Top 5 backpacks of the past 10 years

The close of a decade approaches which, if you’re not stocking it with thinly context’d affiliate links, isn’t so bad an arbitrary cause to re-examine what has happened in the past 10 years.  Lists focus the mind, and the fingers.  The best of these use material goods as a vehicle to examine culture, and since hiking and backpacking media is boring as fuck compared to bike media, in the name of all us impoverished, sedate walkers I’ll aspire to that end here.  First, a list just for backpacks, my favorite, and later a more general accounting.

Kifaru Bikini frame

The most sustained place for development in backpacks the past decade has been in hunting load haulers.  Kifaru doesn’t make the Bikini frame anymore, but it still stands out as the apotheosis of the original Lowe internal suspension design; enough vertical structure to support 100 pounds, enough fabric and padding to keep it comfortable, and just enough else to keep it all held together.  The limits of the Bikini have to do with adding lateral stability without adding too much weight, and the inevitable weight and comfort limitations associated with stay-in-lumbar designs.

Kifaru’s short-lived KU series was a contender here, with an integrated frame and bag making it to this day the lightest load hauling pack ever (2 lbs 10 oz for 5200 cubic inches).  The suspension was at least as bold a design choice as the more obvious main bag fabric (dual layer sil) and minimal features, and I still wonder if the limits of the KU, with even less lateral stability than the bikini, had more to do with its short life at retail than the fragile fabric.

Seek Outside Unaweep 3900

IMG_0515

If Kifaru set the table for the modern hunting pack, Seek Outside (nee Paradox Packs) was at the front of the pack who arrived in 2013-2014 to eat the scraps.  The Paradox u-frame and hanging belt remains the simplest, inherently lightest, and thus in my mind best of the systems which have matured towards 2020.  It is also, again in my mind, the definitive reification of the McHale argument that hanging belts work better than lumbar pad systems.  Around mid-decade Seek made forays with this argument in the hunting sphere, but was beat back by the ideological weight of the Kifaru tribe.

Also like Kifaru, Seek has persistant struggled with coherence in their feature set.  For this reason, the OG (and long discontinued) Unaweep 3900 remains my favorite pack of theirs.  The tall and thin shape suits the use of Talon compression panel to carry all manner of things, and while the non-dimensioned bottle pockets were a bit small, they were also out of the way of the bottom compression strap.  A pack who didn’t have enough time for the market to catch up.

Osprey Talon 22

JMT photosOsprey is the pack company of the past decade.  For proof, hang out in any busy place, backcountry or front, in any national park and take a casual survey.  This fact encapsulates both poles of almost any pack question.  Many of their designs are substantive, while many have as much to do with in-store appeal than function on the trail.  Many of their products are outstanding values (the Talon 22 MSRP has gone up only $10 in a decade), something anything more than casual introspection can only regard as a troubling fact of globalization.

Therefore it is appropriate that the best Osprey product of the past decade is one which was introduced in the previous decade has changed but little in this decade.  Flaws persist (lame side pockets!), but in shape and function the Talon 22 remains the ideal daypack, from day hiking, to mountain biking, to summer backpacking (see above, on the JMT).

Ultimate Direction Signature series

 

Running vests existed well over a decade ago, but in terms of either size (Nathan) or function (Inov8) they had significant shortcomings.  The first generation of the UD vests had issues as well (this first mainstream foray into cuben packs did not go well), but when it came to features and overall vision they set a high bar.  An all star team of pros/designers often does not translate well to production, but in this case it certainly did, and the result continues to define the category, and show just what truly accessible pockets (a huge growth area this decade) should be.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter

The Porter isn’t the most user-friendly, logical, lightest, or best carrying backpack.  But it looks cool, and was the linchpin product in not only changing the pack conversation (back) towards extreme functionality, but doing so in a wave of marketing that provided a timely antidote to lifestyle, hipster, do-little, fashion mongering abyss that gear in the instagram age was for the later part of the decade very close to falling in.  HMG makes capable packs, that cannot be contested.  A lot of their fundamentals were dated when the designs debuted 8+ years ago, but with respect to aesthetics, materials, and design they are bags meant to do thing, demanding things.

