Another kind of freedom

When I asked a friend, "Hey - do you want to paddle down Minnehaha Creek next Monday?", it didn't cross my mind for a second that next Monday was July 4th, America's great celebration of independence from the tea-guzzling evil British Empire - a day Americans normally spend burning the Union Jack and stomping furiously on hot cross buns.

Okay, not really. Well, not in Minnesota.

In any case, this was a big weekend - a major holiday in the land of the free (where most people don't have a lot of free time because they're holding down four jobs so they can pay off their debt, college fees, and healthcare bills - but hey, let's not quibble semantics). A pity, then, that political duelling in the state capitol resulted in a government shutdown, resulting in all state parks closing down during the busiest weekend of the year. My friend was worried that the put-ins on the creek would also be closed, but I was more concerned about the volume of water flowing through it. This year, the tiny river running through the heart of Minneapolis has had up to seven times its normal volume. I was concerned that my newbie packrafting skills would not be up to the speed of the creek as is passed through the swanky neighborhood of Edina, making its sharp twists and turns past the grandiose homes of the plastically-enhanced Minnesotan elite.

We went on a reconnoitre expedition in the morning to check the conditions, having heard that some bridges were impassable owing to high water. Fortunately, the water volume had reduced, and, apart from a few downed trees in the middle of some exciting class II rapids, it all looked pretty good. We decided to celebrate our freedom from the tyranny of state-owned park ownership, government shutdown be damned.

We weren't the only ones.

I was a little nervous while inflating the Denali Llama. I don't know why; it's a very tame river but it's also been a while since I've been on one, and this was the first time I'd taken the raft in any kind of current. As I  filled the cheerful blue raft with air, several children drifted by on inner tubes. Ian was a little concerned for their safety with the downed strainers, but I figured if a 10 year old can do this without a paddle, I have nothing to worry about. They seemed to be having a whale of a time. Of course in a tube you don't really have to worry about getting wet, as this is your default starting position, but I expected to get a good soaking anyway. It's all par for the course.

We set off, and immediately hit a series of rapids, fast turns, and strainers spanning the entire width of the creek! The kids in the inner tubes had either got out or somehow managed to negotiate their way past. I, on the other hand, had a quick lesson in trying to get over a downed tree while sitting in a raft being pulled in two directions at once (the wrong direction, and under the tree). But with a little effort and some gentle persuasion, I found a way past the obstacle, marvelling at the sturdiness of the Alpacka raft. I would probably have not got any further in a lesser, vinyl raft.

Fortunately, after the initial twisty-turny section, the creek calmed down a little and I was able to practise actually controlling the boat a little more. I got used to back-paddling to stay in place in the stream or slow down. I figured out that the lack of tracking can be problematic in a stream, and frequent rapid paddling is necessary across the current to avoid obstacles. The kayaks that swept by us occasionally had no problem maintaining a nice line, but without thigh-straps the packraft likes to spin around and go where the river wants to take you. It's fantastically maneuverable, but with that comes the price of unpredictability - at least in my inexperienced hands.

As we drifted downstream, I found myself enjoying the rapids, and looking forward to them. We're not talking major rapids here, but some nice 30cm waves that give enough of a thrill - enough to provide a brief moment of bander-snatchage as the stern was sucked back into a wave trough, and water spilled down behind my back and into the raft. Some rapid, determined paddling averted anything beyond a minor soaking, but the experience reiterated my belief that the new Alpacka stern designs would limit this a little more, and that, if I ever buy one of these, I will definitely get a fitted spray skirt! Going down anything even slightly more exciting than a basic class II without one would not be wise.

We stopped for a moment for a bite to eat, watching a couple of children drifting downstream using just their PFDs. They jumped out by us, ran up the river bank, and did it again, over and over, delighted. It was great to watch them enjoying themselves so much. When I was a boy, I was always a little afraid of water. I didn't learn to swim until I was 32, and always envied other children splashing around or playing  in the water. I'm no olympic medallist now, but I'm making up for lost time and opportunities.

One thing is certain though - paddling and photography do not mix. I took my iPhone in my

Haglöfs Watatait case

(thankfully, as otherwise I would now be without a phone), but a better option would be a GoPro Hero, helmet- or otherwise-mounted, and set to record either video or time-lapse images. Every time I got ready to take a photo the creek would turn and I'd have to quickly shove the camera somewhere safe. I tried shooting some video, but it looks more like the Blair Witch Project in a boat.

We stopped for a late lunch, which turned into a lengthy discussion of politics and whitewater rafting in Washington, before putting-in once again for the final stretch to Nokomis, where we had left the other car. I forgot to temper the raft at this point, so for the last couple of miles I endured a rather floppy and not very streamlined float along some flat water that took a lot of effort to paddle. My mistake. I wasn't supple enough to bend and use the inflation tube.

It was a beautiful afternoon, something I'd love to do again. There are so many rivers and creeks in Minnesota to explore, most of them gentle little things that drift along through bluffs and cottonwood-lined valleys. To have something like Minnehaha in the center of Minneapolis is something quite special though - a relaxing ride with a couple of fun runs, all for free.

That's my kind of freedom. Government shutdown be damned.