At the lake

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While backpacking with the baby has been an unqualified if strenuous success, we’ve been avoiding it at home.  For 11 months now.  M has bearanoia far greater than mine, but it took me a while to square the burden of fatherhood with the abiding worry that Grizzly bears engender.  He is still tiny and helpless, but acts and most importantly sounds much less like a rodent.  And he enjoys hiking and being outside so much that indulging our fears any further didn’t seem responsible.  Plus, we forgot to call and get the lock combo for the lookout we had reserved for father’s day weekend until the office was already closed for the weekend, and when a spot was still open at the lake named after Little Bear’s namesake, we just had to go.

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It was a good choice. Compare this photo to this photo, for example.

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Another example; The Lakes stunning and better than expected backcountry campground, with tent pads just back from the water, strong but not overwhelming gusts, and a fantastic pebble beach.  After dinner we watched a sow grizz and cub root their way through a field of brush and skirt the lakeshore through a cliffband, an hour plus show at the comfortable distance of 1/2 a mile.  We even made it through the night with a decent amount of sleep and no bear attacks.

Most importantly, LB was a joymonster almost the whole time.  Riding in the backpack is one of his favorite things, with time equally split between cooing at the changing light and silently watching the world go by, and some napping thrown in.  Camp time makes everything; trekking poles, sleeping pads, spoons, rocks, and the tent canopy; toys.  Walking is right around the corner, and he is practicing hard in all environments.

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The walk out was, for the adults, not short.  We’re not fully acclimated to packs so heavy, and we’ve hiked that trail a lot in recent years.  But the satisfaction of the whole family being out, in that spot, for a gorgeous pair of days on the cusp of summer, was something best expressed in the fewest words possible.

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Camas Creek bike-hike-packraft

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A spring hike in Christensen Meadows, together with a float on Camas Creek, will never be a popular trip in Glacier National Park, but it’s one of my favorite outings.  The meadows face south, and the creek has its origin up a big and very snowy valley.  Once spring truly warms up the lower Camas valley is a great place to find white glacier lilies, whitetail deer, elk, bear, and waterfowl.  Later on, on the cusp of summer, the namesake Camas flower is typically found in vast profusion.

The skinny, gravel Inside North Fork road leads to the Camas Creek trailhead, but it is rarely open to cars during the proper season.  Instead, ride mountain bikes from the Fish Creek campground, which is mostly uphill on the way out, and thus mostly downhill on the way back.  This weekend we bumped a fat black bear while we were outbound, and on the return 4.5 hours later saw that it had eaten all the (invasive) dandelions which were growing along a good stretch of road.

The trail through the meadows is faint, more often used by ungulates than humans, and in places usually underwater, but still easy to follow.  Relics from the old Christensen homestead can be seen; one assumes their ventures into farming didn’t get far.  I’d suggest breaking off in the mile or so before Rogers Meadow, where one can bushwack to the creek with minimal willow-bogging.  Rogers Meadow is a pleasant enough place, but paddling through it is very circuitous and slow, and escape from the creek via the sea of willow marshes is almost impossible.  Those with a full day at their disposal might as well go all the way up to put in on Rogers Lake, and enjoy the maximal Camas Creek experience.

The creek below Rogers Lake is class I, with a modest current, at best.  The additional speed provided by high spring water is not a bad thing, not even at flood stage.  Occasional snags and beaver dams need to be dodged, but overall the paddling is as easy as packrafting in Glacier gets.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0079.It is a great outing for beginners, or infants in the minivanraft.  Mosquitoes can be an issue, so being organized and going on a day with a nice breeze are both recommended.   Watch for wildlife while biking, hiking, and while rafting.  I’ve floated up within 40 feet of elk on Camas, and it is easy to imagine an encounter with a surprised moose easily going wrong.  I should also note that the mellow gradient does not continue below the Inside North Fork bridge.  This lowest stretch of Camas Creek has plenty of fast bends, even more wood jams, and exits from the creek via nasty thickets of doghair pine laced with deadfall.

