Montana’s early rifle

We’re in the second half of September, which means that in three Montana hunting districts, rifle season has started for deer and elk.  This is, I believe, the earliest season anywhere in North America for these animals, aside from special tags.  The mystique, or more accurately malarkey, surrounding these three districts is considerable, and the surge of interest this time of year makes it a good to flesh out the myths.  Between deer, elk, and that one bison tag three years ago I’ve killed (and crucially, packed out) at least two big game animals in each district, and particularly in the Bob spent exponentially more days in each zone doing things without a rifle in hand.

Zone 316 encompasses the area north and northeast of Yellowstone.  Geographically 316 can be cut in half, with the western half being the upper drainages of Hellroaring and Slough Creek, and eastern half being the lake, forest, and alpine rock of the Beartooth Plateau.  The former is classic alpine meadow and forest terrain, and hunts accordingly.  As is the case with all three zones, deer and elk are present, but sparse.  Here especially, it is common to complain about wolves having eaten all the elk since 1995.  While it is surely true wolves have both reduced overall numbers and changed elk behavior, I get the sense that hunters have been complaining about wolves stealing prey well back towards the last ice age, when one imagines short faced bears and the like gave humans something more pressing to lament.  Elk in mountain environments tend to not form the large, easy to hunt herds they do in the plains, and as a consequence are not so vocal during the rut.  Take one valley as a whole, and 10% will be good elk habitat, and 10% of that will in turn have elk at any given time.  Deer are more widely, yet more sparsely distributed.  The stats tell the story; for over 400 hunter days, 27 deer were shot in 316 last year.  The eastern half of 316 is the most difficult place to find deer and elk I’ve yet hunted.  The forest is thick, the terrain rugged, and the deer and elk present, but sparse.  Effort, consistency, and good tactics make a difference here, but probability and luck are essential.

As is the case anywhere in these three zones, getting off the trail makes a big difference, and in turn, getting the meat back to the trail is maybe the chief difficulty.  A three mile walk through slabs and blowdown, followed by a 5-12 mile trail hike, all with 80+ pounds on your back, is not a superhuman feat, but is a product of long term investments in physical prowess and planning.  With the packout process being as difficult, and in many cases more protracted, than finding and shooting a critter, it should be given the priority in both preparation and prestige that it deserves.  On a related note, I’ve found whitetails in all three of these zones, though they are thin and geographically limited in 316.  Using an OTC regional whitetail doe tag to bring about a multiday packout is a pure inversion of typical hunting priorities.  On another related note, bikes can be used to expedite packing in and out in zone 280, and packrafts are of limited use in 150 and 316.

Zone 150 is the classic Bob Marshall Wilderness, and encompasses most of the South Fork drainage and the upper reaches of the Middle Fork.  This is a large area, with everything between river bottom willow busting (see above w/r/t whitetails) and tundra spot and stalk.  As with 316, elk are there but tough to find, and generally (but by no means exclusively) found up high on late summer feed, far from established trails.  Remarkably, only 17 deer came out of 150 last year, reflective I think of hunter interest, not the relative abundance of actual deer.  Similarly with zone 280, the upper reaches of the North Fork of the Blackfoot, with only 12 deer killed.  That these numbers are so much lower than in 316 is the biggest surprise of this whole project.

The final and most enduring myth about hunting these early rifle zones is that you will surely be eaten by a grizzly bear.  While I’ve yet to see wolves in any of the three zones during hunting season, I have seen at least one grizz in each, generally up high while glassing.  Watching a sow and three fat silver-black cubs feeding vigorously for hours from the summit of Red Mountain remains a career highlight.  And there is very concrete reason to worry while hunting in each, given that creeping through thick stuff and meadow edges at dusk and dawn are ideal ways to both kill elk and run into a bear.  Aside from balancing this inherent contradiction moment to moment, the best advice in my book is to be quick and vigilant about carcass care and meat hanging.  Get things cut up and moved quick.  When at all possible, butcher somewhere with decent visibility.  It may be wise, under certain circumstances, to pass on certain shots so as to avoid leaving a carcass unmanaged overnight.  At the very least, match your ammo, shot placement, and effective range to make darn sure a shot at dusk gets anchored fast.

Early rifle hunting in these zones is and is not what big game hunting might have been 250 years ago.  On the one hand, records suggest there was never a huge abundance of big game in the mountains, which is why tribes made long journeys past these places to hunt along the river breaks and prairies.  On the other hand, while hunt success in these areas is modest, hunt pressure is still a factor.  You might shot something off the trail across the meadow at dawn, but most animals will know well when hunting season starts, and just as do in midwestern cornfields, adjust their habits accordingly.  Nonetheless a reasonable bit of effort and more importantly, planning should guarantee a 5 day hunt during which you do not see another human, and where the interplay between your skill and animal wit is translated by nothing other than the weather and terrain.  If this is the marker of success, rather than number and quality of critters seen, the early rifle hunts are as sure a bet as exists in big game hunting.

little Big Blackfoot bikeraft loops

As opposed to the Little Blackfoot, whose headwaters are too small and brushy for good floating, the Big Blackfoot River rarely runs parallel to a road, something that makes for convenient and high quality floating.  The middle section of the Big Blackfoot and its tributaries, which is to say the bit in the Helmville/Ovando valley, downstream from the Highway 141 bridge and upstream of Russell Gates campground, are especially fruitful in this regard, as the loops and bends in the rivers combine with relatively quiet dirt roads to allow for pleasant self-shuttling via bike.  Packrafts are the obvious compliment here, but other craft can be floated with the same approach.

