Using boats for transportation on waterways is instinctual for mankind. We are programmed to paddle lakes and rivers to move people and equipment, fish, hunt, and explore new country. Recognizing the efficiency of water travel, explorers throughout the ages sought routes through wild landscapes that incorporated waterways. Some built their boats in situ from raw materials along the banks of the rivers they intended to float. Others knew they would need to move their boats overland between river trips, and so used pack animals to drag log boats or ingeniously fabricated crafts that could be disassembled and carried on their backs over the mountain passes. Packrafting was born.
The earliest packrafts undoubtedly were made by stretching tanned animal skins over frames of willows or other flexible wood. Native travelers would carry the skins overland, and then assemble them into “bull boats” or “bidarkas” to float rivers and lakes. In the early 1800s, trappers and hunters in the Rocky Mountains learned from the natives and used bull boats to transport their skins east to trading posts along larger rivers, such as the Platte and Missouri. Read more about Native American and early American use of bull boats (click).
Similar portable one-man vessels used for fishing and transportation have been documented in the British Isles, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Iraq, India, Vietnam, Tibet, and Russia. The earliest ones were dated to 11,000 years ago. Coracles are a traditional watercraft commonly used in the United Kingdom for centuries. These boats were light enough for paddlers to carry them on their backs with a strap across the shoulders and chest. A single paddle stroked in front of the bow pulled the boat forward. Clubs throughout the U.K. still celebrate the tradition of Coracles.
Twenty-one years after the invention of waterproof fabric by Charles Macintosh in 1823, Lieutenant Peter Halkett of the Royal Navy introduced his one-man “Cloth-Boat.” This clever design was not only one of the first-ever inflatable watercraft, it also doubled as a weather cloak when deflated. Halkett’s boat was designed specifically for lightweight amphibious travel while navigating remote and wild landscapes, specifically the Canadian Arctic. Much as modern packrafters carry gear with multiple functions, Halkett likewise intended his paddle to double as a walking stick with a removable blade, and his umbrella to also function as a sail. Weighing in at 7.5 pounds, the ovoid craft contained four separate airtight compartments and could be inflated with backpackable bellows in 3-4 minutes.
Encouraged by the successful testing of the boat-cloak, Halkett designed a larger version that could be folded and stowed in a backpack. When inflated, it could carry two men, each with a paddle. When deflated, the craft served as a waterproof tarp or blanket.
Unfortunately for Halkett and the sport of packrafting, the First Secretary to the Admiralty wrote Halkett in May 1845, “My Lords are of an opinion that your invention is extremely clever and ingenious, and that it might be useful in Exploring and Surveying Expeditions, but they do not consider that it would be made applicable for general purposes in the Naval Service.”
Although the Royal Navy would not employ his boats, several Arctic explorers saw them as indispensable. One such adventurer was surveyor Orkneyman John Rae, who took a Halkett boat on his first survey of the Canadian Arctic in 1846. Rae traveled Inuit-style, using sleds and snowshoes, and slept in igloos. He reported that the Halkett boat was “most useful in crossing and recrossing” rivers, and that “although in constant use for upwards of six weeks on a rocky coast it never required the slightest repair.” Rae also touted that the boats “ought to form part of the equipment of every expedition.” Indeed, they were used on many more Arctic expeditions, but despite earnest attempts to more widely market the boats, their manufacture was abandoned after Halkett’s death in 1885.
(by Clyde Nicely, NRS Duct Tape Diaries)
During his exploration of the Rockies in 1842, Captain John C. Fremont had the innovative idea of using a rubber raft to explore the swift rocky reaches of the western river basins he was mapping. He purchased “one air army boat or floater” from a New Jersey inventor for $150. He also purchased a repair kit consisting of “two pieces India rubber cloth” for $19.99 each and “two pots rubber composition” for 50 cents each. Details on the raft are unclear, but apparently it was rectangular in shape at 5×20 feet, and it had four air chambers. According to Fremont’s journal, it was made of rubberized linen; and it may have had some type of wooden frame. This raft was not backpackable, of course, but it was used with similar functional intentions that packrafters have today.
The first tryout for the raft was actually in Kansas, as they moved west, and provided an omen for the future. They were successfully ferrying gear across a rain-swollen river when it began to get dark. Fremont doubled the load they had been carrying, and the boat promptly flipped, spilling the crew and cargo into the water. The major losses were a quarter of their sugar and most of the coffee; no small event for a party moving beyond other sources of supply.
