Publisher's Blog: Ryan Jordan's Backcountry
Trail Journal – May 12, 2012
I’m in the midst of a nasty flu and I’m sweating, and extremely dehydrated. I ruptured a disk in my back three weeks ago. I miss my wife, she’s a thousand miles away. I’m in a psuedo-wilderness, camped in an alcove in the Escalante Arm of Lake Powell.
My Jewish companions are on lockdown, it’s the Sabbath. I feel the need to rest, but the opportunity to explore. I get in the powerboat and deliriously navigate to the end of the canyon, the whirr of the gas engine lulling me to doze while Abbey screams in my head about the disaster that has risen up the walls of Glen Canyon. I ignore the guilt, and floor the throttle.
After idling through a maze of flooded tamarisk, I beach the boat on a tiny sandbar and flop out, wavering like a drunk, struck by a combination of physical debilitation and desert heat. I look for my water bottle. I forgot it back at camp! How stupid. Certainly there’s a creek, or a spring, or something up here. I check satellite phone reception. Nothing. So I leave it in the boat. Dead weight.
There’s only one direction to go. The end of the canyon.
I look to what I think might be a horizon (horizons don’t exist in this canyon, as I think on this later) and see heat waves. My mouth is dry from thirst and I spit out grains of sand delivered there by a hot wind. Whiptail lizards are darting here and there. They stand on their tiptoes, cock their heads, and (I think) they blink at me. I yearn to know what they are saying so I invoke mental license and hear them clearly: “dude, you gotta drink.”
That’s when I hear the trickle of the stream.
I wade down a steep slope of loose sand past the rarely blooming prickly pear and unmistakably aromatic juniper, tumble through broken talus, and ignore the game trails though the willows when I see the shimmer of the water surface. I remove all of my clothes, enter the deepest pool I can find (18 inches), lay on my back, plug my nose, and drink.
I think I fell asleep in the water after making my way to a shallow sandbar. I woke up to the tickling of minnows against the sides of my stomach. I had a clear head, but a mouth that tasted of algae and grit. My groin was exposed to dry air, and hot sun, an oversight for which I’d pay dearly for the next day.
I emerged from the cool water and searched for my clothes. Fifteen minutes passed before I found my second shoe.
I let out a belch that echoed off the canyon wall, reminding me that I was hydrated enough to continue. I nibble on a piece of sun-dried smallmouth bass from my snack stash, a tenkara catch from two days before. I walked up the creek towards the seep-stained walls of the amphitheater, and discover a bit of healing in having reached my destination.
Five hours later I return to camp.
“How was it?” they ask.
“I feel better”.
First, a definition.
To some, like my friend Glen, the fringe season means that period of weeks where the pool temperature in San Diego creeps from its wintertime low in the 60s to its barely tolerable springtime comfort of 80. When my family hung out with Glen and his in a February, we were eager to enjoy the ice-free water while he donned a parka and watched us frolic incredulously from the safety of a lawn chair.
For most backpackers, the fringe season seems to be defined by that period after Labor Day and before Halloween when the prospect of inclement weather is a reality.
For me, the fringe season on the fall side is that period of time when snow starts to fall regularly, but is intermixed with the reality of freezing rain. Sure, there may be snow on the ground, but for the most part, it’s less than a foot or two deep and I’m still using tent stakes. The fringe season ends when I can no longer walk without snowshoes or skis, and I have to anchor my shelter with deadmen. That’s when winter starts.
Dressing for the fringe season is challenging because everything has a tendency to get really wet.
Wet clothes means that low temperatures and high winds amp up the discomfort and insecurity level a bit.
I’m constantly searching for some sort of optimum in the fringe season. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve found it, but here’s a system that’s been working for me for a while, and the list below reflects my fine-tuning made in 2012.
- I’m agnostic on brimmed caps in the fringe season (there doesn’t seem to be a lot of sun anyways) and prefer a simple, merino wool beanie cap. My favorite is the now-discontinued BPL Merino UL Beanie, which weights 0.6 oz. I’m a big fan of Buffs, too, for their versatility.
- When it’s really cold, I’m also wearing a hoody hood (see below), and when it’s really windy or wet, I have hoods on my wind shirt and rain jacket, too.
- I can’t say enough good things about the Brynje Merino Long Sleeve Crew. It’s fishnet, and a radical departure from a conventional wicking system. Look for more story next week at BPL about the philosophy.
- In cold (maybe in the 30s and less, perhaps, with nasty weather of course), I add a Patagonia Capilene 4 hoody. It’s light (6 oz), and grid fleece. It layers nicely over the Brynje top.
- In bad weather, I’m nearly always wearing a wind shirt (Patagonia Houdini Jacket), over just the Brynje shirt for mild conditions, or over the Brynje + Cap 4 hoody for colder stuff.
- When it’s wet or really windy, I’ll top the whole bit off with an old Patagonia Specter Anorak, but am looking forward to seeing what the new Westcomb eVENT 2L jacket can do, as my last Specter is now starting to seam-fail.
