Vicarious enjoyment

A few nice things to entertain and inspire. I need them; post-trip blues, mediocre weather, and a slow day at work aren’t making we want to get out of my pajamas very fast.

I have no desire to ever directly experience anything in that particular universe, but it’s nice to know that it’s out there.

Roman’s superlative guest post, on the other hand, is exactly my style. Thinking about the classic this summer, now that makes me want to get moving this AM.

Big Mountain – Apgar traverse

Friday evening I was tired.  On weeks like this past my work does not afford me much mental rest, and I despite plans to the contrary I did not have the wherewithall to pack and get out on the trail that evening.  The plan had been for me to get out in time for the roller derby bout Saturday evening, and then go do an adventure with M on Saturday.  There were many good options for a day trip, but I suspected I’d need an overnight to be satisfied.  Gear to test, silence to experience, so forth.

Eventually a plan was hatched, ice cream was consumed, books were read, my pack was packed, and I went to sleep.  M dropped me off at the base area of Big Mountain around 900, and I walked, snowshoed, postholed, and packrafted my way in Apgar in just less than 24 hours.

It was a good idea.  Both days this weekend were sunny and warm, hot by our current standards, with winds that (apparently) downed trees and telephone poles throughout western Montana, almost blew me off my feet on the summit of Big Mountain, and when they came upstream made paddling the North Fork Saturday evening a lot harder than it already was.

We’ve had a windy year generally, as evidenced by some formidable and durable cornices on this anonymous ridge overlooking Big Creek.  Those are not small trees.

Aside from the wind and excellent views, snowshoeing off the mountain and down into the lower, melted and thus civilized reaches of Big Creek was non-eventful.  I did need to drop off my fireroad and bushwack down across the creek on one occasion, which led me through the unpleasant zones of ever more rotten snow.  In the video you can see one of the fun sink-to-the-waist moments when I would hit a hollow patch.

The floatability of Big Creek had been a large question in my mind.  The volume (from driving past the mouth on Wednesday) and gradient were good, but given that the whole lower drainage had burned within the last decade I was concerned that wood would render things slow, dangerous, terrifying, or all of the above.  I had wet and cold feet when I hit dry dirt just before Hallowat Creek, so I walked a further half mile to get warm and scope the creek.  It looked good, so I bushwacked through the deadfall (the wind blew a tree over ~50 feet from me, the first of three that would fall close by that day), suited up, and put in.  The water was fast and pushy, affording no downtime and little time not maneuvering to avoid holes, logs, or to setup for ideal positioning around the next bend.  The dilemma in such creeks is that with few eddies and willow-lined banks, getting early notice of log jams is crucial.  You want to be on the outside of a bend to get first look, but in the case of partial jams that always sit on the outside right after a bend, a rapid ferry either to avoid the wood or eddy out and portage is the order of the day.

I was having fun and making excellent time in the water, but soon the portages became more numerous and their placement on the creek less generous with its room for error.  On the last one (shown in the vid) a particularly fast and narrow bend dumped me right above two nasty logs with no eddies in sight.  A Harlequin duck pair was camped on an almost totally submerged gravel bar, are were not pleased as I came screaming in to land, ripping the deck early and jumping out into knee deep water, trying to hold on to the boat, paddle, and stay upright.  I shouldered the boat, got out, and decided that Big Creek and I were done.  A larger supply of patience and nerves could have made the float work, but I’m a chicken and control freak and just wasn’t having fun any more.

Seven more miles on foot down the dirt road was good classic training.

I couldn’t walk away from my fear completely, the North Fork of the Flathead really needed to be floated to stay on schedule, and was running huge and unleashed at 12,000 cfs (last weekend it was between 3,000 and 4!).  I made sure to attach the pack to the boat, and my PFD to me, especially well before putting in.

For such a huge level, my progress downstream was not screamingly fast.  Much of this was due to the maddening, fierce upstream gusts, which caught whichever light, high side of my boat/pack was available and tried to spin me around.  Sinking a paddle blade to stay facing downstream often resulted in an annoying auto-ferry to one side or the other.  Compounding this, my Aquabound comes stock with one mild feather setting, which means the blade in the air caught massive resistance and made paddling forward strenuous enough that my elbows ached by the time I took out at the confluence with the Middle Fork.  (I’m drilling a new hole this evening to fix that issue.)

