Adding a bit of “Wild” to Wilderness


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


 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.


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. 


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


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. 


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.


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.   


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.


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.




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. 




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.


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. 








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.   


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. 




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.



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.


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. 




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.


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. 



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. 


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


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.


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



A Bit Scared in the Pecos Wilderness

I spent spring break helping friends out but squeezed in a quick trip to the Pecos.


Before I drove up I was told it had been a very low snow year and I probably didn’t need snowshoes.  Then it snowed a bit right before I headed to New Mexico so I brought them along anyway.


There was no snow at the trailhead.  My plan was to hike up a trail above Jack’s Creek and try to make it to Pecos Baldy Lake.  Pecos Baldy it the closest alpine area to the TH and a popular spot in summer.  Part of the reason I brought snowshoes was my hope that I could sneak into the alpine areas a bit.


On the way I modified my boots a bit. I normally hike in trail runners with a “zero drop” which means no heal rise. However my boots have a raised heel which was bothering me.  I considered carving some rubber off the heal but instead I cut the insoles in half then slid the front back in.  So now the back of my foot was dropped down a bit. They weren’t exactly zero drop but they worked for the trip.


The first real obstacle was this creek.  In my quick drying trail runners I would have just waded across.  But my GoreTex boots would not dry fast so I didn’t want to get them wet.  I took off my shoes to wade barefooted.


Wading a pebbly stream barefoot in icy water was pure misery.  I wanted to go fast but when I did I’d hurt my feet on the rocks.  To add insult to injury I had to smash through ice on the far side and climb out across a snow bank.  Considering that snow soaked into my shoes later anyway I should have just got my boots wet.

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As the trail climbed higher I began to see more and more snow.  I’d sort of suspected this would be the case in spite of my friends.

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Soon I was wading through snow.

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The fun thing about snow is you get to see way more animal tracks. First I saw a coyote’s trail through the snow.  The tracks were clearly visible but even if they’d been melted the pattern of tracks through the snow would have give you a pretty good clue what it was.


I also found multiple trails of rabbits.


At this point I decided to put on my snowshoes.  I haven’t invested in nice or lightweight snowshoes because I don’t do enough winter trips to justify them.


The going was slow and the snow shoes were a clumsy way to go through thick forest and over deadfall.  The scenery was great though.



I’d planned to camp next to Jack’s Creek assuming there would be flowing water there which was important because I’d left my stove at home and couldn’t melt snow.  The problem was there was no water at all.

I thought if I moved to the open meadows to the east of Jack’s Creek there might be some snow melt.  If not I was hoping I could bail down the Jack’s Creek Trail back to my car.   Either way I would have to rush to minimize hiking in the dark.   Its when  a plan starts to unravel and you get anxious you are more likely to make mistakes.


My first mistake was losing the trail, I backtracked carefully, found the trail and kept going.  Then I lost it again and had to find it again.  After doing this a few times I questioned whether I was on the real trail or an imaginary trail.  I thought about going back but that might have been even harder so I kept going.


The open meadows to the East of Jack’s Creek were a welcome sight but the trail disappeared under the snow.  At this point going back was not a good option and going forward was a bad option too.  I was stuck and it was making me nervous. This is the kind of situation where people panic and exhaust themselves doing dumb things.  In the interest of not being an object lesson in someone’s survival lesson I decided I’d stop as soon as a I found a good campsite and tough the night out with or without a source of water.


I got a major break when I found this snowmelt creek coming off the meadow.  I’d assumed that the sun would melt some snow here and I’d been right (for once).  At least now the water situation was solved and I could find a campsite.


Since I was on a south facing slope and had dropped a bit in elevation I was able to find a bare spot for a camp.  It was cold so I had a quick snack and got in bed as fast as I could.


I woke up to an great sunrise and a navigation problem.


The meadows I was in wrap around the whole southern half of Round Mountain with individual ridges spitting off from that.  Jacks Creek Trail goes straight through all of this.  If I was short of the trail I needed to keep following the meadow more or less East.  If I’d passed the trail I needed to backtrack and going farther through the meadows would lead me deeper into the wilderness area not out of it.

A good compass bearing off one of the peaks would have solved the problem but I’d lost my compass just before the trip and was making do with a souvenir store type compass that basically just said which way was north.


Fortunately I did have a watch and I’d kept track of where I was at what time the day before.  Based on my known speed I worked out that it was very unlikely I’d passed the trail.  So I decided to keep following the edge of the meadow till I found the trail.


Along the way I spotted a large herd of Elk.


I found a line in the snow that looked a bit like a snow covered trail and followed it down towards the treeline.


Then I saw a trail sign sticking out of a rock pile, I’d found my trail.


The trail dropped straight down the mountain and I was quickly below the snowline and headed for the trailhead and a burger.

I learned a couple good things on that trip.

1.  Much as a I hate to admit it being semi lost and having a plan come apart kind of scary even if you’ve been on dozens and dozens of trips and have all the gear you need.  Keep your head!

2.  Bringing a snow melting stove is smart even if you think you’ll probably find flowing water.

3.  A good compass is worth bringing.  You don’t really need it on a trail but if that trail is sketchy it might save your bacon.

