Unexpected turbulence

This year was one of the few mother’s days in the past decade with my mom and I in the same place, and to celebrate the occasion we went packrafting in the snow.  Our intention was the lower Dearborn, that is to say the final 20 miles down to the Missouri, which is engaging, scenic, and in a small boat straightforward.  Drizzle turned to snow going north out of town, and while descending towards Wolf Creek and seeing the snow line drop to only a few hundred feet above the creek, I rerouted.  We would paddle the next 10 miles upstream, from highway 200 to highway 287.  I had not done that stretch, but it promised few surprises, and halving our time on the water seemed a good way to ensure that even in drysuits, no one turned into a popsicle.

The float was chilly and beautiful.  It snowed lightly the entire time, only transitioning to drizzle perhaps 20 minutes before we took out.  That stretch of the Dearborn proved both predictable and surprising.  The prairie and mountain scenery was gorgeous.  The riverbed, cobbles representing the whole range of Bob Marshall geology, was enthralling.  And the floating threw out a few curveballs,  We had three barbed wire fence portages, two of which were rather hard to see from any distance.  I’ve never seen more intense beaver activity, and wood hazard, than we saw for a mile in the middle bit.  And that same flat middle section provided a lesson in surprise hazards on the river.

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Occasionally, rivers cut new channels.  You can see an excellent example above, from that stretch of the Dearborn.  The bands of riparian vegetation newly interrupted by the river is evidence of fairly recent turbulence, enough to cause the river to move right from the previous channel.  Anything like this is a reason to start paying extra attention, as new channels usually mean new wood and debris.  A new channel heading straight into mature forest, especially spruce, is almost always a reason to expect portages.

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When to expect these, especially on a backcountry float without recent reports, is an important skill.  A simple big flow is generally not enough to reshape river channels, especially on a mountain stream or river which both have big seasonal variations and large variations of peak flows, year to year.  The Dearborn usually gets a sustained pulse in May and June.  In 2018, big snows that lingered in the prairie made that variation bigger than usual, and a sudden warm up in mid June pushed a pulse out of the high mountains that was 10 times the usual peak, and set a record for that time of year.  The same pulse drastically reshaped the lower 10 miles of Danaher Creek.

My thesis is that a pulse exponentially greater than the mean high stage introduces enough turbulence, crammed into the same space, that disruption of old channels can almost be expected.  This seems to happen more often on stretches with less gradient, which presumably have less latitude for absorbing the chaos.  Taking a deep dive on fluvial geomorphology can provide a lot of entertainment here.

A Walk in the Woods

There was some trepidation associated with the start.   We had three long term ideas of mine intersecting; crossing the Bob on the tail end of winter, combining the South and Middle Forks in one trip, and doing (another) big skiraft.  We also had very large and heavy packs, our inability to get everything inside, and the evolving order of crap strapped outside as the days wore away, giving evidence of this as new mental terrain.

There was a lot of snow.  Given the sun of the past month we had assumed we’d be hiking on dirt well up Monture.  That happened, but we were also firmly in oversnow mode by the cabin 8 miles up, and that first evening camped on the last island of dirt, atop the cutbank above the creek, where a hair more southern exposure provided an island of spring in the face of the winter, which now loomed above to the west, east, and north.  The skiing, in my case, was excellent the second day, and Tom got his snowshoe revenge on the long 5 mile traverse through the trees, where my 186cm planks had me stuck multiple times climbing through the abundant deadfall.  That afternoon we were back in spring, as a twist in the trail gave us dirt, and the continued impacts of the titanic wind storms this winter made us endless mice in a matchstick puzzle.  We made the Hahn Creek cabin by 4pm, and gave ourselves a present of staying there, drying our stuff and having a leisurely dinner around the fire, and going to bed well before dark.

