A case for pack-rafting

Pack-rafting on the Little South Nahanni

For this last year's END-AR (2010), we had a pack-rafting section of the race.  We're going to have another such section this coming spring in END-SPAR and again for the 24 hour END-AR 2011.  So what gives? Why are we suddenly introducing another discipline into a sport that already seems to have plenty?

Well, as i've mentioned in previous posts, as a race director i value the 'adventure' part of AR at least as highly as the 'race' part.  And truth be told, other than your own two feet, there does not exist a better vehicle for true adventure than the pack-raft.

I fell in love with the pack-raft the minute i learned of it's existence.  I was planning a three week trip into a remote climbing destination (the Cirque of the Unclimbables) in the heart of the Northwest Territories, Canada.  The ordinary way in was by float plane or helicopter, an expensive proposition.  Alternatively, one could get an airlift with canoes to an equally remote lake and paddle the Nahanni river (often called one of canoeing's crown jewels) and pass within 10 miles of the Cirque - a gear intensive and equally expensive proposition.  After scouring maps we found that there existed a third option - a very rough old mining road (prone to washouts) that ran for 100 miles to another lake which was the origin of a tributary to the Nahanni called the Little South Nahanni.  This river was smaller and faster with many sections of class III rapids and at least one big class IV.  We planned to drive as far as we could, bike the rest of the way to this lake, paddle the Little South Nahanni to the Nahanni and then to the Cirque, climb a classic 2000 foot spire, then paddle/float through some of the most amazing scenery in the world back to civilization.  We'd need boats light enough to carry on the bikes, durable enough for serious whitewater, capable of carrying  huge loads (80+ lbs of gear each at the start), and comfortable enough to travel 250+ miles in over several weeks.  In my quest for such a mythical craft i was put in contact with Sheri Tingey, proprietor of Alpacka Rafts  who's pack-rafts allowed us to complete what at the time turned out to be a rather ground-breaking mission.  That trip back in the summer of 2005 completely changed my preferred type of adventure and every major adventure (and there have been plenty) i've planned since has incorporated the pack-raft as an integral part.

For me, real adventure is about the ability to move seamlessly, confidently, self sufficiently** and efficiently over the widest variety of terrain possible.  I have found pack-rafts to be one of the most versatile pieces of adventure gear that i own.  Granted the good ones are expensive (worth every penny if you're going to get serious about using them!), but even the cheap ones offer a good place to start and allow for one to begin discovering all the awesome places that a pack-raft can take you to that nothing else can.  So here's 10 reasons why i think pack-rafts in general are cool, even here in North Dakota:

  1. They are portable.  You can fly with them, fit 10 of them in the trunk of your car (no roof rack required!)  you can paddle anywhere you go.  If you get a good one, you can even paddle whitewater......
  2. Steep learning curve.  Unlike kayak's or canoes, flipping a pack-raft is no big deal.  In fact, its common to swim and get back in mid-rapid.  If you're confident in the water you can be paddling class III whitewater (depending on the durability of your boat) quickly.
  3. They work great with hand-paddles, making them even more portable.
  4. They are great for lounging in - much more so than either a hardshell kayak or a canoe.
  5. You can roll it up and bike with it.
  6. You can put it in your pack and climb up over big mountains with it.
  7. They easily fit one adult plus one toddler/child - great way to get out boating with your kids.
  8. They can paddle very shallow rivers - If you live in Grand Forks, take a pack-raft out to Turtle River this fall or next spring and you'll have a blast (although if you have a cheap one you'll have to use more care...)
  9. They are easy to fix (for the most part).  Tyvek tape and aquaseal is all it takes and if you know what you're doing - field repairs are a breeze.
  10. They're being required by more and more of the better adventure races, in case you hadn't noticed (-:
Hand paddling the Turtle River at low water
So now that you know why you need one it's time to think about sealing the deal and getting your own.  Spend some time with it and get to know it's strengths and weaknesses so that in this upcoming season's races you can use it for all it's worth!  Who knows, you may even find yourself using it outside of racing, and hopefully getting a new perspective (from right down at river level) on the outdoors that the upper midwest has to offer.
ENDracing Team
**It's because of the value i place on self-sufficiency (as an individual or within a team) and my goal of creating races that push people in part to experience things that might translate to 'real' adventures that i don't plan on including the discipline of ascending ENDracing events.  Ascending is a gear intensive skill that is valuable to rock climbers (and perhaps tree-climbers, but that's another issue) that when used in the real world always requires another, more fundamental skill - climbing itself (or lassoing, in the tree case).  Including ascending and therefore motivating people to learn it when it is not directly transferable to any type of adventure activity (in my opinion) other than adventure races doesn't really match up to my vision of the purpose of adventure racing.  If you want to learn ascending for other races, however, feel free to contact me and I'll be happy to help!

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