"Packrafting"

Flow


We set out in winter, and ended in spring.  From Invercauld bridge to Kincardine O Neil, three days on the Dee. Three days of fires, purple birch and old green oak, old growth forest and snow covered hills, then fishing huts, farms and fences.  Some standing waves and some big water, a speedy thaw and a sense of caution.


It was late when we arrived, late and cold.  We dossed down in the open wood shelter that holds the public toilet in the car park. En suite!  Dawn creeps in at this time of year, the light stays low.  No big announcements in the Glen, just slowly pulling up the exposure slider, pale blue colour temperature barely warms at all.  We pack up and move out before there's too much movement from the posh house.


The first day is boney.  We walk to the waters edge, take our time making ready.  The water is not so technical but for me navigating strainers is too quick and too detailed for comfort.  I realise how much my nerve was shaken by my last encounter in the water.  My borrowed kayak paddle is feathered and means complicated back paddling.  I'm making heavy going of it, not turning fast enough, not being bold enough.  It takes me most of the first day to find my flow again.


Late by the fire on the gravel bar in the evening, it begins to rain gently.  By the following morning, there is no snow on the hills, and no ice on the bank.  Where has it all gone?  It's in the river.  It's in the river, with us.


The second day is pushy.  The river is swollen.  We paddle through shallows and into the flow, pulling out to scout where the water crashes round corners.  Sometimes the volume flattens the detail out and it is easier, sometimes there are standing waves big enough to snap and to crush.  This is all new(s) to me.


Spat out fast on the other side of the biggest wave train, I'm laughing uncontrollably in the face of the force.  In packrafts you are close to the water.  David looks worried.  Taking a swim here would be hazardous to our health.  We move on to Braemar, keep scouting, keep checking in with the river, and each other.  Soup and tea in town, but by then the rush is abating.


We pitch early where a birch wood meets an old forestry plantation.  Camped in the lee of the trees, we make fire and dry out our gear, and whilst the winds make white noise in the branches above our heads, the river drops by 2 foot overnight.


The third day flows.  It is warm, too warm for December.  The river is still large and fast but less angry.  We put in for 3 kms, then drag the boats up a rise and pop out on the straight-line and pretty Deeside Way, now strapping the boats on our backs, top heavy tortoises, amphibians. We waddle past casual wealth, new oil and old royal, mock baronial campery in bricks and mortar.  A moth eaten white stag's head dumped near the paint pots, an old Daimler rusting in the keeper's shed...the cut of Deeside's jib is relaxed Naples tailored tweed.  We're not trespassing, but it feels like it, even in Scotland.  We're on foot to the falls, because it's where David came unstuck before.


After the bridge and after lunch, we put in again, and paddle through the afternoon light, sun playing on the trees.  Easy going stretches between small narrows, as the banksides become less forested and more agricultural.  The churning ferocity of yesterday is gone.  David found a monster fish beached on the bank, I found two traffic cones beached on a beach.  Geese flew overhead, and seemed to be confused as to which season and what direction.  Chat, plans.  The last trip of the year for both of us.

After three days of river travel, I feel comfortable in the boat. Some basic skills finally bedded in and intuited - finding the deep water channel, thinking not just 1 but 2, 3 and 4 moves ahead, where the water boils, where flows meet, the strainers and kicking paddle blades.  How to glide and parry, how to sit lightly on the water.  A few rudiments of technique, and delight.


Paddling into that late afternoon sun felt like the afterburn of the year, a little like a mirage, a dream.  Like my paddle blades on water, I'm reflecting back - on my luck to have shelter, and warmth, friendship and meaningful work, my good fortune to be able to draw inspiration and learning from gentle and sometimes not so gentle adventures in nature.



These pictures from my non waterproof camera don't show the more mischievous water on day two, but David Hine has a trip report and a video too....


Risk

Accidents always happen to others, until they happen to us.  Last week, I let an accident happen to me.  In the scheme of things it was relatively small, but it could have been avoided entirely.  I thought it might be useful to others to write about it here.