- The camp and sleep garment is a new skunkworks gig, built for me by Ben over at Goosefeet. Breathable Cuben Fiber, 900 fill down, hooded anorak, kangaroo pocket, parka-length, massive amounts of loft. Twelve oz. This replaces my 19 oz Feathered Friends Helios most of the time.
- In addition to the usual stretchy underwear, I almost always wear something like Powerstretch in winter conditions as my pant. I’m not a fan of the usual soft shells – they are cold, thin, and when it’s wet, you can’t seem to pump moisture out of them fast enough.
- I don’t fool around with low gaiters in the winter. I started off with a set of Mountain Laurel Designs eVENT gaiters, and although I like the weight, the durability was lacking and they were easily shredded in the bush. I eventually moved to the REI eVENT gaiters but the balling underfoot was abhorrent due to the use of absorbent nylon webbing. I’m going back to what has worked for years: outdoor research Gore-Tex with Cordura lowers and PU impregnated straps.
- I almost never, ever wear raingear, even in the foulest conditions. Powerstretch works that good while you’re moving. I do add rain pants in camp – my version is a knicker length breathable Cuben Fiber. Zpacks. 2.6 oz.
- Thick socks. I’ve been trying Smartwool PhD Expedition socks but can’t resist the plush warmth of Smartwool Mountaineering Socks. I’ll probably go back to them for hiking days where the temps are less than 40F and I have to hang out in camp in single digits.
- Inov-8 288 GTX UL boots. Reliably waterproof, flexible, and oh-so-light, with great tread for snowy trails.
- Kahtoola Microspikes – for steep climbs over high passes on icy trails. I yearn for a titanium version with less chain, less rubber, and less weight.
- I’m blessed with good hand circulation. I use, almost universally in the winter, Powerstretch 400 gloves. My favorites are made by OR.
- When things get wet and windy, I add MLD eVENT overmitts, which fit poorly and offer no grip but stay in my pack most of the time so the light weight is appreciated.
As you transform from a novice ultralight backpacker into a seasoned ultralight backpacker, you will find yourself saying this less:
“Oh no! I forgot ___________”
And saying this more:
“What gear and knowledge can I use to solve this problem?”
Most manufacturers of ultralight shelters love to put all sorts of contraptions on their shelters that inhibit ventilation and views, which I think are the two most important attributes of the basic tarp setup.
You name it, they’ve thought about how to destroy ventilation and views: doors, flaps, beaks, nests, awnings … the list goes on.
So before you moan in agony the next time a little snow starts blowing in your beakless tarp, consider instead what you might not be using that could serve … well enough.
For me recently (see photo above), a snowy night in a windy meadow meant that I had the opportunity to rig a bead curtain door thing to the front of my tarp. I lashed my free trekking pole near the top of the front ridge pole, and stuck the other end down on the ground angled down. I then tied my pack to the two poles, and added a spare inflation bag to the other side, anchored to the ground by a piece of extra guyline cord and a Snowclaw (not shown), secured by a stick shoved into the meadow grass roots.
I slept fine. Especially after I buried my head inside my windshirt body for full coverage, since I didn’t have a bivy sack.
Earplugs topped it off, then I wouldn’t have to awaken at the wind howling up in the tree tops right before it slammed into my tarp.
I know, it sounds dramatic, but it really isn’t. It’s just your basic ultralight ethos. Doing awesome things with what you have, so you can be graceful as you travel through wild places.
November in Montana is exciting because of the promise of snow.
Before November, you have to go to high elevations to find snow, like in this photo, which is my camp in Maloney Basin in the Anaconda-Pintlar Wilderness with the Ultralight Backpacking Boot Camp on the night of November 1, 2012.
The promise of snow has me excited more this year than in years past, because of a number of projects I want to work on, like:
- Camping with a flat, Cuben Fiber tarp in winter.
- Catching trout on a Tenkara rod when ice is floating down the river.
- Testing the new Alpacka Dry Suit in a packraft while dodging icebergs in the whitewater of the Gallatin River’s Mad Mile.
- Hiking in Kahtoola Microspikes on steep, icy trails.
- Introducing my son to backcountry skiing in remote couloirs.
- Firebuilding in awful conditions.
You see, for me, winter doesn’t mean putting gear a way, it just means changing gears.
A lot of people have anxiety over cold temperatures and snow, but I really like the beauty that winter brings. I want to share that beauty, and help you enjoy winter, too. That’s why I’m making some intentional efforts to bring solid winter backcountry education to the members of BPL this year. We have cool stuff coming about nordic skiing, base layer technologies, winter shelters, traction devices, and gear made with goose feathers.
Here’s a sneak peak at one of my favorite skunkworks projects this winter: a 12 oz down parka shelled with breathable Cuben Fiber. (Yes, it’s rather warm, and not 3-season-ish at all):
I love fishing, and teaching, the traditional Japanese method of tenkara using a light rod, fine tippet, and a sparse and simple soft-hackled fly.
