Deep

3 years ago at the packraft roundup Kevin Colburn blew my mind.  We had been emailing for years, about creeks and water levels, without having ever met and thus eagerly sat down to chat about packrafting.  He showed me a gorgeous photo guide to creeks in western Montana he had put together for friends, and partway through it was a shot of a blue packraft floating a narrow, clear band of water hard up against a 500 foot limestone wall.  I recognized the environs but not the local, and when I saw the creeks name was stunned.  At that point it had been nearly 7 years since I sat down and made a spreadsheet of all the potentially runnable waterways in Glacier and the Bob, and in that interval had been able to either run or investigate almost all of them.  The last few summers of focused effort had been a bit of a slog, full of long hikes, thick bushwacks, and scary portages, often to confirm that a creek was too small, too woody, or too hard.  In early 2017 I took a step back, as part of the process of writing Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, and considered the full spectrum of future packrafters.  Who were they likely to be, and what guidance could I provide that would help packrafting in Glacier and especially the Bob evolve sustainably?  More particularly, how many would ever be up for brushy, inefficient, ephemeral streams which make up the majority, and would any of those folks really need or appreciate the explicit direction or at minimum dereliction of mystery beta in a book necessitates?

So I made the choice to exclude a huge number of smaller creeks from the book.  Fatigue made it easy to be somewhat jaded about that aspect of the project, which in turn made it easy to stuff it deep into the corner of my memory.  Kevin’s revelation that a creek I had never bothered to consider was not only runnable but high quality shook me into both appreciating all that I had seen over the years, but got me thinking about what else a different perspective might give me.  And finally, almost three years on, I put the pieces together and paddled Kevin’s exceptional find.

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I’m not going to name the creek or put it in my guidebook, though there are plenty of hints here, and Kevin has named it in print (for those paying close attention).  The access is complex, even by packrafting standards, and as I found out the window for conditions very brief.  With just enough water to bash down some very intense whitewater and a scenic but poorly conceived loop hike that made for a 14 hour day, it is only the creeks exceptional paddling, unique scenery, and place in my favorite landscape on earth that will most likely see me headed back next year.

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The 200 foot/mile grade is deceptive, in that the lower landslide sieve/rapids fall at over double that, but the top and to a less extent middle sections are impressively steep and continuous.  I was doubly committed from the start, via the big hike in and being at long last in a position to discharge my anticipation.  Commitment was needed, as the initial water was not something I would have bothered paddling had I been in first descent mode.  Narrow rock pivots, willow grab turns, up on one tube squeezes, and all my packraft small water trickery combined with long stern and thigh strap stability hitting the constant 3-5 foot drops.  Before I knew it I was into the upper bedrock section, with sieve-ish boulder gardens, slides, and several 10 foot bedrock waterfalls.  All of the last decades of skills were called on continuously and at once, foremost being the ability to stay poised when the speed of the difficulty kept my eyeballs and brain peeled well back.

I really didn’t have enough water, and while I made due, doing so made things dicey.  I got bumped off line on one entrance and rather than hitting the smooth 20 foot slab to 2 foot drop, ricocheted left and crunched down a four foot drop into a 3 foot wide slot.  Preoccupied with the water in front of me, I almost went blind over one of the ten footers, which a convoluted scout (and subsequent portage) revealed really didn’t have enough water below to be runable.  I also legit pinned a packraft for the first time, when the left tube behind my thigh snagged a boulder in the midst of a 5 footer and I was instantly out of a boat that was being filled with water and smashed into the dark oblivion.  30 seconds of fervent tugging got it loose, about 5 seconds before I was prepared to pull my knife and cut the tube.  Portaging the above fall (the sieve that ate Toronto, in the order of zippy naming) was terrifying, as the 30 mph downcanyon gusts threatened to rip my boat from my hand, my arm from my body, or me and the boat from the earth itself.

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My boat, paddle, and the rest of the my gear all survived, intact, though in the case of the first two I feel compelled to apologize and give them the week off.

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The day was overwhelming, and on reflection feels a bit like cheating.  I had both the novelty of a whole day in new terrain and the calm of a decades experience.  This new memory also has the tinge of mourning, this was my last unrun creek in the whole Bob.

At least until another set of eyes reminds me what I didn’t see.

Basal outdoor skills

A few days ago I was exploring some of the exceptional, hidden limestone cliffs we have locally, and following some mountain goat tracks up a scree slope led to option soloing up broken gullies and sticky slabs.  While liebacking off crisp solution pockets and smearing floppy shoes up sharp corrugations my mind went backwards.  To Paul Preuss, Norman Clyde, Herb and Jan Conn.  To ropes that might have broken, slippy ovals without a nose, and pre-War tennis shoes.  To pushing on and up towards that intriguing ridge, guided by experience, an eye for a line, and the necessity of being able to downclimb should those first two come up short.