Glacier isn’t only about the huge mountains which are so in your face once you get close enough, it is about what those mountains make possible.  In the case of the west-side valleys the mountains enable lush and nutritious forests and waterways, and the many critters which make a living there.  These plants and animals can only actively make a living from late April through sometime in November, and use the few really productive months during that period to full advantage.  Camas Creek is a good place to see that in action.

Honaker-Slickhorn kid hiking gear and logistics

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First, the route; it’s very scenic and has great variety for a low(physical) price of entry.  The floating is expedient, easy, and all rapids can be scouted and/or portaged.  The hiking is not easy, and while there is almost always a use trail in Slickhorn it is rarely obvious or very useful for sustained stretches.  Fit, experienced hikers who are canyon novices will do fine and enjoy the challenge.  The less fit will get worked and do low miles.  Checking all administrative boxes requires both a backpacking and a river permit, which must be obtained from different BLM offices.  The cumulative cost of these is considerable.  River permits seem easy to obtain before the reserved-permit season starts April 15th.  Using WAG bags (and carrying them out) is compulsory on the river.

The sandwich of gear between the Osprey Poco AG and the Seek Outside Revolution looks absurd, and carried heavier than it was, but was also uncannily stable and thoroughly bearable for a person with decent training.  I felt plenty of pressure on my hips, lumbar, and the fronts of my pectorals, but had no chafing, bruising, or point discomfort.  My legs and hip flexors are still a bit sore, generally, and I got a cramp in an abdominal the morning after the trip at breakfast.  I really don’t see a better way to accomplish what needed to be done, and all the reasons outlined here were confirmed.  Organization would suffer on a trip which didn’t involve to many burly drybags, so aside from building a slim bag with a side zip I don’t see making any improvements for the future.  I’ll say it again because it’d be rude not too; Seek Outside packs are the real deal.

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After last fall we needed a much lighter, smaller tent which would still have room for we three, elbow room for diaper changing, and keep the baby out of the sand.  Not easily done, but my sense was the Sierra Designs Tensegrity would come closest.  We didn’t have weather of any significance this trip, but the Tensegrity succeeded well in the light and small category, as well as in providing enough space for 2.3 adults.  The massive covered storage space, ample ventilation, and decent (though not great) headroom also get nods of approval.  I’ll post comprehensive thoughts after many more nights in the field, but one thing I’d like to highlight, especially compared the direct competition (Big Agnes, Tarptent) is the exceptional detailing and construction quality.  Corner reinforcements, #5 zips on the doors, grommets set in multiple layers of fabric, top shelf stakes, guyline, and hardwear, and very nice stitching all make this tent/tarp/thing stand apart, to say nothing of the clever design.  Taken together they might, almost, justify the high cost.

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Clothing in the desert is pretty easy.  I gambled on the forecast and did not bring a rain jacket for myself, nor Little Bear (though he had the Poco rainfly, which was not used).  The Sitka Core LW hoody got the nod; the fabric is more breathable and pleasant after sweating than the new lightweight capilene, and the hood is great for both warmth and sun.   I wore it constantly and never wished for anything else, except for a solid color option.  The rest of my clothes were the Alpine Start hoody, Strata hooded vest, Prana Stretch Zion shorts, Wild Things windpants, buff, and an extra pair of socks.  The Zions are worthy of a future post, but I’ll note here that the adjustable, integrated belt make them excellent under a heavy pack.

Hoods are also good for Little Bear, who removes most hats in short order.  His sun hat was a passenger all trip after the first five minutes.  Outstanding performers were Patagonia’s infant Baggies jacket, an excellent wind and sun jacket, and The North Face fleece hoody  pictured above, mainly for sleeping.  I need to add suspenders to his sleeping bag, as he kept worming out during the night.  Redundant layers were invaluable when he blew out into his capilene onesie on two consecutive night.