Access is somewhat tricky in this valley, due to the large amount of private land and moderate amount of quintessentially American property paranoia.  Access sites, highlighted below and listed north to south, are as follows:

-Scotty Brown bridge on River Junction road, which has very limited parking.

-River Junction campground, which has lots of parking but is a longish drive.

-Harry Morgan campground, 2 miles upstream from River Junction on the N Fork of the Blackfoot.

-Raymond road.

-Aunt Molly Wildlife Management Area.

-Cedar Meadows fishing access site.

blackfoot south

A favorite beginner, kid friendly bikeraft loop is Cedar Meadows to Aunt Molly.  This involves 3 miles of riding on dirt roads, and 7 miles of twisty flatwater through brushy islands and farmlands.  Not scenic in the traditional sense, but very quiet and with tons of wildlife.  Raymond road to either Cedar Meadows or Aunt Molly would extend the day nicely, but the 6 miles from Cedar to Raymond are more agricultural, and open to wind.  A canoe is a logical craft on this stretch of the Blackfoot.

The river from Raymond to River Junction is quite pretty, packed with easy class II, and due to access concerns gets little traffic.  Crafting a bikeraft loop on this stretch is logistically complicated, at least if you prefer to avoid the highway between River Junction road and Ovando.  My late summer solution has been to start biking at Harry Morgan, and end the trip by traveling upriver from the junction of the main and north forks.  The north fork is swift enough that you won’t be paddling upriver much, but the gravel bars are extensive enough that walking and/or dragging is not too bad, if a bit tedious.  count on 10 crossings in 2 miles, and on having to wade a good bit.  Harry Morgan-Raymond-River Junction is well balanced; 6 miles of biking (which a decently skilled rider with tough tires could do on a road bike), 6 miles of floating, 2 miles of upstreaming.  In a similar vein, one could float down to Scotty Brown, bike back up to River Junction, and then cross and go upstream.  This bit of road is tedious to drive, but good fun on a bike.  River Junction road historically went through to the Raymond road bridge, but the Mannix Ranch closed that a number of years ago, with Powell County having taken a 1/2 mile stretch off their list of official county roads.  (eyeroll)


Bikes can also be put to good use on the valley stretches of Monture Creek and the middle North Fork of the Blackfoot.  I had never run the bit from the later down from FS 5550 (aka the Cooper-Blackfoot road) until the Bob Open this year, and found the first ten miles down to the Dry Gulch road to be an absolute ripper at 900 cfs and above.  At 1500 it is almost continuous class III until the final few miles, with a 10 mph current.  I’ve yet to float it at low flows, though below 500 I reckon I would actually not mind having my bike on board, as opposed to leaving it in the bushes to drive up and get later.  It is possible to ride up on public land through the west bank, but there are a few private land complications and northern stretch gets very brushy following old logging roads.

Below Dry Gulch road the North Fork mellows hugely, with moderate log/brush concerns, and is a class I float all the way to the confluence.  A packraft or lightly loaded canoe could get down it, slowly, just about any time, but big boats will stay away below 400 cfs.  Some determined oar rigs line down from Harry Morgan at very low flows, due to the ease of access relative to other options.  Little Bear and I watched two SUPers go down this past weekend (at 170 cfs), and they and their fins looked to be having a nervous go of it.

Up in the Wilderness Monture Creek used to be a premier creeking run, and is now full of wood from recent fires.  This wood hasn’t made much progress downstream, and the stretch from the campground down to either highway 200 or the main Blackfoot is fairly straightforward.  I haven’t floated this one at lower water either, and imagine it would get painfully slow much past June.

Why am I detailing all this, especially the delights of the Raymond to Junction stretch?  First, because I think tastes and convenience will pose little risk of crowding.  Second, to spread some folks out at least a little bit.  Third, to establish a bit more use history in relevant spots.  Life is easy back in the wilderness without private land issues.  The more civilized bits of Montana risk going in a very problematic direction over the near future, as population growth, baby boom cash, and increased paranoia/zenophobia all combine make society more closed to strangers and the public.  So get out there, close gates, wave at folks, and be patient with the ATVs moving cows down the Helmville-Ovando road.