Sunday AM camp breaking yardsale.

The Flathead at such a level was truly impressive.  At all other times quite demure, this spring day the river put me in my rightly small space, in my very small-seeming boat.  Channeling around a gravel bar resulted in a formidable back-boil that sat noticeably above the level of the main channel, and when such streams reunited the roiling eddy lines seethed, alternately flattening into nothing and twisting into whirlpools with no discernible predictability.  I found it interesting, but not very relaxing (hence the almost total lack of from the boat footage).

Above one particularly legit-looking riffle I pulled off to empty the boat, re-temper, and shake some blood back into my limbs.  I thought about scouting, but that seemed silly on the North Fork.  Putting back in, I realized that this riffle was a legit rapid.  Nervous, and so concentrated on ferrying left but not too left to thread the needles between two holes (for real, holes!) I exhaled to enjoy my positioning just in time to look ahead and see a horizon line rapidly approaching.  Oops.  That was dumb.  Instinct got me off the three foot ledge drop with no problems (and thanking the packrafting ability to skim over recirculations), but when I eddied out and looked back upstream (first shot after the Big Creek and North Fork confluence in the vid) I was pissed.  My goal for the stretch had been to hit my lines, and choose the easiest and mellowest lines through all the whitewater.  I had hit my line, but chosen it badly.

As I mentioned, I’m a control freak, and the difficulty with which one imposes control on a river is disconcerting.  Two more legit rapids followed closely, and I portaged each to make a point to myself.  The first looked easy, but the last one had some big holes and standing waves, features I would not want to paddle a packraft into, even with a drysuit and small army of safety boaters to fish me out.  Fortunately for me ease with life, the river relented a bit, and I made it down to the confluence with some ferrying around big standing waves, a mandatory run through some truly weird eddylines/boils/whirlpools, and an exchange of gazes with a moose eating willows at rivers edge 30 feet away.  Three hours after I put in I took out, cold, damp, and a bit annoyed with myself, but happy.  I got moving to shake the cold, found a gorgeous camp, cooked dinner as darkness came, and fell asleep quickly.

McDonald Creek.

The sun got me up early.  I made tea and enjoyed the view, and once moving was soon on familiar territory.  I texted M, who was to meet me at Apgar, that I was ahead of schedule, and even with plenty of photo-futzing en route was sure to beat her.  Unfortunate, as I was hungry, having on purpose brought only the bare minimum of food.

The Middle Fork was running even higher than the North Fork.  The circle bridge, which I had floated under (with lots of room to spare) this past Monday, was up to within a foot of the bridge supports.  The parking area which had been dry on Wednesday afternoon was under a foot of water.  The world, which had been sitting with perfect patience through most of March and all of April, had come rushing to life with a vociferous joy sufficiently beyond the civilized human palette that it’s a bit unsettling to witness.  A reminder that the world, in the course of its moods, will occasionally sweep away our roads, homes, and orderliness with no malice or intention.

It was then quite proper that I felt small.

McDonald Creek.

Lake McDonald was quiet and windy, with businesses still closed for the season and isolated groups of tourists hunched against the chill edge taking pictures.  I used the facilities and got some water, staring into the mirror in the same bathroom where, back in September, I changed into nice clothes before driving to the interview that got me the job I’ll go to later this morning.  The most mundane places can be sentimental given context.

M arrived with hot coffee and food, and the news that she had forgotten her snowshoes, making our planned ascent to the Mount Brown lookout a matter for next weekend.  Perhaps a good thing, as I was feeling a bit hollow.

Instead, we drove up to the Polebridge Mercantile, chatted with the owners (Stuart, one half of the couple, and I share a past as employees of Missoulas homeless shelter) and ate baked goods in the yard.  We then walked up the still-closed to vehicles road to Bowman Lake flower hunting and enjoying another blue day.

Bowman Lake, mid-May, with ice.

By the time our 12 mile out and back was done I had over 40 miles on the feet in two days, and was ready to be home on the coach with food and beer.  M was nice enough to drive.