I’ve been observing the recent trend away from minimalist trail shoes with some dismay, something epitomized by the LaSportiva Bushidos I used on this trip.  Compared to their ancestors, specifically the Anakonda and X Country, they seemed for me a step backwards, with a stiff heal counter, considerable mid foot structure, and an insole with consequential arch support.  Reminiscent of the old One Sport Vitesse, though with less drop.  I’ve had this pair for over a year, but could never get them to fit quite right.  Finally last fall I started running them without any insoles at all, and at last they gripped my heel correctly and gave my toes enough vertical space.  In this form they have enough structure and stiffness for a heavy pack trip like this one in technical terrain, without feeling overly stiff and clunky.  As usual, the Sportiva rubber and tread combo is the best, full stop, for traction in mixed terrain.  M wore her Chacos, also as usual, and we discussed our dear hope that LB inherits the excellent biomechanics with which we’ve both been blessed.

When we next head to the Colorado Plateau, likely this fall, we won’t do too many things differently.

Little Bear gets real, part 2

The adults were a bit worse off come morning.  The endless sun and heat yesterday had made it hard to keep hydrated, especially on the boat.  Note that when I say heat, I mean above 70F.  Little Bear seemed in fine shape, the only evidence of a big day last a wake up that was a little later than usual.

Breaking camp, with all our gear and an active infant, was never a quick process.  With one on kid duty at all times, we alternate cooking, eating, and packing.  With tweaks to our system we should be able to improve, but on this trip any waking to leaving time under 2 hours was more than satisfactory.

R0013293R0013304DSC09932DSC09942DSC09947R0013335DSC09920DSC09918The hiking up Slickhorn continued to be outstanding, in every respect.  Fairly steady walking on rock benches and vegetated side channels alternated with constricted sections that required complex climbs up and around huge boulder piles.  These were strenuous, and the sun was utterly lacking in mercy.  LB had surprised us with how well he took to being a passenger on the boat, but since the low snow melted off back home we had done plenty of hike practice, and knew that being backpacked was one of his very favorite things.  Cooing and squeaking was a regularly accompaniment to my walking all trip, except for his occasional naps, and especially as the day got long and the sky got hot I found myself wanting breaks at least as often as he did.

The Poco sunshade proved vital, both for a kid who refused to wear brimmed hat or sunglasses, and as a tool for keeping the willow and oak off his face.

In the early afternoon dark clouds and thunder loomed a few miles ahead, and we used this as an excuse to do what our tired hiker selves had never done before; pitch the tent for an extended lunch.  We got a couple dozen drops, but the shade and ability to let LB roam hand and sand free were worth it.  His traction on bare silnylon was amusing poor, but that never tempered his enthusiasm for trying to reach and then climb the walls.

We stopped for nearly 90 minutes, and it was glorious.

R0013352R0013349R0013359 Past Government rapid I had predicted that we’d face a decision point the next day, as pushing on to the trailhead would be within the realm of possibility, though camping without water or doing the bike shuttle in the dark were both distasteful.  Fatigue made the choice easy, and when late in the afternoon and just past the last side canyon we found a rare cactus-free patch of sand, stopping was an easy choice.  Thankfully I investigated the area further, and found an outstanding site screened by pinons, and backed by the largest most rambling Utah Juniper I can recall seeing.  The day, for all the effort and sweat, could hardly have gone better, and the certainty of a clean finish tomorrow combined with the good-mojo campsite and made for a very content family.

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I had read about an intact kiva in the area, but neglected to bring written directions.  Normally going no-beta makes trips more engaging, and while we didn’t find the kiva either that night or the next day, we did find a granary, hidden up under an overhang, and some semi-intact rooms and walls.

The puebloan settlers in Cedar Mesa were, many scholars suspect, fleeing war in the Mesa  Verde and Four Corners region.  It’s certainly a good place to hide.  The tops are covered in a robust pinon-juniper forest; aside from the occasional sage field it’s rare to be able to see further than 30 meters in any direction.  From a distance the canyons, even the big ones like Slickhorn, blend into the horizontal tableau and are invisible.  And as we saw on this trip, the 6000+ foot elevation of the headwaters gathered winter snow and released it as spring water.  We saw sheep and turkey along the river, and as we climbed up the uppermost sources of water on the last day, plenty of deer tracks.  It seems possible to make a living in Slickhorn, but it’s an accommodating places insofar as neighbors would be far away and well hidden.

