Going SUL on the NCT

I love a challenge.  Even if that challenge is completely and totally contrived and pretty much no one else cares about the results of said challenge.  I also enjoy walking through the woods, sleeping outdoors, and subsisting using only a handful of necessary things.  As such the notion of the superultralight backpacking trip is right up my alley.  Take some lightweight gear, put it on a scale, and if it weighs in around five pounds or less then you’re doing it right.

We’ve had a family trip to visit my wife’s homeland in Northern Michigan on the calendar for a few months and at some point in time it occurred to me that I could easily throw one of my frameless rucks, a lightweight quilt, tarp, and basic sundries for a SUL backpacking kit in along with my carry-on with little to no difficulty.  So I mentioned to my wife that I thought a quick sub-24 hour trip on the North Country Trail nearby would be appreciated and she said, ‘why not’.  It is vacation after all.

MYOG pack and NCT sign

I spent some time looking over the NCT map to find a nice section.  Not too short so it wouldn’t be worthwhile, but not too long so that it would require more than one night.  I had day hiked some of the NCT while visiting the area on previous trips but wanted to see something completely different so I picked a spot, determined a drop off and pickup location and started spec’ing a gear list.

I get a big thrill out of putting all my gear on a scale, weighing it, and then trying to make it lighter.  Say what you will about trying to carry five pounds of gear or less, or three pounds of gear or less, or whatever threshold you might have, but I cherish the challenge.  And when planning a backpacking trip in the balmy Midwestern United States where roads and cell phone reception are prevalent you’d damn well better know I’m going to see about getting away with about as little stuff as I possibly can.

And so my spreadsheet with all the things I was going to bring added up to a smidge over three pounds and the clothing on my person about the same.  I mailed a mini BIC lighter, some matches, and a few cubes of Esbit stove fuel ahead to my mother-in-law’s house to avoid taking them on the plane (our family travels carry-on only ’cause we’re always packin’ light).

NCT blaze

We arrived in Northern Michigan to warm temperatures and on-and-off threats of rain but the night I was looking to camp remained clear in the forecast.  Th morning of my hike we spent a lovely few hours at the beach relaxing, swimming, and watching the kids play.  This was the same beach my wife and I were married at four years previous so it was a pretty joyous day.  That afternoon on the drive home we detoured a 1/2 hour out of the way onto a little, sandy two-track in the thick Michigan woods.  The North Country Trail Association in Michigan keeps a very tidy trail and sure enough down the road appeared a blue blaze and a parking spot in which, surprisingly, was another vehicle.

NCT signage

I did a quick parking lot shuffle changing out of my swimsuit and into hiking clothes, gave my wife and daughter a kiss, grabbed my pack and was very pleased to see a well-signed trailhead denoting distances both forward of my position as well as aft including the spot I was aiming to camp at about 7.5 miles up the trail.

I haven’t been on a backpacking trip at all this summer so when I hit the trail I was feeling like a million dollars.  It was around five o’clock in the evening and I although I had three or more hours of daylight I still knew it would be best to do some quick hiking.  Besides I love a very fast-paced hike over mildly hilly terrain and along well-groomed paths through knee-high ferns.  Due to travel restrictions I had left my trekking poles back in Montana but as I’d hoped, my mother-in-law, like any good Michigander had a stack of XC ski poles in the garage.  I found a set of old fiberglas Jarvinen poles that were quite light and airy and they ended up suiting me very well for the 16 or so miles I put down over the two days.

Those glorious Northwoods

Stretching my legs and settling into a nearly four mile per hour pace I immediately began to make good time.  My eyes, ears, and nose were operating just as quickly as I took in the sight of thick hardwood forest, low lying boggy sections and their dank, dark wood, gently rising hilly knobs, and then the view that would dominate the majority of the remainder of the hike, the first view of the Manistee River as seen from atop a steep, sandy bank.

First views of the river

I’m a shutterfly and my telephone’s camera was clicking wildly as I walked.  I was also using the GPS on the unit and although my moving average speed was close to four mph I lost about a 1/2 mph due to stopping and photographing plants, the trail, the river, and all of the aspects of hiking in the Midwest that I’ve missed so dearly since I moved away from Minnesota nearly ten years ago.

Sunlit two track

The trail made a handful of crossings of sandy backroads but I only encountered a few cars – and those were all off in the distance through the woods.  I came across one group of people who were standing atop one of the highest vistas of the entire hike, an open view of the surrounding landscape situated a hundred or so feet above the Manistee up an incredibly steep bank of sand.  We exchanged a few words but the light of the day was beginning to fade so I kept up my pace.  I couldn’t help but stop when I left that developed area and came to another clearing a bit farther down the trail to attempt to photograph the exceptional view of the distant Michigan landscape.

Stellar Midwest views

I took my phone out of airplane mode since I was on a high bench and noticed there was cell reception.  I took the opportunity to send off an “all’s okay” message to my wife before descending the trail down into the river valley where I was doubtful there’d be reception.  Sure enough the signal went away and I made my way to where an official NCT campsite was located along a small feeder creek.  The location was nice and flat, the creek flowing strong and clear, but the vegetation was dark, damp, and not conducive to a relaxing evening as the light faded nor for viewing the moon nor stars.  I quickly sucked down the remaining water I had in one of my water bottles, saving the 1/2 of the other for use while hiking further, and filled the other from the creek.  I had my Aquamira solution at hand and did the ol’ A+B drip drop dance, packed that bottle away, and hit the trail again.  I came across a few locals in a jeep and side by side just up and out of the dark creek draw.  I snuck past as they were having a nice time by the river and left the short section of road the trail was sharing and then back onto wooded singletrack.  I didn’t need to hike particularly far when I spotted a wide, low flat spot immediately adjacent to the river just a stone’s throw off the trail.  I schwacked down to it and found a small firepit and plenty of soft, flat ground where to set myself for the evening.

