Category Archives: Outdoors

Wapiti Wanderings

I wrote this last fall, but never posted it.  Now that I’m in Alaska, I am waiting to “earn” my residency before hunting due to the price of out of state tags.  In the meantime, I’ll bide my time thinking of last season, spotting wildlife while hiking and hopefully reading and hearing of friends adventures.  Until then, I’ll fondly remember last season…

Last fall was a huge learning experience for me in regards to wildlife.  I shot my first animal with a rifle, a North American Pronghorn Antelope, which interestingly is more closely related to a goat than an actual antelope.  I managed to also get a doe deer, and I thought I was figuring out some ungulate behavior and habits.  But the big one, the elk, remained elusive.

I actually hunted elk more than any other species this fall.  and while I saw lots of pronghorn, and many deer, the wapiti were real

Saw lot’s of mule deer, no elk.

hard to find.  Sure, I saw some tracks, some relatively fresh scat and plenty of rubs, all things I’d seen while hiking in the mountains.  But the actual animals began to take a mythological place in my mind.  I went where I thought they would be, where I would go if I was an Elk (clearly flawed logic) but they were never there.  I would talk to other hunters and they would casually mention seeing a herd of 40 that evening or two large bulls watching them from a ridge.  I hadn’t seen anything in over a month.

Chased these tracks all day!

An early fall snow storm gave me hope that the elk would be pushed out of the mountains and into my area.  A day of wandering through wet snow chasing tracks yielded fresh scat and a recent bed, but no elk.  I did have some mule deer walk by pretty closely and I was hearing shots all day, so someone was having luck, but it sure wasn’t me.

After a week of hunting deer, and getting my doe, I was back to seeking out the wiley wapiti.

As the season progressed, I was able to hunt a different area than my early season tag, higher up and I hoped, fewer people and more elk.

It seems that the problem with switching areas when hunting is that you have no idea where the animals are.  Four days of wandering, glassing (a fancy term I’ve learned for looking through binoculars for stuff, while generally not seeing it) and exploring led to nothing.  Some sign here and there, but most was old.

After spending an afternoon wandering around in the same area with my wife, where we saw my best friends truck, I invited him

I spent hours doing this. Note the homemade shooting sticks supporting my rifle.

over for dinner and we talked elk.  I wanted to know where these things were, how to find them and if he had seen anything in the area we were in.  We laughed about me stumbling upon his “secret spot” which I took as a good sign that I was at least in a good area.  He gave me some info on where he had seen elk up there before, when I might want to go and we overall encouraged each others efforts with a lot of excited stories.

The next night I was feeling inspired.  I left the house at 11pm, and got up to the parking spot that I’d been scouting from around midnight.  a previous bivy in the back of the truck had proven that it was a cold, snow drifty place to crash (I should have known this, given the years I spent living out of a pick up truck!) and given the time, I chose to just catch some z’s in the back seat.  My alarm went off way too early at 6am.  Still dark.  I dragged myself from under my down quilt, hunted through the front seat for  some layers and my boots and eventually pushed open the door to the truck.  I started hiking to the the spot that I thought I might be able to see some elk from.  Not far out, I heard the faint sound of an ATV.  I kept walking, hoping the motorized fella would roll on by when he saw my truck.

When the first opening appeared in the trees, I headed uphill, staying tight to the scrub pine and slowing my pace down.  I saw nothing.  I kept moving.

When I reached the outcrop of limestone, the sun was just peaking out to greet the day, I had begun to appreciate sunrises more this season. I sat, glassed, relaxed. There they were. The first elk I had seen all season, way far off.  The range finder showed them at 550 yds, way further than I felt confident shooting.  I watched them move, maybe a dozen elk, traveling down slope, through thin timber and brush.  and then they were gone.  Into a depression, a drainage or some other feature.  What to do.  I sat for a while, trying to find them in my binos. Pondering my next move.  Would they come to me? Should I move?  What the hell do elk do when they are moving anyway?  I figured I was better off moving, maybe I wouldn’t  find the same herd, but I certainly wasn’t gonna get one sitting still.

Learning to love sunrises, I saw elk on this ridge.