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And just like that, we were done.  The last morning’s hike lasted longer than anticipated, with some rugged boulder hopping and one tricky slab downclimb that demanded passing packs and kid in a precise sequence, but the navigational difficulties solved themselves quickly, and almost sooner than I wanted (had it not been for that oh so heavy pack) it was time for me to do a long ride into a headwind to retrieve the car.

I’ve learned, from hard experience, to pay attention to the terrain when setting a bike shuttle, as false flats and short hills which disappear under an engine are often hard going for pedaling.  I caught the interminable pavement rollers up on the mesa, but missed the false flat on the final dirt section.  Not accounting for this had me bonk badly, enough that I almost convinced myself I had missed the turn, as the (1.5 mile) two track could surely not take so damn long.  Nothing is to be taken for granted, I was reminded, and was therefore properly thankful that the car still had four tires full of air.

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In hindsight all our fears about this trip were both perfectly reasonable and entirely unfounded.  It was physically demanding, but once underway the details were easily dealt with.  Most significantly, Little Bear really likes backpacking, and while not devoid of challenge, parenting him on the trip was simpler than any other time during the past nine months.  Our packs were heavy, but we managed just fine, and discarding packrafting gear would create 12 pounds of room to play with.  Prior to this trip the main question was whether we could pull it off in a manner which would make us want to go again.  Now the question is what can’t we do?  And the more I think about it, the answer is “not much.”

Little Bear gets real, part 1

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This trip was a big deal.  A proof of concept for the near future, and the first backcountry outing with Little Bear on a route that wasn’t a compromise; our loop down the Honaker trail, down the San Juan River, and up Slickhorn Canyon all the way to the northernmost TH was one we’d have eyed pre-baby.

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Ideal routes are hard to come by, which is why when sickness forced us to delay the trip and cut it by a few days there was never any real question of changing objective.  The loop was long enough to be substantive, short enough to accommodate the slowest likely pace, easy floating with a minimum of probable portages, and potentially rugged hiking with good scenery and a decent amount of water.  And most importantly, probable warm and dry weather, which is good for diaper changes and adults who haven’t seen 70 and sunny since October.

So we left town Friday afternoon, made it to Missoula with one feeding and diaper stop, left Missoula at 10, made it to Salt Lake City for breakfast, Moab for a late lunch, Delicate Arch for late afternoon light, and a hotel in Blanding after dark.  Next morning the only thing left was to drive an hour to the ending trailhead, drop the bike, and then drive another hour to the starting trailhead.  And we had to pack.

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It took two hours the next morning to get all our gear into two packs.  Boat, paddle, 3 PFDs, drybags, camp gear, 72 size 3 disposable diapers, and a fairly small but very heavy bag of food.  M wears her pack belt very low, and it seemed like a very good idea to keep her carrying her well-tested, but not very large, pack.  So after leaving a bike locked under a tree I repacked everything at the side of the road, and we headed down the Honaker heavy; M with her pack and plenty strapped on, me with the ridiculous rig of bags and water strapped between the Revolution and the Poco, with two PFDs attached to the rear.

Fortunately the Honaker is a brilliant, well routed and built trail.  It drops over 1000 vertical feet in a very short-line distance, snaking long switchbacks between cliff layers, and getting down those cliffs with big steps, clever routing through cracks, and plenty of artful rock stacking.  It surely wasn’t on their list, but miners gave the current generation of Utah hikers and bikers quite a lot with their roads and trails, so often in unlikely places and leading to improbable places.

It was hot when we made it to the river, after 2.5 steep and strenuous miles.  Our hike out Slickhorn would have more then double the vertical ascent, and I was thankful the balance of our route would tilt towards climbing, and that for the next day or two our only concern was the logistics of getting use and all our stuff into the boat.  Which, sadly, we didn’t bother to photograph.  A few miles of floating that night got us to a small beach, where we pitched our new tent and gladly, tiredly, made dinner.  On the big, mid-height bench across the river four desert bighorn ewes fed into sight from the left, and were soon joined by two more from the right.  Everyone was asleep before dark.

