Sunday, January 15, 2012

What is packrafting anyway? The Horsepasture River

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.

Have fun!


  1. Great post, Roman. I'm excited to see how this year's Classic turns out for ya. I plan on being on the east side of the Copper at the Dunes, with a roaring fire waiting for all of you... and hopefully, beer, too :)

  2. I had no idea, what a short comment on FB would spark ;) Too little space in the comment field to match this well balanced post, neither time for an own. A few words anyway:

    The comparison with Telemarking is a good one, altough I have the same feeling towards as with packrafting (thanks for considering me youngish btw :) The reason I am closer with Forrest in considering packrafting half/half is the fact of so many other "disciplines" in water sports. I am not sure about the situation overseas, but all the Stand Up Paddling (SUP), River bugging, gosh, inflationary and all based on the "invention" of a craft. Fashionable fun-sport. Packrafting as an open source mix of activities is such a wonderful concept, that provides to live creativity for many, quite the opposite of consumption. And we are still in the middle of the revolution for the majority of outdoorsy people, where with pure water use of the packraft, we wouldn't. So, in favour to reach those minds who have not considered water sport, I stay with "Alpine Ski touring in summer", amphibious travel, paddling by fair means ... bikerafting is, horsepacking IK's is not (the packraft being man portable). And this is no dogma against damn fun river running (as I 've done quite often). This will come when you own a packraft anyway.

    I am not in the situation to base any definition, but 'anything you do in a packraft' is IMHO a circle that leads back to the question 'what is a packraft?' ;) An important one btw, as there will come claims for it of others in the future for sure. A man portable craft for combined activities on land and water? An functional boat below 8 pounds? An Alpacka Raft? I am tempted to say, as credit goes to Sheri for the breakthrough of the idea. But then again, there is the Orca coming with Timmy ;) Portability is core characteristic for a packraft, I 'd say.

    Likewise Timmy pursues the whitewater package (convincing hardsheller by that), I like to push the line towards 'the peoples raft', simpler, lighter, maybe even less expensive. Anyways, thanks for pushing the limits in whitewater application, you know, 'extremists do us a favour' ...

    1. Yes, we must be sure that while we simultaneously move forward with whitewater that we not forget the classical uses. In backcountry skiing, it's difficult to find a light weight leather boot, for instance. So many 3 pin boots now look like this ( and are used for distance travel!

      I rue the day when all packrafts look like 2012 whitewater Alpackas of Feathercraft, and nothing like a 4 pound scout is available.

      The Four pound scout is a classic boat. I hope something like it is always available.

  3. Great article! I was having this same discussion with Trip yesterday. Our discussion was more along the lines of, what is the point of running those creeks in packrafts? It is certainly awesome that you guys are running such amazing steep creeks in packrafts. But, like you said, the age old hardsheller perspective of "why not in a kayak?" creeps into mind. From a hardsheller's perspective it might appear that it is safer or easier to do those runs in a kayak. So why do them in a packraft? I believe it is all about confidence. It's about what watercraft you are confident in and building that confidence. In order to feel confident on a steep creek in the wilderness where the consequences of your actions are elevated due to how remote the creek may be, you have to hone your skills where consequence are lower to build your confidence.

    Sure, the majority of packrafters are hiking long distances with their boats and doing amazing wilderness trips and are never going to need thigh straps or really have the desire to run anything above class II. But the few people who are pushing the limits of what is possible in a packraft are awakening a different ilk of people. In the last couple of years whitewater enthusiast have seen that these lightweight, portable watercraft can run technical whitewater. My eyes were finally opened after watching you run Ingram Creek and finally getting in one on Montana Creek. What I saw, instead of a wilderness travel tool, was a tool that I could use to paddle remote and hard to access exploratory creeks. In my opinion, Alaska has an abundance of unrun, unexpolred creeks that are expensive or nearly impossible to access with a kayak. As a whitewater enthusiast a packraft, outfitted to run whitewater, is the perfect tool to explore these remote creeks.

    After watching your videos and reading your reports from the SE, I am getting excited for the up coming season and look forward to building my confidence in a packraft and exploring new creeks with you guys this summer in the Last Frontier.

    1. On one of our many steps getting back from Chile, Tyler shared this post with me from Pat Keller that hits home in so many ways. I believe it is also very appropriate in this discussion.

      "Fellow huckers! Allow me a moment to speak to you on a crucial point of the code. The level of excitement out there is so proud to see, so proud. That being said, with this excitement we must stay within our own boundaries and our own skill level. Now hang on, I'm not sitting here and preaching that you shouldn't do dumb things. I know I often go there, and probably many of my actions (and my fellow huckers) are inspiring yall in yours. Thats awesome. I learned much from watching Tao, Tommy, Clay, BJ, Andrew (even Travis Rice recently) and many other shredders. Watching them over and over. Thats great. Its a big part of how we learn. But know that it is plenty ok to take you're time, taking baby steps, to ensure that you've got that line - and that you'll stick it on the first try. Growing up, my dad would show me a cool new slot or boof rock and tell me to try it. Those around me wouldn't let me step it up until I was ready to take that step. And I thank them for that. My parents also got me into years of slalom training. Hard moves on easy whitewater. That is the path. If you dial in everything you can where the consequences are likely to be small and you WILL succeed in the harder stuff. If you think, "It'll be ok - ill probably make it" - you set yourself up for a possible fail that could put your life (and especially those around you) in grave danger. See the line, the alternate plans, know it. Know them. If you KNOW, then set safety and go. If even just one aspect is troubling you, walk. No shame in saving it for another day. Again, im not suggesting that you don't get out there and push. PUSH ON! It is in our nature and it is the ultimate search. But stay safe, surround yourself with people that you are certain know whats up, and listen to your gut. We don't have to fire just cause its there, just cause its running on this particular day. Thats the great thing about our rivers. They stay. They wait patiently for us to be ready. When we are, they give us the most delightful sensations ever. If we are not, they can be the most unkind, unforgiving realms we can possibly enter. We all must respect these realms and tread lightly in them. Practice practice practice and wait for an invitation to step it up. Don't try that big leap that is so tempting. Nail and dial all the little steps along the way. Rivers teach us patience. We have to wait for the right time to try and roll - or it wont work. The same goes for new hard runs, new hard rapids. Visualize and practice, practice and visualize. Also, bring you're rope. Have it in hand. Always. It is our sword, our sniper rifle. Set that cover fire and don't let you're fellow soldiers rush into a trap - even those that may be self induced. Stay safe out there, have fun and style those good lines. Share this around if you agree with these points. Lets get river respect back on top of our priorities. Cheers to all, see you in the next eddy. Thanks for reading." ~Pat Keller

  4. Love that, Paul.

    A wise man once told me, "I'm walkin'. There's a thousand more rapids."

  5. Hello
    I am organizing this meeting


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