Finding our groove on the Middle Fork Salmon

I recently returned from one of those trips that changes a person. I’m not just talking about the week’s worth of facial scruff and weather-tanned hide. Nor am I referring to the body musk that would cause rival bull elk to lose their minds, stomping and snorting and pissing all over everything. I’m also not referring to the 5 pounds I gained due to the amazing food. No, while this trip certainly afforded all those things, it stirred something deep inside me: the romantic desire to disappear off-grid and live as a hermit in the beautiful wilds of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho. At least until the first snow fell and my food supply ran out, then I’d undoubtedly reach for my Garmin InReach and send an SOS message to Mrs. UA.


OK, just because I’m not fit to live permanently in such a rugged and remote place, spending some time there did sound appealing when, nearly a year ago ago, Jimmy suggested that the Firehole Rangers do a multi-day float on the Middle Fork Salmon River. He had done the trip a few times before with his daughters and seemed to think the Rangers might also enjoy it. Jimmy and his brood had done earlier summer floats when the emphasis is on whitewater rafting, with the opportunity to do a little fishing as rafts descend the river from the Boundary Creek launch (River Mile 0), to the take-out at Cache Bar on the main Salmon (River Mile 99.1). Our trip (September 12-17) would differ a bit from summer trips, with fly fishing being our main course with a side of whitewater (which is not say that there isn’t any whitewater later in the season). As flows drop late in the summer, the Boundary Creek launch is used only by the guides to get their boats to the river. From there they navigate the boney, rock-strewn river and meet the guests downstream at Indian Creek (River Mile 25). Below Indian Creek the river is considerably more boat-friendly during the late season flows.

Previously this year both Jimmy and Marck had the nerve to break ranks and move to Boise (not together, per se, although they do live within a couple miles of each other). Those of us Rangers left behind to endure the endless gray skies and incessant drizzle on the western side of Washington (close-ish to but definitely not Seattle) flew to Boise on Friday afternoon. Fortunately the flight is just over an hour long, because wearing a mask (thanks, Covid) any longer than that would be a deal breaker. Uber-Marck picked us up at the airport and drove us to his house where everyone was gathered to feast and toast to our upcoming trip. Those in attendance included Marck, Jimmy, Goose, Nash, myself, and sometimes-on-again-off-again-Firehole Ranger, Erique.

Nash, Erique, Goose, UA, Marck and Jimmy.

The Firehole Rangers on their first day of school.

The next morning we awoke far too early and drove 3 hours under the cloak of darkness from Boise to Stanley, ID. Upon reaching Stanley one thing became rapidly apparent: we were not dressed for the early morning at 6253 feet elevation. While the daytime high may have been headed upwards of 80 degrees, the temperature at 7:30 AM was a brisk 21 F. Consequently the frigid air slapped our shorts-clad legs like a thin willow branch swung by an ill-tempered stepfather. We immediately donned protective long pants and grabbed a quick breakfast before meeting up with our host for the trip, Jerry Hughes. Jerry is the founder of Hughes River Expeditions. While his full-time river-rat days are now behind him, Jerry and his wife Carole are still very much involved in the business that bears their name. We gathered our outfitter-supplied dry bags and signed our lives away before hopping on a school bus for the 2 minute ride to the Stanley Airport. With the Sawtooth Range as a backdrop we met the pilots whose job it was to load guests and their gear, in a balanced manner, into small planes for the 20 minute flight over the mountains to Indian Creek. Most of the planes were single-engine Cessna type something-or-anothers. I was relieved to be loaded aboard the largest of the planes, a twin-engine Britten-Norman Islander operated by G&S Aviation. It’s always good to have a back-up engine in the event that one engine decides to not function in mid-flight, right?

Nash, Goose and Erique preparing to go through security at the Stanley Airport.

Nash, Goose and Erique preparing to go through security at the Stanley Airport.

Please place your carry-on bags in the overhead storage.

Please place your carry-on bags in the overhead bins.

Runway is in sight

Runway in sight, we begin our descent.

Trays were placed in the upright position as we prepared to land at Indian Creek air strip.

Trays were placed in the upright position as we prepared to land at Indian Creek air strip.

The flight from Stanley to Indian Creek was uneventful—just the way I like it—and I enjoyed a great view from the seat to the right of the captain (while I may have felt like the co-pilot, I was instructed to sit on my hands and not touch the controls). Both the takeoff and landing were very smooth but I was still glad when the plane came to a stop and we set foot on terra firma once again. The day had warmed considerably and long pants were traded in for shorts. 16 total guests assembled for a formal welcome/introduction from those who would be our guides, chefs, and camp attendants for the next 6 days. We were finally about to embark on the main feature of this multi-faceted trip, and in short time we were aboard a variety of rafts that would carry us downstream: three 17-foot rafts that carried non-fishing guests and five 13-foot rafts that provided transportation for those of the fly angling persuasion. The most impressive vessel was the sweep boat, a twenty-something foot-long inflatable river boat that was a cross between a black ops military raft and the keelboat used by Lewis and Clark as they made their way up the Missouri in 1804. Essentially a cargo barge, the sweep boat was heavily laden with the overwhelming majority of the gear and was manned by two guides. The oarsman stood mid ship, pushing and pulling comically large oars with blades the size of a half sheets of plywood. The oars blades were fore and aft, rather than starboard and port, enabling the plus-sized craft to navigate relatively skinny chutes. Had the oars been mounted as they are on a standard raft there is no way the big boat could make it down the river.

