Learning to Packraft

Ryan Jordan, Andrew Skura, packrafting the Yellowstone River
Jordan shouts instructions to Skurka on the Yellowstone River.

In October 2008 a group of backpackers descended upon Bozeman to partake in Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Trekking III.  The weather in Southwest Montana was changing from summer to fall and the rivers were at their lowest as they awaited the snows of winter to replenish their supplies.  Andrew Skurka was in attendance for WTIII but before we headed off to attempt a traverse of the Absaroka-Beartooth he and I plied Ryan Jordan to get us into some packrafts so that we might learn the trade.

We worked in the Backpacking Light offices all morning but in the early afternoon we piled ourselves and a few Alpacka Rafts into two cars and headed Eastward into Paradise Valley and the Yellowstone River.  Ryan has floated the Yellowstone in packrafts, driftboats, full size rafts, inner tubes, pool toys, and who knows what all else countless times and he picked a quick section of river that would provide a good place for Andy and I get a feel for the boats and perhaps play in a riffle or two.  It grew colder and colder as the day progressed but we knew there was hot coffee and good food awaiting us at the Pine Creek Cafe at journey’s end so we just bucked up and floated.  I remember the river being extremely low due to the season and there was a fair bit of butt-dragging in sections but for the most part we had a comfortable float.

I’m now a pretty decent packrafter, having learned enough maneuvers to navigate decent sections of rapids as well as the ability to right my boat after a spill.  Skurka, having now used packrafts to trek some huge Alaska waters has probably entered the near-expert category in the PR world.  More and more people are discovering what the addition of a packraft (or bicycle, et al) can do for your ability to go farther in your journeys.  I travel light and the addition of another couple pieces of gear greatly extends my possibilities for exploration.

Roman Dial seems to be focusing almost exclusively on packrafting as of late and he and some other AK boys are really pushing the envelope of these crafts as whitewater boats.  Dave Chenault has been exploring ski, boat, and bike combination trips in Northwestern Montana and I expect more goodness to come from him.  Down in the Tetons Forrest McCarthy has been showcasing packrafting for quite some time and has proven himself a worthy figurehead in the sport.  Packrafts, skis, bicycles, and backpacks.  Purists be damned, there is exploring to be done and I don’t want to be limited by a lack of tools!

Andy and Ryan packing up
Andy and Ryan packing up. Â And yes, Ryan used to own a badass Ford Tempo.Â