Summer

A month ago I knew we were in trouble.  In the dead of winter I had plotted a lookout/packraft/hiking trip, hoping the agency optimism in opening slots so early in the summer would lead to cool isolation.  The final road was drifted in, but the scorching days I was there sublimated those into hollow, slushy nothing, and the hot afternoons back up steep bald ridges and over and through one tree per 10 meter deadfall left me hollow, in a way even the most careful retroactive application of salty fries, gatorade, beer, steak, and salad would not cure for a week or more.  At two weeks until the solstice my sun-hollowed eyes were those of August.

Summer in Montana, and I imagine in all higher latitudes, is not the same.  Sudden, excessive daylight, along with the opening of rivers and mountains via preferred human temperatures and the imminent contrast of short December breeds a mania.  A full day can end in a long dinner and still accommodate a decent bike ride or river trip before dark.  With the fullness of spring lingering green and brown and fat, there is little incentive towards moderation.  Once this June I left a long day in the office, took a non-frantic stop at home to load gear and see everyone, drove an hour, did a 12 mile ride to 10 mile paddle, and was almost back home before turning the lights on.  For me there aren’t enough electrolytes or hours of sleep or minutes for processing, and eventually I have to take a pause.

Which is less than ideal when it is this hot outside.

The other weekend that pause was an escape to the mountains and a cabin next to a cool brook.  We stopped at the splash park in Dillon, a mandatory kid destination, which was suddenly made too cold by a thick, 30 minute thunderstorm.  That night I slept out on the porch, and reveled in being woken by lightning at midnight, and in the dawn being almost too cold for my blanket.  That afternoon we launched the family circus on a new-to-us river, wife and big kid in the older big packraft, me and small kid and shuttle bike in the bigger big packraft.  Early in the run I committed the first sin of boating and waited too long to decide to not skirt the submerged log that was almost entirely blocking the right slot, and hit the left line too slowly.  The boulder drop was sucky at those too low, too early flows, and stopped the boat cold, turned us sideways, and poured in 10 gallons in a second or two.  M, whose brace hasn’t been fortified by several months of frantic river trips, spent longer in the embrace and had her boat filled to the virtual gunnels.  That afternoon it was warm enough that no human, be they 22 pounds or 170, minded being soaked.  Later on I misjudged a tight line and smashed my rear dropouts into a boulder, amazing myself with the abuse aluminum will take, and the passing bank fisherfolk with what exactly we were doing.

Riding back to the car I looked forward to guzzling a beer, not realizing until I started driving that I hadn’t looked for my watch in hours, and that somehow it was already well past the kids bedtime, and we had minimal food left in the car.  We drove 40 minutes to civilization for burgers, and the kids stayed awake the whole drive home which took until the very edge of darkness.  I cannot fairly blame them.

That evening I fumbled in our mudroom for the alley lightswitch, having in the past 6 weeks of disuse forgotten its location.

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Werner Shuna v. Corryvrecken

This past winter I finally got a new paddle.  My almost 10 year old 210cm Shuna is still going strong, with the many chips on the blade edges and loosening of the joints not really making a substantive impact amongst the rapids, but I both wanted something new and shiny, and wanted to have two top drawer paddles for both M and myself to use simultaneously.  It was never really a question to go Werner, as the Shuna has been such an unmitigated delight, but with packrafting having expanded and Werner now making their whole catalogue in 4 piece I had plenty of choices.  After much mulling I decided on a Corryvrecken in 205 cm.

The first decision was that I did not want to get a whitewater paddle.  Werner’s whitewater paddles feel substantially heavier in the hand, and don’t come with the adjustable feather of the touring paddles.  The Shuna has been burly enough for my needs, and I find the adjustable feather invaluable paddling into those inevitable afternoon headwinds, so this was an easy choice.  That said, with the Shuna already in the quiver it made sense to go in a more whitewater specific direction, with a shorter shaft and larger blades.  You can get the Corryvrecken in 200 cm, but I was worried that in a shaft that short I would loose versatility (specifically, not being able to use it comfortably with our wider 2 person packrafts).  I seriously considered getting a fancy carbon paddle, but the performance to dollar ratio seemed off, especially with the standard fiberglass blades being the most durable choice.  That Alpacka stocks the 205 Corryvrecken made the choice easier still, as I could use a discount code.

