Fred Burr Canyon (Bikepacking)
Bitterroot National Forest
March 13-14, 2015
I’ve found few things in life as instantly gratifying as getting on a bicycle loaded with backpacking gear on a sunny spring afternoon and pedaling toward the proverbial “hills”. On this particular trip, the Bitterroot Mountains served as the definition of “hills”. Last year it was the Cumberland Plateau of eastern Kentucky. Different locations, same overwhelming sense of joy and freedom that comes with transporting yourself through and to a beautiful landscape and staying for a while.
Ten miles on pavement, then five miles on gravel up the canyon to a reservoir surrounded by mountains. I’d planned to camp there, hike around some the following day, then enjoy a five-mile downhill ride back to the trailhead before cruising pavement back home. I’d hiked the “trail” (actually just a gated Forest Road) with a friend two weeks prior and recalled that, although a bit muddy and snowy in spots, and a bit loose-graveled and steep in others, that riding on a loaded touring bike up the mountain road would be arduous but not extreme.
The ride to the trailhead was simply a blissful experience. Or perhaps a blissfully simple experience. The transcendental satisfaction of drawing oneself closer to the mountains with each turn of the pedals bordered on the supernatural. Upon arriving at the trailhead, the pace of the journey slowed to meet the demands of the path. I realized a few things rather quickly — my tires seemed much fatter on the pavement than on the rugged and snowpatched gravel road, the road itself seemed to be in much better shape when travelled on two feet than on two wheels, and my legs seemed much less powerful at pushing pedals than I recalled. About the only correct recollection I had was in regard to the incredible beauty of the canyon.
After about a mile of travel, in which two-thirds was snow, ice, mud or a mixture of each, I recognized that I needed to revise my plan or re-classify my trip as self-inflicted cruel and unusual punishment. If I may digress a bit from the linear narrative of this trip report, I’d like to mention that I’m no stranger to riding on snow or ice. Bicycle commuting in winter has given me considerable bike handling skills as well as the privileged observation that riding on ice is a lot like life in general — balance, momentum and discretion are crucial for success. In this particular instance, discretion dictated that further progress should be made on foot. I stashed my bike behind a boulder, transferred gear from my panniers to my pack, and continued up Fred Burr Canyon.
While I did contemplate hiking four miles in mountain-bike shoes to the reservoir, I ultimately concluded that I’d be just as happy at a nice creekside campsite. Leaving the trail, I scrambled down to the creek and promptly discovered that — all cliches about greener grass aside — the best spots for pitching a tent appeared to be on the other side. Less snow, wider floodplain, flatter, it was sound logic that compelled me to cross the creek on a fallen tree, not a thirst for adventure. That said, I must have left logic on the other side of the creek because the rest of my afternoon was an excellent example of spontaneous over-eager and under-planned “adventure”.
Instead of diligently looking for a campsite, I found myself hiking up a talus slope toward the cliffline ten minutes after crossing the creek. Ten minutes later I realized that I was halfway up the talus slope, drawn upward like a moth to a flame, with only a half-liter of water and limited options for camping ahead of me. I could press on to the cliffs and almost certainly find a flat spot at the base to camp, plus the view would be spectacular. But water would be a major issue. Maybe I could find a snowbank to melt water from; I had about as much chance of finding a spring as I did of finding Bigfoot. The breathtaking views up and down the canyon distracted me from these important considerations and I continued working my way up the slope.
It wasn’t until a misstep and an almost ankle-breaking overturned rock caused me to more closely consider the exact context of my situation. I was almost at the top of the talus slope, but still a good deal of effort away from possible campsites, wearing clipless mountain-bike shoes and carrying a pack. Not ideal. I also realized that the limitations of my footwear, which had been previously proven to me on no less than three separate occasions during Class 3 scrambles on sandstone in the Red River Gorge, were applicable to traversing talus as well — and going down is where the limitations would be most evident.