And if that isn’t the first ideal for a backpack, I do not know what is.

Forward the consumer

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

Culture; will all the positive and negative connotations.

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

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

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

 

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

North Fork updates

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

moose2

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

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

The vexatious Airshed

Windshirts are complicated, because their job is a difficult one, and an important one. Patagonia’s Airshed, a pullover shirt made from the outer fabric of the Nano Air series, has been around for a few years.  The lack of a hood, concerns over durability, and the expense put me off for a while, but Max’s glowing review, a gift card, and a 50% off sale put me over the edge last winter.  That I’ve put off writing this for close to a year, and still struggle to summarize performance, is evidence of what an odd duck the Airshed is, as well as how action layer performance doesn’t emanate directly from lab numbers.

The relevant numbers are that the Airshed fabric is 44 grams/meter, and the claimed air permeability is 67 cfm (cubic feet/minute).   The Patagonia Houdini, touchstone for the traditional modern windshirt, is 40 grams/meter and somewhere around 5-10 cfm (being over the head of the general public, cfm is not generally featured on product pages).  The BD Alpine Start, touchstone for modern soft shell windshirts, is 80 grams/meter, and roughly 30 cfm.  In theory, the Airshed ought to be breathable like an Alpine Start class windshirt, but as light and thus as quick drying as a Houdini class windshirt.

In this, it succeeds, though as the significantly increased cfm would suggest, the Airshed does not provide the same warmth as the Alpine Start.  This has a lot to do with breathability, but also I think a lot to do with fabric weight and drape.  The Airshed fabric is impressively pliant, and offers exceptionally little resistance to breeze killing dead air space.

At the same time, I found the Airshed oddly not breathable.  During sub zero conditions it accumulates less moisture on the inside surface than the Alpine Start, but during warmer conditions (say 60F) felt stuffy faster.  I’ve worn the Alpine Start as a sun layer in a packraft on a few occasions when I only had a short sleeved baselayer.  Oddly, I’d be less comfortable using the Airshed for the same purpose.  Somehow the Airshed seems more responsive when the moisture gradient between the inside and outside of the fabric is greater.  I also found it unpalatable to wear against the skin.  It dries fast, faster than modern light (~100 grams/meter) baselayers, but does not actively wick, and thus feels clammy.  It feels very similar to the old BPL Thorofare; uberlight, bugproof, quite windproof, and somewhat plastic-baggy.

img_8163.jpg

For these reasons, I haven’t worn the Airshed a whole lot.  I’m also not a fan of several key features.  The chest pocket zipper is weighty relative to the gossamer fabric, and doesn’t run well unless the neck is zipped almost all the way up.  I removed the pocket, something of an ordeal as the light fabric puckers and pulls like crazy.

The second, and far more significant issue, is the stretch fabric along the cuffs and hem.  This stuff holds water like crazy, an attribute highlighted by how fast the main fabric dries.  Not really a huge deal for a trail running shirt, but an almost fatal flaw in a backcountry piece.  After the struggle of canceling the pocket, I’ve yet to tackle replacing the hem fabric.

Durability has been passable.  There is significant pilling around the front of the waist and along the sides, where the hipbelt action is, but I haven’t yet put a hole in it from brush, which somewhat exceeds expectations.

After a summer of disuse, or of bringing the Airshed and wishing I’d brought the Alpine Start, I cut the sleeves off (easy, the seams are right there), and as a vest the Airshed has promise.  My perhaps longest running complaint about wind or action layers is that they have to be removed and stowed away during serious rain.  Light ones like the Houdini mess significantly with the breathability of a WPB layer, while more breathable ones like the Alpine Start hold too much water, while not contributing enough to the insulation scheme.  My new Airshed vest promises to be a wind layer that can stay on, over a baselayer, for days at a time of mixed weather.

