Monday, October 11, 2010

Bird Carnage and Honey Sweet Upper Willow

It's Bird season -- low water and warmer down on the arm in the hemlocks and Sitka spruce. Took my son Roman and Todd Tumolo and Matt Johnson down to do the long version of Bird Creek. Be sure to take the second left after the wooden trail marker about 45 minutes in from the parking....not the first left after that wooden trail marker. We had sunshine and carnage at the Center Falls. Matt came up with a great name for the drop after Center Falls -- "Bird Cage" -- as anyone who's got grabbed at the stern in low water can appreciate. His video offers up good low water names for the series of rapids below Mushroom: "Bird Brain", "Chicken Wing", "Whirly Bird", Center Falls and "Bird Cage". I'd stick one more name in there for the ledges above "Whirly Bird" -- "Breast Meat"?

That canyon has become quite the packrafting scene -- there are about six or seven You Tube videos on just Bird (OK, well two are mine) and for good reason.

On Friday I tried out the BayLee 1 by FeatherCraft on Bird. It comes thigh strap ready and with two chambers feels oh-so-safe compared to a single chamber should you cut your boat and go flat midstream with thigh straps tight and four inches of velcro holding your skirt shut....anybody who wants to downsize from an inflatable kayak (IK) to a packraft will absolutely love this 9 lb (w/straps) boat. It paddles more like an IK than an Alpacka and has two chambers and solid fabric. Rafters will appreciate its conventional valves. The seat is well forward and the spray deck surprisingly dry for version 1.0, seem like. Pulls up high on the chest and actually stays there. It's like Feathecraft has been reading the Alpacka Forum and blogs like this and listening....but for me, I still prefer the nimble cut of an Alpacka Raft even if the Alpacka needs some further mods to make it suitable for Class IV.

So when Timmy J, Luc, Tony Pirelli and I went to paddle Upper Willow, I took my trusty Super Llama.

That was the best day of boating this year, with uncountable big drops and filler that felt like Little Su's main events. I emailed Brad, "If Magic Mile is Little Su on steroids, then Upper Willow is Ship Creek on crack." It was an icy day with frost on the walk-in and verglas on the boulders, but my hands stayed warm under the influence of "A", that natural high substance we all crave.

I shot some video but it doesn't do the magnificence of the canyon any justice. Nor did I capture the intensity of the drops. The boogy water is basically like Bird Creek canyon rapids and the big drops, the ones with names, are like nothing I'd ever done in Alaska -- more like a mini version of the Upper Hokitika Canyon, challenging, committing, and often sievy. The longest rapid "Sieve 57" was wild and finished with a big juiced up version of Commando Drop, twice as high and following a bunch of linked Six Mile Staircase like drops. WILD!

The Triple Drop portage on the right was an adventure. We had to get into our boats from a cliffside and I got surfed in a mini-hole, fell out and almost got pulled into a sieve there until I pushed my boat into a channel and held-on head first down a narrow slot to keep from touring Elvis' Graceland North.

Elsewhere and in other news, I feel like I learned to boof-lite (not full on, but getting there).

In 2009 Thai Verzone said of Montana Creek, "Last year, we'd never have dreamed of doing this." This year I never dreamed that I'd finish the legendary Upper Willow two weeks after Magic Mile and grinning ear to ear with Luc, who said, "I didn't think it could get better than Magic Mile -- I can't wait until next week to do this again."

Luc, Tony, and I bought Tim dinner and a tank of gas in thanks for taking us down -- we ran everything but Aqualung and Triple Drop and landed it all with big fat smiles on our faces.


  1. Wow! Truly amazing run on Upper Willow! Paul was about 5 months old when Ken Leary, Doug Blockolsky, and I put in with a Dancer, Taurus, and Mirage (that's about 38 feet of boat) expecting the Guard Rail run downstream. Needless to say, we didn't have nearly as much fun as this crew!

  2. John, that day w/Leary and the Hook must've made your eyes pretty big!

    Have you been down it much since? At the water level we did it, it was super fun and Tim was a great guide as usual.

  3. did luke every make a video?

  4. I am a former river guide, intrigued by the possibilities of packrafting for some time now, looking at purchasing either a Denali Llama or the Baylee. Can't help but be confused about your take on the Feathercraft boat though. If it is safer, drier (w/ better skirt design), sturdier, w/ better valves and a more comfortable seat, why then you are sticking with the Alpacka? Just curious.

  5. Lewis,

    Baylee's not really drier, actually, as further testing shows. It also doesn't track as well and is more like an IK, which I have very little experience paddling, so I am sticking with the Alpacka.

  6. I don't have any experience with inflatable kayaks either, just hard shells, but it stands to reason that an IK would track better than a doughnut-shaped raft, no? Besides, the optional skeg on the Baylee would address the problem, not sure it would stand up to a whitewater application though. Just my thoughts. Knowing the reputation of Feathercraft (and being from Canada) I can't help but inquire. You say the Baylee is also "thigh-strap ready" - I assume that means attachment points on the inside tubes are standard? On a separate note, from a safety, comfort (and durability) standpoint it would seem that including an inflatable self-bailing floor in these boats would make a lot of sense. It would certainly remove the troublesome seat-mod issue entirely. Your thoughts?

  7. The Baylee is symmetric front to back. Another (Class V hardsheller also found that the Alpacka tracked better: "I think I know why it feels like the fearthercraft packraft is so unruly. I fielt right off the back that it was hard to get my paddle in the water. I couldn't figure out why in that boat and not the alpacka. It clicked watching the video that the taper in the alpackas is right where you want to put your paddle. Since the feathercraft isn't tapered the tube is where you want to put your paddle. That was one of the main things I felt, right off the bat. Anyways, or more reason not to like, or adjustment to be made for the feathercrafts. Not sure I'd want a skeg in whitewater, especially with shallow creeks and rocks.

    People who don't packraft or make packrafts have been asking about the inflatable floor/self-bailing for 20 years. Most feel that it would raise teh center of gravity too much and so make the boat tippy. IKs can be mad self bailing because they are much bigger footprint and less tippy.

  8. Roman,
    Thanks for clearing things up. For someone with no experience packrafting this helps a lot. Makes sense that the swedeform design of the Alpacka is easier to paddle. I remember when the first self-bailing rafts appeared on the scene. There were more flips since they surfed way easier than the old 'bucket' boats. Self-bailers are far more maneuverable and track better to boot. No more wild rides full of water, with less potential for damage and injury. I love the idea of the packraft but not so much the idea just of a thin piece of fabric between the rocks and me. Maybe I am more in the market for a small IK now that I think about it.

  9. Lewis, Try out an Alpacka if you can. There may be someone in your area who owns one....the Alpacka Forum doesn't get much Canadian traffic, but an email to might get you an answer if anyone has a raft near you.

    They are surprisingly durable.

  10. It appears the new Baylee's have a self bailing option, at least from their website -> . Have you seen any of these in action yet?

    Summer pack rafting is coming up fast..


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