As promised, the new paddle feels quite distinct from the old.  Tight new joints are welcome.  The shorter length is without question less comfy in the big boats, and in the smaller ones on hours-long mellow paddles.  It is also sharper and faster in whitewater.  The Corry blade is just over 100 square cm larger, a distinction which is very evident.  I’m not yet strong enough to turn the big blade over for hours on flatwater, but the added backbone when bracing and steering, especially in aerated water, has been a huge positive.  Using the longer Shuna for mellower stuff and the shorter Corry in the steeps has worked just as well as you would think.

As a bonus, I can mix and match the blades.  The Corry gets a good bit of its length from the blades, so the Shuna blades on the shorter shaft make for a rather short 198 cm paddle.  The Corry blades on the longer shaft makes for a lengthy 214 cm paddle, which does work nicely for pushing our Explorer 42 fast on moving water.

The fade on the new blades is pretty fun, too.

Montana stream access law and use

The fact of increased outdoor recreation in Montana, prompted by the pandemic and ancillary effects, has yet to be fully established.  Compelling evidence has begun to accumulate, in things like real estate prices, hunting tag applications, and forest service cabin reservations.  What has already been firmly established is the appearance and assumption of increased recreation pressure, and one of the more notable impacts thus far has been increased signing along streams and rivers.  Because of this, and what I will call aggressive signage practice, it is worth examining Montana stream access law in detail.

One can read the law itself, which is remarkably concise and direct, here.  One can read an exhaustive and illuminating historical overview of the law here.  One can read a more concise and modern, political discussion of the history here.

I was in graduate school taking a winter term course on the state legislative process in January 2009, and got well side tracked from lobbying about sex offender treatment by the bridge bill controversy, a series of competing bills which ultimately was resolved by codifying access to waterways via any public road bridge.  Talking to Kendall Van Dyk, then state representative and now with the Montana Land Reliance, I didn’t really get it.  After years of floating and exploring Montana rivers and streams, I do get it.  In the Curran case (discussed below) the Montana Supreme Court stated that “…any surface waters that are capable of recreational use may be so used by the public without regard to streambed ownership or navigability for recreational purposes.”  This broad ruling is massively significant for the scope of present and future access it provides, but for many of the rivers and creeks in Montana, that access is significantly truncated without meaningful accessibility.  

The Dearborn River is an ideal example.  At top is Little Cloud, looking cute on the lower Dearborn this past weekend.  Virtually all of the Dearborn outside the Bob flows through private land, and because of Montana law, anyone can float, fish, and camp along it provided they do so below the ordinary high water mark.  Were it not for access from the 3 highway bridges, this ~50 mile stretch of river would not be accessible to the public.  The Dearborn was the river in question during the Curran case, which involved a rancher with extensive holding attempting to exclude public use within his property boundaries.  Fortunately, the supreme court used the case to establish very broad and deeply rooted stream access rights.KIMG0075 (2)

The picture above was taken the same day, along the Dearborn, about 3 miles before it empties into the Missouri.  It is the most egregious example of many I’ve seen the past month, of signage aggressively suggesting if not outright intruding into what is technically public ground, that is, ground below the ordinary high water mark.  In the past 12 months, be it along the Dearborn, North Fork of the Blackfoot, or North Fork of the Flathead, relatively high traffic rivers with patchwork private holdings have seen a significant increase in both signage, and in aggressive sign placement.  

Fortunately, there are easy fixes.  First, educate yourself on the law, and obey it.  Recognize that many rivers, like the Dearborn, aren’t going to have many appealing campsites truly below the high water mark.  Avoid being one of the majority of campers who push this limit.  Also recognize that many rivers, like the N Fork of the Flathead, won’t have many good camps below the high water mark when the water is in fact high.  At 9000 cfs options will be limited, so plan on camping on a patch of forest service land.  Second, report violations like the one above.  Fish and Wildlife can hear about what amounts to fisherperson harassment.  One can also, via the Montana Cadastral, look up the property owner and contact them directly to politely request legal and neighborly signage and fencing (the wire above is owned by Mr. Brady Vardemann, 12208 Greenwood Ave N Seattle WA).  

If the legal history of stream access in Montana has taught us nothing else, it is that nothing short of constant vigilance can guard against erosion of this right.

