Packrafting defined


St. Mary Lake from 500′ up.  50 mph winds and oceanic swells.

I was introduced to boating and skiing early in life, in the normal ways: canoeing, whitewater rafting, downhill skiing in area, XC skiing on track skis.  All were fun for short periods, but none resonated especially well.  Until the last few years, that is.  Backcountry skiing revealed skis as an enhancement for exploration, rather than a hindrance.  Like a mountain bike.  Two years ago it was love at third or fourth sight.

Boating has taken quite a bit longer.  In the hierarchy of outdoor pursuits the human-powered descending of rivers exists in the upper echelons with respect to the literature it has produced.  Twain, Powell, Ellsworth Kolb, Katie Lee, Abbey, Dimock; all give ample evidence that floating a watercourse seems to be an especially good way of experiencing the landscape.  It has also always struck me as indecently decadent, ponderous, and constrained, objections rooted in aesthetics as much as financial and logistical concerns.  I’ve never liked having more equipment than strictly necessary, and shuttles are at best necessary evils.  And while the kinesthetic and technical aspects of skiing and especially mountain biking are seductive, I increasing enjoy such things primarily as a means to the end of seeing large slices of the world.

A good pair of shoes is the most essential piece of equipment.

At first packrafting was the obvious, water-based equivalent of skis and bikes: portable technology to enhance foot-based travel.  Packrafts are such things, but they’re much more.

I’ve been continually frustrated by my inability, since July, to adequately capture the fantastically intimate details one sees from a packraft.  Being low and in the river, the clear water of the Rockies, and the ability to float small streams and thus follow drainages in a very definitive fashion.  Ryan Jordan has written some resonant words, and put a item on my to-do list, about following lakes chains in the Beartooths.  And he is absolutely right, floating down a drainage and seeing the landscape shaped and reshaped on its own terms, rather than a human trail builders, is a singular aesthetic and metaphysical experience.  In the modern world, with so few real wilderness floats, packrafting goes back through Powell to Lewis, Clark, and the anonymous voyageurs in that it unites efficient wilderness travel and contemplative, experiential profundity.

The upper St. Mary River, near my put in on Saturday.

All that is why I drove for far too long yesterday to hike up to and descend the St. Mary river, from up near the cascade down from Gunsight Lake down to the lake itself.  I wrote some concrete beta on the packrafting forum, which fails utterly to communicate the experience.  That me-to-others lacuna is in turn exacerbated by the fact that my camera stayed tucked in my drybag for the duration.  It was cold, snow was flying, I was wearing neoprene gloves under Gore-tex mittens, and by the time I paddled along the lake for a stretch and took out at the beach I was darn cold and my mostly-empty All-Pack was encrusted in a 1/8″ thick carapace of verglass.  I want a waterproof HD helmet cam.

This is what they do to bridges in Glacier for the winter.  Stream crossings do a lot to give a place back to the wild.

All of which is to say that packrafting is a paradigm changing activity.  Yesterday is a perfect example; the intensity of 5-6 hours in the forest and on the water matches much longer trips on trail only.  Add the wonder of emphatic weather and an empty park (the ranger was closing the road behind me as I left), and you have a single-day out that cannot easily be improved.

So yes, you ought to get a packraft. They’re almost as cool as 4×4 trucks.

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