Packing for the Middle Fork

From the upcoming river tales sequel to Halfway to Halfway.

Words by Bob Volpert

What’s so damn hard about packing for a Middle Fork trip? It's no more than six days and five nights. What could that possibly amount to? Five clean shirts for camp, four or five tee shirts to wear on the boat, a couple pair of shorts, a baseball cap, a toothbrush, sunscreen, and maybe a cheap rain poncho. I’m only going for the first two days of our trip.  I won’t need anywhere close to all the crap that Idaho River Journeys suggests guests bring, and besides, I’ve done this enough times to pack in my sleep.  No list for me, and certainly no reason to pay attention to the admonitions from my wife, Mary. Although I pretend to listen, I give her words no merit.

Even after packing the essentials and adding a towel, a couple of packs of beef-jerky, two Snickers bars and an extra set of flashlight batteries, my stuff is impressively compact. Nothing speaks to experience and competence like packing for a river trip and filling less than half a dry-bag.

When Mary and I check in at the Mountain Village Lodge in Stanley the afternoon of our pre-trip meeting, one of the lodge managers off-handedly mentions that colder temps are in the forecast. Big deal, I think to myself. How cold can it get?

Early the next morning our guests with all of their waterproof bags and assorted gear, board an assortment of craft and enthusiastically head downstream on the Middle Fork. It’s an exhilarating day. Spectacular scenery, breathtaking whitewater, sunny skies, and a spirited group of friendly people. We get to camp around 4:30. Folks find tents and change out of wet clothing, and we spend the late afternoon visiting with each other, enjoying a glass of wine, playing cards, and relishing just being at a beautiful place. The guides serve dinner and before dessert build a campfire which nearly the entire group of guests and guides encircle.

I haven’t changed clothes since we landed at camp and I am still wearing my river attire, shorts, tee shirt, and sandals. As the sun begins to descend I feel a hint of a chill in the air. Should have brought a long pair of pants, but I didn’t. My shorts and tee shirt are a still a little damp, and the thought of slipping on a dry capilene or fleece top is appealing. But I didn’t bring one. I’ve got a cotton sweater in my bag and I fetch that. It handles the dipping sun and related descending air temperature fine – for a while. Scooting closer and closer to the campfire also helps to address my creeping discomfort. My feet are cold. I wish I could slip on a pair of warm, wool socks. But I didn’t bring those either.

Borrowing some warm gear from one of the guides, among whom is my son Skip, would offer a simple and quick solution to my thermal needs.  But I’m hesitant to do that. I’m weighing the benefit of warmth versus the embarrassment of my “experience counts when packing” rants. I endure my shivering as long as possible before I feign fatigue and slink away towards the tent I’m sharing with Skip. It’s early June and the hills are lightly illuminated. In an hour or so the cloudless sky will be star-studded. We’re camped at over 5,000 feet at the northern end of the Rocky Mountains. The setting is exquisite, but the clear sky portends steadily dropping temperatures.  

Back at the tent, I dump my waterproof bag on one of the sleeping pads and rummage through the contents. Must be more stuff in there. So I shake the bag again but nothing emerges. I know it’s here somewhere, likely under the clothing I’ve piled on the pad. But it isn’t. No sleeping bag. My personal warmth crisis has taken an ominous turn. The only sleeping bag in the tent is Skip’s. For now I use it like a shawl and drape it over myself. The warmth gives me an opportunity to think through my options. Embarrassment is becoming less important, and is being overshadowed by this new dilemma.

An option comes to mind but I reject it.  Skip isn’t going to share his sleeping bag with me, so there is little sense in pursuing that one. The next solution seems ridiculous in hindsight. Our sleeping pads are thick and provide good ground insulation. I might be able to use one as intended, and the other as a cover. I drag both of the pads from the tent and try out my idea. The pads are so firm that the top one won’t stay in place and just slides off my body. I lie on my back and realize that if someone were to see me they would mistake me for an ice-cream sandwich.

The stars are starting to pop out. I watch a satellite streak near the horizon before returning the pads to the tent. Just like in one of those crime novels where the clue that solves the mystery comes out of left field, my sitting in the tent on a pad and looking up at the top of the tent sparks a solution. I’ll take the rain-fly off the tent, spread it on the ground and wrap myself in it by lying on a far corner flap and rolling to the opposite end. I figure that the multiple rolls that it will take to get to the other side should create enough insulation to stay warm. But I’ll be wrapped like a burrito and unable to move. If I have to get up in the night, I’ll never be able to re-encapsulate myself. I’m running out of ideas when I spot a flashlight heading in my direction. Skip arrives at our abode.

“We have a problem,” I say.  I proceed to explain that it appears that I don’t have a sleeping bag. “We have a problem?” Skip responds, and mutters some comment about my packing skills. The solution we come up with isn’t as draconian as I envisioned. We unzip Skip’s bag and spread it out like a quilt. It doesn’t fully cover either of us, but for one night it will be okay.   
It’s a chilly uncomfortable night.  I finally sleep soundly from around 5 to 6:30 and awaken to an empty tent and the early light of day. I wrap the sleeping bag around me and manage another half-hour of warm dozing. There is a Patagonia jacket near the tent door, left for me by my son. I put it on and head towards the camp kitchen where our crew is prepping breakfast. I expect to hear a full ration of deserved sarcasm about my packing skills, but the crew says nothing. Rachael hands me a cup of coffee. We all exchange good mornings and I join the few guests who are up, sitting near the morning fire. Everyone is talking about it being chilly. But no one so much as hints about my trip prep or bedding arrangement. I realize that they don’t know about it.

After breakfast, the guests carry their bags and tents to our gear boat and Skip secures everything to the sweep rig. I’ll be leaving the group at Indian Creek, a landing strip ten or so miles downstream. I hop on Skip’s rig for the ride. The sun is rising, the air is warm, and it’s going to be another spectacular day. We depart camp ahead of the group and make it to Indian Creek in less than three hours.  Skip never mentions my packing misadventure or our sleeping arrangements. When we get to Indian Creek, I jump off the boat as Skip unties my bag and tosses it to me. I wave goodbye and head to the waiting plane for the short flight back to Stanley.

As many dads will tell you, there is a never-ending game of one-upmanship between father and son. My youngest has kept quiet about my packing fiasco but he has silently stored the details for future retrieval. In the past day a chip has changed hands. I know that my leaving the group at Indian Creek will not be the end of the story.

Guides - have a campfire story, river anecdote, ode to a river friend or tall tale to share? Submit your story to bobvolpert [at] gmail [dot] com. Upon selection authors will be awarded $100 and a place in river libraries for decades to come.