Whitewater Packrafting 101: 10 Things You Need to Know to Paddle Safe + Strong

To celebrate the launch of our newest product, the River Rescue Throw Bag, we asked Hyperlite Mountain Gear ambassador Mark Oates to put together a comprehensive guide to technical paddling—call it packrafting 101. A certified whitewater instructor and outdoor educator, Mark regularly leads trips through the remote Tasmanian wilderness near his home zone. Ever detail-oriented and meticulous, Mark produced a thorough treatise on how to get the most out of any day on any creek in your boat, and get home in one piece. Huge thanks to Mark for sharing vital expertise that is sure to make us all smarter and safer as packrafting continues to blow up. 

Words by Mark Oates // Photos by Dan Ransom + Mark Oates

You’ve got the latest and greatest packraft, you’ve got the cool hardcore creeking helmet—call it a complete kit—and you even have some decent river miles under your belt. So, now you want to take it to the next level. But wait…

Is there something else that you still need? Why do others make paddling hard rapids look effortless, while you come close to swimming? Why can some packrafters hit that particular eddy every time but you consistently struggle to catch it? How come your friends can easily surf waves for ages, yet you find it challenging to simply paddle across strong currents?

Is it the boat? Is it the river? Is it you? Do you simply need more time on the water?

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Foolz Tour IV aka Desert Therapy in South Central Utah

Southern Utah Packrafting / Bikepacking

Words & Photos by Steve “Doom” Fassbinder // @republicofdoom

Say you were given the unfortunate choice of having only one place in the world to explore in your life; what would it be? Not a scenario that I would ever want to settle for, but if forced my answer would come without hesitation. Southern Utah.

After nearly 20 years of living in the desert Southwest, I am continually awed by the intricacies of its impossibly complicated landscape. This place can cradle you like a baby or torture you relentlessly.

On any given trip you may find yourself in calm serene pools of crystal clear water surrounded by budding cottonwood trees or, around the next bend, the wind might unleash a mental and physical beating of unbelievable force.

You can look out from a high point and find your destination seemingly only a few miles away, yet it may take hours or even days to navigate the maze of canyons hiding below the rim. It’s a mysterious place full of forgotten corners, lost arrowheads, baffling rock art, and it pulls at my soul in ways I can’t describe.

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River of Dreams: Packrafting Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness

Packrafting

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador Mike Curiak’s adoption of ultralight techniques and philosophies evolved slowly, he says, as garage gear and his own DIY stuff became increasingly available. But now, Curiak, who owns and operates LaceMine29, a company that builds high-end, hand-built wheels for 29-inch bikes, fat bikes and 650b bikes, simply lives light.

Mike’s also no slouch behind a camera. Case in point: this astoundingly gorgeous account of his recent trip to Southwestern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest, an ambitious itinerary that included running some pretty serious water in an inflatable packraft.

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Bikepacking & Packrafting the Lost Coast of Alaska: Part 2

An Alaskan coastal traverse between Cordova and Icy Bay, Alaska using fatbikes, packrafts, and inspiration from those whom came before.

Words & Photos by Mike Curiak

Day Four:

(Continued from Part 1)

Waking to the sound of rain wasn’t what I’d dreamed about.  Although honestly, at first, I wasn’t sure that was even what it was.  The optimist in my drybag hoped that it was Doom, just outside, slinging handfuls of sand at our tent while taking a selfie and mouthing ‘perf!’ at the camera.  Once I scraped the crusted sand from my eyes and focused, I could see a million+ droplets beaded up on the outer skin of our ‘mid, a few hundred of them sliding earthward.  Going to be a wet one.

The Lost Coast: Day 4

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Packrafts: 3 Reasons To Use Them in Zion’s Narrows

Light, Flexible, Easy to Fix Packrafts: The Perfect Vehicle to Navigate the Narrows

Text & photos by Dan Ransom

This Trailhead is a Total Yard Sale: Packrafts, Paddles and Drysuits Hanging Out to Dry. A couple tents looked haphazardly pitched, and the trucks are caked in thick mud. Our arrival is probably not a very welcome alarm clock.