Golite poncho tarp

Traveling light means camping with nary a footprint.  Although I spent twelve hours at this spot I’d say when I left there it was in no worse shape that it was when I arrived.  It’s nice to be able to spend a good amount of time in a place and to be able to leave with very little trace of even being there.  I dumped the contents of my pack, grabbed my poncho tarp, stakes, and poles and set about finding the best combination of a flat spot that had good tree coverage should a rain decide to start overnight.  My poncho tarp is only five feet wide which means when pitched in an a-frame style is quite narrow.  I got it rigged up in no time and next started scanning trees in the area that looked the most comfortable for leaning against.  I found the perfect one that forked low to the ground, had a nice soft blob of moss in the fork, and just the right upward curve to fit my back, and provide a place to lean my head.  I set my little foam sleeping pad down in the curve and settled into an almost immediately comfortable position.

Zelph beer can pot and BPL wing stove

I heated up a packet of ramen noodles and added part of a pouch of powdered sausage gravy.  This is a delicious backpacking dish that I think was shared with me by my former employer, Ryan J. at BPL.  I remember him mentioning it offhandedly to me as a quick and easy meal that you can find ingredients for at just about any grocery store and it’s stuck with me ever since.  I was using a free, long-handled ice cream spoon that I’d picked up at a soft serve place we’d visited a few nights before.  This was in an effort to further cut as much weight from my gear list as possible but it proved to have a flaw in that it became quite soft in the boiling water and was hard to eat with.  I may choose to not sacrifice the strength of my trusty titanium spoon the next time I attempt to camp with as minimal of gear as possible.

My spot

The spot I had found to sit was so comfortable that I decided to simply stay there as day turned to night.  The mosquitos had heightened their presence and the temperatures dropped slightly so I put on my windshirt, toque, and headnet but left my sleeping quilt in the pack.  I laid back against the tree and closed my eyes, falling asleep to the sound of water moving swiftly by in the Manistee just feet away from my position.  I slept nicely for an hour or two until the slight chill of the evening woke me and I decided to wrap up in my quilt.  The spot I was in remained comfortable and I found I was able to sleep on my back or either side conveniently using the mossy tree as a pillow.  The moon was one day waned (waxed?) past full and was distinctly framed above the river between the trees on either side.  It was so gorgeous that I couldn’t bring myself to fall back asleep right away but rather just sat staring, taking it all in.  The slight temp change had put the mosquitos to rest so I pulled the headnet up off my face and enjoyed the view until I finally fell back asleep.

I awoke sometime in the dead of the night to a large critter approaching camp.  It was making quick deep snorts of breath and pawing at the ground.  I expect it was probably a large deer but perhaps could have been a bear.  I’m not Midwest naturalist however so can’t be sure.  I shouted at it to let it know I already had this campsite taken and it begrudgingly responded.  It moved off in the opposite direction snorting and rooting at the earth but didn’t do so very quickly.  I continued to listen to it as it moved up the river bank and off into the woods far enough that I could drift back to sleep.

I awoke soon after dawn and participated in one of the other joys of the art of minimalist backcountry camping – the five minute camp cleanup.  Although I’d not slept under my tarp I had left it up in the event weather had come in so I walked over to take it down, and then gathered my other items which were all actually already in my backpack where I’d left them while I slept.  The whole process took six minutes.  I had thought I would simply hit the trail, hike a ways and then stop for coffee and granola but instead I sat back down in my trusty spot, took out my stove and stayed another hour sipping coffee and eating.

The steep banks of the Manistee

I had a planned pick up time of 11am and what I thought to be around eight or so miles of hiking so I knew that if I walked quickly I would have plenty of time to stop anytime I pleased for a photograph, to read any sign posts, or appreciate any views I’d encounter.  So that’s what I did.  I began to move quickly making my way along the river.  Much of the morning section was on a two-track shared by ATV traffic and although I didn’t see any there were plenty of signs of camping spots with the tell tale firepit full of empty cans of shitty beer and other detritus shot full of holes.

The sun rising up and over the trees along the Manistee and the trail leaving the sandy two track for more gorgeous singletrack carved lovingly by NCTA volunteers can sure put a smile on a hiker’s face.  As the sun rose over the treed banks it made for some beautiful light and given this was a weekday I saw no one for the entire morning, having the landscape all to myself.

Sunrise SUL selfie

I missed a crucial blue blaze depicting a spot where the trail made a sharp 90 degree turn and I walked up a very steep hill about a hundred feet and then farther along the top of the rim about a 1/4 mile without seeing any sign and on quickly degrading trail.  I could tell by my location that I’d rejoin the trail somewhere ahead if I forged on but I had been enjoying the trail tread the NCT volunteers have built so much that I instead decided to retrace my steps to find the trail.  This proved to be a good choice for the route they’d chosen to gain the ridge was in a spectacular draw of which had such a sublime character it would have been a shame to miss.