There is an easy distinction between hard and soft skills in the outdoors.  Hard skills are doing things: tying knots, pitching shelters, taking a bearing.  Soft skills most commonly have to do with group dynamics and communication, but can also pertain to decision making.  Taking a bearing has limited utility if one’s group cannot agree on the best route across a valley, as does a well pitched shelter in a poorly chosen location.  This is all very well, but from an educational perspective I’ve long thought that a third class of skills underpin both the technical and heuristic, giving them both context and coherence.

It turned out that my line did not go.  The progression of ledge and slab ended around the corner in a monolithic line of pockets and implied edges.  I’ll return, some day, with the full sack of modernity, most prominently either a traverse in to a toprope anchor, or bolts.  Or maybe doubles of microcams and pink tricams, triples of small wires, helmet, and healthy fear.  Messner’s murder of the impossible has long since come to pass, with technology and the mindset of 30 years ago requiring a significant leap of imagination to consider the virtues of rock climbing as a pursuit where turnkey safety is not always an option.  The ubiquity and quality of gear has made safety an objective attribute, not entirely on or off, but often quite close to black and white.  As I turned to find a way down it did occur that a rope would have been expedient.  But in the manner of Preuss, for whom even rappelling was cheating, I poked over a series of ledges, downclimbed a tree, scratched across a hanging dirt slope, and jammed down a clean, overhanging corner to the scree slopes, creek bottom, and then the road.  For that hour in the vertical safety was under my feet, and between by eyes and the surface.  Can that smear hold my weight?  Will that flake come loose?  Can I reserve the next 5 moves, if the five after prove too much?

It is easy to view the safety brought on my kinaesthetic awareness, training, and judgment as part of the mechanical skills of climbing, outgrowth of hard skills and sibling to tying a clove hitch or placing a Stopper in an offset crack.  In this account the physical side of not falling is heads to the tails of a sound rope and protection network.  With climbing as the ultimate control sport, an activity in which the brakes are by default stomped to the floor, it is an easy assumption to make.  Whitewater boating is in many ways the opposite of climbing, where flow and the speed and rhythm imposed from without are the default.  Safety in whitewater has to do with instinct and preemption coming together and thus knowing when to stop, and when to let go.  Scouting, setting safety, and portaging can make running a rapid as painstaking and calculated as a 5 hour trad lead, and in either case the structural elements are a best set on a shaky foundation if judgement, self-knowledge, and process, what I think of as the basal outdoor skills, are not solid.

The other week, on Big Creek, we portaged a solid stretch of the crux, a decision which revolved around two burly ledge holes set 20 yards apart.  I had little faith, maybe 10%, in my ability to hit either and not flip.  I had a bit more belief in my ability to hit the precise lines through each feature, and make a big ferry between them.  There were big features both above and below, making the run in complex and the consequences of a swim significant.  I knew my skills, knew I was tired, and knew that I had doubt.  Hard skills were the past decade of paddling, reading water, practicing rescue techniques.  Soft skills were Will and I being honest with each other about our risk assessment.  The basal skills were even more invisible; me calling what part of my fear had to do with performance anxiety, and what part had to do with accumulated fatigue and the doubt over when my clouded mind would enable me to pick good lines in a timely manner.  On my scrambling excursion, hard skills were the past 27 (!) years of off and on rock climbing, especially having previously done moves of a vastly greater physical difficulty.  Soft skills were route finding, looking at the cliff and reading which ledges linked weaknesses, and which ran out in blank slabs.  The basal skills were internal; what percentage of past and current skill was available to me in each moment, how much of my desire to find the ridgetop was tempered by a realistic assessment of reversability?

Writ large, basal outdoor skills have to do with self awareness, and in adjusting goals and decision making day to day and hour to hour to keep them in tune with capacity.  This is how risk is managed on the ground and in the moment, be it the choice to run a rapid, ski a slope, or push forward with an extra 8 miles of postholing at the end of long day.  In a mundane but more pervasive and significant way, basal outdoor skills maintain the integrity of your backcountry functioning by saving mistakes.  Loosing gear, either by letting it fall out of a pocket or by leaving it behind at stops, is shockingly common, and in the case of something like a water bottle, knife, or a good chunk of your remaining food can be significantly debilitating.  Proper nutrition and hydration is both a hard and a soft skill, but the consistent and correct application is just as significant as what you packed, and a basal skill to the core in that constant adjustment to the demands of the moment is success itself.

