Last weekend was the 7th running of Bob Marshall Wilderness Open and my 5th time in the event. I get lured back nearly every year for this weekend of adventure, limit pushing and suffering. I like it – I’ve progressed dramatically as an outdoor person as a result – but it still intimidates me. Five years in and I still can’t sleep the night before.
The Bob Open is a point to point, choose your own route event in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. For 2018, the event was longer than usual with start and finish points 85 miles apart as the sandhill crane flies. On the ground routes tally 120 – 130 miles (200 – 215km).
The path of least resistance for folks with a raft is to hike 30 miles northwest to the South Fork of the Flathead River and float that north for nearly 60 miles, but I’d done something similar in 2013 and 2015 so I wanted to venture elsewhere. My challenge was finding something different yet still efficient enough that I would be able to put in a respectable time. Every year there are many folks intending to just complete the event, but also a few folks pushing to be as fast as they can and I like to be among the latter.
I devised a route up the east side of Bob which had less rafting but was maybe a little shorter. I would trek 29 miles over the Scapegoat Plateau (8150′) via a pass of my own design (well hopefully a pass) to Straight Creek. I’d then paddle the spicy waters of Straight Creek into the South Fork of the Sun River (20 miles of water), and then walk north for 35 miles over an easier pass to the Middle Fork Flathead River and float that for 20 miles, followed by a final 16 mile push to the finish.
In the weeks leading up to the event the online chatter was all about the massive snowpack in the Bob, but two weeks prior the temperatures shot up and that snow was quickly converted into near record water levels. It left me pretty nervous about the whole thing, as my route was both higher elevation and reliant on tougher waters. I was potentially facing both long miles on the snowshoes and water maybe too sporty to raft. A few days out I decided against rafting the first part of the route and considered some mellower pass options over the continental divide, but as I drove west the day before and I kept mulling it over and decided I should stick to the original plan.
Day 1: North Fork Trailhead to near Benchmark (39 miles inc. 32 walk, 7 raft)
Sixteen folks lined up for the 2018 Bob Open, which is about typical. We got started at 8 AM sharp after the usual warning from Dave not to go dying out there (or maybe he said to have fun, but I think most folks were focused on the former). Myself along with Dave, Will and Adrian chugged along at 3 mph at the front of the pack until Will pointed out that we were moving to slow. He moved to the front and guided us along at 3.5+ mph while Adrian and I tucked in behind him.
After just 6 miles everyone else split off, which is typical. Every year there is this great camaraderie at the start but then I wind up solo almost right away. The upside is that over the years I’ve become a lot more comfortable being solo in big wilderness than I used to be.
I set to work on the 29 miles I had to cover on foot before rafting Straight Creek. I was hoping to paddle Straight Creek today, but the math looked challenging (29 miles in 11 hours so). Most of my route was in the 5500 – 6500′ elevation range which I expected would be snowy and slow. Thankfully conditions were a lot less snowy that recent reports, and I made good time to my pass over the Scapegoat Plateau.
I had an off-trail route planned up to the Plateau from Dobrota Creek that I knew would get me up there because Tanner had been up that way but I wasn’t sure if I could get back down the back side in the Green Fork of Straight Creek. The descent looked steep but doable on Google Earth.
Thanks to the lack of snow, I was soon on top of the plateau and enjoying the spectacular alpine. It was great having such a high pass (8150′) on my route and also nice having it on the first day, so it could be handled while my legs were fresh.
As I neared my descent into the Green Fork, it became clear that large amount of vertical needed to be shed quickly. I approached in the center of the valley where the map indicated the slope was the most gentle, but I quickly emerged onto a 100′ cliff. Plan B was to head left where a creek cuts through the headwall, but about 2 pitches of Class 5 downclimbing thwarted a descent here as well. Thankfully Plan C on the right side revealed a steep snow covered slope through the cliff bands. I descended quickly and set to work on the snow covered miles out the Green Fork while squeezing back some disgusting havarti cheese that had already turned to goo in the heat.
