Our internal Yaak

Diffidence.  That’s the nicest thing I can say about the ocean of trees, 5500 foot ridges, and 3000 foot valleys that stretches from the Flathead to the Cabinets, the Kootenai to the Clarks Fork.  In half a dozen years living on the eastern shore I made a handful of excursions into and across the green sea, not many considering the number of visits to the rocky wilderness east, and the vast and largely unrecorded depth of the Salish and Yaak.
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We returned recently, with distance and perspective offering an answer; logging.  The talwegs of the Kootenai, Yaak, Clark Fork, Tobacco, Thompson, and Bull all hint at what used to be and in so doing highlight why the modest but not inconsequential relief of the green sea blends into it’s own background.  Almost all of it, a swath over a hundred miles wide in each direction, has been clear cut.  Mostly 30-50 years ago, which has produced a lodgepole monoculture, relentless in shade and aspect.

The patches of fresher cuts, most now tucked away such that they’re not visible from highways, echo in the cornea like shadows moving with clouds.

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There are benefits to obscurity.  By modern standards there are hardy any people there, either resident or visitor.  Being far away from centers of government also kept more of the fire lookout towers intact than in most other places in the west.  And with logging being the right hand of 20th century fire management, increasingly most of the those lookouts are un-manned, having graduated like so much of 20th century infrastructure to being 21st century pikuresque.  IMG_6250

It stretches the imagination to think that a century ago Gifford Pinchot was vilified as a radical, a snowflake in contemporary slang.  the messianic, mechanistic institution he begat left the womb straight into the 1910 fire, which burned most of the Montana-Idaho border and left a part of the country still working to bury the frontier more vulnerable than it was comfortable being, with it’s timber and frame towns sitting as tinder of the edge of the wild.  Survivors of that fire did not take much educating to see that wise use was built on the glass foundation of human knowledge, with Elers Koch (head of the FS fire efforts out of Missoula in 1910) writing a quarter century later:

It is even possible that, by extinguishing fires in favorable seasons which would have run over a few hundred or a few thousand acres, the stage was only set for the greater conflagrations which went completely beyond fireline control.

And this is a lesson western America is still, poorly, learning.

National Parks, and those primitive areas which graduated to Wilderness in the late 60s, are thus a comfort for those of us just widely traveled enough to know better.  Intact landscapes, the gorgeous and high-contrast patchwork fire writes on a forest which hasn’t been logged for generations, is a nice thing to fixate upon when we’d rather not think about just how much of the greater landscape does not look, or function, that way.

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The forest service rightfully warns against young children in lookout rentals, especially the good ones like these which are 40+ feet in the air.  They have steep stairs, handrails weathered to maximum splinter potential, and a long drop between well-spaced railings.  Littler Bear still exists in the blessed state of infant immobility, and is thus not a concern.  Little Bear will be three in a few weeks, and has been quite intentionally trained to be agile and ambitious beyond his age.  He was appropriately cowed by the lookouts, especially the 40 mph gusts we had at 6500′ for lookout #2, which swayed the whole contraption gently, but without mistake.  We’re not sure what they see or when they’ll remember, but we’re not taking chances.

The grand Helena brewery tour

Montana brewery laws take some getting used to.  The Kafka-ishiousness does not approach Utah levels, and the peculiarity has quite inadvertently given birth to an institution which adds a lot to a quiet, family-centric, even staid city like Helena.  Before recent beer and pretzel adventures are further discussed, some juridical background is in order.

In Montana a nano-brewery, as defined by law, produces less than 100 barrels a year.  A nano-brewery license allows a brewery to give away unlimited free samples between 8am and 2am, sell beer for customers to take home during the same period, and distribute beer to retailers, wholesalers, and the public using only their own equipment and employees.  There aren’t many nano breweries in Montana; you only get 12,400 proper pints out of 100 barrels, which doesn’t cover much overhead.

A domestic brewery license allows up to 60,000 barrels a year, and has the same restrictions as a nano brewery, with a significant exception that 48 ounces per person per day may be sold at the brewery, between 10am and 8pm.  This is important.  Montana caps the number of liquor (bar) licenses in a given municipality, caps which have generally not been adjusted since the 70s.  Bar owners, and their lobbyists, have been through several scuffles with brewery owners, and their lobbyists.  Bar owners see the worth of their business being diluted.  Brewery owners similarly see a threat to their new, and often thriving, businesses.  As of 2018 the argument seems to be in stalemate, waiting for the next (biannual, and only 90 day) legislative session.

Most breweries are as the Times says neighborhood pubs in function, if not quite in name, and the hours and quantity restrictions have made the brewery scene a well-behaved, even demure affair.  Most folks can get buzzed on three pints, especially when they’re an IPA or Porter well above 7%, but outright or at least strident drunkenness is almost unheard of.  As a rule Montana breweries welcome children, with many having games to occupy the young and old, and are generally a good place to have a fairly quiet conversation with your guests.  When you visit, expect the server to ask and write your name on a small card, which you’ll be asked to retain to track your consumption, paying when you leave.  They occupy a different, and for many superior, niche than bars.

