Monday, December 28, 2009

"Arctic Circle" -- An Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic

It's that silly season, the one for planning next summer's adventures.

Already, people are asking for info about a packraft trip that Jason Geck, Jay Jay Brooks, and I did back in 2003 we named "Arctic Circle". It's a cool trip, maybe one of the all-time coolest ones that I have done with a packraft. It's also part of an on-again/off-again guidebook idea, so I thought that I'd just post it here.

I'd welcome comments and ideas on the format and presentation. Ultimately the guidebook might just find its home here on the "Roaming Dials", as I don't fancy publishing it myself and doubt anyone out there does either.

Enjoy your own planning and dreaming for next summer.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Epic Eric Rules!

Prepping for an international adventure demands much.

First there’s the big wad of cash you drop on air travel. Not to mention the guilt that comes with unloading a year’s worth of car travel in fossil carbon into the atmosphere on one self-indulgent trip.

Second there’s the planning with limited resources. If you’ve been there before, then you’re at least partially calibrated and know what to expect, what you can do and more importantly what you can get away with -- but still you need to read guidebooks standing around at Barnes and Nobles as well as other people’s blogs. You have to search on-line images and Google Earth. Then you have to pore over your old maps covered in notes and numbers from last time, skim your journals for insights forgotten. Most importantly you must balance ambition with real-time and real-life, prepare yourself for not actually doing even half of what you plan/hope/dream – unless you’re Andrew Skurka, who somehow plans exactly what he’s going to do a year in advance and then actually does what’s never been done before!

Next, you have to prep your gear and pick the best of many piles sifted and tested and weighed piece-by-piece, since there’s a weight limit on baggage set by the airlines and by practicality. I like the adage, “Bring half the clothes and twice the money that you think you’ll need.” But there’s nothing in that adage about gear. Maybe a new one: leave all your climbing gear but take all the butt-boats?

I want to bring three packrafts equipped with thigh straps (one for me, two to share) and maybe three paddles (one to share, one for steep creeking, one for a traverse); a helmet and a PFD (maybe two?); lots of straps and dry bags (one 65 L, 4 15 L, one 5 L); a dry suit and rain gear; a pack; a sleeping bag (down or synthetic?); and which shelter? There are those pesky West Coast sand flies, but there I’ll be running short creeks with huts, so maybe a shelter for an east side, Alaska-style packrafting traverse would be better suited? And all these decisions in our little East side house crowded by the holidays and me being so very self-indulgent, packing and prepping in a little corner so as not to remind everyone that I’ll be leaving on my own in two weeks.

But I am very excited to be heading out with my new pimped out ride. Very excited.

For me, new outdoor sports are exciting both for the sense of discovery in traversing new landscapes in novel ways and for realizng the imagination of equipment to make those trips happen.

In the 80s in Fairbanks it was Dick Flaharty of Apocalypse Design and Clem Rawert of Clem’’s backpacking who made me the superlight clothes and "glacier sandals" I used in the early Wilderness Classics with lots of good ideas from notorious Doug Buchanan of the Sandvik House.

In the 90s it was Dana Designs making gear for adventure races and a couple year period when I worked with Patagonia as a fabric tester for the R1, R2, R3 fabrics, new Capilene, and waterproof/breathable fabrics.

Most exciting, though, was working with Tom Ness of New Tribe and Steve Sillett in the early ought’s when we were designing and testing “magic missiles” for “canopy trekking” across redwood, giant sequoia, Eucalyptus regnans, and lowland tropical rainforests. Crossing from tree to tree with no help from the ground in the most magnificent forests in the world, -- using gear and techniques that we invented -- was so very satisfying that it still breaks my adventurer's heart that Sillett and I had a falling out, one you will not find in Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees, a biography of canopy scientist Steve Sillett.

So now at the brink of the teens there’s a handful of us developing packrafts for whitewater, dreaming up mods and enlisting skilled gear folk to realize them. It truly is the Golden Age of packrafting.

Yesterday Epic Eric Parsons added some really awesome design modifications to my boat. We spent hours in the beating heart of the Conaway Industrial Center where Eric turned my imagination into reality with rapid and repeated buzzes through his sewing machine. It was so impressive to see him cut and sew and smile in the chilliness that prevents his workspace from becoming just another sweat-shop.

Dylan Kentch dropped by to pick up a bomber triangle-fame pack for his upcoming hemis-tour from Seattle to Argentina. Dylan and Eric have been doing some really grand mountain bike rides in the wilds of Alaska on totally contrasting bikes: one a simple, stripped down fixy and the other a fat tired low geared tractor.

Eric’s dog Lucy makes every visitor to the cold-sweat shop welcome and Eric has all the goods and the knowhow to pimp anybody’s ride, be it rubber-knobbed, urethane-coated, or bindingly-boarded.

He added 4 more inches of Velcro to my Llama's center closure, the one with the seat freed, together with a big handle to rip that 5 inches of velcro free should need arise while upside down with an Eskimo roll gone missing. He sewed two inches of Velcro on the freed seat so it’s now adjustable. He sewed in spray deck “waist pockets” that hold two-liter Platypus bags as air dams at the top of the spray deck. He attached the red Yak’s seat six inches forward, in a better spot for thigh-strapping control. He also replaced some worn out Velcro on the Yak and another Llama -- basically repairing a sizeable portion of the Dial Armada in dry-dock.

So I got him a foot long Subway sandwich and made it a meal with chips and a drink and bribed him to let me wedge in front of all those others out there who are desperate for a guy who sews for a living and can negotiate a Juki or a Brother through crusts of Velcro, down couloirs of Cordura the way Jeff Conaway skis and Brad Meiklejohn paddles.

In short, Eric helped make my dreams come true, and anytime someone does that you must repay them handsomely.

This thanks’s to you Epic Eric.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thigh straps and rolling continued.

First off, they are rolling their packrafts in Europe!

Secondly, Alpacka's Sheri Tingey says in the Alpacka Forum to make sure you use Urethane-based D-ring patches.

Third, Luc Mehl has now got his roll at about 90-95%. His friend Dmitry was near 100% last week. I lag at a solid 50%, but managed several easily with 10 pounds in my boat: 5 pounds between my knees and lashed to the floor and 5 pounds behind my back in place of a backrest, again using the 15 L WXTex dry bags and accessory lash straps.

