My new Llama showed up on Thursday, just in time, as the AK Boating season is open – at least partially.
A bunch of us went down 6 Mile’s 2nd and 3rd Canyons yesterday (Paul Schauer, Timmy J, John Combs, Travis Spalding, Jeff Shelton). Running at 250 cfs or so, it felt like an exploratory creeking first descent a week earlier than we went last year.
As usual, the high competence, calm demeanor, yet humor and positive enthusiasm of Timmy J and Paul Schauer made the trip outstanding. Young Travis Spaulding and Jeff Shelton, second generation Alaskan adventurers, added to the spirit of exploration, especially with Jeff playboating in the icy stream, doing flips and tricks while wearing no shoes and only fleece socks. And of course, helicopter pilot Johnny "Carnage" added to the pile of smiles. It was one of the best days I have had paddling with a band of hardshells, mostly because of who filled those plastic boats. Paul posted photos, words and video on his blog.
Every corner was spooky as the creek flowed through a sub-canyon of sheer ice walls 3-10 feet high. We eddy-hopped much of the way down, often climbing 5-7 foot ice ledges to scout, then seal launching off those same ledges if clear ahead, or portaging and crossing ice bridges to seal launch below the ice dam. This doubled the time of the run -- a big group, many scouts and portages -- and worried the rest of our crew. They'd opted out of the Third Canyon due to winter play injuries and, fretting at our late arrival time, drove up and down the Hope Road looking for our bodies below.
Yea, the Third Canyon was pretty choked-up with potentially lethal ice bridges at every major rapid (top of Staircase, Suck Hole, Merry Go Round, Jaws, Junkyard Dog, and several more). In another couple weeks it should be clear, says Tim, who notes this was one of the earliest runs he's made. At one point, Johnny was scouting on river left when a dam partially collapsed, leaving a tunnel under the ice bridge on river right that we all then ducked under. It was magic.
But the big news is that the new boat is simply amazing. Best of last year's Witchcraft (i.e. long stern, pointy bow) w/best of old style boats (i.e. big tubes, bright colors, high volume, room for gear with attachment points). The Llama is super long, like 7 feet almost, but nearly as nimble as the old stubbies, and so much faster, straighter and more stable.
Old habits die slowly, and I had to take a blow to the ribs from an overhanging ice ledge to learn that I can’t do last second pirouettes to avoid things. But the speed, tracking, and especially wave ferrying and surfing are worth every micro-second loss of quick handling.
Running Class III in the new design almost feels like cheating, it’s so stable. Luc once emailed me that a kayak was easier than a packraft, and I think the new bow and stern make it more kayak-like – it punches waves far better than a stubby and has more for-aft stability. Like a classic packraft (mine's a Llama) it retains its awesome lateral stability, something the Witchcraft of 2010 lacked.
I had Sheri put on a custom skirt which is super dry. It's a heavier fabric, almost like a tube fabric. I also had her make me a very short center opening, which is not something many would feel comfortable in, but I had no problem doing a wet exit followed by a self rescue and wet re-entry after a surfing flip. My boat's custom opening is about as big as a kayak cockpit. It’s a very short center opening with 4 inches of Velcro. But with the heavy fabric, short opening, and mando Velcro, even without thigh straps I could brace my knees on the deck. It worked so well I am considering glueing knee cups in as well as thigh straps.
The opening is so narrow that I can no longer swing my legs out to the side to get out. I also have to step right between the two lobes of the seat to get in. Like a kayak, I can not just hop in this boat. But the new cone-head butt is so stable that I just slide backwards and out onto it, then pull my legs out. To get in, I need a calm eddy, or a good platform to seal launch.
We did like ten seal entries yesterday, at least one that was about as tall as my paddle is long, and poised just 10 yards above an undercut ice wall. The new design pierced the water well, especially compared to an old stubby’s blunt entry, and its length and pointy stern gives it superb ferry ability. The long stern makes backwards boating much more consistent.
Like thigh straps and spray decks before it, the new design eases me in to another whitewater class (calling + and - classes) by technology alone. I think this year I'll be a solid Class IV boater, moving out of my solid Class III+ standing currently.
What’s even more exciting is the number of people here in ANC (maybe the center of the world for whitewater packrafting) who will have new boats and solid skills. Many of these new owners are kayakers looking at an upcoming low water season. They now have a new tool to match the conditions, a way to turn butt-scraping runs into something fun, and a way to ferret out some FD steep runs, as well.
Post Script: My second bike purchased in a year (and the second since my Mountain Klein purchase in 1986) is a 2x10, aluminum 9-Zero-7, and 80 mm Fat bike. This new bike and new boat are meant to match one another for some new "wild rides", the kind pioneered by Eric Parsons and Dylan Kentch. The fat bike is awesome and helping my rehab from ankle surgery. Wish that I'd bought one years ago although it would likely have interfered with my whitewater development.