Packrafting in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area

An invite to join Dave and others for a trip to the Bob Marshall Wilderness was an excellent excuse to finally get up and see the “Bob.”  Our party ended up consisting of myself, Dave, M and Spencer.

Dave walking up toward Stadler Pass

Dave walking up toward Stadler Pass

Our first day began with a sweety hike to the headwaters of the South Fork of the Flathead.

Spencer under a big pack

Spencer under a big pack

Bear Grass was unusually good this year according to M.

Bear Grass was unusually good this year according to M.

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I’ve hiked alone more and more in recent years, its hard to find someone who has the inclination and the time to do the kinds of trips I like.  Getting to go with someone like Dave was a real pleasure.

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Stadler Pass

Stadler Pass

At Stadler Pass we took a lunch break.  Enjoying the mountains with other people who enjoy talking about packs and hiking shoes was fun.

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From the pass we dropped down to Danaher Creek.

Bob  (22)The river crossings were a learning experiences.  I nearly took a swim here.  It probably would not have been bad except I would have lost my camera.  After this I kept my waterproof camera bag handy.

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We camped on a gravel bar.

On a typical backpacking trip the main challenge is to make sufficient miles in a day with perhaps a map reading challenge to keep you from getting complacent.  This trip was different, we’d hiked, lost the trail, found the river, floated and portaged around log jams.

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After a good days work a fire roasted trout was heavenly.

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In the morning we quickly paddled down the remainder of Danaher Creek to the South Fork.

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Wood was less of an issue here but we did have to portage a few times. Unfortunately I didn’t get any good pictures of the rapids.  They were not particularly bad by Dave’s standards but more complicated and bigger then what I’d run so far.

Bob  (28)While we “garage saled” by the White River Dave hooked a few fish.

We at the White River confluence.

Dave above the White River.

Dave above the White River.  

We hiked a few miles up the White River looking for a campsite.  We’d thought about rafting it down it but it was a hot day and no one wanted to hike that trail twice.

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Our second campsite was not as comfy as the first but it had good scenery and we were tired.  I had left my sleeping pad at in the car by accident and I was making do with Dave’s sitting pad and two life jackets.   Bob  (46)

In the morning we hike up the river, forded it with Spencer’s packraft and began hiking up to White River Pass.

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Keeping up with Dave is a challenge, I’d forgotten to factor in that he’s competed in the Alaskan Mountain Wilderness Classic twice.

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We had a nice lunch on top of the pass.  Dave unloaded some extra food on me.  I turned the rest of his toco shells into Nutella sandwiches.   Bob  (79)

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On the West Fork of the Sun River we blew up our rafts on a rather crowded slope and got back on the river.

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The West Fork of the Sun seemed a bit more winding and technical then the South Fork of the Flathead.   It wasn’t bad but you needed to stay awake going around the corners. Bob  (111a)

We portage part of one rapid where the river blasted through a narrow rock channel.  When Dave and Spencer, both more experienced on whitewater opted to portage I followed their lead.

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Farther down the river slowed down a bit and was more relaxing.  The shots from my waterproof helmet cam don’t do the scenery justice.

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At a pack bridge we took out and hiked “4” miles to the trailhead, we all agreed it was likely a lot more.

Lessons Learned

This was my first overnight packrafting trip and it was a very good learning experience.  I learned a couple lessons that would help me later on.

1.  Us 1inch webbing with buckles to secure your pack to the raft.  It sounds like a small thing but it makes packing up so much easier.

2.  Multiple dry bags are better then one big bag.

3.  Organization is key.  You can waist a lot of time packing, unpacking and finding something if you are transitioning between hiking and rafting.

Gear Notes

I’d bitten the bullet and bought a Porter 4400 for this trip.  The extra space made it way easier to use then my Exped Lighting 60 and the water resistant fabric was a plus.  I liked Dave’s system of strapping his PDF under the talon pocket of his pack.  I improvised a similar system for later hikes.

Trying to Backpack in the Gros Ventre Wilderness

I made the mistake of heading west without snowshoes or an ice ax, a decision that would come back to bite me a few times.

