Sunday, December 17, 2017

Trial and error,
Failure and terror,
The truth of the matter at hand.
Death in a whisper
Is so much to weather
For the life of a
Wife and her man.

Costa Rica
December 2014

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Pseudo-Haiku Notebook

We went on a bird-watching centered vacation last Spring Break (2017) in Arizona, following a route mapped out for us by Brad Meiklejohn.

We were struck by all the Border Guards and other birders we saw on our trip, hence the focus.

Redstarts, midway down
Cool canyons, stop their songs when
Dogs guard our borders.
--March 15, Ramsey Canyon

Birders and border
Guards chase wary immigrants
Crossing dusty roads.
--March 16, Border grasslands

Where migrants pass
"David Roberts, is that you?"
Nancy breaks her arm.
--March 17, Sycamore Canyon, AZ-Sonora border

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Firn Line

Many years—maybe like two decades ago in the 1990s—Anchorage entrepreneur, Bob Kaufman, started his Alaska Channel and began tinkering with video.

He and I once discussed how great it would be to document all the amazing people we knew back then. Unrelated to our musings, something like an audio archive sprang up at University of Alaska Fairbanks  as “Project  Jukebox”.

That UAF project is great, but when I look at the photos of the people they’ve interviewed I see very few of the faces of those who I know (exceptions are Andrew Embick, Art Davidson, Paul Dinkewalter, Doug Geeting, Dave Johnston, Knut Kielland, Ian McRae, Ralph Tingey and others from the Denali Mountaineering project) but it’s all very NPS and UAF centric and seems more archival that anything (although archival is still important!).

Enter Evan Phillips’ entertaining podcast “The Firn Line”. 

This is the one I like more. It's about people I know and admire and with Evan's great music, too.

There are (so far) 18 episodes in the First Season, but the stories and production quality are like audio frosting on a story-telling/philosophizing cake and it's Evan’s music that really makes The Firn Line worth listening to. So far he's interviewed mountaineers including Carl Tobin, Brad Meiklejohn, Luc Mehl, ClintHelander, Katie Strong, Dusty Eroh, Charlie Sassara, Sam Johnson, Marc Westman, Vern Tejas, and most recently Jack Tackle.

The Firn Line is really worth our support. Unlike the UAF Jukebox sponsored by State and Federal dollars, The Firn Line is supported by people like you and me and done by a member of our community.

Have a listen to the Firn Line and you’ll see what I mean. And if we all sign up as patrons on Patreon we can be sure to get a Season 2 with more great interviews and music.

Now, look, full disclosure: I did a Firn Line interview with Evan last Saturday, live at the Alaska Rock Gym and greatly enjoyed it. 

Peggy said it was like I got my own, personal version of “Artic Entries”, but instead of 7 minutes and one story I got 70 minutes and maybe a dozen—and six of those were about Chuck Comstock alone!

So, have a listen to the Firn Line and then sign up as a subscribing patron to keep Evan going and to get adventurers who have been too irreverent for UAF and the NPS documented on a most entertaining venue.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


Earlier this month I flew from Anchorage to Keflavik, Iceland and then on to Nuuk, Greenland.

I'd never been to either country but always wanted to go, of course. Many of you readers have likely been to both on much longer, gnarlier, or more in-depth or important trips, so please be patient with my rather shallow visits to each.

Greenland has always been too far for me, dollar-wise, and Iceland never seemed wild enough to warrant recreational/travel trips. But for like $800 I could get to Iceland and back from ANC. Greenland cost a bit more, maybe another $1000 from Keflavik.

I went there for the 7th annual Polar and Arctic Microbe Conference. There were about 50 people at the conference and from all over the world. Many Euros and UK-folk, a few Americans, even some Asians and a colorful character named Craig from New Zealand.

Ganey was presenting his recently completed masters thesis. We re-worked it and wrote a new paper we had published this week on line. It got some press that I keep telling Ganey about. He says maybe I should just get a Twitter account.

Maybe I should, but probably I won't, but I have been  psyched to have the recognition for our work.

Why? Well, first Ganey did a great job hiking up and down to the Harding Icefield and skiing in with APU ski-team members like every couple weeks a few summers back to manipulate snow algae and measure melt. He solved all kinds of problems and collected all kinds of data and used R and GIS and GPS and spectrometers and microscopes and satellite data to produce a super-neat, comprehensive project.

And second, the idea is about how red-snow algae melt snow and I have had the idea for many years, and always got pushback-smirks from earth scientists about the idea--which is common worldwide I learned at the conference from other biologists with the same idea.

So getting it published in Nature Geoscience gives the idea some credibility and maybe gives me some future traction in getting funding to continue doing glacier ecology with APU students, something I have been doing for about fifteen years now, including ice-worms and bacteria as well as red-snow algae.

So this Greenland conference was good excuse to go to Greenland and I brought my packraft, too, of course. Tom Diegle says I should write a book with the title "My Carry-on is a Packraft."

I overnighted in Iceland and rented a car for two days and drove around to see the Geyser Basin and the nearest super cool gigantic waterfall.

It felt like Europe--both the birds and the plants are European, even though Greenland is closer than Europe--plopped down on a big ole' Aleutian Island or like a Scandanavian version of New Zealand set in the North Atlantic instead of South Pacific. There were neat looking sheep and little horses and cows and the animals always hunkered together like they must in mid winter, staying warm, surviving gales.

