Floating with the bear; what we’ve learned

Our Double Duck has been one of the essential kid purchases.  That one boat can fit all of us, gear for 4+ days, and be under six pounds is remarkable (it’s lighter and packs smaller than the modern Yukon Yak).  That said, it has acute limitations which heavier, bigger volume multi-person boats would not; namely that with ~200 pounds of people and cargo in the front handling gets sluggish.  You can still move it around in semi-technical water, but bigger and pushier rivers are more problematic.  Additionally, cargo space quickly becomes an issue, with the big kid carrier pack on the bow limiting space for an adult sitting in the bow.  When LB was 9 months we all fit, a year and a half later it is doable, but no longer really comfortable.

The solution, which we spent four days this past week testing out, is two boats.  One adult in either of our single person rigs, the other along with LB in the Duck.  The biggest factor which now makes this workable is him having the physical and mental capacity needed to keep himself in the boat, especially during times when the adult paddler cannot spare him a hand.  At the roundup this past week we got in four straight days of boating with only toddler and one adult in the big boat, and LB behaved very well when it mattered, with only one exception.  What I thought would have been the toughest test, his and my duo run of Pacific Creek while M was taking a swiftwater rescue class, was in many ways the easiest of the four.  It was the smallest waterway and the most consistently fast, which kept his attention locked in and his butt planted in his seat, something true class I fails at woefully.

Mamma was also not present in another boat as a temptation, which makes things like snacking and napping simpler.  The last day, featured in the above video, went smoothly until he was nearly falling asleep on his own in the bow, saw M in the distance, and proceeded to have a fit.  We didn’t solve his problem for him nearly fast enough, and my stubborness got him to a point where he was trying to climb out of my lap and swim to safety in M’s nearby boat.  Which was not good.

The final key piece of the toddler boating puzzle has been his own paddle.  Touching the big person paddle is forbidden, and without his own ability to “contribute” to forward motion LB just cannot help himself.  The current solution is a 13 dollar, telescoping canoe paddle sold as an emergency solution for power boats.  It isn’t as light as it could be, but is both usefully long and respectably compact, as well as cheap enough that when he lets it float away recovery won’t be too urgent.

Packrafting seems set to become an even bigger part of our family life in the years to come.  LB loves being outside, loves camping, and really loves water and boating.  Floating is way less work than carrying him, something I increasingly appreciate, even though or in spite of the fact that road-shuttled runs only feel half like packrafting.  The weight savings of the Double Duck is always appreciated in the pack, and the swiftwater performance good enough when lightly loaded that we’ve never yet regretted our choice.  Though the new Forager does look very sweet.

The Crown-Welcome Loop

When it comes to consistently spectacular routes, with no filler miles whatsoever, this is the best route I’ve done in the Bob.  Bar none.

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The limestone cliffs and reefs are truly special, from the way Welcome Pass is tucked into a surprising break to the walls behind the Green Fork meadows devolving into stacked pinnacles and gullies in the upper reaches.  The meadows, forests, and streams are equally compelling and, somewhat usually for the Bob complex, heterogenous and diverse.  Tortured and slow growing sub-alpine, aspens, old growth pine, and willow bogs; this loop has everything you’ll find east of the Continental Divide.  The cedar forests off the Swan are more majesterial, but logging has made them hard to find, and they’re generally accessed by lodgepole miles which are not especially compelling.

In addition to discovering such a great route somewhat by accident, this weekend was the death knell of our old backpacking ways.  Since LB was born I’ve been harboring the largely subconscious illusion that with enough careful planning and added strength we’d be able to continue to do trips under roughly the same rules we always have.  That did not work this time; the first 10 mile day fatigued us enough that we cut our route drastically short, and even the 14 mile compromise day back out was in the heat and rocky paths truly crushing.  These are distances that, pre-baby, were generally accomplished by lunch, and occasionally before breakfast.  That I won’t be able to do the same trips I did with a 20 pound load while carrying a 50 pound pack that is prone to squirming should have been the most obvious thing in the world, but continuing our backcountry life was of sufficient value that I kept my head in the sand.  It’s humbling; the woods get bigger in a hurry when you can’t default to 3 mph when you wish.