The Fantasy

Make no mistake, this is a silly boat.  Just as it has been a silly, unusual, and in some respects unpleasant summer.  The heat rolled in at the very beginning of June, and baked me thoroughly during an exploratory trip on the upper reaches of Tenderfoot Creek.  With the exception of a cool and rainy two days at a lookout in the Yaak, we made it through June and July with hardly any days much below 90, something that dropped rivers fast and brought on heat fatigue six weeks before I expect it.  These days I have little interest in backpacking in temps above 80, and really, only modest interest in doing so in temps above 60.  Combine high temps with kids who are too big to carry but not big enough to walk all day, and with the new oar rig my parents bought this spring, and we had little reason to not do a river trip most days all summer.  So that is what we did.  Since melt I’ve logged 10 separate trips to various stretches of the Blackfoot, and enjoyed circumstances nudging firmly my already developing interest in paddling as an art and end to itself, rather than a convenient and enjoyable means of wilderness transportation.

This being true, it was logical that in early July I bought a new boat, a solo whitewater canoe, one of the more esoteric genres out there.  The Mad River Fantasy is of a different era.  My boat might have been made 30 years ago, or as recently as 24.  It is 13 feet long, has 5 inches of rocker, is deep by the standards of a conventional canoe, but is on the shallow side for a whitewater boat.  The perhaps 7 feet of flat surface along the length progresses up in a somewhat less than shallow arch, with a distinct transition to almost, but not quite, straight sides that climb to the gunnels.  The stern cuts up earlier than the bow, the sum of these parts being a craft which on first entry was quite terrifying.  Held flat the bottom spins at the slightly thought, and I struggled mightily to get it to go straight.  I knew for the first that I would want to take out the original outfitting, as I cannot get on with kneeling on a pedestal for any length of time.  While I was at it, I thought I might try to alter the handling and make it more traditional, which I did by shortening the front and rear thwarts by 2 inches each.

This dropped the rocker, which improved tracking and hull speed, but doing so and then measuring and building the seat and center thwart turned the subtle flare through the midsection to tumblehome (ie the widest bit was below the gunnels), which made the Fantasy horrendously tippy.  A few folks, myself included, got suddenly dumped into the local pond due to my hackery.  So I tried again, figuring out after some experimentation that I could maintain the original width in the middle, and still pull the ends in.  This tamped down the rocker while keeping the flare, which is what allows the boat to have any real stability at all.

And the Fantasy does have stability.  That hull arch wiggles freely over 8-10 inches, something one can only tame via embracing it.  After his first ride, Little Cloud has refused to get in the “tippy nu” again.  With the flare restored that wiggle ends when the sides are dipped into the water, meaning that the Fantasy is (rather like skis) most stable in an arc.  And bulleting a 13 foot piece of wood and plastic into an eddy is very fun.   As shown above, I settled on a mix of a traditional bench seat and kneeling thwart.  I can sit normally and paddle relaxed, often cross legged with knees braced into the side.  After my first extended trip in the boat I had bruised from this, so glued in some 5mm foam.  I left the foam knee cups from the original outfitting, and have the seat high enough I can kneel with my legs crossed or feet under the seat when I want more emphatic control.

A canoe like this is an anti-packraft, in that packrafts can benefit from but never demand active piloting.  The Fantasy is, still, exhausting to paddle.  It does not yet, and may never, feel efficient on something like mixed flatwater and class II, but it provides me an entirely different experience, and that learning enriches my current appreciation for moving water perfectly.

KIMG0246 (2)

Bark River Micro Canadian re-scale

For the past four years my Micro Canadian has always been one of my very favorite objects.  It blends practicality and elegance in a way which few other categories of things can.  Restlessness, and extreme specialization (river rescue), are the only real reasons I’ve used anything else.  To address the former I bought a Bark River Ringtail this past winter (the brown handled knife with the ring, above), the idea being the Micro is a bit short on edge length and blade volume where processing game is concerned.  The Ringtail is very good for that, and has reminded me that if the Micro has any shortcoming, it is the blunter angle of the tip, which makes for a cutting bit whose acuity erodes quickly.


My parents chose a gorgeous stabilized wood burl for the handle (scales) when they bought me the Micro, and over the years the wood has suffered, with many damper outings causing swelling, and after enough cycles, cracking.  A few weeks ago, one of these cracks propagated far enough towards one of the pins, and the front of one scale fell off.  The knife worked fine without it, and a few hours after sending an email to Bark River about a repair the idea to make new scales myself was firmly stuck in my head.  So I pondered that for another few days, then ordered some safety yellow pieces of G10, 1/8″ thick.  To this day, several weeks after sending the email, I still haven’t heard back from Bark River.

G10 was an easy (and cheap, on sale!) choice, being durable and impermeable.  1/8″ is a hair thinner than the wood scales, something I figured would slim down the somewhat blocky/squarish cross section of the handle as stock.  While I was at it, I knew I wanted to make the scales extend ever so slightly further towards the blade, to give my thump a bit more purchase.

After punching the pins out of the blade and cleaning it up, I clamped the blade to the front of the stacked scales and used that as a template to drill the holes.  I sharpied the outline to the scales, rough cut that out with a coping saw (both scales still together, then epoxied the whole thing together.  In spite of being very careful with alignment one of the rear holes was off a bit, and getting the whole mess together required a bit of last minute swearing and elbow grease.