After a day and 2 nights of what some might consider high risk walking over winter mountains in trail shoes, I put in my packraft, just after the class 3/3+ rapids at the head of the River Lyon.  The River Lyon was, I know now with hindsight, too complicated a river to be trying on my first winter solo run, with 2 dams and several rapids and small gorges.  I knew I would be portaging on and off.  I wasn't wearing a drysuit, a helmet, or a legitimate PFD - I am trialing a homemade device at the moment, which is light, packable and inflatable, but therefore susceptible to puncture in the event of a rocky 'swim'.  A 'swim' is what happened, here:



It doesn't look like much, but for a near-beginner this is complicated enough.  I came over from the right (as we look at it, which is 'river left'), hit the 2nd pour-over at an angle, narrowly avoided the large strainer in the middle and tipped the boat from the front right...very slowly.  I didn't come out of the boat straight away, I was dragged along half submerged, committed the cardinal sin of letting go of my paddle, and finally bailed out of my boat, only to get a foot caught in my boat line.  Successfully ejected and the right way up but with one foot tangled, I managed to hold on to the boat hull and drag myself to shore a few metres before the second, and more complicated rock garden, here:

Yep, that is my yellow bladed paddle in the middle, and nope, I wasn't able to retrieve it - the thaw had started about 6 hours earlier than the forecast predicted, and the flow was too way too high.  I tried for an hour, several different approaches, but the river was too deep and too fast to go in higher than my waist, without being dragged down river and hitting a rock.

This incident was entirely my own fault.   What did I do wrong?
1. I didn't scout properly.  I got out of my boat, but didn't even take the time to walk up to the first pour-over, let alone walk past it and look at the second rapid.  To compound my own negligence, I had spotted this section the previous day from the hill far above, so I knew there was white water there, enough to see from 2 km's away... but I was being lazy.  If I had scouted the first rapid properly, I would have seen the safest deep water channel was to the right away from the pour-overs (picture 2 above), but then would have also seen the second set of rapids (picture 3 above), and would have portaged the entire section - given my lack of paddling partner, lack of safety gear and relative inexperience.  Inexcusable.
2. There was a knot in the boat line.  The line hangs off the boat as a safety measure, but I had knotted it when the boat was moored and attached it to my paddle as a land anchor - I failed to unknot it and subsequently my foot become entangled.
3.  I didn't wear a helmet or a full PFD.  Luckily I didn't need the helmet, the river was deep enough, and the PFD worked well and did not puncture, but it's not really designed for this kind of water.
4. I let go of my paddle.

Everything up to where I went in, and after I came out, was within my control.  Without a drysuit, I knew I had a limited time frame once out of the water to get warm and dry again, and was able to use previous experience of being cold and wet in the outdoors to judge this.  What I didn't know was how potentially dangerous the consequences of my laziness beforehand was, whilst in the water shortly after.  The incident began not with my boat tipping, but with my lack of awareness of the risks of not scouting.  I didn't know what I didn't know. 

Did I do anything that worked?  Not much, but...
1. I had fairly decent beta on the route, and an accurate (as possible) weather forecast.
2. I held on to my boat.
3. I had well packed, dry gear to change into, so avoided potential hypothermia.
4. I was equipped with an accessible boat knife so could have cut the line if needed.

If you've only recently joined us, I can guess what you might be thinking... but I'm a fairly long way past pitting myself against the elements.  Either that or 'but that's nary a ripple, what's all the fuss about!'  So, I guess it's relative.  Either way, I've as much patience for outdoors Rambos as for those that talk of 'quiet enjoyment'.  Which is to say, I've got a little with both, and also none with either.  Outside can be a visceral, noisy place, as well as a gentle, contemplative one, and how we interact with it is just as diverse and complex.  The inconvenient truth is that taking risks and getting into scrapes can be a great teacher if I'm willing to learn.  It can help me interact with nature and other people better.  Decisions are about balance, which is a huge part of what makes outdoors experiences so dynamic and informative.  The Tyrol Declaration gives us as robust a framework for that balancing act as I would ever want to see.

Does this mean that if I had made it dry and unscathed, I would be a hardcore boater (dude)?  No, I'd still be a bone idle, inexperienced paddler who didn't comprehend the risks until it was too late... and then got temporarily lucky.  I'd just be stacking my odds for a harder fall next time.  As it is, I'm now more aware of some of the risks.  I now understand the importance of scouting because of the risk I took by not scouting.  I won't be making that mistake again in a hurry.  But there will probably be others, made with what Hamish Brown called 'the confidence of ignorance'.  I'd rather it wasn't so, but that's the inconvenient truth. 

It's useful to reflect on this - and to remember to continue to reflect on it - because I've negotiated this delicate balancing act between risk, awareness and experience as a hill-goer in the past.  Nowadays, maybe I have more experience, and in the main don't feel so pushed.  Maybe I read the warning signs earlier, so resolve, avoid or retreat from potential hazards sooner?  Or maybe I am older, and don't push myself so hard?  Or perhaps a combination of all these.  I'm not immune to feeling out of my depth, far from it, but it happens less often.  But it's interesting that as I start to learn something new, the same old mistakes can happen easily enough - a lack of awareness of natural boundaries, smaller margins of safety, which can have potentially serious consequences.