Time (and spring) will tell.

That time again

Yep.

A few things worth noting for 2020:

The Point Pleasant Campground is well named, but small and hard to find (closer to milepost 64 than 63).  There is very little parking; I’m strongly encouraging folks to not plan on leaving cars there.  There are also a handful of islands of private land in the Swan State Forest; please avoid these.

While the finish is the boat ramp parking lot at Gibson, there is also plenty of parking at the Mortimer Gulch TH just up the hill.  No problem leaving cars in either place.

Get it.

Shit that works: MSR tent stakes

Back in July I seized on a weather window and probable lack of snow and did a big alpine traverse in the Bob.  Early summer in the alpine, especially in the limestone reaches of the Bob that hold water in mysterious places, generally mean bugs.  So when  set my camp the first night, in a notch in the rugged ridge at 8000 feet, I chose the only unambiguously flat spot, right in the middle of the pass.  This had the advantage of being away from the springs on the north side (and would thus hopefully keep the many elk I’d seen that evening from tripping on my guylines), as well as the extensive grizzly diggings along the eastern (and more verdant) edge.  Most importantly, it would take advantage of any breezes to reduce bug pressure.

The disadvantage of this approach is that any storms would come full force, which is just what happened at 3 in the morning.  The thunder and wind woke me up simultaneously, and I had plenty of time to assimilate the simultaneous flash/bangs as the storm rolled over, as I was sitting up with my back against my tarp, hoping to help keep both the paddle sections propping up the rear intact, and the windward end stake from ripping.  Neither of these things happened, and after 20 or so minutes I went back to sleep to the music of frantic rain.

I was sleeping in this tarp, with the wall end fortunately facing dead west.  That end was propped up by my Shuna, with the ridgeline supported by a single MSR Cyclone, and the corners by MSR Groundhogs.  These burly stakes, hammered with significant into the rocky alpine soils, were the main reason my sub 1 pound shelter held tight.

img_8433

Pictured above is an MSR Cyclone at top, MSR Groundhog, and DAC J stake (formerly standard with Sierra Designs tents) at bottom.  All are made from stout aluminum alloys which over the years have proven immune to any abuse.  I’ve never bent any of these, and only broken older Groundhogs (10+ years ago) by snapping off the heads pounding them into frozen desert soil with a rock.

img_8114

Contrast this with the shit stakes that came with the Sierra Designs Clearwing we bought this summer, and the state they were in after the very first use in the field.  Fortunately that night in the Beartooths only featured pouring rain, and was not accompanied by any wind.

Lesson being; don’t get good tent stakes, get the very best.  If your fancy tent, tarp, or mid can’t stay upright, all other particulars are irrelevant.

I’ve used Groundhogs since they first went on the market, and they’ve only gotten better with time.  For years they were all saw fit to use.  I first came across the Cyclones looking for something that would provide enough holding power in loose soils for the great forces bigger shelters (like the Seek Outside 4 man tipi pictured at top) inevitably enact.  They’re expensive, but they do that job admirably, along with providing reassuring overkill for smaller shelters in extreme conditions.  Anyone who camps in sand or sandy soil should have a few, as well as anyone who camps in the alpine.  Adding stake point to an otherwise vulnerable shelter like a tarp is the traditional approach.  The limit here is in the form of soil conditions, which might not admit two guylines, at an acceptable angle, on a primary load point.  A cyclone can be pounded into almost any ground without buckling, and is a more reliable solution to a guy point that must not fail.

In conclusion, it is appropriate to excoriate the many companies who sell faux-MSR stakes with their shelters, presumably in hopes customers will never have cause to know the difference.  MSR doesn’t cut generous deals on the wholesale front because, building the best stakes on the market, they don’t have to.  Either providing these stakes with your shelter, or having the grace to sell shelters without them, communicates seriousness and respect.