Our first stop on a recent afternoon tour of all five local breweries was Helena’s newest, Crooked Furrow.  Industrial chique is the rule in breweries, with all five pubs prominent in galvanized steel inside and out.  Crooked is the most outstanding in this regard, and with a concrete floor and lots of metal is only the furniture and a nice coat of paint departed from a premium livestock facility.  The back yard is fenced, with fresh sod, and the family-friendly vibe is further burnished by abundant toys and changing tables in both and women’s and men’s bathrooms.  Crooked isn’t filling growlers yet, a wise precaution given their popularity.  On a recent Friday evening we gave them a pass entirely, as their small parking lot and the whole surrounding block was entirely packed.  On our tour we visited them first, in hopes that early afternoon would mitigate the lack of space, but their ~900 square feet was all but standing room only.  As another rule Montana breweries are family affairs, the fruition of personal ambition long-held, not financed by speculators.  Crooked is emblematic of a problem this creates; the almost immediate popularity that befits good beer fills spaces and pads margins, but makes for a lower growth ceiling than necessary, as well as a (potential) loss of customers who enjoy being able to hear themselves think.

Regardless, Crooked has excellent beer.  The Bitter is satisfying crisp and bracing, and authentically 4% and 40 IBUs.  The Coffee Oatmeal Stout was warm and substantive, drinking one was filling, but not overly formidable, and I certainly could have had a few more, had the mission not demanded better pacing.  The New England Pale Ale (pictured well above) was light and easy without lacking in novelty.  Crooked is worth the trip, though for the part of Helena who lives like we do up on the hill, it is a trip, with the brewery hidden in plain site next to a junk lot behind Sportsman’s Warehouse.  It won’t be often, but I will be back.  Bonus; they serve everything in both 8 oz and 16 oz pours, with the former being just enough for a comprehensive taste.

Next on our list was Helena’s second newest brewery, Snow Hop.  Located in the heart of suburbia, unlike Crooked Snow Hop is within plausible and pleasant walking distance for a good number of folks.  The interior is bright, but a hair smaller than Crooked, and lacking in outdoor seating.  Universally the beers were close, but a ring or two wide of the mark.  The Vanilla Stout was more syrupy than I prefer, the Stellar IPA good without being especially lively or fresh, and the Kolsch workmanlike in its lightness.  The Medusa was more outstanding, a hoppy rye pale ale infused with a peppy juniper finish.  A bit heavy and a tad cloying, it was an interesting yet one-and-done sort of beer.  The Grodziskie is also worth elaboration.  A light ale brewed with smoked malt, the taste itself was not noteworthy, save the distinct and for me unique nasal finish, as if the just removed glass had been replaced under your nose by a freshly boiled kielbasa.  I like kielbasa, but try as I might I could not find this particular sensation very pleasant.  Perhaps the high carbonation traditional to the brew, and distinctly lacking in the Snow Hop version, buffers the sensory transition.

Next on our list was Lewis and Clark, the only large brewery in Helena and the only one here discussed not subject to the aforementioned rules (because it has a liquor license).  The magnitude of our mission was starting to become apparent, and I would have advised skipping this one had it not been for the snack bar.  Lewis and Clark is located in an old paint factory, with two big floors and a commodious patio.  It is a good, and generally uncrowded, place for a toddler to roam.  The snack bar has good beer brats and pizza, the crust made from a snappy mix of spent brewing grain.  Unfortunately I rarely find a beer there I like.  The lighter usuals, such as Yellowstone Golden Ale and Miner’s Gold Hefeweizen, are straightforward past the point of being soporific, and the darker standards, such as the Backcountry Scottish Ale and Big Belt Weizenbock, are turgid and thick and coat the pallet in an enduring way reminiscent of 7th grade school assemblies.

On our visit we were treated to a satisfying brat, and a satisfying loud cover bad alternating ZZ Top and Metallica.  We took refuge at the long table in the art gallery, and contemplated how the entertainment was only a Jason Aldean short of the truck-nuts triumvirate at the heart of 21st century western redneck culture.  I also took refuge in their Celebrate Montana Porter, brewed from a late 19th century recipe produced by Helena’s long-defunct Kessler Brewery.  Described as a combination of a traditional porter and a brown ale, at 5.6% and 28 IBUs it was drinkable without being heavy, interesting without being dense, the Malcolm Gladwell of dark ales.  I was revived by the quality dark beer, and M and LB were revived by a brat, but the oppression of loud music and pretentious art conversation was too much, and we made Lewis and Clark our quickest stop of the afternoon.