What I’m calling recovery tacos; protein maximized.  Vegetarian refried beans spread on tortillas and warmed not quite to the point of lightly toasted in the oven, steak, eggs, avocado, salsa, and potatoes.

Now it’s Monday, and raining outside, and even in the face of fatigue and the afterglow I don’t want to go to work.  After sleeping more, I’d rather be back out there.

Tipping point

Where’s the boat?

M photo.

It is officially spring.  Not in the seasonal sense, but in the sense that snowmelt and daylight have gone beyond the point of hospitability for humans.  The land is welcoming us back with only feet, and we have light to see by past 9 pm.  Something to be celebrated, enjoyed in a bacchanalian fashion while it lasts.  Which is why we found ourselves in Glacier late into yesterday, to the point of eating dinner at 1030.

M photo.

Packrafting, fishing, hiking, birding, flower hunting, etc.  Lower McDonald Creek and related environs.  Off the horse trail between the Glacier Institute and the Middle Fork, we even saw the years first bear.

M photo.

This little one was impressively indifferent/unaware of our presence until s/he finally smelled us.

A day to take sunset photos at 60 mph, and not even be able to stay awake long enough to finish your beer.  It is going to be a good month.

Dry dirt in the North Fork

The weather forecast, and webcams this morning were all uninspiring, and I was concerned with balancing pent up energy with recovery from illness.  After some indecision and coffee, and decided to go packrafting.  Better to boat in the rain than ride or ski in the rain.

It was pissing rain in Columbia Falls, but once I got to Polebridge it never more than sprinkled off and on for the rest of the day.  With no desire to futz with snowshoes, I walked up the (closed to cars) Inside North Fork road.

No snow out in the open, lots of animals out and about.

A fox, a couple dozen elk, lots of deer, and a bunch of prairie dogs and ground squirrels.

As a day to put in some miles on the feet, this exceeded expectations.

The snow also continues to exceed expectations.  We’ve had sun, but not much as far as warm temps go, so anything with any consistent shade still has feet of snow (even below, at 3700′).

With no desire to posthole, I bushwacked down to the river.  My new shoes gripped great on the ice.

The North Fork lower down had been red-brown and angry, but about the major, lower tributaries were merely milky and fast.  I floated back to the truck in half the time it took to walk up, snagged a coffee and some baked goods at the now open Polebridge Mercantile, and drove home.  Content.

Even more bikerafting!

It’s what all the cool kids are doing..

Photo of/from Doom.  Go there, read, wonder, zoom in on the pics, and learn.  Good ideas for that elusive best bike on raft rig, and an excellent route.

The new boats look aweseme, and the bigger bow is likely even better for lashing on a bike.


First, Dan and canyon crew are on fire with this trip. Serious FOMO warning.

Second, Enel requested that I hold forth on the subject of firearms (guns!) as a backcountry safety tool.

Since moving up to Griz country I’ve thought a fair bit about the various ways in which one might defend oneself against hostile critters. I’m restricting my analysis to animals, for the simple reason that defense against humans is a much more complex topic. When I’m in real wilderness out west I think I’m as safe as I’m ever in my life likely to get w/r/t other people. If I hiked the AT in the mid-Atlantic I might feel differently.

As far as bears go I agree with Eric’s assessment that carrying a weapon, be it a firearm or pepper spray, is primarily psychological. Grizzly freak us out not because they’re more statistically likely than any other animal to hurt us, but because they could if they chose predate upon us with disconcerting ease. I don’t think we humans like being reminded of our proper place amongst the food chain.

I bought my first ever can of bear spray about 11 months ago, specifically because I was going into a griz-rich area alone soon after the bears woke up, and could safely assume I’d be the first humans any bears I might come across would have seen that year. The record of pepper spray seems to be pretty good, though the max range of Counter Assault is advertised as 30-32 feet, and the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee recommends a “…spray distance of 25+ feet to reach the bear at a distance sufficient for the bear to react to effects of the active ingredients in bear spray in time to divert its charge and retreat.”  In short, pepper spray does not inspire a huge amount of confidence, and in application demands a very steady nerve.

The second option is marine flares, either handheld or in a pistol-type launcher.  Apparently these are used in Russian and Alaska, and have been officially recommended in Canada (until people kept burning themselves with the handheld ones).  Seems effective, and the thought of being able to reload and have something non-lethal to shoot at a bear is comforting.

