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A ‘dash’ through the Bob

by John Fraley
| January 25, 2023 1:45 PM

Editor’s Note: The following is a chapter of John Fraley’s new book, “My Wilderness Life, One Man’s Search for Meaning in Montana’s Backcountry.” Chapter 10 “My Dash through the Bob” takes us through the Bob Marshall Wilderness as Fraley attempts to bag a 40-mile day hike through the Bob before he turned 40… Friends and acquaintances have often claimed that wilderness treks are more satisfying if you move at a slower pace. You notice more, they say. I don’t think so. I believe you experience more and get more excitement by covering a lot of ground in a short time. It’s like fast-forwarding in Technicolor. My senses electrify when I’m dashing through the wilderness. I just revel in it.

In 1975, while taking classes at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station at Yellow Bay, I planned a day trip into Jewel Basin around that strategy. The way I figured it, I could see eight alpine lakes in one day. I thought my friends would be as psyched as I was. But when I described the plan, one of them said, “I don’t want to see eight lakes in one day. I want to go to one lake and fish.” I explained that I would be fishing too, just not as long at each lake. He didn’t catch on to it.

My wilderness treks have often centered on challenging myself physically and mentally. That’s a good way to get in touch with your spiritual side, which for me was intimately connected with being in the wilderness. My friends sometimes would refer to these trips as “crazy” or “death marches.” But really, the trips weren’t that remarkable. To cover big distances, you just keep moving and rely on your best friend—time. None of my treks could hold a candle to the distances that ultra-runners cover nowadays, but back then that was just an emerging practice.

My philosophy pushed me to attempt a forty-two-mile day trip through the Bob in 1992. At the age of thirty-eight, I could feel the clock ticking. I was used to challenging myself, but I’d never hiked forty miles in one day.

I thought I should bag a forty- miler before I turned forty. Bob Marshall was my hero; I’d studied his life and read all about his long treks through the mountains. During the summer of 1928, Marshall, then twenty-seven, visited the wild Montana backcountry that would later bear his name.

In five days, he hiked an astonishing 182 miles in the South Fork of the Flathead River drainage. On one of those days, he covered 40 miles. (Read more about Marshall’s 1928 exploits in my book, Rangers, Trappers, and Trailblazers, Farcountry Press, 2018.) Naturally, I chose the South Fork, which I knew well, for my own trek in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

On July 3, 1992, my wife Dana and I drove down the Swan Valley from Kalispell to Holland Lake and the Owl Creek Packer Camp, a popular entry point to the South Fork of the Flathead and the Bob. Along on the drive was our two-year-old son, Kevin Marshall Fraley. We planned on camping at the trailhead. I would leave for my Fourth of July trek from there, planning on covering the forty-two miles up and over the Swan Range, down Big Salmon Creek, down the South Fork of the Flathead, past Black Bear, and out to the Meadow Creek Trailhead where I had left another car.

We set up our tent and joined some cowboys and packers around a shared campfire. Kevin’s wide eyes stared at the fire. We roasted marshmallows. The packers took a liking to Kevin. I’ve often found that backcountry people love kids and are eager to treat them to wilderness experiences.

These men asked me about our plans and, when I told them, I heard the usual “You’re crazy; at least take a sleeping bag in case you don’t make it; forty-two miles is a helluva long ways, etc.” I appreciated their concern, but I assured them that I’d done nearly thirty miles a few times, and twenty or twenty-five miles dozens of times, carrying a big backpack. This distance would be only twelve miles longer than thirty, and I’d be carrying a light daypack, so I’d be fine. I told them I’d be starting early; I mentioned that the whole thing sounded a lot harder than it would actually turn out to be. I was confident.

My wife listened to this, but she didn’t really care; she knew I was nuts anyway, and she never worries until I’m at least a few days or more overdue from a wilderness trip.

Besides, we had upped my life insurance coverage after Kevin’s birth.

After sharing this wonderful fire with these great wilderness folks, Dana, Kevin, and I turned in. For some reason I barely slept; the insomnia would cost me later.

At 4:30 a.m. I was ready to head out. I tried taking a timed photo but, in the pitch dark, it didn’t turn out. All you can see is the bright bulb on my headlamp. I jogged my first step at 4:35 a.m.

I moved through the trail switchbacks the first few miles up Holland Creek. At 5:30 a.m., daylight broke and it slowly got lighter. I felt nauseous, probably from the excitement, freedom, adventure, and daring that I felt.

At 6:15, after six miles and 2,100 feet in elevation, I reached Upper Holland Lake. The lake serves as a pitstop before jumping over two different passes into the wilderness beyond. Daylight was gaining. The morning dawned clear and beautiful; a mist floated above the lake’s surface.

After a five-minute stop, I hoofed it one mile in twenty minutes on the fairly open trail over Pendant Pass, only 450 feet in elevation above Upper Holland Lake. Pendant offers relatively easy entry to the Bob. I’d already encountered significant blowdown, though, which slowed my progress and drained some energy.

I started jogging down- hill on the South Fork side of the pass, hopping over downed trees. By 7:40 a.m., I’d covered ten miles. I reached the junction with Big Salmon Creek, passing the spot where I’d seen the bull elk in late September 1973.

The trail carried running water, and even the small creek crossings were running strong. By 8 a.m., at mile eleven, I ran into two men and a woman camped at Big Salmon Falls. These folks were friends of Gordon Ash, the Big Prairie ranger and a fellow student from UM in the 1970s.

