In 2012 I started making “Show Up and Blow Up” highlight videos of whitewater packrafting. It was fun to go back through the videos and identify the learning progression.
How to Pick Lines
Southeastern USA, 2012
I discovered the thrill of rapids under the mentorship of Roman Dial, Timmy Johnson, and a small cohort of whitewater packrafters in Alaska. In 2012, Timmy proposed a paddling vacation to his home turf in Georgia. Alpacka Raft had just figured out how to provide more volume in the stern (which moved the paddler’s center of gravity to a more stable position), and we had a prototype whitewater boat that would eventually evolve into the Alpackalypse.
I was very impressed with the creeks and rivers in Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas. Clean and clear water, steep drainages, and wonderfully dynamic rapids.
Timmy guided us through the most technical rapids I had experienced. I learned how to identify where I wanted my boat to be, and how to get it there.
The most memorable part of this video for me is at 1:43. The Green Narrows is a world-class section of water and we were seriously humbled by it. We chose to portage the ‘big three’ Class V rapids (Gorilla, Sunshine, and Go Left and Die). Except that I thought I could make the move for Go Left, which is what you see at 1:43. It wasn’t a particularly scary swim, but in retrospect, I decided it was dumb to run any rapid with ‘die’ in its name.
How to Boof
In 2013 I joined Todd Tumolo, Doom, and Jim Harris for a bike/hike/raft traverse of Pico De Orizaba, Mexico’s tallest peak. After we paddled to the ocean, Todd and I stuck around for another week of whitewater. The cargo zipper was a new packraft feature, and Alpacka was interested to hear how well it would withstand high-pressure landings—we volunteered to provide those landings.
Todd and I started at Cascadas Micos, which features benign waterfalls with safe landing zones. We took turns landing on our faces and then figured out how to use the boof stroke to keep the bow elevated for a flat landing. A boof is a powerful forward stroke placed at the last possible moment on the lip of falling water. By leveraging against the lip you can lift the bow of the boat. One of the best boofs of my life is captured at 1:57. The trip culminated with a 30-foot waterfall that Todd and I both landed after our week of training.
How to Scout
Meghalaya (India), 2013
Half a year later, Brad Meiklejohn and I were invited to Meghalaya by Zorba Laloo. We traded a swifwater training course and helping with school programs for paddling adventures with Zorba and his friends.
We were fortunate to overlap with Dan Rea-Dickins in Meghalaya. Dan is an expert kayaker who was willing to help us navigate the challenging water of Meghalaya. I joined Dan a few years later for a ski and packraft traverse of Iceland, but didn’t get enough footage for an Iceland Show Up and Blow Up video.
It felt like the rivers were either Class II or IV+, with not a lot of options between. We spent a lot of time scouting and discussing safe lines and backup plans. It was very helpful to see things through Dan’s eyes, and to evaluate his advice based on our individual comfort levels.
Packrafts Turn the Blue Lines Into Trails
This was actually the first thing I learned about packrafts. But I decided to include more than just the whitewater clips in my Alaska highlight video. Packrafts had opened so many new and meaningful paths for me … I wanted to capture some of the landscape and sense of adventure. Packrafting radically changed what I thought was possible in my outdoor adventuring.
One of my favorite clips in this video is of Doug Demerest paddling the Little Susitna River in my gorgeous red-yellow-blue boat (0:52). Doug was a friend and paddling mentor who committed suicide a year later. I love watching him follow Roman down the tongue of this rapid.
How to Paddle Big Water
The Grand Canyon section of the Colorado River, 2018
In 2018 Sarah and Thor Tingey of Alpacka Raft invited me on their packraft descent of the Grand Canyon. We were able to fill the roster with some of my great Alaska paddling partners for an ideal social dynamic.
I’ve never been drawn to big water—it makes me feel powerless. I struggled with the first rapids in the canyon but midway through “The Roaring 20s” I realized that swims were low consequence. The water was deep, there weren’t any rocks to hit, and if I just relaxed and held onto my equipment I would soon be in a large recovery pool with friends in position to help me back into my boat.
I was inspired by Mike Curiak and Thor Tingey, whose reliable packraft rolls and bracing kept them in their boats through the gnarliest of rapids. This trip was a great lesson in bracing and trusting that “right down the middle” was the best line to be on.
My evolving risk tolerance currently has me more excited about teaching than seeking difficult whitewater. But I’m enjoying watching others discover what packrafts and packrafters are capable of. Mark Oates and Dan Hall in Australia and Tasmania, and Jeffrey Creamer and Dan Thurber in the US have been particularly inspiring.