For the future we don’t just need fewer miles and more breaks, we need a different approach to backpacking entirely.  Thankfully lots of backpack, hiking, and camping time from an early age has meant that Little Bear gets more excited about hiking today than any time before.  We’ll have plenty of chances to get it right.

The ugliness of family packrafting

One of the relatively few regrets I harbor when it comes to trips not done concerns the summer of 2014 and the Smith River. 2014 wasn’t the biggest snow year Montana has seen, not by a long shot, but the spring was cool and exceptionally wet and the water table kept getting pumped full all over the state well into July. The Smith is a road accessed run whose beauty and moderate difficulties gave it a popularity that made it, as of today, the only permit-required river trip in Montana. For the Smith to hold enough water for floating, even floating a packraft, past the permit period (July 15) is rare, but three years ago the Smith bumped up above 200 cfs in mid-August and stayed there all the way through September. I should have gone then, but put it off because of hunting plans and the drive and all sorts of half baked reasons, and to this day the Smith remains for me a mystery.

Tenderfoot Creek is a conservation success story. It is the biggest single tributary of the Smith, and drains the southwestern flank of the Little Belt Mountains via a long east-to-west valley. The floor and surrounding peaks are both of moderate elevation, which seems to provide just enough winter and gives the mixed forest and meadowland an exceptional beauty. This warm June after a wet winter things just glowed green, from the spruce and aspen thickets up high to the ponderosa parklands along the creek itself. A few patches of private land exist within the national forest, some of which used to bestride the road in a fashion that encouraged the old landowner to (illegally) lock the gate across the public road. But that checkboard intrusion was bought out recently, and now access is uncomplicated but anything save a lack of forest service road maintenance.

We were tipped off to the FS’s apparent indifference by Howard, who was at work filling ruts with gravel on the one mile section of the road which crosses his land, a place his family bought in the late 50s. Do that math and you’ll quickly figure that backhoe work in the full June sun is asking a lot of Howard, so it was entirely reasonable that he was eager to sit down next to our car and chat. By which I mean inquire, with only a hint of rudeness, what the heck we were doing that far in on that road in a front wheel drive hatchback. That we had gotten that far with all tires and the oil pan intact should have been answer enough.

I fear that while my previous writings have given plenty of credit to who much physical work is involved with taking a toddler packrafting, I have in part by intention and in part by circumstance omitted a lot of the stress involved.  Little Bear is bigger now, which actually means he fits a bit better in the Double Duck, as he is no longer just a lump in someones lap.  He prefers to stand and look around most of the time, and recently to try to help with paddling if at all possible, something we solved neatly for this trip by getting him a tiny (telescoping!) paddle from Walmart.  That does mean yet another thing to carry, on our comically overloaded packs whose system really needs to be reorganized.

But the toughest thing about this trip was that floating Tenderfoot Creek was our first excursion, as a family, beyond the gentle and mostly known floats we’ve done over the past 16 months.  Tenderfoot is an ideal packrafting creek, or would be with a little more water (we had ~200 cfs on the Smith), but the fast speeds, portages, and constant action make for a lot of stress.  Especially for M, crashing through trees and bouncing off rocks backwards.  About halfway from our put in to the Smith we decided that a bit more water and a more protective seat for M and LB were in order, and began our walk back to the car early.  Long Montana days meant we could drive back up the rough hill well before full dark.

It wasn’t a successful exploration insofar as completeness is concerned, but was a good trip if refining systems and seeing new stuff is the standard.  The day was messy at times, very long, and stressful, but all the alternatives seems far worse.  Tenderfoot Creek is certainly a place to return to, in several ways and seasons, over the years to come.

Echo Park

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The water would have been right up there.

It’s a thought that hovers 500 feet overhead and permeates what would otherwise be an overly lucent place, a pinch of silt dissolved in a pint of champagne.

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Echo Park was named by Major Powell, and might have been the first occasion for the 1869 river trip to contemplate the Colorado Plateau.  Dinosaur National Monument lies at the very edge of the geological zone which Powell did so much to enlighten and define, and comes I assume fairly late in the explorations of most contemporary canyon rats.  I’ve lived on the plateau for years, all told, and spent collective weeks in the Escalante and months in Canyonlands before the idea occurred to drive north and see where the Yampa flows into the Green.