Kind of an odd scene I thought, when a voice calls out from one of the tents: “You guys running the narrows?”

This is the start of Utah’s Zion Narrows, one of the most beautiful canyons on the entire Colorado Plateau. It’s an incredibly popular destination, one I’ve descended all or in-part nearly a dozen times either as a backpacking trip or an exit to a nearby technical descent. But today we aren’t here to hike it, we’re here to float. And I’m using a packraft.

The guys we are waking up–they paddled this stretch yesterday. It’s an incredible trip they say, one of the best ever. But the approach. It’s miserable. There isn’t enough water. Takes way longer than anticipated. Beats the hell out of the boat. And by the time they got off the river and rallied back up the hill to snag their shuttle vehicle a quick moving thunderstorm blasted through the area and turned the road to complete shit. Hence, this morning’s yard sale.

And now, a little bleary-eyed and sleep deprived, they are looking curiously at our small packs, and wondering if we aren’t about to make some poor decisions ourselves.

“Those packrafts aren’t durable enough…. Right?”
Read the rest of the article & see the awesome photos here.

2016 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic

Hyperlite Mountain Gear is proud to be an unofficial sponsor of the unofficial Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.

Words by Luc Mehl
22 competitors | 115 miles of Alaskan Wilderness | Photo: Luc Mehl

The Mountain Wilderness Classic is Alaska’s premier wilderness challenge, a grassroots event where participants push to their exertion and exhaustion limits. Ultralight is the name of the game, so it is no surprise that the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Porter is the pack of choice.

The 2016 course started at Galbraith Lake and ended in Wiseman, completing a north-south traverse of the Brooks Range, Alaska’s northernmost mountain range. The course was short by Classic standards, a minimum of 110 miles, half of which was floatable. This was a welcome change from the 2015 300-mile route in the Alaska Range, which was only finished by four of the thirty participants.

The short Brooks Range course and 24-hour daylight allowed participants to cut even more gear from their packs, with many participants expecting to go without sleep. Sleeping bags, shelter systems, and extra clothing were all left behind. One participant even opted to leave his packraft behind, starting with a 13 pound pack (this ended up being a bad decision).
Read more about the Classic, and check out a sweet video.

Packraft Attire: 10 Things To Help You Stay Safe & Dry

Gear & Clothes That Can Make the Difference For Your Wilderness Packraft Adventure

Moe Witschard

Text by Moe Witschard // Photos by Moe Witschard & Mike St. Pierre

Maurice “Moe” Witschard is an experienced explorer, photographer and a filmmaker who loves packrafting and adventuring. Like all adventurers and packrafters he knows that it is key to stay safe and dry. In this blog post he shares 10 tips for your packrafing attire that will make your packraft adventure as safe and fun as possible.

Making smart choices as to what to wear often means the difference between joy and misery on a packraft trip. After packrafting extensively over the past 10 years, I have tried many different clothing systems. My present strategies are based on principles that I have taken from years of whitewater kayaking and backpacking. I apply them to my trips in what I believe is the most elegant of wilderness watercraft: the packraft. Here, I share my tips.

Read on for the 10 Tips.

Multi-Sport Adventure: 8 Tips for Beginners

Bike/Pack/Raft/Climb: Steve “Doom” Fassbinder’s Recommendations for Aspiring Multi-Sport Adventurers

Typical multi-discipline trip with Fassbinder.
Typical multi-sport trip with Fassbinder.

“You’re almost always making it up as you go”, says Steve Fassbinder of his multi-sport exploits. “Doom” embarks on long-distance, backcountry adventures that typically include two to four of the following sports: packrafting, thru hiking, rock climbing and mountain biking.

“I’m figuring it out as I go,” he says. Fassbinder started racing mountain bikes, but eventually, the constant riding took a toll on his knees. When he discovered packrafting he realized he could take his bike and do these routes that were never possible before.
Learn more about multi-sport adventure.

Paddlequest 1500: John Connelly’s 75-Day Canoe & Kayak Epic Adventure

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Partners With Maine-Based Whitewater Athlete 

John Connelly's 75-day trip will take him through two countries and four states and over 22 streams and 58 lakes.