Gorgeous NCT tread

The remainder of the hiking day was truly exceptional as the trail remained high up on a sandy bluff above the Manistee.  Hiking through forests of birch and maple with a carpet of lush fern immediately around me with twenty-mile views of the Michigan forests expanding off to my right at wonderfully spaced open vistas would be hard to beat.  I hiked quickly but took in the sights and sounds around me with gratitude.

The Manistee River

I arrived at the end of the trail section about 15 minutes prior to my scheduled 11am pickup which was alongside a highway.  At this location there was another nicely done NCT sign with well defined distances back from where I’d come.  The section ahead of me which I would not be hiking this go around is on the highway for what appeared to be two or three miles North, East, and then South which I can only assume is due to access issues around a section of land.  The NCT is a pretty amazing patchwork of trail that stretches 4,000 some odd miles from New York to North Dakota.  To string together a footpath that distance is pretty amazing considering the multitude of land ownership along the way and as such it needs to be expected there will be little bumps like this as the trail follows a county or state right of way to avoid a piece of inaccessible land.

The Manistee River

I would highly recommend hiking sections of the NCT in the Traverse City area as the chapter of the NCT there cares very deeply about their section of trail.  I plan to further explore sections of it on future trips to the area but chose this one first due to it’s seeming lack of popularity all while having such a gorgeous location along the Manistee.

SUL gear

For those interested in such things a packing list for this trip can be seen here: https://lighterpack.com/r/3n6mwx

Do you have stories of the NCT in your state or perhaps right in Michigan? Drop a comment for me to read below.

Twelve Months, Twelve Photos 2016

As in past I have chosen to reflect upon the year behind me by choosing a photo from each month that I feel was a highlight.  It allows me to think on how the year played out and helps to set the stage for the year ahead.  Thanks to Dave C. for the idea of the “Twelve Months, Twelve Photos” concept – – it has become something I truly appreciate.

January: The month started off pretty great although my back – – which I had been suffering through much pain over for the past years – – proved to be nice in that I got out with one of my best backcountry partners for a nice day of pow at a not overly used b.c. zone.


February: The outdoor gear development company that had employed me since 2012 decided to switch it’s focus away from gear design and as such let the majority of it’s R&D staff go in 2016.  This was a pretty huge hit to the way of life that my family and I had begun to build for ourselves but at the same time was a chance for me to design and develop some of my own gear as I said goodbye to that place.  In good news, the person who was part of that company that I most respected has started his own company so go give them a follow.


March: Young Mae began to take her first steps in March.  It’s almost hard to think back on this now that she is running and jumping all over the place.


April: The aforementioned closing of doors of my previous employer has thusfar proved to be an amazing improvement to my livelihood.  I have taken up employment with a local solar electric design and install firm and am exceedingly happy with my new line of work.  Excellent autonomy within the company and a management that truly cares for and understands their workforce.  Not to mention a product that provides legitimate and undeniable value to society.


May: Exceptional, quality camping with good friends from all over the country.  We picked a zone that was relatively close to friends living in Bozeman, Seattle, Helena, and Salt Lake City and we all gathered for the Memorial Day weekend to relax, eat, drink, shoot, ride bikes, and be lazy next to the creek.  Wonderful!


June: June brought more awesome camping with very good friends, albeit this time much closer to home than in May.  A favorite destination just West of Bozeman found us relaxing around the campfire, shooting BB guns, and brapping Mason’s moto around the plentiful BLM land.


July: My wife and daughter made their way out of town so I ventured up to one of our favorite campsites for a night solo with the Land Cruiser.


August: More super, awesome, quality, family camping was had in August as we explored a new zone in Paradise Valley.  I expect to have more adventures here in the future.


September: This month found my hunting partner and I deep in the Absaroka’s for the HD 316 bc hunt.  Although we didn’t harvest anything I did have what has proven to be the most successful stalk of my short hunting career.


October: What an amazing little person Mae is becoming.  Torie photographed her in some beautiful clothes during the autumnal colors of October.  Such a precious child!


November: Our family visited Seattle and Bellingham during November and I snapped this photo of some of our best friend’s “kids”.  Charlotte will soon be Mae’s good buddy.  Ol’ Jax we learned was ailing in health and I knew that when I left him the scratch behind his ear and gruff, but loving words I spoke to him would probably be the last.  He has since passed on and I miss him as a former roommate and punching bag.  RIP, buddy.


December: Neither of us having meat in the freezer, my hunting partner and I headed up to the cold, windy, and barren lands of the Castle Mountains in hope of catching glimpse of a herd of elk on BMA land.  It was a gorgeous, sunny, relatively mild, and quality day, but alas, no elk were spotted.  As such we have pretty much put the period on the end of the sentence of our hunting season and will re-group and begin planning for next September.


2016 was a splendid year and although I didn’t get out on enough backpacking trips I was happy to continually introduce my daughter to the wonders of the great outdoors.  I look forward to a 2017 plentiful with camping excursions and outdoor enjoyment for all.  May you and yours experience the same.  What do you have planned for 2017?  Let me know in the comments.

 

On Spooking Elk and Stalking Mule Deer

Montana rifle hunters willing to put in the extra work it takes to get deep into the backcountry have early gates to begin hunting over a month prior to the general season opener so my buddy Justin and I set about planning a trip into one of these four districts.  Three of the four are located up in the Bob Marshall and the other is located down in our neck of the woods in the Absaroka Beartooth.  We picked an access point that we felt would offer up a good chance at finding big game, was close enough to a trailhead that hiking out a heap of meat wouldn’t wreck us (too much), but was still far enough from a trailhead or road to make the riff raff want to avoid it.