Also over at in the packrafting forum is a good post by Richard Nisley on lightweight dry bottoms and top for cold weather packrafting instead of a full-on dry suit.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Pimping my ride.

This packrafting thing is eating me alive.
I'm paddling when I should be skiing -- and in a pool, no less, -- buying expensive, new stuff, like a 3 oz Tenkara fly-fishing rod to fit inside a 2 lb Sawyer packrafting paddle, and an airplane ticket to New Zealand. But most importantly I am modifying my boat, working on a Llama to make it the best wilderness whitewater boat in the world.
Now that I have rolled a packraft multiple times (more than a dozen!), and at about 50% success (albeit in a pool,) I wanna do it again and again. It's a fantastic feeling to be upside down and then roll on up, and "plop"! Super satisfying. It's like I have fallen in love with my boat all over again.
Last night four of us rolled over and over again in the APU pool.
Dmitry even rolled on his off-side, Luc rolled six times in a row, I rolled with a 5 pound load strapped between my knees, which, of course, Dmitry was able to do with strapped on his bow. Awesome!
By the way, Luc used Alpacka tie-downs for his thigh straps to save weight (1/4 oz vs. 1 0z) and money ($5 vs $15), but one ripped in half and off the boat last week! Word is they are only good to 300 lbs of force. He's back to the heavy D-ring wide diameter patches the rest of us have.
The Llama I am setting up for a month in New Zealand is a center opening, mid-oughts model (2006? My red boat is a 2005), pre-zipper, pre-backrest, pre-codpiece. Of course, it has thigh straps in the locations proven to work with a roll. The foot end of the thigh strap is near the floor, nine inches from the center bow seam, and the rear attachment is just above the valve, 33 inches away, remarkably similar to the inseam length of the Levi's I wear as I write this, which, as I am 49 years old, do not sag.
These thigh straps weigh a pound stock, so I took a tool to them and clipped off the big plastic buckles and trimmed off the 2-inch webbing, but left the loops that once held the plastic buckles and sliders. To attach the thigh straps I used shortish (like 12 inch) friction buckle accessory straps, 3/4 inch wide. Much lighter, and much more versatile than sewn on 2-inch. The thigh straps now weigh 11 oz. But they lack the quick release mechanism.
Next I set the seat free by cutting the stitches, then sewed the rear tab on the seat to the forward tab on the boat, conveniently moving the seat forward to just below the rear thigh strap attachment.
So what benefits does this give me? First it centers me in the boat making the bandersnatch less likely and allowing me to use a shorter paddle (197 cm, Werner Powerhouse, 37.8 oz, 4 piece), as I now sit forward and paddle over the narrowest part of the boat. The old placement of my seat put me paddling over the WIDEST part of the boat. This way I lighten the rear end of the boat, balancing the boat better, allowing use of a shorter paddle, and opening up gear storage space in back. It should reduce bandersnatching -- I checked this on Six Mile's 2nd and 3rd Canyons a month or so ago with my red boat and it's certainly true -- a centered seat equals a more balanced boat.
Ask anyone about Alpacka design issues and most mention that the Alpacka is too "back-heavy".
There are three typical responses to this design flaw:
(1) "Put weight on/in the bow." I think this is a a sub-optimal solution in whitewater. I need a light boat that responds quickly to my paddle strokes, so I eschew weight in general.
(2) "Make a bigger butt, or better yet, just make an inflatable kayak." I, for one, like the design of rounded bow and stern as the boat spins and turns more quickly and makes for a more novel craft. Besides, I can't afford a new boat.
(3) "Sit forward." Now, that's a solution I can agree with. Check out most other single-person boats and vehicles and see where the driver is located -- in the center.
The problem with the current Alpacka design is that the seat is so far back and glued in, that scooting forward sets up the bum for a bang on the bottom -- OUCH!
But in a standard, stock boat, sliding the seat forward means nothing to push against for the back, so there is no means of wedging yourself into the boat. Wedging into the boat is why Alpacka insists that you get the smallest boat that'll fit. But I find smaller boats are less stable than bigger boats. Still, "swimming" around inside a big boat gives poor control. That's where thigh straps come in.
So now that I am anchored in a big boat and don't need to shove my feet against the bow and my butt against the stern I can center the seat. To extend my legs, I slide off the thigh straps by extending my legs and let my feet go to the bow. Sweet!
So "What about a backrest?" you ask, loving that second toilet seat of your late-oughts model boat. You could either buy a "Fjord Explorer" seat, glue some 2 inch velcro on the boat and seat to keep it behind you as a new, removable backrest, and/or purchase one or two 15 liter P.O.E. WxTex dry bags and fill them with something soft, like your sleeping bag and sleep clothes, then glue in a single "strap plate" to secure the vertically oriented dry bag (glue the plate on the inside center of the rear-most seam).
Two strap plates on the floor of the boat, between the now bent knees held in position by thigh straps also allows a second 15 L POE WXTex dry bag that holding a tent and other camping gear/food to be secured near the center of gravity. The idea is that I am moving my gear off the bow and into the boat. There's still the opportunity for a bow load, but it is a bit smaller and by getting all the gear situated closer to the center of gravity, I can roll a loaded packraft. In the pool I tested this with five pounds and rolled it easily.
I doubt many are still reading such technical esoterica, but very soon I'll sew an additional two inches of velcro on the center opening of the deck making it more water tight. I will also have fixed the chronic Alpacka design flaw of sewing a draw string end to the outside edge of the waist velcro by using a second stitch. More importantly, abstracting the important design feature of the Meiklejohn commerbund, there'll soon be a bigger velcro closure on the top of the deck waist/belly-opening.
Finally, I will install a pair of pockets, one to either side of the waist/belly-opening at the top of the spray skirt. These will hold an air-filled 2 Liter Platypus. These Platypusses act as a water dam, obviating the need for a codpiece and keeping the easier wet (and dry for that matter) entry of a center opening boat.
Alpacka Rafts are now in a new stage of aftermarket design: aftermarket modifications now taking place with groups of individuals experimenting and learning from each other, as Thai Verzone, Hig Higman, Tracey Harmon, and I did last Saturday at Alaska Raft and Kayak (pic above).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Jon Krakauer is one of us, and by “us” I mean a generation of outdoor adventurers.