 

Nothin’

Sometimes imagination fails, even in the face of skepticism.  One can for instance, almost imagine the canyon above as a tasty series of drops provided the water volume was increased 10 times over.  Imagining when and how often that might actually occur, in the face of an open drainage basin of modest size, is more difficult.  Every 3 years?  Every 5 years?  For a two weeks stretch, or two days?  The creek, bank to bank, and the limited extent of the past 50 million years of erosion, does not provide the wilderness boater much optimism.

The sat photos were not exactly encouraging, when one used tree footprints to extrapolate the creek span.  But last year I was surprised, massively and consistently, with what was floatable.  So I gathered an excessive amount of gear for a day outing and got going.

Most of that stuff got nothing but a ride there and back; drysuit, boat, paddle, PFD, various bags of various dimensions and properties.  My shoes got used well, pushing my bike up eroded ATV grades, sticking to the pedals over last hunting seasons horse pocks, sticking to wet limestone as I traversed along each chute and drop, keeping going until the very end of the canyon, for the sake of completeness and in the hope of seeing something that would justify inflating the boat.  A few places came close, but for all the aesthetic appeal and promise of fun, no stretch promised both 50 continuous yards of boating and rock well padded enough I wouldn’t be begging for a cut.  There was the spring, most of the way to the head of the canyon, gushing through the moss growing out a seam in the limestone, equaling half the volume coming down the main stream.  There was also that final half mile, back down the hill I had pushed up first thing, hopping rocks and dodging rut to rut, hanging my nose ahead of the stem to keep the front tire stuck to the steepest of the dusty descents.  In the end, it was not nuthin.

Tenderfoot Creek packrafting

Tenderfoot Creek is the largest west-running drainage in the Little Belt mountains.  Like the mountains themselves, it is a unique and somewhat obscure place.  It has a public lands story which is worth reading about.  As detailed last week, I’ve been mulling this post for a while.  I discovered (for myself) floating the creek in the best way possible; looking at a map and then going and doing it.  I’ve been back a few times since, and the trips have always been stellar.  The Smith River, into which Tenderfoot flows, has long been exceedingly popular, as an easy, scenic, remote-ish, road accessed float.  The Tenderfoot is far from popular at the moment, though as a fishing and hunting destination it is coming that way.  As a floating destination the time to establish a public use history has arrived.

Tenderfoot itself can be easily split into three distinction sections with significantly different characters.  Upstream from the ranch bridge at the outlet of the South Fork of Tenderfoot Creek at least as far as Rugby Creek the creek is zippy and busy (~100 ft/mile of drop), with continuous class II++ action, and typical for small steepish creeks, complex and fast decision making.  The half mile below the bridge drops into an unexpected, shallow, and very steep gorge (below), with a series of rapids culminating in the 12 foot Tenderfoot Falls.  This gorge (250 ft/mile) often has vertical cliffs coming out of the water on both sides with the creek 10-15 feet across, and very few places to scout or portage.  Wood is a very real concern.

tfoot

A few hundred yards below the falls is the best/only public road access to the creek, and the meandering ~10 miles down to the Smith are far mellower in gradient (40 ft/mile) and hazard.  There are riffles, and as with any smallish backcountry stream wood and brush to worry about, but the Tenderfoot seems far cleaner than most in the genre, at least until a big fire comes through.  Backcountry packrafting is inherently not beginner boating, but the lower Tenderfoot is ideal basic intermediate terrain.

Access and creating routes and loops in the area is not simple.  Road access from the south, down the South Fork, is a good if not short drive from the pavement, and this road can be driven in a passenger car when dry, and if piloted with skill.  That said, folks have been rather surprised to see our FWD Saturn down there.  Hike in access and route possibilities from Monument Ridge to the north is excellent for the packrafter, and I find the drive in along Logging Creek to be the more enjoyable.  The largest obstacle to coherent routes is that floating on the Smith requires a permit, and furthermore, the final ~half mile of the creek passes through private land (owned by the Wilkes Bros, in fact).  Montana stream access law permits wading upstream within the ordinary high water bounds, which is realistic at all but very high flows if you care to float to the Smith without a permit to continue downstream.

The season for floating the Tenderfoot has been hard to pin down.  May, and most if not all of June, seem to be a sure bet.  I imagine April, in early years, and early July, in late melt years, are almost often workable.  The Smith has several gauges, but I’ve never been able to generalize these levels to those observable on the Tenderfoot.  The creek has a big drainage, but none of it is especially high altitude, and almost all of it is heavily timbered.  Lots of snow can build up and linger, with melt off responding more to temperature than solar energy.

