Last year the Bob Marshall Wilderness Open was a excellent experience. I learned more about wilderness travel in those 3 days than I had collectively in recent years. It's the kind of trip that forces you to think when you're out there, instead of mindlessly plodding along with little consequence for mistakes.
This year I was back and eager for more of that challenge. I wanted to make wiser decisions, take better care of myself, increase my wilderness savvy and of course enjoy the spectacular Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Food: Stoveless – bars, chocolate almonds, chocolate coffee beans
Sleep/Shelter: Duomid, down quilt, inflatable pad
Travel: MSR Shift snowshoes, packraft
(Starting pack weight: 23.4 lbs)
This year the plan was to packraft a large portion of the route - partly for fun and partly because my legs weren't in strong enough condition to crank out ~100 miles in 2 days (my goal) without serious wear and tear. The plan was a west side route utilizing the highly efficient South Fork Flathead. This required two difficult passes, but the overall milage (97mi) was nicely split into 54 miles walking and 43 miles in the raft, with the raft portion nicely breaking up hikes of 22mi, 5mi and 27mi.
Greg Gedney and I had been talking before hand, and we decided to hike together over White Pass. It was a great opportunity for camaraderie and to learn from a wily veteran. From there, we would packraft white river, SF flathead and hike over Twin Mtn to the finish.
Day 1: Benchmark to Mid Creek Gorge. 8am - 10pm. Est. 50 miles (22 hike, 28 raft)
Despite indications and weather reports to the contrary, the 11 participants in the BMWO awoke to friendly weather at Benchmark - a stark contrast to last year. I hoped to the conditions would last long enough to get over White Pass (7600') before the forecasted rain resumed.
BMWO Start with anomalously nice weather
We set off at 8am, with Gedney and I also enjoying the company of Greg Gressel (malto) before he split off for his challenging Chinese wall route. At the west fork of the Sun, Gressel hit his stride as our threesome strung out and then separated.
Excellent west fork of the Sun River valley
Crossing the west fork of the Sun River
Gedney and I combined good effort with docile weather and little snowpack (here) to make great time. The conditions over White Pass were very reasonable with only a mile of snow walking over the highest 1000'. The snowpack was softer on the west side and I contemplated tossing on my snowshoes, but the thigh deep punching soon ended.
White Pass in sight
Gedney on the West side of the pass
Nearing the White River
We arrived at the White River and hit the water at 4:30pm, eager to make hay while the sun was shining.
Rafting the lower 6mi of the White River was awesome. I don't write this flippantly: The White River was the best 1.5 hrs of packrafting I've ever done. Greg and I deemed it "sporty but not dangerous" with a few class III bits to spice up the wonderfully continuous class II water.
We stopped to dump water a few times and arrived at the South Fork Flathead wet but happy. From there we continued on the milder but fast SF Flathead, typically floating at 6-7mph without effort.
South Fork Flathead at 9000 cfs
As time passed, the daylight faded and temperatures dropped. The rafting became more like grinding as we paddled just to stay warm. The section lagged on, as Greg and I both recalled it was ~17mi on the South Fork when it was actually 22. It didn't help when we passed the sign on the Black Bear bridge warning of a gorge 5mi downstream, which we didn't realize referred to the smaller narrows near black creek, not the main gorge about 10mi away.
We paddled the Black Bear Ck rapid with little trouble, but just a mile upstream of the gorge take out we approached another bottleneck in the river. Eager to get to the take out and warm up, I entered this section unscouted despite obvious indications of sporty water. I punched through the large wave guarding the entrance and discovered just behind it was a sideways wave with strong sideways pull. It yanked me to a 45 degree lean, where I teetered for a few seconds as I disappeared around the corner from Greg. Fatigued, I was late to brace and flipped into the cold water - my second annual south fork swim.
I was uncharacteristically calm when I flipped and exited, so I was able to hang onto my raft and paddle as I rode out the rest of the waves. Once into the wider river, I righted the boat (tough to do with a pack on the bow in rowdy water) and attempted to climb in as my energy faded. The fast, deep water made it tough to crawl in, and I came up just shy on the first attempt as the raft flipped upside down again. I took a couple seconds to gather my strength for attempt two while observing that Greg had wisely not attempted this rapid and remained out of sight. I righted the raft again for re-entry attempt two while probably approaching a minute in the water. I realized that I really needed to be successful here, or I'd likely have to leave the boat and head for shore as the next white water section was approaching and my strength was fading. Thankfully that wasn't necessary as I managed to crawl into the boat with the last vestiges of my strength.
The next rapid was also tense, as my glasses had entirely fogged up in the swim and I was largely paddling blind. Thankfully the rapid was short and reasonable - the kind where you can just keep the raft pointed straight and you'll be okay. I checked the GPS and saw it was 1/4 mile to the gorge take out. Shivering, I continued on the last few minutes to the take out for an easy exit. I hastily packed up, wrung out my clothes and set off down the trail to warm up. I figured I'd hike a mile and have a fire and hope Gedney came along. I knew Gedney was really cold as well, so I assumed he'd likely at least have a hot dinner first which might segue into sleep.
