Monday, March 18, 2013

Winter's final weekend and season's best trip --- Kenck cabin

Kenck Cabin on the South Fork Sun River near Benchmark and Bob Marshall Wilderness
It's been nearly a month since I posted last, but that doesn't mean I haven't been out and about.
During that time I've traveled to Portland, Ore., where I got in on that coastal community's early spring. Then I returned home and enjoyed some late winter skiing in the Little Belts and Rocky Mountain Front.  I even did my first hike of the new year.
Last weekend it was the Bob Marshall country outside Benchmark, west of Augusta.
First out of the den:  grizzly tracks were with us most of the  trip
Patrol Mountain fire lookout Samsara Chapman had extolled the wild country near the Kenck cabin about a mile north of the South Fork Sun trailhead at the end of the Benchmark Road.
It is some 32 miles from Augusta and you can drive fairly reliably most winters to the Double Falls camping area near the Ford Creek Ranch.
We had looked the area over the week previous and tried driving beyond the Crown Mountain trailhead and were turned back by deep snow.  The road beyond was clear enough that we felt certain we could drive further.
That gave us hope we could reach the Kenck cabin some 12 miles further up the road if we could get through the snow.
At Wood Lake.
But, the uncertainty made me think twice about the trip.  What if the snow conditions were such that we could only ski a ways or hike.  Should we pack a sled we'd pull behind our skis --- called a pulk --- or just plan to backpack in?  What if we got through the Crown Mountain slush and could drive all the way to the South Fork trailhead?
I decided to prepare for all of the above and throw in snowshoes to boot.
I built a pulk out of an old kids sled in the garage, 20 feet of rope and 10 feet of PVC pipe.  An old day pack with good shoulder straps and thick belt and two caribiners finished the job.  I event tested it on skis in the back yard after we got a skiff of snow.
We left Friday morning in my Rav4 and failed at our first attempt to get through the snow just below the Crown Mountain trailhead.
What was so frustrating was that we could see clear road ahead.
Mark enjoys the cozy fire in the cabin

At the Bob Marshall boundary

A perfect lunch spot
After some thought, Mark Hertenstein confidently took the wheel and weaved his way through the churned snow and ice.
That gave us another mile or so before we hit continuous snow that we could ski to our destination, not that the snow in many spots was much good.  Where the road was too bare, we skied off to the side.
The weather was superb, if a little windy.  Puffy clouds billowed in the blue sky and the sun was out softening the ice and snow into something we could easily ski.
For all but a quarter mile stretch between Wood Lake and the Benchmark Airport we had great snow for skiing.
The pulk worked quite well, mainly because of the flat road.  Even going uphill it was very easy to pull.  The only problem occurred late in the day just before arriving at the cabin where we hit narrow trail that had an incline that pulled the sled downhill.  We took our skis off at this point and pulled the pulk up to the cabin.
Lucky for us snowmobiles had packed the road and made the skiing easier.
However, we saw no one else for the three days we were back there.
Saying goodbye to the cabin on Sunday
The mountains around us --- the Wood Creek Hogback, Cyanide, Renshaw and Patrol --- were gorgeous, with their ridges capped with cornices.
The willows along the Ford and Wood creeks' bottoms were yellow, orange and red and were sprouting pussy willows.
We saw tons of animal signs, beginning immediately with large grizzly prints that followed us up the road most of the way.  Fish and Game officials say it was the first confirmed grizzly sighting of the season.
The Kenck cabin is named for the dentist and trapper who built it in 1924, Oscar Kenck.  I can't figure out how he got so many materials, like the two stoves and furniture, into the place.  You can't drive within nearly a mile of the place. He built a great outhouse in 1940.  Views from the cabin's yard include Patrol Mountain and the South Fork of the Sun.  There is no electricity or running water.  Water must be hauled from below from a stream.
We had two pleasant nights there and got a skiff of snow each night.
From the scouting trip the week before the weather was so spring-like we hiked a ridge between North Fork Ford and Red creeks 
On Saturday we skied across the South Fork pack bridge to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area boundary, about 10 miles round trip, just enough the tire us out again.  We saw lots of moose and bear sign along the trail.  The snow was quite crusty.
The temperatures dropped significantly and the wind picked up for our ski out on Sunday, and it snowed off and on.
It had taken 5.5 hours to ski in and 5 hours to ski out.
Although it was the last weekend of the winter it was winter's best trip.

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