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All the constituent elements of the Colorado Plateau are there; varnished walls set in Euclidean opposition to river and plain, side canyons of disorienting dimension, and slopes where sand and green are the prominent exception and routes up and out stand soaked in doubt.  There was some premeditation in visiting now, assumption that a healthy winter would just be seguing into a fat and pellucid spring.  A, or perhaps the, foremost charm of any place in the Colorado Plateau is the extent to which any given vista is easily shown as undefinitive and inadequate for any inquiry concerning human understanding.  Echo Park excells in this, and by the time we left I was feeling grateful indeed that the canyon of the Green had so much relief, in which we could float and on which we could climb and sit and look, and by which we could begin to see where we had been and how we had got there and the way in which the one was connected with the others.

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For all that, Echo Park is also tainted, it’s presence like that of bison in Yellowstone a reminder of what does not and will never exist again, fully.  David Brower invented modern enviromentalism in his fight to stop the Echo Park and Split Mountain dams, and infamously rued the bargain which had Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell created.  Regardless of your opinion about the ethics of opening the heart of the largest functional wilderness in the lower 48 to unrestricted traffic, one must admit the irony of naming a totem of questionable water policy after the major.

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The law of the river gives 1.5 million acre/feet of water to Mexico each year, and it is now common knowledge that all of this is diverted to agriculture and that for decades none of it makes it more than a few miles beyond the border.  It is less known that the presumptive overall average yearly flows of the Colorado, upon which the Law is based, have proven optimistic.  Or that Arizona, whose land contributes flow to the river, has claim to almost as much water as Colorado, where the Colorado is falsely though to originate.  Arizona only rarely uses all of the water to which is has title, and then only by elaborate schemes which involve an aquaduct hundreds of miles long and stations which store surplus water by injecting it into the ground.  Or that California, whose land contributes no flow at all, has long used more than it’s legal share, which is bigger than any other (state, country, or tribe).  Two decades ago, when drought and growth threatened that excess, a crisis (for LA and Imperial Valley farmers) was only narrowly averted.

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The sheep (above, center)  appreciate that their ancestors got off lightly.  As does LB and his new slot skills.

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Our timing at the cusp of spring payed us back, with shades rarely seen in canyon country.  The campground, hidden in the cottonwoods at the end of that impossible road, was a throwback to an era before Mighty 5 marketing and a US population north of 250 million.  Twenty two sites, six dollars a night (before the water is turned on), gravel parking pads with plenty of grass, and almost no one else there even after noon.

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The Yampa was flowing wide and brown and imperturbable into the milky green Green, the two rivers taking uneasy miles to fully mix.  This contrast highlighted the tension which fogged the whole day.  As the only major tributary of the Colorado to be (almost) undammed the Yampa is an uneasy companion to the Green, which is the actual origin of the Colorado and whose neutered state was plain to see in the dam-fed color.  Having driven miles to be there at all, and artificially speeding from canyon floor to rim out of whimsy only, I left both grateful to have seen Echo Park in such rare form, and with the distinct suspicion that I was part of the problem.

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Those Needles

R0022674The Colorado Plateau has endless hidden corners, more than can be understood in one human life, but from the distance of inexperience most of them seem like variations on a theme.  And rock and sand and emaciated vegetation can only form so many combinations.

This is as false as it is true, and the variations on display in the Needles District of Canyonlands unspool before the hiker with a speed that is difficult to properly internalize.  This richness of subtly, combined with the extent to which the Needles themselves remain absolutely hidden from a distance, makes them my longstanding first recommendation for neophyte canyon backpackers.

R0022918Despite making that recommendation a few dozen times in the past two years, there was a big section in the heart of the Needles where I had never been.  Thankfully last week the wind died out and the rain stopped and the whole family made the trek.

R0022857R0022886R0022902Trail building in the Needles hearkens back to an era when creating a spectacle was higher on the list than practicality or safety.  Presumably the same kind of folks who choose Lady Mountain as the very first trail in Zion (look it up, makes Angels Landing very tame by comparison).  The ladders are few and far between, but complex routing through cliffs, tunnels, cracks, and steps chopped up steep bits are routine.R0022910R0022907You trust that they drilled anchor bolts as well as they routed paths along slickrock benches.

Exposed places aside, the hiking in the Needles could not be better for toddlers.  Endless rocks to throw, slopes to climb, and traverses for testing the limits of newfound balance.