After the epoxy was set finish work was the simple yet tricky matter of lots of sanding.  G10 sands well; I used an orbit sander with 220 grit for the initial stuff, and finished things off with lots of hand sanding.  I used a 1″ dowel as the template for the finger grooves, which worked well.  I am very pleased with how the whole thing came together.

The past four years of fixing things, renovations, and projects have seen home ownership being a huge catalyst for me embracing making stuff as equal parts an end and a means.  Something like this, which I carry virtually everywhere I go, every day, seems set to serve as a reminder of the many rewards that process has shown me.  Next in this series, my adventures making canoe paddles.

Accident report: near-drowning in Meadow Creek Gorge

Paddler A and B were on the fourth day of a packrafting trip on the South Fork of the Flathead at low water (a hair above 500 cfs at Twin Creeks).  They passed through the intro rapid right below the normal Meadow Creek takeout and arrived at the first serious rapid 1/2 mile later around 12pm.  This rapid is recognized by a gravel island visible in satellite photos that becomes very large at lower water.  All of the serious rapids in the gorge are formed by bedrock limestone formations, and thus the nature of these rapids change drastically from lower to higher flows.  Very low flows reveal spectacular fins, curved chambers, fluted corridors, and alter the location of cruxes within rapids.  In this case, low water reveals bedrock fins and sieves in the river left channel, making this line borderline unrunnable even for small craft, and certainly hazardous.  Paddlers A and B identified a small cobble island partway down the bedrock channel after the two channels come together, and agreed to run/line the shallow right channel, which dumbed steeply into the main channel in a way which made stopping potentially problematic.  The paddlers agreed to stop at the cobble island to regroup and potentially scout further.  The right channel proved paddleable, and both boaters were able to eddy out immediately before the channels came back together, where they reaffirmed their plan to paddle the ~100 yards to the cobble island.

Paddler A negotiated the several waves and holes in the first half of this stretch, entering the swift and narrow but uncomplicated second half, nearing the cobble island before looking back upstream and seeing paddler B pushed into an obstruction river right and flip upstream.  Paddler A paddled to the cobble island, secured boat and paddle, before wading 20 yards back upstream to grab paddler Bs boat, which was visibly floating downstream.  When paddler Bs boat was close to paddler A, paddler Bs paddle became visible ~20 yards upstream of the boat.  Shortly before paddler A was able to secure the boat, paddler Bs water bottle and hat became visible in the water, and then paddler B floating prostrate in the river.

Paddler A rapidly secured the boat and paddle on the cobble island, and returned upstream in knee deep water to grab paddler B.  Paddler B was floating face up in the river, eyes partially open, and nonresponsive.  Paddler A dragged/floated paddler B to the cobble island and checked for a pulse and breathing.  A pulse was present and strong, breathing was present, but irregular.  Paddler A dragged paddler B clear of the water, and removed the PFD to better assess breathing and injuries.  No bleeding or gross trauma was evident, and breathing remained present but irregular.  Paddler A then administered two rescue breaths, with the second visibly and audibly inflating paddler Bs lungs.  Paddler B became first visibly and then audibly responsive over the next 5 minutes, and was able to verify sensation in all limbs.  Paddler A palpated and further checked for fractures and bleeding, which were not present.  Paddler A then transported all gear through the short, swift, thigh deep channel to the bank, and then assisted Paddler B in walking through the same.  Paddler B was placed in a sleeping bag to rewarm, reporting full and normal sensation after 1 hour.  Paddler B vomited 3-4 times over this span, discharging ~2 cups of milky liquid in total.

Paddler A secured all gear in and to one backpack, leaving water and snacks accessible, and assisted Paddler B in the steep bushwack up to the trail, and the ~1.5 mile walk on trail back to the trailhead.  Paddler B reported feeling weak and light headed throughout this, taking approximately 2.5 hours to walk from the riverside to the trailhead.

While paddler B was rewarming paddler A walked up to examine and photograph the site of the pin and flip.  Paddler B was flipped against a bedrock wall on river right, which took up not quite half the width of the river.  A tooth of rock, which from downstream appeared as a detached boulder, was actually part of the wall, and separated by a small crack through which a small amount of water was able to flow.  It appeared, both from the rim and from paddler Bs recollections, that the wall may have been undercut below the surface.   Paddler B recalled first fighting to keep hold of and then discarding the paddle, in an effort to have more resources to get above water.  Paddler B recalled fighting to get left and free from the rock wall, but lost consciousness first.  Paddlers A and B think it possible, indeed probable, that paddler B was flushed loose, possibly down, after losing consciousness.  The time between the boat flipping and paddler B being flushed free was between 60 and 90 seconds.


Looking downstream; paddler B was flipped and pinned against the large wall on river right.


Looking down at the place paddler B flipped.


Looking upstream from midway down the rapid, with the pinning wall readily visible.  This photo shows the extensive erosion of the limestone bedrock which forms undercut and dangerous features which emerge at low flows.


Looking upstream from the end of the rapid.  The cobble island where paddler A retrieved paddler B is just out of sight to the lookers right.

