Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Packrafting the Salmons- part 1

Question:   What to do if you are a washed up ex-class 5 expedition kayaker who has finally acknowledged he lives in the desert way too far from any good rivers?
  1. Drive way too far for way too little kayaking
  2. FLY way too far for way too little kayaking
  3. Pout and be bitter about being too far from “good” rivers and having a limited season, even while acknowledging that said kayaker’s still got it pretty good
  4. Lap up the other good adventures that the local mountains and desert present
  5. Go packrafting! 
As it turns out, it’s all of the above; at least, as of now, since I just completed my first-ever packrafting trip: a most-excellent loop incorporating some legendary sections of river with some quite-remote and beautiful hiking to link them up. 

When I first heard about packrafts it occurred to me that they represented something along the lines of that old adage:  “First they laugh at you.  Then they fear you.  Then they join you.”  I’m not sure I really “feared” them, per se, but I didn’t really “get it”.  They look like Kmart toys, but at least they are expensive, and being a snobbish kayaker I thought “they can’t be nearly as much fun as a kayak, so why bother?” 

But last year I was a bit taken aback when I read Andrew McLean’s account of their “River of Return” trip going down the Main Salmon to the South Fork Salmon, then hiking up and over the mountains to Big Creek, paddling down that to the Middle Fork, and floating back out to the Main.  Huh?  That sounds awesome!  And why the hell hadn’t I ever thought of something like that?

Clearly - and I fully admit that I am showing up quite late to this party – I hadn’t quite been able to comprehend the travel implications of having a “kayak” that rolls up to the size of a tent and weighs only 5 pounds, vs an 8-9 foot hardshell boat that weighs 35-40 pounds.  
Which would you like to have slung over your shoulder - along with all your food and camping gear  -for several days? 
And packrafts float a lot higher – ie easier across very shallow water – than a kayak.  So not only can you use your feet or your bike to access remote rivers, but due to the lower draft it’s possible to float rivers at lower flows, taking away the dependence on snowmelt flows. 

But a winter of skiing, a teeny bit of kayaking this spring, a few fun bike tours, and the fact that I still see way too much water-oriented crafts/gear in our packraft-free garage made me sorta forget about the possibility of a packraft adventure, until Tom McFarlane – with whom I’d reconnected skiing this spring via Colter a few years after a single ski outing – sent out an email saying “ok, you said you might be interested in this; let’s go next week.”   I was in, despite the minor fact that I don’t own a packraft.  But fortunately Bruce Tremper was kind enough to loan me his boat and (perhaps taking a quiet hint from my brother who has spent 40-odd years watching me methodically destroy most everything I own/use and works closely with Bruce), he made sure to mention that I would bear responsibility for any damage, to which I gulped (they are spendy!) and agreed.  And we were off!

The trip had an interesting start when we got a flat tire on the gravel road heading down the Salmon.  

An otherwise uninteresting event, but when we saw that we’d be relying on one of those silly go-kart spare tires to get us back up the same gravel road that had already cut a decently-good tire, we strategized that perhaps we could somehow take care of this whilst we were on the river.  We met a couple who had just shuttled a river trip vehicle down the road, and were willing to take the wheel back into town, get it fixed, and send it back down with another shuttle driver.  Not only was it super nice of these folks to do it, as we were saying our goodbyes we realized that the guy was planning on not only changing his route from the beautiful Panther Creek road (that Ash and I had pedaled up a month prior) but was also doing it on a motorcycle, and was going to strap the car wheel to his moto!   River folks are invariably nice (a year ago, at virtually this same spot, I gave a forgotten spray skirt to a rafter from Missola asking if he would mind taking it home and sending it back to our friends who had left it:  “No problem!”) .

This also provided the first opportunity to witness a theme that ran through our trip:  trying feebly to make people understand what we were doing.  After a brief explanation of our plans, the other shuttle driver (who was joining the guy on his moto with the wheel strapped on!) said something to the effect of “Ok, so you guys are getting your rig shuttled down to….”  Uh, no.  That’s not it; we don’t need a shuttle.  “Oh Ok, I get it.  You are flying up into Big Creek and…..”  Uh, sorry, no, not that either.  Never mind, please just get the newly-tired wheel back to the car at the put in and we’ll take care of it.  And thanks so much!

Doing a packrafting trip that starts on the river has the potential to create over-gearage; it’s easier to put stuff on your boat than it is on your back.  I tried to leave stuff behind, but still brought too much (I carried a small dry bag in my hand for a full day of hiking) and at the put in it’s awfully easy to say “Keeping my stuff dry is more important than being comfortable hiking, so my “pack” will be a dry bag with shoulder straps” that is only intended to be hauled up the beach from the boat to the camp, not 50 miles…. 
backpack features?  who needs 'em!  And I'm making boy scouts jealous with my good danglefest
Tom with his gear sleekly stowed inside his tubes and my "pack" strapped to the bow of my boat
Then a bit of the paddling reality set in: I didn’t quite understand before we left that it was 57 river miles down to the South Fork, and we were doing that in only two days at basal flow. I looked at those 6 foot long donuts that probably had a top speed of about 1.5 mph, shook my head, got in, and started paddling......

To be continued......

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