Things went wrong the next day.  Youngs Creek was fat, clear, and glassy, ideal conditions and a meditative float for the miles before the gorge got going.  Tom flipped in the first (and hardest) rapid, making the drop clean before being pasted on to the wall below and rolled upstream.  My difficulty in helping him after highlighted the scant eddies on this fast stretch.  We avoided that peril a few miles later when I spotted the log at the last minute.  Tom portaged, prudently, while I ducked under the far left before ferrying right around a toothy limestone block.  I didn’t quite get far enough, kissed the right edge with my left cheek, and instantly felt my boat collapse around me.  I barely made the willows with enough air to paddle.

The cut was big, 14 inches, with the final 2.5 through both the floor and the tube.  Most troubling, the cut was right up against the tube, with mere millimeters of flap to work with.  I instantly knew this was going to be an iffy repair, and not doable wedged into the willows while it snowed on us.  Tom made his way down to me as without much thought I yard sale’d all my gear in anticipation of no longer paddling.  Tom made the sensible suggestion that we load everything possible into his boat, which I would paddle down to a good camp on the South Fork, while he hiked with my awkward skis and a few other things.  That ended up not including his bear spray, which he wanted when a Griz carrying a moose carcass popped out of the brush at 25 yards.

In the end I could not repair my boat.  I don’t regret hitting the rock; I’ve done so in a functionally identical manner hundreds of times and just happened to get unlucky this time (exacerbated, perhaps, by weight inside the tubes).  I do regret not having a more extensive repair kit, and aim to cure the complacency years of doing things the same way and getting away with it has surely bred.  I’ve now cut the floor of a boat twice, and in neither occasion was patch n’ go or tyvek tape able to fix it.  I also don’t regret our quick and easy decision to bail out the Danaher and Blackfoot.  Without a bomber repair to my boat going deeper into the Bob was simply not worth considering, and Tom and I did well to not give temptation any space.

So we had a long walk out with heavy packs containing lots of stuff we weren’t going to use any more.  We did need skis and snowshoes again, shockingly close to the trailhead, and had an extra mile of snowy road walking to find the car.  By some standards the trip was a failure, due to bad luck and inadequate preparation.  By others it was a smashing success, due to good partnership and a nice place at a special time of year.  We saw no one, obviously, and left carrying the immense quiet that only comes from somewhere so before and beyond civilization.

The Youngs Creek log

Longtime readers and those who have read the guidebook know that I’m not big on packraft beta.   The judgment that comes running with first descent eyes is a prerequisite in the wilderness, and a major part of my decision to put the guide out at all was to drive education as packrafting gets (a bit?) more popular.  That said, I think about everyone 5 years ago expected packrafting to grow faster than it has, at least insofar as backcountry is concerned.  That time may have belatedly come, as Alpacka is currently running a 4 month waiting list.  What sort of boom might the Bob see this summer?

Last summer a friend of a friend took a swim in lower Youngs Creek.  lost his boat, and had a good scare.  A friend and I ran Youngs this past week, had our own adventure (more later), and got a good look at the log which prompted the Forest Service to leave to signs (propped on sticks) at different spots before the Youngs crux, warning of what is downstream.

I’ve always been ambivalent about Youngs.  On the one hand it is a fun and gorgeous stretch.  On the other, it is not a trivial section, with a few tricky moves and, especially at even moderate flows, a lot of push.  Calling the South Fork of the Flathead wilderness flatwater may be accurate relative to something like the Middle Fork of the Salmon, but there are enough exceptions that especially for novices the phrase misleads, drastically.  Youngs Creek could have a lot of carnage this year if runoff doesn’t move the log.   Enough that I am moved to be specific.

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There are actually two logs (red marks at left photo).  The first is a mature lodgepole spanning almost the whole river right below The Pool, a large and later in the summer gorgeously clear eddy at the end of a long riffle.  The danger here is twofold, as running right in the riffle will put you straight into the log, and while running left provides a good setup, you still might not see the log until you’re already parked far river left.  The second log is a broken up larger spruce, which also almost spans the whole river.  Portaging is possible, but brushy, on either side.

