Photos courtesy of Ryan Krueger and Outside Bozeman Magazine.
The paths that led me to eventually (and finally) plunking my backside into a packraft were circuitous at best.
I grew up rafting. My family co-owned a ten-man raft with a few other families – we all chipped in because no one could afford one outright – but it “lived” at our house. We’d fill the cooler with drinks, grab a bucket of KFC, and hit the Yellowstone River by noon on a hot summer Saturday. Floating down the dun-colored river, slipping in to cool off when the tubes got too hot, pulling off at little islands that caught our fancy, jumping out to pretend that the three of us girls could help our parents drag the raft over shallow rock beds… it was heaven. We returned home happily tired and sunburnt, content in our day on the water.
As a result, I’ve always been comfortable on moving water, but large bodies of water freak me out. There are monsters in lakes, ponds, and oceans, so I tend to approach them with ambivalence and caution – much the way I approach my crawlspace and for the same reason. Rivers, however, have always been a source of delight to me, from swimming in them to camping near them to being surrounded by them in Bozeman.
Though I was the customer support director for Backpacking Light Magazine for two years, my grasp of the written word and the proper use of mechanics, grammar, and spelling meant that I was regularly called upon to proofread articles before they were published, both online and in the print magazine. When Ryan Jordan worked with Roman Dial on a book dedicated to packrafting and educating the continental U.S. on the sport (packrafting is pretty established in Alaska, the original home of Alpacka Raft), I was included, copy-editing and proofreading and reference-checking the manuscript so many times that I thought my eyes were going to bleed. It was awesome. I gained insight into the complete process of publishing a book and what a pain in the rear it can be.
Packrafting sounded intriguing, fun, and a little bit thrilling given the size of the craft, though I was reasonably sure I’d never do it. I couldn’t afford a packraft, and probably wouldn’t have used it often enough to justify the purchase anyway. Ever since my late husband, Blake Morstad (who wrote for BPL), died in an avalanche, I was so preoccupied with our son that the idea of backpacking, camping, or hiking again was pushed firmly towards the back of my mind. Single parenthood was far too pressing, and I really only enjoy such recreational pursuits when done with others. I am not a solitary outdoor gal.
Still, I knew WAY more about packrafting than the general public, though that knowledge was largely useless unless I was at work giving customers counsel about the rafts they were considering buying. I was, in effect, an armchair expert. Which, when you think about it, is really the most dangerous kind of expert there is.
Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Trekking School started off in a big way, with a trail-less traverse of the Absaroka-Beartooth Range that was long, technical, and out of my league. The idea of joining that first, expedition-length class in October of 2007 didn’t even cross my mind. I was too busy making sure the students were kitted out in the gear they needed, that they had signed medical forms, that I had emergency contact information for everyone, and that everyone coughed up their watches, cell phones, and mp3 players. Besides, I didn’t want to cross the Absaroka-Beartooth range in the snow. It sounded suspiciously like a LOT of work.
We’ve retooled and revisited the School since then, and 2009 has been our most ambitious year yet, offering a wide variety of courses of various lengths on several dates. Currently managing editor, I was so buried in the weekly articles and newsletter that the first I really heard about all this was when Ryan Jordan emailed ’round a link to the School’s homepage, asking for input, feedback, and proofreading. I immediately noticed the introductory packrafting class and its requirements, which I easily met. Now that I’ve remarried and have someone slightly less demanding and needy than my four-year-old son to add to play time, I read about the classes hungrily, anticipating a day when we’d backpack or even just car camp as a family, and all my head knowledge about going lightweight could actually see some use.
I emailed Ryan back, noting my changes and feedback, and remarked that the Introduction to Packrafting looked particularly intriguing. In a separate email, he invited me and Rob, my husband, to join BPL for the June class.
Class started at Bozeman Beach for a primer and practice before heading out. Bozeman Beach is a man-made lake (see Path 1, above) that feeds into the East Gallatin River. A lake. And it was warm, but the water wasn’t 80 degrees, and we were going to get into the lake to practice tooling around in our BPL-provided packrafts.
To my surprise, the monsters must have realized they were outnumbered, and there were no attacks during our time on flat water. We practiced entry and exit at the shore, then wet reentry, which was frustratingly difficult. To begin the wet reentry, we had to forcibly flip our rafts over while in them, which was reassuringly difficult.
