Thursday, August 6, 2015

Losing Your Packraft Air Valve Cap in the Backcountry

It's one of those moments that could ruin the trip you look forward to all year.  The rest of my group had already inflated their rafts and were traveling downstream to find a better spot for lunch.  We were 25 miles from the nearest road and 20 miles from where I last inflated my raft.  I unrolled my packraft and there was no air valve cap.   How was I going to keep air in my raft?!?  I had three days of floating ahead of me and it was nearly 30 miles to where we would be picked up!

I tied off my inflation bag to keep most of the air in and floated down to meet the rest of my party.  I had to orally inflate it several times in the half mile I traveled on the river so I was definitely going to need a better long term solution.  For a second I pictured the spot where I had deflated my raft and rolled it up on a gravel bar.  I thought, "some fisherman is probably holding it right now wondering what it is."

By the time I arrived I had thought of several different ways to remedy the problem and avoid having to pack my raft out (an embarrassing and demoralizing thought to say the least).  Most of my ideas involved taping over the valve, either with duct-tape or tyvek tape.  Luckily my friend Benn had a better idea:

Rather than tape over the valve that was attached to the raft he taped over the inflation bag valve opening with duct-tape, letting the tape overlap all the way up the threads.  Then we screwed the inflation bag back into the air valve opening.  The duct-tape over the valve-end shut off the air and the duct tape around the threads seals it in tight like a cap would.  I had to inflate the raft orally, but given the situation, it was a small price to pay for not having to walk out or re-inflate my raft every 100 yards.  I did notice my raft lost a little more air than the others, but the difference was pretty minimal.

The easy way to prevent this situation is to always make sure the cap is attached to the string before rolling the raft up.   However, if you're like me, you don't always try the easy way first.  Hopefully if this ever happens to you or someone you are packrafting with remember this trick and you can really save your trip.  Also, always bring duct-tape!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Importance of Scouting Rapids

Look how calm that water looks.

Keep in mind, my friends and I are backpackers turned packrafters.  I don't know all the right white-water terms or elementary lessons (as this story will illustrate).  I write this for the benefit of others who are new to white-water and particularly to packrafting.

"Go for it! You'll be fine!"

My three friends were beached on the bank opposite my raft.  I had planned to pull off on the on my side of the river and we were all going to scout the next rapid, but there wasn't a good spot to beach and the current was going too fast.  As I sped along the bank, I shouted back, "Should I just go for it?"  As if I had much of a choice at that point.  

I managed around the first boulder just fine but the next one was a dewsey.  Trying to stall for time to plan my next move I broadsided the boulder and foolishly leaned away.  My raft tipped over, the velcro holding my spray skirt to the raft released without me even pulling the handle and bam!  I was in the water and on the scariest 2 minute ride of my life. 
It turned out, this particular section of class 3ish rapids had no real recovery area.  The current was strong and the energy I had was sapped by trying to stay afloat after each successive rapid and small water-fall.  I was able to keep my feet forward for much of the journey, but managed to bang my knee up pretty good on a couple boulders.  My friend Seth, who had started soon after me, but did not see my spill, caught up with me at an eddy the marked the end of the 150 yard section.  I was so exhausted and out of breath, it was all I could do to grab the back of his packraft as he towed me to shore.  

Fortunately the temperature was still in the 60s and after putting on some of Seth's dry clothes and doing some jumping jacks my body heat began to return.  For everyone else however, the adventure was far from over.  Seth ended up being the only one to make it through without going for a swim.  

Shivering after the last rapid
Benn, the third member of the group, anticipating the spill potential of the rapid made an attempt to pull over near the boulder that ejected me.  His raft was suddenly sucked down under a different boulder.  He pulled himself out but it took deflating the raft and a great deal of tugging to get the raft out from under the rock (the 6-point elk shed tied on the front of the raft didn't make things easier).

Tyler, the final member of the party was able to get through the section that tipped Benn and I, but was dumped on a different boulder.  He was able to get to shore with his raft, regroup and go through the final 4-foot waterfall on his raft.  

Needless to say, once we had retrieved all the rafts and paddles, we packed everything up and started the 7-mile hike out (we were pretty close to our planned destination).  