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We’ve both grown used to waking multiple times in the night, for diapers and feedings, but that first night had a bit of edge.  Not only were we out in the wild, and to a certain extent irreversibly so, but M’s damned Big Agnes mat was going flat, and when I looked outside to investigate the increased water-noise, saw a river which had crept 20 feet closer to our tent.  The guypoint on the far right in the above photo was almost underwater.  With a tired mind, and the absolutely safe bench above covered in prickly plants, I told M that a further two feet of rise was unlikely, and went back to sleep.  Thankfully the 300 cfs surge which put the river up over the sandbars neither got worse nor went down, and we benefited from a faster current, and not having to panic-move our camp in the night.

The San Juan was beautiful, the narrow upper section especially.  Both the river bottom and the gorge were skinnier than expected.  Campsites were few, sheep sightings were occasional (including a group of mature rams right on the bank), and we even saw two beaver out harvesting willows, and a Rio Grande turkey stalking through the tamarisk.  We portaged Twin Canyon rapid, and I ran the boat down through Ross rapid while M carried LB around.  The many smaller riffles were good fun, a breeze kept temps reasonable, and M fed LB asleep while we kept floating.  Mid-afternoon a big roar sounded out of sight, and an obvious scouting trail river left had us undeniably at Government rapid, and therefore less than an hour from Slickhorn Canyon.  We knew LB loved hiking, but our boating practice had been modest, and his acceptance of his PFD mixed at best.  But there we were, on the leading edge of the schedule I thought possible, with two adults and one infant both happy and rested.

R0013227R0013241R0013230R0013249R0013263R0013266R0013271Lower Slickhorn did not mess around.  Flowing water.  Polished stone benches.  Thick vegetation.  Steep, thin sheep trails weaving up cliffs and through boulders to get around dryfalls.  My very heavy, very very large pack, whose effect on my balance and precious cargo gave me a cautious approach to the unending difficulties.  My legs and core, who were working and working hard, but also working well.  And finally a small patch of sand not far from dark, suspended between a pool and a rock ledge above a climbing field of house-sized boulders, chirping frogs hidden everywhere.  M got a soft buffer for her malfunctioning pad, LB got a soft surface for his inevitable in-tent faceplants, and I got a flat seat with a view while I cooked dinner.

At that point it seemed plain that not only were we going to do the trip, but that we were going to do it well, and happily.

8.5 months

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We’re supposed to be 1000 miles south, finishing our big spring trip right now. But all three of us got sick last week, and are fortunate that jobs and permits let us move the start date back a week.

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After eight and a half months Little Bear has little interest in crawling, though he has mastered all the elements, and all possible interest in walking, which he cannot yet do.  He is intensely interested in practicing, and does so at every opportunity, which means that discretion demands his spotters (us) be on constant duty.  So dedicated is he to walking as soon as possible that other basic developmental tasks, such as sleeping and eating, have been placed on hold or in some cases gone retrograde.  Given that our big spring trip is a packrafting and backpacking one, I cannot blame LB for his priorities.  If he isn’t walking within a month I shall be disappointed.

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We’ve been practicing, planning, and stressing over this trip for a few months, and the possibility last week that we might have to change plans was very upsetting.  Parenting passed the point of novelty and interest a few months back, and the creeping realization that for a decent while this is what our life has become grows ever stronger.  If he can’t pull off a basic route, ideal to our current demands but interesting in a way that pre-kid would have probably not drawn us in, what the hell have we become?

2045 bedtimes have become the rule, as we’re both that tired, and M’s sewing has been about as active as my writing, which is to say, not very.  As often as not updates here are a should rather than a want-to, a habit which is thankfully longstanding enough that I can keep it going and thus hopefully fight off further atrophy of intellect and habits.

But he is really cute.  Especially when he coos in the backpack for a mile or more on end, at the changing light, wind, trees, or whatever it is his blinding fast brain growth sees as novel, that day.