But the season for huge brown trout is just around the corner and one can only eat from a bento box for so long before he wakes up sweating in the middle of the night because a 25 inch fish is mocking the lo-cal snack at the end of your line.
The Tenkarabugger remains my single most effective “guide fly” with clients who want to catch large trout on a tenkara rod.
I tie it in black, olive, yellow, and purple; and always on a #4 drop shot hook*.
This is the fly I would choose if I adopted a “one-fly” paradigm for tenkara fishing in the brawling rivers of Montana or Wyoming.
This is the outcome of my attempt to adapt the Woolly Bugger for a tenkara-style of fishing for large brown trout in big rivers, especially in the low light conditions after dusk and into the moonlight, where I want
- Lots of motion and reflectivity for low light conditions, and fishing on dark days with October snow;
- Lots of bulk and fluidity for attracting large fish;
- A short shank and lightweight materials to maximize natural movement;
This is a killer fly for the deep runs and pools of the Yellowstone River at dusk in the big-brown sections between Livingston and Springdale, or for the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park when the browns are running in October.
If you have to fish it on a Tenkara USA rod, try the Amago with a level line and stout (2X) tippet*, and hold on. Otherwise, think about what you might need to wade deep, fish deep, and enjoy a long drift so you can cover lots of water. My preference is a stiff (8:2), two-handed, 6 or 7m rod – which gives you better fly control and sensitivity for a drop-shot take. This isn’t Japanese mountain stream tenkara, by the way. It’s prospecting for trout in the five to ten pound range. My secret weapon is the Alpacka Dry Suit, and a PFD. Big rods, two hands, bushy flies, heavy tippet, split shot, drysuits (!) – call it what you want. The fish don’t care.
Fished drop-shot style with a shot below it for deep pool drifting is a fantastic prospecting rig that gives you incredible fly control with a tenkara rod tip-and-line, and sensitivity for detecting the take.
Fishing this way takes practice, nerves of steel, and perhaps a willingness to get a little wet when the game is on. It’s worth mastering if large browns are your target.
Wanna try it? Inquire now, because the biggest browns are going to start hyperphagia in a few weeks…
* This may void your warranty. Use stout tippet and large flies at your own risk.
Life’s trials are like a paddler’s swims.
Other times, you try to roll, and can’t. You try again, and can’t. You’re head hits a rock here, a rock there. Maybe you cut a gash on limestone above your brow, or break your nose or mandible. Maybe (gasp!) you have to pull the ripcord and take a big swim, and, as Sam wrote, enjoy the grit of that humiliating beverage drank from your rank old bootie.
I have to laugh a little whenever I hear a young person think that life is like a box of chocolates. Sure, you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s still chocolate, they say.
I don’t know about you, but that’s not how life has been for me. Sometimes, the chocolate just ain’t chocolate, man.
I think we’re all between swims.
And the swims – that’s what’s makes us, you know?
“I’m Ready to Help.”
I’ve been a guide for a long time. Officially, I started 25 years ago.
For the last many years, I’ve heard the same old thing from my son, usually after he sees the photos from my trips:
“I wanna go.”
“I wanna catch those fish.”
“I wanna sleep up there.”
“I wanna cross that glacier.”
I wanna. I wanna. I wanna. It’s been like a broken record. I leave, he cries. Same old story.
This year, it was different.
“I wanna help you guide.”
Now that rings a little different, I have to admit.
So I tell him.
You’re ready to be the camp cook, exhausted? You’re ready to hang heavy bear bags? You’re ready to repair the packrafts at midnight? You’re ready to stay calm when the clients are freaking out because it’s snowing, they’re cold, and you know exactly what you’re doing? Yeah?
It starts with learning to work. Hard work.
“What do I have to do?” he says.
That’s the right question!
I love guiding because I love to work hard. I love carrying a client’s pack if they’re struggling, I love to battle a storm when I know that my joy in a storm helps a client’s morale, and of course, I love that part where you’re showing a client how to cast a tenkara rod, and your fly lands perfectly and up comes that twenty-something inch cutthroat. “That’s how it’s done,” you say, and “Wow! Gimme that rod!” they say! And it happens again. Bam. Fish on.
So when Chase asked me this winter, “what do I have to do?” I told him to load up his pack with twenty pounds, we’re climbing hills twice a week.
So he loaded up with almost 30 pounds, and said, “OK, let’s go.”
“Alright then, let’s go.”
This is a short film I made about a typical after-school training hike on a local trail. Yes, it’s still winter in Montana. But it’s awesome, and we love it, because we hike year round.
We train in the Bridger Mountains, mostly. This trail is the Bozeman darling, the College “M” Trail.
Technical: Shot on a Panasonic GH3 (24p MOV, 72 Mbps, flat (-5, -5, -5, -5), exposure grading in post, with some 40% slo-mo thrown in for fun. Lens was the wonderful little Panasonic 12-35/2.8 (weather-sealed!) with manual focus racking using Wiley’s killer $50 Follow Focus rig on CF bars – heck ya, because it’s light!