FAQ: packrafting with kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jefferson Lives

No two men now live, fellow-citizen, perhaps it may be doubted whether any two men have ever lived in one age, who, more than those we now commemorate, have impressed on mankind their own opinions more deeply into the opinions of others, or given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought… And no age will come, we trust, so ignorant or so unjust as not to see and acknowledge the efficient agency of those we now honor in producing that momentous event.

-Daniel Webster, “Adams and Jefferson”

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Last week Little Bear and I visited a Forest Service lookout tower.  It was a new one for us both, and despite it’s restored status, a tourist attraction, safe and stable on the ground (the old tower frame, stairs, and cables lay drying into the grass 100 yards away), the view was when compared to my recent Yaak journey so much more vast as to suspend speech.  There forest rolled away in all directions, waves as regular as daylight.  Here the prairie spilled away in one direction, while white limestone canyons corrugated the forest in another, as a stack of books thrust up for our edification.  In a third direction the forest ran plain, almost to the horizon, a dark sheet whose trees were in texture like the weave of bedding, something that serves our daily comfort without being well understood.  Profundity is birthed by context, and there I had laid just enough threads across the landscape that, with a 70 mile view, imagination could run free tying them together.  Over there was that lively creek, where I slashed open the floor of my boat and finished the day hypothermic sitting in a pool of water.  Over there, 2000 foot corn runs in June.  Over there, a dynamic canyon with a few hidden exits, full couloirs of steep old growth with elk paths like storm drains.  And a little further over there, the valley in which we live.  The Yaak, by contrast, is for me too unknown to be so tied together.

It was impossible to be in either place, today, and not think about Lewis and Clark, and by extension Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson, who took the commerce and ambition which impelled us across the Atlantic and through the forest and down the rivers and along the plains and framed the disorganized logic of avarice into national identity.  America has been a place of discovery, self-consciously, ever since.  And it doesn’t seem too much of an assumption into the man from Braintree that his deathbed pronouncement, “Thomas Jefferson still survives”, was more metaphysical than literal.  All of this is immensely problematic, of course.  Theodore Roosevelt, whose presidency marks the transition to post-Frontier America, and who as a rancher and hunter directly assisted in its death, was as close in time to George Washington as to Donald Trump.  For 21st century America the Frontier, the time when our country exceeded the imagination and, for that reason, was a playground of potential wealth, is far enough in the past that it is almost beyond abstraction.  That the time in which such possibility existed was exceedingly brief, and that the possibility of becoming self-made was of necessity made possible by stacking the exploitation of one class atop another, are facts easily buried in the dust of the past.

And this is the crux of our time; that the same blindness which has glued our way of life together for 250 years has, with the brittleness of age, made America peculiarly vulnerable to the pandemic.  As the world watches our irrational protests, about masks and shutdowns taking our freedom, I hope they wonder how a class of people purported so long steeped in liberty could worry about loosing it, really having it fall away, in the face of things so trivial.  And do not tell me here about the deep state, or draw analogies to Hitler’s Germany, how tyranny ascends in government intrusion piled subtle until suddenly it crossed into significance.  Tyranny begins in the mind, when insecurity sends fear as an outrider.  We, the white people, are not going to lose our freedom when we lose our guns.  We are going to lose our freedom when we collectively refuse to at once admit that individual intention can be virtuous while individual effect can be, because of the weight of context, be freighted with prejudice and injustice.

Jefferson’s empire, be that Monticello, tidewater Virginia, or the Louisiana Purchase, was built by slave labor.  This fact should not, cannot, undo the virtues of a president either first or second (to the aformentioned TR) in modeling the intellectual and moral tenure of America.  Jefferson can be a devoted husband and the lover to a woman he owned.  He can be a great supporter of science, and a supporter of racism.  Cancelling one, the other, or the man himself is no more possible than erasing the river the Corps of Discovery dragged themselves up in 1805.  We can damn and divert the latter, and remove statues of the former, but memory is something we can choose no more readily than we can choose the direction of a canyon.