As Vern Tejas once said, “Into Thin Air is a book about a mountain I climbed. Into the Wild is about me.” This isn’t to say that we are all McCandless-types, but that the motives of McCandless resonate with many people, from late Baby Boomers through Gen-X.

My old friend Mark Stoppel called me recently and said, “When I was a kid, I read a lot. Back then, Steinbeck and Mark Twain were my favorites. But now, it’s Krakauer. I bought his latest book and can’t put it down.”

Indeed, Jon Krakauer tells not only “our” stories in Eiger Dreams, Into The Wild, and Into Thin Air, but more recently he informs “us” – the somewhat self-indulgent outdoor adventurer community -- with his less commercially popular but deeper works, Under the Banner of Heaven and Where Men Win Glory. These books explore fundamental topics of humanity, religion and war.

As probably the most successful outdoor writer of our generation, Jon lives modestly in Boulder, CO with his wife and drives a Subaru. He shuns the spotlight and seeks no credit or recognition for the good he does in the mountain, Nepalese, and fundamentalist Mormon communities. He’s virtuous and talented, physically and intellectually, much like the main character of his latest book, Pat Tillman in Where Men Win Glory.

I got the book soon after it was published in September, and knowing my own greed for Krakauer lit, I tried to ration the book and stretched the first third out until Thanksgiving weekend, when I laid into it for real.

Its messages about government manipulation and the cruelest chaos of war, “friendly fire”, inform and sadden. I learned about pro-football and a really good kid who grew into a great man, cut down by too much fire power in inexperienced hands. The background and history of conflict in Afghanistan is something I would not have picked up elsewhere.

No, this isn’t Into the Wild, as the critics will point out. It’s more important than that.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A friend in need.

This links to a petition about Ship Creek access. Ship Creek is an amazing run that helped the development of packrafting and offers outstanding whitewater recreation in the Anchorage Bowl.

Unfortunately and for reasons that are not fully clear, the US Army has closed it to all boating. That doesn't mean that people are not still running it, of course, it just means some people are getting away with it, even after getting caught.

Last year, eyes glazed in an adrenaline daze and floating below the base of Commando Drop, two of us were waved ashore by a "Conservation Officer", who then informed us that Ship Creek was closed.

We asked, "Can we run it one more time?" and believe it or not he said, "Yea, sure."

But Tim Johnson has not been so lucky. Unlike shoutdiggity and me he is going to court.

In an effort of whitewater community service to open the creek, he is accused of Federal Criminal Trespass.

The Federal government is threatening possible fines and even imprisonment. Faced with a court date just weeks from now, he must hire a lawyer, expensive for anyone at $2,500.

The outdoor community frequently supports those who are injured in their outdoor pursuits. Tim's actions in the making of a protest video for Ship Creek access were in the spirit of freedom for all of us.

Perhaps we can step forward and help a friend here? If nothing else he asks that if you have had had a run-in with the Military Police on Ship Creek to write him a quick story on your experience and how easily you were let off the hook/warned.

When sent together with a $50 bill or a c-note (which I am sure he'd appreciate), it might make a difference but in any event it looks like Tim's out of his boat here and needs some help.

Let's do what we can.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why a "Guard Rail" is worth installing on your packraft

This video is of a kayaker in a long, high-water swim in Idaho.

If you are considering gluing thigh strap patches into your boat think about putting more patches to encircle your boat and attach a "guard rail". It may save your life.

Mike Swims & Almost Drowns from Dave Hoffman on Vimeo.

A similar incident could happen with a packrafter on rivers here in AK or elsewhere: it's worth watching.

I take two lessons from it:

(1) This kayaker was unable to roll. Most of us will inevitably fall out of our boats, too. What do you have to hang onto your boat with? Consider putting six additional tie-down patches around your boat and tying onto each with a poly-pro hand-line. Don't rely on bungies stretched through the four, stock, bow patches or a dragging tail of webbing from the stern. You want what Brad calls a "guard rail" to encircle your boat. When you flip, you can just reach up and grab it from any point on the boat and it will feel so much better than the fat, slippery tube. Take it from a guy who's swum more rivers and creeks after falling out of his packraft than likely anyone. If you can't/won't glue the patches on yourself, then ask Alpacka or a local shop to do it. Alpacka really should do it on all their boats.

(2) One difference between packrafts and inflatable kayaks and hardshells and big rafts/catarafts is that we packrafters can flip our craft and get back in. This is a self rescue, and after the glue dries on your guard rail, get out there and practice getting into and out of your boat, preferably in moving water, but even in the deep end of a pool is valuable. Again, the unfortunate level of experience I have, due to the high frequency of falling out of my boat, suggests that the side-entry boats with codpieces are harder to self-rescue into than the old center entry. If you have an old center entry boat, don't send it back to Alpacka for a retro fit. Watch this blog here: I will soon post how-to make your old center entry boat dry.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Eskimo Roll a Packraft: No previous roll necessary!

First you need thigh straps.

Second you need to be able to get upside down in friendly water, a heated pool without chlorine seems ideal. Next while upside down reach your paddle up to the surface with blade flat and strong arm forward. Then pry yourself up with a sweep, keeping head and shoulders low until the boat's pretty much up (bow will be up more of course) and finally thrust that strong side hip toward the weak side, pulling against the thigh strap to get the final umph over, which is when you'll finally sit up.

I am no expert at this! I am just relaying what worked for us and what you can see is exactly what Tim Johnson is doing in the video.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

NEWS FLASH: Three Mere Mortals Eskimo Roll Their Packrafts

None of the crew who'd put thigh straps in their boat could make it to the APU pool tonight where Tim Johnson, kayak expert and recent packraft Eskimo roller, was going to coach us.

Except Luc Mehl and me.

Luc invited his friends Galen and Dmitri, who paddled around in my yellow boat, while I got throughly confused on what I should be doing, other than trying to muscle over in the boat. I was getting nowhere.

Luc had managed a roll in the first 20 minutes or so with some tips from Galen, who once was a surf and sea kayak enthusiast. But then, like me, he floundered. At least he was getting his belly out of the water. I felt like I was just turning my boat from side to side underwater.

