“Cool tent,” said my friend Bill Gamber. “Who makes it?” His interest in the rolled-up UPS parcel was natural; he runs a tent company called Big Agnes, and the 4-pound bundle of nylon in my office was lighter than many of his offerings.
“It’s not a tent,” I answered, unfurling the contents over the floor. “It’s a new type of raft.”
Spilled onto the carpet, the raft’s crinkly, lightweight material didn’t look suitable for life outside the kiddie pool, let alone the wilderness. But I knew differently. Designed by an adventure-minded Alaskan grandmother named Sheri Tingey, the ultra-light Alpacka raft is opening the backcountry to unprecedented exploration.
“I was a full-grown man wearing a bathtub in public”
In 2005, five climbers packrafted into the Yukon Territory’s famed Cirque of the Unclimbables, carrying everything they needed—from provisions to ropes—for a 20-day dual-sport adventure. And this summer, Erin McKittrick and Brent Higman will take pack rafts on a 4,000-mile hiking/packrafting/skiing journey from Seattle to the Aleutians. “You can’t carry a kayak over a mountain,” maintains Higman, who also used the boats on a 450-mile tour in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.
But paddling is believing. So I concocted a plan to see if this Lilliputian craft is as burly, packable, and nimble as all the converts claim it to be. Problem was, I was operating on a half-day Dad window, it was March, and the Colorado mountains were still covered in snow. Then the lightbulb flashed: a first-ever skate ski/raft circumnavigation of my hometown’s lesser-known ski area, Howelsen Hill, out my backdoor—just the sort of wacky trip for which the Alpacka raft was designed. Itinerary filed with the appropriate authorities (my wife), I loaded my drysuit, raft, PFD, and breakdown paddle into a backpack and skied southeast from my home over a nearby ridge. Once off the groomed Nordic trails, I traversed off-piste down to the river.
I felt dorky inflating the Alpacka next to a couple of early season fishermen, and dorkier still lashing my skis atop it and climbing inside. There was no way around it: I was a full-grown man wearing a bathtub in public. Like most newbie packrafters, I couldn’t help but giggle, not so much from the absurdity of my adventure but from the craft’s cartoonish looks.
This, of course, is part of the pack raft’s appeal. “There’s something almost childlike about them, like a glorified inner-tube you can actually control,” says Tingey, who is as surprised as anyone at her invention’s rising popularity. “People tell me they take them back to feeling like a kid again.” Tingey, an experienced seamstress, invented the Alpacka in 2000 when her son, Thor, asked her to build an ultra-light, packable, high-performance boat for a trip in the Brooks Range. She built Thor his boat, and stitched about 30 more as word spread. In 2002, she began outsourcing production. Vancouver’s Feathercraft makes them now, and the packraft I was wearing is a fifth-generation vessel.
I bounced off a few snowbanks as if they were aufeis in the Arctic, testing the durability of my raft’s urethane-coated nylon skin. My main concern is that the craft has only one air chamber, but it paid the abrasion no mind. Next, I scraped over some cobblestones in the shallows to test Tingey’s claim that her rafts draw only three inches of water when loaded. Charlie’s Hole, a frothy, riverwide hydraulic near the town library, provided the final challenge. Fisherman gawked and people on the bike path rubbernecked, but I made it through just fine.
Circumnavigation accomplished, I rolled up the raft, shouldered my skis, and hiked the two blocks home. I had traveled a circle of about five miles door-to-door. It was a far cry from Dial’s exploits, or the 'round-the-world packraft trip being undertaken by Thai Verzone, but it proved to me, at least, that Alpacka rafts are the real deal and packrafting is, indeed, a legitimately novel way to explore new waterways.
It proved it to my friend Bill, too, who happened to be driving by while I was hiking home. “Way to go, Eug,” he shouted from his window. “Looks like people really are taking those things everywhere.”