The Near Perfect Packrafting Trip

Morgan and I had done an amazing trip through the Bob Marshall Wildenress but I wanted to go back.  Due to our lousy map we’d skipped some interesting looking off trail routes along the Chinese Wall.  I wanted to go back and check those out.

 

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Once again I left my car at the Spotted Bear Ranger station and hitched a ride with a fisherman up to the trailhead (finding a ride was not as easy this time, I’d probably try something different if I did it again).

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This time the sky was clear so I was able to see mountains that had been hidden by fog the last time.

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I had planned on following a ridgeline off trail but at this point I only had a liter of water left and its was in the 80s if not the low 90s.  Hiking off trail for 6-8 dry miles did not appeal to me at that point so I followed the trail towards the river.

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I tanked up on water and headed back up the ridge to a dry camp part way up Ibex Mountain.

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I started hiking early to beat the heat, at this point I was low on water again and the snow banks that Morgan and I had used just a bit more then a week ago were completely gone.

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Just over the unnamed pass I found a melting snow bank and filled my two bottles again.

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There was noticeably less snow on this trip.  There was supposed to be a trail somewhere around here but I didn’t really try to find it.  There is a great feeling of freedom walking through a place independent of any trail.

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Seeing a place again is interesting.  It is easier going back and sometimes you go back smarter but nothing quit matches exploring a new place for the first time.

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In hindsight I should have stopped for water at this lake since everything after it was dried up for a long ways.  I wonder f I might have been more aware of details like that if I hadn’t felt some comfortable since this was now familiar ground to me.

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Last time Morgan and I had gone straight down into the valley looking for the White River.  This time with a better map I was going to stay a bit higher up and follow a ridgeline above the Wall Creek cliffs.  From there I was hoping to cross to the Chinese Wall and follow it down to the White River.

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After a short scramble up a scree slope I found myself on a lovely alpine meadow with the Wall creek cliffson one side and a great view of the White River valley on

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The views along the ridge were amazing.  I took my time knowing this would likely be the part of the trip I returned to over and over again in my mind.

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It was also a good time to be grateful for what I hadn’t done in the past.  Earlier I’d sort of tried to talk Morgan into following the ridgeline that was now in front of me.   Looking at it now I was pretty sure we would have “cliffed” out sooner or later.

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As the ridge ended I headed down into the forest where the headwaters of the White River were.  I was desperately hoping to find some water since I was running dry again.

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The bushwack was steep but not too hard.

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Soon I was on a trail again, easier but not as inspiring as finding my own way.

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At the creek I risked some unpurified water and assessed the situation.  In my semi-dehydrated state I didn’t want to hike the 8-10 miles of dry ridgeline with only 2 liters of water.  The Chinese Wall would have to wait.

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On a now familiar trail I saw the White River again and didn’t like what I saw, it looked lower then the previous trip.  I was starting to question whether rafting it would be worth the effort.

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At a trail junction I decided to explore Pagoda Pass and skip the White River.

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Not finding any flat openings in the forest I sped up towards tree line hoping for better luck there.

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I found this big fella’s tracks right outside my campsite.  The dry mud indicated they were at least a day or two old

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Dinner was a no cook meal of spicy crackers and summer sausage.  Leaving the stove behind saved pack space.

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The nice thing about the northern Rockies is you can hike a very long day and still have time to set up camp and enjoy the sunset.

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In the morning I got an early start to beat the heat and had a nice view of the South Fork valley.

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This snow was at a very low elevation and I puzzled over it a moment until I noticed the debris.  I’m pretty sure it was an avalanche.  That would explain the busted up wood.  Probably the snow piled up deep enough that it lingered this late.

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The South Fork was a bit lower looking at the bridge but its so big its hard to say one way or the other.

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I quickly realized that the river was much less pushy this time.  Smaller rapids had practically vanished and bigger ones were noticeably smaller.

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One wave train that had scared me before was so much smaller I didn’t even realized I’d passed it until I saw other landmarks later.

The miles flew by and sooner then I expected I was at the Meadow Creek take out.

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I hiked around Meadow Creek where I met a retired wildlife biologist out surveying the area for future backpacking trips.  The conversation was so much fun I was happy to accept a ride down to Spotted Bear rather then raft the last few miles.  A quick drive into town and I was enjoying another post hike burger.

If my trip with Morgan was about unplanned adventures this trip was about a plan coming together almost perfectly.  Yes I missed the Chinese Wall but that was a minor adaptation to conditions on the ground, everything else went according to plan.  Very different experiences but both good in their own way.  It was a fine way to end an awesome summer.

Trying to Packraft in Wyoming

After my trip with Morgan in the Bob Marshall I was feeling somewhat invisible so I decided to try packrafting in the “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”   I won’t say exactly where I went just that rafting there was perfectly legal (its not in the actual Park).

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I have come to love off trail hiking above treeline.  So my plan was to follow a ridge above treeline for two days then packraft up to the border of Yellowstone and take out there.  Boating in Yellowstone Park is illegal in most places which is a bummer.  From there I’d hike back on trails to my starting point.

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The scenery was great hiking out.  I’d done some of this route but the last half was new to me.  The crux would be box canyon I’d have to navigate down in order to reach the river.

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Since the planned route was rather challenging I tried to move fast to make as much time as I could while the weather above timberline was good.  However you can only go so fast when you are slogging up a step slope on loose soil.

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There was an unusual amount of snow above treeline.  It didn’t look too bad but close up it was a major hindrance.  Steep snow and cliffs of crumbling rock often forced be to walk back and forth looking for a safe path through a gully.

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Once I made it up onto the ridge line things got a lot easier as far as hiking went.  Navigating was a breeze and the hiking was pretty easy as well.