* Bear with me on a short detour from my dash through the Bob to paint a picture of my friendship with Gordon. It’s a small world back in the Bob, and I knew Gordon well. He was already a legend in backcountry management. People liked Gordon; he was good-humored and known as an over-the-top practical joker. I’d been the butt of more than one of his pranks, including the time he put three live mice in my dry suit before I snorkeled a section of the South Fork. Once or twice, though, I got the better of him. Two of these retributions came during my annual June visit to Spotted Bear Ranger Station to train Forest Service employees on fish identification and fisheries management. As an added bit of fun, each year Gordon and I would face off in some mis- guided competition.

Our first battle was an eating contest, held outside the mess building. It made no sense, since I’m about five feet, seven inches and 135 pounds, while Gordon is at least six foot four, a couple hundred pounds, and big boned. His stomach volume is probably twice mine. No doubt he thought it would be a cinch to destroy me in an eating contest, and it should’ve been. But I had an advantage: I could outsmart him.

We began the contest in the early evening, after our training seminars ended. A mildly interested group of spectators looked on; they didn’t really see the point, since it seemed so one-sided.

I’d brought along a fish scale to weigh the food we ate as the battle progressed. We designated a trail crew member as an unbiased judge to weigh the food and tally the totals.

Things looked to be going all Gordon’s way at first. He ate three steaks, two baked potatoes, lots of bread, beans, and I’m not sure what else, as we went through our first plates. He was up to about three pounds of food to my two and a quarter. He was beating me badly and gloating about it. I needed to shake things up or it was over.

I’ve always loved watermelon and there was plenty of it on the serving table. Gordon was avoiding it. When I started eating watermelon slices, he protested, saying that, sure they weigh a lot, but you don’t eat the rind, which comprises the majority of the weight. He argued that I should be disqualified for the watermelon.

But unbeknownst to Gordon, I had worked it out with the judge to sub- tract the weight of the rind when I was done with each slice. Instead of eating more heavy steak and filling bread like Gordon did, I downed the less dense, water-rich melon, and my totals skyrocketed.

Think about it: just a quart of water weighs two pounds. In the end, I thrashed Gordon, downing 5.2 pounds versus his 4.5 pounds, and I did it with my brain, not my stomach.

The next year, we planned a 7.5-mile race for our Bob Marshall com- petition. I figured this one would be an easy win for me, given our size difference. Sure, Gordon was a big strong guy and in great shape, but how fast could he run with his body type?

Plus, he spent a lot of his time on the back of a horse. At the starting line, he wore hiking boots; I felt pretty superior as I looked down at my ten-ounce running shoes.

This time, a small crowd of bemused employees was on hand to watch the contest between two over-thehill guys. The truth was, nearly all of them would’ve left us in the dust if they’d entered the race.

We left the starting line at the Spotted Bear Lake Trailhead not far from the ranger station. We started up the well-worn trail snaking through the forest and a smattering of beargrass blossoms. When we crossed the first old road, we hung a right and followed a series of roads that eventually looped back to our starting point.

Gordon ran surprisingly well; despite his size, he was light on his feet. I stayed with him for a while, and we exchanged the lead a few times. We were moving at a pace of about 7:15 minutes per mile. I’d never suspected he’d be able to keep up that pace uphill and down. At the midway point, I stopped trying to race him and trailed along just behind him so I could be sure to stay on course and save up for a final kick. As we reached the last part of the route, I surged ahead and covered the last half mile pretty quickly. Nearing the finish line, I could hear a few people cheering, which surprised me because I thought everyone would be rooting for their fellow Forest Service employee.

Gordon came puffing in like a freight train only about 300 yards behind me. One person said that I looked fresh, and that Gordon was red-faced, huffing and puffing. Actually, I barely beat Gordon, even though I had all the advantages. I tried not to gloat and to be as magnanimous as possible.

But I was starting to get him back for his practical jokes.

The third part of our trifecta unfolded the following year. The two previous competitions seemed pointless and silly, but the next contest was the worst idea of all. We decided to battle it out in an eatand- run contest, something I’d never heard of before or since. I think it was my idea and I will always regret it.

We assembled for dinner at the picnic tables outside the ranger station mess hall. The menu for the evening included baked

ham, potatoes, beans, salad, and pie. We agreed to eat a “substantial” meal, and then race up the trail to Spotted Bear Lake and back, a round-trip of about 3.5 miles with about 400 feet of elevation gain. This time, Gordon was crafty.

He goaded me into eating too much. I obliged him because I was ahead 2 to 0 in our personal Bob Olympics, and I was confident that my stomach, always reliable, could handle it. I found out later that Gordon hid how little he ate, and on top of that, he turned out to have a rock-solid stomach.

We lined up at the trailhead, with maybe a dozen bored spectators looking on. This time Gordon wore running shoes. We bolted up the trail, and I confidently took the lead, thinking I could run under 7 minutes per mile on this short course.

At about a mile in, I began to feel, let’s say, incredibly sick. I slowed down despite my best effort and Gordon passed me, grunting in satisfaction as he went by. He reached the lake and turnaround point and started back down; at that point he probably had a few minutes on me. I looked at the lake, surrounded by meadows, when I reached the shore, but its beauty was completely lost on me.

My pace progressively slowed, while Gordon sped along well ahead of me.

With about a half mile to go, I reached a small, pretty meadow and had to stop. I was suffering by far the worst nausea of my life, and I’ve never felt that sick since. I wanted to curl up and die. You can imagine what happened next.

When I finally got going again, I meekly jogged down the rest of the trail to the finish line. Gordon was sympathetic; he waited for me. All the spectators had left; they’d guessed what had happened.

Nobody rubbed it in. My stomach remained sore for about a week, and it was a long time before I could eat ham again.

That was our last competition; Gordon had gotten the better of me again.

Next week: In part II, Fraley finishes his journey… Fraley’s new book, “My Wilderness Life, One Man’s Search for Meaning in Montana’s Backcountry,” is available through Farcountry Press and at local bookstores.

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