The spray skirt on my packraft, when sealed, also made being submerged upside down a little alarming, and I was grateful to have practice time on flat water, no matter how monster-infested. I’m an able swimmer and comfortable on moving water, but the very real dangers associated with water travel are sobering, and being stuck in an upside-down packraft while bobbing downstream would inspire panic in the levelest head. Entry and exit are a really big deal!
Yo-Yoing on the Madison
I’m the kind of girl who likes to get something just right the first time. That rarely happens, which may be why I have to be coaxed into trying new things. Despite my armchair expertise, I found each and every move that Mike and Andy taught us an exercise in frustration. I ferried across the river just fine, in good style with powerful strokes. Turning around, I kept hearing Andy yell “Addie! Forty-five degrees! FORTY-FIVE DEGREES!” as I carefully manuevered my bow forty-five degrees downstream and began ferrying back, ending up MUCH further downstream than I’d intended. I wasn’t scared (we were on the Booze Cruise of the Madison River, after all), but was exasperated that I had forgotten the second half of cross-current ferrying: upstream. To ferry across the current effectively, point the bow forty-five degrees UPSTREAM.
Thankfully, no one gave up on me, including myself, despite Andy offering to tie me to a tether to keep me in the right stretch of water. He’s so helpful, that one. The other students fared better, especially Greg, who floated around like he’d been doing this all his life. I kept laughing at myself and trying again and found that, while my technique showed little improvement, I was still having a good time. Maybe new things aren’t so bad. Maybe.
The packrafts are surprisingly comfortable, despite being about the size of an average bathtub, and it was a little strange to get used to being so close to the water level. Most packrafts have twelve-inch tubes, part of which are submerged, so you are right there on the surface of the water. Paddling wasn’t difficult, and though my arms sometimes got tired, I wasn’t ever sore, so no new muscle groups were overly exerted (something I had worried about beforehand). Rob and I also discovered the magic of polarized lenses, a small thing that has him more excited about learning to fly-fish.
Sunburnt Rednecks at Greycliff
Our first camp was at the Greycliff Fishing Access. Because of private land use and guide restrictions, we were limited to Fish, Wildlife, and Parks established campgrounds. Upside: picnic tables, flat ground for tents/tarps, and easy river access. Downside: other campers might not be as dedicated to anything like a true wilderness experience. It was surreal to come off the water to the sound of boozy neighbor campers and music blaring from their car stereo. Despite creating an otherwise hostile camping situation, they were friendly, and we did our best to rough it next to the local fauna and their firecrackers. We pitched a variety of shelters that I won’t even pretend to know, and dinner was a tasty mess of unexpectedly filling noodles with Mike Clelland!’s spicy peanut Thai sauce. Mike and Andy interjected lightweight lessons whenever applicable, and everyone slept as soundly as possible once all was quiet on the western front.
Because of runoff, the river was high enough to get us moving along quickly, though many of the features that appear later in the season were covered over, reducing rock garden playgrounds into smooth flat water. The downside of a beginner packrafting class on the Madison began to make itself apparent in the second half of the day. The river flattened and widened, to the point that we paddled enthusiastically whenever we saw the tiniest froth of white on the water, had a laughably short “Whee!” moment, and were back to a simple float trip.
It’s difficult to plan a beginner river course in the spring in Bozeman. Both river conditions and student conditions can vary wildly, and it’s better to plan safely rather than daringly when it comes to peoples’ lives. At least, that’s what I hear.
Rob actively pursued small side channels to vary the pace and view and was aggressive with the river, pursuing any riffle, obstacle, or wave train. I was more of a weenie, just enjoying the float. The freedom and independence of the packraft were deeply relaxing. I could drift with the current (which, for me meant backwards, based on the weight distribution), get closer to interesting cliff swallow formations, dodge the cliff swallow droppings, or practice the various skills we’d learned.
Despite practicing, I only got ONE skill right ONE time (a snicker-snack, perfectly timed). Otherwise, I would pirouette or snicker-snack too early and smack right into the rock. I got better at just avoiding obstacles outright (we had plenty of time to get out of the way), and will perhaps try again on a rockier river, where perfecting my form is a necessity rather than simply a diversion.
At some point on day two, we reached the confluence of the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin – making the mighty Missouri. The river widened and deepened again, slowing us to where paddling was needed at first, just to make enough progress to matter. Canoeists and rafters shouted hellos, and the Jefferson’s silty flow made our boats sing with suspected leaks. It was an eerie sound, hearing the millions of tiny pings colliding with our crafts, a shushing hiss that made us wonder at the sheer abrasiveness of the water.