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Global and existential fatigue, and intoxication, were setting in at this point, so we rallied to the psychological shelter of our local, Blackfoot.  Choosing a favored brewery is not entirely unlike selecting a life partner or long term residence; it would be foolish to dismiss surface trivialities, but over the years the evolution of intimate discovery is quite as significant as how much at first glance you like the look and the taste.  Blackfoot is second closest to our house, separated by a pleasant 1 mile walk which crosses no busy streets, is possessed of a second story deck with a great view back towards our abode and the trails and trees which are immediately above it, and makes some consistently excellent beer that often exactly suits my tastes.  That they were fully decked for Pride weekend only warmed my affection further.

Blackfoot is certainly a victim of their own success at times.  Most any evening in the warmer months sees said deck in very high demand, and often avoid it when I otherwise would not because I enjoy both hearing my own thoughts and having the rampaging LB not trip the unsuspecting.  The foolproof way to enjoy prime time solitude in prime real estate is to go on a rainy or cold day, and dress for the weather.  If properly equipped the toddler never seems to mind, and you only need to drink fast enough that your beer will not become too diluted.

On this occasion I had their Baltic Porter, for the first time, a burly almost black lager, which at 8.9% (and $5 a pint) embodied everything strident about craft beer.  I filled our growler, and found out the next day that with dedication one could indeed down multiple consecutive pints, albeit with the expected consequences (namely, drunken and feeble erudition).  With Blackfoot my bed is made, and they’ll have to do a great deal before they cease to be a weekly feature in my routine.  That I have choices, and good choices in such things is a great endorsement of the current state of beer in Helena.

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Last, we made our way to 10 Mile Creek.  10 Mile is slightly closer to us, and their beer almost, kinda as good as Blackfoot.  Their space, above, is certainly far larger, nicely unpacked with tables, and consistently excellent for both being able to maintain dialogue (internal or external) and allowing children to run (the toy shelf, just out of picture left, is always well stocked).  I had a coffee porter, as mentioned one of my consistent favorites, and it was satisfying, but not glowingly so, which could sum up my stance on 10 Mile as a whole.  Do they deserve being damned by faint praise?  They do not.  Is my opinion hopelessly skewed by the bias I chose a year or more ago?  Very possibly.  But it is what it is, and while I’d encourage anyone interested enough to have read this far to visit, when I take guests on a stroll which ends in a few pints, 10 Mile has never yet been the destination.

Sentiment is a fine spice.

The family made it home well in time for dinner, with my recently foggy head chemical cleared and primed for nostalgia.  The past year has been a bracing and excellent one, and our little jaunt around a green and rainy city had done well putting all of that on display.  Pubs are and have always been about community, and that doesn’t just mean that being buzzed makes it easier to be neighbourly (though it certainly does not not mean that, either).  Insofar as the human mind would never functionally exist without others in the general, metaphysical vicinity, a thing which highlights that, which wedges space into the cracks in routine, is important.  And in no small part due to a legal quirk, Montana breweries currently do that very well.

The year I grew up

It’s an inherently vain exercise, but if I had to pick a favorite moment of 2017 it would be late on the second day of my bike/packrafting trip along the Dirty Devil River.  All the boat dragging, cold, and ambiguity had worn my mind to a jagged, dull edge.  I made camp near the apex of a big bend, where a riffle left a 30 foot wide gravel bar and sandy bench above, for me to pitch my tarp.  I had no precise idea where I was, and in an attempt to sooth that doubt and warm up I climbed quickly up the steep talus and ridge of stacked table tops to the top of the bend before traversing back north to get even higher and see up the big canyon I had floated past.

I knew what the narrows of Happy Canyon would look like from the inside, having been down to them 13 years earlier, and presumed my exit up Poison Springs would be obvious as the only road crossing.  Aside from that I could only very roughly guess, based on the only map I had brought along, a cell phone screenshot of the relevant section of the Utah gazetteer (1:100,000 scale, 200 foot contour intervals).  After 15 minutes of orienting and pondering, and a futile attempt to use the location function on my phone (useless without a base map), I decided that I was probably close to Happy Canyon, and thus almost certainly on schedule.  I hiked back to camp, made a fire, dried more gear, ate, and went to bed.

This is such a fond memory because it so closely mirrored my first packrafting trip on the South Fork of the Flathead.  My first camp was a few miles below the confluence of Youngs and Danaher, and with less than 1000 cfs I worked hard for the 5 miles down to the Pretty Prairie pack bridge.  It was drizzling and cold, and even wearing all my clothes I still got quite, creepingly cold.  The sun came out around noon and I pulled over at the White River to dry everything, my spirits foremost, and figure out where the hell I was.  In the pre-Cairn days the Forest Service map was the only deal around, and that day on my very first wilderness packraft I made distance and speed estimates with all consuming trepidation.