Either log could and very possibly will move in the next six weeks.  There is still a lot of snow in the mountains.  Perhaps more significant, the record wind storms we had in west-central Montana in January and February (multiple 80+ year old trees were blown over here in town) appear to have been widespread across the southern Bob complex, at least.  We experienced exceptional blowdown and deadfall everywhere we went this past week, and a good bit of that will necessarily end up in the rivers.

As always, pay attention and be proactive.

Trip meta-planning

There are a lot of backcountry trip planning resources out there, including plenty I’ve written myself.  It is something of a fashionable thing among those of us who know too much, and a good way for those who monetize content to avoid yet another version of that same article which features how to, the best, and at least 2 digits all in the title.

On the one hand this is good.  It is easy to forget how hard the obvious used to be; things like bringing enough but not too much food, or hiking uphill on a chilly, windy day without either sweating or getting cold.  Explaining the details of fundamentals, aka teaching, helps the teacher understand and not take dogma as rote.

On the other hand planning as logistics and gear selection is reductive, in most occasions.  You are not going on a trip to not be (too) cold, you are going on a trip to learn or facilitate or achieve some far more ephemeral thing.  Identifying that can go a long ways towards purity of purpose, which can make the trip itself more enjoyable.

To immediately argue with myself; moreso than with most things there is immense and irreducible virtues in the process of finding purpose in adventure out the long way.  I’ve long been adamant here that the big virtue of backcountry endeavors is the diminution of our personhood, in the ways it is subsumed in context.  For the 21st century soul this is often a deeply novel and disconcerting thing, something I mention to both normalize that anxiety as well as suggest that finding comfort in that vastness is as worthy an end as it is elusive.  Ambiguity is healthy here.

When I think about recent trips, this one stands out as one where I achieved great satisfaction from knowing my purpose well, and because I was able to adjust in the field to prioritize the parts of my original plan which lay closest to my goal.  The day of that trip I recall with least fondness, the second, was entirely on trail and given over to making miles, after the initial paddle that morning.  Going into the trip I knew that big miles was not a way to my primary goal, nor was it something I was well prepared for.  I don’t regret that day of walking, because it set me up so well for days 3 and 4, which were very much on purpose.  The whole experience has endured as a lesson in sacrificing ambition for focus, something which is ever more difficult to do when the stakes and specialness of a trip are high.

My canyon trip a few months ago is another, rather different example.  It did not have quite the same stakes in the planning of Isle Royale, simply due to travel distance, but I also knew that the Colorado Plateau is far enough away that this would be one of two, maybe three trips there this year.  I spent a lot of time in the lead up trying to maximize the route, to make it as rad and unique as possible.  In the end I let that ideal slide away, in favor of a route that was more known and logistically and conceptually simpler.  The primary goal of that trip was not, in the end, to push and expand my knowledge, skills, or experience, but to honor my 40th birthday in a way I knew I would never find wanting in retrospect (family divergence in birthday celebrations having been something M and I have struggled to consistently unite in our marriage).  On those grounds I succeeded, even if the route itself would not, for a variety of reasons, make my personal top 10 of Utah backpacks.

In the end, clarity of purpose not only makes backcountry trip planning simpler and the trips more satisfying, the practice itself is an invaluable act of self knowledge.

Essential skills: Shoe grommets

These are still my favorite shoes ever, but a whole lot of abrasive desert mud the past few months has revealed a serious design flaw; the webbing lace loop over the instep.  By a month ago, three of the four had cut through.  This is a big deal, as on these relatively floppy shoes that tension holding the heel down is vital for foot stabilization.  Something had to be done.

This isn’t an uncommon problem, as webbing lace loops are lighter, cheaper, and often more zippy looking than metal loops or grommets.  If the shoe in question is designed well, a worn lace loop is worth fixing definitively.  All the things you usually need, save a hammer for the grommet press, is pictured below: a 1/4″ grommet kit from Joanne’s, a sharp and pointy knife, and a lighter.