After some highway driving and a long, bumpy FS road we arrived at the trailhead to find fourteen other vehicles – more than ten of which were big ol’ diesel ranch rigs complete with full sized horse trailers.  We knew we’d be sharing the mountains with horse packers and hunting guides but we hoped they were going to stick to the main trail and that we were going to have the less visited drainage adjacent to ourselves.  It was close to seven miles from the car just to get to the boundary of the hunting district and the point where we’d see if the horse packers continued downhill or if they turned off along the ridgeline to the next bowl.  Much to our delight the scratch in the grass that was the only sign of our trail was a great sign that the next drainage would be potentially void of other people.

With a smile on our face knowing we’d probably be leaving the more popular zone we carefully picked our way along the 10k+ ridgeline to the next drainage being careful as we approached not to skyline any critters that might be lingering as one drainage rolled over the small pass into the next.  The wind was howling and a light snow had started to fall as we low crawled up to the crest and began glassing the beautiful country below.  The cold was quickly getting the best of us as we were both still wearing just lightweight baselayers from the long uphill hike.  We carefully albeit hurriedly made our way over the saddle to a small row of stumpy conifers to get out of the wind.  Justin set about brewing up some coffee and I quickly donned a jacket and began glassing.  We had only been within the boundaries of the huntable district for less than an hour at this point and mere minutes later we both looked to the North and saw a young bull elk and three cows standing in full view not more than 500 yards away just checking us out.  They watched us for but a few seconds and took off at a trot down valley.  Busted.  What a great way to start a four day hunting trip!

We kicked ourselves for not being supremely patient in glassing better prior to entering the drainage but the cold had caught up to us and we had never once thought we’d get into elk immediately upon arriving.  Lessons – hard lessons – learned.  I watched the elk effortlessly cover a couple miles of terrain and a thousand or more feet of elevation drop and gain in around 15 minutes.  What immense, powerful animals.  We made note of where they traveled and where they disappeared – back pocket information for our remaining time in this zone.

We made a plan to begin hunting down the valley slowly and cautiously.  We covered quite a bit of miles walking a few hundred meters apart from each other down the essentially trail-less valley (a fire had torched nearly all the timber and the lack of use of the trail made it only a scratch).  We had hoped that if one of us scared something up it would allow the other to get in a shot.  As the magic light of the evening cast alpenglow on the high peaks above us and dark became imminent we picked a spot, set up the tent, hung the bear rope, and got our grub on.

Hunting is a sport of mornings and evenings so an early rise is essential.  We woke at 0600, coffee’ed, ate, broke camp, and headed up the opposite wall of the drainage than we’d come down the previous day.  We had formulated a plan the night before and began the arduous climb up the burned hillside chock full of fallen timber.  Careful, micro route finding is essential in these situations to save yourself from a twisted ankle and fatigue but also to avoid making a racket that would undoubtedly spook up your prey.

After six hours of careful maneuvering interspersed with a few hour-long sessions of just sitting and glassing we came to an open meadow nestled between two heights of land and backed by the steep, North-facing canyon wall.  A small seep of water came up from the ground in the middle of the meadow, and distinct game trails and many animal tracks clearly denoted the presence of game in the area.  This area was exactly where the elk that we spooked the previous day had headed down into after I’d lost site of them as I watched from the high country.

The plan we had made while glassing lower down the hillside was to find a spot we thought might be a “honey hole” e.g. the potential hangout spot for game and to simply post up in comfortable positions with stellar firing angles for the remainder of the day and then set camp just before dark.  We each took up a position atop one of these heights of land, Justin covering one of the game trails and I covering one of the meadows, an side access game trail, and a steep downhill approach that showed lots of sign of elk and deer travel.  The next six hours were very zen-like as we could not see each other, nor talk to each other.  It was just each of us with our binocular, rifle, and our thoughts.  We both glassed the area adjacent to us as well as the cliffs and hillsides many, many miles distant.  Although no animals came into range we were both treated to our own delightful views of mountain goats on far away cliffs.  The two that I spotted I was able to watch on and off for over two hours as they made their way along a high cliff a few miles distant from me.

We set our camp, had our dinner and were asleep before 2100.  The previous night had dipped to 25 degrees F but tonight seemed to be off to a better start.  Justin was traveling alpine-style with only the backpanel of his pack for a sleeping mat and was looking forward to a slightly better night’s sleep.  I had the extra weight of a torso-sized inflatable mat on my back the entire weekend but it made up for any cold sleeping – – my least favorite thing to experience while backpacking.

Another six a.m. wake-up, coffee, and breakfast found us climbing to the top of a steep bench where we were treated to astounding views of essentially the entire basin we’d now been hunting for 36+ hours.  We posted up in two positions, me to glass the entire upper country of the basin and Justin to guard the area we’d just approached from in the event an animal came ambling up the hillside to the tasty browse on top of the bench.  I formulated a plan and ran it past Justin for how to spend the afternoon.  He concurred and suggested a few alternatives which jived well for both of us.  We would continue hunting the side of the canyon we were on until mid afternoon and then if nothing had transpired, head back over to the main canyon where the horse camps were to make a camp and then hunt for the morning prior to needing to head back out to civilization.