The Allagash Wilderness Waterway. It’s remote, but also well managed with established sites that make camping very comfortable. My favorite spot is just on the river, where the water pools up above some rapids. I paddle in, accompanied only by the white noise of the river and of the bird songs. Temps are warm, even as evening approaches, and only the slightest breeze rustles the white pines. I pull my canoe on the shoreline, unload my gear and settle in where I can watch the water. I’m tired after a long, hard day of paddling, but I feel invigorated. I watch the brook trout sip mayflies from the surface of the river, and out of nowhere comes an Osprey. Taking a trout totally unawares, she makes a splash in the river and flies off just as quickly as she arrived. The sun sets, the colors of the rainbow playing over the surface of the Allagash. A rare and precious moment, I feel fully connected to nature. –John Connelly

Hyperlite Mountain Gear recently partnered with former US Canoe & Kayak team member and Maine resident John Connelly to support his 1500-mile solo river/sea odyssey. Connelly has numerous first descents under his belt, along with decades of experience on whitewater. His 75-day trip will take him through two countries and four states and over 22 streams and 58 lakes. The journey will be the first to link four major waterways: The Northern Forest Canoe Trail, Saint John River, Bay of Fundy and Maine Island Trail. We are providing Connelly with a 5400 Porter Pack from our soon-to-be-released Expedition Series, along with an Echo II Shelter System and Stuff Sacks.

Read on.

Bikepackrafting Cataract Canyon with Mike Curiak

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassador, biking enthusiast and founder of Lace Mine 29, a custom bike wheel company, Mike Curiak has pushed the sport of extreme cycling to new heights, and was nominated for a spot in the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame.  He, Jesse Selwyn and Travis Anderson recently used packrafts, bikes and their legs to explore Cataract Canyon. This is a repost from Curiak’s blog

A few years back I had the opportunity to complete a unique trip in Canyonlands National Park. Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassadors Doom, Moe and I rode, walked, and floated for three days and roughly 75 miles through Beef Basin, the Needles, Cross Canyon, Cataract Canyon and Imperial Canyon, as well as the northern edge of the Abajos in completing our loop. A few months ago Jesse and I got to talking about that trip, and it wasn’t something that he could let go of once the seed had been planted.

Check out the rest of the photos and article here.

A Photo Gallery: Climbing, Bikepacking & Packrafting

Doomed: A Hot, Dry Utah Desert Multi-Sport, Packraft & Bikepacking Expedition

Ambassador and Photographer Steve “Doom” Fassbinder works for Alpacka Rafts, but we don’t know where he finds the time for a 9 to 5. He’s constantly sending us stellar photos of his bikepacking, packrafting and climbing adventures. For his latest trip, he invited fellow ambassadors Scott Adamson and Angela VanWiemeersch to embark on a wild multi-sport adventure in the Utah desert backcountry. It involved numerous first ascents of sandstone towers and granite walls, plus packrafting the San Juan River and bikepacking. All photos in this essay are by Doom.

After reading Steve “Crusher” Bartlett’s book, “Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock,” five years ago, Steve Fassbinder felt that he needed to climb the Grand Gulch Spire (also called Shima Sani). A remote towering pillar of rock in the lower Grand Gulch area, it’s typically accessed by a 42-mile float down the San Juan River, but with creative bike, packraft and hiking beta the tower can be reached without the hassles of big boat river trips and the long shuttle involved with such an endeavor. With only one “classic” route, Corso de Gallo (5.11), up the West flank of the tower, it‘s relatively untouched. Fassbinder had made two previous climbing trips to the tower, and had often scoped out the South Face of the tower, but never climbed it. Then after hearing Van Wiemeersch interviewed on a climbing podcast, Fassbinder realized they had plenty in common, and knew she would be a perfect companion. Once Adamson got word that the trip was happening, he too jumped at the chance to climb the spire. Finally Fassbinder was ready to ascend the new route on the steep south face of Shima Sani, but first they had to handle the problem of extreme temperatures.
After reading Steve “Crusher” Bartlett’s book, “Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock,” five years ago, Steve Fassbinder felt that he needed to bikepack out to and then climb the Grand Gulch Spire (also called Shima Sani). A remote towering pillar of rock in the lower Grand Gulch area, it’s typically accessed by a 42-mile float down the San Juan River, but with creative bike, packraft and hiking beta the tower can be reached without the hassles of big boat river trips and the long shuttle involved with such an endeavor. With only one “classic” route, Corso de Gallo (5.11), up the West flank of the tower, it‘s relatively untouched. Fassbinder had made two previous climbing trips to the tower, and had often scoped out the South Face of the tower, but never climbed it. Then after hearing VanWiemeersch interviewed on a climbing podcast, Fassbinder realized they had plenty in common, and knew she would be a perfect companion. Once Adamson got word that the trip was happening, he too jumped at the chance to climb the spire. Finally Fassbinder was ready to ascend the new route on the steep south face of Shima Sani, but first they had to handle the problem of extreme temperatures. Doom is carrying a Summit Pack in the front and a 4400 Porter Pack on the back of his paddle.