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The first task is to remove the lace loop entirely.  You’ll want to use and generally enlarge the hole where the loop is sewn into the shoe, and any webbing or bulk left within the shoe will make the grommet less secure.  This is standard bartack removal, but on a small scale.  Cut all the external stitching, slide the blade in between the layers of webbing, get things as loose as possible, then keep sliding the knife in to various spots until everything comes free.  Don’t get impatient and end up with a big ol’ hole in your shoe.

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Once that is done, enlarge and melt the edges of the grommet hole.  Best security will come from exactly enough room for the grommet, no more.  Rest the inside of the shoe and press on the corner of a sturdy workbench, and pound the heck out of the grommet.  All edges should be nice and flat.  I should mention that standard grommets like this won’t work on thicker materials like burly leather boots.  This technique is generally restricted to things in the light hiker or trail runner class.

Then relace and get walking.

A trail quiz

First, a quiz: which of the following trails have seen human work and construction, and which never have?

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Second; animal trails are very important for backcountry walkers.  They always form the most efficient route from one place to another, the trick is finding enough of the animal mind to know what and where those places are.  Just the other week an elk trail took me to a major spring I never knew existed, despite having walked within a quarter mile of it on close to ten separate occasions.  That seemingly year-round water source reshuffles how I think about that particular nexus of ridges and canyons.  Geology moves water, water realigns animal activity, and some mix of both creates how humans came to see, know, and travel through wild landscapes.  It is a lot simpler, while tired and hot and counting the hours to an iced coffee, to leave the moment while walking a human trail.  Grades tend to be more predictable, footing more secure, routing more homogenous.  All of these have often been on the landscape so long that the antecedent influence of the landscape disappears.

This distinction will be an important one in 2021.  Visitation and general interest in the wild world was climbing in the decade prior to the pandemic.  Having the state of the world throw the virtues of being outside in ones face has, anecdotally and as far as the data can suggest, wrought a large and potentially lasting increase in outdoor engagement.  It has also, it would seem, provided both the time and the impetus for contemplating this part of our national landscape.  

It is easy to forget what Thoreau meant when we wrote “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Wildness here means, in brief, all that which is beyond the scope of human direction and imagination.  The more technocratic nature writers have, over the past 30 years, forgotten (or, I suggest while trying to withhold snideness, never gotten to know) the pragmatic side of wild places.  That regardless of lines we as humans draw on maps or in our laws, animals, plants, the landscape as a whole will continue to do as it wants, and if left largely alone in a big enough space, stay wild.  What each of us may find appealing is as Cronon says a “cultural invention,” but so is everything.  The basic subjectivity our any particular human experience with the wild does nothing to break up either the existence of the wild outside us, or it’s fundamental unknowability.

And that is, of course, the point.

Last, the answers: the first photo is a human trail, with the path cleared through the trees and cut logs being rather obvious; the second and third images are of the same elk trail, about a mile apart; the final image is on an official trail, but this particular stretch has not I think ever seen a tool.  The final three images were all carved by significant yearly elk traffic.  The bottom photo is within a major N-S running valley that is a major migration corridor.  There is only one logical place to put a trail in the alpine section of the valley.  The trail depicted in the middle two photos is ~4 miles long, and save for one steep hill could easily be ridden in a mountain bike.  It travels between a major water source and a series of sheltered south facing hillsides which form a significant bit of winter range for a small herd.  On the first photo, if you go back 200 years I reckon there was an elk, deer, and sheep trail right about where the current human path is cut, and these days I guess that many times more elk than humans walk it each calendar year.

Essential Skills: Garment zipper replacement

Replacing a zipper, generally in a full zip jacket, is one of the most common and thus, most essential serious gear repairs you’ll do.  Serious in this case being roughly defined as requiring more than tape or glue to manage.  The zipper on my 4 year old Haglofs Pile hoody recently died, providing a good tutorial on how to effect this repair.