At first I wasn't too thrilled about the place, but taking the car back to the airport I drove along the south coast and thought, "wow, what a cool place."

I want to go back with Peggy and hike tundra and float glacier rivers without bears, especially after about messing my pants in June when a burly grizz charged within thirty feet of me before turning when I threw a boulder at it to stop it.

The people in Iceland spoke English and had real Alaskan-like independence. There are more people in Anchorage than the whole country, but it was WAAYYY to expensive for me. I bought food to take to Greenland, thinking Greenland would be like the bush and Iceland like Anchorage, but no. I think food prices were actuall cheaper in Greenland's Nuuk.

The flight to Nuuk was three hours long in a little two engine Dash-8. I wanted at least four engines, since we were crossing hours of ocean and ice.

I'd intended to go farther north from Nuuk to do a little trip by Kangersuluuaq from the Greenland Ice Sheet to the ocean, but found out it'd cost me $1,000 more! So I balked.

Besides Nuuk and it surroundings were simply amazing.

Nuuk is the biggest city in Greenland. It has like half (so about 17,000 people) of countries 35,000 people. It sits on a wee craggy peninsula at the tip of a 100-mile peninsula in a deep complex of fiords on the west coast of Greenland.

It's about the same latitude as Fairbanks and Nome. It feels like Nome climate with Arrigetch Peaks on growth hormones set in Glacier Bay, if you'll indulge me in some mixed geographic Alaskana metaphors.

You can walk from one end of the road system to the other in like an hour. It has a wonderful sheltered port that's the central hub for shipping and ferries that go up and down the southern half of Greenland's west coast, from Disko Bay south really.

I only visited Nuuk and loved it's colorful houses and even the big appartment buildings. Lonely Planet online pans the place, but I was utterly fascinated. Utterly!

Most of the people I saw as I walked the streets in, by turns, windy drizzle or crisp blue sunshine, were Greenlandic People. They don't call themselves Inuit or Innupiaq. They said they were Greenlandic People and even the high school kids I met spoke Greenlandic, Danish, and English. They were beautiful people and I loved the feel of northern Alaska in a European urban-like environment. Easily the neatest place I went in the last 18 months of my extended sabbatical.

Ganey and I ate at a Thai restaurant where you could have whale sushi made from narwhal. I bougth musk-ox sausage I took on my "Kanger-roo Tour".

No, that's no typo (I know how to spell kangaroo -- the coolest animal I saw this sabbatical -- maybe the second after the Peruvian jaguar on the banks of Madre de Dios River -- was a tree kangaroo sliding down a tree-fern bole like a fireman on alarm at the station).

"Kanger" is Greenlandic for fjord and paddling a packraft with the winds and tides then hiking over the intervening passes between fjords in Greenland--fjord hopping--is a kanger-roo tour.

There are two hut to hut peninsula walks that I know of. One on Nuuk's peninsula from Nuuk to Kapisillit and the other between Kangersuluuaq and Sisimiut (which you can get to by ferry from Nuuk). Boats go to Kapisillit on thursday.

I only had 4 days left before the conference after spending 3 writing a paper in a wonderful hostel. I found an outdoor store in Nuuk that sold topo maps at my favorite scale (1:250,000) and fuel although I had an alcohol stove and just bought the Danish/Greenland version of Heet.

I hiked across town, over a mountain, and stayed in a couple huts, even camped out with a white Arctic fox visiting my mid in the full moon night. Paddled up one fiord with a tail wind on an incoming tide and out another with a down-fjord wind on an outgoing tide.

Saw an Ivory gull in the fjord with icebergs and a white gyrfalcon soaring above Nuuk. Watched a peregrine chase a huge white-tailed eagle and followed eiders who dove under the water en mass. The eagle was huge, bigger than bald or golden eagles with deep wings and a short broad tail.

Ravens were everywhere. A group of eight young ones followed me along in my boat. I watched one carrying a sea urchin in its bill, then drop it to break and eat it, solving the mystery of how all the sea urchin shells had got up on the tundra.

Like Iceland, there're no grizzly bears, or bears of any kind deep in the fjords of the south. I think the polar bears are out on the ocean coast, near ice mostly, hunting seals. The reindeer are smaller than our caribou and rarer, small herds, and sparse.

Greenland in September felt a bit emptier than Alaska's arctic with its blueberries, growing on acidic granite derived soil, not as sweet.

But I am saving my money to go back. And I am hoping that Alpacka puts together a pointy-bowed, long and skinny, zipper boat with a whitewater deck -- maybe even call it the "Kanger-roo"?

So I can go back and paddle into the wind and surf like a Greenlandic Person in a skin boat qayak.

Friday, September 15, 2017

InReach Fail?

Many of us carry and use InReach communication devices for safety and texting home or to people with other devices. They're expensive and even more so if they set off a false alarm for SOS.

Read the following and beware!