Launch point at Indian Creek

Day One: launch point at Indian Creek

The first day of the trip felt not entirely unlike the first day of high school: exciting, for sure, but a bit awkward as we slowly got to know the other kids guests and guides. The guides are like the cool kids at school. The Seniors. And the river is their campus. They all drive cool cars and hang out in the parking lot while the guests are like the incoming Freshmen: naive, a little too clean-cut and wearing clothes that our moms laid out for us the night before. This is not to say the guides weren’t welcoming, because they were. It just took a day to settle into the easy groove of river life (and a couple more days to remember everyone’s names).

Marck and I were were assigned our Day One River Guide, Texas Gus. Seriously, he was named for Agustus McCrae of Lonesome Dove fame and I instantly respected his parents for their decision. What a fantastic TV series and an even better novel. Anyhoo, we boarded his raft and began the requisite small talk. I could tell right away that we wouldn’t have any trouble from Gus. The conversation came easily as we got into the rhythm of the river. Go with the flow, as they say. And that we did. After the previous 15 hours which had included flying and driving and flying, it felt good to finally be floating. And fishing. It wasn’t long before the first fish was brought to hand.

And the fishing was amazing for the next 6 days (catching was pretty good, too). Were the fish large?  A couple were in the 18-inch range (hearsay) but more commonly were under 15 inches. But even a small fish, using the force of the river’s powerful current to their advantage, put a good bend in a 4 weight rod, and many fish felt bigger than they ultimately revealed themselves to be. The vast majority caught were westslope cutthroat, with a smattering of very aggressive steelhead. It had been 6 years since I’d last caught an Idaho steelhead, and in one afternoon on the trip I caught 7 (fortunately I had my Idaho steelhead punch card handy). Did I mention the steelhead were 6-8 inch smolt? Minor detail. A couple of smallish bull trout were caught during the trip (not by me), as well as one or two Rocky Mountain Bonefish (on the first day Marck caught a whitey in a fast riffle, on a dry fly). I even managed to catch a 16-inch Squawfish Northern Pikeminnow that would have ended up on the river bank as fodder for scavengers on most any other river. Here, it was no more a salmon and steelhead child molester than the heralded bull trout, so back it went. At times—usually in the morning—fishing was a tad slow, which was totally fine because so were we. During these lulls in the action I resisted the temptation to run a nymph underneath a dry. After lunch the catching always picked up and was quite good.

Purple was a popular bug color with the fish of the Middle Fork. Be it a Purple Haze, purple Chubby Chernobyl, purple Amy’s Ant or purple Hippy Stomper, all were generally met with great enthusiasm. Small black ants and cinnamon ants also produced, as did black/cinnamon ants and orange stimulators and red hoppers and well, just about anything else. Did I mention purple? But if ever a place was deserving of the old saying, “There’s more to fishing than catching fish,” it would be the Middle Fork Salmon. It’s a vast and wild place and I missed a few fish because I was gazing upwards, slack-jawed, at the steep mountainsides most of the time. Once we dropped into Impassable Canyon the geography became downright distracting. It was absolutely gorgeous country despite the haze from distant wildfires that thickened a bit each day.

Each morning the Firehole Rangers would select a different fishing partner for the day and the company was always good (at least from my point of view). We usually fished with a different guide each day and we were always in capable hands of whomever was on the oars. I had the good fortune to fish with Gus, Colin, Drew, Colin, Tony, and Colin. As Vice President of Hughes River Expeditions it fell upon Colin to deal with problematic guests, which is why I was in his boat three times.

Guide Tony puts Marck and Erique on some fishy water.

Tony puts Marck and Erique on some fishy water.

Much has been written about the Middle Fork Salmon and if detailed information about the river such as landmarks, specific points of interest and names and descriptions of particular rapids is what you seek, there are far better resources than the UA. I do, however, want to tout the merits of our host company. The guides for Hughes River Expeditions were all exceptional. They rowed our rafts expertly through whitewater while still going the extra mile to put us on the best water for catching fish. The sweep boat would run ahead each day and have camp set up each evening by the time we arrived. And by setting up camp I mean the tents were all pitched for us, the kitchen was established and food prep was taking place (appetizers were ready for us). And perhaps most importantly, the “Groover” location had been designated and the facilities were fully operational when we stepped off the boats for the evening. The Groover is the name given the camp toilet and is derived from the not-so-olden days when river floaters had to drop their deuces into steel ammo boxes, the sides of which were known to leave grooves in the backsides of the users. The modern day Groover includes a regulation-sized toilet seat, and while I find very little to be unsavory about shitting in a steal box with a toilet seat mounted to the top, I do recommend being first in line, if at possible. The Groover has a dedicated place of honor at each camp and the location always ensures privacy. The location also comes with a soothing view of the river so settle in and relax–but don’t take too long. Several hundred feet from the Groover itself is where the line begins. We were debriefed on how things work and it was made very clear that a kayak paddle is placed perpendicularly across the trail to denote that someone is presently in a meeting at the Groover. It was hammered into our brains that we were NOT to forget to return the paddle to the parallel position once finished with our business. Located at the site of the Poop Path Paddle was also a foot-pump activated hand washing station that we were strongly encouraged to use after each visit to the Groover. Sanitation was of paramount importance—especially during this Year of the Covids—and a hand-washing station was readily available in camp, as well as at the Gateway to the Groover.

