packrafting

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.

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.