The third option is to carry a gun.  As fo 14 months ago, one of the major downsides to this, being unable to lawfully carry them in national parks, quietly went away.  The pros amount to being able to administer lethal force when necessary, the cons primarily weight and having to be skilled and calm enough to aim well.  As Eric noted, the minimal gun I’d consider carrying for self-defense against big animals (bears or otherwise) is at least 40 oz (and has some punishing recoil).  I’ve also reliably heard that should you need to kill a grizzly in self-defense, and I assume this would apply to anything in hunting-forbidden national parks, the paperwork required to substantiate your situation in not to be trifled with.

In summary, all options for self-defense weapons are deeply flawed.  I might buy a flare gun to replace the pepper spray I lost last month, or do what I did for years and go without.  I’d like to own a stainless S&W .44, but the weight penalty alone would make me hesitate to carry it often.  In the end, the best defense is knowing the area into which you’re going, the likely behaviors of the big animals therein, and an acceptance that as in all things in life strange, unpredictable, and shitty things might just happen.



In his email Eric mentioned that “There are literally many, many, many more folks walking around armed than I ever dreamed of.”  True, this is America, and the 2nd amendment exists so that we can overthrow the government if need be.  My grandfather taught me to shoot, and be responsible about it, when I was little (7? can’t recall, really).  It was a big, big deal when in his eyes I was old and mature enough to shoot a .22.  I’ve always been comfortable around and appreciative of guns, even if I’ve never been drawn to them as many are.  That being said, I recall folks in Arizona being more ostentatious about owning guns than any other place I’ve lived, by quite a bit.  My cynical analysis of this is that many people move to Arizona and try a bit too hard to recapture the wild west, often by riding horses of trails over their skill level with a brand new .44 in a leather holster.  One of the things I love about Montana is that while almost everyone has guns, and hunting is more a part of the cultural fabric than anywhere else I know, shooting and hunting just aren’t a big deal.  Which once you’re an adult is usually the way it should be.

More bikerafting

Rode north, found a fishing access on the Main Flathead, which is rockin’ along very clear, fed 80% by releases from Hungry Horse reservoir, anticipating the massive runoff that will occur once the mountain start to warm up

The Tubus Cargo gets the job done.

New rigging method. Needs to be a bit further forward, and is tall, but nicely balanced and fast to set up.

The water was lovely.

The Thaw

It’s happening. The Middle Fork of the Flathead is at 3000 cfs, compared to 850 last weekend. Compare the following to this photo. Snowpack decreasing = spring.

I woke up early this morning, out of hunger more than anything, but also to watch some cycling.  An inch of fresh snow sat in the yard, and the sun was coming out.  I did what I told others to not do, and went boating instead of skiing.  It was what I wanted.

I borrowed M’s MSR snowshoes rather than ski, which was a wise choice.  Though a lot of the snow was bound to be awful no matter what.

Numerous moments of crotch deep postholing, even with the ‘shoes on.

I believe this should be called underflow.  A good hip flexor and quad workout.

What was a skiable trail last weekend is a stream this weekend: remarkable.

The trail goes that way, though I bailed on my goal of going all the way to the lower Nyack camp and headed off to find the creek at this point.  A choice which led to even more “fun.”

This is not Nyack Creek.  I thought it might lead to it, but the steady current sieved-out into willow thickets and under snowbanks.  Snowshoes back on, boat back away, more postholing and occasional breaking into flowing water of unknown depth under 2-3′ of snow.  Conditions which, quite frankly, suck, but I had never experienced an only partly thawed seasonal swamp before, so the route redeemed itself with educational value.

I was excited to finally reach the real creek.

Lower Nyack is a classic packraft float.  Except for (because of?) some really, really big wood jams.  Downstream goes off to the right of the above photo.  I got some good practice in ferrying onto micro-beaches, pushing the raft ahead as I postholed along, and seal launching off snowbanks.  Other than that it was nice, fast class 1 with plenty of logs in, on and mostly underneath the water to keep me on my toes.  The wood relented (for the most part) before a series of twisting oxbows, and relented entirely not far above the old bridge site where I put in on the way out last weekend.