So too with packing, unpacking, and transitions generally.  Efficiency here can save significant time in the moment, and far more time later in the ripple effect of being able to find gear easily, not forgetting anything, and having the correct items at hand for the tasks of the day.  Each transition during the Salmon River I was somewhere between 30 to 50% faster than Will and Robert.  Part of this was hard skill, experience, having done boat to hike and boat to camp transitions many times more than either of them (Robert, in fairness, was on his first multiday trip out of his kayak).  But I think the majority was basal skill, in that I’ve cultivated and practiced highly purposive transitions for a long time.  It is one thing to quickly and skillfully pack a pack with the same gear you’ve taken on similar trips for years.  It is another to adapt principal to a new range of items and have a coherent enough rig from day one.  In the case of the Salmon trip, I had never put so much inside my packraft on a previous trip, but on the first day I had the right stuff out of the boat for the day of paddling, and had the stuff inside secured and balanced enough that portages and self-rescuing after a swim both went without abnormal difficulty.

I don’t think many adventurers get far into backcountry pursuits without becoming acquainted with the importance of self-management and execution.  I do think many people, even those with considerable experience, consistently mistake both the inherent subjectivity of these skills and more importantly, the exacting moment-to-moment control that dependence on internal processes can provide.  It’s an amorphous thing to grasp, and not something concretely taught, but recognition of basal skills as an independent class which control the application of hard and soft skills will provide more consistent backcountry performance, and thus, safety.

2020 Bob Open report

Top photo by Mike Moore.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the mass start for the 2020 Open was cancelled, a decision I made not to avoid the modest social contact at the start point but rather to discourage the still inherently problematic matter of folks traveling to Montana from out of state.  A still robust ~14 people took the start, with beginning dates spread out over roughly a week either side of Saturday, May 23.  The starting point was the Point Pleasant state forest campground south of Swan Lake; the end point the Gibson Reservoir boat ramp.

Conditions were unique, even when measured over the past 9 years of weather and snowpack.  An overall average snowpack in the Bob lingered further than usual through a cool April, and was fattened substantially by several big storms in mid-May.  Mid elevation snow was more robust than any year of the Open save 2014, and sunny temperatures had every hiker contending with the possibility of wet avalanches during alpine stretches.  Rivers saw the delayed impacts of wide temperature variations over the week of the Open, with the South Fork of the Flathead peaking at nearly 20,000 cfs on May 21, diving down to 8,000 by May 25, then climbing back to 12,000 48 hours later.  Nearly all participants avoided the highest water, and several packrafters hit the low point just right for floats of the West and South Forks of the Sun, but overarching conditions made major river fords unlikely without either a packraft or a pack bridge.

As is often the case, these crossings proved to be the major guide points of route selection, with the boat-less crossing the South Fork of the Flathead at either Meadow Creek gorge or Black Bear, and then the North Fork of the Sun at Gates park or the Klick Ranch.  Several hikers with packrafts floated the West and South Forks of the Sun River, and then Gibson Reservoir.  One packrafter floated Bunker Creek early on, and then the upper White while in transit to White River Pass.  In his words: “The short floats on Bunker Creek and the Upper White were both exciting and provided welcome rest to my haggard feet, but did not serve to expedite travel…The Upper White was skinny and fast with great views and a ton of wood. The second portage was a logjam maze that took me 20 min to navigate. In total there was maybe 10 portages, but none as shitty as that big jam. I am very pleased to have explored these sections and gain experience in skinnier water with high wood stress, but I can’t see myself doing them again.”  Nine years of the Open have shown that the major rivers, when they align even vaguely with the overall direction of travel, can vastly increase overall speed.  The second class of major creeks in the Bob are generally floatable in late May, but also generally have enough obstacles (wood, rapids) that they are rarely objectively faster than the pure foot alternative.

That said, relatively few hikers prioritized speed this year (though the speediest clocked close to 100 miles in 40 hours total time), with most taking at least one high alpine traverse for aesthetic and exploratory reasons.  Sections of the greater Pagoda ridge were most common, along with Larch Hill and the Chinese Wall, while a few folks did long ridge walks going east from the Swan Crest.  Hikers exited both Rock and Moose Creeks to the North Fork of the Sun, as well as going over White River Pass.  Cornice collapses and wet slide avoidance were consistent navigational issues up high, with many hikers either camping such that they crested passes early in the morning, or pushing on into the dark and climbing through the alpine in the middle of the night.    Warm temps made this far from a failsafe approach; as one hiker wrote: “It was 5:30 a.m. at 6,000 feet and I was in a t-shirt sweating.”  Leaving the summer trails proved essential for safe route finding.

Traditionally big fords such as Moose Creek and the West Fork of the Sun went without a hitch, due to either the window of low water or the overall experience of the most of the hikers, or perhaps both.  Though several novice teams completed the traverse, those folks were without exception long time aspirants and well prepared.  Back in early April the pandemic made the public running of an event so seemingly risky something to question, but conservative choices seemed to have been the default this year, a recognition of both the hazardous conditions on the ground and the extraordinary conditions writ large.  As one hiker wrote: “Despite many varied and unprecedented complaints with 2020 thus far, the Open felt like an unmitigated success and continues to serve as a substantial anchor for my year.  This trip was highlighted by the expected good company, a Wall ramble charged by a slightly risky line necessary to maintain full view of dramatic snowfalls, and the ever-lovely North Fork of the Sun bursting into spring.”