"Hey friends,

I'm writing to let you know I've had a problem with my Delorme inReach SE that has caused me and my parents a major scare and a large headache and put 8 Russian rescuers in a dangerous helicopter for no reason.  I'm hoping you might be able to help me out by testing the SOS feature on your own inReach SE and/or by passing this message on to others you know who use these devices and seeing what happens.  Here is the story in brief:

Earlier this summer, a friend and I were on an 18-day wilderness expedition in Kamchatka, Russia.  We were carrying an inReach as per our permit with the Russian government to travel independently without a guide.  On day 2, approximately 40 km from the main road where we were dropped off, a helicopter showed up and landed at our location.  After the initial confusion and scare--the second guy out was chambering a round in his rifle, thinking we might have had a bad bear encounter--we figured out that the SOS button on our inReach had been activated, though the lock switch was fully engaged.  In the meantime, my parents, to whom the device was registered, received a call from Delorme that no parent wants to hear--that their son had triggered a rescue.  The dispatcher surmised that this was likely a mistaken SOS signal, and indicated that this was not an isolated incident and that she had seen mistakenly triggered SOS signals in the past.  The Russian rescue team left, and we continued on our journey.  We assumed that a nearly impossible combination of buttons had been pushed on the device to turn it on and activate an SOS from the menu options.  We packed the device in a pot with a cut off bottle sleeve to protect from any accidental button pushes for the rest of the trip (which went smoothly and was delightful).  We were billed 4,400 US dollars for the rescue.

Upon returning to the US, we learned that the problem had not been a series of button pushes to turn the device on and activate the SOS.  Rather, with NORMAL pressure on the SOS button for 5-10 seconds, the SOS would trigger, WITH the lock switch FULLY engaged.  This was repeatable, and would happen every time the SOS was held.  I contacted Garmin/Delorme about this problem and requested reimbursement for the rescue cost, and received this reply:

"Hello NATHAN,

Unfortunately, we cannot offer reimbursement for the false SOS on the device at this time. This is stated within section 10 (Limitation of Liability) of our inReach Terms and Conditions found within the link below. We can certainly work with you in getting you into a new replacement if you choose, however with force and some objects, even when the lock is snapped in, can trigger in SOS. It would be a good idea to put the device separate area to ensure other objects do not bump into the device causing the SOS to be triggered. 

Learning that the "lock" switch was a complete misnomer, I replied that their response was "unacceptable" and that I believed that in addition to Delorme reimbursing me the cost of the helicopter, they needed to alert their current subscribers to this issue and post a warning on their website.  I was bumped to a higher level in the management team who requested I send in the device to "fully review your inReach in-house".  I did so, and in the meantime was able to test another inReach SE.  This device also triggered an SOS while the lock switch was fully engaged.  After several weeks, I finally received this reply to my response:
"Hello Nathan

Thank you for sending in the device and I am sorry you to hear about your experience. 

After careful investigation, both myself and a one of the Garmin hardware engineers who designed the device determined it was not defective. The inReach required significant force to bypass the SOS slide and also the Lock Screen setting was turned on. 

At this point the device appears to be working as designed, so we would not be in a position to provide you with any compensation as a result of this situation. 

Please let me know the IMEI number of the replacement unit we sent you and I will go ahead and transfer the service plan over to the new device. Also let me know of any questions you may have. 


This response is also unacceptable to me for many reasons.  At this point, I believe the inReach SE is posing a risk to wilderness travelers and to rescue service personnel and I am unwilling to drop the issue.  The money is besides the point and I do not think Delorme realizes the level of unnecessary human risk that is inherent in having a "lock" switch that does not function as stated.  I have since asked another friend to test his inReach SE, and he has also found that the SOS triggers easily with the lock switch engaged.  This is 3 for 3, and I'm realizing that this design flaw is in no way unique to my case.
I'm asking that you please test the SOS button on your inReach with the lock switch fully locked.  If you are also able to trigger an SOS, could you please take a video of your doing so and send it my way?  I am going to write to Delorme one last time, hoping they will make the situation right and communicate the need for a case or care in packing the inReach to their customers.  I would like to let them know that I am not alone with this issue.  I have no wish to hire a attorney, but if Delorme does not respond to my final plea, I will do so.
I've included the following attachments: 2 videos of 2 different devices triggering the SOS with lock engaged, a full transcript of my email correspondence with Delorme, a photo of the helicopter rescue, a translation of the memo from Russia's national rescue service requesting we pay for the helicopter time, and finally, the inReach Terms and Conditions PDF, which includes section 10 (Limitation of Liability).
Thank you for your help and for passing this message on.  I will update you on any new developments.
Nathan Shoutis"

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Arctic Alaska Packrafting Gear Suggestions: an Annotated Photo-list

Packrafting’s roots reach deep into wild, landscape crossings of northern Alaska.

Landscape crossings are what I started over thirty-five years ago as a young punk in his twenties and it’s where I have returned as a 50-something old curmudgeon.

Northern Alaska is where Peggy and I packrafted across the Gates of the Arctic National Park in 1986 from the Haul Road and down the upper Noatak, perhaps the first month-long trip to use one.

It’s where Thor Tingey decided he needed a boat with “bigger tubes” and by asking his mom Sheri to make one, that Alpacka was launched after he and a group of college friends made a 600 mile Brooks Range traverse using Sevylors and Curtis Design boats.

Since then, I’ve run some whitewater, roadside and wilderness, and pioneered the bike-n-boat approach of packrafts con bicycles back in the 1980s. 

I’ve played at the beach, gone hunting, included my kids, climbed mountains and rafted out. 

Some of those early trips I described in my book Packrafting! which is down to the last 100 copies now.

But it’s the long trips linking watersheds with mountain passes and long, ridge-paralleling walks that satisfy me most.