Gateway to the groover.

Gateway to the groover: Do NOT enter.

My name was even on the pooper paddles, which was quite an honor.

My name was even on the Poop Path Paddles, which was quite an honor.

I see a sponsorship opportunity.

I see a sponsorship opportunity.

Butt enough with the shit chat, let’s talk about food! After a long day on the water, as we guests sat around and enjoyed ourselves, the guides cooked amazing fare in Dutch ovens and on charcoal -fueled grills. We could not have eaten better had we been on a swanky Tour de Bistro vacation. To give you an idea of of the menu, the main dinner courses consisted of Bristol Bay salmon, Cornish game hens (which I could eat for dessert–ask my wife), Forty Mile Stew (amazing, but you’ll have to go to know because this is a Hughes special recipe). We had pork brisket of which even the end cut was amazingly tender and moist (and I typically tend to steer clear of end cuts of any meat). Our final supper was Surf and Turf that included delicious shrimp and the absolute best ribeye steaks I have ever had (major props to Chef Josh). Desserts included upside down pineapple cake, chocolate cake, berry cobbler, freshly-baked brownies and some others that I can’t recall because I was usually in a food coma by the time dessert was served. As a guest of Hughes River Expeditions you will not go hungry, nor will your thirst ever go unquenched. Guests brought their own bottles of spirits, and ice-filled coolers contained all the soda and beer you could ever want. Thankfully the beer selection included my grade of swill, too, and just not a bunch of crappy IPA’s and such. PBR, Coors Yellow Jackets, and Rainier were in ample supply despite my attempt to single-handedly deplete the inventory. At one point the flotilla pulled over at Loon Creek (the location of a remote air strip where more beer had been flown in). That was a monumental day.

Loon Creek beer run!

River heroes at Loon Creek.

There was ample fresh, filtered water on hand at any and all times, and coffee was always ready by the time guests arose each morning. Breakfast was hearty and served hot. If one preferred a lighter fare, yogurt, granola and fresh fruit were also an option (you could have a bit of everything if you wanted). Lunch consisted of fresh sandwich fixin’s and chips and cookies. We discovered that a dollop of peanut butter on an Oreo was an absolute game changer, and that a glob of peanut butter between two Chip-Ahoy cookies was the definition of decadence. Lunch was a perfect mid-day break from fishing but we generally didn’t linger long as there were always many more miles of river to float before evening camp. Long days on the river didn’t feel long, however, and time flew by. Even on our longest day when we covered 18 miles.

Rather than drone on incessantly, allow me instead highlight the trip with a few photos (though these few photos will not do justice to the Middle Fork). In a nutshell this is a trip you should take if you like vast wilderness, whitewater, excellent fly fishing, top-notch guides and exceptional hospitality and food. And if you decide to book a trip, I cannot recommend enough that you do so with Hughes River Expeditions, and be sure to tell them you heard about it here on the UA. Or, not. To be very clear, this is not a paid advertisement and I received no special treatment for this writeup other than having my name on the Poop Path Paddle. I would, however, like to pursue the possibility of sponsoring one of the Groovers.

The sweep boat.

The sweep boat heads up the Missouri en route to Fort Mandan.

Fresh salmon on the MIddle Fork Salmon.

Fresh Middle Fork Salmon from Alaska.

Bighorn Ram alongside the river.

Bighorn ram alongside the river.

Bighorn ewe showing her sheeplet how to eat poison oak.

Bighorn ewe showing her sheeplet how to eat poison oak.

Hot springs along the river.

Hot springs along the river. Unfortunately we did not camp here for the night. That would have been too extravagant.

Happy House at the beach.

Happy Hour at the beach.

When you realize you're dressed exactly like pone of the other guests. #awkward #riverfashionfauxpas

When you realize you’re dressed exactly like one of the other guests. #awkward

The Firehole Rangers at Loon Creek.

The Firehole Rangers at Loon Creek.

Some of many different ancient pictographs along the river.

Some of the many ancient pictographs along the river. This one says, “Groover ahead, 200 feet.”

The only fish photo from the trip, which is not to suggest this was the only fish.

Jimmy poses for the only fish photo from the trip, which is not to suggest this was the only fish from the trip.

The gentleman fishing is Don. Don is 88 and made the trip by himself. Be like Don.

The gentleman fishing is Don. Don is 88 and made the trip by himself. Be like Don.

Don't forget to look up from the water once in a while.

Don’t forget to look up from the water once in a while.

