Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Packrafts are essential equipment for running the Classic. Alaskan rivers are usually big, fast and cold. Crossing or floating them are one of the most dangerous aspects of running the race. When the Classic first started, nobody took a packraft except for Dick Griffith. At the now legendary first significant river crossing during the first race, people learned quickly that Griffith knew what he was doing by bringing a packraft. He crossed quickly and safely while everyone else without a raft was stuck on the other side waiting for the water level to drop.

Soon most people started carrying a raft. Back in "the day" people usually carried Sherpa brand packrafts. Sherpa rafts were burly and got the job done pretty well. After a while racers began to look for ways to cut weight and came across Curtis Designs rafts. These rafts were well-made and super lightweight. Here's a nice Curtis Design raft weighing 1 lb 8oz.

The Curtis Design rafts don't have inflatable floors or a seat and because they're so light, they make running large water very exciting! Especially when you're running the Nizina at flood stage in the dark trying to avoid sweepers and then you get caught in a train of 5 foot standing waves only a few feet from an overhanging cliff with no life-jacket after 14 hours with no food!!

But I digress . . . Whew, sorry for the flashback. Anyway, the Curtis Design rafts are extremely lightweight and are no longer allowed when running the Classic.

Most everyone is familiar with the Sevylor rafts. They are toys made for swimming pools that have a warning on them that they shouldn't be used in real water. You should heed the warning. They're cheap and the bottom almost always rips out and loses air early on in the race. Countless racers have been stranded and had to drop out of the race when their Sevylor got a hole (usually a seam blowout) that couldn't be repaired. They're chincy but they also propelled many a Classic racer to the finish. Most Sevylor's were pretty lightweight at about 3 lbs.

Here's a Classic racer floating Jack Creek at the beginning of the Nabesna to McCarthy route. Notice the feet hanging in the water. This is standard practice with Sevylor's because they are so small.

Alpacka or Sherpa brand packrafts are now required equipment for the Wilderness Classic. Compared to the Curtis Design and Sevylor's, Alpacka rafts are like yachts. They are well designed, made out of bomber material and have basically spawned a whole new sport of packrafting just for fun.

If you find yourself getting addicted to packrafting, check out Roman Dial's book on packrafting.

Here's an early model Alpacka raft weighing 4 lbs 3oz.

You can add all sorts of nifty things to your Alpacka raft. Even though some people complain about the price of an Alpacka, they are well worth the money. Trust me, when you're in big water, you'll be glad you don't have to worry about your boat. Most close calls on the Classic have been in rivers and the requirement for Alpackas is a good one.

The only thing wrong with Alpackas is their weight. They are significantly heavier than rafts used in the past and all the nifty add-ons make it even heavier. When you're trying to shave 100th's of an ounce off your pack weight, 5 lbs of raft is like carrying a Cadillac. You would also do well to verify all listed weights. Weights of these rafts can vary. Sometimes significantly.

I'll write a lot more later on about packrafting on the Classic but here's a note to end this post with. You might think that you can take as long as you want to blow up your raft and the only thing you'll lose is time. Here's a picture of racers hiding in the bushes trying to inflate rafts as fast as possible on the bank of Iron Creek on the Eureka to Talkeetna route. As we were laying out our rafts and getting ready for the final float into Talkeetna, we found a half eaten 25 lb salmon about 5 feet away. The grizzly showed up on the opposite side of Iron Creek just as we were putting our rafts in the water. Needless to say, raft inflation speeds probably rivaled all time records.

1 comment:

  1. When I was 16 years old, I worked for Sherpa. They had just bought the rights to the packraft from the military. I actually came up with the color gold and brown! Also designed the patch pocket inside the boat and even the packaging. Crazy responsibilities for a 16 year old earning $3.75 an hour! Memories!