At 10pm and 1/2 mile down from the take out, I came across a nice resource of wood and stopped for a fire. It was awesome. I went from shivering to luxury in minutes. From 10pm to midnight I sat at the fire and dried everything from shoes to hat.
A very welcome fire
Day 2: Mid Creek Gorge to Finish (Bear Creek). 5:30am - 11pm. Est. 47 miles (32 hike, 15 raft)
I woke at 5am and hit the trail at 5:30am after leaving a little note with sticks for Gedney so he would know I was alright. I considered heading back to find him, but I already had 47 miles to cover that day and I couldn't be sure he would camped visible from the trail.
The start of day 2 - colder but glad to be in entirely dry clothes
Mid Creek Gorge
Interesting cliffs along the SF Flathead near Spotted Bear
I exited the SF Flathead at Upper Twin Creek at 10am. With 12 hours of light and 27 miles between me and the finish, I felt confident I could make it. So far the weather had been strangely co-operating and I was eager to get over the final pass before things took a turn for the worse.
Exiting at Upper Twin Creek
Upper Twin Creek Trail
There's a lot of routes over the Flathead Range to arrive at the Middle Fork Flathead, but none of them are particularly easy. Upper Twin Creek trail puts you at high elevation for miles, while Lower Twin Creek gain and loses vertical before becoming a secondary trail. There's other routes as well - all of which utilize secondary trail - so I chose Upper Twin Creek despite the longer miles and sustained elevations. In hind sight, I should have chose Lower Twin Creek (like Gedney) or a lower elevation secondary trail (Grouse Creek) to the same pass I went over.
After White Pass, I was expected very little snow so I wasn't too concerned about the snowpack. Unfortunately, things were much different in this part of the Bob. The snow started at 5700', which left me with 3 miles of side hilling to the pass. At first things were really tough and slow going. I began to worry I'd miss crossing the middle fork before dark.
3 miles of this?
Thankfully the angle lessened after a couple miles. I gained extra vert to walk the ridge between the Tanner and Grouse Creek drainages. Here I had a mental shift and went from grinding to enjoyment as I recognized the beauty present alongside the difficulty.
Tanner - Grouse Divide
I wasn't expecting or prepared with water for spending 4 hours on continuous snowpack, but thankfully I was paying better attention to my body this year so I came in well hydrated, full of electrolytes and slathered in sunscreen. I just started to feel a little woozy near the end, while last year I probably would have been so fixated on getting over the pass I would have acquired melanoma instead of thinking to reapply sunscreen.
Looking South from the pass (6500') near Twin Mtn
From there, the snow continued for a long time - all the way down to 5200' before yielding to the spring melt. On the patchy snow in the valley bottom I came across fresh bear tracks headed up the drainage and then stopping. I wondered if the bear had heard me coming. I could see where it had stopped and stood on its rear legs for a better look/smell. The snow was patchy, so I couldn't see where the bear had gone from here but I was keenly aware there were no tracks headed back out. I figured the bear was likely close by and perhaps monitoring me. Gedney who came through the valley the next morning observed the bear had indeed followed me out the drainage. Perhaps I'll get a beer from him for leading all the bears out of his path :)
The walking out of Long Creek went pretty well until the last few miles. The forest fire here has put a lot of trees down and the river is absolutely choked with jams.
Many wonderful opportunities for trail clearing at Long Creek
I arrived at the Middle Fork Flathead just before 8pm. A drizzle at had started at 7pm but it was very light and intermittent. I planned to raft a mile downstream to the Spruce Park takeout. I hesitatingly ran the first rapid after Long Creek and then took out before the second, which looked like too much fun for the circumstances. A second evening swim seemed unnecessary.
As dusk fell, I worked on the last 7mi to the Bear Creek finish. At this point I was in much better condition than last year, with only a couple minor blisters and in a much better mental state (craving hot food instead of wanting to collapse). I marvelled at the huge spruce trees in this area, which were the biggest I had seen in the Bob. It's always humbling to be in intact old growth forest. Darkness fell and I got worried about crossing a few creeks in the dark, but thankfully their sound was much more intimidating than their flow. I crossed the bridge over the rowdy Bear Creek and arrived at my car at 11:07pm - 39h 07min and 98 miles after leaving Benchmark.
I was very pleased I was able to achieve my personal goal of a two day trip. Humbly, I realize the weather was extremely gracious this year - perhaps as an apology for last. I know how easily wind, rain, snow and cold could have derailed my audacious plans. I'm thankfully for another great experience in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and I come out of it with a higher respect for untamed rivers, a debt of gratitude to friendly weather and an affinity to the wonderful people that planned and participated in this great event.