It is a special place.  Be careful.

The question

Last week I had the pleasure to be rained on, atop a broad mountain ridge.  Having driven several hours through plains reaching 100 degrees, I found on reaching the top that summer weather had come along with the early summer heat.  Stopped in the car by snow lingering in the trees, I assembled bike and backpack and pedaled up and along in a driving rain, sprinting, inasmuch as one ever could uphill carrying a 40 liter load, when the lightning count got short.  That evening I stayed indoors, watching the sun set over one range, while illuminating another I had never quite known to be in range.

The next day I wandered down a ridge, trying and failing to avoid the prodigious deadfall, and forded a cold creek.  There was a cliff just upstream, a fence just down, and the boulders were the size of ovens and tried to take my feet.  I’ve floated this creek twice before, and a third example has me no closer to correlating apparent conditions with flows.  On this occasion, with only a distant spangling of snow the creek was full, and eagerly crawled around the next bend.   Holes and waves grabbed and tugged, and previously simple plops had me wheelieing downstream, moves out of synch with what the creek had.  The biggest drops were, befitting the theme of this year, stuffed with wood.  In the canyon now, I had to drag my boat upstream, chest deep in thin eddies, to a spot with enough latitude to ferry across and climb a manky chute to the rim.  

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This creek, and this place, are phenomenal.  And in equal parts, ephemeral.  The season for floating is short.  The access is indistinct, and none of the ways in are short.  The setting is big, with a scale and a profusion of trees that flattens out the mountains and hides them in front of you, until you’re downclimbing through old growth spruce, kicking granite lumps down to the elk paths, or following up one of the fall line horse trails.  The place is, in short, one of those ranges whose incremental obscurity combines with scenery a few notches off of what we find most accessible, and keeps it unnoticed.  The lack of capitol letter designations, of the W and NP, helps.

The duality of name brand designation, and especially the associated marketing, has in the past decade established itself far too well.  Protection from resource extraction and development was as complicated as protection from tourist development a half century ago.  Protection from the information and attention economy has proven a task more difficult than either.  If the essence of the wild is, in brief, in novelty relative to human experience, how can we humans protect it from ourselves?

The easy answer is to shut up.  Documentation killing mystery is in the internet age as basic as one plus one.  And when it comes to the place here mentioned, I’ve mostly done that, though if I were truly committed to wouldn’t drop enough hints and photographs to easily guide those with a bit of knowledge.  The more complex answer has to do with the future, and the seeming inevitability of restrictions.  Across the west parks and forests have management and travel plans that have not been substantively updated in decades.  Added traffic is forcing this process, and making for updates that must be both sweeping and potentially radical.  Having no track record of a use like packrafting (or cycling) makes for a shortage of leverage when the time comes, and while hiding things from land managers which are new and potentially controversial can work well for a long time, increasingly is does not seem to be a sustainable approach.

I made my choice over 4 years ago, when I put the full(ish) version of the Crown guidebook up for sale.  Whether and how this will prove a good influence, long term, has yet to be decided.  And because of that I struggle; what level of conversation and documentation is most appropriate, long term, for other places?

2021 Bob Open report

Moore photo.

This, the 10th Bob Marshall Wilderness Open, took place under the influence of unusual weather.  This can be said most years, which is the point of going in late May rather than July, but was in 2021 more true than normal.  10 days out from the start a large storm moved through, with precipitation concentrated along the Rocky Mountain Front, with the original start point up the South Fork of the Teton just north of the epicenter.  Several feet of snow fell up high over a period of 48 hours, began to melt during a brief warming spell, and then saw another 6-12 inches before the end of the weekend.  Due to possible access and avalanche issues I called the start south to the Home Gulch campground with 6 days to go, and all of the 25 people who lined up had both snow accumulation and snow melt in mind.  Additionally, several prodigious wind events from the winter had left exceptional deadfall littered throughout the Bob complex.  Snow, stream crossings, and deadfall were all more urgent and variegated route factors than usual.