Navigating through smoke and water.

Navigating smoke and water.

Dropping in.

Dropping in.

Jimmy is about to get wet up front.

Goose is about to get wet up front.Scenic stuff.Choose a line.

Just slip in bwetween those two rocks...

Just slip in between those two rocks…

The Tappan Homestead. Take some time to read about it elsewhere on the internets.

The Tappan Homestead. Take some time to read about it elsewhere on the internets.

The cabin at the Tappan Homestead. Note the low-clearance door. These were my kinda people.

The cabin at the Tappan Homestead. Note the low-clearance door. These were my kind of people.

Our last day was the shortest but had the most whitewater.

Our last day was the shortest but included the most abundant whitewater.

Aptly named Sharkfin Rock.

Aptly named Sharkfin Rock.

Whitie E. Cox memorial (read about it elsewhere)

Whitie E. Cox memorial (read about it elsewhere on the internet—it’s worth your time)

Some Middle Fork Salmon scenery.

Some Middle Fork Salmon scenery.

Some more Middle Fork Salmon scenery.

Some more Middle Fork Salmon scenery.

A large dome rock that apparently has no name, though it seems deserving of such.

The elusive Wall Creek Dome in Impassable Canyon.

"Craggy" comes to mind

“Craggy” comes to mind as a way to describe the Impassable Canyon of the Middle Fork.

Ringleader Colin Hughes holds court on the last night.

Ringleader Colin Hughes holds court on the last night as guides Gus, Tony and Joey look on.

Breaking camp on our last morning. Nobody was in a bug hurry to leave.

Breaking camp on our last morning. Nobody was in a big hurry to leave (except for the guides, who had a long day ahead of them).

On the last morning we begrudgingly loaded up for the two hour float to our terminus at Cache Bar on the main Salmon. Before we reached the confluence we got to enjoy some of the most plentiful whitewater of the trip, and whomever was in the bow of the boat got wet. We also continued to catch fish. In fact the last day saw my two biggest fish of the trip including a nice 16″ cuttie on the main Salmon. Once on the Salmon the water changes, from the gin clarity of the Middle Fork to a more turbid green, and we were told that we shouldn’t expect to catch any fish here. In the front of the boat was Erique, who, despite being drenched from the many stretches of whitewater that morning, also managed to catch a good fish on the main Salmon. We weren’t on the Salmon for long and then, just like that, we arrived at Cache Bar and it was over. We gathered our personal belongings and bade farewell to the crew (who was busy breaking down raft frames and loading up gear for another trip that would begin in a couple of days). My earlier high school analogy seemed fitting as the last leg of our journey included a 4-hour school bus ride back to Stanley. The awkward band of high school Freshmen had gained an education on the river. We learned new jokes (most of which if not all are ill-suited for this family-friendly blog) and made new friends and gathered fond memories.

Yonder lies the Idaho Wilderness.

Monument located at the confluence with the main Salmon. Middle Fork of the Salmon: Yonder lies the Idaho Wilderness.

Riding the school bus back to Stanley.

Riding the school bus back to Stanley.

The Last Supper in Stanley

One last hurrah in Stanley.

While the rest of our group departed for other destinations, the Firehole Rangers spent one last night in Stanley. Showers felt good and flushing toilets were a welcome luxury (which is not to in any way diss the Groover). As if more food was needed, we did enjoy a fine meal at the Sawtooth Hotel (it was no Hughes River Feast but the food was delicious). We were joined by our recently newfound pard whom we’d met on the trip, Don Snow. Don is 88 years young, a Viet Nam veteran, Trout Unlimited Life Member, tier of flies, catcher of fish and liver of a good life. Don had driven from his home in Oregon and made the trip by himself and it was a pleasure to get to know him. Sharp as a tack and spry as someone many years his junior, we should all be more like Don. The next morning he was off to visit friends in Idaho and do more fishing before returning home to Oregon in a couple of weeks. He may not approve, but we voted to make Don an honorary Firehole Ranger.

Don't tell them, but I stole this map from the Hughes website.

Don’t tell them, but I stole this map from the Hughes website.



Ode to the JanSport D3 backpack

Disclaimer: this blog entry has nothing to do with fly fishing and will be long and boring if you came here for something related to fly fishing.

Lake Serene in 1980 (photo by Hal)

Lake Serene in 1980 (photo by Hal)