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I remember last year this snowfield had melted into a lake.  With the sun beginning to set I hurried to get off the ridge to a pass where I could find a bear bagging tree and get lower in case of a midnight thunder storm.

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Getting down required a bit of a detour around a very steep snowfield.  Again it wasn’t there in 2013.

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My campsite was scenic but for some reason I didn’t sleep well.  I think it was a combination of a noisy creek and a lumpy sleeping spot that my short sleeping pad didn’t even out.

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I was up early ready for a big day of hiking.  My plan was to cover between 15-20 off trail miles and get to the headwaters of the river I wanted to float.  Tomorrow would be a short hike and then a long float.

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The scree fields and snow turned out to be a lot more work then I’d expected.  They weren’t bad, its just that you can’t hike 2 miles an hour balancing on loose rocks or sinking up too your things in soft snow.

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After lunch up high I dropped down to a small pass.  I did some thinking at that point.  I clearly wasn’t making ideal progress.  I concluded I could still finish.  I might be a bit hungry or hike a bit late the last day but I could do it and still be enjoying myself.

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Pushing into new territory I headed back into the high country and spooked a herd of Elk bulls.

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Getting up on the ridge where I wanted to be took about twice as long I’d calculated it would.  By now I was operating in thru-hiker mode and setting goals for where I wanted to be by a certain time.  If this was going to work I needed to be more efficient.

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After a bit more hiking I pulled out the map and took an honest look at where I was, where I should have been, and where I could reasonably expect to be by evening.  I concluded that

1.  I was not hiking as fast as expected and this was unlikely to change.

2.  The way forward promised to be both steeper and higher elevation.  So if anything I was going to be slowing down.

I was now looking at an extra day needed to reach the river.  By paddling hard and hiking really fast on the trail back there was a chance I could still make it on time.

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Then I noticed another fact.  The south side of the pass I was aiming for had plenty of snow.  Chance where the more shaded (and steeper) north side would have more snow. There was really only one way down the north side that I was aware of, everything around it was a cliff. There was a very real chance that there would not be a safe way down to the headwaters (at least not without an extra day).

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In the end I just decided that trying to force the trip to work on the time table I had just wasn’t going to be much fun. I wanted too enjoy this area, not rush through it and possibly spend a day or two hiking on an empty stomach.  So I decided to bail out while I was enjoying the trip rather then wait for it to fall apart.  I could always come back later.

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I dropped into a valley and followed an established trail on the way out.

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I crashed for the night in a small camping spot then finished the hike the next morning.

Normally I hate to quit a trip because I feel like I’m missing an opportunity.  This time thought I had plenty of time for other things.  I just felt like there was no point in finishing a poorly planned trip when I could just as easily quit and do something better.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness without a good map

A partner can make or break a trip.  Fortunately Morgan made a fantastic partner on my second trip into the “Bob”

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I met Morgan at the APA Packraft Roundup but didn’t do any trips with him then and didn’t get too know him real well.  After the roundup he wanted to do a trip before flying back to California.  I was sort of tired out but I thought a trip with a friend was worth heading into the backcountry a bit earlier then I’d planned.

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I managed to loose our map crossing the Spotted Bear River,  Morgan had a rough FS map that was barely good enough to continued on with.  However navigating with it once the trail petered out would be a challenge

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We spent the first day hiking through rain in a dense forest and considered ourselves lucky to find a campsite with enough daylight left to build a fire.

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The next day was all hiking through the mountains first on a rough trail and later bushwacking using a compass and dead reckoning to find the headwaters of the White River.

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This is about the point where the trail heads down into the valley.  We didn’t notice that (due to our undetailed map) and kept right on going.  The trail wasn’t very helpful anyway because it was so faint.  When we realized our mistake we agreed to keep going and hope we could make it over the notch in the mountains.

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Bear tracks were a reminder to be alert.  Bears don’t scare me much now but they do keep me more “awake” when I’m hiking, personally its a feeling a like.

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Once at the top of the notch it was very nice to see that we were not at the top of an impossible cliff.  With some very careful map and compass work we figured out reasonably well where we were give or take a mile.  The important part was that we were almost sure the valley ahead held the White River which as our route out of there.

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Even though I was reasonably certain where we were it was still a funny feeling not being 100% sure of our location.  I didn’t mind it so much but I would have felt horrible if Morgan had missed his flight due to my losing the map.

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Down in the forest the hiking got a lot harder.

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The map showed a “Lone Butte Mountain” Morgan guessed (correctly we learned later) that the butte like mountain ahead was it.  It made a hand landmark as we headed down.

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We navigated a couple of beaver ponds and began looking for signs of a trail.

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We found wolf tracks on what appeared to be the trail. I actually think it was an outfitter’s unofficial trail but it led to a bigger trail that led to the White River.

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White River Falls was a cool sight.  It has a natural rock bridge across it.

3 (28a) After miles of dusty hiking it was nice to finally get out the boats on the White River.  Dave Chenault had told us it was a “roller coaster” but well within our abilities.  This was accurate.  The river was fast most of the way.  AT higher flows I think it would be harder.

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Towards the bottom the White River braids into multiple channels before joining the South Fork of the Flathead.

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We camped a bit early so we could use the sun to dry out.  I repaired a torn spray skirt.  We were too lazy to build a fire.

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The paddling on the fourth day was amazing.  The miles seemed to fly past.

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We hiked around Meadow Creek Gorge.  I don’t know the rating of the rapids there but apparently they are nasty.

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It was nice to get back on the river after the hot dusty trail.  In this part of the Bob the trails are not particularly scenic the river is not only easer but it offers better vies of the mountains.

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Our car was waiting at the Spotted Bear Ranger Station.  I drove as quickly as I dared back to town and we splurged on cheeseburgers. I published a more detailed account of our navigational adventures on Backpackinglight.com

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.

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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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