Once out of the Green Fork, I couldn’t help but notice that the snow which was missing from my hike over the Scapegoat plateau was not missing entirely, but rather occupying the Straight Creek valley in liquid form. Straight Creek was massive and everywhere. Instantly I had serious misgivings about packrafting at these flows and decided not to raft Straight Creek after all. [Post trip I would learn that flows were 5x the recommend paddling levels].
For nearly two hours I hiked along while congratulating myself for this responsible decision. Such acuity. I continued this mental bloviation until I turned a corner and was struck by how Straight Creek had metamorphosed from a valley wide mess into a thalweg of hydrological perfection. Some of the finest rafting I had laid my eyes upon. Again I changed my plan – packrafting Straight Creek needed to be done.
Soon I veered towards the creek and inflated my raft. Before putting in I took a moment for sober second thought. Was I being foolish? No, I was feeling strong physically and alert mentally. I was capable of this. I would scout what I could not see and not overdrive my headlights. I spotted an eddy 100 yards down river, put in and paddled the first stretch. Fast and intimidating but awesome. I paddled onwards and soon noticed that while eddys were scarce in the overflowing river, it had a novel advantage: if I needed to stop I could simply plough into the willows lining the sides and skid to a stop. I continued like this, ploughing into the willows before blind corners and scouting as any responsible paddler would.
Straight Creek was awesome and left me deeply satisfied. Not simply because the water was excellent, which it was, but rather because I had demonstrated mastery. I had paddled well, thought ahead and made good decisions, which collectively allowed me to accomplish something new: paddling a pushy creek at flood stage without being reckless. I’m no expert on whitewater ratings but at these flows it felt like solid class III to me. I had to dump water out of the boat about 5 times. It reminded me of the White River but with a little more wood, although I’m sure at normal flows it’s much tamer.
I took out at 9 PM where Straight Creek joins with the South Fork of the Sun River. Not particularly fast for 7 miles of water due to the scouting involved, but no slower than walking. I wished I had more time to paddle the SF Sun as well, but some rapids with real consequences lay ahead and by the time I portaged those it would be dark. I felt fortunate to have made it this far, given how much slower the day could have been if there was more snow.
I packed up and walked the trail for three miles to bypass the rapids and then camped on the banks of the SF Sun at 10:30 PM so I could put it easily in the morning. I was trying a new technique this year of sleeping on my raft instead of a sleeping pad, so by camping along the river I didn’t need to pack that up. Blown up surprisingly firm and with my head on the bow end, it worked extremely well. I wish I’d thought of this years ago.
Day 2: Near Benchmark to Gooseberry (43 miles inc. 35 walk, 8 raft)
I rose at 5:30 AM on day two – a little later than sunrise because it’s hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag into a cold river. I would have preferred to start off hiking but I packed up quickly and was on the water for 6 AM.
The SF Sun is a lot bigger than Straight Creek, so it was starting to take on that spooky big river feel. With high flows, waves were piling up on the outside of the corners and there were strong back-currents on the inside of the corners. I paddled cautiously, approaching corners on the outside to see around them and then cutting to the inside to avoid the large waves. With cold temperatures and intimidating water, I paddled conservatively and stayed mostly dry until my take out near the Gibson’s reservoir. Eight miles in one hour.
I packed up and was on the move at 7:30 AM. I calculated the miles for the day: 35 miles up the North Fork of the Sun River and over Sun River Pass to my next rafting section. I was hoping to arrive no later than 7 PM so I would have two hours to float the Middle Fork of the Flathead River from its origin to Morrison Creek (16 miles). If successful, I could walk late into the night up Morrison and finish early Monday, a solid time for a 120 mile trip. The math looked doable (11.5 hours for 35 miles equals just over 3 mph average).
The North Fork of the Sun River is a special place. A wide and open valley surrounded by mountains that seems like it should have been taken over by trophy homes a century ago, but thankfully has preserved. I enjoyed the simple act of walking and the open views, elk and wild flowers (Calypso orchids, shooting stars, prairie crocus).