4.   In really soft powder snowshoes are only so much good.  I’d like to experiment with shorter snow shoes next time.  I’d lose some flotation but I wander if I’d make up for it by having snowshoes that are easier to maneuver through trees and around rocks.

5.  GoreTex boots are warmer then trail runners but snow works in even when you have gaiters on.  I think I’ll try trail runners and neoprene socks next time I have a trip like this.

In spite of the mistakes it was a fun trip that gave me a mountain fix.

I spent the last half of Spring Break helping friends build a challenge course element at Camp Glorieta.

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This “treehouse” was the main part of the project.  Since I’d worked at Camp Eagle (Glorieta’s partner camp in Texas) I was certified to use a chain saw unlike most of the volunteer’s who’d come up.

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I spent the days happily clearing brush and teaching a couple of staff kids how to start flint and steel fires to burn the debris.  It was a good reminder that as much fun as the wilderness is its more rewarding knowing you made a positive difference in someone’s life.  I spent a year at Camp Eagle down in Texas and did some cool trips while there that I’ve largely forgotten.  But I haven’t forgotten Andrew, Aiden or Anthony and all the other people I got to know down there.


Guadalupe Peak in Early March

I’d explored much of the Guadalupe Mountains but hadn’t done Guadalupe Peak.   Partly its not a great overnight trip and I suspect partly because I’m contrarian and like to be different.  Everyone goes to Guadalupe Peak so I’d gone other places.  But I had the urge to get out and didn’t want to spend my entire weekend hiking before another week of school.  So I headed up the peak. 

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DSCN1744 DSCN1751I got some cool views of the mountains to the north where I’d done my last two backpacking trips. 

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The summit had the famous Guadalupe wind gust going on so I didn’t stay up there long.   



After finishing the trail I drove back to Midland and got there late.  Not a particularly hard or “epic” trip but a fun break from school and living in town.

Guadalupe Mountains in March

I missed a weekend our two then in early march headed back to the Guadalupes.  This time I left school on Friday and drove into New Mexico for the night. The next morning I drove to the remote Dog Canyon Trail Head and started from there.

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The beginning of the hike was mountainous but different.  It didn’t have the rocky desert look of the south side and it didn’t have the forest of the Bowl.



The cabin was located just past the dried up “Cox Tank.”  In Texas a small manmade pond is often called a “tank.”  I’m guessing both the cabin and the tank were part of a pre-National Park ranch.   I heard later a bear lives in the old cabin sometimes.


I was using the Exped Lighting 60 again on this trip.  Its a bit big for my needs so I’d modified the compression system a bit to shrink it down better.  Once again I was very happy with it.

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Soon after the cabin the trail began climbing steeply up to the forested mountain tops.



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The change from desert to forest is very fast here.

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The trail followed Blue Ridge south to the top of Bush Mountain.

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From Bush Mountain the trail swung east toward Pine Mountain and the Tejas Trail. The sun was going down so I hiked fast.


I finished the hike in the dark and made a quick camp.  One reason I often eat cold food is for late nights where I just want to eat and go to bed. Not messing with a stove and dishes can be nice.

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I was up early the next morning because I had 10 miles to cover and a long drive home after that.


The trail led off the ridge into a small canyon full of hardwoods.  It was mostly downhill and soon I was back at the car.

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Guadalupe Mountains in Febuary

Between work and injuries I wasn’t able to get out at all during the fall or early winter. Finally in February I felt good and cleared a weekend to explore the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a place I’d never seen before.

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After getting a permit from the extremely helpful rangers I headed out for a night at Mescalero Campsite.

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The trail followed the bottom of Pine Spring Canyon a mile or so then began a steep climb up to the mountains. 

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I was very pleased with the performance of the Exped Lighting 60 pack I was carrying.  In the Guadalupes there are no reliable springs so I was carrying in 16-18 pounds of water plus camping gear. 

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The view across the canyon toward Guadalupe Peak was great.  My pictures don’t do it justice.

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After hiking over the rim of the canyon I had a great view into the Bowl.  I was surprised by the size of the forest.  I knew there would be trees but I didn’t realize how many. 

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I was tickled that I was having a mountain style backpacking experience in February, at time when my Rocky Mountain friends could only dream of snow free hiking.

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I took a side trip to climb Hunter Peak then headed down a less popular trail to link back up with Tejas Trail.

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Snow in Texas!  We’d had snow in Midland but it was at least a week prior to this.  So either there had been more snow up here or it had lingered a lot longer in the shade.

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I watched a nice sunset then dug out my headlamp for the last mile or so to camp.DSCN1383 (1024x768)

Dinner was beef jerky dipped in spicy buffalo sauce, I didn’t want to bother with a stove. 

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I vaguely remembered some chance of precipitation so I pitched the tarp I’d almost left at home.  Good thing I did.

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I woke up to this in the morning.  With the snow still falling I decided to hike out as fast as I could in case the roads were bad.  Plans for a side trip to Bush Mountain were scrapped.  I’d hike out on the Tejas Trail as fast as I could.

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In spite of the rush I enjoyed the hike out. Fortuanely I had enough clothes to be comfortable in the unexpected snow.

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Somehow I slipped on a switchback and slid down the mountain side.  Other then a scraped knee I was okay but I left a nice furrow down the canyon side. 

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Fortunately the roads were still clear and I was able to drive home safely in time to get ready to teach on Monday morning.


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