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So I know that the fear I’ve been living with all morning as I pack the car, building towards a few hours hence when we get on the road and see how long 18 hours of driving will actually take, is only superficially about screaming, poopy diapers, and semi-predictable nursing stops.  It’s actually about just how far we’re up to the task of being the parents and family we want to be, and seeing very soon how well a field test will go.

In both cases, I reckon it was just fine to self-medicate with two strong beers at Bonsai last night.  As Churchill was reputed to have said, “When I was younger I made it a rule never to take strong drink before lunch. It is now my rule never to do so before breakfast.”  Since I was 20 my beard has reliably prevented me from being carded in bars.  Having a beard and an infant now seems to guarantee the same.

The nuclear option

I was hoping things wouldn’t have to go this far, but as I discussed here sorting out carry options for baby and multiday gear has not been simple.  Putting this pack on the back of the Poco AG has worked well, but it’s short on space, and relies on the Poco belt, which is good, but not Seek Outside good.  Those thing being the case, there was only one option left.

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That is the Divide, with a UL frame and extensions cut to 25.25″, which gives me just enough shoulder lift when I run the belt in the lower position, and is also right about as tall as the Poco frame.

Thankfully the rigging is both solid and simple to arrange.  Two straps tied to the bottom of the Poco frame cinch around the Divide frame, then the whole thing is compressed with straps running between the Poco load lifter buckles and the top strap buckles on the Divide.  These four straps get lots of tension.  Secondary stability and anchoring is had via hooking the upper compression straps into a webbing strap I looped through the buckles which secure the Poco’s drool pad.

Meredith will carry all the day-access stuff in her pack, and we should be all set.  Load geometry is, to put it mildly, less than ideal, but the Divide suspension is good enough, and I’m trained enough, that I can manage, though I have to hunchback it a fair bit.  My core is not yet strong enough to stand upright with a load cantilevered out so far.  With me carrying this rig, and M with a heavier than usual load her in normal pack, we’ll both be plenty tired well short of 20 miles a day, and more than ready to give Little Bear plenty of squirm breaks along the way.

Little Bear floats

We’ve got big plans for Little Bear as the weather warms, starting with a backpack and packraft loop down in Utah a few weeks hence.  Lots of know unknowns when it comes to taking a baby on such a trip, so we’ve been training and sorting logistics and gear as conditions permit.

Some things, like plenty of fleece for warmth in the pack, and extra socks as tamper-proof mittens, we figured out a while ago.  LB did outgrow most of his hats, necessitating a new one, and the blue Micro D crew in this photo is 12 month size.

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Other things, like how to carry 4-5 days of adult food and baby diapers, packrafting gear for everyone, and said baby (who is now ~23 pounds), all in two packs and on two people, has been subject to a learning curve.

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For the last decade of trips M has carried a somewhat to very light pack, something which is coming back to bite us now.  My number one advice for aspiring parents who will want to get their offspring out deep and often is to get stronger and more competent than you think necessary at all of the anticipated family activities.  I reaped those benefits skiing all winter, and in the near future will benefit enormously from the last two+ years of heavy hunting packs.  In short, we found out quickly that the heavy, lurching LB and the good but not exceptional Osprey suspension and harness were not a combination that M could carry all day.  Therefore the easy plan for her to carry baby and me to carry everything else was discarded, in favor of her carrying the lighter stuff in the Divide 4500, and me carrying the baby and the heaviest stuff in the Poco AG and whatever additional pockets I could think up.  I have a good solution almost in place, but it will mean a heavy and unwieldy load.  Which is why we’re doing a trip which is half floating, in the first place.

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Another very large unknown is/was getting LB rigged up, and getting all three of us into the Double Duck, properly packed.  Thankfully we had warm weather, and grandma in town to help.

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After one practice trip we now know some useful things.  For one, LB has outgrown his infant life vest, especially when layered up under his Oakiwear suit.  For two, we do all fit in the boat, though for ideal legroom (and kid wiggle room) we need to get the packs a little further out on the ends (new tieouts are curing in the garage right now).  Open questions include how many shore/play breaks he’ll need during 25 miles of desert river.

