Mostly, packing for our first big trip with the kid was simple. His fragile infant state prohibited anything technical or involved, so the gear end of things consisted of simple backpacking stuff. The week before last was warm in Montana and by our standards hot down on the Colorado Plateau. Hiking with Little Bear in a sling is a warm affair, and highs in the 80s had me thinking we might better go elsewhere. A last minute forecast check the day before departure replaced those concerns with others involving a wet baby and too little sun to dry out diapers. We left anyway, and we did with my packrafting gear in a corner of the Rocketbox.
Saturday afternoon 100 miles north of Cedar City walls of rain swept past the lines of traffic ahead on the interstate, reducing visibility to 50 yards for the few minutes it took to drive through them. They were the kind of autumn storms which can produce record floods when several happen to converge in the right spots. That evening and the next day I checked the gauge of the North Fork of the Virgin River eagerly.
The big rains finally came that evening, and the Virgin surged as only desert rivers do. The gauge descended rapidly the next day, our morning hiking plans in Kolob shut down by boulders washed down over the road. Even with the river rapidly falling by the time we made it down to Zion proper it seemed that floating was worth the attempt.
A few hours work going from the end of the river walk down to the Grotto ended up being one of the more memorable packrafts in the last few years. My estimate that the more constricted section of river above Big Bend would make for good floating proved accurate; additionally, flows in the upper canyon are surely a bit higher right after a flood as less water is lost to the sandy banks. As pictured, the water was utterly in opaque, not visibly or audibly muddy, but clouded deeply with fine flour, just like glacial rivers. Floating such streams puts a premium on reading water so as to not get stuck, and after blowing up my boat in plain view of the paved trail I entertained my audience of ~40 by getting my feet stuck in quicksand putting my boat in the water, then floating 20 feet before getting hung up for five seconds on a rock.
I didn’t mess up avoiding rocks too often during the ensuing 5-6 miles of river, but the harsh transitions between channel and shallows as well as the hidden sandbars made for slow going, especially below Weeping Rock. Normally freestone rivers have transition zones between the deepest, perennial channel and the shallows which are submerged only at high water. Owing I assume to the very recent channel recutting flood, these zones were utterly absent, and I spent a lot of time getting stuck in the grippy sand when my attention wandered and I didn’t hue exactly to the main line. I only had to get out and walk twice, and one of those times was unavoidable, but I should have gotten out of the boat a half dozen more times, rather than scootch and abuse my paddle as I did. Traveling at walking pace parallel to a paved road may seem like a silly use of a packraft, and a descent of the Narrows is still very high on my list, but having to develop a quick intimacy with a newly altered part of the canyon made the process of boating worth every sandy minute.
Packrafts help you see different, and that is the important part.