I did not participate in the Open this year, opting instead for a trip on totally new ground for me; the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.  This explains the less specific and personal nature of this report, as the Open is less mine than ever.  Recognizing both the continued draw of the Bob, and of the many great possibilities elsewhere in the American West, 2021 will see two Bob Opens: the traditional late May Bob Marshall traverse will continue to celebrate the place I am other have come to love so well, and an early May traverse of the Frank/Selway complex will provide a longer, less known, and potentially more technical option for those so inclined.

Expect course announcements in early 2021.

Middle Fork Salmon debrief

After a day and a half of floating, and over 30 miles and 1500′ of vertical from our put in, Marble Creek felt comforting in it’s familiarity.  We blew up and put in on a tiny side channel and were swept downstream, the thin eddies and beaver-cut willows a quick 30 feet apart.  A mile or so downstream and out along the cliffy bend we hadn’t been able to see from the trail, Will approached a horizon line, doubt turning in a second to action as a twist of his paddle snapped his boat forward over the edge.  As had become habit already, I followed, shock and acceptance simultaneous as the line revealed a glassy 15 foot drop, ending in a frothy kicker over a boulder with a further 100 yards of beefy rock dodging.  As had been the case about 20 times since the trip began it wasn’t quite the single hardest move I’d ever made in a packraft, but it was another step towards submersion in technical whitewater paddling the totality of which had me, but the end of the week, approaching rapids with an unprecedented comfort and interest.

Which is to say that it was a life changing trip, which is in the end all we can ask for?

I had an un-vague enough idea of what I was doing when I took up Will’s invitation to run the Middle Fork of the Salmon, insofar as the difficulty was concerned.  I was to leave home to meet them at 3am, and with 12 hours to go had assembled the swollen duffle a late-spring whitewater with some hiking trip required.  With one car in the shop and the other getting a flat tire at 430pm, my timeliness was in question long enough for me to contemplate alternate, closer, and less scary vacation ideas.  But Costco tire is open until 830pm, and M read by doubt well enough and made it clear I was going.  Will and I had done enough research and communication prior, based on the familiar to me process of examining maps and sat photos, that I felt we had a solid plan which would surely stretch my abilities.  We united in Stanley, where Will’s request for the local shop to set aside a map of the river resulted in Liedecker’s encyclopedic Middle Fork guidebook.  It being a bit after 10am and cold at that point, and us having a lot of packing and paddling to do, we brought it along with little consideration for the potential impact.

That book had a bigger impact on our trip than any other single item.  Late nights, my little bottle of Laphroaig, and lots of clean ponderosa to burn provided atmosphere for wide ranging discussion.  A few nights in, in a small meadow hanging along Loon Creek, we had gotten to know each other and ourselves enough that we could intentionally bend our different backgrounds in boating together, for comparison.  Having just revised my own guidebook it was easy to review the influence reading about our trip, mile by mile, had had thus far, and even easier to contrast that with the unknown, and deeply exciting, stretch of Loon Creek upstream, and the equally as exciting, and intimidating, sections of Loon we had hiked past that afternoon.  It might have been nice to have seen the whole main river with first descent eyes, though after the first day, which provided 1100 feet of descent and gave me a long, garggling swim through either Ramshorn or Hells Half Mile, reassurance of diminution to come was comforting.

The river itself was a constant delight, especially after the first day hardened us and our confidence.  The pace of unfolding biomes detailed, like no other place I’ve yet been, how well floating dovetails with human apprehension.  I kept remarking on the seeming poles of past accounts either failing so well to capture the place, or of me failing so well to pay attention.  The later surely, equal parts prejudice against the destination rivers of the west and their burial under commodification and folding tables, and my chosen ignorance, an act of self preservation.  There being no equal to a big, primary line through a new Wild place when every foot is new.

But as delightful as the main river was, it was the creeks we explored that stole the packrafters heart.  With comparison to my 7 years of exploration in Glacier and the Bob so near at hand the ways in which they broke the rules, or at least my rules, were bracing.  They ran straight for miles, gradients mostly clean and constant.  The lean ponderosa forests made wood almost an afterthought, at least by my standards.  Robert, a hardsheller from the PacNW, experienced the river and creeks opposite of me; nervous in the unknown skinny, at ease punching big holes.  We found beef aplenty, especially in the 4+ miles of continuous III++/IV at the bottom of Big Creek, but the evident cruxes were consistently vastly easier than any of us would have guessed.  The Big Creek gorge itself lived up to its name, but was clean enough to be read and run.  The lower Loon gorge, by topographic rights a V+/VI gnarfest, had only one feature that was just too sieve-y, woody, tight, and remote to suit our desires.  Since getting home, when my sore brain and forearms allow it, I can think of little besides the creeks, and creek miles, we didn’t see.