The rapids and current in Meadow Creek gorge were, in retrospect, beyond paddler Bs skill level.  Paddler A had been down the gorge before, running all the rapids, at a higher but still low water level.  This, and likely other, rapids in the gorge seem to abate in difficulty as the water drops before the technicality increases again as bedrock features emerge.  Significantly, low water reveals the extensive nature of undercut and sieve-like bedrock in the gorge rapids, something which highlights the hazard of a swim at all water levels.

It is difficult to see what the team could have done differently, aside from not being there in the first place.  Assessing paddler skill and readiness is a complex topic on both an individual and group level.  Paddler A (who was me, if that is not yet clear) did not see the obvious hazard of the wall which flipped and pinned paddler B (who was my mother), either as an obstacle or an entrapment hazard.  With this problem not recognized, our safety options were limited.  With a different frame of vision I might have recognized that her flip was as dangerous as it was, but even so getting up there to assist more directly would not have improved the response time, and even if it had been the rock walls would have rendered such a response ineffective in terms of getting her out of the river faster.

The whole situation is scary, in the short term because she almost died, and in the longer term, as it gives me reason to question a whole lot of decision making over the past decade.  I’ve waited weeks to post this, both because the process of reliving it is upsetting, and because I wanted plenty of space to ensure I had the most dispassionate and longest perspective I could.  For that reason, everything above the photos has been written and sitting in the drafts folder for two weeks, with me ignoring this website.

As poor as our collective decision making was, in the moment both our responses left little room for improvement.  We will never know, but it seems a reasonable assumption that her fighting to get river left and above water helped at least a bit in her not staying pinned.  The rescue experience is the most clear cut example, of quite a few over the past two decades, of how invaluable an intense and high quality wilderness first responder course can be.  I lucked out, two decades ago, to have as my WFR instructor a former army medic who took the psychology of the responder very seriously.  My patient during the night scenario feigned a compound femur fracture, on a 30 degree hillside in slick Appalachia, with total seriousness, and his acted screams can to this day easily bring back my failures that evening.  When I saw a blue PFD floating towards me, the response was entirely objective, and in the end, simple.  My WFR recert classes were not as vivid, and had they been my only experience, I don’t think my response to crises would have been anywhere near as reliable.

The whole thing has me thinking, with more clarity and urgency, about just how to comprehensively teach safety in the outdoors.

A daypack

After being so impressed with Ultraweave I naturally wanted to make several/a number of bags out of it.  My affinity for burlier pack fabrics goes back to the very beginning, both because I know that many of my favored activities shred lighter pack fabrics, and (more relevantly) because I have an aesthetic preference for things, especially things that I build, to have the potential to last a very long time.  For most of the last decade this has been quite hypothetical (that pack from 2010 looks awful in my today eyes), but in the last 3-4 years my knowledge has been such that I regularly make things that stand the test of time.  Making myself a pack from a fabric that could realistically last decades is today not just an ideological activity.

A daypack is not an especially exciting thing, both because day-type activities are less aspirational, and because designing and building a daypack happens on a persnickety scale.  Fit, for example, is an area where in theory a frameless little pack which will rarely carry more than 10 pounds ought to be forgiving.  Many companies making such packs in one size only would certainly suggest as much.  And yet I’ve found little packs to be difficult in this regard, having no frame and especially no belt and load lifters to take the focus off torso length, and strap size, width, and orientation.  Torso length is relevant both to maximize space, and to concentrate the sweet spot for both fit and comfort in the same location.  This pack is 20 inches exactly, an inch or a little more less than I’d make a larger pack (w/ frame, etc).  This maintains total shoulder wrap, with the pack ending just at the lower edge of my lumbar.  This feels most comfortable, most agile, and places the side pockets low enough for good access.  The upper few inches of the side panels tilt toward the user, on both sides, providing a nice shoulder hugging fit, and maintaining a trim yet generous 7 inches of constant depth.  The front panel is 9 inches wide, the back panel 10.5, with 2 inches of upsweep on the bottom panel.  It is easy to make a pack like this too skinny, in either direction, too pudgy, or to overdo the various tapers and create something with less useable space.

For all the seeming contradiction of a forever fabric and a zipper, the classic clamshell is an obvious choice with a pack this small.  It is cleaner through the brush than a rolltop or drawcord, and far faster to access.  Mid panel always seems to work best with a zipper, and this straight run and constant radius curve, along with dual #10 nickle plated sliders, maximizes durability.  Additional internal features amount to a pad sleeve against the back, a small zippered pocket (9″ by 7″), and another sleeve pocket behind the zippered pocket, handy for garbage or for isolating wet raingear from the rest of the contents.  These details, along with the cord sleeves on the side pockets, were old 200ish denier nylon from a sailbag I got free off craigslist.  Orange seemed a good color to halo through the main fabric, and having touseled accents to such a fancy pack seemed logical.

