After two days of hiking in one of the most remote parts of the continental United States, we abandoned our planned route because of the difficulty of the terrain. We had lost a trail that was never well-defined and were slowly moving up a steep ridge covered by loose rock and fallen trees. We were looking for rivers to raft.
Morgan Rucks, a companion on the trip and a big bear of a guy who doesn’t seem to complain much, started muttering about violating a cardinal rule of expeditions: Don’t bushwhack across uncharted territory trying to make up for lost time.
I struggled to keep pace with him and the rest of the group, all younger than me. By the time I reached the mountain’s crest, I could tell we were in the wrong place. Everyone was crowded around a map with troubled looks on their faces. “I’m starting to feel like we’re not going to get our boats in the water,” said Theresa Lundquist, a Jackson schoolteacher who was leading our trip, having traveled the Shoshone National Forest many times before.
Despite that worrying situation, we could be grateful for one thing, at least. With all our difficulties getting to the water, we were lucky our rafts didn’t weigh much, a central appeal of the relatively new sport of packrafting.
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The sport puts a new spin on backcountry boating with an inflatable raft that weighs about 6 pounds and rolls up to the size of a small tent, perfectly fitting in a backpack along with a four-piece paddle, life preserver and helmet. Despite the small size and light weight, packrafts are capable of handling whitewater just as well as kayaks.
Packrafts are becoming more popular as people learn how they can transform backcountry travel. In the past five years, the number of companies making packrafts has gone from one to eight and the company that started out alone, Alpacka Rafts, has reported a year-to-year doubling of sales, said Brad Meiklejohn, president of the American Packrafting Association. Publications such as Outside and Backpacker have given packrafting a lot of coverage; Outside included the packraft in an issue dedicated to important innovations in outdoor recreation.
“The boats are very high-performance now, compared to just a few years ago. Plus, there’s been an uptick in adventure travel,” said Meiklejohn, Alaska director of the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit environmental organization.
I met Meiklejohn at the association’s third annual Packraft Roundup, held in July at a group campground in Grand Teton National Park on Wyoming’s western border. More than 100 adventurers gathered to talk technique, safety and gear as well as raft some of the most beautiful rivers in the country, including the Snake.
Wyoming, Montana and Alaska are some of the best places to packraft because they have a lot of wild rivers in remote areas. As Meiklejohn puts it, “If you can drive to the put-in, it’s just rafting, not packrafting.” The boats are expensive, but adventurers in Wyoming can get a deal at Jackson Packraft and Rentals, where the curious can try the boats for $45 a day. (The company will ship to other U.S. locations for a fee.)
I bought my raft three years ago from Alpacka for about $1,000. Some other manufacturers sell packrafts for less, but their durability is questionable. Having a boat fail on the other side of civilization can mean a major inconvenience or worse. My Alpacka, made of a urethane-coated nylon, slides across rocks with no visible damage.
Although I came to raft and learn, I remained most engaged by the packrafters themselves and the places where they had traveled. Packrafters are the Lewises and Clarks of the day, using a variety of human-powered transportation – walking, biking and rafting, among others – to explore new areas and view previously traveled places anew. Two legendary voyagers, Erin McKittrick and Hig Higman, packrafted, skied and walked 4,000 miles from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands in the southwest corner of Alaska.
Packrafters talk about “first descents,” rafting water that’s never been rafted before, like mountain climbers talk about “first ascents.”
Meiklejohn has traveled to Alaska’s remote Brooks Range each year for more than three decades, usually with a packraft. I spent a day rafting with him and his friend Luc Mehl, another Alaskan who uses rafts with bikes and skis to traverse seemingly forbidden terrain, such as a 200-mile trip across glaciers and raging rivers in Iceland.
My packrafting experience is far more limited.
After buying my boat, I took kayak lessons on the American River. I couldn’t find anyone who taught packrafting in California, and my instructor said the paddling, navigation and safety skills for kayaking are about the same. That year, I packrafted in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, and last year I returned to the state to float the Sanctuary River in Denali National Park and Preserve.