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Most excitingly, we have a functional system that will allow for all sorts of great, mellow water trips in the immediate area. And those will only get simpler as the snow melts and air temps rise.  LBs level of interest in all things, and the ways in which he can physically and verbally express them, have grown enormously in the last month.  He puts my appreciation of sunlight reflected in water, which I though quite sophisticated, to shame.

Osprey Poco AG snap judgment

IMG_2633 We got many quality miles out of wraps, more recently bought an Ergobaby Performance which has been quite satisfactory, and I put a lot of effort into trying to mod an old Kelty kid carrier we got as a free handmedown, but a few weeks ago we bowed to the seeming inevitability, and purchased an Osprey Poco AG kid carrier backpack.  Everyone ends up with an Osprey pack, and as I’ll discuss below, for good reason.

Simple fact is, Osprey knows how to mind details like few other pack makers, and while a lot of the choices they make please crowds and make me grate my teeth in equal measure, it cannot be argued that they do many things well.  And for a disconcertingly low price.

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The baby harness of the Poco AG is an ideal example.  The seat and harness raise and lower via buckles which are both seem secure and can be operated one-handed, and the under-arm bands are elasticated just enough that only a few inches of travel is needed on each of the two front buckles (in red).  Little Bear is a strong, squirmy, heavy (22 lb) 7 month old, and despite his best efforts getting him strapped in is quick and fast.  Setting the adjustments for his height took a few minutes, and the instruction manual was both clear and not really needed.  The ultimate nail in the coffin of that old Kelty was the kid harness being both a nuisance to adjust and not secure enough on LB, so in this area the Poco is already a solid win.

We purchased the base model, which is distinguished from the two more expensive models by having smaller pockets and a non-adjustable hipbelt.  The detailing and shoulder suspension are vintage Osprey; cushy quality foam, with shoulder straps a bit on the narrow side, and a torso adjustment both effective and idiot-proof (large buckle visible through the lower gap in the back panel mesh.  The pockets are logical enough, though I’ll need to build add-ons for carrying backpacking gear, and the torso length is as-advertised, which is to say that I get just enough lift for my 21 inch torso.  The fixed belt length is ideal for my 33 inch waist, folks even an inch larger will want to pay more for the models with the adjustable belt.

The hipbelt is the backbone of any heavy-load pack (which a swaying baby certainly is), and this is the feature of the Poco AG (“anti-gravity”) that I wish to highlight.  It’s an adaptation of the backpanel and suspension of the Atmos AG, itself an evolution of the Exos suspension.  The Exos became famous for providing exceptional ventilation, less load carrying ability than logic and specs would suggest, and an aluminum frame whose bottom length reliably booty-bumped those with beyond-average lumbar curvature.  The Atmos AG, which I carpet tested with 50 pounds last year, is in my book one of the worst packs ever invented.  It marries the tensioned foam and mesh AG system, which I’ll detail in a minute, with the ventilated backpanel of the Atmos series.  I’ve never understood why the Atmos suspension was curved vertically, rather than horizontally, to provide air flow to the users back.  This design moves the center of gravity backwards exactly where one can least afford it, and that in combination with the tensioned mesh gave birth to a truly wonky load carry.

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The Poco uses a bent aluminum tube for a frame, very similar to the Atmos, but does not seek to create (or in this case, exaggerate) the backpanel void which already exists.  What the Poco does have in common with the Atmos is an elaborate arrangement of mesh, both stretch and non-stretch, which when worn is under enough tension that nothing else is in direct contact with either the lumbar or the hips.  The wings fold strongly inward when not in use, as can be seen via the yoga pose I had to assume to take the above photo.  There is a layer of foam inside each belt wing, but it only serves to provide resistance for the small patches of stretch mesh above each wing, which help pull the larger gauge, non-stretch mesh away from the foam.  The heavily laminated fabric used on the very base of the backpanel further creates tension, by which the anti-gravity effect takes place.