There is currently no substitute.

Shit that works: Rab Pulse hoody

The newish variations of ~100 gram/meter poly baselayers might be my most loved innovation in gear out of the last five years.  As someone whose larger challenge with thermoregulation almost always has to do with managing sweat, and rather rarely with outright heat generation (or more exactly, lack of it), the way these thin fabrics move moisture while still providing skin protection and some buffering against the weather endear them across close to 100 degrees of temperature swing.  As I wrote back in March, it is one of the first areas I recommend novices spend serious gear funds.

img_8120Sun protection on a very hot, no shade August traverse of the Chinese Wall.

Even though truly light poly has been around for half a decade or more, a hoody made from the fabric, with all the right features and most importantly the right fit, has proven ellusive.  The OR Echo line gets the fabric right, but in true OR style, punts on 50+ % of the salient details.  There are oodles of sun hoodies on the market which have a good hood, and decent or better fit, but for reasons which to this day escape me, almost all are made from heavier, relatively spandex-heavy blends.  Fortunately, this year Rab came to our collective rescue with the Pulse hoody.

On the surface the Pulse fabric is identical the micro-grid Patagonia has used in their lightweight capilene for the past few years.  The Rab fabric has a softer hand, and performance which is significantly divergent.  The current lightweight capilene is tough and dries fast, but has always felt a bit plastic-y, like it is loath to accept ones offering of sweat (rather like the Airshed pullover, but not nearly as severe, a topic for another day).  Plus Patagonia has yet to make a hoody in this fabric.  The Pulse fabric breathes beautifully and is very soft.  On Isle Royale I gladly kept it one for a week straight, with it being as cozy on day 7 as day one.  The fabric combines with the hood and cut to make the Pulse as close to being both a good sun layer and a good cool weather layer as I can imagine being achieved.

The hood is roomy and provides full coverage without getting in my peripheral vision.  I appreciate the clean, light finish provided by the absence of a zipper or closure mechanism.  The baggy finish around the jaw and chin makes for good ventilation in hot weather, but flaps in the wind and lets in the cold.  A button to cinch things up is the compromise I’m trying this winter.

The thumb loops are the best compromise I’ve found between being short enough for use without, while at the same time being able to provide real warmth and hand protection with a natural fit.  Bravo Rab.

img_8435

Overall fit is a hair on the loose side of regular.  Long sleeves and torso are much appreciated.  I wouldn’t complain if the sleeves were a tiny bit tighter, but I can live with them as is without issue.

The only real fly in the ointment is the durability of the fabric, which hasn’t been stellar.  Granted, my Pulse has seen a lot of serious bushwacking (where the hood is very nice for keeping pine needles out), but on more days than not in the brush, I’ve put a decent hole in it.  For an $80 shirt I’d really prefer better here, but the performance is such that this is for me not a deal breaker.

img_8436

The Pulse hoody is certainly good enough that I’d gladly trade in 2 or 3 less versatile shirts so I could use it for everything that didn’t involve either serious bug pressure or serious cold.  Ideologically and practically, not having to make a choice when dressing for 80+ % of trips is much appreciated.

 

Shit that works: the Rocketbox

Our Yakima Rocketbox turns 20 this year.  Over that time, few other items have been as consistently useful when it comes to outdoor adventure.

The US is set up for cars, with the overwhelming majority of prospective destinations not lending themselves to non-private motorized transportation.  If in places like Alaska the wilderness can make hard to get to the wilderness, in the lower 48 the great ocean that is rural America usually makes it hard to get anywhere else.  For this reason some places can feel very remote indeed, even if you’re only a few miles beyond the trailhead; Big Sandy in the Winds, for instance, or Choprock in Escalante.  Add winter weather, and even pavement can be drafted into the wilderness.  During several long drives home from the east side of Glacier and the Bob, riding on the teeth of a storm, unpredictable whiteouts have reduced me to 30 mph with right tires firmly planted the rumble strip, for security when visibility suddenly plunged from 100 meters to 2.