I’d received packraft instruction on each of my Alaska excursions, but still had a lot to learn when I showed up at Grand Teton this year. Each day started with rafting trips in groups organized by interest and ability. The trips differed from traditional packrafting because we drove to our starting points, but otherwise commenced the same way: We unrolled our rafts and inflated them with bags that you fill with natural air and then push the bag down toward the raft’s valve, a process that takes minutes.
Mehl’s lessons were helpful on the class III rapids of the Hoback River. (The rating scale goes from I to VI, with the highest being next to impossible for anyone.) I had rafted bigger and faster rivers, but the Hoback had some of the toughest sections I’d encountered, including “holes” where water curls back upstream after dropping over an obstacle, creating an effect that can flip your boat. Mehl gently chided me for taking short, choppy strokes in such water, a result of my nervousness. He also counseled me and other rafters to continually scout the river and steer into sections of calm water, called eddies, after clearing a difficult section.
Immediately after the conference, I felt better prepared for the trip I had planned in the Shoshone National Forest and neighboring Teton Wilderness. An instructor in Alaska once told me there are two kinds of packrafters: explorers (“the Lewis and Clark types”) and thrill-seekers who want to try ever-increasing difficulties of whitewater. I definitely fall into the first camp, but was expecting a fair amount of class III water on this trip that could push my skills to the limit.
Before the conference, Lundquist had graciously agreed to take me and another person on a planned 80-mile trip in an area between Grand Teton and Yelllowstone national parks. The trip would be half walking, half rafting. That was the plan, at least. Lundquist is a highly experienced rafter who led trips during the conference. Joining us was Andy Linger, who was relatively new to packrafting but had kayaked the Inside Passage from Washington to Alaska and hiked the Pacific Crest, Appalachian and Continental Divide trails – the so-called “Triple Crown of Hiking.”
We got a late start because we had picked up three participants from the conference at the last minute and they needed to get supplies. Rucks and two of his Bay Area buddies are young and healthy and hiked at a strong pace, but it became clear we were not going to finish our planned route in a week. We had been making 1,000-foot climbs and descents for two days and could expect more of the same in a mountainous area on the edge of the Continental Divide.
We tried an alternate route, the one that had Rucks cursing about bushwhacks. We figured out we had taken the wrong trail, but the following day a ranger told us it was questionable whether the trail we wanted was clear enough to pass. Such is the wildness and expanse of the area that a ranger on trail-maintenance duty didn’t know the state of a trail on the map.
While we were frustrated, we could still enjoy our surroundings. The Shoshone National Forest is spectacular, with its mountains, glaciers and relatively pristine meadows. Solitude is the order of the day; other than the ranger, we saw only one other person in six days.
We were accompanied by animals, including some endangered species – the trumpeter swan and the gray wolf. When you hear the swan’s call, you will know the name whether you’ve seen one or not. While we didn’t see the wolves, we saw their tracks all over the place, including some that were made shortly after we left footprints in the same place! The ranger saw the wolves the day before he spoke to us.
We came here to raft, though, and were determined to do so. We decided to float the Shoshone River several miles and then hike back to our camp before hiking out the way we came in. It was sunny and about 75 degrees as we had a mellow float on smooth water that wound through a meadow, framed on each side by snow-covered mountains.
This was not the adventurous whitewater we had hoped to find, but the smooth ride allowed for a better connection with the surroundings, and that is the essence of packrafting. On the Shoshone River, I understood what a packrafter at the conference meant when he said he becomes one with the landscape.
Jackson Packraft and Rentals, in Jackson, Wyo., rents packrafts starting at $45 a day and less, depending on how long you use the boats. The company will ship the rafts starting at an estimated $40. For more information, visit http://jhpackraft.com/ or call 307-828-1885.
The American Packrafting Association website contains a lot of information about the sport, and has a forum used by experienced rafters who can answer questions you might have: http://www.packraft.org.
Longtime Alaskan packrafter Roman Dial has written a book about the sport called “Packrafting! An Introduction and How-To Guide.” Dial is a legend in the world of backcountry adventure and his book is especially good at showing how packrafts can be used for backcountry exploration.