I scooted off my perch and walked downhill into some sparse trees, quickly arriving at the edge of a cliff band overlooking the valley below.  Meandering along the cliff edge I looked below me to see if any elk were in the valley.  The thought of actually shooting anything down there and having to haul it back up hill was intimidating, so I turned back along the trees and moved up the bench I was on.  The trees ended as I stepped out just a bit into an opening and saw them all, grazing not fifty yards away.  I quickly crouched and walked slowly towards a dead tree.  I knelt in what must have been cold snow, focusing on my breathing as I tried to settle my pounding heart.  I watched as the elk moved around each other, through some sparse trees, in and out of cover.  It felt like forever. Braced against a fallen tree.  Breathing.  Watching.  When I thought I had a good shot, I fired.  The herd scattered, fast and far.  I looked frantically to see my cow drop, stumble or slow, but they all ran.  One ran away from the rest of the herd, still close to me.  I watched the others while this single cow looked nervously around, apparently not seeing me.   The herd appeared content 200 yards away, while this lone cow stood and began grazing about 50 yards from me.  I shifted position.  I had missed my first shot.  Not this one.  Three steps and and down.

The perfect size cow to haul back to the truck solo.

I was amazed at the increased volume of guts inside an elk, even this small one.  After field dressing, I dragged the cow up hill to a small pass, passing where I had shot my deer.  I had learned the hard way from that experience that sometimes the fastest way between two points isn’t a straight line.  This time I had learned mornings alone in the mountains can be beautiful and rewarding.

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End of winter fun

Special Thanks to Mandy for the great edit.

NOLS Winter Course- OES 2012 from Mandy Pohja on Vimeo.

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Avalanche decision making maze

Check out this Avalanche decision making maze that I worked on with the Casper Star Tribune.  While it focuses on some of the more basic aspects of avalanche decision making and I always encourage folks to take some sort of formal Avy training, I hope this graphic helps people to think a little more in the back-country.

AVY maze

Also featured on Lou Dawson’s Wild Snow.

I’ve been a little slow on the blog lately, lot’s of things going on and a bunch of pieces in the wings.  For now though, I’m going into the mountains for two weeks of back-country skiing and Avy education.  Stay safe out there, it’s been a unstable snowpack all winter and it doesn’t look like it will be getting any better soon.

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Adventure Travel – National Geographic Adventure Blog

While I was in the field the abridged version of my Backcountry Boiler review was featured on the National Geographic Adventure Blog, check it out:

Adventure Travel – National Geographic Adventure Blog.

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Filed under backcountry, backpacking, DIY, equipment, Fabrication, gear, lightweight, MYOG, Outdoors, Reviews, ultralight, wilderness

The wilderness as an escape or an engagement

People often say that they go outdoors to get away from it all.  Recently I’ve been wondering if we are approaching our outdoor endeavors with a skewed perspective.  When you ask someone who goes outdoors to recreate why they do it, they may reply with the classic cliche of escapism, but when pressed to describe their outdoor experience, they seldom describe the getting away from it all, and instead excitedly pontificate on everything that they get from and enjoy about the outdoors.

Fully engaged (we were dodging ice at the belay on this pitch), I returned home more engaged in my life.

A “sense of connection” “feeling alive”  “learning to communicate and deal with other people” “wonderment” “overcoming challenge”.  These are a few of the phrases that I hear in conversations with folks venturing outdoors.  To me, none of these sounds like an escape, but rather a deep and perhaps essential engagement.

In his timeless essay Briefing for Entry Into a More Harsh Environment, Morgan Hite lists eleven things that you learn or experience in the wilderness that apply profoundly to our front country lives, if we remember that they should.  None of them talk about getting away from that life we sometimes call “real life” but they are rather a call to action to engage in our front country lives with the same mindfulness that we engage in the wilderness.

I have to wonder, what if we looked at our forays into the wilderness for what they are, what they do have vs. what they get us away from? Would we then be closer to understanding the transformative potential of the outdoors?  If we approach our outdoor endeavors as a reminder of the engagement we hope to have with the world on a daily basis instead of as an escape from that world, would it bring us closer to self actualization and fulfillment?