Let me state for the record that I am not a backpacker. Or at least I haven’t been for many decades. I do a bit of day hiking, but I haven’t done an overnight trip since I was a junior in high school. That final trip in 1980 was to Lake Serene in the central Cascades of Washington, with my elder brother, Hal (not his real name, sort of). It was during our spring break in April and it was a good bit early in the year for what we set out to do. In our eagerness to partake of a little backpacking we jumped the gun by at least a month, or more, to be overnighting at this elevation. The alpine lake is at about 2500+ feet and, like so many alpine lakes, it sits in a bowl surrounded by steep peaks. Despite the final part of the hike being a scramble which involved using roots as handholds as we wondered if we were really on the actual trail, I recall the day being pleasant enough.We were young, fit, and ready for whatever adventure Mother Nature threw at us. But when we arrived at the lake there was still a couple of feet of snow covering much the ground. There were a couple of other hikers at the lake when we arrived but none who (wisely) intended to spend the night. The snow made pitching our tent a challenge and once the sun got behind the rim high above the lake, the temperature dropped fast and we hit the sack early (this was a time before whiskey, which likely would have had us bundled up and sitting on a snow covered log well past dark, solving world problems). What sticks in my mind is that during the night our body heat melted the snow beneath our tent and we awoke resting in body-shaped depressions that hadn’t been there a few hours earlier. It’s a good thing we were brothers or our close proximation may have been awkward. I don’t remember much more about the hike but had you told me then that it would be my last backpacking trip I would have given you a bewildered look. Of course I would go backpacking again, when time and money allowed for it (there was little of either when I was 17). Naturally new gear would be needed as I was still in possession of all my old stuff left over from our Scouting days. I didn’t give the matter of future backpacking much of a thought; it was something I’d enjoyed with regularity from the age of 11 until I was 15 (when I retired from the Boy Scouts). I naturally assumed backpacking was something I would do at least a little of it throughout my life. Hal, on the other hand, stayed close to his scouting roots and has continued to backpack throughout the years. He has, however, long since gone the way of ultralight gear which bears little resemblance to the equipment of 40 years ago.

The 1970’s predated ultralight backpacking gear by at least 20 pounds.

The 1970’s predated ultralight backpacking gear by at least 20 pounds.

Following a year behind Hal’s footsteps, I joined Boy Scout Troop #668 in 1974 as an eager 11 year-old. My timing could not have been better as the adult leadership of the troop was under new direction, led by a group of dads who were very dedicated to getting us boys outdoors regularly. Seasons permitting, Troop 668 held monthly overnight backpacking trips led by adult men with immeasurable patience. Once a summer we would embark on a “50 Miler” (though always longer) that pushed us farther into the backcountry and further tested the the tolerance of the adult leaders. We would load up our old, external frame packs with butane stoves (and extra fuel canisters), bulky 4-man tents, sleeping bags and blue foam pads, canteens filled with water, and the finest freeze-dried meals REI had to offer. Undoubtedly our packs were heavier than the guidelines provided us by our leaders, but that was  understandable. After all, it was hard to keep the weight down when carrying an extra pair of Sears Toughskins jeans, bulky cotton sweatshirts, and some sort of warm jacket. Oh, and a pair of sneakers for around camp, as god forbid one would actually wear the 5-pound leather hiking boots for anything other than slogging up the trail. Our backpacks—empty—probably weighed 7-8 pounds, with their thick aluminum frames and heavy, coated nylon pack bags attached using countless metal clevis pins. There was no such thing as “ultralight backpacking” then, and in all likelihood we probably bragged about how much weight we were actually carrying at the time. I seem to recall my pack weighing 30 pounds for one of our 50 Miler hikes, at a time when I tipped the scales at a whopping 75 pounds. No big deal.

A pack train of young mules hauling heavy loads in the 1970’s.

A pack train of young mules hauling heavy loads in the 1970’s.

Some of us would even, unknowingly, carry more weight than we thought thanks to the occasional heavy rock placed inside packs discreetly by elder troop-mates. This form of frontier discipline was punishment for having done something stupid previously. My first rock-carrier pack was a hand-me-down frame with a canvas bag that was already probably 15 years old when I inherited it. The pack bag came with a bit of mildew and the accompanying odor. Remember the familiar smell of that old canvas, Coleman family tent when it was pulled from storage each summer? That’s what my first pack smelled like. Canvas, being heavy and prone to being even heavier when it got wet, had been replaced by the 1970’s with a newfangled, coated nylon and I was soon allowed to get a new pack bag for my old frame. Like those carried by most of the boys in our troop, it was a run-of-the-mill pack made by REI: basic, functional and inexpensive. The dads who led us on our overnight excursions generally carried much nicer packs; the Kelty Tioga was one of those packs that I remember. But the pack that stood head and shoulders above all others was the one carried by Pete Baird, our Scoutmaster at the time. Mr. Baird was an avid outdoorsman (and fly fisherman) who evoked confidence. Tall, lean and soft-spoken—though quick with a smile—when it came to hiking, he carried the weight of the troop on his back. And his pack, a tan-colored JanSport D3, happened to be the coolest thing on the trail for miles in any direction. It was big and badass. I don’t know what it cost back in the early-to-mid 1970s but even if it would have fit me (it wouldn’t have), it was out of reach of my budget, or rather that of my parents. Another thing that made Mr. Baird’s pack so awesome was that it was made by a local company.JanSport was founded in Seattle in 1968 and moved to Everett, WA in 1971. The company is now owned by a corporate conglomerate with other holdings in the outdoor industry, headquartered somewhere that is not the Seattle area.

Mr. Baird and his magnificent JanSport D3, hiking in Yellowstone, 1978.

Mr. Baird and his magnificent JanSport D3, hiking in Yellowstone, 1978.