The blessing that made all this silliness enjoyable was the warm spring sun, which aside from a few snow squalls shown all day, and made the drysuit I brought unnecessary.  I’ve skied a few of the lines you can see above this winter, but until today had yet to see any of them, from a distance and top to bottom.  I’m not hanging up the skis just yet.

Whitefish P3athlon race report

(I’m inventing the above appellation because Pole-Pedal-Paddle Triathlon is both ungainly and in the wrong order for this event.)

The weather this morning and early afternoon was good for doing a race on a fairly innocuous course, which is to say it was 85% crap.  The other 15% were left out because it wasn’t raining especially hard, and it could have gotten a fair bit colder without crossing the line into snowing.  So, when I woke up in the dark this morning I wasn’t very excited about my plan of riding to the start.  But what else was I going to do?  The only other reasonable thing to do in such weather was stay home and drink coffee.  So I split the difference, and had two cups of coffee and rode the fastest way to the start, on the shoulder of the highway.  Which really wasn’t bad at all.  It was raining and I got wet, but looked all gnarly at sign-in with my face already covered in mud.

The gawking at my rolling circus setup started immediately, and I tried to share the gospel of packrafting as much as possible.  Watching the inflation process usually does that for people.  I placed my inflated boat in the line up of sea kayaks, racing kayaks, a hand made (and dead gorgeous) rowboat, and a solo outrigger racing canoe.  I went and got a coffee to stay warm and confirmed what I had previously suspected: I would be waay DFL right from the start.

There was one other guy in a creekboat who came off the paddle a few minutes ahead of me.  Everyone else was 20+ minutes in the lead.  It’s pretty pointless to try and make a packraft go fast.  They come up to 2.5ish mph pretty easy, can be pushed to 3, but much beyond requires a 50% increase in effort for a 5% increase in speed.  I thus saw no reason to hurry as I deflated and rolled up the boat, lashed my shit back together, and pedaled off as the start gate and props were packed away.  The guy in the creekboat, who had earlier announced his intention to complete with me for DFL, was I thought already up the road, but I didn’t pass anyone as I ground my way very slowly up to the ski hill.  Hauling 30 extra pounds of crap makes going up a lot slower, and I never found a rhythm of anything close to it and just suffered and fought up the whole fucking climb.  A good reminder: the reason we train is to not do that.

I once again confused the checkpoint staff by refusing the bike handoff and rolling over to the bike corral, yard saleing gear all over the place, and leisurely transitioning into the tele boots I pulled out of my pack.  I stuffed the boat and my soaked bike shoes, seal skinz, and shoe covers into the pack, and left my PFD with my bike as it wouldn’t easily fit.  Off I went.

There were quite a few really fast guys out today, all of whom had road bikes and orchestrated and supported transitions, and some of whom were done with the race before I started skinning up the mountain.  I’ve never been fast, it seems to be in neither my physical or psychological makeup, but I have had moments where I’ve been pretty damn strong.  This attribute displays itself best when a course is long and hard, and the P3athlon was neither.  Moreover, I was having a high-gravity day, and had nothing to do about it but stare at the snow and shuffle upwards, slow, steady, with lots of effort expended.

The snow was refreshingly soft, in spite of having climbed from rain into snow squalls on the bike.  I had my super light boots along because they skin well and take up less space in the pack, and was contemplating just how extensively my ass would be kicked if I had to ski ice and crappy snow on boots with almost no forward or rearward support.  As it turns out I, after another casual transition, had a few hundred feet of heavy cutup snow to flail through before the lower 3/4 of the course, which was uniformly and predictably soft and all-around a total blast to ski.  My legs got pretty shot doing it, but I rolled in next-to-last place.  Collected high-fives, and went inside to dry out.

Ben encouraged me to not ride home, as doing so seemed a good way to invite in a cold.  I had already made my mind 90% up on that question, and called in the M rescue force.  It wasn’t an inspiring day, nor was it a good day as far as my performance went.  (It was actually quite bad.)  But it was a good use of shitty weather, a fun challenge, and as excellent workout (legs hurt, lots).  I even collected a prize for my creativity/stubbornness, as winner/inventor/sole entrant in the self-contained category.  All in all, not a bad way to spend the day.