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My plan was to hike over a pass from the south side of the wilderness, camp near treeline and explore the alpine areas.

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The steep mountains and narrow canyons reminded me a bit of the Wimenuche Wilderness Area in Colorado.

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I knew there would be some snow but I thought I could posthole through it.

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As I got higher the snow got a lot deeper and keeping up with the trail became a problem.

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Eventually I stopped.  Much as I hated to turn around I didn’t see the point in going farther.  I wasn’t going to make it over the pass before dark at the rate I was going even if it was safe.

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In the past I’ve pushed trips past the point of fun and safety to meet a goal.  This time I decided to be smart for a change and turn around.

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I headed back down the way I came.  Not seeing any attractive campsites I hiked all the way back to my car and got a burger. Since hiking without snowshoes didn’t seem practical I went back to packrafting .

Grizzly Bears, Wolves and a Snowstorm in June

After some packrafting I headed back north into Yellowstone Park.

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Even in June there was a surprising amount of snow left.  One particular area between the South Entrance and Lewis Lake seemed have more snow.  Local weather pattern coming off the Teton Mountains I guess.

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I spent a couple evenings and mornings in the Hayden Valley.  With a spotting scope I was able to see wolves and a family of three grizzlies from the side of the road.  These three bears came out fairly regularly.  Whenever I got tired of staring through my spotting scope I’d find a family with kids or some foreign tourist who’d never seen a bear before and let them use it.  The fact that my scope and tripod together cost only $150 made sharing it a lot less nerve wracking (some people had much, much more invested in their scopes.

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After bit of snow I woke up to this at the campground.  I still went out to see if I could spot some wolves or bears.

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At the overlook I was able to spot the bears briefly.  A van on a guided tour moved down the road for a better look.  I followed them hoping to get closer to the bears (as in 3/4 of a mile rather then a mile away, we were not being dumb).

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Then the weather turned bad again and we lost the bears, actually we couldn’t even see the mountains across the river.  9 (17)

I was moving to a new campground so I ended up driving over Dunraven Pass in a bit of snow.  It was very pretty. 9 (32)

I tried Lamar Valley for a couple days hoping to see more wolves.  This horrible shot barely shows a bison carcass and a lone wolf.  This lone female fed on the carcass till a couple other buffalo ran her off.  Then she came back a couple times trying to sneak in.

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I was a bit late coming out the next morning and missed out.  The wolves dug up a coyote den and started eating the pups.  The two coyote parents couldn’t fight the wolves but they harassed them and were able to save one pup.  Most of the action was over when I got there.  We hung around for a while and saw a bear far off.

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I moved over to a spot called the “S curve” later and saw a wolf lying at a rendezvous spot. I returned to this place over the next couple days.  Once I saw a “babysitter” wolf watching a couple pups play.

9 (39)I tried the Lamar Valley again hoping to see wolves closer up but was out of luck.  The sunset was nice though.

Bears and Risky Behavior

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This September a Utah researcher was killed by an unknown bear in Wyoming.  All the reports say about the location is that it was along Cub Creek. I’ve hiked most of Cub Creek multiple times and on other hikes have been in the mountains surrounding it.  Whichever bear was involved its highly likely that I passed through that bear’s territory more then once.

Now you can make something like this much more dramatic then it really is, “I hiked through the territory of a killer bear” sounds exciting but its over simplifying things.  I don’t think it was an unusually dangerous bear that caused the tragedy. I think it was a dangerous situation with a bear that caused it.

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Unfortunately its quite easy to have a dangerous situation with a bear along Cub Creek.  The valley is narrow, noisy, and forested.  Its the kind of place where you could easily surprise a bear, and there are lots of bears along Cub Creek.

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What freaked me out was that Cub Creek is precisely the place where I took the most risks in grizzly country.  I didn’t just hike there, I hiked there alone and in the dark, more then once.  I also camped above it and had a hard time getting my food hung properly.  The only tree I could find was so spindly a bear probably could have pushed it over if he’d thought to try.

