This week I bought my first boat. I've done countless trips with family and friends' canoes, and several cataraft floats in Alaska, but this is the first watercraft I've owned, because I never had space in my garage for a canoe and most places I want to fish in Alaska don't have road-to-road float opportunities and require miles-long portages.
This year I began to pay attention to packrafts, small inflatables that can easily be carried for miles yet are worthy of serious whitewater. I was inspired by the remote trips and whitewater adventures of Luc Mehl
and Roman Dial
. However, I'm more interested in backcountry hunting and fishing than adventure racing, and the ultralight Alpacka rafts
they use aren't designed for loads as heavy as a man with a dead caribou, or two people in one boat in whitewater (i.e. float trips with my wife).
For the last few years, a Fairbanks-based wilderness company called Pristine Ventures has been working on bigger packrafts to handle big game hunting. Their latest model, the PR-49 "Packraft Alaskana"
, has excellent reviews on the Alaska outdoors forum
and other places. At 15 pounds, the PR-49 is three times heavier than an Alpacka, but if that extra 10 pounds means the difference between floating or carrying 150+ pounds of meat back to the car, it's an easy choice. They're also made of tougher material, and are large enough for two people and a disassembled caribou. When they went on sale this week, I bought one.
In one of the last weekends before Fairbanks freezes solid for seven months, my wife and I took this boat for a 10.5-mile float down the upper Chena River, in a popular and familiar stretch from 3rd Bridge (on the North Fork) to 1st Bridge (on the main stem). We parked at the take-out, loaded the raft and gear on our mountain bikes and in my backpack, and rode 6 miles up the road to the put-in. This is a tame stretch of river, mostly Class I with a dash of Class II, and with the water extremely low (545 CFS at the 2nd Bridge gage
) it would be a good test of the running raft through several inches-deep riffles.
I really like the PR-49's layout. A rope all the way around the tubes provides attachment points for locking down gear bags, hanging frequently used items in convenient spots on carabiners, etc. The seats are just nylon sheet strapped to both sides of that rope at several points
strapped to the loops that hold the rope, one of which (the "cargo sling") can be extended to cover the front half of the raft to hold cargo (like meat) off the floor. It's a very nice lightweight system, but I found in a pond test earlier this week that I sank lower in the seat than I'd like
(EDIT: Whoops! I had the seats attached incorrectly, which is why they sagged. See reply by PR49er.). This time, I brought the Therma-rest NeoAir ultralight inflatable pillows we use for camping, strapped them to the seats, and they made perfect cushions to elevate us to a comfortable height comparable to canoe seats (but softer and more comfortable). We both had enough legroom, and there was cargo space to spare.
With both of us and quite a bit of gear in the raft (probably about 350 pounds total), it only drafted about 2-3 inches. We got hung up in the shallows once when I steered us into 2-inch-deep water, but we cruised through several other shallow riffles without ever having to get out and push again. For a raft, the boat tracked well with two people in it, not wobbling side to side with every stroke like packrafts (both this one and Alpackas) tend to do in still water with just one paddler in the back. It was still very easy to turn and avoid obstacles. Several times I carefully planned a line to miss some hazard, and then easily missed it by 20+ feet because the boat was so mobile. I steered into the few splashy wave-trains in this reach, and the boat kept us high and dry. It felt much more stable (less "tippy") than a canoe.
This tame trip really wasn't a hardcore test of either the boat's packability or its whitewater handling, but the experience left me excited about what I'll be able to try next summer.