Check out the rest of the photo essay now.

Motivated By The Unknown: A Chat With Adventurer Mike Curiak

Mike Curiak in Alaska.
“Experience is largely undervalued relative to ability. As my ability fades or gets rustier, I’m happy to be traveling with experienced people!” –Mike Curiak

Ambassador Mike Curiak is an avid multi-sport adventurer. He just embarked on a packraft adventure with Roman Dial and Brad Meiklejohn, which you can read about here

“Almost everything cool I did was in some past life,” says itinerant adventurer Mike Curiak. While it may be true Curiak no longer competes (and regularly wins) super crazy 100-, 200- and even 350-mile bike races, as he did in the 90s, he is no slacker. In fact, he just returned from hiking and packrafting a completely remote river basin in Alaska with expert packrafters Roman Dial and Brad Meiklejohn. Read Dial’s report of the trip.

“The satellite imagery of this place was so pixelated that we couldn’t really see much,” he says of the info he found while researching the area. “On a topo I could see there were mountains and a river that we planned to float out on; but all maps were useless.” Curiak and the team knew roughly what the elevation was going to be, where they’d hit the river, and where it finished at sea level, and so they were able to gauge the gradient; the river dropped substantially. They also knew the river was glacier fed, and that when temps warmed up in the afternoon it would likely be raging. But would it be raging like the Grand Canyon or something else?

“When you come up against this sort of big blank spot, it tests you as a person and as a traveler to improvise,” he says. “Where I go it’s not about what you bring, but about what your experience is and how you deal with what you come across.” Read the rest of the article.

How To Prep for a Packraft Day Trip

The Stripped Down “Learn To Packraft” Series

2015 Packraft Roundup – Montana

By Roman Dial

Packrafting. First off, what the heck is it?

When you go “packrafting,” you are using a small, lightweight inflatable boat to cross and float rivers, streams or lakes, and even run rapids or cross saltwater bays and fjords.

Packrafts are tough and can do whatever bigger boats will do, but they also need to be easy to carry while you walk, run, bike, hike, ski or even fly.

Packrafts encourage amphibious travel, and they are used on some of the biggest multi-sport adventures in the world. Check out the American Packrafting Association’s website for more detailed information. Learn how to get started, gear you should carry and more.

Pile It On – Packrafting a First Descent in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska

On day 1, they lashed their three Alpacka Rafts together and rigged their UltaMid 4 as a sail. Up-valley winds pushed them along for the first five miles of Kontrashibuna Lake. “We knew we were flying along when water gurgled between the boats, and we giggled,” Dial says with a laugh. But the gurgling and the giggling stopped when the wind changed direction in the evening.
On day 1, the team lashed their three Alpacka Rafts together and rigged their UltaMid 4 as a sail. Up-valley winds pushed them along for the first five miles of Kontrashibuna Lake.

Text by Roman Dial, Photos by Mike Curiak

Midway through a six-mile, ten-hour day, Brad Meiklejohn asked his packrafting partner, Roman Dial, “What are you going to tell people about this route?”