It is a hard thing to be ashamed of your country, because while I am a myself and get to move around in the world as I please, my country would not exist without my just as I would not make sense of myself without my country.  There is nothing my country can do that isn’t also something I am doing.  This is the lesson of 2020, or COVID and Black Lives Matter, that being separate beings and an inevitable part of the whole are as inseparable as they are contradictory.  It may be that the United States has a chance here to grow up, as a country, all at once, and accept that the coherence and necessity of individual freedom is bound to our place in the present of history.  Insecurity, in our freedom, is evidently inevitable when the history of that freedom, with how it came into being, is both so fraught and yet to be fully said out loud.  I remain an optimist, because I have to be, that the synthesis of our last two presidents will provide well for the future.  It is an unspeakable tragedy of circumstance, though perhaps one that will in the end fast forward the future of our history, that the Trump side of us, rather than the Obama side, was to the fore during the pandemic.

 

What hasn’t changed

In short, a great deal.

Friday March 13th ended up being the last day of school here in Montana, very possibly for the school year.  I recall it being a busy day, I got to my office around 950 after the usual Friday morning therapist meeting, and had a session each hour until school got out at 250.  I squeezed in an emergency session with a client who was having a resurgence of PTSD-related flashbacks, and on the way out chatted briefly with the guidance staff about how the Friday the 13th superstition was a bunch of crap.  Late Sunday afternoon I got word that school would be canceled for the next week, by the end of the week my colleagues and I had official guidelines on doing therapy via Zoom.  By the end of the following week the state had expanded Medicaid rules to include sessions over the phone, and we had word that due to reduced clients visits decreasing revenue we’d all be taking a 20% percent pay cut.  This past week, week 4, was the first doing distance psychotherapy where my sessions were close to 80% of what they used to be, the first where I was doing my job in the way I want.

Much of the teeth-grinding about schools being out across the US (and, I assume, the world) goes back to all the implicit functions of public education.  Being a psychotherapist in a school works both because school is the mechanism of socialization backstopping parenting, and thus the mechanism of stress of children as they begin to find that their upbringing will fall short of what society demands of them.  On a pragmatic level, this means that I’m seeing clients who due to family issues probably wouldn’t make it to office appointments consistently.  By extension, it can’t be too much of a surprise when many of them have struggled to keep regular Zoom or phone appointments, even in the face of lots of reminders.  Some of my families have truly risen to the occasion.  One client, still in state custody, returned to living with her mother mere days before Friday the 13th, and has with no external structure logged on to virtual middle school exactly at 8am every day since.  Others have foundered; kids waking at noon and doing nothing but gaming and youtube, or parents descending back into substance abuse by means of coping with the anxiety they can’t yet say out loud.

These families, and many of my friends and colleagues, have in my less stressed and myopic moments given me profound appreciation for how little our family life has changed in the past four weeks.  We did decide, in the face of my salary reduction and an uncertain future, that M should go back to work.  We found ease in her old employer taking her back gladly and in a matter of days, and security in mitigating any financial uncertainty, but also anxiety in that her job exposes her to the general public.  So that last few weeks I’ve been waking as usual, or often a bit later, and using that extra rest to manage the many things I can’t control in my professional life.  I end work early in the afternoon, so M can go in to her job, and I can take over management of Little Bear, Little Cloud, and their endless enthusiasm for running in circles, noise, and stealing each others toys.

We are happy every day to have a generation background that put us on the path towards stable housing and a healthy, easy marriage.  We are grateful for and enjoying more time around each other, having bought a house with generous space and a good yard, and most especially it being spring in our less busy part of the world.  This past week the days were sunny and for the first time all year, into the 60s F.  With kind weather, daylight until nearly 8pm, and empty public land in all directions the boys and I have been doing just what we would have done normally, except with a start several hours earlier.  In the past week we had creek time, canyon time, saw carp spawning inches under our packraft, and I got a bright cold morning to ski a local peak.  The small people have each other for company, aren’t yet in school, and as long married, natural introverts M and I feel the social constraints but lightly.  If the current state of affairs continued for a few months, I wouldn’t much mind until well into summer.

This is more than I can say for my clients.  For most the removal of outside structure has laid bare just how thin and ill-practiced are their internal coping skills.  This has cut across class lines, though my more affluent families can more readily purchase external supports (e.g. distractions).  It will make good fodder for discussion, with those who survive the closure of their world with their basic needs far enough intact to be able to look beyond bare essentials.  My broader concern has in the past week evolved into a certainty; that nationally and globally these months will see an escalation in familial trauma that when combined with academic and social delays and higher levels of disease and death within extended families will resonate for the rest of my life, and likely beyond.

That the Bear and Cloud will likely, hopefully only recall this as a peculiar episode their own kids might read about in history is an object equally of comfort and guilt.