Assessing risk is tricky.  Statistically hiking in grizzly country is a lot safer then a lot of other things we do.  But statistics can only show the big picture. The average hiker in grizzly country is quite safe. But the average hiker does not hike after dark along a noisy creek, the average hiker is not solo, and the average hiker is not on Cub Creek where the trail is barely used and the bears probably do not expect to see people (unlike say popular trails in Yellowstone).

I plan to return to Wyoming next year and will be hiking solo again.  But I’ll probably change a few things.

1.  I will plan my hikes more carefully so I don’t end up hiking in the dark.

2.  I will probably carry an Ursack on all my hikes.  I prefer hanging the food but I’ll have the Ursack just in case the hang isn’t perfect.

3.   I’ll continue to carry bear spray and in places like Cub Creek I’ll probably keep it in my hand rather then on my belt.  I like to use trekking poles but I’ll have to do without in such places.  Realistically there is no way you could deploy bear spray from a belt pouch if a bear charged along Cub Creek

4.  Since Cub Creek seems especially thick with bears I’ll plan hikes so I’m not hiking along it in the evenings or early mornings.

And finally I’ll be grateful for the life I have and the loved ones I still have around me.  Life can end all sorts of ways and should be appreciated.

Pacific Creek Packrafting

The 4 or 5 miles of Pacific Creek from Gravel Creek to the Pacific Creek Trailhead/Campground is a good beginners run if you’re learning how to packraft.  With enough water you can start farther up but be aware there is a water fall somewhere upstream.

I ran the bottom section 4 times in the early summer.  It was a great practice run and many of the other rivers were too high for my comfort level at that point.

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The hike in is a nice walk along horse trails (nice at least when you aren’t wading through mud).  Its a good chance to work out how to carry all your rafting gear.

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An unnamed creek provides an exciting crossing early in the summer.  On my first attempt it almost took me off my feet.  It was actually a lot harder to cross then the wider and shallower Gravel Creek.

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The actual whitewater is not particularly hard but there are trees in the river.  I would worry more about a sweeper.  In places the river is fairly narrow.   If a larger tree were to fall in the river it could block a significant portion of the channel and be a bit scary.

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The fact that rivers can turn dangerous much more quickly keeps me on a higher state of alertness then I do hiking a trail.  I enjoy it but its definitely different.

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Like the Snake River this section of Pacific Creek now seems rather tame compared to other things I’ve floated.  But at the time it was on the edge of my comfort zone.  It was a good learning experience and an important step up.

Adding a bit of “Wild” to Wilderness

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Wilderness is one of those slippery words with multiple meanings. A “Wilderness” as defined by Congress has a legal definition. Of course the typical outdoor enthusiast often uses “wilderness” as a general term for any wild lands off the road whether Congress calls it a wilderness or not.

What is a “Wilderness” and what is a Wilderness Experience” is a philosophical question I won’t even try to answer here but a look at the discussion among outdoor enthusiasts reveals some common themes.

Danger

Clearly an element of danger and uncertainly adds spice to a wilderness experience.  Notice how many people say the presence of wolves and grizzlies enhances the wilderness experience in the Northern Rockies.  Regardless of the perceived risk versus actual risk everyone I know takes precautions in grizzly country they would not take elsewhere.  Similar things could be said of traveling through Alaska or going off trail in the Sierras.

Difficulty 

There are other factors that seem to add “wildness” rugged terrain,glaciers, bad weather all get mentioned from time to time.  All these factors add up to make a place more difficult to travel through and thus more rewarding for those who do so.  Consider the pride hikers feel after completing say the SHR (a difficult alternative to the John Muir Trail) or again think about Alaska, the tussocks and the mosquitoes.

Adding “Wildness” to a “Wilderness Experience”

I’ve never heard anyone say it but I believe many outdoor enthusiast consciously or unconsciously try to make their trips wilder by some self imposed limitation.  Can you speed hike the JMT?  Can you survive in the Rockies with less then 5 pounds of gear?  Now can you survive in the Rockies in winter with less then five pounds of gear (yes it was tried at least once).

Speed hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Speed hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

When I couldn’t go west for a real wilderness trip my solution was to make hiking in Virginia harder, I’d hike with less gear, or I try to hike farther then I’d ever gone before.