I recall fondly admiring Mr. Baird’s JanSport from afar (way behind him on the trails), and up close (in camp). While all the other packs lay strewn about the ground, or leaning haphazardly against a tree, Mr. Baird’s D3 stood alone, literally and figuratively. The fold-out, D-shaped (or perhaps U-shaped?) aluminum “wings” on the frame allowed for the pack to be propped upright so it stood like a sentinel in camp. When vertical, the pack was nearly as tall as I was. Aside from the revolutionary frame design, which was considerably thinner, lighter and more flexible than others of the day, it was also highly adjustable and contoured to the shape of one’s body. The JanSport D3 also just looked different from anything else. Unlike packs carried by commoners, the JanSport was a front-loader, making it easy to unzip one of two main compartments and shop for the contents inside without having to empty the entire pack to find what one was looking for. It was cavernous. It was marvelous. It had no peers and, while I coveted that thing, I would never have one.

Or would I?

Fast forward to July 2019. I found myself browsing through literally countless used treasures at a church Haggle Sale in the small town of Tahuya, WA where my family has had a cabin since long before I was ever a Boy Scout. Nothing I saw captured my fancy until, tucked into a far corner of the church yard, I spied a magnificent blast from the past: Mr. Baird’s JanSport D3!  Well, not quite—this one was blue—but it was the same vintage. I picked it up off the ground (didn’t the owner know that the hip wings folded out to allow the pack to stand upright on its own?!). Mouth agape, I looked it over carefully. It was in remarkably good condition for a 40-something year-old pack: No rips in the bag, the waterproof coating on the inside wasn’t cracked and flaking. Zippers were all in working condition and the shoulder straps, hip belt and back padding were all original and largely unstained from blood, sweat and tears from the trail. While there was some corrosion on some of the bolts and hardware, the frame showed surprisingly little sign of abrasions. The leather attachment pads were all intact with only the large crampon pad showing any significant signs of wear. Inside one of the side pockets were some bungie chords and nylon straps that were of the same familiar era as straps I used back in the Boy Scout days. Wow—what a find!

What do my eyes behold?!

At the church Haggle Sale, what do my eyes behold?!

My son-in-law, Riles, was with me at the time and I’m sure he was curious amused by my strange fascination with this blue beast. I told him briefly about Mr. Baird’s pack and how I always wanted one but could never have one and…my words were met with a thousand-yard stare. He needn’t have said anything as his reaction revealed the truth: this was just a stupid old pack and I had no need for it. So we walked away and returned to the cabin for a beer. Upon returning to the family gathering place I told everyone there about my find. Again, nobody was too impressed. A couple of friends who were visiting politely pretended to take interest in my retelling of the lore that was Mr. Baird’s pack. The conversation quickly turned to any topic other than the magnificent JanSport D3 which I had just walked away from. I attempted to engage socially but I was clearly distracted. I quickly finished a second beer and, with newfound liquid courage, decided that this was my once-in-a-lifetime chance to own something that had left un indelible impression on me as a boy. So off I strode, back to the Haggle Sale, with Riles in tow (apparently he was coming around to my way of thinking). There was an urgency to my gate as I wasn’t sure if the sale was still going on, and even if it was, I was sure that someone else would have discovered MY pack by now. My pace increased as I rounded the corner into the church parking lot. The day was warm yet I was chilled with a nervous sweat, and the regret of not having bought the pack earlier in the day gnawed at my gut. Much to my relief, there the pack remained, still propped proudly upright on its hip wings just as I’d left it earlier that day. I placed my hand firmly on top of the frame extension. If someone else wanted it now they were going to have to fight me for it. It was mine, if I could afford it (I had limited cash on me and this was not a Venmo event). Now, I’d never been to a Haggle Sale before so I didn’t know the process. I carried the pack to a pleasant-looking, blue-haired lady sitting behind a table and asked, “There’s no price on this. Do you know how much the owner wants for it?” She smiled and winked at me, “This is your first time, isn’t it?” (Of course she did not say that—she was a nice church lady!). She asked me how much I had, to which I replied (after looking in my wallet and seeing $23), “I have twenty bucks.” Her answer sent chills down my spine as she proclaimed,”Sold!” Then the guilt of having lied to this nice church lady got the best of me and I spilled the beans, “I actually have $23. Here, just take it all!”

I hoisted the pack onto my back, where it belonged, and headed toward the cabin like a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker approaching their end-point at the Canadian border. Passers-by gazed at me with admiration and envy, cheering me on as I marched proudly, weighted down by an empty pack that would surely carry a lifetime of memories (with room to spare). After most of my life without one, I finally owned a JanSport D3. Once back at the cabin our guests quickly acknowledged that they had underestimated the magnificence of the pack. They gathered around to admire my find and asked me to once again recount the backstory that led to my fascination with the JanSport D3. The only thing missing was a campfire.

My life was complete.

Within minutes of having acquired my new, old pack.

Within minutes of having acquired my new, old pack.

She's a beaut, Clark.

She’s a beaut, Clark.