This was the most whitewater I’ve paddled in one trip, measured either by number or intensity of rapids, as well as by days on the water.  I made two equipment upgrades in the weeks prior, both of which ended up being crucial.  First, I replaced a partially torn ankle gasket on my drysuit with a pair of latex booties, and was able to enjoy the frigid and challenging first day with warm feet, a novelty.  For those who have known it, know that this is the same ancient, much patched drysuit as before, and that it worked just fine, though a relief zipper would have been nice.  The second upgrade was a new seat for my Yukon Yak; the extra height and flat shape were welcome as expected, the added rigidity added to the boat made a surprisingly and much welcomed difference.

Will and I, in a 2019 Wolverine and 2015 Yak respectively, both struggled with aspects of our boats.  I can’t imagine and have no desire to do that route at that level (5k, falling to 3.5k, then rising to 4.5k at MF Lodge) without my gear (especially 7 days of food) not in the cargo fly, but the zippers were a consistent nuisance.  We each had to relube at least once when the zip wouldn’t seal, and both had to apply UV Aquaseal at least twice to the upper interface between the zipper tape and the boat fabric.  My thesis here is that the presumably stretchier boat fabric pushes the welded seam hard enough, especially on a protracted whitewater outing, that micro leaks develop.  I had to patch such leaks on the morning of day 2, and again before paddling on day 6.  Any readers have similar struggles?  I also struggled with keeping my spray skirt on the boat, with it blowing off in several holes and during several more emphatic boofs.  All of it left me wondering how the folks who more regularly pursue whitewater at that level in a packraft put up with the fiddling.  Boat performance itself, or to more exact hull performance, was excellent.  The Yak is still capable of things beyond my skills and my desires.  Each of my three swims were similar, hitting a big hole with inadequate velocity, getting pitched a little sideways, and flipping upstream.  More skill would make a difference, as would more aggressive outfitting than the 1.5″ webbing, two-point thigh straps I’ve run for almost the past decade.

Our general strategy of packing somewhat heavy and stashing gear before each side trip up the creeks was effective and efficient.  I went both protein and nutrient heavy on my food, and did not regret doing so.  By day six I was tired, and with Big Creek on the menu providing the hardest paddling of the trip by a significant margin, what recovery I had been able to maintain over the days previous made the difference, allowing me to mostly keep things together and mistakes to a minimum.  I also went heavy on clothes, knowing that plenty of insulation on the river would save energy in the long term, as would having dry items to put on at the end of the day.  Were I to re-do this aspect I would go heavier still, with a bit more torso insulation under my drysuit, and camp shoes.  Due to the 3k+ vertical drop over the course of the trip, and weather changes over the week, staying warm got significantly easier.  The snow line on the morning of day 2 was only 500 feet above camp, but even with the last day being the warmest of the trip, the consistent overhead soakings in the huge rapids below Big Creek made things almost as chilly as day 1.

Planning wise, I’m eager to dive into options for the future.  The lower 2/3s of the Middle Fork seems a probable packrafting destination for 9 months out of the year, opening up all sorts of options in the times of year when permits are easy to get.  I’d very much like to return to lower Big Creek at the mini-golf flows of early fall, do a complete descent of Loon, and explore Pistol Creek and the Rapid River.  To say nothing of the endless, massively steep, eminently hikable ridges which provide so many routes, as well as the logical wilderness route linking the subalpine foothills of the Sawtooths all the way north to the big Cedars of the Lochsa.

 

Distance learning

There has been a lot of discussion lately concerning the new, or newly rediscovered, hikers and bikers and outdoorspeople the pandemic has brought out of rooms amongst the trees.  It is logical, and I see it as an extension of the last decades trend of increased outdoor participation in profile, if not as a percentage of the US population in fact.  The OIA 2019 report is padded, as it has been for at least a decade, with activities such as jogging and rv camping which take place outdoors but are not generally associated with the wild.  This last is important because some of the recent discussion concerning outdoor newbies has been about mentoring, and learning.

Part of me wants to welcome them all.  The other part of me wants to scream how members of the tribe can possibly, when we have yet to pass beyond the immediacy of how over-socialized our world is, get things so wrong.  Especially in the age of the internet, when instructions on every mechanics is easy to find.