A scare

Little Cloud, Aka Littler Bear, turns 2 in a few weeks.  As with all toddlers, the aspects of his personhood attributable to his life outside the womb have become reasonably distinct from those which formed within it.  His time spent outside and younger sibling life of perpetual catch-up were recently in evidence when 2 days of contemplation were enough to see him going both up and back down the wooden ladder into our treehouse, with the supposedly toddler-proof big step up at the bottom.  Unlike many toddlers, and due not entirely to the need to catch-up on communication, he displays an excessive amount of personality for someone well under 3 feet tall.  Good for stealing your hat and making friends at the brewery (above), or while out getting ice cream (below), and rather less useful when his analogue ways of refusal number into the dozens.

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Yesterday morning the cloud wanted to follow me outside and lurk underfoot in the garage, as usual, but was noticeably cranky, and by late morning, lethargic, which is unheardof, enough that we took his temperature.  103F.

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Toddler time outpaces that of the adult several times over, so his temperature could have been due to his last two molars coming in, or to a cold his buddy had given most of us last week, or to something more evidently sinister.  M took him to the doctor, which involved calling them from the parking lot and being seen in a tent in the yard, with samples sent off.  In a few hours we had the flu result back, in 25 hours the test of coronavirus.  Both negative.  And now we can go back to spending more time at home than back before the world changed, while still being able to walk around the block without fear.

Things I’ve broken lately

Last month Little Bear and I went backpacking.  In and of itself this was not unusual, though it was the first time just the two of us had walked in to camp under a tarp.  It was noteworthy because it was February, and we were in shoes, walking over a inch of crusted snow and ice.  In sharp contrast to our first two winters here, this one has fulfilled our valleys reputation as an oasis of brightness.  Which I do not mind at all, as it gives the choice of driving east and hiking, or driving any other direction (including further east) and skiing.  It makes my life easy, and those with short legs easier still.

That afternoon we walked a few miles up a canyon, didn’t slip on the ice, explored a cave, and with a little futzing found a flat spot at last light.  Setting up our big tarp proved complicated, with almost desert-pure dirt frozen solid with the days melt.  On that, or on the many limestone cobbles, I broke a Groundhog, the first time in over a decade of using them.  That heightened the dis-ease of the evening, as Little Bear stood watching me hammer as the deep cold of the dark crept quickly down the hillside.  My fire skills remained sharp, and that warmth did what it has done for tens of thousands of years; put those only newly at ease out under the sky to sleep.  Once in his bag Little Bear’s eyes closed within seconds, and he slept for 12 hours.

The next weekend, as further evidence of our southwestesque winter, the Bear and I went on a bike ride.  It was snowing fast, but the flakes stuck to dry dirt and pavement and impacted traction not at all.  We made our way down to the bike park, and on our second run over the big rollers I felt a click, which I assumed was the basic drivetrain being cranky.  It was in fact my right pedal spindle cracking partway through, damage which completed itself a minute later when I went to spring up the hill at the start of the jump line.  My pedal detached completely, with my shoulder going into the handlebar and knee into the dirt.

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It had been a long time since I’d crashed that hard, on anything.  Sadly, it would not be the last such incident this month.  It had also been a long time, and by that I mean never, since I had bothered to regrease my pedals, or to replace the dust cap which on that pedal shook itself loose riding Little Creek 6 years ago.

Mechanical neglect was not to be blamed for my crash the weekend after, rather personal imprudence.  That same lack of big snow which has been so good for walking and biking in 2020 made the first big storm in months a matter of fervor at the local ski hill.  It also reminded me that resort pow is the most overhyped medium in outdoor recreation, as a foot of blower over icey bumps and rock mainly means you can’t see the potential obstacles.  So it was with me, and while looking to gap down to the cat track on my second run I stuffed a tip into a rock or stump and side slid down a short slope whose powder was a veneer over boulders.  If you were riding the right lift at the right time you might have seen my haste-induced poor form.  I nicked the arm of my fancy shell, broke the leash on my right ski (which it is supposed to do in a nasty fall), and bruised my whole left side in a way which made it hard to walk for the next three days.  I now realize I was quite lucky to not break any bones.