Wishing to avoid a “127 Hours” type of ordeal and admitting to myself that I’d gotten into somewhat of a conundrum, I did what any experienced backpacker would do (aside from avoiding the situation in the first place). I found a nice flat boulder in the sun, stretched out, ate some trail mix, sipped some water, admired the view and took a nap. There was plenty of daylight left and nothing was to be gained by running down the talus slope in a panic. After resting my eyes and my legs I cautiously began the descent. Slowly I moved closer to the creek, testing each rock and easing toward the more forgiving folds of the hillside where the talus transitioned into grass.
Without incident and without haste I soon found myself in the dense forest beside the creek. While looking for a suitable campsite, I realized from tracks in the snow and mud that a moose trail appeared to pass through nearly every halfway-decent spot for a tent. Waking up to a hoof putting a few hundred pounds of pressure on me seemed to be an even worse way to wake up than an alarm clock, so I followed the moose trail until I spotted a just barely big enough spot for my solo tent off the ungulate thoroughfare and near the creek. Perfect.
With the tent pitched, my only significant obligations left for the evening were to procure water and cook dinner. One was required to do the other, so I stepped over to the creek, assembled my water filter and began to pump, eager to quench my thirst with a few sips of cold water. Van Morrison lyrics echoed in my head, “Oh the water, get it myself from the mountain stream . . .” and an instinctual smile spread across my face.
Two strokes of the pump and the water filter broke. Catastrophic failure of plastic, the bane of the modern backpacker. Completely unrepairable or preventable. No big deal. “Emergencies” like this are why I bring purification tablets as a back up. The same purification tablets I take on day hikes. The same purification tablets sitting in my daypack at my apartment. Whoops. Looks like boiling water it is. So much for that sip of cold water.
I filled up the Platypus with water and headed to my dinner site, a large flat boulder on the edge of the talus slope with a great view of the canyon and the sky. I boiled water for drinking and water for dinner, enjoying a delicious pasta meal. Finished with dinner, I stretched for several minutes under the increasingly star-filled sky to try and loosen up my muscles and ease my joints. The exertion of the day had not gone unnoticed by my body or my brain. Stretching always seems to help unwind the muscles and unwind the mind. Stargazing and listening to music also helps. Once the effort of keeping my eyelids open became too much to endure I headed toward my tent and the soother sounds of the creek.
The pleasure of sleep exceeded my expectations. The few times I awoke the lullaby of water, rock and gravity put me back to sleep quicker than I could quantify. I slept in a bit past sunrise and woke to a cloudy but not quite dreary morning. I returned to the boulder where I had dinner to enjoy breakfast and an unhurried morning of coffee, tea and quality time with a book of poetry that has accompanied me on nearly as many trips as my friends have. Between poems and sips I scanned the cliffs with a pair of binoculars and marveled at the combination of indescribably organic and fluid forms and textures, contrasted with shelves, blocks and cracks that seemed almost laser-cut in their precision. I alternated between the aforementioned activities until almost noon, when a few drops of rain and increasing winds motivated me to pack things up and head back to the trail, the bicycle and home.
Packing up camp was uneventful. No surprises, things went back into the sacks and the pack from which they emerged. If done properly only the scantest evidence remains visible to the sharpest eye that a human laid his body to rest on the ground for a few hours. This appeared to be the case as I shouldered my pack and followed the creek downstream to the log that would me to a dry crossing to the other side.
Within a half-hour of breaking camp I was back at my bike. Within a half-hour of packing my gear into the panniers I was back at the trailhead. I then found myself gaining speed down a gravel road that connected with the paved roads which would lead me home. I paused for a flock of turkey crossing the road, I’m guessing they were just trying to get to the other side. After that brief study in avian migration patterns it was a non-stop ten-mile ride, with the last five miles being in a stiff headwind. Small price to pay for the exercise and scenery, in my opinion. I arrived home with tired muscles, a bike spotted with mud, gear needing to be aired out and a smile on my face. Proof of time well spent.