We drifted under bridges both used and abandoned, opined at the function of a remote stone structure that looked like a long horse barn (we decided it was probably a kiln), and mused on what it must have been like for Lewis and Clark to portage up this monster, upstream on brush-clogged banks. We tried our hands at crossing eddy fences, finally seeing the power of those seemingly gentle two lane river roads. When most of the water is going downstream and the eddy is moving upstream, the line between them can suck a packraft under lickety-split, and Greg got dumped. He didn’t lose anything in the river and quickly made use of our learned wet-reentry.
The power of the water is easy to underestimate, and I had no desire to get stuck outside the boat (wet reentry was a chore for me, not because of my bosom, as I jokingly claimed, but probably due to a combination of my PFD getting stuck on the tube and a lack of upper body strength).
Camp that night was just slightly more pleasant in terms of company. Our only neighbors were still heavy drinkers, but instead of liquor, they went straight for our blood. The swarms of mosquitoes and alarmingly visible ticks kept me a little paranoid and kept everyone close to the small fire we built.
Greg brought out some Swiss chocolate he’d schlepped all the way over (he’s currently working in Switzerland), and we tucked in and enjoyed further conversation. Andy is an excellent talker, but he’s also skilled at asking questions to draw people out and gain their opinions, and since everyone there had one or two of THOSE, we had some lively discussions about some pretty random things. This particular feature of camping is my forte, where I feel most comfortable: the relationships. Getting to know everyone a little bit more than simply how they came to the class made them more complete, a three-dimensional rendering of a whole person rather than someone else in a packraft on the same river. A light drizzle sent us reluctantly to our shelters, and we slept like we’d earned it, for we had.
Our final day of class and river started bright and clear. Breakfast was a delectable mueslix that was yummy enough I’ve since made it at home. We loaded up, consulted our maps, and pushed in. Travel had slowed with the flow of the river, and at about noon, we encountered a stretch that was so slow and still that hard paddling was required to make headway. Past submerged trees and bankside cows, we saw fish jumping and possibly a beaver or muskrat. Rounding a curve that we figured would narrow and speed things up, we instead encountered a dam, not anywhere near where we had expected it. That discovery finally explained our slow progress: we’d been paddling into a headwind on the lake formed by the dam!
The line on the map seemed clear enough though, despite us passing a similar line yesterday that was conspicuously dam-less, and rather than try our derring-do over the spillway, we pulled off and got out to explore, at one point getting close enough to a rattlesnake for him to coil and threaten anyone foolish enough to step within striking distance. We gave him a wide (and wide-eyed) berth. Despite growing up in eastern Montana, with rattlers common in the hills near my hometown, I had never seen a wild one before (though, to be fair, those in zoos can hardly be considered tame).
It turned out that the Toston Dam is a full three or four miles upstream of the small town of Toston, where we’d anticipated it. Since the shuttle wasn’t due for another four hours and none of us felt like waiting, the group decision was to portage around the dam and see what the last few miles held. This was a bit more exciting, since neither the instructors nor any of us had rafted this stretch, but the topo map made it clear that things were probably still pretty safe. Portaging was delightfully easy. The few hundred yards up and down a small hill were as simple as unstringing our loads and hoisting our rafts.
We got in, strapped on our helmets, admired the enormous American white pelicans trolling the tailwater for disoriented fish, and pushed off, making it to the Toston put-in/take-out in good time.
Black and Blue Burgers
A little post-class recon and an evaluation gave us time to think about the last three days, give feedback to the instructors, and watch Andy carefully pack everything into his backpack. He was leaving the next day for his big Alaska tramp and was subsequently peppered with questions about how he does what he does and tricks and tips for not going crazy in the solitude. Rob and I thought that just leaving everything there was a bit of a let-down, so we invited everyone over for burgers once they’d all showered up (we were all pretty ripe) and volunteered to bring a little something so long as it wasn’t Bud Light, which is not permitted in our home. It was fun to socialize a little more, give Andy a good home-cooked meal before he took off, and keep Mike in town for the night so he wasn’t driving back over mountain passes in the dark. Greg brought out another Swiss delicacy: elderflower cordial, which we thoroughly enjoyed after dinner.
It was a great way to cap a fun weekend. Cameraderie, boats, and lots of sun almost require a cold beer, tricked out burger, and happy laughter to complete the experience. I’m now plotting ways to sneak my friends and family in a packraft, and my son, Blake, has cheerfully requested that he come too. Perhaps being an armchair expert isn’t so useless after all!