Doubt is precious in the modern world.  While it’s hard to find something out in the wild that hasn’t been documented on the internet, and harder still to deliberately ignore some or all of that information, the biggest challenge of the information age is breaking your mind free from the paths trodden before.  This isn’t to say that my loops on the Dirty Devil or Escalante were especially original, aside from the brief initial bike stretch on the former all the ground was very well trodden.  It is to say that putting together a good route and then seeing it on the ground, especially in a place you’ve long coveted and most especially without undue drama in the process, is something to treasure.

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There are many other memories I might list.  Spending two days wandering around Echo Park during the crux of spring, laying on the beach at Cosley Lake watching Little Bear throw rocks, many morning hours in Bestslope Coffee writing Packrafting the Crown of the Continent, the first night sleeping on the floor downstairs in our 128 year old house, packing my first elk out of a snowy Bob Marshall Wilderness.  And, just as many which are equally joyful, but more immediately weighty: figuring out where we wanted to live for the foreseeable future, waiting to see if our sellers were willing to discount our house such that we were willing to invest in the sort of issues which come with a thing as old as Montana itself, balancing home and the most responsible job I’ve yet had, pondering and ultimately deciding to have a second child.

It has, in short, been a year when any vestiges of un-adulthood were stripped away definitively.

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This won’t be a surprise for any regular reader.   I’ve begun to understand what busy truly is, which has necessitated quantity over quality both on this site and in my life generally.  In 11 years of being 2017 will see Bedrock & Paradox have both the fewest posts and the most traffic, not unlike this year saw the fewest trips, but the highest quality.  Neither of these things look set to change next year.

I’ve been watching the usual flood of highlight reals, awards, and end of the year compilations with the usual interest (it is a good, or at least rich, time to be a consumer of adventure and outdoor media).  A number dwell on the extent to which outdoor trips are inherently unpredictable, and how the art is in rolling with the ambiguity and as needed making lemonade out of lemons.  This is true, but much less so than most people think.  I’ve had plenty of altered adventures this year, one might more bluntly call them failures, due to things like injury or expectations out of line with circumstances.  These happen, and they’re learning experiences, but insofar as adventure outside is ultimately about exploring and better knowing the depths within, an end goal is always going to be trips that in the big picture proceed exactly as planned.  Not because nothing went askew; when I think about my A list trips this year (solo and family) every one of them was riven through with major stress and doubt about at least something.  The best trips go exactly as planned because when you get to them you’ll know enough to have removed most of the external variables, and have gone far enough towards mastering yourself that you’ll be able to push through the inner ones.  Inner and outer variables, they are not exactly the same, but neither is the barrier between them particularly definitive.

I’m talking about mastery, and to my surprise I not only fully arrived in the outdoor realm this year, I’ve been quite close to that benchmark in my job, as well.  Conveniently, the stress of parenting and owning a home have introduced goals which are years if not decades distant, making me not at risk of complacency any time soon.

And that is what I hope for from this website, to be able to continue to grow, and continue to provide plenty of interest to you, the readers.  My request for support back in April confirmed what I had long suspected, that the audience here is small by the standards of the world and of most marketing analysts, but includes people in almost all the right places.  Stickers (which are still for sale, if you’re interested) were the first step, and second one has been a long time in coming, but is nearly here.  In 2018 things are shaping up such that you’ll see my footprint in a few more places, see Bedrock & Paradox get a little more polished, and have a few more things of interest available here, both for free and for sale.

I’m looking forward to showing you.  See you next year.

Cabin essentials

Colorado is The Catcher in the Rye of western US states; there are many obvious and compelling reasons people like it, but that doesn’t prevent it from being total fucking bullshit.

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If you’re going to visit one of the forest service cabins of Montana there are a few things you should know.  Out of the essential list of salt, oil, tinder, garbage bags, and slippers you’ll surely forget at least one, but try to not leave an outright majority behind.  This is the most important thing.

It is also tempting to visit for one night only, especially if the cabin is local or if you are just passing through.  This usually does not work out well.  There is always too much to see in one evening and morning, even within 300 yards, but if the point of a cabin visit is to slow down and sit, chores and novelty prevent that too well unless you give yourself a full day and second night for the rest of your life to catch back up.

A natural corollary to the contemplative side is to go in the winter.  Montana winters are long.  As the solstice marches close today it gets dark-dark by 6 and is only light enough to move without a headlamp by close to 8.  Proper backpack camping is quite possible and its own brand of fun this time of year, but having a full room or two and a stove that will hold heat most of the long slumber such nights require is best appreciated now.

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I’ve made a habit of packing a little shotgun or rifle for short excursions to hunt for squirrels and rabbits.  In the last 10 trips I do not believe I’ve shot more than two or three rabbits, but the practice is a good reminder for moving slow and exploring groves and thickets that you’d otherwise have to work far harder for an excuse to visit.

Mountain-top, or at least mountain-side, locations are preferred or at least a big bonus.  Later, and more readily visible, sunsets and earlier, more readily spectacular, sunrises are good reasons.  As is being in a place into which cold air does not sink in the wee hours, right as your last logs are sublimating out into the bright black sky.

