Testing the Waters

I know, I know... it's been an age since I last posted. The cobwebs have been growing in the corners of the blog (blogwebs?) so it's time for a spot of dusting, and a quick paddle.

Packrafts, in case you hadn't noticed, are all the rage at the moment.

Roman Dial

got everyone excited about it,

Andrew Skurka

travelled halfway around Alaska in one,

Ryan Jordan

loves it,

Hendrik

can't keep his hands off his,

Jaakko

just got one, even

Phil and Steve

got their oars wet. Being a zietgeisty kind of guy, I wanted in on the action. I could see that a packraft would be a perfect addition to life in Lapland. A lightweight, solid, inflatable raft to take anywhere, cross anything? With all the water in Lapland (and in Finland at large), it's a no-brainer.

Except for the price.

As soon as you get involved with water, your initial investments start to accumulate. It's not just the packraft – an

Alpacka Denali Llama

is a sunny $820 – but the paddle, the PFD, the drysuit if you want one. It all adds up to a lot of money. More than my poor starving artist salary could possibly afford. But outdoor people are such a wonderful bunch, and I happily accepted an offer from Mr. Jordan to lend me his spare Denali Llama.

I've only been able to take it out a couple of times for test paddles on flat water. This year's floods have lasted an unusually long time, and I'm not confident enough to risk another person's boat on an unpredictable and unknown river in flood. But nonetheless, I'll make hay while the sun shines, and make the most of the ample lakes around Minneapolis to get used to the different techniques required by a lightweight inflatable.

My MLD Burn pack makes a perfect day pack for the Denali Llama. It's quite amazing that so much boat fits into something so small.

The inflation sack provided with the raft makes quick work of inflating the raft. With about ten squeezes, the silnylon bag had filled the raft with air. But as Roman Dial's excellent guide to Packrafting points out, it's important not to just head straight out onto the water.

Because the air temperature in the tubes is much higher than the water temperature, the raft will deflate quite a lot when you put it in the water. For that reason, you need to really soak the raft before you head out, and re-inflate using the handy valve on the side.

With that done, I was ready to go.

It's an odd feeling at first, to feel the water rippling under you. I'd padded the seat using a 4-piece Z-Lite, and I soon got used to the proximity to water. I was surprised, for some reason, at how low I sat in the water. The large tubes make it appear as if you will be sitting quite high, but in face you are at about the same height as in a kayak.

And man, is this thing maneuverable! I knew that inflatables are notoriously easy to turn, and get swung around in currents, but still I was surprised. The paddling technique requires a firm downward, almost vertical stroke to prevent a wildly oscillating path. Unlike a kayak, which has an element of forgiveness in the design (especially with sea kayaks), the packraft will zig-zag all over the place. However, once you get into the habit of making steep strokes, you can maintain a pretty straight line.

The advantage of this incredible responsiveness will be in the ability to quickly maneuver around obstacles. I tried a technique outlined in the Packrafting book, in which a wider forward stroke is followed immediately by a backward push, and the boat swirled in the water instantly. In fact, backward paddling is by far the fastest way to turn in a hurry. (This might not be so much the case in the new models with the more pointy stern. Also, the new designs should track straighter in the water.)

Although nowhere near as fast as a kayak, it's possible to keep a pretty good pace going. I can definitely see the benefit of having a fitted skirt to protect from splashes. I fully anticipated getting wet on this occasion, and I succeeded admirably. For longer trips a splash skirt would be essential.

Taking photographs with an expensive touch-screen phone is not very practical while packrafting, but these things must be attempted for the sake of documentation.

All-in-all, it was a very enjoyable experience. I hope to take it out on a gentle river before I return it, to get a sense of how it handles in a current. I'm really not into running whitewater beyond a class II rapid, but who knows – these bugs bite very easily, and once bitten, they leave their mark.

Purchasing one is still a little way off; maybe next year. One of the reasons the blog has been a little neglected of late is that I landed some writing work for a game producer. After writing all day, the last thing I want to do is come home and write some more. Add the upcoming life changes to that and you'll understand if blogging continues to take a back seat for a little while. The upswing of work is money, and if everything works out, I'll be in a much better position upon my return to Lapland in December, ready for new adventures. Who knows, next year a packraft might not seem like such an impossible purchase after all!

Those interested in the packrafting phenomenon should check out:

Alpacka Packrafts

 - Super-rugged packrafts for the connoisseur

Flyweight Designs

 - Lighter, cheaper, but less rugged. They just announced the FlyteWater, a more rugged version for $465.