Meanwhile, Dmitri was off to the far end, doing his own thing. I'd actually written him off as just playing around in the packraft. Nobody seemed to be giving him any tips and I didn't hear any hooting and hollering -- until 9 PM, when I was just getting finished with hip snapping at the pool edge, which also was going nowhere.

It was getting time to leave. Tim had already gone into the locker room, no doubt amazed at how hapless, stiff, and uncoordinated I was.

"I probably will never be able to roll a packraft, even if glued to the thing," I thought.

Then I heard, "Do it again Dmitri!" and then watched in disbelief as he did what Luc had been doing all night and what anyone with thigh straps can do: get the upside down boat up to about a 45 degree angle by using the paddle in a standard kayak-style Eskimo-roll sweep. But he was finishing it off with a plop right side up!

Three times in a row he did it!

Paddling over to see what he did, I heard him recount the technique. He swept back with his arms to get up to the your-out-of-the-water stage, then hip thrust, "Like this," he gestured exaggerating his crunching hip movement.

I tipped over (I'd gotten good at that by now) came part way up Luc style and then hip thrust with a "Dmitri crunch", and BOOM -- I was over!

Awesome! I can't roll a kayak, and neither Luc nor Dmitri had ever rolled one. Now we were all rolling packrafts, long considered impossible to roll, then rolled recently but only by a kayaking expert.

Just to be sure I did it again. And again.

Luc was in the water now, paddling over to Dmitri to get his tuteleage -- then bam, bam he nailed two rolls in quick succession.

We'd done it!

Mere mortals, not kayak gods, had successfully rolled their packrafts and done it their own way.

Again -- awesome!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ice Worm Tunnel

Peggy and I have been going “ice worming” every week for the last month or so. It’s part of an ongoing project that I am involved with that's studying the ecology and evolution of ice worms.

Ice worms are small, dark colored relatives of earthworms, known only for sure to live from northern Oregon to Alaska, with some distant relatives living near Bomi in eastern Tibet. In Alaska and Washington State they have been studied in the summer as well as in the lab. During the summer they are common on glaciers near, and slightly below, firn line, especially at night. They are about half an inch long at most in the Alaskan populations I’ve seen, but they are bigger and more numerous in Washington State and British Columbia.

In summer they come swarming to the surface in huge numbers on some glaciers, coastal ones mainly. The glaciers draining the Harding Icefield can be thick with them below about 4,000 feet above sea level, but we have never seen them in the Alaska Range, or on the Matanuska, or in the Wrangells. There’s a bounty on them in the Alaska Range, so if you have GPS coordinates for Alaska Range populations, let me know. In Chugach State Park I have found them on the upper Eklutna and Whiteout Glaciers and Paul Twardock saw them on the Eagle Glacier near APU's Nordic Center. We looked on Flute Glacier, but it was a bad day for them, and we found none.

A good paper on ice worm behavior is by Dan Shain of Rutgers University and a handful of his students, entitled “Distribution and behavior of ice worms (Mesenchytraeus solifugus) in south-central Alaska" published in 2001 in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, Vol. 79, pages 1813-1821. He’s my collaborator on this project. My job this winter is to track their location as winter progresses. Until yesterday they were active on the surface. Yesterday with six inches of new snow and at temperatures near their lower lethal limit (~20 F) we found only dead ones on the surface of glacier ice where last week they’d been actively moving about.

There have been other interesting discoveries: like last week (and a couple years ago) when APU graduate student Melissa Becker and I saw worms crawling off the glacier ice, atop new, fresh snow over rocks. During our visits in October and November when the worms were out they were out at 2:00-5:00 PM, too. I expect that they were out all day.

Anyway, we’re getting some satisfying exploration each week out at near Byron Glacier, like inside this tunnel that penetrates a big avalanche cone that's actually a micro-glacier:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Skurking around Alaska

Andrew Skurka's planning to come back to AK next year. I think anybody reading this likely already knows that.

So what does it mean?

Well, it looks like he'll be putting athleticism into a trip that scales with a well known effort of 2008 from Seattle to Unimak. He, too, plans on several thousand miles by foot, paddle, and ski, but over, along, and through mountains and big, fast rivers. While the Wild Coast route was mostly coastal plodding -- intentionally, of course -- it was mostly impressive in that a married couple lived in their pyramid for a year as backcountry nomads. Skurka could just as easily live in his mid for a year, too, but he is strong and fast and likes to move that way, and solo, too. So he plans on nearly the same distance in less than half the time.

So, again, what does it mean? It means that he's upping the ante in Alaskan wilderness travel: fast, light, very BIG, and solo. Over 4000 miles in six months, with far more elevation gain and loss, whitewater, and wilderness than Alaska's most recent mega-trip. But more importantly it means that doing a week or two from Hope to Homer, Nabesna to McCarthy, Wonder Lake to Skwenta, or even Coldfoot to Kaktovik is something "normal" folks can do on their vacation time. By pushing the limits, extreme adventurers make what once seemed like a stretch now doable for the rest of us.

"If Andrew Skurka can do 4000 miles of wilderness travel in six months, then me and my buddies should be able to do 100 miles in six days, right?" Right!

I remember when Bachar hit the National spotlight with his incredible soloing. Just knowing what he was doing solo encouraged me do more in my own climbing. Seeing Tim Johnson roll his packraft inspired many of us -- some, like me, who may never be able to role it even if glued into my boat -- to put thighstraps in our boats and get far more control. The extremists in pushing their own extremist limits actually open up everyone else's horizons, too.

He and I have been emailing a bit about his route, which is certainly a reflection of his style: maximize trail-use (his winter route is the Alaskan wilderness equivalent of following a road -- nothing wrong with that!), travel long days, and long distances. He's embraced packrafting rivers and whitewater, and has won a Wilderness Classic, so averaging 20 miles a day for six months is doable (he averaged 30 miles a day for 200 days in his mash-up of Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails). He spent some time up here this past summer, walking and packrafting through south central, and got bit by the Alaska bug and showed that he's strong and smart enough to wander trail-less country effortlessly and efficiently.

His route might not be the route I'd choose, but it is his route and it's beautiful and ambitious and meaningful for the rest of us, too.

I'm excited to see its boldness.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Thigh Straps: How-to

Five of us put thigh straps in our boats with Tracy Harmon’s supervision on Wednesday. We waited until Saturday, slightly longer than the 72 hour dry time, to go check out our new toys on Six Mile Creek at about 8.7 feet or 485 cfs.