This spring I planned a nearly 300-mile long, four watershed trip across Yukon, Canada’s Ivvavik National Park and Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I invited  Brad Meiklejohn to take a vacation from his dam-removal project that’s rehabilitating an Alaskan salmon stream and a new paddling partner, Tom Diegel.  Mike Curiak, introduced the three of us during a packrafting trip to Idaho in April when we ran the Jarbidge and Bruneau at 1900 cfs on April 20 when we ran the latter's Five Mile Rapid, the longest section of Class III I've ever run. It was great -- one of the best sections of river anywhere, not really difficult, but loooong. It'd be worth to hike the trail on the west side and run twice, since it's sort of near the take-out. Following Mike down the Wild Burro without a scout was exciting too!

Anyway I have enjoyed my university sabbatical doing five-day to three-week trips each month for the last year, sort of my last gasp at adventuring, I think. 

I am no Dick Griffith and so doubt I'll have a post-retirement boom in adventuring like Dick did: an outlaw run of the Grand Canyon at sixty in his open Sharpa packraft. Completing a four or five thousand mile traverse of the Northwest Passage in his sixties and seventies with annual month-long solo ski trips. Finishing maybe 15 or more Wilderness Classics after his 56th birthday. I am 56 now and seeing an end to this stuff for me.

Luckily there are ever more amazing trips done with and without packrafts by others all around the world.

Over the last year I have been fortunate to have Brad around to make about half of my monthly trips, everything from season openers on little-known whitewater wilderness runs in the Lower 48 like the Chetco and Jarbidge-Bruneau, to Nordic ice-skating road-trips across southcentral Alaska from Weiner Lake to Teslin Lake and north to Harding Lake, even from Sutton to Palmer on the Matanuska River ("D+ quality ice but A+ adventure!"). 

He’s about the only guy I know who’s my age and likes to do the same sort of things but better and faster than me.

Especially walking wilderness landscapes and running wilderness rivers.

The route I came up with  for our June 2017 trip--“Go Firther, Kongo!"—started with a flight in.

I’m not too keen on flying-in. It robs a little of wilderness’ adventure for me, but because Brad and Tom had other obligations and only about two weeks to make the trip we flew in with Yukon Air to near the Alaska-Yukon border on Joe Creek.

From Joe Creek we’d run the Firth, a legendary Yukon Arctic whitewater river to the edge of the mountains, then walk four days back to Alaska, crossing the crest of the British Mountains section of the Brooks Range. Then we’d float the Whale Mountain tributary of the Kongakut River (and a few miles of the Kongakut) and pick up a food drop.

We’d follow caribou trails of the enormous Porcupine Caribou Herd through a series of valleys linked by low passes to the Egakserak River, which we floated over two days to a long ridgeline that borders the foothills and overlooks the coastal plain, leading to our final float, the Jago River. The Jago offers up ten or fifteen miles of non-stop boogey water up to Class III as it cuts through the foothills to spill onto the coastal plane.

The lower Jago leads to the Arctic Ocean, where we let the Polar Easterly winds blow us across a series of lagoons to the Innupiaq village of Kaktovik on Barter Island where we flew back to Fairbanks and Anchorage.

In all we’d paddle 175 and walk 120 miles. In a lifetime of Alaskan adventures, it was among the best packrafting routes of all, with a week spent paddling and a week spent walking, but split into nine alternating legs.

I already posted on that trip. Here I’d like to share my gear inventory. Maybe it’ll help some others out there for planning their Arctic Alaska trip.

 Let’s start with the pack. 

It needed to carry ten days of food, clothing and gear for camping in the Arctic, and a complete cold and whitewater packrafting kit.

I could have taken a 4400 Porter, but because mountain hiking would be prominent, it’s lack of external pockets made it less suitable for easy access to clothes and  food. To keep up with Brad’s long legs striding through tussocks I’d need ready access to lots of chocolate and my favored small bags of Dorito and potato chips.

Having been a lightweight walker since the late 1970s, I have found that the bigger pack I take the more I carry. So one way to go light is simply to take the smallest pack I can. 

My choice was the HMG 3400 Southwest. Yes it's small.

It’s black, which is good for wet bushwhacking but a poor color for the legendary mosquitos of Alaska’s North Slope where in July 1990 I killed 94 mosquitos with one hand (no smearing) on my pant-covered leg along the Hula Hula River!

Ladder buckle "lash straps"

My packraft rode on the outside top of my pack, lashed below the top Y-strap compression that I extended using a lash strap. I carried a bunch of lash straps. After fire, rocks, and a packraft I find them the most versatile thing available to me on a trip.

Lash straps from 2-4 feet long. I carried six and used every one.


For packrafting I brought a 2017 “high pressure” Alpacka Raft in the Yak (or medium size). It was outfitted like their new Gnarwhal with a removable whitewater deck. To lighten it I stripped everything out and replaced the seat with an old “Diva seat” that was lighter than the usual seat. This Diva seat  wedges into the boat.

The sleeve where the stock seat would go held my water bottle. It was a pint-sized, "bottled-water" style found in the TSA line at the Anchorage airport when full and un-opened bottle. Someone left it so I drank, then carried the empty bottle along for my trip.  My empty platypus (for camp water supplies) also stayed in the sleeve.

I kept the new Alpacka foam backrest in too.

Twelve ounce Diva seat and foam back band.