R0022817R0022811We were out all day, because these miles are not fast ones, even without extended toddler explore breaks.

Add it to the long list of must gos in southern Utah.R0022898

You gotta ask

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Because sometimes you might get lucky, this time they might say yes.

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Especially in Arizona, where snow passes on like doubt over lunch options.

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We’d never stayed at Indian Gardens, a mere 4.5 miles from and 3k below the South Rim, but of all the quasi-frontcountry campgrounds within the NPS, the ones “hardcore” backpackers are likely to pass, this one was at the top of my list.  Like so many glamour locations the hordes have long since rubbed off the aura.  Which is not a good reason to not try to rediscover what it must have looked like before, and is a good reason to try to imagine it as it should be.

So when we drove up from Williams in an ebbing ground blizzard and walking into the Grand Canyon Backcountry office at 230 in the afternoon, I thought what the hell, and asked if they had a spot for the night halfway down the Bright Angel Trail.  They did, we took it, and the snow abated just enough for a 20 minute packing job.

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By the three mile rest house, 3 miles (duh) and 2000 feet below the rim the precipitation had stopped, and the sun was almost strong enough to melt the wet out of Little Bears toque.

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Even though Arizona rightly shrugs the yoke of daylight savings time, and the storm had placed innumerable tempting puddles in LB’s path, we easily made the campground with time to set up, cook, look around, and get tired before full dark.  Gravel tent pads, two story composting toilets, and a metal picnic table with freshly painted brown wooden awning for each site made Indian Gardens seem close to the road.  The vibrant cacti, luscious cottonwoods, and spring which an effulgent winter had forced from the ground 8 inches from the manicured borders of our site made the place seem what it ought to be seen as; one of the more poignant, piquant locations in North America.

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The next morning, a stroll out to Plateau Point and back gave us spring in full there on the cusp of the proper desert at 3700 feet.  Several species of Pricky Pear, grass, flowers, and wrens, as well as a few groups of mule deer, all well on their way towards topping off the fat of spring to survive the heat of summer.

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This fullness of the landscape, emphatically polished by the river properly silty and loud 2000 feet below, contrasted nicely with the moody schist and granite of the inner gorge.  This ever-present glower, perspicacious but fervent, is fitting for rock whose formation predates the advent of bacteria on Earth.  The gravitas reminds me of that constant paradox, that any attribute I might see in it is at once only in my head, and all that might be there. Proportioning belief is distinctly problematic when the evidence at hand so far exceeds both the senses, and time.

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Carrying a 40 pound pack which is nearly 3/4 child, one now possessing both the height and strength to crane directly at the ground when he so chooses, is a good reminder of the frailty of the individual human.  Doing so up a steady 3000 foot climb is good practice making the passions consistent slaves to reason, in that no matter how dispiriting, a certain number of additional steps will lead inevitably to the rim.  A decade ago I envisioned how exciting it might be to haul our at the time exceptionally hypothetical child over the final stretch.  Which it was, and my excitement blunted and delayed the realization that afterwards, at lunch, said child would be imbued with energy, having napped while I labored, making relaxing with a beer no longer possible in the way it used to be.

I’ll keep mourning that, a little.

20 months

What have we learned in the last 20 months?

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That when Little Bear is outside most of each day, every day, life is pretty simple.  His appetite for motion is insatiable, and the world of streets and four walls doesn’t frame that very easily.

That people are even more ready to snap judge others parenting than I had thought.  The readiness of strangers to come up and comment, on any range of things, often has me contemplating a hair cut and tattoos which would hopefully, presumably tamp this down.

That toddler balance bikes are one of the best inventions, ever.  LB has had his Yuba since his first birthday, and lots of uneasy pushing in the backyard this fall and winter must have set the stage for a startling transformation early this month, when he went from barely kicking along to full on gliding in about two weeks.  Now his distance record is approaching three miles.

That most people, businesses, and places of employment will say they are kid and family friendly, but the number which really stop and take action to show they understand what that means are few.  My appreciation for, and continued patronage of, the few who get this right is far more fervent than I ever would have thought.  It’s hard to hold many that far in contempt, as 22 months ago I didn’t have a clue.  On the other hand, the persistence of prejudice largely but not exclusively at the hands of the older generation is discouraging.  Those who don’t see the need for a changing table in the men’s room, or would think that I’d spend outside time with my family, are hard subjects for patience.