I spent my whole childhood in southwestern Ohio.  Whenever I’ve returned, especially in the past decade, the logic of the landscape is jarring.  I learned to climb in a gym, learned to hike on vacations and in the strings of woods which clung to creeks around town, and when things got technical I turned to books.  Basic knots from the BSA hankbook, tracks and plants from all of Tom Brown, klemheist and biner block from Freedom of the Hills.  We never got enough snow to self arrest, but by high school had one BD X-15, a drill bit glued to the hole in a claw hammer, and ancient Salewa 12 points in hiking boots and “discovered” the 25 foot vertical ice pillars which formed on the spillway in our local big woods state park.  It was equal parts this DIY period so far from anything and my poorly-acknowledged introverted nature that has kept me on the self-taught path ever since.

Not everyone has this agency growing up, to say nothing of a family system that gives both a safe neighborhood to roam and fancy, fancifully chosen gear for Christmas.  There is a lot to be said, still, for core outdoor adventure being the ultimate encapsulation of first world privilege, in all its expensive and precisely curated discomfort and challenge.  There is a bit less to be said for the high cost of entry to outdoor pursuits.  This doesn’t hold too much water in things like backpacking, where skill and fortitude and thrift stores can provide 9/10s the practicality bought in a $5000 trip to REI.  It does, sadly, in things like boating and cycling, especially the later, which in the past 15 years has seemingly doubled down on eeking more and more profit as the last bastion of unfiltered yuppism.  There is still less to be said for the meritocracy of information, as today the process of learning has never been more accessible.

There is a stupendous amount of crap information, of course, but given that we’re confining the discussion to wilderness pursuits, the judgment learned in discovering bad advice to be what it is is more valuable than the skill of pitching a tent on six feet of snow or climbing a 9 inch offwidth.  My repeated attempts to convey how mindset creates safety are so perseverative precisely because these intangibles are the most valuable and most enduring things I’ve learned from climbing, backpacking, boating, skiing, and everything else.

Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, revised

When it comes to packrafting the next three months have excellent potential.  A pretty good winter in the Glacier and the Bob has turned into a darn good spring, with plenty of water yet to be released.  Not necessarily exceptional, but if May doesn’t prove too warm, good flows could persist into August.

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It seems like a good time to release the revised version of Packrafting the Crown of the Continent.  It could be a better time, with many COVID-19 restriction having been recently lifted and the state bracing for the presumptive outbreak summer tourism will bring.  My hope is that people will packraft in the Crown this summer, and do so responsibly.

In some ways significant changes have taken place with packrafting in the Crown.  At some point in the near future a new river management plan will go into effect, and if and when that will mean permits for the North Fork of the Flathead (likely to both happen and to impact packrafters) and the South Fork of the Flathead (also likely to happen, less likely to impact packrafters).  Packrafting in the Crown, especially on the South Fork, has continued to grow in popularity.  Most people continue to do something like this, (North Fork Blackfoot, Danaher, South Fork to Spotted Bear).  I also wonder if, like with bikepacking, the difficulty of the thing as a backcountry practice has begun to limit packrafting, or at least shape the mean use of the boats to sidecountry and day trips.  The mean weight of boats getting heavier would suggest as much.

I remain exceedingly pleased with the guidebook, with the writing, the structural choices, and its modest reception and impact.  Lots of people, but very far from an overwhelming amount have used it to have goods trips.  No one has needed a high profile rescue from the South Fork.  And most importantly for me, folks have consistently reported having plenty of adventure on their trips.  This summer will mark an even decade since my first float down the South Fork, and as distance has steadily increased the power of that memory, being a good steward has only become more important.  To that end, it was nice to make only modest additions, and even more modest revisions.

(Anyone who bought the first edition and would like the second, email me, and I’ll send the new one, gratis.)

Islands of moisture revisited

“…under duress the most important characteristic of your clothing system is not the ability to keep external moisture off you, but the ability to allow internal moisture to escape efficiently without chilling you excessively.”

Me

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In the ~five years since I wrote the above post, and since Sitka popularized the concept of the rewarming drill.  In that time a number of people have produced trials, and a few significant advances in gear have become widespread.  It is worth taking a look at both.

Rokslide recently published a static rewarming drill trial; jump in a lake, get in a sleeping bag, use hot drinks and hot water bottles to see how your insulation manages moisture.  A useful exercise for the unfortunate but inevitable scenario of having to go to bed damp or wet with no other way to dry out.  This can happen in the alpine, or just because of rainy weather without respite.  The lessons from the Rokslide article are mostly old hat: the lightest possible layers (especially against the skin) with the least possible spandex are best.  Anything beyond mid single digits spandex should be categorically out for backcountry stuff in damp climates, as should merino wool.  Synthetic bags and insulating garments provide a significantly larger margin for error, though in the case of the former weight goes up enough that you can almost buy a bigger margin with a premium down bag.  It’s also worth highlighting that women, especially those who require more support than a basic shelf bra/tank provides wear a significant handicap when it comes to eliminating moisture islands from undergarments.