I replaced the stock knee-straps and the foot pillow with lash straps. These were lighter and more versatile and the Firth River has only a handful of Class IV rapids where I’d want that security. 

I find with a good back-band and foot platform that I can sit with my knees bent and locked in, keeping me, as Mark Oates wrote recently, well-connected to my boat, a must in running whitewater.

Replacement knee strap worked well, although I never tried to roll with it.

The high pressure boat used a great one-way valve. I could get the boat very hard with just this one valve.

While the zipper on the removable whitewater deck is a little heavier and less dry, it made emptying water and drying the boat much easier. Being able to fully dry the boat before the hiking portions was important in keeping my load light to keep up with Brad and Tom. It also made portaging a loaded boat easier by reaching my hand through the zipper from the inside.

I had to carry my own blow-up bag since the other two had old style valves.

Inflation bag for new, high pressure one-way valves.

Brad and I like to joke that while we may be in the Golden Age of packraft evolution, it feels like we are in the packrafting equivalent of the Ramer ski bindings but wishing for the Dynafit binding era.

Ramer aka "Lamer" binding from the 1970s. I had these exact bindings.

Still the packrafts of today are the driest they have ever been in whitewater. The the "knee cup whitewater skirt" and new single-piece coaming stiffener are improvements. The one-piece coaming stiffener is surprisingly easy to pack and the latest coaming drier and tighter than in the past. 

By the way, even if you never run anything more than Class II, the whitewater decks are so much warmer and drier than Cruiser Decks that they the only way to go, IMO.

2017 Alpacka coaming stiffener held together with a Voile strap. The knee-cup style whitewater spray skirt is a must to keep water from pooling in your lap and to keep your knees bent in the fully-engaged position with your boat.

Another six ounces that are worth bringing come in the form of the Alpacka Bow Bag. I keep my synthetic puffy jacket and a canister stove with its canister in my little one-quart Ti-pot, as well as food and map/camera/bug dope/head net/reading glasses in the handy dry compartment.

I went “E-free” on this trip carrying nothing electronic, but when I do bring dEvices I keep them handy here. It’s also a good place to stash my long handled Ti-spoon and inflation bag, too.

 Alpacka Bow Bag is worth the weight.

Of course, I had a paddle. I have a four piece Werner Powerhouse and a superlight Sawyer. But the four-piece is too heavy and the Sawyer is too fragile, so I brought a carbon fiber one-piece and lashed it to the side of my pack. It’s a great paddle, stiff and light.

Carrying it was never a problem for me, but it might be for others.

We had some pool toy paddle blades that we carried for spares that could be strapped together to our trekking poles for the mostly Class II and III water if we lost a paddle. But we never lost a paddle.

194 cm Werner Powerhouse Carbon fiber paddle and single adjustable Black Diamond pole.

Because the Arctic is, well, the Arctic, it’s cold, often windy. Its rivers are icy run-off from aufeis (Google that) or glaciers, so a dry suit is necessary.

Over the years I have been a tester for a variety of Alpacka efforts at lightweight dry suits and the version I have is my favorite. It provides more freedom of movement than my big, heavy Kokotat and is far easier to pee and poop (can I say that here?) while wearing, thanks to its clever zipper. It doesn’t have dry-sock feet, which means I can hike in it, if I wear some over-shells to protect its very lightweight fabric.

I love it but still suffer from “Oso-lo-lo” which Thai Verzone assure me means “wet-butt” in some Asian language. My particular version of Alpacka's Stowaway Dry Suit has watertight wrist, neck, and ankle gaskets. Swimming in it I stay quite dry.

My favorite dry-suit for landscape trips in Alaska has watertight gaskets at neck, ankles, and wrists.

It’s amazing how much warmer you stay if your feet are dry. Since I only had gaskets on my ankles, I also brought some Gore-tex and neoprene socks. I put on wool socks, then these Gore-tex socks (they had a rubber gasket on them), pulled on the dry-suit, adjusting the gaskets to match and then pulling on neoprene socks to complete the warmth and dryness. I couldn't wade for too long but I stayed dry, warm and happy this way.

Socks to stay dry: neoprene on left, Gore-tex on right. I layered these with Gore-tex inside and neoprene outside and wool next to my feet. The gasket o the drysuit was  between the Gore-tex and neoprene.

I wrote the first packrafting book about ten years ago. And if you read it carefully you’ll see I advocate that everyone take a swiftwater rescue course. 

These days you can find whitewater-specific courses taught in Alaska by Luc Mehl

In the Dark Ages at the birth of wilderness packrafting we carried no dry-suits, no helmets, not even PFDs! It wasn’t until I started putting kids in packrafts wearing PFDs that I decided I needed a PFD, too. Until then they seemed too heavy, if you can believe that.

For this trip I weighed the various options I had. These include the inflation-under-the-airplane-seat style, the Andrew-Skurka-chest-pouch that holds inflated Platypus bags, and even the stuff-the-Thermarest-pad-in-your jacket strategy we used in the mid-1980s for running some whitewater in the Gates of the Arctic National Park in an open Sherpa Packraft. 

But a real, foam-style PFD is by far the safest and most versatile. It makes a great pillow when dry, under-foot sleeping pad insulation when wet, and a lounge-chair sofa around a campfire.

My lightest foam-style PFD with whistle and a pocket for my compass (to tell time) and Dermatone.

