Inflatable kayaks: Space-saving craft surges way into popularity

Nothing boots up an adrenaline charge quite like a problem smack in the middle of a whitewater rapid. A big rock loomed before us, the bow of our two-person inflatable kayak bashed into it. Steering the stern onto the boulder instead of out into the current jet to our left, I found our formerly nimble craft plastered onto that lump of stone like a wet towel.

Not to worry: My paddling companion was none other than Dan Crandall, owner of the River Store in Coloma and director of the Current Adventures kayak school. We were out on a shakedown cruise for his summer schedule of inflatable kayak, or IK, lessons and trips. What might have become a crisis was about to be revealed as a mere learning experience.

“Come on down here to me and weight the bow,” Crandall said calmly. “Then we can use the current to pull us off.”

And so it proved. Soon we were back afloat and navigating past the remainder of this boulder garden rapid. Crandall gave me hand signals for direction as I steered the two-man IK stern back and forth, aiming for better line-ups through the next drops.

Our trip, on the Chili Bar run of the south fork of the American River, was rated Class III (whitewater is graded in difficulty from Class I through VI) and at the high-end of his menu of IK sessions. Most of what he offers consists of beginner lessons and guided trips on far less tricky – as well as much milder – Class II. In a whitewater season such as the present one, with moderate flows on dam-regulated rivers throughout summer, he expects such sessions will grow increasingly popular with the paddling public.

On rivers from the Rogue in the north to the Kern in the south, other outfitters agree. All signs point to a resurgence in popularity of the IK.

“We’ve offered an IK program here for the last decade,” Crandall says. “This year, we’re seeing a definite rise in interest.

“They’re a versatile craft; you could call them the sports car of whitewater rafting. And they serve quite well as a kind of transition river vehicle. You can go from just being a passenger riding on rafts into someone who can play on IKs, or move from an IK into a hard-shell whitewater kayak.

“Or just stay right there with IKs,” Crandall continued. “After all, they’re safe, easy to learn with, they can accommodate a wide range of body types. And when you’re done for the day, just roll them up and stick them in the back of your car.”

Inflatable kayaks in some form have floated the rivers for decades. Among early models was the Sevylor Tahiti, a light craft with an alarming propensity to curl up like a plastic taco in the grip of rough water. IKs hit their stride in the 1990s, with models that were built of much tougher raft fabric, became stiffer under full inflation and incorporated self-bailing features – all of which made them much safer, more durable and far more maneuverable.

“Use of IKs leveled off a bit after the mid-’90s, yet the designs kept improving,” says Tom Meckfessel, owner of Clavey Paddlesports, a comprehensive supplier of water sports equipment in Petaluma.

“A typical IK customer who looks to buy or rent one now is a young adult, about 30 or over, who enjoys rafting and likes getting out on a weekend while only bringing a small amount of gear. And wants to take a friend along, or a kid, to show them how to play on a river.”

Clavey stocks IK models from industry leader Aire and its subsidiary marque, Tributary, models from Vanguard and a new line from Aquaglide.

Sheena Coles, marketing manager for the Idaho-based Aire, says that while overall sales have glided along a plateau since that mid-’90s heyday, segments of the population that now seem increasingly drawn to IKs are people new to rivers who look for craft that are easy to learn on.

Also, she says, some of whitewater’s most experienced boaters, making a strategic withdrawal from their high-adrenaline period, are searching for ways to continue trips down “wild-and-scenic” river corridors.

Today’s IKs range in price from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,700.

Hyside, another reputable IK provider working out of Kernville, offers a smaller but similarly configured lineup. Its robust Padillacs, in one- and two-paddler models, are complemented by three new boats under an Outfitter label that are slightly less stout, lighter and sold for less.

“The Padillacs are what you’d want, say, if you aimed to run the Grand Canyon,” says Hyside marketer Brandon Williams. “The Outfitters are more suited to moderate challenges.”

Such companies, focusing on proven, classic designs, are complemented by firms offering creative variations. One is Innova, in Washington state, making a fleet that ranges from a packable, one-person, self-bailing IK to a two-person inflatable 13-foot canoe, called the Orinoco. (All Innova products are designed and built in the Czech Republic.)

Another trailblazer is Advanced Elements, specializing in hybrid craft that combine some rigid frame members of aluminum with inflatable chambers, to produce better tracking on flat-water sections.

Nate Rangel, owner of the Adventure Connection rafting company and a 30-year veteran of the whitewater industry, says that amid the IK’s previous surge in popularity, some mistakes occurred.

“Often, there was not enough instruction provided, and not enough guides to take customer groups through all the rapids safely. So there were far too many swimmers coming out of their boats on every drop,” Rangel says.

“But timing is all, as they say. This season is a good one to start using IKs in a smarter way.”

Down on the Kern, Tom Moore of Sierra South says: “We’ve offered IK runs for 25 years, but they truly come into their own during a drought phase. We use one- and two-person Hyside Padillacs, put helmets and wetsuits on our customers, and shepherd five at a time through Class II-III water with a kayak guide. In 2013, that was at least half of our business, and it will probably be this year, too.”

Up in Oregon, Rich Wilkinson at Rogue-Klamath River Adventures says his company has added one-person Vanguard IKs to the mix on rafting trips.

“They’re stable and real hard to flip unless you mess up in big water,” he said. “Customers love them: They can make their own way through the easier rapids, and have their own adventure.”

And on the south fork of the American in the central Sierra – and the most popular whitewater run in the West – Dan Crandall is readying his fleet of Aire and Tributary boats to cope with demand. The boats will flow five days a week, Thursdays through Mondays.