The next use of the raft was on the Sweetwater River, a tributary of the North Platte in Wyoming. In what was probably unwarranted optimism, Fremont loaded the raft with most of his surveying equipment, irreplaceable specimens, and the expedition’s journals, and challenged an unscouted river canyon. They soon found themselves in their first major rapids, with rocky passages so narrow the boat barely squeezed through. Fremont said a wooden boat would have been bashed to pieces, but the raft “seemed fairly to leap over the falls… We were so delighted with the performance of our boat, and so confident in her powers, that we would not have hesitated to leap a fall of 10 feet with her.”
That confidence seems to have been misplaced; in the next canyon, the raft hit a rock and dumptrucked the crew and cargo into the water. Their attempt to secure the gear was unsuccessful. “The current was covered with floating books and boxes, bales of blankets, and scattered articles of clothing,” Fremont wrote. Their precious chronometer, vital for measuring longitude, was ruined, journals and biological specimens were missing, and instruments were at the bottom of the river.
The boat survived the spill, and two of the men got back in and paddled off to try to salvage some of the equipment. Alas, in the next set of rapids, at least one of the air chambers blew, ending this first use of an inflatable raft to challenge Rocky Mountain whitewater. No living paddler has seen Fremont’s rapids. In 1909, they were submerged under the waters of Pathfinder Reservoir.
In Grand Canyon, the first man to run the Colorado River through the canyon did so on a makeshift raft. Although little is known about his adventures in the canyon, apparently James White built an impromptu raft and ran the canyon to escape from Indians in 1867. John Wesley Powell’s river expedition through the canyon came two years later.
In 1872 in Yellowstone National Park, two members of Captain William Jones’ Corps of Engineers expedition built a crude log raft and attempted to float from the outlet of Yellowstone Lake to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Paul LeHardy and a man named Gabbet made it nearly four miles when their raft flipped in the first and only major rapid. Some equipment was lost, but the men were able to hike the bank to rejoin the rest of the expedition the next day.
This misadventure set the stage for Yellowstone’s first recorded packraft expedition in the fall of 1876, when U.S. Army Cavalry Lieutenant Gustavus Doane led a small party with the intention traveling much like packrafters do today…overland to the headwaters of the Snake River, and then floating all the way to the Columbia River. Historians and Yellowstone Park officials have misunderstood, misrepresented, and criticized this remarkable expedition as a pathetic failure. Indeed, poor planning, hubris, and fantasies of fame may have played a factor, but Doane was a determined adventurer and seized an opportunity to explore the remote source of the Snake River. Not only were those waters and lands virtually unexplored, but the timing of his prior engagements forced him to attempt the trip very late in the season, and he was acting outside of his commander’s orders. If you had a work assignment that ended in the heart of Yellowstone in 1876, what would you have done?
His party built a sturdy boat at the outlet of Yellowstone Lake and, in the end, navigated nearly 150 miles of water to the mouth of Snake River Canyon. After first crossing Yellowstone Lake, they used mules to drag their boat over the snowy continental divide to Heart Lake. They crossed Heart Lake with a combination of paddling and dragging the boat across ice, and soon entered current in the rocky channel of the Heart River. Shallow autumn waters forced them to drag the boat for much of the way, but upon merging with the Snake River, Lieutenant Doane described what happened next…
All was lovely. Starr had just begun to sing one of his favorite missionary hymns, something about “the Gospel ship is sailing now,” when the river made a sudden turn to the left with a boiling eddy, and the boat crashed head on against the overhanging wall of rock, smashing all the lodge poles and compelling the boisterous singer to turn a somersault backward to save himself from being instantly killed. The gallant little craft bore the shock without bursting…
Historians and Park officials often pan the expedition for really falling apart at this point, and often mis-report that their boat was destroyed, but in fact Doane and his team continued by boat and mule train with no loss of human life down the Snake River into Jackson Lake, and all the way through Jackson Hole and Snake River Canyon. They ran all but two of the rapids in Snake River Canyon! Although it had mule support, this might be considered one of America’s earliest packraft trips.
Curiosity about Interior Alaska led Lieutenant Henry Allen to devise a trip up the Copper River and down the Tanana and Yukon rivers to Norton Sound. With a small party including Native American guides, he started up the frozen Copper River from Prince William Sound on March 29 dragging a sled with equipment and stretched-skin kayaks called bidarkas. After spending a few weeks exploring the Chitina River, they paddled back down, and continued up the Copper by paddling and lining. At the head of the Copper, they crossed the Mentasta Mountains and reconstructed their bidarkas to float 400 miles on the Tanana River to the Yukon River.
