Taking stock: day trips are bullshit

I’ve had a few ideas washing around my head for a while, and wanted to share some on my new favorite music, and result of both is the following video.  Going through the material I realized that I’ve had quite a good 2011 thus far, and it also struck me that the numerous multiday trips are almost without exception the most memorable.  Day trips, however nice, always seem to come up short

The beginning of the year was marked with many, many days of excellent powder skiing.  A few stand out, but I didn’t go camping enough.  Part of it was laziness and lassitude and inertia, part a lack of confidence in my avy skills (and that many of the best routes are avy prone, also that big traverses take longer in winter).  I did improve my skiing a lot, and resolution number one for next winter is to jump fully into winter ski traverses.

Spring, meaning warmer temps and consolidating snowpack, came very late and inconsistently this year.  My training for the GrizPerson suffered a major hiccup when I ran into a tree skiing Brown Mountain and was out of action for several weeks.  Bill and I still had a good showing, and have a big list of things to do better (and thus be faster) next year.  I got sick right after that race, and took a while to recover, but the last five weeks have been outstanding, both from a training and from a quality-of-adventure standpoint.

Those two juxtaposed and held up to decide plans for this weekend were further illuminated by Jill’s timely post.  Adventure can often be good training, and training can be made adventurous, but sometimes you have to choose one over the other.  I skipped some good ski days in March to train on the bike, a choice made easier by my still-sore leg.  That, and with the Wilderness Classic starting in little more than a month, am obliged to choose my weekend endeavors carefully.  Fortunately the necessity of time on the feet matches well with adventuring, so I’ll be off in the wilds of Glacier for 50 miles this weekend.

All of which is to say that while my season has not been without imperfections, I’m feeling in a good place, and have had an exceedingly enriching time (big hard traverses and the word fun seem an awkward match).  Nights in the woods are the key.


The first sign of summer is the first trip where I’m dripping sweat, sucking water like crazy, and generally crawling from the heat. Tthis seems to happen in early June. Today, in fact.

The plan; drive to GNP, bike from Avalanche to The Loop, hike to the snowline, skin up to Swiftcurrent Pass, summit the peak if the snow wasn’t too cooked, reverse, head home, eat.

This is one fairly good way to carry ski gear on a bike.  The boots weren’t the most secure with only one strap, but stayed put.

M on the other hand is on a quest to photograph as many of GNPs 1100+ vascular plants as she can this year, so she got the camera, and all still photos here come from her.

It was a stunning day.  I forgot sunscreen, remembered my sun shirt, and got burnt between shorts and socks.

Swiftcurrent Mountain was gentler than I had recalled it being, and even with a modest amount of sun recently the snowpack was set up much better than I thought it would be.  I zipped up to the summit, enjoyed great corn skiing on the way down, and stopped to admire Granite Park chalet.  The 1+ story bunk houses behind the main building are almost totally buried.

[vimeo  24703654]

Fun stuff, and under these conditions a very mellow and extraordinarily scenic ski tour.

We ran into each other on the way back, and then almost ran into this Griz lumbaring down the road.  He wasn’t threatening, but seemed quite emphatic about wanting to continue down the road in our direction.  After a minute we moved to the other side and eased backwards, making certain to stay together and big looking.  Turns out he just needed reasonable access down to McDonald Creek, which we later saw him swim in fine style.  A very healthy looking bear, and a testament to bear encounters demanding both calm action and a global assessment of the situation.

A good weekend.

Big Mountain – Apgar traverse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday AM camp breaking yardsale.

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

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

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

McDonald Creek.

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

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

It was then quite proper that I felt small.

McDonald Creek.

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

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

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

Bowman Lake, mid-May, with ice.

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

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

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

Backpacking on the Moon

Amazing, amazing trip this weekend.  Since we first visited back in 2005 M and I have wanted to return and explore Craters of the Moon National Monument in greater depth.  To say that its vast lava flows and extinct cinder craters are a unique landscape to travel in is quite the understatement.  The obvious obstacles are twofold: the terrain is rough and travel is slow so you’ll need to spend the night, and there are few or no reliable water sources where you want them to be.  The obvious solution is to go in the spring, when snow lingers and provides a vast in situ reservoir.

We were obliged to make our trip a bit earlier than would have been optimal (as can be seen by the snowshoes we had to bring along).  Spring weekends are starting to fill up.  In my mind it was absolutely worth it, though the nasty sage fields, isothermal snowfields, and cumulative slog factor had us pushing hard on Saturday, at 12 hours camp to car.

In general, words fail.  I thought we’d be able to get a good cross section of the monuments zeitgeist in a strong weekend; instead we’re planning what to do when we go back next.

If you do go, and you really ought to, try for mid-late spring so you won’t need poles or snowshoes.  Bring a wind stable shelter, but no stakes, as they don’t hold in the cinder-dirt at all, and perversely most of the volcanic rocks are super light for their size (we tied guy lines to the center of poles and snowshoes and piled on lots of rocks).  Plenty of fuel for snow melting, but as light as load as you can manage to make the going as easy as possible.  Light shoes with tacky rubber and strong legs are most vital of all.  Second most vital is some sort of wind layer.   Third most important, if you plan to seek out some of the various caves and bridges marked on the topo, is a GPS.  We’ve uncovered various accounts of magnetic rocks messing with compasses out there, and while I can’t confirm that happened to us, we did spend a lot of time futzing with bearings off buttes which never seemd to quite work out properly.  If you’re just out to walk and see that piece of the world, the various cones and buttes provide dead-easy landmarks, unless you get fogged in.  I went for a very cool day hike in dense and icy November fog back six years ago, and having that roll in when you were far out on the lava with a wonky compass bearing is alarming.

In any case, a legendary weekend, in the making.

More bikerafting

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

The Tubus Cargo gets the job done.

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

The water was lovely.

5 great packrafting videos

I’m getting psyched for boating, and right now, these are my favorites.  In no particular order.

I’m really looking forward to getting back into the South Fork valley. The wilderness scale and packraft-friendly terrain would seem to make it the float in the lower 48.

The long-form Chris and Al have been hiding. Awesome trip.

Still one of my favorites in the sport boating department. Great looking water and bon equipe.

The classic, and ahead of its time in several ways.

Another, newer, classic.

Lots to look forward to this year.

Feedback requested

Luc is badass (found while researching the following).

I would like some feedback on several things. First, the new template and layout. Readable? What sorts of info and organizational devices ought to be added? For example, I’m thinking of adding a top tab with links to my greatest hits. Thought from newer readers would be especially appreciated.

I’d also like to direct your attention to the new bibiography tab, something I’ve been meaning to get around to for months. I intend to keep the existing four categories and expand them as I see fit. Good categories? What did I miss?

As always, thanks for reading.

Packrafting the Grand Canyon

Super stylish route (with a massive shuttle) by the east coasters. It is great news that multiple permitted packraft trips, with unconventional entry and exit points, have been completed. Hopefully it will open the door to even more, and more hopefully, to a blending of the backcountry and river permitting process that would be less cumbersome and expensive. Doing the Deer Creek-Kanab Creek loop floating the river should, for instance, not require a $200 river permit.

Might be time to write a letter.