Over a year has passed since acquiring the the Haggle Sale Pack and it has rested comfortably in the garage at home, waiting for something exciting to happen. As Mrs. UA and I were recently clearing out garage clutter she pointed to the pack and said, “Goodwill?” I gave her a side-eye glance. Was she was insane? “Leave it where it is,” I snapped. She just doesn’t get it. A while back I performed a little preventative maintenance which included waxing the zippers and applying leather cleaner/conditioner to all the cowhide patches. The zippers slide like new and the leather now has the suppleness of a newborn calf. I plan to replace the shoulder straps with something modern, and fine tune the adjustment of the frame to fit me. I’ve had every intention of carefully going through all the components to make sure the frame hardware is not lacking structural integrity should I decide to put the pack into action. If I do that I’ll also need to do a bit of shopping at REI as currently I own only a sleeping bag that would be suitable for backpacking. But I haven’t committed to hitting the trail just yet. The last thing I would want to have happen is some sort of frame failure while miles out in the high country, so I felt that a least a couple of replacement parts would be a wise thing to carry with me. Not surprisingly, JanSport no longer supports these old packs so I can’t exactly call up customer service and order replacement components for a pack that was made in the 1970’s. But in my quest to find parts online I’ve stumbled upon similar era packs on the eBay. Though perhaps not a common item, it’s not terribly difficult to find a JanSport D3 online. Most, however, do not appear to be in nearly the good condition of my Haggle Sale Pack. And they don’t exactly give these old packs away for free, so all I’ve done is browse.

Until recently.

The listing read, “Vintage 70’s JanSport K2 External Frame Backpack D3 Excellent Condition.” The K2 designation is indicative of the fact that, in 1972, K2 (another PNW company) acquired JanSport. The “Excellent Condition” was what really caught my attention, and after carefully inspecting the photos included in the listing, I made an offer that was significantly less than what the seller wanted. Much to my delight—like the church lady at the Haggle Sale— they bit. The pack was mine, almost. It arrived a few days later and its condition far exceeded my expectations and I instantly felt bad for not paying the full asking price. The eBay Pack is in even better shape than the Haggle Sale Pack. There are no signs of wear or corrosion on any of the frame components and only some minor scuff marks on the frame itself. And while the bag has some minor staining from use, it’s in great shape as well. The zippers slide like new (I did wax them just for good measure) and the leather attachment patches don’t appear to have seen much (if any) use. The leather crampon pad has some light scuffs but is very clean. Of course I cleaned and conditioned the leather, just to give it that “new pack feel”. While I don’t know the exact manufacture date of either pack, it’s safe to say they are of the same vintage, although the eBay Pack would appear to be a tad older as evidenced by the shoulder straps that feature center-tucked stitching. The hip belt buckle on the orange pack is also of an older design. Other than that they’re virtually identical. So now, with a donor pack, I have ample replacement components to offer the confidence I need for f I plan to take one of these packs out on the trails. I’ve hung both D3 packs proudly in the garage until I decide to do something with them—if I decide to do something with them. I may not. After all, owning a classic doesn’t have to entail actually using it. Just knowing I now own a piece (or two) of my youth—something that was beyond my reach when I was a backpacker—may be enough. And if Mrs. UA complains I’ll just remind her that it’s not like I’m collecting 1971 Plymouth Hemi Cudas (something I’ve also wanted since my youth).

Haggle Sale pack (left) and eBay Pack (right).

Haggle Sale pack (left) and eBay Pack (right). Both wear the third generation JanSport logo—the blue fabric is brighter on the orange pack.

Standing tall, back-to-back.

Standing tall, back-to-back.

Old blue looks taller but its just due to frame adjustments.

Old Blue looks taller but it’s just due to frame and bag adjustments.

The straps on Big Orange suggest a newer model, maybe?

The straps on Big Orange would indicate an older model.

Old Blue's buckle definitely suggests an earlier model.

Old Blue’s buckle (left) is of a different (and newer) design than that on Big Orange (right).

Their final resting place, or ready for new beginnings?

Their final resting place, or a staging ground for new beginnings?

Now I just need to see if I can find a pair of vintage Sears Toughskins in my size.

For those still reading, here is a treasure trove of nostalgic Jansport images:

And here is a historical snapshot of the JanSport company:,K2%20Corporation%20acquires%20JanSport.


(I’m adding to this entry as I am able to gather more information, as there may be more JanSport D3 geeks out there, like me, with a thirst for knowledge about the history of these packs) 

The D-Series of technical mountaineering packs was launched in 1971, originally designed for a Dhaulagiri Two expedition in the Himalayas. From 1972-1982, Jansport was owned by Vashon Island-based K2 Corporation. The tag on my orange D3 bears reference to K2 so I know it was made sometime during that decade. My hunch is that it’s a mid-1970’s model. The blue pack does not have a tag but I’m 100% positive that it is from the K2 era as well. I would place Old Blue as a slightly newer model than Big Orange.

Jansport D3 made during the K2 era.

JanSport D3 made during the K2 era.