In asking these questions I must start with my own reflections on time spent outdoors, here are some of the things that I realize more fully outside, and hope to carry with me throughout life:

There is beauty to be found everywhere. In the majesty of a grand vista or simply a cool and unexpected bug crawling in the grass nearby.

Found in the grass flyfishing with a friend, this was the coolest part of the day. I have to wonder what cool small things I miss by not being as engaged as I should?

In crumbling buildings and illuminated cities.  Sometimes that beauty challenges our perceptions of what beauty is, and this is a good thing, because seeing beauty in the little, everyday things helps us to appreciate the amazing world we live in.

We should take care of ourselves and each other.  In popular culture, going outdoors is often viewed as survival, and if things go badly, it can turn into that, but most of my experience outdoors has been thriving and feeling alive and healthy.  Why should we only find ourselves outdoors to survive some calamity? Certainly I don’t feel that each day in the front country is survival, yet I find it harder to take care of myself and others amidst the stimulus of the “real world.”  I value going into the wilderness to remind me to try harder at taking care of myself and others.  Recently it has been a harsh reminder that I am not doing this as well as I should.

Value the things you have and let go of those things you don’t.  The wilderness encourages us to take care of our gear, yet so many of my outdoor professional friends never change the oil in their trucks, or just buy a new piece of gear when they could repair something they have.  With the constant evolution of outdoor gear and the onslaught of advertising in the front country, it is easy to think you always need the newest flashy gear. I can certainly say that I consistently forget that I don’t need new things to enjoy my life.  Maybe it’s time to go run around outdoors to remind myself of this again.

Life can be hard, get over it.  Sometimes it storms on your outdoor trip, and sometimes your “real life” can be stormy.  In the wilderness you either deal with it or do something about it, I reckon we should do the same in the front country.

Art or disrepair? It's all in the how you look at it. Photo: Janeen Hutchins janeenhutchinsphotography.com

As I write this, I realize I may be paraphrasing Hite’s piece too much.  In the backcountry it can be easier to follow a well established trail, but often we are most engaged when we venture off on our own path.  There is no reason that this shouldn’t be true in everyday life as well.  Find those things that inspire and motivate you that don’t require being outdoors.  There are hundreds of outdoor activities and yet in the front country we often follow the path laid out by our cultures, communities and the mass media.  Choose your own path through life and enjoy the encounters with others you see along the way.  When you do find yourself on the path of “norms” be sure that they lead in a direction you want to go.

The wilderness can force you to be engaged in the world around you. I go outdoors to seek that engagement and to be reminded that I should seek it in my life in general. I can’t really escape from the front country. I have to go back eventually. Wouldn’t my life be more fulfilling in general if instead I found a way to be as engaged in the front country as the backcountry?  Would yours?

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Modular AVY Pouch Prototype

When Mike St. Pierre from Hyperlite Mountain Gear was hanging out at my house this summer I was throwing out ideas for all kinds of things when he playfully mentioned that it’s not the ideas that are the hard part of gear design.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of business or marketing experience, which I think is what Mike was alluding to.  Still, I threw out the idea of an ultralight ski pack, perhaps based on the Windrider pack they already make, and Mike seemed intrigued.  After reading that I had been taking the Windrider out on some ski tours, Mike suggested that his new Porter pack might be a better fit for skiing.  After a brief email exchange where I told Mike about some upcoming ski courses I would be working for NOLS, he sent me out the Hyperlite Expedition, the big brother to the Porter, and I agreed that I would prototype an Avy pouch that would attach to either the Porter or Expedition.

Hyperlite Expedition Pack. Photo courtesy of Hyperlite Mountain Gear.

The Porter/Expedition packs are no frills ultralight packs in classic mountaineering style.  The packs are constructed from the same Cuben Fiber hybrid as the Windrider, but features a beefier (but not bulkier) waist belt and shoulder straps.  The packs can be closed in either drybag style – creating a loop at the top, or with the removable vertical straps for a clean top.  Along each side of the pack runs a vertical daisy chain, to about halfway up the length of the pack.  On the rear of the pack run another pair of daisy chains, framing the rear panel.

