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.

Twothousandeleven

I finished the first part of the year in review video last night, so it is now time to start thinking about next year (like we haven’t all been assembling race calenders for a month already; I’m waiting on the Classic to set a date).

On Sunday night I slept restlessly, and as the alarm went off at 630, was in the middle of being chased by some very big and very hungry dinosaurs.  Seriously.

I started editing this last month, on the plane flight back from New York, and when the mood struck me finished May, June and July off yesterday.  I like some parts enough that I didn’t want to wait to let them out into the world, and now most of this footage, which has been overworked as of late, can be put to rest.

Any commentary would be welcome.

My current thoughts on shells

Monday, for moment, is gear day. Check the last few mondays for thoughts on base layers and footwear.

This article will be much shorter than either of the previous, because the subject is much simpler. You need shells to keep wind and precipitation out. Wear as little shell as you can get away with given the conditions, and pick one that fits and has useful features. That’s it.

Shells can be separated into windproof and waterproof shells. Both are misnomers, as no windshell is windproof, and no waterproof shell you’d actually want to wear moving through the wilderness is actually waterproof. A good example from either category will block most of the wind, or almost all the water in almost all conditions. I’ll address the former first.


Windshell tops

A good windproof shell jacket is probably the most versitile piece of outdoor clothing you can own.  Shown below (Danni Coffman photo) is me in my 5 year old Patagonia Houdini. 

The Houdini is a great example of what a good windshell can be.  Mine weighs 4 oz, has a hood, a full zip, and an inside pocket that closes with a velcro dot.  Nothing else.  It stuffs down to small apple size, and can thus be brought along on any adventure.  There have been but a handful of bike rides, any bike ride, in the last half decade where this thing hasn’t been on me on in my pack, frame bag, or jersey pocket.  It came to Egypt last winter, has logged many days skiing, etc, etc.  Originally I was concerned about the light fabric, but I’ve only put one hole in it this whole time.  Amazing.  (The original #3 zip did fail, but Patagonia repaired it for free, and at my request put in an all metal #5 instead.  My Houdini is unique, and in my opinion the best in the world.)

The Houdini is floppy, but also big enough to layer over a fat fleece.  A good tradeoff.

A hood is mandatory.  It can add tons of warmth for little weight and fuss.  The newest Houdini has a rear cinch cord on the hood for better fit and visibility.

A windshell like the Houdini is highly breathable.  I can chug uphill sweating like crazy and moisture will not collect and condense under it.  It dries blazingly fast.  For this reason windshells are vital in winter.  Waterproof fabrics are not appropriate in true winter conditions (ie when rain is not possible).  At single digits or below, moisture will condense inside a Gore-tex shell and freeze to the inside.  Worse than useless, they are dangerous.

The shortcoming is that the wind resistance of something like the Houdini can be overpowered by extreme wind and cold.  A Houdini copy, but with a bigger hood and thicker uncoated fabric (3-4 oz a yard or so) would be great for winter, but I don’t know of such a shell that is presently available.  I layer the Houdini with a light soft shell shirt, and throw the belay coat on when its really cold.  This works fine for skiing in the woods, but would come up short in the winter mountains.  I may have revised opinions next spring.

Windshell pants

Windshell pants have been one of my great gear discoveries this year.  Specifically, the Montane Featherlight pants.  The Pertex is a bit heavier than the Houdini fabric, they have ankle zips (easy to get on and off with shoes on), and velcro straps on the lower legs (keeps them out of your chainring, but gets undone in stream crossings).

I don’t find waterproof pants necessary.  The Featherlights keep wind off, dry super fast, and thus keep my legs warm.  For the moment, they’re all the shell pants I want.  Pictured below on the Thorofare traverse in May, which tested shell gear hard.

Waterproof shells

In short, a necessary evil.  While I haven’t tried Event, I’m skeptical that any waterproof fabric will be able to come close to keeping up with the sweat that is part and partial of serious aerobic output.  Goretex is ok, and pit zips sorta work, but if its raining and coldish and you’re trucking uphill, you will get wet.  Pick the lesser of two evils: waterproof shell on or off.  At least on the downhill you can throw the hardshell back on and not get wetter or colder.

I’ve been using an Arc’teryx Alpha SL pullover this year, and other than the fabric issue stated above its quite ideal.  The cut is roomy enough for layers but trim, the fabric is tough without being overbuilt, the hood is a work of art (cinches tight, over a helmet or a bare head or anything in between), and the front ‘roo pocket is perfectly positioned to sit above a hipbelt and provide convenient storage.  I like a waterproof anorak because it’s a bit more weathertight, has no full length zip to make it feel stiff under motion, and if I’m putting on a hardshell I plan to keep it on all the time.

Here in Montana a waterproof top is essential for any multiday trip, even if it never gets used.  I often bring both the Arc’teryx and the Houdini.  Back in Arizona, or somewhere like the Sierras with dry and predicatable weather, you can chance leaving the hardshell behind given a good forecast. 

Shells: try them out, try them on, buy some, love them, never leave home without them.