From the start groups split immediately three ways, majorities going either west along Gibson Reservoir or south up Home Gulch, and a few folks going west and south along the Beaver Creek road.  Most of the Gibson groups headed up either Straight Creek or the South Fork of the Sun River, aiming to access the North Fork Blackfoot drainage via a variety of routes; Stadler Pass, Observation Pass, or one of several ways up around the south flank of the  Scapegoat massif.  Stadler is noteworthy for being the longest and lowest of the options, and featured plenty of deadfall.  Word had gotten out to the Forest Service about the winter storms, and an early start to trail maintenance had the main trail cut all the way through Danaher meadows, well ahead of normal, and making this long route the likely quickest variation.  Observation Pass, and especially the ridge leading south, was an appealing blend of reduced distance and modest cumulative elevation gain.  The problem for these folks seems to have been in the trail down the headwaters of the Dry Fork, which down to the main trail proved to be very ill maintained indeed.  Fatigue, morale, and timing for floating the lower stretches of the Blackfoot made these routes more complicated in execution than may have at first seemed obvious.

The south flank of Scapegoat looks intimidating from a distance, but the upper valleys of the Dearborn, North Fork of the Blackfoot, and Straight Creek all reach 6500 feet on well graded trail, and past fire activity combines with higher elevation flora to make deadfall less of a concern than elsewhere.   Aspect proved crucial here, as the previous 3 warm, sunny days had melted off the previous weekends storms almost totally.  One route up to the snowy flanks might be on dirt up to 7000 feet, while another started wallowing nearly a thousand feet lower.  Most of the folks who went south from the start took a southern route around Scapegoat, with many getting there via Welcome Pass and Smith Creek, a route which due to the aforementioned minutia was almost free of deadfall and snow.  Mileage wise this was a slightly shorter line than any of the northern options, at the cost of significantly more minor passes adding up to twice or more the elevation change.  Moreso than in years past there was a clean split in the tradeoffs between these two larger options.

Several parties went for a variation of the original start, and went up the West Fork of the Sun to Nesbit Pass, not a low or low snow option, but a straightforward one given the neighborhood.   All these folks were understandably set on floating the North Fork of the Sun, and had good but not excessive levels for it.  Fate was kind given the circumstances, with the 2-4 days most spent on route lining up exactly between when the new snow melted off, and when the new and old snow, finally in the first grip of summer, truly swelled the creeks and rivers in earnest.  By 6 days after the start, the South Fork of the Sun and the North Fork of the Blackfoot were close to or above all time records for the time of year.  While a everyone had at least one big and chilly crossing, hardly anyone was really put into logistical difficulty by a ford.

The Bob Open is only tacitly a packrafting promoting vehicle, but being out there in late May almost inevitably favors the options and speed pocket floating affords.  On only two previous occasions has the quickest finisher(s) been on foot (2016 and 2020, though 2019 was bloody close).   This year the finish well outside the main complex presented two stark options in the final section; either head out the N Fork Blackfoot and float at least 40 miles straight to the finish, or come out through a Youngs Creek neighbor, and surf state land through the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA to the finish.  Several public land options existed here, with none particularly obvious, something that highlights the convenience of being inside the Bob proper.  Water levels were ideal for a fast float finish, with most folks taking between 5 and 6 hours to make the 40 miles from the end of the crux whitewater on the North Fork of the Blackfoot (something most chose to portage) to the end.  Walking, on the other hand, took quite a bit longer, with most folks making the sensible choice to end things at the edge of the proper wilderness, and those who did not putting a significant part of a day into a heinous road walk.

In the end the point of this whole endeavor, and the particulars which emanate from that end, are only defined by the folks out there walking.

My 2021 Bob Open

The thick green water of the North Fork took half a mile to give in and intermingle with the flat milky water of the main Blackfoot.  Black spruce limbs, broken ragged and hidden two dimensionally in the river floated past, the breeze pushing gently upstream.  I looked backwards and saw an intact, dead tree floating 100 yards behind, dozens of limbs proud of the water by ten feet or more, the total lack of green needles and abundant flowing moss equally obvious in the perfect afternoon clarity.  Eager to stay clear I layed into my paddle for the next three bends, after which I forgot it entirely.  In that moment, new to the humbling of the river in full flood and pursued by the landscapes ghost, I could almost hear Geoffery Rush growling “run out the sweeps.”