After several hours of walking in the open country and sunshine, the flooded landscapes of yesterday had faded from memory and I wasn’t the least bit worried about the creek crossings ahead. I’ve always made out pretty well with creek crossings, so I enjoyed the stroll without concern for any of the tributaries of the NF Sun.
This bucolic demeanour was unfortunately quite misplaced, which I realized when I arrived at Moose Creek. I wasn’t aware that Moose Creek existed when I arrived at its bank, but the roar and abundance of its hydrology quickly alerted me to this oversight. The creek was huge and entirely unfordable, which I didn’t realize because I’ve never attempted a creek ford that didn’t work before. In a hurry, I stepped into its flow – deep, really deep, even deeper – but perhaps not for long. In a split second decision, I went with the rugby approach and tried to hit the main channel with a little forward momentum hoping to plow right through to shallow waters beyond. Not so. Moose Creek plowed through me and introduced me to its downstream reach.
It was at this point that I made my largest mistake. I had previously noticed a broken off log downstream with a branch sticking up from its end and an eddy behind it. I figured I could grab that branch and swing into the eddy, so I paddled a few strokes that way as I drifted downstream and reached for the branch. As I did, I discovered that the log wasn’t as broken off as I would have liked, but rather had a second trunk just below the surface which halted my swing into the eddy. I was pinned against the trunk with the log across my waist, my feet on the bottom and my head above the water, but not by a generous margin in the chest deep water. At this point I could have slid under the log, but going through strainers is generally considered poor style, so I shimmied outwards along the trunk until I was free off the end, and then paddled back to the shore. A dangerous but valuable lesson that fords don’t always work and wood can be more complex than it appears. The price for this lesson was fortunately modest: one trekking pole, bruises and scrapes.
With newfound respect for creeks at flood stage, I reviewed the map and noticed at least three upcoming crossings likely to be at least as difficult. I was thankful I had my raft along, and started to wonder if completing the Bob Open was even possible this year without one.
After another hour I was at Rock Creek. Again huge, but easy to cross with the boat although with 20 minutes lost to unpacking and repacking. Soon thereafter I was at Lick Creek which was hard to even raft across because it was moving so quickly and with only a small eddy to hit for a take out. Another 20 minutes was lost and slowly the math was turning against me for packrafting the MF Flathead today, so I put my head down and hiked faster.
Despite my best efforts I fell behind the necessary pace. I got lost for a bit at the north end of Gates Park, and then the constant deadfall in the burn zones over the last 10 miles slowed my stride. I recalibrated my goal, hoping to just make it to the MF Flathead that night, which would require crossing Strawberry Creek before dark and then walking the final two miles to my intended put in.
Thus far I had done quite well at taking care of my body. Thanks largely to the Bob Open I’ve learned a tremendous amount about avoiding injury. If I get injured, it’s usually either inflamed IT bands from heavy exertion on bent knees, or it’s badly blistered feet because my feet prune like crazy when wet and then the loose skin starts to blister off.
I had avoided IT band issues this year by staying patient while post holing and log hopping, but my feet had been soaked for two days now and serious blisters were starting. I snipped a few and realized that if I hiked another day like this my feet would be in tatters like they were in 2012. Back then my entire pinky toe turned into one big blister but I didn’t stop walking. Eventually that burst and the skin came off my entire toe in one “sleeve”. To avoid such a fate this time, when I pulled over at 10:30 PM on the banks of the MF Flathead I started a fire to dry my shoes instead of going to bed. I was hoping I could pack them away safely while I rafted in the morning, and then hopefully keep them dry for at least a bit while as I hiked from there.
I like using wimpy sparkers and natural materials to start fires, but with sleep and the integrity of my feet on the line, it’s best to cheat. In lieu of kindling, I popped open a wetfire tablet and got some sticks blazing. My shoes were dry by 12:30 AM so I stretched out on the raft for 4.5 hours of sleep.