What's the moral of my sorry, soggy tailed tale?  You don't know what you don't know, until you're presented with it, up-close-and-a-little-too-personal.  If in doubt, scout it out.  Then again, why listen to me?  On the evidence here I was plainly out of my depth.

The Great Wilderness



I'm all out of words this week, so I'll leave you with just a few more and some photos. 
My compadre has a great account over on his site that's worth a look too. 


David, David, Rannoch and Newt went for a wet autumn wander in the space between Loch Torridon and Loch Maree.  We aimed for the Isle of Graves on All Hallows Eve and strange things were afoot in the graveyard.  The weather arrived a day later than planned and we rode the swell to the Letterewe pier and dug in for Beinn Eighe regardless.  By the time of halfway, we were halfway to nowhere - more water was going uphill than down, the lochan was possessed of evil spirits throwing their blue and green weight around.  It was temporarily unsafe.  Heads bowed we scraped a hasty pitch between giant erratics and pretended to ignore the casual glug of the burn right above.  In the morning, tiny, soggy carbon-based lifeforms scurried past solitary architectures, isolated giants standing alone against one another, hopping across a no man's land of scratchy rock and squelchy bog, out past Hamish's favourite and a bothy shut by the new laird Duncan Mackenzie, our paddle plans scotched by heavy doses of storm light and cold showers.  Wet tarmac taken to Gairloch for whisky and candles, then a night walk to a bothy that once was a secret, shoulders and knees feeling the weight of 10 kilos of coal.   An artist called in on our hangovers in the morning, a man called Stevenson who had enough footage and was leaving for Bristol later that day.  We ran the Allt Strath Sealga in lively conditions, except for the rapids down by the loch, and found an old pentax deep in the mire.  The fire wouldn't light that night.  The sun shone weakly the following morning for an hour or two, but the river was too low to run again, so we cut our losses and walked out whilst the memory of that river the previous day was still unsullied. 








Packrafting for beginners in the UK


So, whilst I'm away trying not to die on a Swiss glacier, a few words about what is still a fledgling activity here in Blighty: Packrafting.  I'll try not to dwell on too many basics, but I will tell you I have recently joined our island's relatively small band of inflatable dinghy users and am feeling pretty enthusiastic about it.


I went on my first solo trip the other week.  Just an afternoon paddling down the River Tyne in East Lothian, at low water after a long hot summer.  This was just about the perfect level for a first solo float: lots of slack water, and a fair few tiny rapids for equal parts fun and tweaking some basic technique, in particular ferrying, using eddies, reverse paddling, positioning the boat in the water and myself in the boat.

 

I set off from a gravel bar after a weir and immediately ran gently aground, stuck on the rocks where the water was too shallow.  I got out of the boat quite a few times that afternoon.  You are going to get wet doing this.  I saw scores of plastic bags,  5 shopping trolleys, 3 kids tricycles, 2 footballs and 1 enormous tractor tyre.  Despite this, these first few hours alone in my own boat were spellbinding.  I wasn't alone at all.  I also saw hordes of dippers, mallards, 2 swan families (at pains to avoid me and I them), a heron or 2... and the highlight, the quicksliver flash of a kingfisher.  Small fish catching flies plopped out of the water just yards away.  I didn't see Otters but certainly saw (and smelt!) their presence on the sand bars.  My first solo paddle was a mixture of giddy fun and quiet intimacy, real magic.


And the river is barely used by humans at all, just the odd fisherman.  It's a window into another world.  And another way of moving through the environment, expanding ways of seeing and experiencing what's around me.  Traveling 3 foot above the water, the vegetation on either bank flush with the growth of mid summer, I saw the river as the 'artery of life' that it is.  Whether animal or vegetable, we all need water.  This is where it's all happening!  Despite the human flotsam, it was lush.


It also allowed me to begin to figure out the logistics.  There is a fair bit more faff to deal with, with bag straps and bowlines and paddles and portaging that will take more than just one trip to get ship shape.  Keeping anything dry is an extra effort, as is trying to take any photos with a non waterproof camera.  Reminding myself to keep checking the wavy blue line on the map and not be distracted by the others was also a novel discipline.  There were lots of willow tree sweepers and one or two sharp and pointy strainers to look out for, and the faster sections provided some nice puzzles in how to translate water patterns on the surface into what was actually happening underneath.  I also bounced off some stuff and gained some confidence in the boat's durability.
 