It was fun to be with JT and hear him say “Let’s just skip the first canyon and run the second and third canyons,” as two years ago on Nov. 10, 2007 Becky, Tony, JT, Brad and I ran first and second canyons and my river notes record that they were hesitant to run the third canyon. How times change with skill and experience…..and how they will when more people start using thigh straps.

While nobody was able to repeat Timmy’s Eskimo roll (or his role, for that matter!), the straps make Six Mile at these low water levels almost easy. Minus my one mistake, we all had totally clean runs, including boofs in “Jaws”.

What really stood out was the incredible control and oneness with the boat.

“This is what kayakers miss in packrafts,” said JT, wiggling and pivoting with that big boyish grin of his.

I paddled open packrafts from 1983 to 2003, decked ones since then, and now these straps. They are at least as revolutionary as decks in terms of what you can do. Decks gave us control in bigger water since we weren’t just swamped and fighting for control. But these straps are even better.

Some of you may recall the early 1980s when Fires first came out. Remember that? The first time we got sticky rubber and we all started climbing a grade harder immediately? In fact, calling a +/- a grade in whitewater, I’d say these straps increased my ability by a grade. Six Mile was the easiest I’ve ever run it.

Control was incredible – I could put the boat almost anywhere. I could grab and ride smaller tongues than usual, brace more effectively, and catch eddies faster and with more authority – in fact flat water will be easier with these to brace against, too.

Busting out of holes requires aggression that you just can’t get flopping around unanchored in a boat. But with straps you can lean forward and grab and pull, “Like front-wheel drive,” someone said. Many of us have been working to wedge ourselves in to the boat, but tight thigh straps do it better.

And best of all my straps center me – I didn’t even use my back rest (it’s blown out anyway, with a shoddy valve job) and sat centered in the boat with the shortest paddle I have ever used (200 cm – as short as the Sawyer would go), able to reach forward and get good, aggressive powerful strokes. I am ready for 197 cm with big stiff blades, now.

I tipped in one of the worst parts of the river, and hit my head hard, maybe harder than I would’ve without straps -- although the gobs of Velcro I have keep me in, too -- but the straps slide off quickly and easily by straightening the legs.

It would be simple for Alpacka to put “custom mods” in their boats for people to purchase inflatable kayak thigh straps, like the Aire brand Deluxe Thigh Straps we used: On a Yak, a tie-down just above the valve stem and behind the second seam in the bow (calling the center seam the first) and close to the floor worked well for me following Tim Johnson’s lead.

Here’s a how to video. Hope it helps.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Shockingly I did some science this past weekend. Actually reviewed a thesis chapter and a manuscript for a journal. Didn't really do any data analysis though. back into this kinda gently, ya know?

Very satisfying, nevertheless.

But I got right back to the business at hand today.

And put thigh straps in two boats.

Thanks to Tracy at Alaska Raft and Kayak for supervising the glue-huffing party of five: Tony and Becky, JT and Luc, were there, too.

72 hours from now.....the boats will be ready.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Slides and Plops

Here is my pick of the best recent You Tuber packrafting vids. I subscribe to these fun-loving filmakers who have been busy with their own hucking videos, the packrafting.blogspot "featured vids" for the month.

Keep 'em coming.

Most exotic and one I'd most like to do from "sunnyemotion" in Japan (nice fall colors and elated whoops, plus I am partial to the celebratory paddle raise a the end).

Todd Tumolo's packrafting partner "gqganey" in Vermont (maybe he could get another boat with thigh straps and loan his first one to some kayaker friend?).

Our own beloved pioneer "AlaskaCreeker" having a little fun with my first attempts at hucking on Tin Can (by the way my butt was OK -- somehow escaped unscathed from that dismount).

While we're at it I like this one of "rockymountainclimber" on the standard Bird Creek run which is my favorite helmet cam video yet and it's in B&W, adding to its coolness.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

When Packrafts are for Real Boaters

Over on the Alpacka Forum “Esben” posted a response to Tim Johnson’s Roll where he referenced “Paddling Regression”s comments on thigh straps:

Esben said,

“…we should not forget what Paddling Regression said in the thigh strap thread:

Paddling Regression wrote: ‘In a packraft, at least IMO, they seem like more than is necessary even at the upper end of whitewater. IMHO if you feel you need thigh straps you should probably think about improving your technique or further developing your skills. Weather it be reading the water better and seeing the clean lines and hitting them or simply spending more time in the raft, one needs to have skills. Given their design, there are just certain things that will be difficult no matter what you do. eg big holes on big water. These things are already about as idiot proof as it gets. Don't get me wrong, there are probably a hand full of people that could really push what is possible in a packraft with thigh straps, but for most it will simply be a substitute for skill and ultimately not help them in the long run. In fact I'd be willing to bet that most packrafters would not be able to roll a raft even if they were glued into the thing. It is certainly more difficult than a kayak by a long shot. Not to mention much harder on one's shoulders as well.’

Although vastly appreciating the benefits of it, I agree, the addition of this feature will distract from the simplicity, the core idea of packrafting.”

First off, idle speculation and opinion is not as valuable as first hand experience. Not sure exactly what Paddling Regression is running in his packraft, but having seen more than a dozen people in Class IV up to 5000cfs, I can tell you that these thigh straps are going to give all of us a much better time on whitewater. Bandersnatching will not be as nasty. Lateral waves, a frequent bane, may be more tolerable. Boofing will be easier, turning, carving and bracing much more effective.

My feeling, having only limited experience – like two minutes – in Tim's beefy thigh straps is that it’s like putting on rock shoes after climbing in mountain boots, like running in lace-ups vs. crocks. Sure we all need to improve our technique and further develop skills, but boy when I put on rigid crampons for the first time I was able to go where I’d not gone before, places even Yvon’s flatfooted French technique in flexible crampons coudn't have got Gaston Rebuffat.

As far as big holes in big water, these thigh braces may well give you the ability to muscle through them – now you have something to lever against, a way to hold onto your boat besides pushing with feet and back and using your paddle like a tripod.

Yes, Regression is probably right, most of us may not be able to roll the thing “even if glued into” it, but the control that the thigh straps give you will be sufficient to justify the 8 ounces or so of additional weight.