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My appreciation for Patagonia’s toddler clothing has only grown, as well as the thought Osprey puts into their kid carriers.  Kid gear can’t be a high-margin thing, but now that he’s so mobile, and has ambition which so often outstrips his balance, LB needs quick-dry gear at least as much as I do.

Lastly, we’ve begun to come around to car camping.  Not so much because of the heavy packs required, but because of the way nice grassy camp sights make kid locomotion and it’s supervision less energy intensive.  LB’s expectations have been shaped by modern civilization, and while he is a flexible creature, does not appreciate a landscape which completely shuts him down.  Which is a mirror of my gratitude that while he is an amazing pain in ass on a daily basis, and has changed our life completely, he hasn’t eliminated  many of the things in which we found joy during the pre-baby era.  Indeed, with reasonable accommodation they’re as fun and satisfying as ever.

It is easy to co-parent and alternate with one on baby duty and another being productive (be it sewing or mountain biking).  And this is a necessary approach to get much done most days.  But the best days are always the ones where we’re all fully present and doing the same thing.  I’ve always liked working, and am currently swimming in job stuff, both current and potential, here and elsewhere, but family life has been good enough that could I take the next 20 months off to chase the kid full time, I might well do it.

The tranquil and ridiculous

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The Colorado Plateau specializes in blending the sublime and the ridiculous, the tranquil and the absurd.  The rules one finds elsewhere in nature generally apply, but in the high desert are often bent, to the point of breaking.  Canyons get narrower as they get bigger, seemingly dry sand eats your shoes and knees with no warning, spring river levels go down as it gets warmer (my particular vexation of the moment), and the desiccated, still land holds gravity and biology at just the edge of possibility.

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My favorite example, of the former, are the Moenkopi cliffs we found for ourselves on a weekend adventure with LB and the grandparents.  Moenkopi might not be ubiquitous around the canyons of Utah, but it is common.  These ones though, are the most colorful I’ve seen.  The porous, heterogeneous nature of the Moenkopi made it a popular place to seek out uranium during the Cold War-funded boom of the 1950s, as ore would collect along sills in the strata just below.

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This cabin had one room, and was built from thin boards and a layer of tar paper, entirely with roofing nails.  It was built by uranium prospectors, as was the quite decent dirt road we drove for a couple hours to reach our camp, under a cottonwood and next to a thin creek, loud with sediment.  Evidently the height of the boom saw 450 people living in the same bottoms, enough to fund a school of sorts for at least a couple years.  The contrast with the present is immense, it’s hard to imagine finding flat ground for that many trailers and shacks.

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In any case, get close to those Moenkopi cliffs and realize that not only are the mudstone cobbles and gypsum veins held together by little other than inertia and gravity, the faces of some pillars overhang a few degrees.  One could with a pickaxe and five minutes hollow out a closet-sized room, the only other requisites goggles and a serious disregard for personal safety.

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The next silly thing we found was heavy, recent beaver traffic.  Along a stream that is rarely more than knee deep, often far shallower, and almost always dense to the point of audibility with silt.  With the ideal food (cottonwoods) often a healthy ways back from the water.  I suppose the coyote population is sufficiently sparse that the odds of the two meeting during nocturnal lumberjack outings is modest.

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And then we found some wild horses.  Introduced, though some tribes claimed cultural memory of the Pleistocene horses extirpated by their ancestors, horses have in the modern West become objects of nostalgia.  Ms. Smith didn’t name an album after the noble castor canadensis, after all.  They’re also a damn nuisance, as the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act limits the extent to which they can be managed (read: shot), and only circumstance and the occasional attempted wrangle limits their numbers.  This herd of six had obviously spent the winter in a small serious of meanders, sheltered from the worst of the wind and snow accumulation, with just enough sage to manage the desperate times.  I don’t begrudge them this living as individuals, but I do hold the hammering and denuding they had inflicted against the mugwumps who passed that damn law.  This in one of the few areas within a hundred mile radius where cattle grazing was not grandfathered in to modern management.