Side pockets in a small pack that legit fit a nalgene aren’t common.  These envelope a standard nalgene, and carry a 48oz cilo well enough that only a big tumble off a log (did it) will knock them free.  These are 14 inches back to front, with a 3 by 3 inch dimensioned gusset against the user side, and the remaining 11 inches fit down to 7 with a big pleat.  The single pleat restricts the pocket size with a single hard object, but expands easily with softer items, ergo a nalgene doesn’t rattle around, but you can wedge a full set of raingear in.

Hopefully five years from now my current state of knowledge doesn’t prove too antiquainted.

The new nu

After dropping my paddle a second time I decided I must be tired.  The Catalyst is a pretty paddle, and moves around the water just as well as the laminate wood and almost invisible fiberglass coating would make you hope.  I had bought it just the day before and hadn’t quite embedded the balance point in muscle memory.  Set it down across the gunnels with the blade too far outboard, and it slips into the river quickly and quietly as an otter.  This is why you have a spare paddle stuffed under the float bag, to chase down the alpha paddle.  And this is why canoe tripping is swell, with camping kit tied under the seat you can stop miles shy of your destination when circumstances and discretion demand it.

The next morning I woke early, having fell asleep before dark, and sought to shake off fear and sore obligues.  I had done this trip before was the irony, at least the same key whitewater sections, and back when I knew far less about moving water and how to run it.  That I was in a weeks old (to me), decades old (to the world) solo canoe that was twitchy as anything explained the trepidation, as did (after the fact) the previous trip being at a much lower level, and the two swims I took the previous day.  The first had been innocuous, the sort of tip you can only do in a canoe, leveraging forward over a melon sized rock into knee deep water.  The second had been more actively confidence sapping, not because I had flipped in front of a big family group, but because I had though my balance, screaming into an eddy to cut around a sharp turn, had been good.

That second morning I knew I was running tight, something self evidently more self defeating than even in other obvious examples, like skiing steep sticky snow or pushing a bike around a rocky switchback.  I loosened up a bit after the first two Bear Creek rapids, specifically after staying upright in both, only to tip out (again) in the third, a wreck memory served as almost identical to the one over a decade before.  Pried against a hidden rock, my reactions and timing will need to get much more precise to avoid that sort of thing.  Thought it required continued focus, after that one I was able to let myself go a bit, making the several official rapids and seemingly endless secondary rapids and riffles without a flip or a particularly close call.  I ended the day thrilled with the immersion, and woke the next day to the sort of soreness only novelty brings.

Alpacka Explorer 42 review

We spent a lot of time thinking about this one.  Our need for a second large packraft, to compliment our Double Duck, was obvious.  You really can’t paddle more difficult water with a kid in your lap, one previous option to getting both kids out of the front of the Duck, and we needed to get both kids out of the Duck.  That boat wasn’t made for hauling, and the small tubes in the front start to drag and drastically reduce maneuverability with much above 50 pounds.  Both kids (now 3 and 6) do fit in the Duck, and can often get along in tight quarters, but being able to separate them is a key strategic asset. 

I saw two distinct approaches; a smaller boat to minimize weight for backcountry stuff, or a bigger boat that would be able to carry both kids well into the future.  This last approach could minimize weight as well, if the second adult came along in a smaller raft.  

We thought long about the Mule, at 7.3 pounds (plain floor with cargo fly) and 52 inch inner length.  That size would carry one kid, for at least a while.  We thought less long about the 70 inch long and 13+ pound Forager, mostly due to weight, but also the reduced options committing to a big raft would involve.  We eliminated the Oryx over concerns the length/width ratio and seating would not be good in whitewater.  The Ex42, with 62 inch and 8.3 pound (with cargo fly), seemed like the ideal compromise; big enough for two kids, more than big enough for one, probably big enough for two adults occasionally, and small enough to paddle solo when need or desire dictated, and well suited to hauling that moose out of the Bob when I finally draw.  The Ex42 is also a good bit cheaper than the Forager or Oryx.  

All that has proven to be a wise estimate.

The high volume cargo hull has performed exceptionally across circumstances.  Two kids, one kid, one kid plus mountain bike, two kids plus overnight gear inside, a second adult, or just alone with day gear, the Explorer 42 paddles well everywhere.  It is fast, for a packraft, on flatwater, but pivots well and navigates class III no problem.  The long flat section of the hull does tend to spear into waves and features of a certain size, an inevitable tendency given the dimensions, one notably not meaningfully exacerbated by weight and or passengers in the bow.  On class IIish scale features the boat is quite dry.  I do appreciate how the hull design packs a lot of float into modest length, a relevant consideration for running skinny water, and for reducing the consequences of a wrap.  My only issue is the extent to which the stern section protrudes further into the waterline than other packrafts, and thus is more likely to get hung up than seems strictly necessary.  The same long flat section of hull makes it almost, sorta possible to edge the Ex42, canoe style.   It still paddles like a packraft, but varies enough from the main line to be interesting for the packraft connoisseur.  