Lessons Learned

After a few days of reflection, I think the most important take-away from this adventure is scouting.  Followed closely by staying in a tight group when going through rapids.  If you scout rapids, you can get through them better and/or make better decisions about whether or not to portage around them.  If you stay in tight groups, it is easier to pull over as a group and if you do go into a gnarly section of rapids, you can bail each other out (particularly if you have a throw rope).  One final note, if you're new to white-water, it is better to hone your skills on sections of rapids with many recovery areas.  It allows you time to think through your next move, or if you are dumped it allows you to get to shore and re-group.  
Amazing views early in the day!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Beginning of Backcountry Packraft Rentals

I glanced down off the trail and noticed a deep pool with a strong current going through it.  It was a steep downhill slide to the pool, but if I had learned anything about backcountry fishing, it was that pools like this are worth fishing.  I scrambled down and let my “hopper-dropper” float through the rapid.  The hopper almost immediately popped under, indicating something had taken my “dropper” (in this case a copper john).  I caught one hard-fighting, 16” cut-throat on each sides of the pool.  As I climbed back onto the trail, I felt fully alive and in love with backcountry fishing.  Over a fire that night, my friend Benn and I discussed our amazing two days of fishing in the Bob Marshall. 
As good as it was, two full days of tough hiking was a high price to pay for two full days of fishing.  If only we could just continue down the river, past the remote ranger station at Big Prairie, through the narrow canyon slots and walk out into the Spotted Bear parking lot forty-some miles to the north.  As tempting as that was, we only had four days.  A trip like that would take more than a week if we hoped to hike it and fish just the best spots as we walked.  Plus, we’d be completely exhausted from hiking hard to keep pace in-between fishing holes.  Not that we’re against exhaustion, but this was a fishing trip, not endurance training.  Of course there was always the raft option.  We had some connections to horses and rafts, but the logistics and costs involved in an endeavor like that get difficult quickly.  As we hiked out on the fourth day, we decided one way or the other we had to come back, even if it meant a ten-day trip to do the river full justice.

Then we discovered packrafts!  Small, durable, ultralight, inflatable, packable, high-performing, rafts designed for the Alaskan wilderness.    Three years after that first trip into the Bob, we went back in, this time with Benn’s brother, another mutual friend and my wife.  The trip took six days.  One day of hard hiking, one day that involved several portages around log jams and four days of uninterrupted fishing and floating bliss!  Our meals were amazing as each one of us tried to outdo the other with our assigned night of cooking (meals included: jumbleia, chicken dumplings, Paiute mountain pizza, fish burritos, and pad Thai).   Fishing was excellent, although the fish were slightly picky at times.  We saw bull trout on two occasions and the second one bit into a 10” cutthroat that was being reeled in.  Camping spots were excellent and even included an island one night.  We stopped and saw a girl who was in our wedding at the Big Prairie ranger station.  This isolated settlement seems to come straight from the 1870s and is an experience in itself.
We ended our trip in the picturesque slot canyons that take you to the edge of Meadow Creek Gorge (a dangerous class IV + stretch of river that we decided to save for a later date when we have more experience and helmets).   We actually missed the pull-out (a sign that says “danger pull out now”) and had to climb up a small slot cliff, but with packrafts this is easily done!  Benn’s family was even nice enough to shuttle our car back to Hungry Horse so we ate the customary burger, fries and shake and returned home. 

During the planning stages of this trip, decided to buy two packrafts rather than rent them with the intention of starting my own rental company.  The time for that is now here!  Backcountry Packrafts Rentals LLC is officially open for business!  As I researched packrafts I realized the myriad of other outdoor activities packrafts can be combined with.  You would be amazed at what you can load on a packraft and still be able to run rapids.  A short list of activities to be combined with packrafting include:  fishing, hunting, mountain biking, skiing, camping, mountaineering, rock climbing and canyoneering.  Packrafts are the ultimate outdoors men raft because they are capable of running almost any rapid and add to so many things most outdoorsmen already enjoy.  We ship anywhere in the lower 48!  So check us out a company that’s true Montana!