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.
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