I spent an evening this week building a Prototype Avy tool pouch that should work well.   Overall, I am happy with how this “first draft” turned out, though it wasn’t without its trials and a few ripped seams.  I can’t seem figure out pattern making yet.  I find it helpful for conceptualizing and laying stuff out, but my sizing keeps coming out a bit off.  Easily fixed at the sewing machine though!   It attaches securely with 3/4″ side release buckles and remains quickly removable.  The pack has three compression straps on the sides which should allow ski carry in the A-Frame method, which isn’t my preferred way to haul skis around when they aren’t on my feet, so I’ll continue to look at ways to incorporate a diagonal carry method with the new pouch attached.  After some testing this winter, I’ll send the pouch off to Mike and we’ll see if he can adapt my “train-of-consciousness” sewing job into a refined Cuben Fiber product worthy of his pack line.

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Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips, a somewhat biased review

Get the book, go lighter.

I know Mike Clelland, he’s a friend, a mentor, and a pal.  We’ve hiked together and collaborated quiet a bit on various lightweight projects over the last six or seven years.  So here’s the deal.  Mike sent me a copy of this book.  Now, you might think that I would give him a swell review just because he hooked me up, but the truth is Mike’s got it right. You see, Mike see’s things differently than most folks.

Mike Brews up an a quick trip into the mountains in Alaska

This should be apparent from the awesome illustrations he draws that accurately depict technical details with humor and levity.  It goes beyond that though.  It goes beyond drawing a happy hiker with some neat trick of ultralight backpacking and some little boing marks.  Mike gets it.  He draws stuff he knows, whether climbing, skiing, mountaineering or ultralight backpacking.  And he’s always trying to understand it all better.  I have met few in the ultralight game who have put as much thought and trial into their system as Mike.  When it comes to influencing the hiking world to go lighter, it is easily argued that Mike C! has had as large an impact as anyone. Mike has taken the admittedly geeky world of lightweight and made it accessible to the common (wo)man.

His lightweight illustrations, first in Lighten Up! and now in his own book Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips have been a gateway to lightweight backpacking for the masses, he also scouted, proposed and championed the lightweight backpacking program at NOLS and has taught lightweight courses for NOLS and Backpacking Light.

He has inspired me to go lighter, and along the way I have been able to help him in small ways, like our common interest in the coffee system (tip #129 – we spent a fun afternoon weighing various coffee devices and brew methods).  My lightest trip ever has been with Mike, our packs both weighed in at 7.98 lbs for an overnight trip with stove, shelter, and two cooked meals.  It is Mikes desire to share what he has learned that makes his book so effective.  He uses his amazing talent for illustration to remind us that this backpacking stuff is supposed to be fun.

That’s the biggest selling point of this book.  It’s downright fun to read.  This makes the wackier of ideas (like #54 Make your own toothpaste dots, which work really well and are a great way to bring just enough paste.) easier to buy into and try out.  You can laugh at the cute drawing, and ponder the wisdom behind the tip.  With the tip format, Mike has allowed the reader to try different techniques on different trips with no need to do everything at once, fully engaging in my favorite tip, #6 Try something new every time you go camping.  A great model for learning by doing.

Whether your a pro lightweight explorer or just getting into the game, this book is bound to give you some new ideas to get out and try on your next trip.  It is a beautiful call to action to get out, travel lighter and learn by doing.

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Adventure Travel – National Geographic Adventure Blog

Great info for playing in the winter wonderland:

Adventure Travel – National Geographic Adventure Blog.

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First impressions – Hyperlite Mountain Gear

One of the best parts of working in the outdoors (other than the obvious joy of working in the outdoors) is the people that you meet.  I described my somewhat random meeting with Mike from Hyperlite Mountain Gear  in a previous post.  He recently sent me their flagship Windrider pack to test, and while it came at the end of the Wyoming hiking season, I have taken it out skiing a couple days to get a feel for it while I try to find some time to get down to the canyons or someplace a tad warmer than the Winds are right now.  This will be a long term test, so here are my initial impressions.

