.  The floating, on the West Fork of the Sun, ended up being very slow indeed, ~450 cfs downstream at the gauge, things close to evenly split between the West and South fork of South, is enough to make progress and more than enough to see the valley as only floating allows, but not enough for packrafting to be faster than hiking.  Neither my feet nor my eyes minded.

That final 5 was the culminating opportunity to take some of the nostalgia I had picked up the previous day and incarnate it as experience.  My feet were tired, a few blisters forming (due to a shoe experiment finally failing),  but with a mind flexible in the face of adversity and obdurate of the inevitable progress of walking, the routine, boring, horse-poked trail felt short.  And I sat in the shade of the tailgate the drank a beer with my shoes off, just after noon.  Some things do not change with the passing of a decade.

Evolution of the Tamarisk: Shoulder Straps

First: what the hell is happening with those packs, maan?

A lot.  Unfortunately, almost none of that is helping to get you a pack faster.  While the pandemic hasn’t impacted our family as directly or egregiously as it could, or still might, it has made the world more complicated.  I’ve been and remain on a slightly reduced salary, and our decision in early April for M to go back to work has been wise, in that any financial concerns have been well preempted.  What that has meant day to day is that we juggle our schedules, and that my time has been full enough that choices must be made: kid time, spouse time, meals, work, fun and exercise, yes.  Much else (e.g. cleaning, and sewing), no.

And I am ok with that.

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Hopefully one of the things we, as a society, get out of the pandemic is an easier time admitting that doing it all, especially as parents, is neither possible nor desirable.

One of the benefits of such mandatory emphatic choices, and of the necessity of managing creeping universal anxiety, has been lots of time in the woods, both on my own and with the little people.  The prototype Tamarisk has been used almost daily, even if that is only to transport rafting gear 200 yards from car to lake, or on a pint sized bikerafting trip (top photo, 5 miles on gravel, 10 miles of twisty and fast class I+).  I am more confident than ever in the design and size, and embracing the extended and indefinite timeline to tweak a few things (the belt could be a bit better, improved attachment points for a PFD).

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After 6 months of use I remain exceedingly pleased with the shoulder straps, which in packland present a problem whose answer is difficult to properly balance.  Too much padding is certainly a thing, as is too little, too stiff, and too supple.  My old Dana always chafed a little, and never really broke in enough (even after 200+ days) to conform to clavicle and armpit.  The 2012 Gorilla did almost everything right, with the thin foam being a little too stiff, and certainly far too ready to pack out.  The HPG shoulder harness was a study in how far one could get in patterning and conformity, but the Cordura facing against the user chafed and held sweat, and the thin and relatively supple foam let the webbing strap dig in once the load was big enough to stretch the Cordura.

With these three examples as limit posts, I set out a couple years ago to find something well in between them.  Most combinations of foam and materials have worked decently enough, and there is a case to be made for shoulder straps being an ancillary detail to things like the hipbelt and frame, so long as they are good enough.  But the whole point of the Tamarisk is to not just be good enough, and it is easy to recall trips like this one where anything with the least potential for discomfort will sing out to that effect, and loudly.

My current layup for the Tamarisk shoulder straps is a 5mm layer of fairly stiff EVA foam, 5mm 3D mesh turned inside out, and 500D Cordura, with a length of 3/4″ webbing bartacked every 3 inches the whole length.  The result is quite pliable, due to being well under 1/2 an inch thick, yet rigid, due to the EVA.  The thick 3D mesh makes things feel cushy, and wicks sweat (see above), both of which fight chafing during hot 12+ hour days.  Keeping the mesh inside out eliminates the traditional bane of that material, namely the extent to which it traps pine needles and debris, which build up over time no matter the cleaning efforts, eventually becoming abrasive to both clothing and skin.  The greatest cause for celebration is that testing the inverted mesh over the past two years, and this particular foam since January, has revealed no concerns with longevity whatsoever.  img_0010

The packs will come, eventually, but in this age of uncertainty I’m not making any specific promises.

Creeks of fear

Several creeks from the golden age of my explorations in Glacier and the Bob stand out for their blankness, the extent to which specifics were and remain washed out by fear.  I’ve begun revisiting some of them, haphazard fun which has self-organized into a project, to delve into how far modern boats, modern rigging, improved skills, and matured confidence have altered my perception and experience.

The answer has generally been; an enormous amount, and not in the ways I would have expected.

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Monture Creek is another Colburn find, though in this case I had walked or skied down or up the trail adjacent to the creek several times.  On each occasion the dark gorge hinted through the deep, old trees was something I saw as too dark and janky to be worthwhile.  Then Kevin et al ran it, and I felt compelled to go check it out.  I all but don’t remember that day.  It was one of the peculiar summer days where fog and rain make July seem like later October.  A conventional Bob creek, 10 yards wide with quick gravel riffles and forested banks dumped into tortured microgorges, my fear of swimming and of the unknown layering up quickly until I climbed out for a long portage, the thrashing water out of sight below telling unknowable stories about a creek that defied the expectations I had built over the past four years.

I mostly wrote Monture off as not for me.  Until another Mike invited me to have a second look.

I found that my original fear had been well built.  Compared to its neighbors, indeed, to any other creek in the whole southern half of the Crown complex, Monture is a bizarre outlier.  Compared to the creek next door, the North Fork of the Blackfoot, the contrast is even more incongruous.  The North Fork is a clean, straight valley, the rapids boulder drops between rocky, sparsely forested banks.  Sight lines are, by most standards, vast.  Monture is (or, temporarily, was) thickly forested.  Dodging willows is in the milder stretches a vital part of efficiency.  What makes Monture not another II+ little bushwack is the series of bedrock traps, steep, tight, often undercut and usually janky and complex.  What makes it currently unrunnable, for practical purposes, is the Rice Ridge fire, which in the late summer of 2017 burned hot through all of the runnable section of the creek.  In the warmup stretch we found a log portage every 100 yards on average.  In the technical parts every third drop had a log wedged in at provocative angles.   Combined with walls tight enough that both portaging and scouting were marginal, at best, and we had a quintessential day of packrafting: 7 miles of walking, a mile or so of boating that took 3 hours, and a six mile hike back out.  It was like 2012 all over again, when at least every other packrafting trip was perhaps 20% boating.

The combination of matured confidence and enormously improved visibility had the whole endeavor feeling like a first (to me) descent.  Rather than careening around a corner to find yet another small gorge diving below the horizon, we could scout the big picture from the trail, or a short descent off it.  By the time we blew up we knew what was downstream, how good it probably was, and how unlikely a coherent run would be.  And so it proved.  Would I have been able to see so well 6 years ago, with just the burnt trees, and with my default attitude to whitewater still unquantified fear?  I imagine not.

Sadly, I’ll only ever get to guess.  Many of the other creeks of fear on my list (Nyack, most prominently) have also burned big since my first trip.  And one of the privileges I expect most of experience is a much improved run to shutdown ratio.