It is logical to get a car big enough to fit all your stuff inside, for security, protection for the elements, and aerodynamics, until you do the math on the dimensions of some of those items, how often you’ll need so much space, and, as important as any other reason, how stinky much of that stuff often is.  A roof box solves all three of these issues.  It should be easily removed and stowed in a garage.  It should be long enough to fit (for instance) 210cm classic skis, and other things which don’t stow well in all but the largest vehicles.  And a roof box is necessarily separate from the passenger space, making it an ideal location for soggy clothing, ripe wetsuits, and muddy boating gear.  The gear itself, and the interior of the cargo box, can be hosed out when convenient and then dried quickly in the sun.

The Rocketbox was essential for organization when M and I were living out of Xterra.  It held all of our trekking, camping, and climbing gear securely and out of the way.  With creativity and a few mods we were able to fit the box and three bikes on the roof (with 48 inch cargo bars).  The box was merely convenient when we lived in a house in Arizona with the same Xterra as primary vehicle, mostly because gear dried so fast in the southwest, and we didn’t do much skiing.  The box, on the same vehicle and with the same living setup, was more important once we moved to Montana, and has become absolutely vital since adding a hatchback and first one and then two children to the mix.  Today, we’ve had enough practice that we can do a week on the road, camping exclusively, with climbing and packrafting gear in tow, and fit everyone in a small (by US standards) car.  With summer sleeping bags there is even space to see out the back window.

(Rocketbox visible at far right.)

In 1999 Yakima made three cargo boxes.  Today they make 9, with only two being comparable (long enough to hold skis, narrow enough for multiple bikes or a boat additionally on the roof).  Wider, shorter boxes seem the fashion, and the worry-free tailgate clearance they provide seems to me a poor choice given their limitations in all other areas.  The other lamentable development is in dual-side opening, the hardwear for which takes up considerable interior space.  Back in the day, the most popular box (the Rocketbox) was available in left or right opening, the other two in right only, which seems like the pragmatic choice anywhere other than New Zealand and Britain.  If the original weren’t still going strong, minus a bit of sun fading, I’d be tempted to look on the used market.

As is, I can’t imagine living without one.  It is the primary car accessory for almost any outdoor activity.

Shit that works week: the return

The original series has remained amongst my most-read posts throughout the nearly five years since it was published.  This is because, in the end, backcountry gear is not as complicated as we are inclined to think, and because the online world (concerning outdoor adventure and generally) has become ever more fake.

Let us discuss.

IMG_1089

The identity politics of outdoor “recreation” continue to not baffle, but frustrate me.  Frustrate because of the self-defeating circularity.  People who should know better remain, at least implicitly, convinced that backpacker, or ultralight backpacker, or climber, or sport climber or alpine climber or boulderer, is something you are rather than something you do.  Looking at things in the world as the later has the benefit or empowerment and self-actualization; climbed 100 pitches this year? or slept 30 nights in the woods?  You’re a climber or a backpacker.  Engaged in intentional, reflexive packing for a backcountry trip and challenged yourself to not pack too many insecurities?  You’re an ultralight backpacker.  Engaged in a bunch of prevarication online and spent more time worrying about what you might do, when, and with what stuff than actually doing it?

Time to get off your ass.