Windrider Pack:

The pack is definitely light. The websight has a claimed weight of 1.6lbs (25.5 oz.) and on my scale I found the actual weight of my size large pack to be only one pound, over a half pound lighter than claimed.  This is pretty remarkable, considering most manufactures understate the weight of their gear!

Brilliant white and really light. Photo courtesy of HMG.

The pack is a brilliant white and pretty loud out of the box and really loud when cold!  I’m not sure if the Cuben/nylon hybrid fabric softens up and will get quieter over time, I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

The fabric is Cuben fiber laminated to a light nylon and feels very durable.  Shoulder straps and waist belt are built from Dyneema X or a similar spectra grid rip stop fabric with relatively thin spacer mesh at all contact points.    The exterior has  super spacious mesh pockets and hip pockets on the waist belt. An emergency whistle is integrated into the sternum strap.

The top compression system looks to also double as load lifters and this is actually really slick, most ultralight packs forgo load lifters, which severely compromises their ability to carry heavier loads at the beginning of a trip.  In addition to the load lifters, the pack has a foam frame sheet and actual aluminum stays that run vertically along the inside.  The stays are removable (awesome to shave even more weight – 2 oz. on my scale!), though the foam frame sheet isn’t, which I don’t think matters at all.

The pack has a velcro and roll top closure, providing excellent water resistance.  The roll top clips into vertical compression straps that pull the load down and towards the hips to further stabilize the load.  There are two additional compression straps made from lighter grosgrain webbing that lift the lower load into the small of the back.  Finally, there is the top compression strap which runs as a “V” or a “Y” (depending on how loaded the pack is) from the shoulder straps to just above the rear mesh pocket.  A neat feature of this strap system is that it has an adjustable side release buckle both at the base of the “Y” and at the top of one arm of the “Y”.  This allows easy acces to whatever you have lashed down on the top of your pack.  I can see this being very useful for those hiking in bear country with a bear canister, or for securing a packraft.

Keep an eye out for the long term review of this pack!

My solo shelter set up at a great friends wedding in Aspen, Co.

The shelter I’ve been playing around with is the Echo 1 system, a super (dare I say Hyper?) light tarp with slick modularity.  It is comprised of the Echo 1 tarp, an optional bug shelter/bathtub floor and the optional “beak” vestibule. One of the striking things about this shelter is the unique use of different materials.  The trap and beak are made from a lighter cuben fiber with reinforcements in appropriate places, while the bug shelter/bathtub floor uses a combo of lighter cuben on the sidewalls, and a more durable, but slightly heavier Cuban fiber on the floor with really light mesh for bug protection.  The bathtub floor is clipped to the tarp using shock cord, which allows the user to drop the bug net into the floor when bugs are not an issue, while retaining a full bathtub floor with high sidewalls.

The Echo 1 shelter is a solo system and as such is a tight fit.  I’m 6′ and fit perfectly but taller users may find it somewhat coffin like.  There is ample overhang on both ends of the tarp to provide weather protection, and the foot box of the bug insert is all cuben to prevent rain from wetting out your down quilt down there.  For more protection from the elements, you can quickly attach the beak, providing an extremely storm worthy shelter.

The Shelter sets up using trekking poles, it seems most ultralight backpackers really like trekking poles, so this makes sense for most users, I however have found that with such a light pack trekking poles are an extraneous addition to my system and I choose not to carry them.   This is a chronic problem for me with ultralight shelters, as most are designed with trekking poles in

The fly alone, note the modified trekking pole used for set up.

mind.  I’ve been building my own shelter support poles out of various broken and discarded poles at work, and this worked well for the Echo as well.  To save even more weight, you could pretty easily use a stick, flyrod case (though mine is made from a fluorescent tube protector and probably isn’t rigid enough – mental note to self, test this out!) or lengths of a four piece paddle.

