Saturday, May 30, 2020

Raftpacking is purposely carrying fewer rafts than the number of people on the trip.

If “packrafting” can be considered walk-assisted boating, then “raftpacking” can be considered boat-assisted walking.

Let’s say that you and your friends or family are making a wilderness traverse of a remote range without towns, roads, or even human-made trails. You have to carry all your food for a week or more, along with camping gear, warm clothes to deal with cold rivers and rain. Then there’s the boat, paddle, PFD, maybe a helmet, throw bag, etc. These also add to the load. Let’s further assume that you are there, not necessarily as a boater but as a wilderness traveler, using packrafts as tools and not the foci of the adventure.

Raftpacking Roots

That pretty much describes my original interest in packrafting during my twenties; a stint “hellbiking,” a wilderness predecessor of what’s become known as “bikepacking” in my thirties; and now again as a “Brooks Ranger” in my fifties.

I'm now just an old guy who just likes to follow wild-animal trails, cross tundra-clad passes, and paddle splashy Class II clear-water creeks and rivers while joined with a handful of other wilderness enthusiasts.

Early on, my wife and I could only afford a single packraft. On our “honeymoon” traverse of Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park in 1986, that’s all we carried.

Nevertheless, we rafted together—two in an open Sherpa packraft—down five rivers and streams: the North Fork of the Koyukuk, Anaktuvuk, John, Nahtuk, and Alatna Rivers. With sufficient flow we could both float together with all our gear. 

But at the headwaters of each of these, even though Peggy is petite, the creeks were too shallow for us both. So we “raftpacked:” Peggy walking with nothing but our bear protection, her rain-gear, and a few snacks while I carried everything else in the boat. That way she could move fast and light and I could get our gear downstream. We moved parallel, she enjoying what she likes most–wilderness walking unencumbered–and I what I like most–exploring a new landscape-crossing technique.

Later in September 1990,  on a traverse of the Talkeetna Mountains from Eureka Roadhouse to Gold Creek, my friend Mark Stoppel and I moved rapidly carrying a single Sherpa packraft down the upper Talkeetna River in the same way. But the Talkeetna River is bigger than the Brooks Range rivers that Peggy and I raftpacked, so Mark walked gravel bars separated by river braids that I ferried him across when they were too deep for him to ford. 

Most of our early hellbike trips carried only a single raft for three to five of us at a time, ferrying boats and bikes across big rivers and riding, pushing, or carrying the bikes otherwise. By splitting one raft and one paddle among the group we could travel much lighter, making for both more riding and more enjoyable riding.

Modern Raftpacking

In June 2019 I revisited raftpacking on a new scale during a 350-mile traverse following treeline on the south slope of the Brooks Range. 

On the first leg of the month long journey, five of us left the Dalton Highway with a raft and paddle each, covering about 110 miles split between two boating legs totaling 70 miles of paddling and two hiking legs totaling 40 miles of walking. 

Then for the second leg, we dropped three rafts, walked another 35 miles carrying just two boats—the Alpacka Raft Caribou and Scout models, both with cargo flies and cruiser-style spray decks—and two paddles among the five of us to raftpack 30 miles in a day, followed by a 45-mile walk. We then dropped another boat, leaving us with just the Scout for the next eighty miles.

The highlight of that trip following Alaska’s northern tree line was a beautiful, sunny, nearly bug-free day on the Junjik River, where three hikers carried little more than snacks and two raftpackers boated everyone's camping gear and food for five days down the fun, splashy Class II. 

Using Gaia GPS on our phones set to airplane mode, the raftpackers and hikers rendezvoused at pre-planned waypoints every five miles to swap out a boater with a hiker to maintain contact and safety.

Freedom and Care

It’s hard to over-emphasize how enjoyable and novel covering long distances in a single direction in true wilderness with a pack under ten pounds can be. 

On the Junjik we were 70 to 90 air miles (that is, a straight-line distance) from the Dalton Highway (the only road connected to Alaska’s road system north of the Yukon River) and 20-30 air miles from the nearest human settlement, Arctic Village. Outside of Alaska, the farthest you can get from a road is twenty air miles southeast of Yellowstone National Park. At our most remote while we "raftpacked treeline" we were nearly 100 miles from any village.

We used the Caribou and a Scout, both with cargo flies and loaded up with all the soft goods. Sharp-edged and hard objects were put in the bow bag, a pack tied on the bow, or inside my HMG pack with its stays removed (and secured with rubber Voile-type straps on the bow together with trekking poles and our stainless-steel bear protection), then turned inside out with the backpack’s padded back lining the bottom of my stern's tube as protection. 

Inside this inside-out backpack I put the one-gallon cook pots and other small but hard items that, if not carefully packed in a boat’s tubes, will pinch tube fabric between river rocks and the object leaving a hole. This happened to one of the four youngsters I traveled with who had not yet realized the importance of proper boat packing.

The Caribou held four people’s food and camping gear in its tubes; the Scout held one person’s. According to the four who did all the hiking that day, the raftpacking stretch of the trip was by far the most enjoyable, as would be expected hiking Brooks Range wilderness with a daypack.

Raftpacking Strategies

Consider raftpacking for your next long-distance wilderness adventure, when the three strategies to traveling light and comfortably are exercised as:

(1) Abstraction: that is, knowing which of your insecurities you don’t need to pack.

(2) Using light-weight materials: although 40 pounds of lightweight gear still weighs more than 30 pounds of heavy gear!

(3) Sharing: not just first-aid and repair kits, multi-tools, tents, stoves, cookpots, but rafts, and paddles and the time spent in them.

Among these strategies, raftpacking is my favorite for going light. It's smart and efficient packraft sharing.

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