When you can buy a horse hunting license I’ll be at the front of the line, and when my current careers grow old I’ll shoot the moon on student debt, get a PhD, and write a thesis on beaver population dynamics in marginal habitats.

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LB was unmoved, so long as he had oranges and cookies to eat, and a trekking pole to take on extended loan.

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He’s even begun to go hours between hat protests, for which the Scottish complexion he inherited from his mother thanks him.  The many no-assist hikes we’ve gone on over the winter have payed us back in his rock clambering abilities, and his newfound and occasionally startling speed on the strider bike, but that comes at a cost of longer wander breaks while on hikes.  The demise of our ability to backpack point-to-point with anything approaching adult range is still far away, but is visible on the horizon.

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What’s also visible is spring.  Even at 6000 feet cottonwood buds are small, but firmly established, and grass shards are visible in cracks amongst the mudflats.  It’s a precious time of year, when the evening gusts die out and you’re far enough to mute the hiss of the creek, the hurried potentiality of green is almost hearable.

Osprey Poco AG; my final word

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A quality kid carrying backpack is essential for infant and toddler parents who like to hike and backpack. They’re more stable, safer, more comfortable, and less sweaty than any front carrier, and if built on a good suspension open up the option of load hauling for multiday endeavors. About a year ago we bought an Osprey Poco AG, and after six months of near constant use were pretty happy with it, with a few significant caveats.  Now after a further six months I’m prepared to offer my final word.

In summary, while I wish the wearer suspension were better, and the cargo capacity much greater, it’s been the most essential piece of equipment over the past year.  Lacking anything close to a better option, I’d buy it again without hesitation.

It’s worth mentioning, again, just what a good job Osprey did providing for the comfort and security of the child.  We were fortunate last winter that Little Bear got strong enough to ride in the pack right when winter decided to leave Montana early.  He thus built a strong association between the backpack and outdoor scenic fun.  To this day he rarely protests getting in the pack, so long as we give him a decent number of breaks, and often requests getting back in.  He rides at just the right height to see over our shoulders, and knows by experience that when in the pack he almost always gets to go somewhere fun.  Advice we’d humbly pass on to prospective hiking parents.

The kid harness of the Poco, along with the side protection provided by the rigid bars, allows me to be confident scrambling and downclimbing with LB in the pack.  The front buckling kid harness is a bit tougher to use than the previous, top buckling harness, especially when the kid gets bigger, but I find it much more secure.  Osprey continues to get top marks in this area.

My main quarrel with the Poco AG has continued to be the suspension for the wearer, which has resulted in the inevitable modifications.  I cut off the load lifters and added ones whose placement can be adjusted further forward on the shoulder straps, and more significantly cut out the stock hipbelt wings and attached a prototype Seek Outside belt with 1″ webbing straps threaded (with force and  pair of pliers) though the little gaps in the fabric frame encasement.  These webbing bits are wear points and will need to be replaced, but these mods finally allow me to use the very rigid Poco frame to the limits of it’s capabilities, which are considerable.

As LB has gotten heavier using the Poco to sandwich a thin load with the Seek Outside Revo frame became too much.  The leverage/weight distribution was crushing, literally, and on this trip back in August I really suffered.  My hope for the rest of 2017 is that the mods will make dayhiking more comfortable, both for myself and especially M (who couldn’t use the stock belt at all), and to allow gear to be strapped to the Poco once things warm up and backpacking gets fully underway.  For that I anticipate the frame height of the Poco being a little small for my ideal use, but I still think the rig will work well enough.

In conclusion, I’d renew my call for Osprey, or someone, to make a backpackable kid carrier that hauls gear well.  The economics don’t make sense, but it would be awesome.  My advice to prospective parents, before and beyond acclimating your kid to hiking as early as possible, is to have both parents get used to big packs well before the due date.  Hiking with the kid is fantastic,  but only if the parents can carry the load without being smashed.

Zion

r0022299Unlike so many places, it is well named, especially for the 21st century bourgeois dilletante “adventurer”. Namely, us.
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We did well last year to so thoroughly associate the backpack with fun.  LB loves hiking, occasionally requests to get back in the pack, and for him the more exposure and wind, the better.  Which made Angel’s Landing ideal.
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Late winter, with strong light and emphatic clouds, snow hiding in the crannies, and water starting to flow, might be the best season of all.
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