Nearly 200 miles on the Yukon brought them to the Koyukuk, where they spent over a week on a paddling side trip. After another 120 miles on the Yukon, they climbed overland to Norton Sound, where they obtained another bidarka from local Indians, and paddled west to St. Michael, ending the expedition on August 30. In all, they traveled over 1,500 miles across Alaska in lightweight boats that could be deconstructed at take-outs, and reconstructed at each new river put-in.
During the 1940s and 50s, Mardy and Olaus Murie based their conservation movement in Grand Teton National Park, where they explored the wild backcountry by foot and boat. In their book Wapiti Wilderness, they describe floating upper stretches of the Snake and Yellowstone rivers, and experiencing a harmonious connection with nature as they navigated past wildlife in their most essential state.
In Wapiti Wilderness, Olaus Murie wrote about canoeing the Yellowstone River, “When you go into country by pack train the streams are only for crossing, or to camp beside. To know a stream you travel on it, struggle with it, live with it hour by hour and day by day.” Today, Olaus and Mardy Murie would be arrested for paddling that section of river.
In 1952, Colorado and Wyoming native Dick Griffith and his wife Isabelle used an Air Force surplus survival raft—the model design for both Curtis Designs Rafts and Sherpa Packrafts twenty-five years later—to make the first descent of Mexico’s Urique River in Copper Canyon. There, Dick crossed deep, still-water pools blocked by landslides. He paddled the boat with his hands while ferrying gear and people, including his wife and local Tarahumara companions.
Griffith also was a skilled oar-raft pilot, with special passion for desert rivers such as the White, Green, Colorado, and San Juan. In 1951, he was credited with piloting the first inflatable raft through Lava Falls in Grand Canyon during a 1,500-mile river trip from Green River, Wyoming to Hoover Dam. His crowning desert achievement was the first packraft descent of the Grand Canyon in spring 1991 at the age of 64. Griffith went solo and under the radar in his Sherpa packraft. Traveling light with very little food, he flipped his boat in several rapids, portaged others, and split the trip into two legs at Phantom Creek.
In the early 1970s, in Australia, future environmental politician Bob Brown and his partner, Paul Smith, made several runs on Tasmania’s wild Franklin River in an Aussie version of a packraft. These “rubber duckies” were a bit bigger than Dick’s survival rafts, but they combined packability and whitewater-worthiness, making them ideal on the varying floodwaters of the Franklin. So suitable were these rubber duckies for running the Class II and III rapids and portaging the Class IV and V drops that they became the archetypal Franklin craft. During the early 1980’s, there were a reported 700 ducky trips a year — and this on a river that generally takes a week to ten days.
Flotillas of the Aussie packrafts played a major role during Australia’s first conservation controversy. A packraft blockade and non-violent protest saved the Franklin River from damming. The political momentum that began with packrafters hoping to preserve their favorite river eventually led to establishment of the Franklin River as a National Park and World Heritage Site. Bob Brown and environmentalism went on to become a potent political force in Tasmania and Australia, largely due to a packraft trip down a wild river.
In the late 1970’s, brothers Don and Walt Curtis, and Walt’s son, Brian, were carrying Air Force surplus rafts to the high, alpine lakes of the Cascades to fish for trout. An early proponent of ultralight backpacking, Don designed an ultralight boat made of urethane-coated nylon and first marketed it as the “Curtis Designs Boat” in 1980. The family produced and carried these little twenty-ounce boats into the high country for more than twenty-five years. Their most notable trip was a float down Kaluluktok Creek to Walker Lake in Gates of the Arctic National Park in 1984.
While the Aussies were running Class III and IV rapids on the sixty-mile Franklin River, portaging only the bigger rapids, Alaskans were crossing 100-250-mile swaths of wilderness while floating mostly tamer Class II and III rivers as part of their packrafting journeys.
The 1982 “Wilderness Classic” was meant to be a self-contained, carry-all-your-gear-and-food overland footrace between the Kenai Peninsula towns of Hope and Homer, Alaska, but Dick Griffith and his rubber ducky changed all that. At fifty-five years old, he caught the front-running racers half his age as they hesitated to swim a swift, wide, and deep glacial river. There, Dick donned a fuzzy Viking hat, inflated his raft, crossed the river, and passed his youthful competition with the quip, “You may be fast, but you young guys eat too much and don’t know nothin’. Old age and treachery conquer youth and skill any day.” After that inaugural event, the Classic became a packrafting wilderness race, its competitors skilled in both packing and rafting.
During the mid–to-late 1980’s, Sherpa Packrafts were designed, manufactured from urethane-coated nylon, and marketed by Sherpa Products, the same company that revolutionized snowshoeing with synthetic snowshoes. Their classic yellow and brown, four-pound boats were advertised for hunting and fishing, but it was wilderness racing, approaches and retreats from mountain climbs, and long wilderness traverses of Alaskan mountain ranges that turned out to be more popular uses for the expensive boats.