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The first step in any repair is preventative maintenance.  With jacket zippers, the first step here is to buy garments made from good materials.  #5 YKK zips are a good place to start (# refers to size, bigger meaning larger, and the number can generally be found on the back of the slider, bottom stop, or both).  #3 zippers are in full zip jackets a invitation to a short product life.  Zippers fail when the materials wear, so keeping the teeth clean and not yanking too much both go a decent way towards maximizing function.  When separation begins to occur (see above), often a worn slider is at fault.  The metal of the slider wears ever so slightly, enough that it doesn’t fully engage the teeth when pulled up.  Engage the zipper, and bend the two halves together with pliers (this page has good photos).

With my jacket, this did not get the job done.   Wear to the plastic teeth, combined with fraying on the bottom stop, prevented things from seating properly, making total replacement the only option.  As I outline below, this isn’t too difficult or time consuming, but it is also not the most basic repair.  Companies with good warranties and repair policies (e.g Patagonia) will replace zippers, often for free.  Companies with mediocre policies (e.g. OR) will usually send you a new jacket).  Companies with less good policies (e.g. Arc’teryx) will often give you the run around before replacing the garment.  For me repair is both better style and better for the environment.  Knowing I wanted to put a beefier zipper into this specific jacket (packed size and weight not being a concern), I ordered up a #8 YKK coil zip as a replacement, and got out the knife.

Haglofs did a good job making the zipper both well sewn in an fairly easy to remove.  The strip of grosgrain is the key here: remove the little bartack on either end, cut out a few inches of stitching on one end, and at this point the thread is thin enough you can just rip the rest of the stitch line in a good yank.  The zipper itself is sewn directly to the fleece with another line of stitching, similarly slowly cut out a few inches with a knife or seam ripper, then give it a rip.

The only tricky part of sewing the new zipper on is the tendency of fleece to stretch, especially if your machine doesn’t have a walking foot.  Pins aren’t a bad idea to prevent this, or use stitch lines in the garment as reference marks, sewing 3-5 inches at a time and making sure the fabric doesn’t stretch.  If you let the fleece stretch, the zipper will get longer than it should, and the fit will be weird.  Once you’ve stitched the zipper in on either side via a plain seam, and in this case reused the zipper flap, again via a plain seam, flip the garment back right side out (top photo) and top stitch through the folded seam to lock everything in place.

Simple, easy, and now you can fix your own stuff.  Once practiced this is a ~20 minute job.

The Maah Daah Hey

The US, and I imagine the world, needs more trails like this.  Strictly speaking the MDH has national park caliber scenery, as it passes through two units of a national park.  Theodore Roosevelt is an obscure national park, getting as many visits in a busy year as Glacier does in an average June, and probably wouldn’t have been designated at all had it not been so intimately associated with the most important conservationist in American history.  And that is the point.  The terrain of the Little Missouri badlands is subtle and immensely nuanced.  It is an easy place to overlook, and as the huge increase in gas pads and roads between this visit (in April 2019) and my first visit (October 2005) indicate, an easy place for the wild mind of the nation to forget, and by extension, neglect.  Long, immersive trails in other such locations would go a very long way towards fostering appreciation of and interaction with the many wild places that are still left, sandwiched between civilization.

That trip two years ago was a big deal.  It was an idea that had been rolling around in my head for over a decade, and is still unfinished.  It was the first big trip after a difficult winter acclimating to life as a parent of two kids, rather than one.  Due to fitness, I elected to walk rather than bike, and that slower pace, in theory less stylistic, made for a slower and more contemplative journey.  There isn’t much flat on the MDH, but even so the walking is easy and relaxing.  Floating the Little Mo is similarly simple right up to the edge of dullness, and thus all that trip I had hours to look and think, even more than usual on a solo backpack.

I’m looking forward to getting back, sometime.