Packrafting

All this brings me to packrafting.  In my opinion packrafting is one of the best ways to add “wildness” to a wilderness experience.  First off you can make a strong argument that you’re more likely to be hurt by a river then a grizzly bear. If you want a bit of adrenaline packrafting provides it.

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Floating the South Fork of the Flathead

If you want unpredictability then rivers have the potential to be more unpredictable then just about any trail I can think of.

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Floating Pacific Creek

If you want a challenging trip carrying an extra 10 pounds of rafting gear and hiking to where the rivers are (not necessarily where the trails are) provides a whole different kind of challenge.

The upshot is I found packrafting to “wilder” then any hiking trip I’ve done recently. If you’ve mastered backpacking and want a new challenge rafting might just be the way to enhance the adventure.

A Quick Trip into Yellowstone

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I love driving through both Grand Teton and Yellowstone Parks.  As a hiker I would love it if all the park roads were bulldozed out but on the other hand they are a great way for people who just can’t hike (to old, disabled etc) to enjoy this great place.  The buffalo sure don’t seem to mind the road.

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I met my new pal Chris at the Canyon Lodge and we drove up to Dunraven Pass to climb Mt. Washburn, a hike I hadn’t done.  Its not a hard hike but I thought it would be a good way to get a good look at the park with lots of snow still on the mountains.

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First Packrafting Trip on the Snake River

I got into packrafting because I had loved canoeing but I was also very hesitant about it at first. Aside from a guided church trip my last river experience had been a near death experience on a poorly conceived “creeking” trip using kayaks designed for flatwater and lifejackets that didn’t keep your head above water.  So I was in no mood to do anything crazy.  On the other hand I really wanted to learn to packraft which in Wyoming and Montana means you need to be confident running some whitewater.  It was going to be a summer of stretching myself.

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The rangers said the Snake River was hairy but the Oxybow to Pacific Creek section just below the lake would give me a place to practice on safe water.  I put in near an overlook an a couple Asian tourist were looking at me like I was doing something odd.

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One gentleman was taking my picture so I asked him to grab my camera and snap one of me while he was at it. 

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 At this point I was practicing rafting basics like ferrying across the river and paddling efficiently.  Packrafts aren’t great on flat water but I made it worse with inefficient paddling.  Slowly I learned to get the most propulsion out of the least effort.

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I stopped on a muddy bank partway to “temper” my raft.  When you put a raft in cool water the air inside cools too and cool air is less dense, so your raft appears to be leaking. 

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While I had a snack I noticed these wolf tracks on the bank. 

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At the Pacific Creek takeout I met some folks who’d paddled the next 5 miles or so to Deadman’s Bar (a gravel bar not a drinking bar).  They said it was easy so I kept going.  The couple who’d just kayaked the Pacific Creek to Deaman’s section were going south later and they offered to swing by and give me a ride if I was still at the landing later. 

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I didn’t get any pictures of the remainder of the trip because I was too dang busy and scared (the picture above actually came from the same place but a few days later).  The river ‘braids” a lot below Pacific Creek and there was a lot of wood in and along the river.  Getting pinned underwater on a log is a great way to drown.  Normally on such a big river I could have easily avoided such hazards but the current was very strong.  Some place there was a lot of wood and the channel was considerably narrower then any of the photos show.  That was the scary part. 

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This last picture actually isn’t mine but it does a nice job showing what the river looks like at Deadman’s.   Only when I saw it there were whitecaps all across the river, the waves were a lot higher and there an another tree in the river to complicate things.  In other words it was a lot more scary looking. 

Just before I committed to a route I wasn’t sure I could make I saw what looked like my new friends by the bank.  “Is this Deadman’s” I yelled.  “Yes”

Ops if this was Deadman’s I needed to get out.  All I knew about the river below Deadman’s was that it was supposed to be a lot more difficult and somewhere down there was the kind of big water that could flip a big commercial raft.

I paddle REALLY hard for the shore with a burst of adrenaline, crossed about half the river and swung into a small eddie just before the point of no return. 