There are also a few versions of the various rewarming drills, static and active, that might be worth watching if you really care to geek out on specifics.  Subtle but significant lessons here are just how much redundant fabric layers (e.g. pockets) can trap moisture, along with how one poorly conceived layer in the system (most often an inartfully selected mid layer, such as a second heavy baselayer) can slow the whole system down.  This performance during a for-video trial is one thing.  The cost lagging dry time can exact on metabolism and morale on day 3 of 5 or 7 quite another.

The most important development in this area, in the last five years, has been in active insulation (Alpha Direct, left; Full Range, right).  The virtues over fleece are in no small part the much lighter fabric (not necessarily garment) weight relative, which vastly increases dry time when internal heat is driving the process.  The advances in fabrics used for shells here also makes a big difference, as they both preserve internal warmth (and thus, temperature gradient) without too far inhibiting moisture transport.  Being able to get wet, be it by falling in a river or sweating too much on a skin track, throw on an active insulation jacket, and then work yourself dry without too much attention to detail has been a game changer.

Lately I’ve been revisiting classic pieces, like the Rab Windveil and Patagonia Capilene 4, that firmly prioritize not only dry time not very low moisture accumulation even under poor circumstances.  And I’ve been impressed, all over, with how well you can do with a system whose ceiling for error is small.  Heavier baselayers, esepcially wool, can in theory do more and better than Polartec HE, just as a softshell windshirt can breath better than the Windveil and peers.  But it is darn nice to just not have to faff much, to leave the second layer on for that extra 20 minutes up the hill with minimal penalty.  If there is any alteration I’d make to these thoughts, it would be that.

Evolution of the Tamarisk: features

Or; as few things as possible.

Backpack features don’t make up the majority of a packs weight, but they do make up the overwhelming majority of the weight which is easily negotiable.  There is only so much weight to be shed with material (before you sacrifice durability), only so much with suspension or frame elements (before the pack carries poorly), and for a technical backcountry pack good side pockets (and belt pockets) are mandatory.  So the design task left is to make it possible to carry all the technical goods, along with the unexpected and unexpectable, with the least material possible. 

This includes snow gear like skis, crampons and ice axe(s), and a shovel, along with water gear (PFD), and perhaps something odd like firewood or even a bike.

I’ve settled on an extension of the reinforcing layer of bottom fabric, with horizontal daisy chains 15 inches apart.  Each daisy has a second layer of fabric inside.   Not only does each bartack thus have serious resistance to the ends pulling through the fabric, but the load is transferred to the whole fabric panel, and thus 16+ inches of seam.  The sleeve is not primarily intended as a pocket, being non-dimensioned, but is open at the top and thus not a bad place to stash pesky things like paddle blades, but the first intention is to both spread the load and provide abrasion resistance. 

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Pictured above is the full deal, for a trip which involved a 12 mile hike to even reach the skiing, and ended with steep skiing (on terrible crust) at 8500 feet.  A shorty 45cm ice axe mounted, old school, to a cord loop on the lower daisy.  The shovel shaft went inside the sleeve pocket.  Skis mounted diagonal, with ski straps, and crampons went under the top cinch strap, on top of three days of gear. 

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The final piece is the top strap, which is bartacked into the middle of the top daisy chain on one end, and with the buckle directly under the upper stay pocket on the other.  When the pack is on the empty side the angle of the strap, combined with the taper of the bag, provides compression.  When the pack is full the strap pulls the load towards the suspension, transferring the load and enhancing stability. 

And that, is it. 

 

The Bob bag

Lets get this out of the way: I won’t make you one of these.  Working with these fabrics and with stretchy Climashield is not something I find fun.  This design is straightforward and quick to make, so create your own ugly.

Ever since my first Wilderness Classic nearly a decade ago I’ve been turning this idea over; what is the lightest and fastest way to get a bit of sleep in the midst of a fast wilderness trip?  Curling up around a fire would seem to be the easiest answer, and has the advantage of self-selecting for only the most vitally needed sleep (read; you get cold and wake up).  The problems are the questionable quality of rest, and the potentially considerable time put into making a fire under unideal conditions.  Adding a tarp or bivy sort of addresses the second issue, but not the first.  In the last decade truly UL sleep items have become common enough that most peoples answer to this question has been to just bring a standard backpacking kit, or at least a light bag, tarp, and minimalist pad.  These systems can be in the 2 pound range, but usually come in between 3 and 4 all told (stakes, etc).  Not much weight, but not a tiny amount either.