Packraft forecasting

It is that time of year; orders for straps and the guidebook start increasing, as do emails about trip planning.  Those messages generally involve a ~7 day hiking and packrafting loop in the Bob, and almost always revolve around attempting to plan well in advance and hit a reliable flow window.  This is especially tricky for something like the South to North Loop, which for less experienced packrafters requires balancing enough water on the North Fork of the Sun with not too much on the South Fork of the Flathead.  

I provide guidance on flows in the guidebook, as well as guidance on when those flows are most likely to happen, but for a specific year doing specific research is invaluable.  The main Snotel page is the place to start.   I like to use the percentile compared to POR option in the interactive map, and especially the water year chart for individual Snotel sites.  These charts reveal both how water is accumulating relative to the historical average, and when over the span of variability total snow water equivalent (SWE) peaks and, thus, meltoff begins.  In short, big snowpacks can make for big and or late flows and or sustained streamflows, but how the spring months (starting now) play out is almost more relevant.  Temps cold enough to have April and even May storms fall (above 5-6k) as snow can make a below average winter into an exceptional spring and summer.  

The next step is the streamflow pages, specifically the monthly averages.  This gives you a good sense of the potential for variability, something that you can then go back and correlate with past snotel graphs, which is the best way to cultivate a depth of context.  The North Fork of the Sun, for instance, has a reliable period when it is floatable, and a reliable period when it is not, without a massive amount of variation.  What variation there is directly correlates with overall low snowpacks  (eg 2016).  The South Fork of the Flathead, by contrast, has a similar degree of predictability when the low limits of floating are concerned, but much more variation when higher flows are concerned.  My standard threshold for when the lower White River ceases to be good floating is 5000 cfs on that South Fork gauge, and when that boundary gets crossed (usually in July) is highly subject to conditions.  The trick here is that there is not a snotel site within the main South Fork headwaters.  You’ll need to look at places like Badger Pass and Noisy Basin and extrapolate, again based on specific comparable instances from the past.  

Flow planning such as this can make taking a trip in early July versus late July an easier choice to make, when the choice is being made right around now.  Closer to the date of a trip, say a month out, possible flows can be more reliably forecast, making it possible to (for example) route from something like the White over to the Danaher if flows will be lower, or to plan on portaging the lower Youngs Gorge if flows are higher than a group might like.  These two tools can also be used in other locations, though local idiosyncrasies* will always throw in curveballs.

*The only gauge on the Middle Fork of the Flathead is 50+ river miles downstream from relevant wilderness sections, with the highest altitude headwaters (Park, Coal, Nyack Creeks) coming in below the wilderness bits.  In July and August the wilderness Middle Fork is consistently lower than the gauge would suggest.

SWD Big Wild by the numbers

It is tough for me not to be effusive to the point of utterly lacking objectivity about this pack, which Superior Wilderness Designs sent me (for free) to evaluate.  Design and construction are polished, clean and professional without being showy, and represent the absolute best of the burgeoning made in the US cottage backpack industry.   And if that weren’t enough to stir my heart, this particular model is largish, burly, simple, and versatile.  It is where I’ve wanted ultralight packs to go for over a decade, and seeing what is likely the first fully realized incarnation of that, at least that I’ve seen in person, is exciting.  So I’ll be holding off on substantive impressions for a while.  What follows are the facts for this prototype.

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50.8 oz fully equipped; main fabric is X50

3.1 oz of straps

5.1 oz belt

43.75 inch top circ  (11 inch back, 12.75 inch front, 10 inch sides)

40 inch unrolled height

36 inch bottom circ (11 inch back, 9 inch front, 8 inch sides)

The numbers don’t tell the full story, as the shaping of the main bag is sophisticated and involved.  It is also worth highlighting how many, fully modular straps are contained in that 3 ounces.  An adaptable compression system that is durable, quick to use, and strippable without leaving a rats nest has long been an ideal.  Time will (shortly) tell how many of those boxes the Big Wild checks.

In summary. I haven’t been this excited about a backpack in a long time.