Two facts about a fast walk across the Bob stayed in the front of my mind all last week.  One, that I hadn’t finished the Open since 2016, and two, that I had never been the quickest.  In both 2013 and 2016 I had been second, though 2015, by almost a solid day my longest route, remains the most enjoyable.  This encapsulated the dilemma well, especially as Saturday wore on.  By design the Open is not easily competitive.  I currently have compelling reason to think I was the fastest finisher this year, but I do not yet, and may never, know for certain.  In the moment it is a slippery, pointless, and yet essential end to pursue, if your goal is going fast.  Pointless because you can never know or control what anyone else is doing, and essential because the pure process goal of being efficient and quick often comes up short when your legs are dead, or you really would rather stay in bed a bit longer.

After deciding to move the start less than a week out, I had some rapid and fun route planning to do.  This ended up being a, if not the, highlight of the trip, as the first ~12 miles through Home and Lime Gulches were very pretty, on infrequently used trail, and the sort of places in the Bob to which I should go, but likely wouldn’t have otherwise.  Loosing the trail for 5-10 minutes in upper Home Gulch ended up being the only route finding mistake of substance I made the whole trip.

Road walking, especially on a hot day, makes it difficult to maintain momentum, but we (Tom and I) did well enough heading over to Smith Creek and the route up to Welcome Pass.  As the afternoon wore on I just could not square the pace and conditions with fatigue and our progress.  Doing some mental math about the elevation gain explained part of that, and better mileage calculations once home explained the rest.  I made Welcome after 11 hours on the move, at least 27 miles, and close to 7k of elevation gain.  Tom, who partially tore his meniscus in a bike wreck several weeks ago, had been hiking on borrowed time all day, and had told me hours before to go when/if he fell back.  At Welcome the numbers were not comfortable; 8 miles to go to the ~8200′ flank of Scapegoat, and maybe 3 hours of functional light to get there.  The map didn’t suggest the descent down the south side would be that troubling, but I still had a strong preference to at least eyeball the shadow before it was fully dark.

I sorta made it.  The crossings of the Dearborn were deep, fast, and very cold, that rivers headwaters being as high and hidden from the summer as is possible in the Bob.  I fired it up along the flats, saw a Moose up in a high meadow, and nailed a great route along the shoulder of Cave Creek the cheated me up to almost 7k on dry dirt.  The snow had, miraculously, already hardened nicely after a warm day, and the snowshoeing was as fast as it gets.  The wheels were starting to come off, attention wise, and my snowshoe binding breaking in the final ascent didn’t make things easier, but I crawled over the top just after 10pm, with enough light to tell I could just bomb off the other side, and enough time to have a snack and savor views out well east of the lights of Augusta.

The descent went from steep scree surfing to postholing through the trees to hitting the switchbacks just as they melted into the open.  My big goal for the day had been the porch of the Carmicheal cabin, but the darkness was quickly stretching the meters into miles, and I threw down camp in the shadow of the first flat spot my headlamp revealed.  I tried to eat some stuff, mostly failed, made a hot water bottle to aid in burning off the sweat in my layers, and fell asleep with twinging legs.  The moon woke me at 330am; I rolled over and went back to sleep until 5.

Dawn revealed the ridge sitting toothy and not far above me, evidence of slow legs after dark.  It was a cold morning, and I was covered in frost, happy to have brought a just warm enough sleeping bag.  I knocked off miles and several very cold creek fords before stopping in the sun for a hot coffee breakfast, designed to set this most crucial moment of the hike definitively in my mind.  The big day yesterday had been a good one, with no mistakes, and thus all the possibility of keeping things rolling all the way to the finish that afternoon.  Doing that just required lots of walking with minimal stops, which was as tough as it was simple, but by a bit after noon I rolled across the road bridge over the N Fork of the Blackfoot, sauntered down to the river, and sorted out my boating stuff while firing back a ton of food, knowing that I would not have to walk another step, and mostly just keep awake and inside my boat to the finish.

Staying awake ended up being much easier than anticipated, as the first stretch of the N Fork had at 1200 cfs some fat wave trains, meaty holes, and quick line choices through channels and wood jams.  Fun stuff, and plenty of potential for carnage.  I averaged around 10 mph for the first hour of floating, which slowed to a bit for the rest of the N Fork before picking up on the main Blackfoot, making for approximately 40 miles of floating in a hair over 5 hours.  I was paddling hard the final hour, racing to get into cell service in time to call M so the kids could do bedtime in the car, which they did.  I helped Hunter and his crew haul their raft up the hill, and they gave me a ride to the gas station at Clearwater Junction (I was assured the big cow, currently absent, is being refurbished and not gone forever).  I ate burritos and drank a beer in the grass, luxuriating in a still existence off my feet.