The functional intermediary between these has long seemed to be a light synthetic bag come insulated bivy sack.  Enough insulation to maintain ~4 hours of warmth around freezing, and a waterproof/breathable shell with minimal seams, that sort of thing that would allow you to flop under a half ideal spruce and stay protected enough in the just the bag.  Synthetic insulation, as sub 10 oz down fills tend to be overly sensitive to moisture accumulation.  This winter a friend bugged me enough that I finally overcome my reluctance and made two such bags.  In the next few months we’ll truly find out how they perform in the field. 

I used 10D WPB for the shell, .66 oz/yard taffeta for the liner, and 3.6 oz (120 grams/meter) Apex.  The former is the obvious choice, being essentially alone at that weight.  The taffeta has a nice feel and is calendered, with synthetic insulation I reckoned that eeking out every little bit of warmth with low CFM fabrics all around was a good call, with no functional downside.  I went with safety orange for use in signalling aircraft.  I certainly could have used lighter insulation, but past experienced suggested 120 g/m was the lightest that would still be useable in all but the most specialized situations.  I made the neck cinch out of 30D ripstop, as anything lighter doesn’t let the cord run so smoothly, and in time abrades along the opening.

Using the (raw cut) dimensions in the above photo, finished weight was just over 16 ounces.  The fit is narrow, on purpose, but long enough to mostly go over the head of someone a 6 feet tall.

The main design challenge was avoiding any exposed seams in the top of the shell, as I really didn’t want to get into sealing anything.  To fix the top of the insulation to the bag without doing this, I stitched the liner, shell, and cinch tunnel together (left photo) and then folded the shell out of the way, slid the insulation in, and sewed through the interior seam, insulation, and liner fabric (right photo).  Apex is stretchy enough that you can be imprecise here with no problem.

After this, stitch around the side and bottom edges, then put the footbox together.

The footbox is a point down triangle.  The photo show it inside out (left) and then right side out (right) in both cases with the top of the bag facing up.  What you can’t see well is that the top of the footbox is longest, making the two seams run backwards, with the footbox overhanging them.  My expectation is that anything short of serious, sustained rain will not wet this out.

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The ~1 pound weight it what I wanted out of this.  It approaches down bags of comparable warmth, and should exceed them in damp conditions over a few days.  Packed size is another matter.  Squeezing air out of the bag is not a simple thing, and without tons of compression it wants to stay as a roughly basketball-sized lump.  It will go smaller, but in the game of ounces the pack space this demands is less than ideal.

Field report to follow this summer.

Do it now

In the past week I’ve seen a noteworthy uptick in orders for Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, which is cool, because it would seem to mean that folks are planning for a future which allows for bigger dreams.  Escapism, and as I mentioned the other day, familiarity are powerful attractants in the face of uncertainty.  I’ve been using the past week to dwell on the longer standing trips which have been living in my mind undone, in some cases for years, even decades.  They seem to fit into two categories with only a little kicking and massaging; trips for which I’ve been building either skills or time, and trips I just haven’t prioritized.   In quite a few cases I’ve been waiting on certain conditions; running the lower Escalante River, for instance, can’t be done just any time or year (though I remain convinced there are more and broader windows than conventional wisdom suggests).  With plenty of time to consider, it is easy to see that wanting good conditions has for itself often turned into a sort of pureism.  Knowing how singular the first trip into a new and profound place can be, I’ve gotten into what is almost a habit of holding back for close to perfect conditions.

There is something to be said for doing that.  There is also a lot to be said for just doing it, without excessive regard for practicality.  Back in the day, when the landscape poverty of growing up in Ohio still lay heavy on me, I rarely lacked for keenness in the face of conditions or long drives.  When it again becomes responsible to travel widely, I am determined to go back to being a bit less measured when it comes to planning.

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At the start of our time in Moab years ago I made a list of canyons and routes I wanted to see, and one of the very few left undone is the Long-Gravel loop from Steve Allen’s Canyoneering 2.  There were plenty of excuses back in the day, relating to being less dialed on multidays, as well as more recently, due to not wanting to haul too much insulation for the extended water sections.  Both things which, in hindsight, I struggle to be patient with.

Another route I’ve been holding in reserve for reasons which currently seem thin is the Canadian section of the North Fork of the Flathead.  There are a lot of roads up there, and because of that I’ve wanted to thread the needle between when the river starts to run well enough that ice bridges should no longer be an issue, but well before road access is possible.  Skiing in from the east has always looked fun and stylish.  With the window opening in a week or so, this year is obviously not the year.  Perhaps, alternately, the fat snowpack will keep water levels up in the early fall, when the uppermost part of the US Flathead is for me at its most beautiful.

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A longstanding idea which is tentatively on the docket is a high line across the northwest corner of the Yaak, hoping lookout tower to tower.  The six month reservation overlaps here with the most contemplative part of January, and hopefully the first days of open lookouts in late June will see us all back further in the woods, with a new appreciation for this moment.