We very carefully picked our way down off the bench bumping from one patch of trees to another, glassing the next ahead as we went and always glassing the distance as far in any direction as we could see.  We spotted a very solid game trail in the distance which clearly marked the route from the high country down to the honey hole we’d camped at for any animals coming from the high country downvalley along this side of the canyon.  We jumped onto it and slowly made our way up canyon.  Midday was fast approaching and we’d not yet seen any critters so we moved with a bit more speed and stopped to glass less.  We did however maintain an attitude of stalking and did not give ourselves away any more than necessary.

After a glorious stop for lunch along a fresh, clear stream of water below a steep cliff I spotted two white rumps in a meadow ahead.  I put my hand up to motion to Justin behind me and carefully glassed around a conifer.  Two mule deer does were a hundred or so yards ahead of us.  These does were off limits in this district at this time so we didn’t bother with them and made our position known to them before continuing our creep uphill.  Moments later I put my binocular up to my eyes to glass the distant hillsides as I’d done hundreds of times previous and in my slow sweep my eyes landed on what I instantly thought were six elk and I immediately told Justin so.  I then lifted the binocular again and retracted my statement, clarifying that they were not elk, but muleys.  The animals were over a half mile away so identifying their sex took some very patient viewing through both the binocular and rifle scope.  After ten or so minutes I felt confident that at least three of them were male and we talked over the feasibility of a stalk from so far away on these animals known for being extremely attentive and jumpy.

I made one potential suggestion but it involved coming in from above the animals including a couple hundred yards of completely exposed terrain.  I had little to no confidence that this approach would work but I was very interested in making an attempt on these animals.  Taking a mule deer buck was an acceptable option for me as I planned for this trip.  Justin joined me on this trip with the intent to focus on hunting elk and wasn’t as interested in taking a mule deer. When I told him I would rather spend the remainder of the day making an attempt on one of these bucks than I would just moving over to the next canyon to find camp he wholeheartedly offered up a suggested approach to the stalk that I completely got behind.

We worked out a series of hand signals so that he could remain behind in a good position to glass the animals as I set off to cover the 1/2 mile and try to get within the range I feel comfortable shooting at, which is 200 yards.  My method was to use spotty vegetation and the topography of the land to keep myself as hidden from these incredibly attuned animals as I could.  This entire stalk was going to rely on the fact that it was approximately 1400 hours and it was highly likely that these animals were about to bed down in a thicket for an afternoon rest prior to their evening feeding session later.  If they did in fact bed, and I could spend the time while they were doing so getting into position I could then wait them out until they appeared from the scrub and into my sights.

I covered the 1/2 mile stealthily, dropped my pack in a thicket and began bear crawling with just the essentials.  I had put on an extra layer and drank some water in case I was in for a long wait, but otherwise only had my rifle, gloves, and earplugs along with me.  Continuing to try and keep either vegetation or small undulations of earth between me and the animals I was able to successfully get to the last remaining thicket of trees before an open space and the thicket that the animals had bedded down in before I set off to stalk.  I was now operating blind because I had not been able to keep an eye on them as I walked.  I carefully brought my binocular up to my eyes and almost as if on cue a buck stepped out, completely broadside to me and stared down canyon directly toward me.  I was well hidden and I was pretty certain he couldn’t see me but there was a wicked wind blowing across me and up and slightly to my right that was undoubtedly wafting my odors across his nose.  I had only just arrived at this spot and I had not yet had a chance to position my rife into a comfortable and stable shooting position so I was not yet ready to take a shot.  Once again, almost as if on cue as I lay there on my stomach cursing his timing he stepped back behind the thicket.

I took a deep breath and dug deep into my well of patience and told myself that good things can come to those who wait so I immediately set about positioning a small log in front of me and testing the steadiness of my rifle, adjusting my scope and going over the shooting regimen in my head as I waited.  I had arrived in position at 1500, only about one hour after first spotting the critters.  I could see three animals, all with between three and four points on one half their antlers milling about behind the thicket but not even remotely with enough clarity that I would consider taking a shot.  I simply had to wait and be patient.  I was blessed with this not taking too long however as only 15 or 30 minutes passed when the first animal’s head popped out from the trees.  And then just beyond him, another.  Neither had exposed their front shoulders – the aspect of the creatures needed to be visible to make a clean kill.  Then a third head appeared and I carefully examined each critter and decided on which I would take aim upon should they finally decide to walk out.  The first two came out into the complete open and began feeding and it was everything I could do to remain calm, breathing slowly, attempting to control my heart rate.  These minutes stretched on for what seemed like much longer until the buck I had my rifle leveled on stepped out.  He made one step, two steps, three steps, as I carefully tracked him in the crosshairs of my scope.  I took a slow, controlled, deep breath, exhaled, and triggered.

Commotion of course immediately ensued.  I was successful in following the buck as he jumped forward five or ten feet but then all five of the animals in the immediate vicinity became impossible for me to tell apart as they grouped up.  A rifle is incredibly loud and I am sure they were a bit stunned by whatever it was, but did not scatter, but rather simply all began walking away.  I had no way of knowing whether I had successfully hit the animal nor, if so, which of them it might be as they were now all walking away slowly.  I became overcome with doubt as I watched six animals all walking away.  One appeared to possibly be limping but I could not be certain whether this might have been from a bad shot by me or something altogether different.  I did not dare take a shot at this animal in case I had in fact dropped the one I was aiming at and that may be lying dead in the tall grass out of sight.  I took a few deep breaths and felt the adrenaline surging in my veins reminding me of the power contained in the act of taking another animal’s life.