“The brush…” he responded. The hellish brush…

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassadors and expert multi-sport adventurers Meiklejohn, Roman Dial and Mike Curiak had embarked on a two-week packrafting/thru hiking (aka bushwhacking) adventure in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park. The team had just climbed off a 15-mile paddle and sail in packrafts across Lake Kontrashibuna, where they contended with miles and miles of some gnarly bushwhacking—really gnarly bushwhacking—in order to do the first descent of The Pile River (aka the “Pile it On” packrafting adventure).

“We had to wrestle with and wiggle through brush at the pathetic rate of four hours to the mile,” Dial says. “That’s serious class IV brush, requiring full body weight to fight through and threatening to break an arm or a leg should you topple. In ten hours we made 5.5 miles.”

Read the rest of the article & highlights of the trip in Roman Dial’s own words.

On the Chetco River: A Packrafting Adventure

On the Chetco River.

Photos & text by Mike Curiak (republished from 2013)

About a year ago I was introduced to the wonders of multi-day whitewater packrafting. When I returned, glowing, from my trip, I spent lots of waking moments searching out other rivers for future trips. Thanks to a writeup I found, Oregon’s Chetco River rose to the tip-top of that list.

Doom (aka Steve Fassbinder) and I had planned to run it last spring, but the bottom fell out of the flows a few days before we were able to get there.

I spent the next few months watching weather patterns and the gauge, hoping that the water would come up before the season was too far advanced to enjoy it. Jeny’s need to burn a heap of vacation time before October 1st also hastened the desire to head north. When I called Bearfoot Brad to arrange our vehicle shuttle he protested that there simply wasn’t any water. Unlike Brad, I’d been methodically checking the forecasts, and within hours of our arrival in Oregon the fall rains began, taking our target from 60cfs to over 800.

On!

Highlights of the trip are many. Top of the list has to be the impossibly clear water, followed closely by the carved-through-bedrock gorges, both ensconced within the remotest feeling place I’ve yet experienced in the Lower 48. Both of us are lifelong mountain bikers and agreed that we’ve never been able to get anywhere close to this ‘out there’ by bike.

Jeny and I completed our trip in four days. That was a bit ambitious for a first time down, and given a choice I’d add an extra day next time. The hike is easy and takes half a day rain or shine–I’d want the extra time to savor and photograph the gorges and canyons once floating.

Read the rest of the article.

Packrafting New Zealand

Two boaters packrafting New Zealand's Arahura River.
Arahura — is this scenery for real!?

By Wyatt Roscoe, packrafter & outdoor adventurer

Packrafting Paradise: New Zealand Delivers

The fact that climate change is exaggerating extremes was easy to see as we arrived for two weeks of packrafting in New Zealand two months after the largest floods in 40 years. We then boated through a record breaking drought. However, we found water and took Alpacka Raft’s new White Water boat for some fun rides throughout the incredible two islands.

Our journey took us from Auckland down to Murchison, where we ran the Matakitaki and Buller before heading to the infamous West Coast. Hyperlite Mountain Gear’s bullet proof Cuben Fiber packs helped us get our gear there in ultralight style.

Taking our Alpacka raft on a wild ride.
Taking our Alpacka raft on a wild ride.

 

Over a few beers in Hokitika we talked to local boaters about the low flows and potential runs. We decided to hike into a classic helicopter run on the Arahura. The scenery was wild and after taking our time to film and photograph on the 10-mile hike in we were left only with the afternoon to boat out. Because of the low water a normal four- to five-hour run took us almost seven hours and many portages to reach the top of the last gorge. With darkness impending we choose to stash our boats and return in the morning to finish the run.  The plentiful sand fly bites didn’t keep us from sleeping well that night after a full 14-hour day of paddling and hiking. The next morning we finished running the “cesspool” after an exciting portage on the first drop.

With minimal flows on the west coast we drove south Queens Town in search of bigger water. We found it. The rapid Citron promptly trounced us and quickly put some things in perspective. These boats are meant for back-country runs with lower flows and not your class IV-V big pushy water.  Weighing just over 13lb they have a way of making themselves at home in big holes and not standing up for themselves against huge laterals.  I had big dreams of dispelling the idea that all packrafters are swimmers now that we have this new boat, but unfortunately we did nothing but reinforce it. They continue to get easier to role but with their wide base it takes some getting use to.