I also brought a bicycle helmet since it weighed nine ounces and I didn’t think I’d be under water and head-down too often. It was useful for sleeping on the cloudy flight back from Barter Island to Fairbanks--better than a neck pillow.

Stop laughing: bike helmets are certified, whitewater helmets are not.

In all, my total packrafting kit weighed under 15 pounds. That’s everything: inside-tube dry bags; boat with engagement-connections for knees, butt, and feet; clothes and spray deck for keeping dry; paddle; and equipment for staying safe.

The Alpacka “zipper boats” have revolutionized classic-style packrafting. Getting the gear off the boat and into the tubes is the single biggest step away from Ramer and toward Dynafit I have seen in my four decades of packrafting  (80s, 90s, Oughts, Teens). Zippered loads mean far more stable boats and much drier gear. 

If you are considering upgrading a packraft, or even a first-time buyer who wants to camp and paddle moving water that's just Class II or more, then be sure to get a Cargo Zipper and a Whitewater Deck (I like the removable kind best). 

I have used open boats since the 80s, Cruiser-style decks since the Oughts, but the new whitewater decks and spray skirts are remarkably dry. Not as dry as a hardshell, but amazing to me for a seven-pound boat and worth the four pounds over an open, un-zippered Scout for landscape trips with moving, cold water.

When Alpacka first introduced the zipper boats they had zippered dry bags that went inside, nicknamed “Twinkies” or “Snack Cakes”. Now, I really like these. I use them for car camping because they are dust- and water-proof and the zipper in them makes them easy to access. I also like them in my boat if paddling lots of Class IV, since I have cut a boat in a remote rapid, had the air go out of the tube, but been able to paddle to shore with my thigh straps still engaged and afloat because the snack cakes held air like a second and third chamber. They are a safety feature.

However, on this trip where weight was more of an issue than cutting my boat on Class IV creek rocks, I opted for the first generation of Alpacka’s “Ultralight Internal Dry Bags”. Since mine were prototypes, I had to use a strap that I clove-hitched on a mule to the bag with a strap terminated with the female end of the buckle to attach to the inside of the boat. I think these bags are boss.

Because my pack is tiny and my back itself is curved, my stuff sacks go in cross-wise in my pack, not vertically. That way I can get my pack stuffed better since I can layer more readily as I fill it and use different paddings in different places. So these super long bags need only be partially filled, then packed. 

They make a good pillow too. In my boat I split the weigh evenly between the two bags, but in my pack I fill one with sleeping stuff and put it low, and keep the other in my external pocket to keep my clothes dry that I might want to wear during the day. That way I don't have to get into my pack. Once I close up my pack in the morning, I don't get into it until camp.

Internal dry bag with strap I clove hitched with a mule to the bag to attach to the inside of the boat. Also made a great pillow and much easier to pack in my 3400 Porter pack than Alpacka’s Standard internal dry bag.


During the day in Alaska’s Arctic I wear light-colored, quick-drying polyester pants and button-up shirt. I try to cover up any dark clothing with light clothing to keep bugs away

The shirt and pants have pockets. I keep Dermatone in my right pocket and a compass in my left pocket to tell time and check occasional directions, or frequent direction if in a coastal fog for instance. In my shirt’s zippered pocket I keep a lighter and other stuff I might need (like some TP, or bug-dope). I wear stretchy underpants, sort of like bike shorts without chamois. These prevent chafing.

If it’s cool I wear a cut-off, short-sleeved lightweight wool zip-T neck underneath. If it’s cold and rainy I wear a polyester hoody over the wool and under the khaki colored shirt. I wear lightweight wool long underwear under the khaki pants in the boat or cold, windy rain. I have another thicker pair of expedition weight Capilene I paddle in and sleep in, too.

I have two pair of socks. One is only for hiking/boating, the other is colorful and only for sleeping until I get to “town” when I finally wear the sleep socks inside my shoes, once the shoes are dry (or inside the Gore-tex socks).

Daily wear: Clockwise from upper right: stretchy lycra/capilene mid-thigh underpants, lightweight polyester pants, shirt, short-sleeved lightweight zip-T wool, light-weight wool hiking socks, lightweight wool long underwear, expedition-weight Capilene long underwear,  blue polyester hoody in center.

I also have a superlight pair of “rain” pants and an HMG prototype rain-coat that I don’t know much about except it’s superlight and surprisingly dry with a great hood. In the boat I wore the pants and rain coat to bolster and protect my dry-suit. I also used the two pieces as rain gear but it never rained long enough during the day to need them, really.

Rain pants left, prototype-jacket right.

I also absolutely needed my hat. It kept the sunshine away and my wild hair under control. It seemed faster drying than typical ball caps.

Patagonia Duckbill: classic!

For shoes I go with the Salomon Speedcross 3 ($120). My feet are narrow and I am easy on shoes since I am sort of tender-footed and tend to walk gently to keep from hurting my feet. This keeps from wearing out my shoes. I also try to walk on game trails to keep the brush from wearing out the fabric. 

Tom had a pair of the $30 versions from eBay that came direct from China and they pretty much wore out FYI on this one trip. Still, I doubt mine would last four trips like this! It was entertaining to listen to Tom describe the wear on his shoes. Before he retired he worked at Nike, Merrel and Patagonia where he helped design and then bring to market some classic, fishing, whitewater and lifestyle shoes. He's a shoe expert!