My brain was on overdrive as I collected my rifle and quickly moved downhill to get my pack.  Justin had made double time up the hill upon hearing my rifle report and he appeared within minutes as I was beginning my journey to see if I hit or missed my mark.  Doubt weighed heavily on my mind as I knew I had seen six animals walk away and up toward the ridgeline but I was still incredibly amped regarding the entire stalk, wait, and ultimately the shot.  Justin later told me my eyes were very wide and I was talking a mile a minute.

We arrived at the location a few minutes later and as I had suspected, did not find an animal crumpled up in the dirt.  The shot I had taken was at the end of my comfortable shooting range of 200 yards, was along a steeply sloping uphill trajectory, and had a very strong cross breeze blowing left to right.  I told Justin of the deer that had the slight limp and that if in the event I had caused this injury I needed to be certain I could attempt to justify the situation so we set about tracking to look for blood.  We were successful in following the group of animals fresh tracks in the dirt for well over a quarter mile and we found not a single drop of blood so we both felt comfortable in putting a period at the end of the sentence that was a very powerful stalk on a beautiful group of mule deer bucks.

It was approaching 1700 at this point so as I began to come down off the high I was on from such an exhilarating although ultimately fruitless hunt we got back on track to make our way out of the drainage we had now completely hunted down and back up over 48 hours.  We made our way along the knife ridge to the popular, horse packer, ridden drainage to find the main trail we’d hiked in on with the tracks of around six horses to now be completely obliterated by what must have been many more strings of animals.  As we looked down valley I asked Justin how serious he was about making a camp and spending three hours the next morning hunting the upper end of a zone that had seen multiple groups of pack animals blasting through it.  We thoroughly talked it over and decided that if we had the whole next day it would be worth a try but since we didn’t we might as well make just start in on the seven mile hike out and three hour drive back home so that we could spend Sunday with loved ones.  We made half of the hike in the pitch black, deep in grizzly country so we turned on Justin’s iPhone and shared Alice’s Restaurant and a few other Arlo Guthrie tunes with any adjacent wildlife to let them know we meant no harm.  Boots to dirt and tires to the road we arrived home at 1230 am, sans meat, but chock full of spectacular scenery, company, and experience.

Groomed Trails, Fatbikes, and the Gallatin National Forest

During the winter of 2013/14 a group of SW Montana fatbikers became aware that the local U.S. Forest Service district had written a special order banning bicycles from the network of ski and snowmobile trails in the Gallatin National Forest.  These trails are open to skiers and snowmobilers and we felt that there was little to no reason they shouldn’t also be open to bikes – particularly with the absolute onslaught of fatbikes now hitting the market.  The special order was more than likely put into place as a means of putting bikes on hold while the USFS had time to “think things through” but it was in our opinion a bit shortsighted considering numerous other Forests and forest managers throughout the nation were dealing with bikes in a very positive and successful way.

A group of us set about lobbying our local district and the team of FS employees were very easy to work with, were accommodating, and did an excellent job of balancing all forest user’s needs in the process.  Although it took more than a year to make things happen, during the summer of 2015 the special order was rescinded and fatbikes were written into the travel plan as being allowed on the more than 400 miles of marked snowmobile trails in the Forest.  Although ski-specific trails remain off limits we are considering partnering with local ski clubs to gauge interest/dislike for consideration for access to these in the future.

A friend was visiting from Seattle and we borrowed a fatty for him and we headed South to a long, groomed creek corridor and laid down eight miles of pedaling among trees heavy with snow, a creek slowly becoming choked with ice, and a sunny, warm sky overhead.  It’s amazing what four to five inches of rubber running low pressure can allow you to pedal through.

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Twelve Months, Twelve Photos

As the year comes to a close, a time of reflection overcomes me. The goals I set, the things I hoped to accomplish, and the unknowns that are now known all water under the bridge. Fellow outdoorsmen and acquaintance Dave C. gave me a good idea to record my thoughts on 2014 in a blog post entitled “Twelve Months and Twelve Great Trips in 2014” and a similar post from him this year spurred me on yet again. So in this time of reflection here are twelve photos that represent a highlight of each of the twelve months of 2015.

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January: The birth of ones child can probably not be topped by any other event.  The first week of January was not particularly cold and was actually quite forgiving.  Bringing this beautiful little girl into the world and stepping outside for the first time a few days later was as empowering a thing as my wife and I have ever been through and each and every month of this year has been an amazing journey watching and participating in her growing process.


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February: With a newborn life tends to slow down a bit.  Sneaking off for even a quick jaunt to the hills above town on the bicycle during my lunch hour provided much needed fixes of adventure.


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March: I took my first real trip away from town for the entire day in March, joining two good friends for a day of splitboarding in the Gallatin Range.  We explored a micro-zone located next to a very popular spot and had fresh tracks from top to bottom.


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April: Snow continued to fall into April and while we awaited for the warmer temps of Spring we holed up inside as a family, enjoying each others company and watched with excitement and curiosity as Maeryn grew and learned.


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May: In my childhood in Minnesota, Memorial Day weekend marked not only a time to remember our veterans, but also the beginning of the camping season.  I had reserved a campsite at Holland Lake up in the Seeley Swan for the maiden voyage of our new camper trailer.  This coincided with the start of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Open and I chatted with a number of the participants prior to their journey into the Bob.


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June: I managed to get out on something in the range of 20+ mountain bike rides during the summer of 2015 and that felt really, really good.  Long hours of sunlight and driving back into town from the trailhead after dark allows for some very solid post-work rides.  Photo’ed was a stellar evening with three other friends when we drove far enough North of town to leave the rain to find tacky trails and distant rainbows..