Detailing, such as it is, is primarily good.  The long, thick seat works well providing additional stiffness (laterally and longitudinally) and keeping two passengers off the rocks and out of the water.  The kids do dispute the right to sit on the leading edge, suggesting that the ideal two kid outfitting would involve a full length seat, or an additional scout seat to take up that forward space.  For our use thus far, I don’t mind the lack of any sort of backband or support, but those with less ideal seated posture have wanted this.  The only modification I’ve made is gluing in a rear grab handle right above the end of the cargo zipper.  I find the roll out and grab maneuver essential on swift and tight creeks, and the lash points down near the point of the stern are utterly useless in this respect.  Perhaps they are down there to provide a grab loop for rescuing swimmers?  Speaking of that cargo zipper, for all the irritation it can create with micro leaks, having one on a family boat is mandatory.  Packing for an overnight with multiple kids is dead easy with the cargo fly, approaching or perhaps exceeding the ease of a canoe or big raft.  Most encouragingly, the build quality seems to be improved over out past Alpackas.  This is the first of the now six boats we’ve had from them that didn’t have some sort of wrinkle or oddity in the taping.  

We anticipate having the Ex42 still in heavy rotation many years hence.  We may not need to buy another multiperson raft again, as LB has been keen enough building his solo paddling skills that by the time both kids don’t fit in the Ex42 together, he’ll more often than not be paddling himself.

National Parks; the future is still now

The national parks are crowded, or rather, they have been.  The pandemic reduced and altered visitation in potentially unexpected ways which are worth pondering.  Anecdotally, visitation is back close to or has exceeded the previous records, which were generally set in the latter half of the last decade.  This seems to be the COVID outdoor boom complimenting and exacerbating the already-in-progress parks and hiking boom, itself set in motion by the yet to be fully quantified combination of social media culture, industrial tourism, and urban malaise.

Glacier National Park has, this summer, been both an exception and an adherent to this trend.  This spring Glacier responded to government COVID policy, pandemic related staffing challenges, and the long standing crowding issues in the park with a ticketed entry and shuttle bus system.  Advanced tickets are required to go through either of the main park entrances between 0600 and 1700, and additional tickets are required to ride the shuttle buses which service Going to the Sun Road, and have historically made parking and point to point dayhikes easier to manage.  The number of total tickets made available in unclear, with the park claiming various numbers at various times, and suggesting the totals may be revised upwards as possible.  The caveat, which the park service was strident in advertising, has been that they did not anticipate parking shortages in popular areas to be much addressed by the tickets, rather they were attempting to prevent the cluster of last summer, when cars backed the .86 of a mile to the highway, with safety concerns requiring road closures

The tickets entry system appears to have exceeded expectations here.  M and I visited the park on a weekly basis from 2010 to 2016, when we lived in either Whitefish or Kalispell, and have never seen parking along the road as widely available as it has been in the past month.  Traffic in the park generally appears to be reduced, as well.  We’ve found mid-day weekend parking at Logan (not Logan’s) Pass on multiple occasions with less than 5 minutes of circling, ready parking at Sunrift Gorge at 1000 on a Sunday, and scored a campsite at Two Medicine having arrived just before noon on a Saturday.  Conclusive evidence this is not, but for me also far exceeds the threshold of the mere anecdote.  Rocky Mountain National Park implemented a broadly similar system this summer, and other parks with similar crowding and traffic issues, such as Arches, are considering it.

Glacier has been quite candid that the pandemic is simply the catalyst, or excuse, to put this into practice.  It is past time.  As I wrote four years ago, the park service has for decades been failing in its full mission, providing a volume of experiences increasingly lacking in quality and depth.  This is a global phenomenon, with places as diverse as Venice and New Zealand publicly debating how to make tourism a sustainable basis for their economies and ways of life.  The NPS’ mandate is not explicitly financial, but visitor management will be intimately tied to the policies and futures of the states and communities in which the parks reside.  No one, no one who can find a room or table that is, will prefer the Springdale, UT of today to the one of 15 years ago.  Crowding in the front country flattens the economy of a place into sameness, plain, efficient, reassuring, sameness.  The same crowding in the backcountry takes away, past a certain point, the unhuman novelty from which parks (and wild places, generally) get their appeal.

The question now is which way forward.  In Glacier, lots of people are protesting, about the inconvenience of more carefully planning their trip, of having to bend their schedules to that of anything else, or loosing money to the tourists that go somewhere more “free.”  This is the myopic American ideal of freedom, which can’t see out of its cloud well enough to avoid large trees.  My hope is that the NPS will continue their current path, and let the details evolve while the assumption of limited, higher quality visitation slowly becomes taken for granted.

Challenge Ultraweave abrasion testing

Advanced (read: non-nylon) woven fabrics have spent most of the past decade promising to upend standard performance to weight ratios, especially where backpacks are concerned.  Standard and hybrid cuben laminates have been a disappointment in this respect, with inadequate durability and poor balance between performance and cost.  The hype and rhetoric associated with hybrid cuben packs, most specifically the marketing prowess of Hyperlite Mountain Gear, has made a (perhaps the most) significant contribution towards mainstreaming non-traditional pack fabrics, which has resulted in larger interest and market share, and thus the development in recent years of more diverse options in pack fabrics.