During the early to mid-1990’s, the marriage of mountain bikes and packrafts resulted in novel crossings of the Wrangell-St. Elias, Alaska, and Brooks Ranges. On these trips, adventurers not only ferried people and bikes across rivers, but actually traveled across lagoons and lakes, and floated big rivers with Class III whitewater, the paddler sitting kayak style with a bike strapped across his packraft’s bow. The May 1997 issue of National Geographic Magazine ran a feature story, “A WIld Ride”, about a six-week, 775 mile mountain bike traverse of the Alaska Range that used packrafts.
Packrafts were used sparingly elsewhere in America, particularly while canyoneering in the Southwest, but the fact that backpackers, not boaters, used packrafts, plus the resistance of Sherpa to market their $500 raft as a wilderness and whitewater boat, meant that packrafting as a sport did not catch on outside of Alaska before 2001.
In the early 1990’s, Sherpa stopped producing boats. Substitutes for the Sherpa Raft, like Curtis Designs and Sevylor, were either too small, too fragile, or both, for real wilderness or whitewater use. Packrafting became the sport of a few “crazies” who patched and nursed their leaking Sherpa Rafts from year to year for annual Wilderness Classic races and other adventures. All of this changed with the new millennium, the rise of adventure racing, and especially with the Alpacka Raft.
Near the end of the 1990’s, a young Alaskan adventurer, Thor Tingey, and his friends made two long wilderness traverses, suffering in their cramped “shiver boats” with big packs in glacial rivers. Thor, the leader of these trips and unsatisfied with his water craft, looked to a new and perhaps unlikely manufacturer for the ideal packraft — his mother, Sheri Tingey.
Thor complained that the Curtis and Sevylor brands were too small. He needed bigger tubes to keep him dry. During the 1970’s, in Jackson, Wyoming, Sheri had designed and manufactured well-respected gear commercially, so she was able to meet her son’s request with fat-tubed, sporty prototypes. “Tingey’s dingies” were not only higher, drier, and roomier than any boats on or off the market, they were more nimble and responsive than even the few venerable Sherpa Rafts still bobbing in Alaska’s glacial waters.
By constantly tinkering, experimenting, and loaning boats to local adventurers for design feedback, Sheri’s Alpacka Rafts moved through a series of innovations leading to the outstanding boats of today. Early boats were small and had no tie-downs, but through discussions with multiple users, Sheri’s boats evolved into decked whitewater craft with several tie-down points, available in a variety of sizes.
The years from 2004 to 2006 marked a turning point in packrafting. Alpacka was awarded a prestigious 2005 Backpacker’s Best award and a “Boaters Best Pick” in Paddler Magazine. In 2004, a young couple used Alpackas to fjord-hop along Alaska’s glacier-draped coast, a gang of climbers packrafted the Nahanni River to climb Canada’s Lotus Flower Tower, and a group of Scandinavians made long, Class IV first descents in Norway. In the 2005 Wilderness Classic, a team of four ran through the Talkeetna Mountains, then floated the Class IV Talkeetna River, crossing 160 miles of wilderness in forty-seven hours, the fastest pace in the twenty-five year history of the race. And by 2006, Class V kayakers were switching to Alpackas and running steep creeks and even hucking off of twenty-five foot waterfalls. The packraft’s time had come.
Alpackas have run wild whitewater, packed out bison, and floated bicycles. They have opened up backcountry and wilderness around the world, from Australia to Yellowstone, Sumatra to Sarasota, and Norway to New Zealand, but these adventures are only a beginning. Fifty years after hand-paddling Tarahumara through a Mexican canyon, packrafting is on the brink of a world-wide revolution.
This revolution may bring challenges as land managers struggle to fit the sport into existing recreation management paradigms. Our interest in traveling by boat on rivers and lakes has evolved over time, much like skiing has changed from solely a winter transportation tool to a recreational pursuit. But the concepts of skiing and paddling remain the same. These are tools to traverse the landscape as a means to explore. They are a part of our genetic makeup…a natural extension of the human body…a tool…a toy that makes us giggle as we skim effortlessly through the wilds.
Adapted with permission from Marc Kreinacker and Sven Schellin of packrafting.de, Thomas Turiano, Clyde Nicely of NRS’s Duct Tape Diaries, and Packrafting! An Introduction and How-To Guide by Roman Dial. If you know of other packrafting history that we missed, please let us know!
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