Checking out the drop while packrafting in New Zealand.
Checking out the drop.

We decided to take the boats back to their home environment and did a two-day hike into some Lord of the Rings worthy mountains.  If you’re thinking about packrafting New Zealand, it’s a total must. This trip into the Landsborough included real Kiwi “track” that took us over a pass that gained and lost almost 10,000 vertical ft in two miles. Not a switchback to be found and with 50lb packs proved to be a memorable two miles.

The boat out took us through some beautiful valleys and provided some fun class III and in less than five hours we were back at the road. This is what the boats are meant for: compressing what would have been 16 hours of painful hiking into five hours of stunning paddling.  Our trip concluded as we headed north back to Auckland and running Maria Falls and the classic Kaituna run three times. It was a glorious two and half weeks that taught us a lot about the boats and let us see a truly spectacular country.

Maria Falls
Maria Falls
Packrafting across New Zealand.
Packrafting across New Zealand.
Running waterfalls was a highlight on the adventure.

Bikepacking with a Tarp Shelter

A bikepacking tarp pitched between two trees.

Our friend Glenn Charles, known to put more than a few miles in on his fat bike, recently recounted his own evolution toward near-total tarp commitment for his bikepacking trips.  Read on for Glenn’s thoughts on why a ultralight tarp makes the perfect shelter for multisport adventures.

The Serene Simplicity of Bikepacking Tarps

Just back from another spectacular bikepacking trip on my Salsa Mukluk, I can honestly say that for 90% of my trip needs, a tarp is the perfect shelter. For the last five years I have experimented with tents, bivies, and a number of different tarps, so I believe that for me, I have acquired a fair bit of experience through a multitude of conditions.With the exception of some very specific situations and scenarios, the Tarp has ruled the roost.  With a bike, I can string a tarp anywhere I want, including the middle of nowhere.  Using my technigue for anchoring the bike with line and stakes, it serves as the perfect highpoint for one end of the tarp.  The other end can be anchored to some other fixed object, or with the aid of your helmet or stick, stood on end, you have enough lift to comfortably sleep without and contact between your bag and the tarp.

Read the rest of the article here

Packrafting in Baxter State Park, Maine

Baxter State Park – View of Mount Katahdin

The Hyperlite Mountain Gear team puts our gear to the test. This year CEO Mike St. Pierre and John Mansir hiked and packrafted in Northern Maine.

Baxter State Park  is over 200,000 acres of wilderness located in northern central Maine. The park includes Maine’s highest peak, and it lies at the end of the Appalachian Trail. It’s also home to Mount Katahdin (also called Baxter Peak).  The park is “forever wild” (no electricity, running water, or paved roads inside the park boundary) and sees only sees only about 60,000 visitors each year so there’s plenty of opportunities to find empty trails and private stretches of lake and river for paddling.  Visit the Park’s website here for more information.

Mike and John began their adventures hiking from the Freeze Out Trail (which is the wildest and northernmost trail in the Park) to Webster Lake. They packrafted down Webster Stream (class II, III) to Second Lake and then across Grand Lake to Trout Brook and out.  Check out their video: Packrafting Baxter State Park on YouTube

The River of Return.

Mike Curiak’s report on a recent expedition with other Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ambassadors and friends to Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness.

I’ve had the pleasure of traveling with many accomplished athletes through the years, but there are so many more whose names I’ve heard and read yet never gotten to meet.

Forrest McCarthy is one of the latter. Last month he invited me to join a small group on an incredible trip in Idaho

Watch the trip vid by clicking here —> River of Return

First, he drew me in with this:

I propose a challenge to the century old idea that paddling is a one-way event in the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness.

Intrigued, I dug into the details:

Starting near the confluence of the Middle and Main Forks of the Salmon, we descend through the heart of the wilderness to the confluence with the South Fork. From there, two days of hiking will lead to Big Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Many miles of paddling on Big Creek and the Middle Fork will return us to where we started.