As for the core idea of packrating, I’d opine that the core idea is versatility divided by simplicity. Packrafts are the most versatile craft out there, by far. We all know you can fly around the world for long wilderness trips, battle your way down big rapids, thread your way down local congested creeks, cross icy fjords, pack bikes or game – all in the same boat. Thigh straps will not detract from that versatility. They may well enhance all of that, and they are removable. If you want simplicity, you can paddle an open boat without a seat, you’ll just be wetter, colder, and more out of control than a seated boat with a deck and thigh straps, and the boat will weigh under five pounds rather than seven.

Hig and Erin style flatwater likely does not need straps (but I don’t know as I generally avoid flat, dead water). Looking for caribou on easy water or long wilderness trips on canoe-style rivers, no straps needed – although they might make portages quicker using them as shoulder straps. But Grand Canyon? Steep creeks? You bet. I will swim far less often with these in my boat.

Claiming that “for most it will simply be a substitute for skill and ultimately not help them in the long run” is like saying skiers shouldn’t use fat skis and should learn to ski powder on boards with no side cut; that if you want to rock climb you should learn to hand jam wearing sneakers before you get rock shoes; that you should learn how to make rocky descents on a road bike, sharpening your handling skills that way, before getting fat tires; or that you should climb ice with soft boots and flexile crampons so you learn how to place tools in the right spots and hang from your bones before getting rigid boots and points.

While I am not a kayaker, I sort of doubt that kayakers develop skill and abilities by paddling a long, fiberglass boat with no flotation, no spray skirt, and no wet suit, to really be sure that they can read water and balance their boat and paddle the line before they let the creek boat, helmet, elbow pads, wet suit and all the rest substitute for skill. It’d be a good way to become skilled, but pretty frustrating.

I am continually amazed by how many people have more “HO”s about packrafts than they have time in the boats! The honest opinions about packrafts and self-bailing, about their durability, about their spray decks, about whitewater and big-water, what’s runnable and what’s a tube…. While pioneers are able to enjoy an exciting sense of discovery they also have to endure scorn and speculation.

But, you know, it’s worth it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

News Flash: Let the Revolution Begin.

We know that packrafts are real boats. The main problem has been that we users have not been seen as
real boaters.

Packrafts have been perceived as boats for people who can’t roll.

Until now.

Tim Johnson, author of Alaska Whitewater, bought a used packraft last week and did what we all want to do: he rolled it for real!

An Eskimo roll, twice, in Bird Creek with ice in the water and icicles on the cliffs.

This changes everything.

Anyone up for pool practice?
NB naysayers and armchair designers: The key were the bomber thigh straps he put in the boat.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

09 Observations on Gear and Technique

One of the great things about packrafting is you can feel like an explorer -- and not just on landscape crossings or the steep creeks and big rivers claimed unsuitable for packrafts -- but by exploring gear and technique. Many people enjoy tinkering and experimenting with their boat and their gear. Just look at the assortment of pack attachments on packrafts!

After our round the world trip where we used a single packraft for wilderness trips in five different countries, I came back to Alaska with a new focus on running Class IV creeks and remote rivers. Fortunately, an assortment of skilled and athletic enthusiasts invited/joined me. These are creative, observant and intelligent adventurers with lots of water and wilderness experience. Watching them and tinkering myself left me with a few observations at the end of the 09 boating season:

  1. Many whitewater boaters favor bigger boats (i.e. Llama sized) for their stability and have found the main disadvantage of long inside length is fixable by putting in a space filler under the deck in the bow. For example, on the Happy River Thai put all his camping gear “under the hood”, so to speak, so he could push against it with his feet. Thai is not tall but he does weigh 190 and so likes the stability of the Llama but his legs don’t reach the bow. With the weight and the space-filler up front, Thai found his big boat not just more stable, but also very maneuverable. Brad, who is tall but for a time crammed himself into a Yak, has gone so far as to take a box-wine bladder, blow it up and put it into a dry bag, itself velcroed under the hood at his feet. He feels locked in and no longer must shove himself up all the time after bigger drops. Nathan Shoutis of Media Feliz fame also fills the foot area of his Llama with a dry bag full of stuff. What we really need is a more centered seat, preferably adjustable. Then you could feel like you’re sitting in a Yak but have the stability of a Llama. What would go behind you? More air in a bigger back rest, perhaps? Bottom Line: sure, a Llama is too long, but shove some stuff in the feet for a stable and snug-fitting boat.
  2. The spray deck of 08 was great a qualitative improvement with its inflatable codpiece. Speaking from experience (I paddled for maybe four years with center entry Velcro and always had the driest boat – the air dam around the waist on my old skirt was great, but the codpiece is better) it’s not the center-entry Velcro of earlier boats that allows water in so much as it is the waist fit and the small width Velcro. Small width Velcro also wears out much too fast and peels open at the waist far too easily. Brad put in snaps to hold his closed waist closed. I am not as skilled at gear modification, so I sewed 3 inches of Velcro along the opening and this stays shut and keeps water out. But the stingy stock Velcro on the boats is a design flaw. If my experience with zippers on jackets, gaiters, pants, tents, packs and everything else is any indication of zipper weakness, then having a zipper on the spray deck indicates weakness, too. Why doesn’t Alpacka listen to Brad M’s suggestions? If Alpacka is listening to somebody who paddles more than Brad does, I’d like to meet them! Bottom Line: for a drier boat, sew on more Velcro – 3 inches wide from opening to stern.
  3. As an advocate for the “packraft roll” -- that is, falling out of your boat, up-righting it while swimming and reentering the boat -- for several years now, I must say that I have more trouble getting into the side-entry boat with the codpiece than I did with my old center-entry boat with an air dam. Three inches of side-entry Velcro is sticky and holds the deck shut, especially with the codpiece preventing the boater’s butt from seating on re-entry. In contrast, a center-opening three-inch Velcro deck with an air dam was far easier to get into as the Velcro (also three inches) was much less likely to re-stick unless done so manually. Bottom Line: boats need to be made more safe by making entry easier, maybe with a center entry.
  4. Over a three week period my poor boat got damaged three times: the rear skirt was ripped off, I dropped a tripod on a tube, and I bumped a dry granite shard. Over the season I saw two other punctures and a floor rip on other people's boats. Everything but the floor rip and one of the punctures was repaired with duct tape. I ran waterfalls and remote Class IV and made a week-long trip with these “temporary repairs” and never had a leak. Take-home message: Duct tape around the paddle 3-4 times and a piece of dry cotton in your kit to dry off the wounded area is all you need in the field for 90% of damage.
  5. We had several trips where weight was hypercritical, both because of weight limits for fly-in trips and because a totally unloaded boat responds a better in Class IV+ (‘cause I’m not as good a boater as I’d like to be and any weight makes my boat response a bit more sluggish). So I took to packrafting without a pack. I simply strap my folded boat (I’ll post a video on this easiest, fastest and most compact way to prepare a boat for carrying) onto the back of my foam PFD (unlikely you could do it with an inflatable one). TIP: try carrying your packraft strapped to your PFD back and leave the pack at home.
  6. Thai is a real proponent of abstracting gear. He likes to “use his dry suit as a dry bag" to keep gear dry inside it. Me too. Unfortunatley my vintage 1996 Kokatat Dry suit isn’t so dry, so rain pants and rain gear inside the dry-suit keep me warm dry and happy. I also like to overdress in my drysuit as I seem to swim more than everyone else, but somehow don’t need gloves, even when it’s close to freezing. Tip: dry-suit sorta slithy? Try wearing rain gear inside it. Your butt and elbows will stay drier and you’ll be warmer.
  7. JT Lindholm has a short, fat, and four-piece paddle that I desire. While a long paddle is still better for long days on flatter water and for beginners, the high tempo and aggressive “man-hands” of something like a Werner Sho-gun or Player shows itself useful on steep creeks and waterfalls. A four-piece -- not because I like to break it down all the way, ‘cause I am fine with two pieces (I seem to lose one when they’re in quarters), but because I have taken the little sticks out of the blow-up bag and put them in the "paddle-to-blade space", the compartment where the blade meets the shaft. Then I can paddle without poky sticks anywhere dangerous. On the topic of paddles, the wooden Sawyer is tough and Brad uses it on his bigger water fly-in trips, and it's adjustable, so would be great for the float-a-river-paddle-its-steep-creek-trib trips too, as he proved on our Happy River journey.
  8. As for technique: Thai Verzone has taught me a lot about creeking, how to work with a partner and "swing leads" down a series of drops. And I’d like to paddle stroke like Paul Schauer. What this means is I need a shorter paddle and to go with him when he’s in a packraft. He’s positively beautiful to watch. Finally, Tim Johnson in a packraft was good to watch as he put kayak body English into his hucking moves. If you can get a Class V kayaker in a packraft, go creeking with them. They'll learn that packrafts are fun and you'll learn a bunch of new boating skills.
  9. The Kokatat Orbit PFD I bought has hampered my ability to self-rescue, as has any PFD with pockets I stuff with food, camera, tow ropes and other do-dads. The bulk hampers my re-entry, so I have gone to a simple and cheap and super light LTI Livery PFD. Much easier to get in as long as I don't fill my clothes pockets with food and gear inside my drysuit!

I don't really expect anyone reading this to follow my advice. Just looking at how people continue to strap gear on their boats and roll them for packing and all the other things they do is enough to tell me that my ways certainly don't appeal to others, but I thought I'd write all this down here now, so that when next season comes around, I'll look back and see what I learned this year.

'Cause this year was the best year yet for packrafting.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Season Finale -- Three Cups of Tea from a Tin Can

Tim Johnson schooled me in real hucking at Turnagain Pass when he dropped and I spilled Tin Can's Tea Cups on Saturday evening. The Tea Cups are destined to become a packraft-flipping favorite.

On sunny but chilly Sunday, Brad, Luc Mehl (who in the 15 days since he's owned his dry suit has run Echo Bend, Bird, Six Mile, Talkeetna, Montana, Chickaloon and some other creek as well as Kings), JT, and I ran Kings Lower Canyon with Palmer local Mark Oathout (his first time in a packraft), which is beautiful up to and including the crux "Got a Give 'Er" out in the Talkeetnas. Worth doing once, but a long walk in and a long float out from the main attraction.....

I think my boating season is about over so I compiled a greatest hits of 09 video:

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Talkeetna Canyon Video

The clear, warm waters of the Talkeetna Canyon fully met my expectations. Perhaps the rapids fell short of what JT had pictured, but they likely surpassed what Becky had dreamed.

A real boater on a variety of watercraft, JT had waited 10 years to run what Embick wrote as “possibly the best all-around whitewater river in Alaska.” For Becky, it’d been an apprehensive drive up the Parks Highway to Talkeetna.

For me the Talkeetna felt as I’d hoped the Happy would: rolling, white-cresting waves and churning, bottomless holes. A river-scape I’d been edging toward by packraft since the mid 1980s, when its gray summer flood made its way onto Fairbanks cabin walls, projected but frozen on suspended sheets with hardshellers in long boats and copper-colored helmets wrestling muscular flows.

Foolishly I asked if it was packraftable.

“No way!”

“There are riverwide holes in there.”

“That river flips BIG rafts.”

Packrafts aren’t real boats.”

And for some reason, while none of these people had ever actually been in a packraft, they all somehow knew what was packraft-able.

I decided to find out first hand.

In September 1990 Mark Stoppel and I took a single Sherpa Packraft, open and long, with yellow 10-inch tubes and parallel sides, from Yellow Jacket Creek to Prairie Creek, he walking bars and catching a ride in the boat for crossings, me paddling with double packs. It was packrafting abstracted to its near purest functional expression: one boat, two people, big country.

In 1990 we feared the Canyon – like we had the Happy’s the year before -- and walked highlands to Gold Creek. We raft-packed as much as packrafted. But we had only rain gear and foam pads, no dry-suit or even PFD and just the single boat.

Seven years later, Bob Kaufman and I pedaled from Eureka Roadhouse to Yellow Jacket where we met a friend of Bob’s with two big rafts we rode down the high waters of July. Even steering Bob’s little Puma with a paddle in the “fourteen miles of continuous whitewater” I think felt like JT had – something near disappointment.