It is always a good idea to hedge bets about how you’ll get to a winter cabin.  This past weekend was not the first time we’ve brought both skis and snowshoes along, with a choice made at roads end (snowshoes this time, too little snow).  Fatbikes are in theory good options for mixed and shallow snow cover, but the conditions which in the age of climate change predominate early winter, namely dry powder atop ice, tend to not suit bikes as well as the mere depth measurement would suggest.

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Cabin trips were easy 2 years ago, when Little Bear would contentedly lay on a blanket and make noises at the fire through dinner and coffee time.  These days we worry that his enthusiasm will eventually take his head into the corner of the wood stove, but otherwise he’s easy.  Or at least as easy as he gets in toddlerhood.  He loves carrying wood, one medium piece at a time, and mostly stays far enough back to avoid flying chunks.

Which brings us to Colorado.  Last winter we went without a cabin, in large part due to the proximity of the desert, but also because Colorado doesn’t have that many forest service cabins, and those it does tend to be horrendously expensive.  In the age of rampant population growth, and National Park weekly passes which will soon top 70 dollars this is the state of things to come.  But that doesn’t mean it is right.  Full trailheads and user fees are symptoms of a disease, one we all too often spread just as we try to escape it.

Tis the season, right?

Two deer, one day, one river

 

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Stephen Ambrose is full of crap.  Or, if he indeed thinks of the Missouri River from Coal Banks to Judith Landing that “Of all the historic and/or scenic sights we have visited in the world, this is number one” he just simply didn’t get out much.  Ambrose is the most prominent of the many who indulge in Corps of Discovery bred hagiography about this part of Montana.  Yes, the ~200 miles of river and reservoir from Fort Benton to the Fort Peck Dam has only two bridges, two ferries, and no real towns or villages, but it also has plenty of farms and ranches, a simply large amount of cows, and a road or ATV track in almost every creek and coulee.  It isn’t wilderness, and the impact of people is omnipresent, but it is remote, and the absence of too many folks along with their cattle tanks and irrigation and mesa-top hay fields makes for exceedingly good mule deer habitat.

I must agree with Mr. Ambrose on the cottonwood; it is the most ecologically singular of western trees, the anchor for so much of the arid landscapes, and a vital resource for both the Corps of Discovery and more current explorers.  Lewis and Clark and company fought up through the Breaks during the height of spring and early summer runoff, an achievement whose burl and stamina is almost impossible to comprehend.  If you look at streamflow averages, from today and reconstructions from centuries past, you’ll notice that not only has the head been lopped off the monster Missouri, all limbs have been amputated.  The western edge of the Yellowstone births the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin whose combined might is stopped by a series of reservoirs which provides, among many other things, water to the school where I work.  The later tributaries, which drain the east side of the Crown of the Continent, are almost without exception dammed within sight of the continental divide, and further moderated into convenience by irrigation works.  While down on the main stem our late-October flows were actually higher than the multi-century average, the near total absence of floods put to the lie common assertions that the White Cliffs are as the Corps would have seen them.   Big gnarled cottonwoods, stately in their patient detente with the wind, are in appropriate abundance, but cottonwood seedlings and saplings are rare.  Plenty of the later could be seen in strategic locations and from a distance, fenced off 5 feet high to keep the cattle and deer from eliminating their favorite snack.  The centurions aren’t immune from human welfare either; many were skirted in chickenwire to keep out the still-abundant and ever-entrepenurial beavers.

Anyone curious how we colonists would have found our own treatment had it been self-visited need only look at our treatment of the beaver, whose grit and perseverance we so fiercely prize in ourselves, and which is lower Others is met with wrath and poison and dynamite.

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The Breaks may not be as scenic as claimed, or as isolated as many would like, but the wildlife are certainly there.  Not in abundance by the standards of midwestern agriculture or mid-Atlantic suburbs, as no amount of work can turn desert at nearly 48 degrees north into industrial permaculture, but by western wilderness standards there are a lot of deer out there.  The river provides a perennial water source, sage on hills too steep and rugged for cattle guaranteed winter foodstuff, and the landscape plenty of places to hide from the sun, wind, or both no matter the time of year or day.  A few places in the White Cliffs stretch support juniper and ponderosa, and a few other places feature infant slot canyons, hoodoos, and jagged fins, but most of the miles are rolling enough to be rugged yet flat enough to be nondescript.  The tenure, color palette, and yes the cow-burntedness ideally conjures any other arid western place fed by distant snowmelt, be it Montana or Wyoming or Arizona.  Not grand by any means, but homey, home-like, and by modern standards wild enough, and more than remote.