Grinning, I did a heap of mapwork and some internet sleuthing before concluding (sans grin) that maybe the whitewater on this loop was just a wee bit over my inexperienced head.

Then a funny thing happened: the Alpackettes sent a prototype boat for me to get some time in and give feedback on.  I can’t divulge specifics (soon!) but parts of this boat, both subtle and dramatic, are truly revolutionary in this little niche of outdoor geekdom.  I took it on an overnighter of the Gunny Gorge and realized that it had instantly upped my skill level, even and especially with a multi-day load.

With that I started looking harder at what Forrest had dubbed the River of Return, and realized that late summer low flows were probably going to be challenging but doable for me in this new boat.

The draw to see this region went back years, maybe even decades.  The exclusion of bicycles from Wilderness (capital W) means that I’d skirted the edges of this massive roadless region but never been able to poke my head in and look around.  And “just” hiking through held little appeal: I’ll become a hiker about the same time that I take up golf–when my body is too broken and/or fragile to ride.

When I tell people that packrafts have changed my life, I think few understand the literal sincerity of that statement.  This trip is an excellent example: Owning a little boat and some light bike/backpacking gear has made the exploration of Wilderness suddenly appealing.  Then along comes someone like Forrest with a unique and well-researched plan and how can you say no?

I couldn’t.

Putting in to the Main Salmon on a chilly, eerie morning at Cache Bar.

Jim Harris, storyteller.

Forrest McCarthy, visionary and route architect.

Local rodent at Poor Creek campsite.

The smoke ebbed and flowed daily, even hourly.

“Cheeky buggers” award goes to the USFS, whom had the stones to demand that we pack out the ashes from our cook fires despite being surrounded by half a million acres of scorched earth.

Heading up to run the lower, funner bits of the South Fork.

Earning it: The big hike up and over Horse Heaven Ridge.

The trail was well maintained and easy to follow, courtesy of groups like this.

Hard to think of fire as anything other than a natural part of this landscape.

Sunset from ~9,000′.

I’m still unsure if we were seeing fall colors or drought ravaged vegetation–there were equal arguments for both.

Our high point atop Chicken Peak, just barely above the smoke.

First glimpse of Big Creek: “Too thin to put in”.

At Monumental Bar the water seemed high enough to float. Just. We bumped and banged and dragged from here on down.  Here Andrew McLean feathers the line.

Ooooo. Next time?

The last 3-4 miles of Big Creek constricted into a rollicking fun class III+ to IV- gorge with countless boat-scoutable plop and drop moves. Had we any more water to prevent the upper butt dragging we might have had too much flow in the gorge. Didn’t really get any stills of this, but plenty of it in the video.

Out into the Middle Fork.  Forrest and Jim.

Jim, scouting and shooting.

Classic Middle Fork scenery. Tom Turiano at right.

Forrest and Andrew, Main Salmon just below the confluence.

Jim Harris, Cramer Rapid, Main Salmon.

Taking out at the put-in: Cache Bar, Main Salmon.

Blue = floatin’, red = walkin’.

This trip couldn’t have happened without the skills and knowledge (and willingness to share them) of Forrest McCarthy, Tom Turiano, Moe Witschard, Jim Harris, and Andrew McLean.  Thanks for having me along.

I’m also indebted to all of the fine folks that collectively make up Alpacka Raft.  Their lifelong dedication to building innovative and durable tools for backcountry exploration is unmatched.

A big thanks to the gang at Hyperlite Mountain Gear.  This was my first trip using a Windrider 3400, and the unique blend of volume, attention to detail, versatility, and all-day comfort mean that it has instantly become my go-to overnight pack.

Stills and handheld shot on a Canon S100, POV came from a SportsVue 360.

Thanks also to Kokatat for effecting a quick repair and turnaround on my drysuit–I would have been constantly chilled without it.

Lastly, thanks to Peter Mitchell for creating on short notice what the others on this trip referred to as ‘a scalpel’ or ‘a ninja paddle’ to keep my bike-beaten hands and wrists functional if not happy throughout.  Probably the best $$$ I’ve spent this year.

Thanks to you for checkin’ in.

Mike Curiak

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