Salomon Speedcross 3 with my sleep socks I wore at Waldo Arms in Kaktovik and on the airplane back to Anchorage.


Once in camp, we set up Brad’s big HMG Ultamid 4 with the floorless bug liner. Absolutely amazing Arctic shelter. We had a separate ground cloth. We used trekking poles lashed together with Voile straps to hold it up. In high winds we used rocks with the stakes to secure it.

My group gear was the little canister stove. I think it’s called the Soto Micro Regulator

A trick I learned from Thai Verzone is using the stove to start fires. We cooked dinner on willow fires in Alaska and used the stove in Canada and for breakfast.

Using the stove to start fires makes every other fire-starting technique feel like barbecuing with charcoal briquettes while this is like barbecuing with gas. Generally Tom would collect wood, then help Brad set up the tent while I got water, then built the fire around cook-pot to boil the water.

Clockwise from lower left. Micro-stove, rubber thumb and two-finger pot gripper, long-handled Ti spoon, 2 liter Platypus, time and direction piece, aka compass. By finding the declination-corrected, true bearing to the sun you can determine true local time: at 6 AM the sun is due east, at noon due south, at 6 PM due west. It moves 15 degrees an hour across the sky. Some people choose to ask “Does anybody really know what time it is? Hey, does anybody really care?” Me, a scientist, I like to measure nature and apply the measures in practical sense.

Call me old-fashioned (lash straps with ladder-lock buckles instead of Fastex; rain pants; sharing a shelter, cooking on fires, paper maps from USGS) but I like a big, communal one-gallon cookpot if there are three people or more. I have several of these and some, as Mike Curiak says, are the “pots of a thousand trips”. Unsure why people feel the need to get the black off them, I prefer to keep them round, with tight-fitting lids to keep the black out of them. I put  them in several plastic grocery bags to keep the black off my pack contents. I think they heat faster if black.

I also keep my chips in the gallon size cookpot while hiking. I buy the big box of assorted chips (Doritos, potato) at Costco, then put holes in the bags to squeeze the air out, tape the holes shut, and take great pride in keeping them and great pleasure in eating them unbroken. One ounce of these chips (a single bag) can have 160 calories. 

I am not a calorie counter, but it seems like many folks want to know, so there you have it: caloric, salty, tasty, and crunchy. I like the barbecue chips. The single one-ounce bags are just the right size for a stop, have a savory flavor, and offer up needed salt for me as I hustle to keep up with Brad on a sunny day.

Blackened one-gallon cook pot of a hundred trips with a tight-fitting lid and little deformation to its body.

It has taken me four or five years to adjust, but I am now fully on-board with the “every man for himself” cooking routine. 

At first I found myself dumping water in a bag and spooning out the re-hydrated cardboard that sells at what must be $40/pound ($5/2 oz at Wallmart for Mtn House Lasagna). Curiak does some home prep, but it still looks like freeze dried bought at an Armageddon survivalist shop. 

The best food I’ve seen is what Thai Verzone and Gordy Vernon put together and what I have turned to myself, now that I have trouble with wheat.

Sure, I carry some gluten-free Asian-flavored freeze dried, but I use it to flavor rice noodles. Or I go with dehydrated potatoes and add either jerky or cheese. Whether noodles or 'taters I add red curry paste or Indonesian rending and powdered coconut milk, even tamarind paste. My son introduced me to this when making something delicious on Australia’s Franklin River where he also added peanut butter. Cheap, flavorful, and with a little preparation somehow better than eating instant dinner in a foil-lined bag.

I eat and drink hot fluids (usually full-cream milk powder, brown sugar, and Earl Grey tea) out of my one-quart Ti cookpot. This is what I heat everybody’s three cups in the morning with. At night everybody wants closer to six cup; hence the gallon-sized cook pot on the fire.
One-quart Ti-cook pot from 2006. Starting to split around the edges, but maybe my favorite piece of camping gear.


For sleeping and camp I have a puffy jacket and pants that Ryan Jordan gave me back in 2006 for a long, 600 mile walk across the western Arctic, where we crossed the De Long Mountains, Utukok uplands, Lookout Ridge, and Gates of the Arctic. I save them for special trips, like this one. The puffy jacket is a hooded pullover. I wear it under my dry suit if it’s cold, rainy, and windy when paddling. It dries very fast.

Puffy pullover and pants for sleeping, camp, and cold paddling.

At night I slept in the puffies under a summer season down quilt made by GoLite back when they were still producing. Many “nights” I got too hot when the sun came up at 2 AM, the clouds were gone and the Easterly winds not yet started.

In fact, you can travel quite light in the Arctic mountains and foothills by becoming nocturnal, like the bears, sleeping during the day in the sun with a cooling wind if you need it, paddling wind-free after midnight when the easterlies have calmed. 

It's one of my favorite aspects of travel up there: letting the landscape and weather dictate not just your route but your routine and timing of activities. 

My down quilt, the ideal complement to my synthetic puffy pants and pullover.

--> As I’ve aged I need more comfort. 

I can’t just bivy on the rocks curled under my wet raft in the rain anymore with no pad and no bag. I carry a Thermarest Neo, full-length. To keep it from popping I pad beneath it. 

Brad uses a ground cloth in his tent, so that helps. But I also empty my pack and use my PFD to make a protected place for my air mattress.

 The best pad ever (for me). 