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July: I felt comfortable enough to take an overnight trip away from the family in July.  I left home late, riding from town into the forest to a nice saddle that overlooks the lights of the city.  I packed a small shelter, some grub, and a couple tall cans of beer.  I sent a few text messages to my wife as night approached making sure everyone was safe and sound.  I awoke early, around dawn, donned a warm jacket and barreled the downhill back into town in time to have breakfast just as our child was awaking.


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August: The infamous GORUCK Selection event took place in Bozeman in August.  As the resident aficionado of the wide open spaces in our fair city I was consulted by the Cadre in planning the event.  Having a hand in how the weekend would pan out was extremely rewarding for me and much more so when participant Stony from Canada performed solidly and finished.


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September: A car camping trip into the Gravelly Range is quickly becoming an annual tradition for our crew and this trip in September was no exception.  We didn’t do huge miles and we only stayed one night but man what a solid group of people and location.


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October: I skipped hunting opener because it was a goal of mine to get our little girl out on a backpacking trip sometime in 2015 and the weekends that would qualify as “warm enough” to do that were essentially gone.  We loaded up the car, headed for Yellowstone and made the short hike to Ribbon Lakes.  I packed the woodstove and tipi to make things reasonable and we had a stellar time.


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November: General rifle hunting season was a bust for me in 2015.  I spent 30 hours in the woods hunting deer but didn’t take one home.  On the last day I had one doe in my sights and I hesitated a crucial 1/4 second and she stepped behind some trees leaving me a bit disgusted.  Missing out on a deer was easily made up for by many sights like the one photographed wherein I enjoyed beautiful sunrise after beautiful sunrise (albeit some in below zero temps) on the Bridger Mountain Range.


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December: With the general rifle season come and gone and our family freezer without venison I set out with a neighbor to hunt cow elk in the Castle Mountains in the last few days of the month.  We found ourselves within 450 yards of a herd which was simply too far for either of us to humanely take a shot and as such were unsuccessful in the hunt.  Once again though the views made up for it and the day was still a success.  Gazing south to the Bridgers and Crazies as well as the generally good feeling of a day out in the mountains can not be written off as anything but excellent.


“Alone in the Wilderness” with Dick Proenneke

Richard Louis “Dick” Proenneke (May 4, 1916 – April 20, 2003) was an amateur naturalist who lived alone for nearly thirty years in the mountains of Alaska in a log cabin he had constructed by hand near the shore of Twin Lakes. Proenneke hunted, fished, raised and gathered his own food, and also had supplies flown in occasionally. He documented his activities in journals and on film, and also recorded valuable meteorological and natural data.

The following is the 57 minute self-made documentary shot by Mr. Proenneke entitled “Alone in the Wilderness”. This is one of my favorite pieces of wilderness living film and each time I watch it I am amazed and astounded at the vast set of skills, the motivation, and dedication that it took for someone to live off the land.

Dick’s cabin on Twin Lakes is now on the National Register of Historic Sites and is located within Lake Clark
National Park & Preserve in Alaska.

An Overnight in Yellowstone National Park

Our daughter was born in January and our hopes for the summer were to get out camping as many times as we could to let her experience sleeping outside the home as the regular way of the life in our family.  We managed to spend something like 20 nights in our pop up camper trailer and a couple nights in a tent but these were all in the front country and we had not yet taken her backpacking

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Going out on a low mileage but true wilderness backpacking trip was something we really wanted to do before the snow fell this Fall so even though it was the season opener for rifle hunting I decided to push that back a week and we gathered our gear for a trip into Yellowstone National Park.

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Torie had Mae on her back in our vintage Tough Traveler kid pack as well as as much other gear as would fit in the lower storage section. Subsequently I was responsible for everything else and as such I borrowed the Kuiu Icon from the gear library at work in the 5200 cu. in. (85 liter) size.

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We chose a campsite in the Canyon area of the park which is my favorite. The incredibly steep, sulfur-strewn canyon walls that sweep majestically down into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River are about as impressive a site as I’ve seen anywhere. Our campsite was situated a few miles from “Artist Point” and the well-worn trail leading out to it followed the canyon rim closely for much of the journey.

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We arrived at camp a few hours before sunset and with temperatures set to be near or below freezing overnight I immediately set about gathering and sawing wood for use in our tent wood stove.  Torie played with Mae while trying to get our sleeping gear set up as well so when night time did set in on us we’d have our shelter all set to go.

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We cooked up a batch of couscous topped with a delicious pesto sauce served alongside sliced pepperoni and then washed it down with chocolate cookies and a few splashes of whiskey.  We brought along some organic pre-packaged food for Mae which, like pretty much everything we’ve ever fed her, she lapped up eagerly.

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Nighttime falls early in these parts but I set about putting a warming fire into our little wood stove which is designed perfectly for our tipi (both are the awesome little cottage gear company, Titanium Goat).  Temperatures quickly reached the height of comfort and soon enough we were sitting around in short sleeves and no hat.

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Mae awoke at around 2am giving a little cry and although she seemed plenty warm she was awake and not ready to fall immediately back to sleep.  I took the time to start up a new fire in the stove while Mom nursed our little one.  We stayed awake talking for about an hour until Mae was able to fall back asleep which lasted until 7:20 in the morning.

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It was a brisk morning but a re-kindled fire in the wood stove followed by hot coffee and warm granola made for delightful times as the sun shone over the trees and onto the lake causing the ground frost and mist over the lake to simply sparkle.