R0022811

Outdoor adventure is the ideal blend of democratic and meritocratic.  You can legally do as much as and close to whatever you want, provided you build the skills.  Want to climb 5.12, paddle class IV in the wilderness, ski across a range, or become truly comfortable sleeping by yourself way back in the woods?  Make a plan, do stuff, fail, learn.  Make due with used, substandard stuff, and be confident in your learning.  Want to embrace and then be subsumed in the Big Wild Places by living on their doorstep?  Move.  Soon.  Sacrifices will be made.  In the former case, months and years spent flailing in the snow, ripping flappers in the gym, sleeplessly waking for each midnight squirrel fart gets old.  It is worth it?  Ideally not because of where the process with take you, though the fluidity of mastery is the best reward, but because the newness of learning has a clarity not found elsewhere.  In the later case, you’ll probably either make less money, spend more on food and housing, or most likely both, but what price living?  To repeat last years installment of this series; “…my problem with the new, third or fourth wave lifestyle outdoor brands; that they’ve making shiny crap that is good for the coffee shop and the hike to Delicate Arch, and whose lack of seriousness is predicated on the rare devotee who will graduate to the more core brands when necessary.”  And as the years pass and my understanding hopefully continues to be complicated, I remain convinced that the somnolent dayhikers all, in some fashion, want to have the skill and mind to go that way, for a week, on their own, and come out on the other side.

IMG_3248

And yes, I have a problem with outdoor media and industry assuming incompetence in the name of inclusivity.  And I celebrate brands (and hopefully by extension ideas) which die a quick and sudden death because they were, in the end, just plain crappy.  Last month Max wrote “Nowadays, few outdoor media outlets provide the critical cross-category analysis that is necessary to help us get the best thing for our needs. Most reviews are optimized for google search rank and are designed to provide advice within the category you are looking for.”  His whole post is worth reading.  Designing gear for not-the-Himalayas is one thing.  Making lame stuff because most folks won’t care after they get the gram is another.  At the same time, there are many beautiful and passionate people in the outdoor industry who have made beautiful, intense things.  The best, as discussed previously in this series, endures year on year and works well across seasons and activities.

In the coming days, I’ll discuss a few more examples.

Isle Royale debrief

To review; what I set out to do was this.  What I ended up doing was this.

Camps were Birch Island, Island Mine, Malone Bay, and Daisy Farm.

I knew going in that the original plan would be subject to potentially extensive change on the fly, due to how difficult the off-trail sections would end up being, the weather, as well as my fitness.  The weeks leading up to this trip were hectic, ending with the travel process of catching a plane at 0555 Saturday morning, driving the 13 hours from Cincinnati to Copper Harbor on Sunday (beginning at noon), then waking at 0645 to get on the boat, which left at 0800.  I was ready to sleep plenty once I got into the woods.

According to the rangers the word is officially out on September.  We had a full boat, the antipenultimate one out of Copper Harbor for 2019, with 50+ people all set to be briefed and permitted at once.  This took a while, though I’m not sure Isle Royale using hand written permits accelerated or decelerated the process.  Unlike every other park I can think of with designated backcountry camps, Isle Royale is ok with and even expects people to alter their itineraries mid-trip.  The permits quantify traffic, and allow rangers to give folks a heads up that they might have to share tent pads or lean-tos.  That people are expected to sort this out in the field amongst themselves is one of the many charms that park is afforded by having such low visitation.

I was off around noon for the short walk over to the Tobin Harbor seaplane docks, where we flew off the island on our last trip, and where I blew up my Curiyak for the first of five separate paddling legs that day.  The weather was sublime, with little wind, full sun, and temps which were just not too warm.  The narrow channels which lead all the way to Lane Cove are friendly to a little boat, and after a second lunch break at the Lane Cover campground it was time to get real and figure out what the central goal of this trip was going to entail.  I dove into the bushwack around 4, and emerged 4 hours later at the back of Brady Cove, spooking a moose and paddling to the dock at Birch Island right at full dark, picking the tiny island out from the trees across McCargoe Cove using the reflection of the setting sun in the glassy water.