I dug deep into the bowels of the internet trying to find information on how to more accurately date the D3 series of packs but have come up with little concrete information. I did find an expired eBay listing for a tan D3 bearing an earlier JanSport logo which indicates that it is older than either of my blue and orange packs. A bit more research reveals that this logo—with the domed mountain above the JanSport name, is the second generation logo and would put the pack’s manufacture date from the early- to mid-70’s. Hand written on this pack is information from its original owner, suggesting that it was acquired/manufactured in 1975. This pack is virtually identical to my orange D3, right down to the style of the hip belt buckle, but, again with the earlier JanSport logo. Perhaps JanSport changed the logo in 1975? If that were the case the oldest my orange pack could be is 1976. Anyone else confused yet? I’ve written to JanSport asking for information about the different logos and the years they were used. For some reason they cannot do this without me sending the pack(s) in to their warranty department for assessment.

This logo is an earlier version than that on either of my packs.

This logo is an earlier version than that on either my orange or blue packs. It is from a 1975 pack.

Is the 1975 date an indication of the year this pack was made, or just the year the owner wrote on it?

Is the 1975 date an indication of the year this pack was made, or the year the owner wrote on it, or maybe both? Jack Murphy, where are you today?

Of the same K2 vintage as my orange D3.

Noting the tag on the frame, this pack is of the same K2 vintage as my orange D3.

I would love to have an even older D3 than either of my gen 3 logo packs. But I think I’m done acquiring old D3 packs. For now, anyway. If I  could find a tan D3, with the second gen JanSport logo, that would be the pinnacle of nostalgia.

The listing photos on eBay looked promising, but certain details weren’t clear in the low-res photos so I asked the seller for some higher quality photos. Just as I had hunched, the pack in question had a very early hip suspension system in which the pivot joints on the “hip wings” were metal on metal. I’d read in a forum somewhere that this was a very early design flaw which JanSport soon remedied by adding nylon/plastic bushings. If I were going to use this pack on a regular basis I certainly wouldn’t want this old design, but as a collectible it made the pack even more desirable.

In addition to the antiquated hip suspension this pack also came with a factory-issue pack cover and stuff bag, both of which are something I had neither seen nor heard of on these packs. Both accessories are detachable. The cover has a flat map pocket on front and attaches to the upper frame via straps and buckles. There are drawstrings to cinch the cover tight at the bottom. The stuff bag attaches to the lower frame via 4 straps/buckles. It has a zippered closure, likely intended for a sleeping bag. Interestingly the JanSport logo on both of these detachable accessories appear to be newer than the logo on the main pack bag. In the early 1970’s JanSport changed their logo from Jan Sport (two separate words) to JanSport (one word). The main pack bag features a “Jan Sport” logo while the two detachable accessories feature logos using “JanSport”. I’m not sure the reasoning behind the combination of varying logos on this pack, but I’ll assume this: The pack had already been assembled at the time when the company was transitioning from the use of “Jan Sport”. The cover and stuff sack may have been made shortly thereafter using the new “JanSport” logo. Whatever the case may be, it’s cool to see the different logos, and I have yet to encounter a pack bearing the older “Jan Sport” logo. I do know that the pack was made during the K2 era (1972-1982) because the frame bears the familiar sticker noting as much. Interestingly, on every JanSport frame pack I’ve seen, the sticker is affixed to the upper left crossbar joint. On this pack the sticker is on the upper right joint. What does this mean?  Maybe nothing, but it’s one more thing that is different about this particular pack. And again, that makes this pack extra cool. I’m just going to assume that this pack was made in the early years of the D3 production, during a time of transition for the young company.

The condition of this pack is amazing. While the frame does show some light signs of abrasion, everything else looks as though it spent its life in a showroom. The detachable cover and stuff sack do show signs of some color fading but the pack itself is in top-shelf condition. The seller from whom I purchased the pack was the original owner, and according to them, it was purchased new “sometime in the 1970’s”. Another bonus to this pack is that it came complete with a set of 7 cinch straps, none of which appear to have ever been used.

Perhaps as old as 1972, the first year of the Jan Sport D3.

Perhaps as old as 1972, the first year of the Jan Sport D3.Certainly older than 1975.

JanSport pack cover and stuff sack.

JanSport pack cover and stuff sack.

Detachable accessories.

Detachable accessories.

Discoloration from UV exposure on the accessories.

Discoloration from UV exposure on the accessories.

Nearly showroom condition.

Nearly showroom condition.

Early JanSport hip suspension system design.

Early JanSport hip suspension system design.

The only signs of notable wear is the light scuffing on the bottom of the frame.

The only signs of notable wear is the light scuffing on the bottom of the frame.

Bonus cinch straps.

Bonus cinch straps.

Early Jan Sport logo on the main pack bag (note the separate words).

Early second gen Jan Sport logo on the main pack bag (note the separate words).

Slightly newer JanSport logo on the detachable accessories (note the single word).

Slightly newer second gen JanSport logo on the detachable accessories (note the single word).

The JanSport tag affixed to the upper right fame.

The JanSport tag affixed to the upper right fame. All others I’ve seen are all in the upper left.


After writing this article I delved into a bit more detailed history of the JanSport D-series of packs. If interested you can find that here: Following the Cold Trail of the JanSport D-series packs