Challenge fabrics Ultraweave* is the most interesting pack fabric of the past decade, due to both specs and availability.  100% woven dyneema has been around for almost all of that decade, and used as a halo product by several manufacturers, but maintaining this status has prevented it from being widely available, either as fabric or as a finished product.  Ultraweave, which is 2/3 pure dyneema (in essence) and 1/3 polyester promises to be a functional equivalent.  400D Ultra, for instance, claims 7600 taber cycles** and 200+ psi waterproofing at 4.65 ounces a yard.  VX42, by contrast, is 9.3 ounces a yard, an tests to 1700 cycles, while 1000D Cordura is 9.8 oz/yrd, tests to 4000 cycles, and is (approximately) 3 psi waterproof.  800D ultra is 8.1 oz/yrd, and tests to a staggering 10500 cycles.  VX42 has in the roughly 8 years it’s been widely available been my benchmark for a durable pack fabric, meaning that it is adequate for many years of consistent application in all but the most extreme uses, by which I mean canyoneering and severe scrambling and bushwacking.  Doubling that abrasion resistance while halving the weight is a paradigm altering proposition.

I’ve been working with Superior Wilderness Designs since this spring, testing their new Big Wild load hauler.  Earlier this month I received a proto Big Big Wild, 110 liters, made from 400d Ultraweave with an 800D bottom.  My instructions were to break it, if at all possible.  The first few trips suggested that this would not be easy.  Bushwacking and talus dragging did nothing.  back surfing down cutbanks and rolling a loaded pack down hills left it similarly unscathed.  I went old school on a recent trip and lashed the loaded pack to the front of my packraft, a good reminder that running (and portaging) class IV with such an arrangement is less than ideal.  This did confirm that Ultra is as waterproof as claimed, and reinforced my main interest in D-P fabrics, back in the pre-cargo fly era.  As a side benefit, the past weeks dirt was rinsed clear and the fabric looked brand new.

It was obvious at this point that absent a slot canyon trip, field use was going to take years to significantly stress the fabric.  So I resorted to backyard testing.

We live on a paved road downtown, with steep side streets and alleys that have been left gravel due to how icey they’d be in the winter.  They are not graded often, and have plenty of ruts, grass, small, rocks, big rocks, and potholes.  My first test rig involved clipping the grab handle to the trailer hitch.  The pack, stuffed full of heavy blankets***, flopped sideways easily, which was good for testing the sides and side pockets, but didn’t concentrate forces on the base/front interface, whose fabric transition was my primary interest.  It took three laps, increasing in distance, to make a dent in the fabric, and to refine methods and better control the wear area.  I ended up with cord strung across the open hatchback from the rear roof rack bar, with locking carabiners clipped to side compression straps.  The fourth and final lap, with the pack finally secured as I wanted it, was 7/10ths of a mile.  The total test distance from the four laps was just short of 2 miles.  I made sure to not exceed 10 mph, both for safety****, and to eliminate friction/heat buildup as a source of stress.

The damage report was modest.  The second trial got a golf ball sized elliptical hole on the roll top, unsurprising, given the hard plastic in the stiffener.  This trial also wore halfway through a 3/4″ webbing compression strap where it ran against the buckle.  The final, long trial put a pin sized hole in one bottom corner, and wore notably into the bottom daisy chain, though not to the point of being a structural issue.  The 400D fabric was fuzzed up in many areas, while the 800D was essentially unscathed.  Of greatest interest, the side pockets, which were empty but consistently collected dust and rocks in the first three trials, had no holes or significant abrasions, in spite of the extensive folding caused by the drawcord being cinched.  Aside from patching the one hole, the pack was functionally unscathed.  Consistent with field use, a large amount of the dirt staining washed out when blasted my a hose, leaving the pack at a distance looking essentially new.

In summary, Ultraweave lives up to its specs, and to Challenges’ claims of it being as good or better than anything on the market.  The 400 and 800D are certainly the toughest fabrics for the weight I’ve ever seen, with the 800 being clearly tougher than anything else I’ve used, and the 400D probably being as good if not better than the traditional big guns, 1680D ballistics nylon and 1000D cordura.  The question for consumers will be, is this fabric worth the increased cost?  Rockywoods is currently selling Ultra fabrics as Diamondhide, for 15 dollars a foot.  SWD charges 35 dollars more from a 50 liter Long Haul pack in Ultra, as opposed to more conventional poly face fabric laminate.  This distinctly non-halo upcharge makes that particular option an easy choice.

*Challenge currently has their v3 spec sheet posted on their website, which lists drastically reduced taber numbers.  I have the v8 sheet, from which these numbers are taken.  As discussed here my testing supports the higher figures.

**In my frankly extensive experience abrasion resistance is by far the most important metric in a heavy use pack fabric.  Ultra tear numbers are similarly high, 114/117 lb and 187/161 lb for the 400 and 800.  1000D Cordura is 54/47 (tear, not tensile), for reference, and for me anything about 40 lb is effectively bulletproof.

***To simulate a decent load without any point loading and abrasion.

****I had both kids in the back seat as QC observers of pack and camera position.