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On our first day we left town after breakfast and didn’t get on the river until an hour before dark, the day very hot and mild and taken up almost entirely by running a car shuttle.  Our second was preoccupied with making miles, to guarantee days hunting on opening morning and to guard against a turn in the weather.  That day was overcast and on the cold edge of mild once the morning headwind had left us, and before the nuclear afternoon breeze.  The paddling on this part of the Missouri is as easy as river canoeing gets, with a mostly straight channel, no rapids or riffles, and barely any rocks.  Save for the wind.  One neglectful corner and a shift in the wind has us hard against the left bank with a right cross/tailwind, trying to surf and tic-tac our way between broaching broadside and running aground, while gusts to 50 mph raged and Little Bear napped along in the bottom of the boat.  Thankfully the Penobscot 17 Jason generously lent us is fast enough for decent efficiency into a varying winds, and quick enough for a pair of slightly rusty canoeists to farily easily pilot down a technical wind run.

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That evening wind burned hard cottonwood limbs and bark into hot coals in minutes, and we ate big steaks fast in order to hide in the tent and fall asleep at 7pm.  The next morning I took a walk down the shore and a ways up a drainage, spying a family group of does and fawns within 25 minutes of leaving camp.  Montana gives out a lot of deer B (doe only) tags for many of its many different regions, and I am barely started on my decades-long research into which are most preferred, but today the 680-00 tag is top of the list.  As I’ve written recently, there is nothing better in hunting than studying an area from afar, building a plan for a place you’ve never been, going, and executing perfectly.  Luck in hunting is no more or less complex than in anything else, the extent to which research and doing things properly can bend it towards you is only particularly well displayed.

The middle of that day was spent making more miles.  It was bright and sunny and would have been very warm were it not for the continued, mildly abated wind.  We waited 10 minutes for a lull, launched nervously, and paddled hard all the way to the shadow of the far cliffs before hooking downstream.  I paid special attention to getting pressed by wind changes at bends that afternoon, and only got caught out once.  As I’ve written recently, there is nothing better in hunting than studying an area from afar, building a plan for a place you’ve never been, going, and executing perfectly.  That evening we camped in another stand of stout cottonwoods, finding the only flat spot right towards the upstream end of a file 500 marching yards long.  A loud tent seemed like a good price to pay for flat ground.  I climbed for 20 minutes and sat down to glass, seeing a group of five spook hard left to right, out of the treed gullies and into the heaving sage slopes.  What spooked them will forever remain a mystery, and with a general tag still in my pocket and a particularly tall, thin, and graceful forkie on the move I followed as fast as the three hours left til dark allowed.  I got within 50 yards of the old growth sage I had seen them disappear into without jumping anything, and I finally kicked up the three does when I got within 20.  They posed and looked and snorted at me plenty before disappearing, and a general tag is good for any deer in 680, but I had meat hanging in the tree down the hill, and an eye for that forkie.  Two hours, much glassing, two bad shots, and one rushed and just good enough shot later I had him.  He fell, instantly, got back up, and ran 50 bounding yards with two broken shoulders down into the pencil bottom of a coulee.  When I climbed back out 45 minutes later I had more meat, and it was utterly dark and windless.  I got lost in the coulees which kept crossing my path out of nowhere across the flat field, and overshot camp to get lost and tangled and tripped on my face pushing through the willows backs to the river.

The next morning we thankfully had only 5 of the least interesting miles left, as halfway through 10 minutes of carrying gear to the car the wind jumped from steady at 10 to steady at 35, gusting to 50.  The several times we had to stop on the drive back up to Virgelle to adjust the rigging I needed both hands to push the car door open.

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My bitching and scenic elitism aside this is a trip worth doing, especially with fall scenery and rifle hunting to be had.  Lots of people talk about this, but not many seem to do it.  Here’s how I’d do it again.

Coal Banks to Judith easily goes in 2.5 days of paddling.  3-4 with plenty of hunting is good, and 5 would not be too much.  6 would be.  Much of the river bank is private, or to be more precise, often the public land does not extent far back.  Fortunately almost all the good hunting spots are public.  Study a map carefully beforehand.  We chose this stretch as much for the closer drive and much shorter car shuttle as for any other reason.  Hunting the Judith to Kipp stretch would I think be more fun from a hunting perspective, with better terrain and less agricultural presence.

Wind and weather are a major factor, and surely the reason why more don’t pull the trigger on this trip. As locals we had the luxury of a warm weather window for opening weekend, and I heavily advocated that this was THE time to do this as a family trip.  Even with one overcast day and two windy days the weather could have been a lot, lot tougher, and even as it was M was borderline too uncomfortable throughout.  Hit our conditions with 20-30 F degree colder ambient temps (very possibly, even normal) and I think anyone would be hard pressed to be at all comfortable.  Similarly, a boat with decent tracking that is at least good in the wind is mandatory.  Colder temps would obviate the need to pack meat in a cooler, and if this were the case I would not hesitate to bring a sea kayak on this float purely to guard against head and cross winds.

As usual LB did great, staying warm in fleece and windproof layers with greater ease than we thought.  We did drop things out of the boat, including his paddle (recovered), mitten (recovered), and a toy wheel loader (sunk).  Keeping his wiggly self in a sleeping bag all night remains a challenge we’re still figuring out, but once we convinced him the wind was amusing and not scary no sleep was lost to that.