The final tally was right around 95 miles, 40 floating, in 33 hours and 50 minutes.  6 of those hours were in camp overnight.

The day after my feet were, oddly, about the only thing not sore, my mind being the worst off.  It has been quite a while since I’ve spent a day both awake and as useless.  Fun isn’t the thing with a pace like this, the thing is meaning.  And fully owning a goal as precious as doing this route as clean and fast as I was capable is as meaningful as it gets today.

Finding bargain used gear

Outdoor gear is expensive.  Perhaps not by the standards of motorized sports, but certainly compared to jogging or birding or reading books.  Since becoming firmly established in Montana a decade ago I have been cursed by the perceived necessity of cultivating and maintaining equipage for a wide range (mountain biking, alpine and nordic skiing, snowshoing, fly fishing, bow and rifle hunting, packrafting, backpacking, hiking, rock climbing, snow climbing, canyoneering) of pursuits.  Storing all that stuff in a coherent and useable fashion is one issue (for a future post), acquiring it without undue stress is another, a problem with good, sustainable, and not necessarily obvious strategies.

As in “going light” for any distinct activity, the first and best way to spend less on gear is to have and need less of it.  Start with clothing; you don’t need that much of it, and it is far better to buy better and less and simply have things dialed and predictable and that work for places on most days.  Beyond specialist items like a drysuit and chamois shorts the clothing I use changes little one activity and even season to the other.

When it comes to actually purchasing outdoor clothing, buying on sale and out of season goes a long ways.  This has been somewhat less the case the last few years, due to either demand or smarter wholesale purchasing, but the good sales direct from major brands often equal prodeal discounts.  But that is not interesting advice.  What we’re hear to discuss is finding truly exceptional deals on used gear, which is the way to save on the truly big ticket hard good items.

By way of example, the other day I visited a favored emporium whose specific name and location will remain a mystery.  They are not an outdoor specialist, but do sell a decent amount of consignment outdoor gear.  I’ve very occasionally found shockingly good deals there over the years, including last winter a full length Neoair Uberlight for 10 dollars.  On this recent visit I was intrigued enough to purchase a nice pair of Lake MXZ300s (sized up a full size, ideal for cold weather) for 15 dollars.  Towards the end of our (me and the 3 year old) rounds, I saw, crumpled on the floor under a rack, a distinctive combination of red and black and grey nylon in just the right shade and texture.  Further examination revealed an older, but pristine, Kokatat semi dry suit, with relief zip and fabric booties.  Even further examination revealed the zippers, gaskets, and inside laminate to be lacking in obvious issues.  Further examination once I got home revealed a Kokatat fleece onesie inside (it felt a bit bulky).  The price?

50 dollars.  This for the older, almost functional equivalent of what I bought for 750 dollars back in January.

The place to find deals like this is not an established, well stocked used gear store.  Second Wind Sports in Bozeman has the widest and deepest selection of used outdoor stuff I’ve ever seen in one place, by a large margin.  They also have, with few exceptions, the most outrageous consignment prices I’ve ever seen.  500-600 for a clapped out pair of AT skis and bindings, 240 dollars for an absolutely worked over HMG 3400, 80 for a well used Osprey daypack.  Whether this is due to demand volume, or to Brozonians wanting 100% return on their brodeals, I do not know, but I feel safe in assuming that (in a similar vein) Wabi Sabi is a much more expensive place to find used fleece jackets than it was 16 years ago.  Perceived scarcity is highly relevant here.

The same rules apply to Craigslist, Ebay, etc.  Outstanding deals can be had either when the seller is not overly worried about resale, or when they are not aware of what they have.  Ski swaps can be good places for the former, as people are often clearing the shed and motivated by timeliness over maximizing return.   For example, the Dynafit and the Fischer skis shown at top were both had for (the magic figure of) 50 bucks at separate ski swaps.   Going off topic at swaps and sales is also often a solid tactic; looking for things like camping or climbing gear, or headlamps, as people seems less picky about pricing.  The caveat with any of this is time.  There are certain places and instances where good stuff is more probable, but it is still a numbers game.

