Sven, of Packrafting in Europe, a former German hardsheller turned packrafter + Alpacka dealer, has been asking if the new boats on whitewater are really packrafting at all?
Good question. A 2011/2012 Llama is long, like a mini-IK, and a 2012 boat has an aluminum rim on the deck for attaching a spray-skirt kayak-style. Add in a way to brace your legs for Eskimo rolling, a teflon skid plate for shallow water and seal launches, move your seat forward, put in a beefy backrest, then add a foam pad for boofing and -- WOW -- is that still a packraft? That's my question.
But Sven's asking if it's still packrafting if you're parking and hucking, like Luc, Timmy and I did in the Southeast.
Packrafting is, in essence, -- all the way back to the Halkett boat, or even before, to a time when people carried skins to be stretched over sticks -- simply carrying a portable boat. Classical packrafting in the modern sense is walking across Alaska or biking through Utah -- or taking a train in Europe -- with a raft wrapped tightly and stowed until it's needed.
Packrafting could be considered mixing travel with a small inflatable, perhaps the smallest inflatable for the job. In that sense, even carrying an IK on a horse for Teton Wilderness runs might then be considered packrafting. But why make it an inflatable? Not all rafts are inflatables. So then any boat transportation plus boating equals packrafting, right? But this last argument is a bit of reducto ad absurdum.
The nub is this: if you're going to go run the Green Narrows, why not, as Obadiah Jenkins and his ilk persistently pester, "Get a kayak?"and by that they mean a hardshell kayak.
I asked Tim Johnson about his answer, and he says, "You really can't answer that."
This from a guy who has been paddling a kayak for 15 years or more and is now pushing the limits in a packraft. The limits of whitewater, that is.
There are the others, the Hig&Erins, the Skurkas, the guy who "walked the Amazon", Ed Stafford. They're also pushing the limits. Are they packrafting? Extreme packrafting, 'cause they carry their boats such extreme distances?
Forrest McCrthy says that packrafting should be, "Half boating, half walking." Well, is that half in distance or time? And back to "bike'n'rafting" -- is that packrafting? Or the day trip with a roadside put-in and car shuttle -- is that packrafting?
My personal journey has taken me from packraft as a simple boat made to be portable (no seat, no skirt) as a tool for river crossings, to instrument as landscape art, to flow machine (no pun intended, with flow in the sense of high skill/high challenge reward per Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). The boats I use have simply evolved to better suit my needs, to perform better in the 80% zone, the 80% of the time activity. Bring what you need for 80% of your activity.
For instance, 80% the time of our Anaikchak crossing last summer from Pt Heiden to the Chigniks was walking. My Super Scout was fine, although no dry suit was a bummer. Perhaps a super scout + dry suit weight would be about the same as a skirted Llama in rain gear. What I need is a light drysuit I can also walk brush in for a classical packrafting trip.
Even in the early days, when first discovering that floating a river in crossing is fun; to floating rivers in between long walks and discovering that the splashy white stuff is fun; to now, seeking out steep stuff; there is a natural progression for some personality types to gravitate (again no pun intended) to steeper gradient.
So now I am very much attracted to whitewater. And because we just don't know yet what's possible, I like whitewater in a packraft: another form of extreme packrafting that doesn't require I leave home for a year.
My purist goal is to walk in and run technical whitewater. But to get good at whitewater, I need to run roadside, maybe even pools to work on my rolls. That activity of blowing-up and putting-in to sport-boat roadside may not be so much pure packrafting, as Sven asks, as it is preparing myself to packraft remotely. But look. I used an adverb to describe packrafting. It doesn't have to be remote to be packrafting.
Yes, roadside runs at kayak water levels in a packraft satisfy. Sven may be too young to remember, but when telemark skiing first appeared on the scene (like portable boats, it'd been around a long time, but was just reaching a rapid point in evolution -- as packrafting is now) people actually went lift skiing to improve their abilities. Was lift skiing in telemark gear, telemarking? Today that question is silly, but then it was real, and, in fact, telemarking gear evolved into essentially downhill gear, much as the packraft of 2012 has morphed into a mini IK.
But sure, it's still a packraft and we are still packrafting and while a kayak would certainly make me a better whitewater paddler in a packraft (look at Timmy J and Paul Schauer), I am after all a late middle-aged guy who is happy in his boat and would rather not be pried out and levered into another. That's why it's the 20 something kayakers and not the 40 something kayakers who call packrafts, "Badass". They still have enough life in them to switch to another craft.
So if me or someone else does the 150 mile Wilderness Classic by blending a half dozen Class IV+ runs in a 10 pound boat (with foam, thigh straps and spray skirt) with 75 miles of walking are we packrafting?
Yes, you betcha, in a very modern sense.
And the seven hour car-to-car trip down the Horspasture River in western North Carolina was good training for it. We walked 30 minutes down, put in and scouted and blopped, dropped, blubbered, and slurped our way over a dozen or so ledges. Then climbed off the river at dusk and bushwacked upward 700 feet to catch a trail and a road back to the car.
This was a low water run, quite safe, although we did portage a handful of sieves. It required scouting and boofing and skills. It was a solid Class IV run, I'd say. It could be done without thigh straps or spray decks, but would be even sloppier than our sloppy boats.
It may be the best application for packrafts in the SE, although having only run 10 rivers and creeks down there, I am really not experienced enough to say. The fact that Luc and I carried our boats in packs for a walk-in and walk-out that were each over a mile long (Tim used his thigh straps to pack his boat), and that we wore our empty packs under our drysuits makes it packrafting, even by Sven's strict definition I'd hope, although we were paddling stuff as difficult as most of the road side runs we did, too.
So what is packrafting? I'd say it's anything you do with a packraft, including rolling it up, packing it away, and flying in a jet to a whitewater destination to make roadside runs.