As it turned out the couple who told me it was Deadman’s were not the couple who were picking me up.  They actually arrived a bit later.  Also I learned the section below Deadman’s didn’t have big whitewater it was just harder to navigate there because the river split into channels. If I’d done my homework better I wouldn’t have been so worried.  I probably could have run the rapid but at that point I didn’t know much about “reading” the water and I might have goofed it up.

At any rate it had been a fun adventure, I finished the day with a burger and headed back to my campsite.

Early Summer in the Grand Tetons

After stopping in New Mexico and Colorado I drove up to Wyoming.

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The Wind River and Gros Ventre Mountains still had a lot of snow on them and the rivers were swollen.  A lot of the immediate hiking and packrafting plans went out the window at this point.

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I was hoping to packraft a bit on Jenny Lake but it was windy and I was tired.  I ended up just shopping for supplies in Jackson and getting a boat permit for the park.  I scored a good campsite by Jackson Lake and had dinner watching the sun set.

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Early Summer in the Pecos

I headed back into the Pecos Wilderness on my way to Farmington, NM for a WFR Course.

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Things looked a  very different with most of the snow gone.  My loose plan was to hike up along the Pecos River and loop back along the Skyline Trail which basically follows the horse shoe shaped ridgeline.   

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I was trying out an HMG Porter 3400 with a homemade back pocket on this trip.  It worked well although I later had to upgrade to the Porter 4400 to carry my packraft.

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On this trip I used the Sawyer Mini water filter.  It worked well when there was plenty of water like on this trip.  On drier trips I found Aqua Mira easier to use when I was treating lots of water at once.

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I was hiking along when I saw movement and noticed a cinnamon black bear grazing.  He didn’t take much notice of me while I took pictures of him.  Not sure how a bear like that survives hunting season. 

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With the sun going down I found a spot just beyond the “No Camping” zone along the Pecos River.  I’d recently traded a pack that didn’t fit for this “Bear Den” by Bear Paw.  The extra room was very nice and it was only 15 oz with no bug net.

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In the morning I decided to head up Trail 25 along the Rito del Padre instead of Trail 24 which is a more popular route up the Pecos toward Pecos Falls and the divide. 

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As I got higher I began to encounter snow in the shade.  It might have been a low snow year but it early June you should still expect lots of snow in the rockies.   

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At some point in here I lost the real trail and wondered up a game path.  I realized my mistake pretty fast but decided to just bushwack up the creek to the divide.  An off trail adventure seemed more appealing then backtracking. 

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Eventually I could see the end of the forest.  At this point I basically went straight up hoping to end the climb as fast as possible.  This is the kind of situation were shoes with aggressive tread are very nice.  Much as I like Altra Lone Peaks they aren’t the best for this kind of hike.

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Once I reached the top it was easy to find the trail.  It was good to be on a high mountain again.  I hadn’t set foot on tundra since the previous August.

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This was familiar territory but the last time I’d been here was on a September trip.  The aspens had been great then but there was no snow.  It was cool to see the same places at a different time of year.

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There was enough snow along the trail to slow me down (along with slippery mud).  I wasn’t moving fast enough to complete the whole loop but I didn’t care, I was having a great time just being up in the mountains again. 

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As I was hiking along I saw a herd of bighorn sheep.  Thinking they’d run away soon I took a bunch of pictures then I got closer and they were still there, so I took more pictures, then I got closer, and closer.  They never did run away and let me get close enough to get some very nice (for my camera) photos.

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Eventually I saw a trail sign for Trail 25.  This was were I would have gone if I’d stayed on the trail. Good thing I bushwacked because I would have missed the bighorns and some great scenery. 

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At this point it was getting late and I doubted I could complete the whole loop, at least not in time to get to my WFR Course.  I could see a lot of snow ahead and I’d already been slowed down. 

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It was an easy decision to follow Trail 25 back down to the Pecos and out. 

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I’d thought about trying my packraft on the Pecos River later on but this gorge and the sweepers and strainer trees spanning the entire river made that look like a really bad idea.

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I saw this herd of Elk in almost the exact spot I’d seen Elk on an earlier trip. 

 

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