Day 3: Gooseberry to Marias Pass (40 miles inc. 19 walk, 21 raft)
For the second morning in row I rose at 5:30 and was on the water by 6 AM. I was a bit nervous about rafting the MF Flathead, but this upper part of its reach was small enough to not be spooky and low gradient enough that it was enjoyable paddling.
16 miles later I took out at the Three Forks area which has serious rapids. Instead of walking up Morrison Creek from here, I portaged 3 miles and then would paddle further to Granite Creek to avoid the difficult creek crossings in Morrison (the trail crosses Morrison 3x).
As I put back in below Three Forks, I noticed the river had a different feel. While the big rapids had been portaged, the whole things was on a steeper gradient and had larger waves and holes. It was sporty, but the river was too big to an enjoyable type of sporty. Scary is a better word. I began counting down the miles to my take out.
About two miles in to this last section of rafting, I made a crucial error. A large hole was coming so I moved to the left of it, but seeing substantial waves beyond, I decided to move back to the right side of it in hopes of a cleaner line. I ferried across above the hole, but when I was most of the way across a stiff and unseen side current halted my progress. I couldn’t make it the last 5-10 feet to get out of the path of the hole, so in I went. I spun the boat to face the standing wave at the back of the hole and gave two crisp paddle strokes in hopes of bunching through. It wasn’t enough. I hung on the crest of the standing wave for a split second, and then fell back into the hole, turning sideways and instantly flipping.
Fortunately the hole wasn’t so big that it was hard to get out of. I easily flushed while retaining hold of my paddle. The raft floated nearby and hastily paddled towards it before it was pulled away from me. With all my relevant possessions on that raft, I was glad to re-take hold of it. I bobbed along for 10 or 20 seconds as I caught my breath and righted the boat, and then moved upstream of the boat and crawled back in. It was a solid re-entry effort and I was pleased with how it went. Having to collect your possessions solo and get back in the boat is an easily neglected skill, and I was very glad to have some experience to draw from in this moment.
It was only a few more miles on the water and the day was warm, so I pulled over to dump water from the boat and then floated the final miles to Granite Creek. My pack had taken on some water when I flipped, but my shoes were nice and dry inside my Opsack food bag, so I packed up the rafting gear, air dried my feet and then slipped into my dry shoes. With several decent blisters already, I was glad to have the dry shoes.
I started on the 6 miles up Granite Creek around noon but my progress was slowed by a large and unexpected amount of deadfall. With 16 miles to go and about 9 hours of daylight, I knew I would be comfortably out that day, so given the combination of deadfall and sore feet, I took the pace down a notch and plugged away at 2 – 2.5 mph. By mid afternoon I was at the final 10 miles of gravel road and my shoes were half soaked. Rather than roast my feet, I took it easy on the road including a nice break to air dry my feet. I figured saving an hour here wasn’t worth a collection of new blisters.
Finally at 7:20 PM I arrived at the Marias Pass monument. 122 miles in 59.5 hours.
I was satisfied knowing that in many ways I had achieved a level of competence. I knew my body well enough to take care of it, managed my mental state well so I enjoyed the trek with feelings of grinding, and I generally hiked and paddled well. The one area that I came up short was with the creek crossings, where I rushed and didn’t make good decisions. A new appreciation and respect in this area was the main thing I learned in 2018 and it’s something I’ll carry with me.
That’s what I love about the Bob Open – it was my 5th time in this event and I continue to learn valuable lessons every year. On most trips I’m comfortably operating well within my physical, mental and skill limits, so any learning is incremental. With the Bob Open I’m pushed much closer to my limits which has always highlighted my weaknesses. In 2018, as in the years past, I suspect I’ll have learned more from the Bob Open that I will in the rest of the year combined.
[This year only two of the sixteen participants finished the Open, with most folks bailing out to the difficult creek crossings, long miles or connective tissue injuries. Will put in a heck of an effort and was the other finisher. He was 4 hours ahead of me].