All of that is quite trivial compared to the last week, as Coronavirus precautions have broken the routines whose significance most of us had little cause to understand.  In Montana we have thus far felt a lesser impact than many.  I can still for instance drive 30 minutes and hike for laps at that same, now closed, ski area.  The volume of walking and jogging traffic past our house has neither increased nor decreased, with perhaps only a few fewer cars at the busy times.  Schools are closed for at least a few weeks, and likely longer, so we’re watching a colleagues son and I’m learning how to do therapy remotely.   It’s something our company ought to have had in the repertoire a while ago, so the silver lining of persistent uncertainty is new and unexpected skills, along with a hopefully enduring awareness of how much the innocuous runs our lives.  With bumps being unexpected, though perhaps less so in retrospect, I can only hope that this batch has run through.

Granite

I couldn’t hear him breathing; not over the wind, which pushed eerie harmonics around the chimney pipe, and shoved the towers timber frame into groaning against the bolts that held it to the cables that held it to the granite ground.  Nor could I hear him breathing over the flood roaring between my head and heart.  If the forecast continued to be so well reflected we’d wake at dawn to a sunrise over the distant lights of our town, and strong but not excessive winds and plenty but not too much fresh snow for the walk out.  But even in the light of day with the walk in and the evening and the night behind us, all flush will accomplishment, we would still be four miles from the car, and the constancy it would provide.

Four miles is a lot when that number is also your age, and Little Bear had been quite close to not making the snowshoe in yesterday, as I knew he would be.  The former logging road contoured around, gaining elevation almost imperceptibly, the scenery changing at a pace it took me decades to finally find intelligible.  It had been over a mile after having strapped all but one of my poles to my pack, walking hand in hand with him, before we rounded that crucial final turn and saw the tower atop the distant hill.  Plainly over a mile to go, but with the injection of relevance I knew then that we would make it.  And we did, making the top of the final steep climb 10 minutes before the blizzard descended as predicted.

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Rental homes on summits are precious things, and those in the know will only reluctantly tell you that the depth of winter is reservation time, as most of the forest service towers are only open 3-4 months a year, with those slots going up half a year in advance and generally filling stem to stern.  A few towers have more extended seasons, and fewer still are open year round.  One such is not far from us, just visible in the right spot from the summit of our local ski hill, so the other week when a Saturday cancellation appeared I grabbed it with minimal thought.  Most sublimity best escapes our mind that way.

Lookouts are often the subject of guarded public caretaking, the haphazard richness of the commons, and this lookout had a telescope, five battery powered lanterns, and 14 quilts on the twin bed.  I snaked my hand under two quilts and inside the 5 degree sleeping bag and felt Little Bears chest rising and falling.  He had slept quickly and hard an hour after dark, after his requested dinner of steak and ramen and while reading stories from a 26 year old hunting magazine found in the cabinets.  As my vague panic faded I settled back into refined sleeplessness.  I was awake long past not because I was worried about him being cold, or the tower falling over in the storm, or even the walk out tomorrow.  If needed I could wrap him in all his clothes, my extra jacket, and carry him out on top of my pack (likely without falling over too many times in snowshoes).  What I was worried about was his possible failure to not, eventually, ineffably, learn what I wanted him to learn.

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Without the woods I am not sure I ever would have been able to cut through the fog of the 20th century.  Never would have seen how entertainment, our own disease, was equally insulating and suffocating, and in the end only a response to the increasingly numerous and neat series of boxes into which we’ve put ourselves over the past century.  Never would have understood how difficulty is at the same time a figment of our selves and the only way we know we exist.  Never would have known how discomfort, be it in tired legs or the eyes of the stranger across the table, is always a reflection of us.  On the one hand I don’t want him to be lost, on the other, I want him to earn this lesson well enough that its dirt can never be washed out.  In the end, I hope he can perhaps do it a bit cleaner and earlier than I did.

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The walk out provided valuable lessons.  Most vitally, that novelty is magnified by short and developmentally appropriate attention spans.  The steep walk into the woods engaged him because he was occupied with not falling over.  The initial road walk through old growth occupied him with hare, fox, and marten tracks.  The bulk of the logging road was monotonous, and had me straining against myself to give him space for struggle.  Then we ran into the couple headed out, on skis, to spend the next night, and he figured that he could take off his snowshoes and walk in their tracks.  This worked for someone 55 pounds geared up, and provided a challenge incisive in the way snow slogging will never be.  Then we had the drift section, and these two things sustained their interest all the way the final (dull) mile to the car.