I followed the ridge system perhaps 1/3 of the way from the trail to the east shore of Linklater Lake before becoming frustrated that I was not finding and following the best natural line.  A close examination of the satellite imagery reveals that the ridge, running away from me a bit south of west, is split by many gullies which run from southeast to northwest.  These were strenuous to cross, and the bottom of every one had a moose trail, extensively trafficked, the collective weight of which had me convinced there was a better way.  For me off trail travel is only secondarily about seeing certain places, the part I find of most interest is seeing how creatures use the landscape in the absence of explicit human influence.  Thus, I bailed south into the “meadow” which was of course a swamp, though drier than expected.  A moose highway ran along the north edge, and was mostly dry, making for excellent progress.  As I neared Linklater this trail lost it’s integrity, as the moose seemed to fan out in the thicker forest, due to either the easier travel (for a moose, the undergrowth was still considerable), the change in feed availability, or both.  The trail came back together along the north shore of the lake, with progress bumping back up above 1 mph.  There were several places a decent site could have been hacked out of the undergrowth here, but I was deeply in the zone of forward motion, as well as worried a moose would come along in the dark and trip over a guyline.

So I continued.  The forest north and northwest of Lake Shesheeb is mostly architectonic birch trees, whose far and sparse canopy allows plenty of secondary growth.  It was tough going, with moose traffic to dispersed to be of use.  It was starting to look like I’d be in for either schwacking in the dark, or a scruffy camp deep in the brush.  Maintaining the second to second focus needed for safe travel became difficult, and I was worried about burning too many matches on the first day of the trip.  Getting back north on the ridge didn’t look worse, and promised more perspective, so up I went.  The trees were too big to see anything, but the sounds on an active stream and the promise of open water a theoretical mere kilometer to the north gave me a push to drop further north.  The brush was even thicker, with extensive alder along the creek, which had seen an astonishing amount of recent beaver pruning, enough to make pack-on progress possible.  I run suddenly into the hillside, on whose opposite side the cove sat, and immediately found a moose trail, which turned almost-bikeable, which led right along the shore of the cove.

Birch Island has a small dock, two picnic tables, a characteristic Isle Royale lean-to, a latrine up the hill, and a flat patch of grass with water on two sides.  I made dinner, unpacked, and later layed on the dock watching satellites moves with the rotation of the planet against as detailed an account of the milky way as I’ve ever seen.  A fitting end to one of the best days of backpacking I’ve ever had.

I had four more days backpacking, along with a bonus 24 hours dayhiking and enjoying the scenery around Rock Harbor when 10 foot seas delayed the boat.  All the major themes of the trip, and I’d like to think of traveling off trail on Isle Royale generally, were exposed during those first 9 hours.

Isle Royale currently has a little over 2000 moose, and is 206 square miles in size, making for a density of 9.6 moose per square mile.  By contrast, Alaska Game and Fish estimates the western Brooks range contains between .1 and .6 moose per square mile.  Extremes, one presumes, and not the first time the island has had so many moose.  The terrain is worlds away from what I think of as classic wolf terrain, places like the Lamar, North Fork of the Sun, or even the extended Kishenehn.  On Isle Royale there is almost no open area which is not covered in water, and a enormous percentage of the forest is also swamp.  Once all that is frozen over the wolves must have a fine time hunting moose, but the ~7 months things aren’t must make for very tough moose hunting.  The summary for the off-trail hiker is that I imagine Isle Royale currently has some of the best moose trails on the planet, from a human perspective.  On the afternoon of day three I was blown ashore in the cove north of Spruce Point, and had there not been consistent moose trails to follow all the way to Crow Point along the coast, my progress would have gone from merely slow (~1 mile/hour) to half that or even less.  One of the few places where following moose trails is an advisable navigation tactic.