I recommend that folks set up any new shelter at home prior to going into the field.  This helps you find the tricks to a proper pitch that is taunt and secure.  The Ehco is no different, and for folks more familiar with more traditional backpacking tents will be critical to field success. For me, I found it to be finicky on my first set up, the second time went smoother, and the third was easy and effective, now I can pitch the entire system in a few minutes.  The small foot print of the shelter will allow the ultralight backpacker to hide off trail and find optimal camping even in tight trees or high winds. Almost any tree or decent sized boulder will provide additional shelter from gale force winds in that unexpected mountain storm with this shelters foot print.

Integrated tensioners that are reachable from inside the shelter allow quick adjustment.

I’ve used the word slick a couple times in describing the Hyperlite gear, and this carries over for the shelter too.  The Echo uses slick tensioners in place of hitches, and unlike some of the plastic line locks found on other shelters, these are integrated into the shelter and work really well!  They are easily adjusted from inside the shelter, which means that you don’t have to brave the cold wet world outside if you need to adjust the tension in the middle of the night.

Stay tuned for long term reviews of both of these pieces, as I get more time in the field with them.

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Random Encounters

The mountains can bring people together, you learn to watch out for each other, to share and learn from your companions and to be friendly and welcoming to those you meet along the way.

Lower Jean Lake, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming

Two years ago a sales rep friend of a my buddy Kevin McGowan, the long time Outfitting Manager at NOLS Rocky Mountain dropped off a fancy new ultralight shelter off for us to look at from a start up company from Maine called Hyperlite Mountain Gear.  I have been coordinating the Lightweight program at NOLS for about six years now, so Kev handed me the shelter and asked me to test it out and tell him what I thought.  Due to a busy summer schedule, I “pawned” the testing off on another lightweight fanatic who was able to get out a bit sooner that I was.  I’ll post on my initial impressions on the shelter, but that’s not so much the story of the mountains and people that I want to share.

This summer I was cruising around the Wind River Range of Wyoming, what I consider my back yard, with an amazing group of people on a NOLS lightweight backpacking course.  Our community of folks was really tight and we had traveled the length of the Southern Winds through perhaps the most spectacular route you can do.  As we continued North, two of our hiking groups had a chance encounter with these nice fellas from Maine with some fancy ultralite packs.  They wanted to know if we were sponsored by Golite because so many of us had the Jam pack.  My wife Janeen, who was working the course with me and another Ryan explained the volume of Jam packs and that we were with NOLS.  She asked about their packs and this guy named Mike explained that he owned this ultralight gear company called Hyperlite Mountain Gear, and had built these packs.

The day they met. Photo Credit: Janeen Hutchins http://www.janeenhutchinsphotography.com

As Janeen and Mike carried on about the benefits of lightweight backpacking, it came out that I had a role in the NOLS lightweight program and that it would be great if Mike and his hiking buddy/sponsored athlete “Bama” swung by our house for a post course barbeque after they finished their trip.  Janeen offered some information on the cool places to go in the winds after they explained that they were coming from the summer Outdoor Retailer Show and a friend and colleague there had said they should hike in the winds before heading home.  They were headed the way we had come, and Janeen, being a savvy back-country woman, could describe the route blow by blow.

The scenic route.

There are a lot of ways to travel through the Winds, and that day my group took the scenic route.  We never saw Mike and Bama. I was excited that the students had been able to talk to them, see the gear they were making and hear about other ways of applying lightweight skills.  I wondered if they would actually give a call and swing by at our post course celebration.

Sure enough, the evening we rolled out of the field Mike gave a ring and we guided him into our house where we were hosting the course for our graduation.  We grilled up some grub and had an ultralight stove building clinic, I spent a bunch of time talking to Mike and Bama about the gear they build and the adventures they had been on, where they were from and what Mike hoped to do with Hyperlite.

This is the part I find so fascinating.  Here are these guys, Bama an accomplished thru-hiker, and Mike with a remarkable story of changing careers from the New York world of culinary arts to being the owner and designer of ultralight gear built in the USA, eating BBQ at my place in the small town of Lander Wyoming, after a chance encounter in the mountains.  The people we meet, the stories we share.  These are some of the things that are the most remarkable about the outdoors.

To hear the story of Hyperlite in Mikes words, check out this video.

I’ll also be publishing my initial impressions of two flagship pieces from Hyperlite very soon, stay tuned!

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