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Big trips always leave a hangover, and I’ve been comfortable at least a decade with big not correlating well with either mileage or days afield.  This was a massive one for us both, and watching his assimilation process that afternoon was a thing of curiosity.  Elk and whale noises into this nalgene the whole drive down to pavement.  A cheerful reunion with the tiny plastic backhoe in the car, and the toy subsequently invited in and fed pizza at the victory meal.  Tired, cuddly, then cranky and inscrutable the next day.  In this last, not entirely unlike an adult.  If mountains are built in reverse then the rock of our personhood emerges a bit more each melt, fine ephemera gone downhill and the permanent bits left better defined.  Nothing would move without periods growth and fallow, else all would stay frozen, but those high harsh times move things faster, and their remains are thus the more distinct.

Kids and Cabins

The other weekend we went to a cabin. It was off in the foothills down a snowy road, away from our (currently snowless) banana belt valley, along a creek that was high enough to have several feet of snow, and low enough to be forested and hidden from alpine harshness. The cabin was small, one room, with two sets of bunks and a table on one end, and a wood fired oven and wraparound counter on the other. Four wood chairs, two fairly comfortable, two emphatically not, fit into whatever corners were not in use.

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With the combination of kids and cabins and winter come complications.  The first happened immediately, with the short ski from the road being a bit longer than anticipated.  We have a big complicated sled, good for pulling both kids or a good amount of gear, which is stable and tracks in all conditions, but also has to ride on the roof.  For trips like this I built a smaller, lighter sled, which can also hold two kids, but is less stable.  Facing a longer haul in, we overloaded the small sled, and struggled with it diagonaling into the snow and loosing cargo, or dumping snow onto the toddler.  It took 4 trips, but everyone and everything made it to the cabin.

Another complication is that small people really struggle in deep snow.  Little Bear got off easy, spending his second winter in the desert.  Little Cloud has thus far gotten off easy, with his second winter being (thus far) an unusually dry and warm one.  But with two feet of snow around the cabin, an early priority was to dig out a play area in the yard.  After that, an avy shovel, toy dumptrucks, and sticks made for hours of entertainment over the days.

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Extensive outside time correlates directly with the other complication of kids and cabins; the interior is small and features things like a very hot wood stove.  We can expect the small people to be safe in such an environment, but only with proper supervision and when properly tired out. 

No running in the cabin.

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Kids and cabins have a few important virtues, which cannot be separated from the complications.  Small spaces make for a premium on self control, a fungible and crucial resource when you are 4.  Living outside, in a snowy winter, emphasizes simple things like heat.  The kids in turn remind us big people how vital and disconcerting learning about the implacable world surely was back then.  Postholing, for instance, is a cruel thing, when you first encounter how nature has flipped the switch on something that was previously so basic and immutable.  Postholing and trail breaking were done, along with lots of crying, and several protracted mid-trail sit-ins by the toddler, for whom being excluded was always the worst option, no matter how cold and snowy the path. 

No significant injuries were accrued, though each kid had a close call.  The Cloud tipped a chair peering too ardently over the back, just not heading into the stove, while the Bear got after it breaking firewood off a downed Doug Fir, and got a bloody lip for his trouble courtesy a rebounding branch.  We the parents got interrupted sleep, to stoke the fire at 0200 and keep the squirming toddler from bailing off the bed. 

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For us civilized folks, big and small, returning to the land of electricity is always a treat after a few days of deprivation.  The sensation is embarrassingly indulgent, and always gets this parent thinking how well we’d do without central heat or indoor plumbing (M, rather more prone to cold, has other ideas).  The small people have no such self-consciousness, and can enjoy hauling firewood in the snow and popcorn in a brewery equally and without navel gazing. 

In the process we discovered a new favorite place, both for exceptional, restored 19th century decor and excellent beer, Smelter City Brewing in Anaconda.  Their porter jumped straight to my top 3 of Montana microbrews.  All the better reason to go back that direction soon.

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?

Hunting the Kaibab

Last week, I fulfilled a longstanding ambition, and went Kaibab squirrel hunting north of the Grand Canyon.

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Kaibab squirrels are a subspecies of the Abert’s, a common, ear-tufted rodent seen through the more arid parts of western North America.  The Kaibab developed its distinctive white tail and dark body due to geographic isolation, and are singular enough that the part of the Kaibab plateau is a national natural landmark because of this unique subspecies.  Tassel-eared squirrels are almost exclusively seen in ponderosa pine forests, and the Kaibab has developed life habits highly synced with that tree, making it the most pure representative of this class of rodents.  It does not hibernate, for instance, nor does it store food in anticipation of the winter, and their diet (to quote Hall) “…consists almost exclusively of  items produced by the tree [ponderosa] or of plants symbiotic with it.”  Seeds, cones, and the bark of new shoots are the most significant food sources, with the later being the potentially most relevant, for the Arizona squirrel season, which generally runs for the last three months of the year.