Thus far I’ve only carried LB plus dayhiking gear, which when added to the considerable weight of the pack itself was probably a bit over 30 pounds.  It carries that well, by which I mostly mean that the belt does not need to be cinched overly tight to transfer all that weight to the hips, if the wearer is so inclined.  I’m intrigued to see if my opinion changes over the course of a backpacking trip, and if the heavy mesh which the system is built upon keeps its structure over months of regular use.  Moving away from foam padding in a hipbelt certainly opens intriguing possibilities, for saving weight and solving the hip bruising issues which seem endemic to very heavy loads, so long as the complexity of the system does not create too many new problems.

In any case, having LB be developed enough to ride (and nap) in a backpack is a welcome development.  It never ceased to be amazing how tiring it was to carry him up front, regardless of the mechanism, as well as how often I missed being able to see my feet whenever we went off pavement.  He’s hitting this mark at just the right time; we’ve got big plans for spring and summer.

Only the big things

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Since we returned to Montana in early January, Little Bear has continued sleeping like a 6 month old should, which is to say not for especially long.  M and I are bumping along just fine, but smaller things like household organization, non-essential dishes, and alpine skiing are not getting done.  The big, important stuff like work, family time, outdoor time, and as much sleep as we can manage take up all our attention.

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While some of the little things will eventually demand time given, for the moment the status quo is not at all bad.  Little Bear loves long rides in the woods in his ski trailer, and my legs, arms and aerobic system love hauling 40+ pounds of baby and inanimate entourage around along groomed trails and ungroomed logging roads.  We two have been averaging 10 hours a week since the new year, and I’ve only turned the Chariot on its side twice.

This past weekend, to celebrate the brightest weekend since Christmas and my impending birthday, we headed over to the east side and a ski-in cabin rental along the North Fork of the Teton River.

The Rocky Mountain Front is higher in elevation than the Flathead Valley, but also gets more sunny days, and absolutely strafed with wind.  Our afternoon trip in was in no way unusual; gust to 40 mph, and plenty of heavy windblown snow and bare ice, even though several inches had fallen the night before.  Thankfully optimizing glide with the chariot is not a huge concern, as the ski bases took a beating.

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The Teton River valley, and the northern half the Front generally, has tremendous scenery and is one of the great hidden treasures of Montana, which is saying a great deal.  The limestone reefs and ridges look impressive from the highway, 30 miles distant with prairie between, but even from the higher summits in the middle it is difficult to grasp the magnitude and complexity.  Orographic loading feeds plenty of vibrant creeks in the late spring and summer, and that water has a task when it comes to finding its way out onto the flat.  The cabin is at the very end of the road, along the same Teton the pavement follows to the brink of the mountains, but our route required icy switchbacks up to the end of the plowing at the tiny ski hill, and a long ski down the other side.  The river takes the more direct route, cutting a sinuous canyon between sharp ridges, too narrow for the road builders.  I came through last May, and have wanted to get back ever since.

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Those last unplowed miles are not long, but we now carry burdens measured in both pounds (over 20, in fact), ruminations, and 2am wakeups, and were glad to reach the door, go inside, and get a fire going.

Most forest service cabins were built with utility (and snow and grizzly proofing) in mind, and conspicuously lack more than a few little windows.  This cabin has big ones, on all four walls, which together with the location and cozy amenities jump it to the very top of my all-time list.

That night, and all the next morning, we were content to play with the baby, read, drink coffee and beer, eat food, do chores, and generally stay put.  It was very nice.

Little Bear celebrated his fifth cabin and new sleeping bag (5 oz Apex and .9 oz illume15) by sleeping no better or worse than he has lately, and also as he has lately, being amusing and happy as only a baby can be at almost every waking moment.  He did us an even bigger favor on the drive home, napping for over half of it and mostly entertaining himself with a few toys for the other part.

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It was not a restful cabin trip, in the old sense of a vacation for both body and brain.  Words fail more often these days under the fog of a brain tired, as well as weighed down with responsibilities it has yet to fully grasp.  I do know that it was a good weekend, two exceptional days in an increasingly large pile of them, and that we will be back.