The other caveat, especially with hard goods, is that a certain, considerable amount of technical background is immensely helpful.  Being able to recognize what a thing is at a glance, and then evaluate if it is in suitable condition and at a price that suits you, potentially all in a few moments while the rush of a swap goes on around you, is not simple.  And the best way to violate the first rule, above, is to buy something just because it is a good deal.

Finally, it is worthwhile to consider which expensive gear items are unapologetically worth it.  For years I’ve used a heavy, ancient (bought in 2004 for $99), janky, increasingly leaky, drysuit, without a relief zipper.  Since buying a new, much lighter one this winter I’ve both brought it more often (as it actually takes up less space than my boat), and been warmer and even drier.  Should have done that quite a while ago.  There are plenty of other examples, things that either make an appreciable difference while in the woods, or enable a whole new pursuit, that for me are always more fulfilling purchases than just another jacket.

My favorite

In the past few years May has firmly become my favorite month of the year.  In May Montana straddles winter and summer perfectly, presenting all the essential virtues of both with few of the downsides of either.  Days are long, longer than easily used awake.  Rivers and creeks and ridgetops and bowls are all full of water, the kind you want, and generally in the proper condition.  Choices are, more than any other time of year, limited only by time, and by motivation.

We’ve had an extra extraordinary May this year, with excellent weather topped off the past week by a huge storm that brought record breaking precip and cold to our corner of the state.  Plenty of folks don’t see the virtue in that, not the kids who wore sandals to school last Friday and saw the snow pile up all day, nor the people who used the previous sunny weekend to put in plants only to see them buried and then frozen (our corn seedlings, at 10 inches tall, stood proud for 48 hours before finally giving in to the second wave of snow, I do not think they weil recover).  But those of use who love this month, and the woods generally, for its very kaleidoscopicism cannot but appreciate the unlooking way nature has kicked human routine repeatedly in the shins over the past week.

My own absence here has been much to do with this very richness of opportunity.  Mountain biking dust, hiking loamy ridges through flowers, rafting clear rivers, snow biking, and powder skiing all happened in the stretch of a week.  

Most significantly, the Bob Open is set for the weekend, with the most interesting and, sort of by extension, most difficult conditions in a decade on tap.  The Wood Creek snotel, usually of little regard past late April when the snow burns out of the mid elevation forests, went from 2 inches to 10 inches to 4 inches back to 10 and then down to 2 inches of snow in the space of 5 days.  The Dearborn River finally woke, and exceeded 1000 cfs and then 2000 cfs for the first time this year, in rapid succession, as rain and sun blasted first new and then old snow out of the headwaters.  The main Blackfoot passed 8000 cfs this morning, and by the time a few of use are on it some time Sunday afternoon I imagine it will be over 10k, which will be both exciting and expedient.  

Over the weekend I made the easy decision to move the start south, to a place more consistently accessible by vehicle, and lacking necessary avalanche exposure on the most obvious initial routes.  For an event that embraces being a non-event having to fall back on conservative decision making seems odd, especially given that we have intentionally and deliberately, tried to avoid attention whenever possible while still being an Open event.  Even before the pandemic outdoor boom I worried about the Open attracting knuckleheads, and about the to the uninitiated outrageous idea of scampering across the Bob this time of year casting packrafting in a problematic light.  After all, this might be the year that sees packraft traffic on the South Fork of the Flathead force the first definitive step towards a permit system.

For the moment I can luxuriate in my planned route, selected via the usual criteria of novelty and the likelihood of sharing it with no one, and of the certainty of adventure and solitude.  It was an usually beautiful winter in our valley, and the promise of a similarly beautiful spring and summer is now guaranteed.  Lurking in the background is the equal certainty that this will be a summer that changes outdoor-ism in the United States forever.  Pandemic restrictions, moreso but also combined with the increase in traffic, has accelerated the inevitable.  On the one hand purposive neglect (by some within the system) has kept wild places wilder, restricting traffic via crowding, small parking lots, lack of toilets, poor roads, hidden and ill maintained trails.  In as much as demand has forced the issue (4500 applications for advanced backcountry permits in Glacier), even more significant has been extraordinary circumstances giving managers an excuse to shift the paradigm.  Glacier put a permit system in place for driving Going to the Sun Road, indeed for using the the main park entrances at all.  Last year was crowded.  So was 7 years ago.  In 2021, we think about things differently.

It will be an important thing to keep in mind this year.