By 2003 Alpacka Rafts were fairly well established and the first condom-style spray decks were out as prototypes. With a spray deck and a drysuit I discovered whitewater to Class IV. No longer did a packrafter need suffer out of control in a swamped boat full of water. Spray decks opened up clean runs of Six Mile’s three canyons, Little Su, Ship Creek and the Talkeetna’s Entrance Exam, Toilet Bowl in “Outhouse” conditions, Washboard, and the longest rapid on the river about an hour downstream, maybe called "Pearly Gates"?

The Talkeetna that Autumn at the 3k-4k cfs showed itself ideal for packrafters; there just weren’t any packrafters out there who felt ready to do it.

Now there may be dozens. If you can paddle Six Mile’s first and second canyons cleanly and practice self rescue and throw bags to your partners, then you can packraft the Talkeetna below 5k cfs, especially since all the biggest rapids (at most six I’d call PR 4 or Class III+ to Class IV-) are not only scout-able but portage-able

This last weekend I had the honor of joining a group of close friends who honored me with their humor and skill.

I thank Brad and JT for inviting me; and Becky, Tony, and Luc for joining us. …. Such a wonderful trip.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Talkeetna Canyon: 24 hours after work

We had warm, dry weather with the Talkeetna gauge (above the RR) reading in the 4500-5000 cfs range -- ideal for packrafting.

Here are the basic stats: six of us in two 206s (Brad, Luc Mehl, JT, Becky King, Tony and me) flew in after work on Friday to Murder Lake and were in our boats by 6 PM.

The paddle down shallow Prairie Creek to the Talkeetna the pilot said takes "rafts" 4-6 hours. We were down in one and a half, camping just upstream of Cache Creek by 8 PM.

A clear but shockingly warm night for October gave way to a cold, frosty morning with ice on our boats, even when we put in a little after 9 AM. By 10:30 AM I'd dropped into the Entrance Exam without studying and failed. Fortunately at the low flows of fall, the Toilet Bowl below Entrance Exam is not flushing ("The Outhouse"?) and I self rescued easily. The others studied their lines and passed with flying colors. They are so good!

The Washboard immediately below offered a variety of lines among exposed boulders. Some good students went right, some diagonaled left, most stayed upright. I went down the middle and swam again! Both swims were due to my limp response to lateral waves tipping me into the beautiful blue water -- not the ugly gray of summer.

Fortunately I wore a layer of wool, two layers of synthetics, and a big, puffy jacket beneath my 15 year old "dry suit". I never shivered nor even felt chilled the whole day.

The third swim was another lateral wave that got me in what seems to be the longest rapid in the Canyon, about an hour below the Entrance-Washboard complex. In between these two "Class IV" rapids was a river-wide hole that got everyone but me and Becky. She styled all the Canyon and swam nothing.

Miraculously I had somehow managed to stay upright in the river-wide hole but failed to get video of the colorful carnage of boats flipping like dominoes. With so many swimmers I had to practice whitewater triage.

My last swim was in a groovy wave train -- one of many that make for exhilarating but stable rides-- that I was running one handed, trying to capture something of the feel of the Talkeetna's biggish water feel (see above).

We camped at Sheep River by 6 PM, off again on Sunday morning at 9:30-ish and out to Talkeetna where we went and ran S. Fork Montana Creek's lower canyon.

For $130 each and gas money to Talkeetna, this had more value than the Happy River.

It's also totally doable in a 12-14 hour day from Murder Lake in packrafts with a small, skilled group. Our group was plenty skilled, but biggish, and wanted to camp, socialize around the fire, and do all that other fun stuff.

Me, I can't wait to run it all in a day.....Thai, maybe this weekend?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Another Flight

It's amazing the effect that other people have on me.

Even three decades after my first alpine climb with Carl Tobin, I still kick steps in loose snow the way I saw him lead on the ridge descent of "10,910". Paul Adkins showed me to ride the way water flows, Steve Sillett taught me the California big tree way, while Ryan Jordan inspired me to wash my socks on wilderness trips. More recently, I find my packrafting techniques borrow from others: Scott Solle's runaway boat tether; Nathan Shoutis' butt-boat boof; Thai Verzone's eddy-hopping and wave surfing; even Forrest McCarthy's 3/4 spins!

But of all the influence of my current stable of partners, it's Brad Meiklejohn who's pulling me to the dark side with fly-in trips.

Now I wish I could tell you that I'm a purist, someone who eschews flying because it's not "fair", not as "good" as walking/boating/biking/skiing in, and honestly I do feel that way, that it's most satisfying to "earn your turns". I mean, if you're going to fly, why not just take a snowmachine/ATV/jetboat in?

But that old-timey wilderness-guy feeling may simply be self-apology for being too poor most of my adult life to fly into the wild places I so like to visit. Or maybe because I feel motion sick too easily. Or maybe because looking out the window of a low flying plane at the heart-melting landscapes of Alaska is a bit like going to the Great Alaska Bush Co. -- look but don't touch.

But Brad has influenced me in these various ways. He does it without really trying. Like day before yesterday we went to Bird and I was planning to just "flip it" like usual, but we ended up walking the full hour to the regular kayaker put-in and I actually enjoyed all the upper drops and cruisey, boogey water mini-canyons. Or like last July when we -- dare I admit it -- flew in to the Happy River.

So Brad and I and a handful of others he has under his spell are flying in for a weekend run of the Talkeetna Canyon.

I'd like to do it in 24 hours -- mostly 'cause we could if we had the light -- but instead we'll have beautiful blue water with lots of rocks and tongues, holes and fall colors and likely a couple camps.

The Talkeetna before freeze-up is the best time for a packrafter. The water's clear and low and offers more interesting features and less ugly gray volume. I went in there back in late September of 2003 and ran Entrance Exam, Toliet Bowl and the Washboard, as well as everything upstream and a couple drops downstream in an old Alpacka. This was back in the day of pull-on spray decks and I was actually there with a bunch of APU students in open boats and rain gear with ice on the boats every morning (see above). We'd walked there in Classic style, from Eureka, and floated from the Canyon mouth to Talkeetna.

But a lot has happened in six years. Back then I'd been the lone (crazy) packrafter on Ship, Six-Mile, and Little Su at 600 cfs. Now lots and lots of people run those former test-pieces and don't mess their dry-suits doing it.

So this trip this weekend with some of the most experienced whitewater packrafters in the state should be something else.
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