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We drove home at a leisurely pace taking the time to enjoy just how empty the park is at this time of year.  Some of the spots we stopped and enjoyed are typically buzzing with hundreds of tourists during the peak season and for us to be able to sit and enjoy a view for a solid 30 minutes while only seeing a handful of other people was really quite enjoyable.  Even the grizzly sightings we had to and from our trailhead had but a few cars stacked up at the site – something that in the summer could easily have turned into an hour-long traffic jam.  Not taking the simple pleasures of where you live for granted is a very important lesson, wouldn’t you say?

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MYOG: Gazetteer and Atlas Cover

The gazetteer that lives in my truck gets pretty abused. It is stored between the seat and the console and gets used a LOT. My wife and I are both map junkies so she is pretty much always looking up various geographic features when we’re headed to a camping spot or trailhead. As such the edges of our standard Benchmark Montana Road & Recreation Atlas are dog-eared and the pages all show signs of wear.

In order to prolong the life of this handy and oft used book I spent some of my afternoon after I had finished my work for the week sewing a simple non-coated, 1000d Cordura nylon cover. I bound the upper and lower edges, added a 2″x3″ loop panel to the front so I can adorn it with various velcro patches, and attached a length of 550 cord with a bright orange webbing piece affixed to the end to act as a permanently attached bookmark.

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Sub-24 Hour Overnight Bikepacking in the Gallatin Mountains

I am the father of a seven month old so opportunities to get out into the backcountry are precious these days.  I don’t want to miss out on time with my baby and wife but I also don’t want to miss out on nights spent in the mountains either so last evening I threw my leg over the top tube of my bicycle at 18:00 and pedaled from town twelve miles up into the high foothills of the Gallatin Mountain Range arriving around 20:00.  I live only about a block from access to our town trail system and I chose a route that consisted of mostly trails and gravel road all the way to my camp requiring only three miles of riding the shoulder of a mid-speed asphalt road.

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I hunted deer in this zone thoroughly in the Fall and have explored this timber-cutting road system on skis in the winter as well so I knew generally where I wanted to make camp.  I came to a wide, flat pass but pushed on another mile to see if the next switchback would offer better views.  I decided it did not and turned around to return to the pass.  I left the road and headed to a rocky promontory that made up the Eastern part of the pass and set about making camp… well, more like I cracked a beer and enjoyed the view for a few minutes before making camp.

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The view off to the SE through a gunsight set of peaks of the rugged Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness complex was sublime and I couldn’t help but gaze off into it thinking of past trips in that wild set of mountain ranges.  Opposite that view the lights from my town of Bozeman and the greater Gallatin Valley were beginning to twinkle.  The sun was setting to the West and the silhouette of the Tobacco Root Mountain Range drew my attention heavily.

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Camp made I took off my shoes and those diaper-like cycling-specific under shorts and found a comfortable spot on some sun-warmed rocks.  The weather was delightful and I sat in my short sleeves until long after dark just taking in the view of the setting sun, the lights of town, and the slowly rising nearly-full moon.

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Sleep came slowly as large critters banged through the woods near me.  Presumably just an elk or a deer but the notion a bear is hanging out near your camp is a hard one to ignore regardless of the fact I’ve spent hundreds of nights sleeping out in the wild.

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I don’t know what time I fell asleep but I lay with the door of my simple shelter open and allowed my gaze to drift to the night sky.  The full moon made things very clear and the stars were alight with the twinkle ever-enhanced by being even just a few miles away from the light of the city.  I awoke at dawn, climbed out of my bag and scanned the distant hills for wildlife.  I will hunt this zone again this fall and seeing even just one critter on a nearby hillside was a pleasant sight.

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My trusty Bushbuddy fired up a few cups of water and I had a cup of coffee in hand by 06:30.  While it brewed I broke camp and packed my gear back onto my bicycle.  I spent the evening leisurely soaking in the surroundings but my plan for the morning was to attempt to make it back home for arrival about the time my wife and daughter were awaking.  The beauty of a twelve mile climb on the way in is you know you’ve got a fast, twelve mile descent on the way back out.

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I made it home by 08:00 just as my family was waking and my lovely wife had a second cup of coffee at the ready.  We made up a proper Saturday morning breakfast of bacon and eggs and now have the whole weekend still lies ahead of us.  Make the most of your minutes, hours, and days.  Enjoy the company of your family as well as your solitude.  I enjoy living in the moment, especially since each and every one of them equates to huge changes in the life of my little girl.  But at the same time I look forward with great interest in having the family join me in future micro-adventures.

 

 

Backyard Roots – A Montana and Wyoming Ski Series

Beau Fredlund and Kt Miller have spent a fair amount of time living in a small  town in deep in the mountains of Southwest Montana that spends a good portion of the year buried under deep layers of deliciously low density powder snow.  A Powder guide and photographer by trade the two seem to have an excellent rapport as ski partners who are both willing to put in great levels of effort to tick off exquisite lines in their “backyard” – the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Over the course of the 2014/2015 winter the duo produced a series of short films they dubbed the “Backyard Roots” project that focuses on the concept of exploration just outside the front door of ones home.  Each episode then takes on its own individual theme ranging from the caution we must take, to how our peers affect our decisions, to overcoming and facing our fears.

Episode 1 – Patience is a Virtue

Episode 2 – The Social Media Factor

Episode 3 – The Sleeping Giant