I found deer where I expected to find them; in rugged but not excessively steep terrain with plenty of cover and sage immediately at hand, and water somewhat close.  Tactful walking and basic glassing gets the job done.  These deer don’t see many people.  I used my spotting scope to investigate details (antler tips in sage fields, etc) but that isn’t necessary if you’re meat hunting.  There were enough mallards in the ten miles before the Judith River that I’d consider bringing a shotgun.

It’s a perfect example of the kind of landscape which is of only modest interest if you aren’t hunting, but has a rare blend of big visibility, plenty of cover, and lots of critters that makes hunting a real blast.  Do it.

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Little Bear and Papa Bear have an adventure

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Wherein adventure means that things did not go as intended.

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Until this past weekend LB had gone his entire life without spending a night apart from his mama.  The fervent complication that is making sure an infant takes care of itself took me enough by surprise that all sorts of ambitions came and went while he was small enough to easily carry.  Now he is two and able to walk and run and ride, but not far.  His stamina eclipses his attention and need for exploration, so I don’t wear enough clothes and get cold while we take 2 hours to ride 2 miles.  But the Firehole River has quite a few more rocks at the bottom for it.

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Setting up camp went well.  Bike riding, even through snow and in an 18 degree wind chill, went well.  Dinner at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge went very well, judged by keeping Mr. Bear focused on eating and from rolling on the floor, though less well if you care for any sort of authenticity in one’s French Onion soup.  What did not go well was our Klymit Double V (a brand new warranty replacement) going mostly flat by 1am.  Just in time for LB to roll over in his sleep, groan, and vibrate along his spine as he had a huge poop.  He woke up crying “diaper change” and while we were both grateful to have a heated bathroom nearby, we were even more grateful to find a room in West Yellowstone at 145am.  We ate Cheetos and read books for a couple hours until I could not longer keep my eyes open, and he must have followed shortly thereafter.

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We like to congratulate ourselves on how accustomed Little Bear has become to being outside, to how well he walks and rides his bike.  And he does, but his fear at going to sleep in the snow and cold for the first time in over a year was the equal of my own.  For the first 18 months my fear had mostly to do with keeping him safe, warm, and well fed, things whose complications were shed fairly quickly.  Today, at a few months past two, my fear has spread out from the center in all directions.  Safety is still a concern, as just the other day LB had his first endo, stuffing his front wheel into a leaf-covered hole in front of the state capitol and going over the bars with full commitment.  The bruise he still has in his crotch is impressive, and has me recalling the several bones I’ve broken crashing a mountain bike.  The bigger fear by far is that my wants will clash with his needs causing his long term development and both of our short terms happinesses to come up short.

He can no longer just go for a four hour hike, with only a good wiggle break in the middle.  He still enjoys a ride in the backpack, for both the better view and the fast developing adult-esque laziness.  But his need to explore on his own terms develops daily, and now he needs to throw rocks into both sides of the creek, as well as go up and down the steep safe banks all on his own.  Parenting has, in short and not unexpectedly, become more complicated in every respect.  Of all the many things in the world which need to understood first hand, this is one of the big ones.

New happiness 

Or; what the hell I’ve been doing for the past month.

img_5221img_5220img_5218img_5216img_5222When I look at a graph of the number of posts I’ve made here each month for the past 10.5 years a number of significant trends become obvious.  First, that the average number of posts went down back in 2010 when I switched from blogger to wordpress and started taking the writing more seriously.  Second, that the monthly total varies widely with only modest and seemingly insignificant trends (October has been a good month, because it is my favorite time of year).  And third, that volume of content has historically been a reliable if less than direct predictor of my happiness.

The last month has nicely managed to complicate that.  Going almost a full month with only one, not especially interesting note is the longest drought in the past decade.  And it has been a hard month for me, one with some wild emotional swing and new emotional challenges cropping up just about every other day.  In the last few days I seem to be coming out the other side, with a lot of new knowledge gained in the areas of home and auto repair, as well as of myself and how I interact with those around me.

When we got back from our backpacking trip a loud clock started; 35 days until the start of the school year, until days of almost guaranteed sun came to an end, until my schedule became much less flexible, until we needed to be not only somewhat unpacked but fairly close to the end of a long list that had to be done before winter.  We made it, by the way, though being able to see the end of that list only serves to highlight just how extensive and intimidating we’ll find the master list of 2, 5, 10, and 20 year projects.

I am in short making the final and irrevocable transition to adulthood; assuming a frightening total of mortgage debt and willfully and joyfully spending crystal weekend days at home digging and painting and cutting.  The investment is in this place and in ourselves, an action built on an assumption of both permanence and mortality.

Of course, we didn’t just come here to build, and fall is right around the corner.