Because a sleeping pad is so crucial for warm and comfortable sleep in the permafrost-ed Arctic, and I have had decades of air mattresses springing mysterious, untraceable slow leaks that let me down before dawn, I have a back-up to plug the gap between my pack and PFD: a short piece of Cascade Designs’ Z-rest.

This is great for lounging around in camp, or standing on, making a sofa system by the fire, and other applications you never knew you needed until you carried it.

An old bicycle toe-strap I may stop carrying in favor of a Voile strap. But rubber straps will not replace webbing straps with ladder-lock buckles. A three panel Z-rest. Sometimes I take a two panel one instead. 

I have often said that we pack our insecurities. Mine seem to center around food and being cold.

I ran out of food in the early days of my landscape crossings, since I was still operating under an alpinist mentality. Alpinists belay half the time (maybe less if moving together a lot) and since they are going straight up, weight matters more than in most other multi-day adventure sports.

I remember my older, wiser partners saying things like, “That route should take 5 days, so we’ll take 3 days of food.” And then it would take like ten days, with five spent in a snow cave drinking hot water.

Well, that doesn’t cut it when you cover 20 or more miles a day.

I ran out of food a couple times and so I developed the mantra that food is light. It’s light because if you do it right you start with say, 22 pounds of food and end with say 2 pounds (just in case!), thus eating 20 pounds over ten days. Then the average weight of your food was only 12 pounds. On the other hand, gear is heavy. It doesn’t get lighter.

So it is with clothing, too. Earlier I mentioned that I have been boating packrafts since the early 1980s. From 1983 through to 1996 I never used a dry suit or even a wet suit and pretty much just shivered in rain gear on Alaskan rivers. It’s a miracle that I boated for over 10 years mostly freezing my butt off in a "shiver boat"!

Hence another insecurity of mine: cold and wet. So I carry some extra clothes.

On this trip I had a down vest for sleeping if my puffy pullover was too wet and an extra wool hoody. These two items were used on one cold night for something other than a pillow, but most nights were found under my head. They were also almost totally clean and odor free when we finished our trip and I could where them in Kaktovik, Fairbanks, and on the plane without stinking out those around me.

Extra clothes that served as pillows and “clean clothes” when reaching town: down vest (bottom) and wool hoody 

Odds and ends 

 There were some other things I used rarely: one mitten shell and one woolen glove for paddling in the wind.

 When hiking a shelled jacket sleeve and long woolen sleeve can be one set of hand insulators while these two can hold the trekking pole. 

 I kept my food in three food bags: 1) lunch food at roughly one pound a day, 2) hot drinks and breakfast at roughly 8 ounces per day and 3) dinners roughly 4 ounces per day.

I eat about two pounds a day when hiking twenty miles or more a day and only one pound a day when floating downstream. More when paddling into headwinds and on flat water. Knowing this allows me to be smarter about my pack weight. For example, we paddled 7 days (7 pounds) and walked about 8 days (16 pounds) for a total of 25 pounds of food for 15 days.

 Three food bags and some olive oil for extra calories. 

I carried ibuprofen and took it on hiking days. Two in the morning and two in the afternoon, for my hips. Without it I came to a grinding halt by about noon. I also carried Dermatone for my lips and a lighter. Often these things were in a little HMG bag with my reading glasses.

 Stuff I used daily. 

I brought insect repellent (aka bug dope) a head net, toilet paper, some Aquaseal and zipper lube. I used the toilet paper and the zipper lube, but the bugs were never bad because of good route choice, early season, and sunny weather. I never put on any bug dope or my head net in two weeks in the Arctic. Compare that to the horror story I mentioned earlier!

Clockwise from upper left: TP, head net, glue, lube and patch kit, blister pad, bug dope, and the bag it went it in.

Pretty sure this is all recognizable and necessary.


Of course, I flossed and brushed daily, carried a knife, enjoyed a few ear cleanings, had an extra lighter and band aids and bunion pads for blisters and soap if I needed to clean wounds, hands, or body. Pretty sure this is all recognizable and necessary.

 First Aid 

My first aid kit had pain killers (opioids), some Cipro antibiotics, Tinadizol to get rid of Giardia, a wound wash kit, gauze, more band aids, butterfly band aids, Betadine and alcohol swabs, some antibiotic ointment, Tylenol, and Aleve. My dental floss I rewound on its spool after flossing rather than throwing it away, just in case I needed to use it for some repair.

 Gear head? 

 Well, this might make me look like a gear nut, and if a gear nut is someone who gives close attention to what goes into the pack or onto the boat, then I guess I am guilty as charged. I mean I do weigh my gear and write the weights on it often.

 On the other hand, the only thing new I bought for this trip was the down vest. I haven't owned one of those since a Frostline Kit I put together when I was 15!

 Once I have something that works well, I tend to stick with it, rather than always shopping for something better. I do watch what others bring -- like Voile straps and maybe pot grips. Tom brought a pair and I sure like picking up the gallon pot with them. I didn't have any milk packets to fold as grippers. Sticks are clumsy, the little orange two finger gripper hard to use in a fire and none of my sleeves were long enough.

 I don't really like to talk gear or shop gear, but maybe this gear list might come in handy for others, or maybe provide another viewpoint to make room in their pack for a raft, so that they too might discover the freedom and joy of landscape trips across Alaska's Arctic.
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