Packrafting Overnighter – Beartrap Canyon

Bear Trap Canyon

Although many feet of new snow began to fall in the high country on Thursday evening last week and friends were planning bids on a local peak I’ve wanted to ride for sometime I couldn’t get the idea of either bicycle touring or packrafting out of my brain.  The ski trip group was leaving on Friday night and since I had a prior commitment it solidified my plans to head out into the woods on Saturday afternoon.  Rain fell steadily most of the day Saturday and it was cold but my excitement level was high as I drove my trusty Toyota 40 miles to the West to a little chunk of Wilderness called Bear Trap Canyon.

In tow was my workhorse pack, eVent bivy, PFD, rain gear, cooking supplies, and a vintage Alpacka packraft (sans spray skirt).  I left the trailhead at approximately 16:30 planning to hike either until 18:00 or until I reached the base of a class IV / V rapid that would mark my put-in the next morning.  I reached the rapid a few minutes before six and opted to inflate the boat, pack it with my gear and ferry across the river to a level area that looked prime for camping.  I hadn’t been in a raft in a couple seasons so it felt good to handle the paddle and feel the current as it swept me out of the river-side eddy.  My pulse quickened as I paddled at a 30 degree angle toward the opposite shore, then spun halfway ’round to back ferry to a good take-out.

Packing a raft

After about fifteen or twenty minutes of hunting for the perfect flat spot to lay my bivy I was delighted to stumble upon a small chunk of flat ground with a beautiful sandy beach just below it.  One nicety of camping on the opposite side of the river from the trail and practicing Leave No Trace camping techniques is that a pristine and beautiful campsite can be found that puts the typical dirty, packed-out USFS social sites that appear along popular trails to shame.

Alpacka raft and gear along Madison River.

Integral Designs South Col bivy

The beach made for a nice cooking spot located 10 or 12 meters from my sleeping spot.  A bit too close for typical grizzly bear country but I opted to not worry too much and just went with it.  The sand on the beach also allowed me to dig a small pit in which I built a campfire starting at nightfall.  There was plenty of dry driftwood and I was able to remove almost all trace of the fire the next morning leaving my camp very pristine.

I awoke at 6:30 to temperatures around 37 deg F (3 deg C) having zipped my bivy completely closed over my face around 4am to keep warm.  I had chosen my 180gsm synthetic quilt paired with a 240gsm hoody.  For sleeping mats I had a 3/8″ foamy atop a torso-length inflatable.  The foam backpanel from my pack also pulls out and I supplemented my underfoot insulation with this

Around 7am I climbed forth from my cocoon, pulled down my bear hang, lit up my Caldera Cone and brewed up a cup of Nescafe along with some warm water for my granola.  It was early and I savored the time outdoors listening to the river flowing along at 2,700 CFS.  I hadn’t been packrafting in quite a long time so I had feelings of trepidation but was also excited to float this fun few miles of water.

After breakfast I quickly packed up my gear and strapped my back to the bow of the boat after being sure to temper and re-inflate everything so the tubes were as full of air as possible.  The section of river I was about to float had plenty of class II and III rapids and I wanted as much maneuverability as possible.

The boat I’m using is pretty ancient and has no seat nor spray skirt so I folded my inflatable sleeping mat to use as a seat and tucked my rain pants and gaiters in as much as possible to help with the inevitable wave over the front of the boat and pushed off.  The walk into camp the previous day paralleled the river so I was able to make mental notes of the majority of the flow except for the very first section I was to encounter which was hidden below a cliff.  I opted to ferry immediately across the river, exit my boat and scout the upcoming section.  I determined it was too difficult for me to attempt given that I was both out of practice in packrafting and also paddling solo.  I portaged 50 or so meters around the rapid and re-entered the river this time floating the remaining 3 +/- miles continuously except for one break in which I stopped to empty water from the boat and another in which I held onto a rock giving myself a moment to scope an upcoming section of waves.

It felt really good to get out on my first post-winter season trip.  It was short but provided the opportunity to make use of both my backpacking gear as well as the packrafting equipment.  I look forward to continuing using the raft on some upcoming trips this summer as well as sharing some words and photos.

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