Monday, September 28, 2009

Big Sky Thai

Yesterday Paul Schauer took Thai and me to what’s likely the most “fun” (type 1 – fun to do and fun to think back about) packrafting creek run I did all year: South Fork of Montana Creek up off of the Talkeetna Turnoff (take a right on Yoder, cross the bridge, go straight until road turns right and walk the ATV trail for maybe an hour and a half or so to N 62.18410 W 149.81017 using NAD 27. The ATV trail just stays sort of on the south rim. Alternatively just walk to the first big muddy bog hole and drop in there for the punchy second canyon.)

The water was very low, under 350 cfs on the gauge and all the kayakers waiting for the 7AM-water-level-call bailed except for Paul – who I’d promised a packraft loan if he would lead me to the river. Paul had accompanied me and Jeff Conaway to Ingram Creek last year and had seen first hand that packrafts are real boats.

Thai and I had planned for Bird, but this looked much cooler, based on a video Paul’s dad John Schauer had made last year on a father son mission of this Class IV+ gem of a whitewater run. Paul has been kayaking whitewater since he was a teenager growing up in Fairbanks and it shows. His fluency reading water and paddling are impressive.

We put in too high and would have had less butt bouncing and bow spinning if we’d used the top of the first canyon as the put in (N 62.17998 W 149.83550). Much above the first canyon, the water was just too spread out and thin and didn’t drop enough for floating. But from this waypoint on down there were great bouldery drops and ledges.

Our run of Montana Creek offered a “Waikiki” character with low-flow Ship Creek or Ingram water-push: ideal for high-end packrafting, although 50 cfs more would’ve been even better (not so bumpy in between the canyons). A broken granite corner toward the end of the first canyon cut a pinky-sized hole in my raft. Good old duct tape from prior repairs provided patch material after drying the boat’s fabric with my cotton underwear. The tape held for all the following bigger drops, too, as it has been holding on my spray deck for the last month.

I’d say there are maybe seven great packrafting drops (“Cody’s Hole”, “Fall-out”, “Big Sky”, “Paddle Chock”, “Tumbled Dice”, “Prow Boof”, “Surf Ramp”) in a mile and a half in two shallow canyons, with the best located near the entrance to the second canyon. Watch for a coal seam on river left and a creek wide ledge and diagonal hole on the next right turn. Downstream “Big Sky” drops six or seven feet after a neat series of pre-drop moves. After the “Big Sky” plunge pool is a slot-like canyon with several steep boulder drops needing some scouting for people like me (“Paddle Chock”). After about 4 hours from the upper put-in, take out at the log that goes all the way across the creek and head up the hill about 0.1 miles to the ATV road (N 62.17871 W 149.87404)

Besides the fantastic water -- its features, level, and clarity as well as the fall colors – boating with Thai and Paul was a dream come true. Both are class V boaters in kayaks, and besides bringing a level of experience, competence and confidence that I have not yet encountered on a packraft-only descent, they both bring easy-going attitudes. Both see packrafts as wonderful tools for backcountry -- and especially wilderness -- creeking, a new frontier of boating really, that doesn’t require uncomfortable loads or huge drops for adventuresome satisfaction.

Paul said he was more nervous dropping “Big Sky” in the packraft than he was in his kayak, but that’s just because this was his first time paddling a packraft! How awesome is that?

Twenty-somethings like him probably represent the future of packrafting, so seeing Paul in a loaner boat that was too long for him wearing his creeking helmet, pads, and paddle was exciting. He already has plans…..

Looking at “Paddle Chock” drop (right around 4:40-4:50 in the video) Thai commented, “Wow, that’s something we would never have considered last year. I mean it just doesn’t look runnable in a packraft.”

“You’re right,” I replied, “kind of worries me to think about what we'll be running next year.”


  1. Some excellent, real-world examples of the snicker-snack technique. Thanks.

  2. Very cool.

    It's really instructive to watch extensive examples of two very accomplished, artistic paddlers with very different styles.

  3. I wanna learn to handle a paddle like Paul -- he looks like a jedi....

    Eric, you have to get out with us for one run this Fall!

  4. How I missed this the first time around I have no idea.

    Glad someone bumped it on the packrafting forum. I'll need a guide--you'll probably do in a pinch.



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