When I reached my destination, the medieval husk of Hailes Castle, I got out, packed up my floating palace for one and walked back out to my starting point.  I've canoed a fair few times before, both open and kayak and always loved it, but you can't pack a hardshell in your rucksack and walk away.  The sun was setting and I was so happy a two hour road walk didn't even touch the sides.


If you're wondering what a sweeper, strainer, and ferry is in this context, there's more where that came from.  And fair enough for asking, by the way.  Mostly the language of packrafting is borrowed from canoeing, and you can learn all about it in Roman Dial's book.  This book is just excellent, worth getting just for the expedition stories at the back alone.  If you are considering owning a boat it's essential.


I ended up getting my boat from a German company, Packrafting.de in the end.  They import the boats direct from Alpacka in Alaska so we don't have to.  If you'd rather buy direct, Alpacka do a regular 10% christmas sale which can be a slightly more economical way to do it, but I decided I didn't want to wait.  Sven was infinitely patient with my endless (no, really, endless) questions and were competitively priced once import duty was taken into consideration.  They stock the new whitewater spraydecks as standard but can retrofit the older 'cruiser' decks, which some maintain are a more flexible choice for backpackers, on request.  In the end I purchased a yak (medium) and an old style deck.  With a paddle and a PFD (that's a life jacket to you and I) it came to a bit over £1000.  Yeah, I know.  This is alot to spend in one go when part of your brain is still telling you it's a kids pool toy, so it's worth pointing out you can try before you buy; they also rent boats out. 


I didn't rent mine but I knew I was ready to take the plunge (sorry), because the trip on the Tyne wasn't my first.  I spent a weekend in Inverpolly with Rob from Backcountry Biking, who run the only packrafting and bikerafting courses currently running in the UK.  I was there reporting for The Great Outdoors and Outdoor Enthusiast but this can only very loosely be described as work.  It is quite frightening using over £2k's worth of uninsured camera in a rubber dinghy whilst a 15 knot swell grabs your paddle, but otherwise their 'essentials' course was the perfect grounding in the basic skills, and Inverpolly is the perfect environment for this kind of adventure.  Both tutors are fully ML, MBL and BCU qualified and run a small, very friendly and bespoke cottage business.  They also plan and run expedition style trips in the Northwest and the Cairngorms.  I honestly can't recommend them highly enough.  More detail about the course I attended, water safety and further resources in the September issues of the magazines, which are out shortly.



The eagle eyed amongst you may notice that fellow Edinburgh resident David Hine was also along for the trip.  David makes impressive solo packrafting trips here at home, taking off for 2 or 3 weeks at a time across Scotland, rafting his pack and then packing his raft from Munro top to river glen and loch.  He has opened my eyes to the potential for using a packable boat in the UK, as a way of building more diversity into my trips, and in some cases going places I couldn't access otherwise. Thankfully he's still happy doing some of the smaller stuff for kicks and giggles, which is great inspiration for beginners.



A couple of weekends ago, David and I popped to the Borders for a brief touring packraft loop from Fairnilee via Walkerburn.  In the morning, an easy walk on the Southern Upland way, with the heather just starting to bloom, and in the afternoon, a straightforward paddle back to base.  A classic 'half and half' trip, this was the ideal progression onto a deeper, wider and slightly swifter river.

Again, it's the abundance of wildlife that lines the river that really captivates for me - this time, many more heron, goosanders, and a buzzard.  Sometimes near a road but with the river being lower in the landscape it's only occasionally we notice - the intrusion is minimal.  Good to watch David choose the deepest water channel where the rapids were still fairly shallow, as well as plenty of drifting along and discovering neat little places to camp for the future.  Perfect bite size introductions to a new skillset. 


So, who and where else?  I've looked briefly here at the UK and first strokes, but a packraft proves once and for all that no one is an island.  Rafters of the UK variety are still fairly few and far between, but it's growing slowly and supported by a very vibrant European scene - if you're on facebook this is an active hangout to find like minded folks across Europe, and this is the UK specific group.  There are dozens of great sources of information and inspiration abroad - JoerySteve and Katrijn, Willem and Joe in Europe, Luc, Forest, Roman and Mike in the States are just a handful of favourites.  In Europe, Jaakko  Mark and Hendrik can outfit and provide more courses and expedition help.  Lastly, there are hundreds of packrafting videos to watch online, including these 3 introductions to technique, but this one is on constant rewind on my tube - it's not just the sun and the soundtrack, honest.  When I feel ready to tackle anything like that volume of water I'll be going back to Andy and Rob for my whitewater course.  Might be a while yet, but I'm in no hurry - I've just discovered the fifth dimension, it's too much fun already.