I also received a good education in packrafting on big lakes, which in retrospect allowed me to appreciate how easy the first days paddling terrain was.  Two of my new comrades in boat-waiting guide kayak trips in the Apostle Islands, and explained how Lake Superior, in the absence of tidal influence, forms its swell based on the prevailing winds, which given the large area in question makes swell direction and size oddly fickle.  Paddling down Siskiwit Bay was casual until I portaged over to and then went beyond Hay Bay, at which point I was sufficiently out of the lee of Feldtmann Ridge that I had both a strong following wind and a strong quartering swell to contend with.  Packrafts don’t manage either of these especially well, and with both moving towards being strong enough to flip me, and not being able to square on to both simultaneously and thus make backwards and outwards progress that would let me clear Spruce Point, it was an easy choice to go ashore.  A similar situation occurred the next day, when I was able to use the strong following swell and calm winds to work as far as the east side of Schooner Island, at which point fighting diagonally to stay off shore seemed like too much effort.  I was also worried about the lack of non-rocky landing sites, something that could have been dire had the swell and/or winds picked up (which they did by early afternoon, making even the trip across Chippewa Harbor quite gripped).

Packrafting on Isle Royale makes all the sense in the world, in the scenic options it opens up, but the limitations are acute.  My biggest regret from my route changes is not being able to confirm, via the Big Siskiwit River, that none of the “flowing” waterways on the island are worth floating, but examining the mess of deadfall and low hanging alder that was both the Little Siskiwit between Siskiwit Lake and Superior, and the creek between Lake Ritchie and Chippewa, I hold out little hope.

My other regrets are fairly minimal.  Giving more time over to the bushwacking and paddling sections was obviously the correct choice.  My first process objective for the trip was to be poised in the bushwacking sections and absolutely nail navigation, and on each key occasions I popped out, either on a trail or a body of water, exactly where I had intended.  There was a considerable amount of trepidation on day one, surrounding how much time and especially effort fulfilling that goal would require, and thus doing so was deeply satisfying, and most importantly allowed me to tackle the next bushwacking sections (particularly the stretch inwards to the Malone Bay trail, the thickest of the trip) with a mind detached from outcome goals.  Now I’m left with a list of places I’d like to see next time; Red Oak Ridge west from Island Mine, the corrugated minefield going directly from Ritchie to Wittlesey, and yes, the beach walk around The Head and Long Point.  No trip to a good place can ever be the last.

One of the highlights of the trail walking was the final six miles of the second day.  For the first half of the day one bushwack I used the Ojibway lookout tower to gauge progress, and spent the less frequent snatches of visibility on the second half of that stretch looking south and west towards the rest of the Greenstone.  Big views (for Isle Royale) over Mount Siskiwit rewarded this route change, but the later parts over Ishpeming and Desor dragged.  I knew my fatigue was largely from the huge first day, as well as the tough trail tread, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that such fatigue prior to mile 20 on a day was simply not acceptable.  The descent down the west flank of Desor is gentle, with the grade all but vanishing into a continuous birch and maple canopy that blotts the sky and has almost no undergrowth.  The leaves were just starting to change in earnest, and my wonder came home with the realization that it had been years, indeed over a decade, since I’d gone so long on feet with so little view of the sky.

Isle Royale National Park officially closes to the public on October 31st, and yet this year you couldn’t take a boat out to the island later than October 3rd.  Presumably the weather gets less predictable the further one travels into fall, which leaves me with two closing thoughts.  I want to go back in mid-October, and perhaps as the popularity of the park expands boat service will as well.  If and when this does happen, I’ll carve out an extra generous allowance of time, and bring a bag of supplementary and luxury food to cache at the boat dock.  When we were stuck the rangers kindly provided extra fuel and assorted food, and kidney beans stewed in onion soup mix and baco bits was a quality dinner, but explicit planning here seems the prudent thing.  Several in our band had been coming to the island in September regularly, and a survey revealed that around 30% of the time the boat is delayed.  Which of course highlights one of the biggest appeals of the Isle Royale; it is remote in a way that hearkens back a century or more, when civilized travel was not so easily taken for granted, and is both a backcountry destination and a more wholistic travel experience.