words :: Cameron Fenton
In 1982, Alaskan adventurer Dick Griffith smuggled a secret weapon to the inaugural Alaska Wilderness Classic – a point-to-point, self- supported backcountry race that sends racers over different lengths and sections of Alaska’s roughest and most remote wilderness. In ’82, the racecourse was a 240-kilometre (150-mile) trek from Hope
to Homer, along the Kenai Peninsula. As the story goes, middle-aged Griffith literally left the much younger field of racers in his wake when, on the edge of a remote river, he unpacked a miniaturized military surplus dingy, and set off down the river.
Griffith didn’t win the race, but he changed the game and now, nearly 40 years later, the packraft has become the boat of choice for Alaskan adventurers. Dubbed the “poor man’s bush plane,” the tiny inflatable boats are the tool of choice for everything from backcountry hunting to steep creek whitewater boating to bikerafting, which combines mountain biking and paddling to allow for long, remote amphibious journeys.
Packrafts are so ubiquitous in the 49th state that the largest whitewater event in Alaska is the McCarthy Creek Packrafting Race, and it’s not uncommon to find packrafts piled outside the town watering hole, the Golden Saloon, while their owners sit at the bar with drysuits around their waists. And now, packrafts are migrating south and unlocking new adventures here in the Coast Mountains.
The modern packraft looks a bit like a pool toy on steroids, with each boat ranging in size and style from ultra-lightweight, open-decked flat-water models to burly whitewater machines capable of handling serious Class V rapids.
Whatever the exact design, packrafts tend to weigh no more than ten pounds and pack down to the size of a two-person backpacking tent. They’re ideal for hard to access whitewater trips like Meager Creek, a rock choked stretch of Class IV whitewater near Pemberton that winds through a technical canyon formed by the 2011 landslide that wiped out access to the nearby hot springs.
But Coast Mountain locals are using packrafts for more than just whitewater. Late in the summer of 2017, Squamish-based adventurers Leigh and Spring McClurg used packrafts to pioneer a summer variation on the classic Garibaldi Neve ski traverse. Trading skis for lightweight mountaineering gear, they finished the route crossing Garibaldi Lake in their packrafts.
“I learned about the Neve Traverse a few years ago and had been meaning to do it as a ski traverse,” Leigh says, “but for one reason or another, I’d always been away and unable to get to it before Garibaldi Lake melted. After finally getting a couple packrafts, I realized they weren’t actually any heavier than the weight of equipment I’d need to carry in winter so why not just go for it in the summer?”
McClurg believes local packrafters are just scratching the surface of what’s possible in the Sea to Sky Corridor. “I no longer see water as a dead end, but rather as an obstacle that is possible to overcome,” he says “As well, there are a lot of possibilities for portage routes or linking up high alpine traverses – either on ski or foot – with exits via rivers and inlets.”
As Dick Griffith showed in 1982, a small, packable boat can transform water from a dangerous obstacle into an asset. And while Squamish may not be set to become the “packrafting capital
of Canada,” the potential for new and novel adventures is exciting. The Coast Mountains may not have the heights of Alaska’s Wrangle Mountains, but we do have a lot of water, much of it rarely paddled. The only limit for packrafting might be your imagination. –ML