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The 10 mpd club

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One of the most significant moments in parenting, for us 21st century types for whom proliferation of the species is both an abstraction and a choice, is mourning the trappings of your pre-kid life as they are filed and filtered away, never to be seen again.  With an infant around your life will become totally different, and it will do so irrevocably.  For M and I one of the last things we’re slowly letting slip through our grasp is the old way of backpacking.  We’ve bludgeoned ourselves, repeatedly, over the past two years and while the trips have always been satisfying they’ve also been hard, in a way that isn’t sustainable.

I just can’t carry a 45-50 pound pack at 3mph, and I can’t fit 20 miles of backpacking into a day that also needs walk breaks, rock throwing breaks, diaper changes, circumambulatory snacks, and sleeping in as much as possible.  I just can’t do it.

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Thankfully length out is a perfect substitute for miles walked, when family is involved, and I can do 10 miles a day with a 50 pound pack.  Though that is still pretty tough.  I still think that most any reasonably fit and more-than-reasonably organized and prepared person can backpack 20+ mpd as little more than a neophyte, provided they don’t take too much stuff and are efficient.  It’s a message I’ve hammered out loud for years not because I had faith in it’s universal applicability, but because I did and do still see it as an essential antidote to the accidental backpackers inevitable first experience of backpacking as a slog that never gets anywhere fast.  Having possible distance at your command opens up route possibilities in tough permit areas and short vacation weeks.  It increased safety, and reduces the psychological burden many feel when in the wilderness.

This last part isn’t always a good thing.  For us, now, we want to be as immersed as circumstance allows, and circumstance has us maxed at 10 miles per day.

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Taking two and a half days to descend a drainage does more than facilitate proper appreciation of each lake, beach, and stream along the way.  Such time allows for extended contemplation of scale and how crawling little humans fit into it.  Backpacking with a toddler isn’t just hard because they’re heavy, and squirmy, and capricious in their ability to caretake themselves.  It’s hard because for parents used to walls and fenced yards and playgrounds there is no respite, from parenting or from each other.  The first half of this trip just felt unrelenting.  We argued and were on edge, as the distance loomed ahead and Little Bear struggled to focus on dinner, tripped over roots, got bit by many skeeters, and cried.  Thankfully the last half just felt right, a blueprint for the future.

 

Birthdays 

Two years ago Little Bear was born on M’s birthday.  Today we’re celebrating that fulfilling and challenging time, and looking forward to a few quiet days in a little corner of civilization and then the backcountry. 

See everyone on the other side. 

The miracle of 2017

Summer has emphatically arrived in Montana, with a solid week of highs in the 90s and little wind or thunderstorms to break things up, but enough lightning strikes in the broader neighborhood to get one worrying that August might justify its seed with a burly crop of fires.  It was in brief an ideal time to move, for the third time in 9 months and hopefully the last time for the next half century.
Ideal is largely sarcastic, but summer has become my clear choice for least favorite season, and I’d sooner give up a scorchingly azure weekend in July than a foggy one in October.

Our new house is a dream, and to a lesser extent a nightmare.  We started moving in almost immediately after close (M insisted on an ice cream cake for celebration), and that night after Little Bear had gone to sleep we both walked around marveling at the 130 year old details, and at the major projects standing plain in almost every corner.  Absent the houses magnetic pull on our instincts, our good history of trusting those, and our plan to be here a very long time indeed this move/project would not make any sense.  Five days of filling the garage with boxes, enjoying a yard shaded by 90 foot Doug Firs, and watching LB sprint through the halls has along with some basic painting and cleaning gone a long way to remind us that the good things in life are not always especially practical.
Little Bear has been with us every step of the last fortnight; backpacking, packrafting, touristing in Yellowstone, negotiating last minute financial niggles, and cleaning out two storage units.  As a toddler he’s been tabla rasa for our anxieties, which has not made daily parenting any easy but has helped us come back again and again to the essentials of getting things done and being nice enough to each other in the process.

img_4981As has been the theme of this year my memory has been hard put to retain and process events at a rate which can even hope to amount to a few essays now and again.  I marvel at how great writers throughout history rarely had long-term spouses and even more rarely, children.  Translating experience into words isn’t about exceptional content so much as it is about a life quiet enough to understand what just happened.

I’ve been tempted, for the first time in a decade, to let this website lapse for a while, but was quickly reminded that this was not an option.  Both for my own creative sanity, and because Mike, Tim, Jason, and Monica all provided invaluable moving assistance this week, and we wouldn’t know any of them had it not been for this corner of the internet.  So special thanks to them, and for all the readers putting up with content even more stochastic than usual.

The miracle of this year is that I’ve still yet to get sick.  Moves, loss, existential crises, and more good on the career and housing and personal front than I had any reason to suspect have added up to the most eventful year of my life, which is barely half over.  I’ll thank circumstance if it is kind enough to give me space to understand it all this fall and winter.  We hardly plan to leave the state until 2018.