I’ve seen plenty of Kaibab squirrels in my life, with the best directly relevant experience being in mid-October of 2014, when after a canyoneering backpack we spent a few days up on the Kaibab Plateau proper, and saw the squirrels seemingly everywhere we went.  The correlation between seasonal conditions and tree squirrel numbers is not precise, but there was reason last week to assume that the stout winter of 2018-2019, and the dry summer of 2018, might make for slim pickings.  While there is a decent body of ecological literature on the Kaibab squirrel (for a rodent, that is), there is almost nothing out there about hunting them.  There are two broad types of ponderosa habitat on the plateau; pure stands in the flatter parts, and stands more mixed with either pines (Doug Fir, more commonly Pinon and Juniper) or Aspens in the transitional and more broken areas.  The plan was to hunt a representative of each type, and see what happens.

Combining hunting with anything else is complicated.  M and I had met my parents in southern Utah for an early Solstice celebration, and adding a 300 mile day trip from our base near Zion when we had driven 800 two days before was pushing things still further.  Fortunately, we had great weather that morning, and the toddler slept all the way from Hurricane to Jacob’s Lake.  Drawing on my knowledge from the Kaibab Monstercross days I had a spot a little ways south of Jacob’s Lake in mind: extensive stands of mature ponderosa, some gentle gullies to provide different aspects, and flat areas for the kids to roam while my stepdad and I went and looked for squirrels.  It seemed obvious they’d be favoring sunny aspects this late in the year, both for warmth and snow-free ground, and 45 minutes in we spotted one, which ran hell for leather away from us and disappeared up the far side of a stout tree and into a nest 60 feet up.  Oops.  I felt like an idiot; as the person with the shotgun I had waited for the classic pine squirrel pause and lookback at 40-50 yards, rather than taking the running shot I should have almost immediately.  Knowing how few chances we could expect to have, especially given the dearth of sign, had me concerned, and irritated with myself.

Back at the cars the kids were collecting pine cones and enjoying the relative warmth outside, so we two hunters took a short walk around the hill to the south.  The sign we’d seen on our first outing had been concentrated exclusively in a small area with a mix of old growth and new (20-60 feet) ponderosa trees.  The far side of the hill had this habitat, but no squirrel tracks in the patchy, crusty snow.  All morning the wind had been strong enough that hearing anything was improbable, and I scanned continuously between the ground and the canopy, trying to tread that line of possibility between being attentive and trying too hard.  Which was when I saw one.

On the opposite hillside, 100+ yards away, and as with the first one running full speed straight away from us.  But this one climbed the near side of a big ponderosa to the first stubby branch 30 feet up, where it sat, tail curled up, looking at me with seeming passivity.  The question now was whether its tolerance for me moving closer would overlap with the effective range of a improved modified choke and 1 ounce of #8 shot.  I kept eyes glued to it as I closed the distance.  It didn’t seem purturbed, indeed didn’t give any sign of disturbance, while I closed to 45 yards and almost the same level, across the gully, went through the full calming breath cycle as if I were about to take a 300 yard shot on a deer, and at the bang of my shotgun fell immediately to the ground.

I sprinted down and then up the hill to it, not because I was worried about it running away, or because if it did I might somehow catch it with my bare hands, but just to look at it.  The process of hunting obliges one to look at a place in a particular way, here the framing is an objective and potentially foreign as navigation through a tangle of cliffs and canyons.  These days I fully embrace this, and the way in which hunting a place can provide new depth of place, if not an entirely novel experience.  Shooting this squirrel, whose finding took all of two hours, and which may have weighed a bit over a pound, was almost as exciting as shooting a six point bull at ten yards last month, because of the context built up over years.  All on a tag which cost 20 dollars.

I hope to go back for a truly extensive Kaibab squirrel hunt, hopefully soon.

 

Giving; part 2

When you’re 4, or 19 months, does it make a difference if the leaf pile or puddle is 800 miles away? Or an hour down the road?

Perhaps our national crisis has as much to do with the realization that growth and novelty don’t guarantee meaning as it does with the profound and inevitable generational passing. If so, then on the big shopping day time and simplicity are the best things we have.