Thursday, May 17, 2012

Alpacka Raft's Denali Llama packraft

"Spring Creek is nice and floatable" read the text message from my friend, Jeff, who had biked along it's banks yesterday morning on his morning commute.  "YES!" I exclaimed as I pumped my fist in the air and kicked up my heels in glee (at least that's how I remember it).  For the past month or so, all of the creek levels had been depressingly low.  It was made all the more depressing in that I had just recently purchased an Alpacka Raft Denali Llama packraft and hadn't gotten a chance to use it.  But with the past two days of heavy rain, the creeks were up and I would apparently get my chance.
NOLS newsletter on packrafting courses
I try to think back as to why I even got a packraft in the first place, besides it just being so obviously awesome.  It probably had something to do with a blog post on Surly's website a year ago regarding a small whitewater packraft that could be carried on a bike when ridden and conversely a bike could be carried on the packraft when paddled.  Hmmmm.... that's sounded awesome so I tucked that one away for later.  Then I watched the below video and my brain exploded.
I kept it in the back of my mind and then ordered one about a year later.  I had dreams of biking to the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon aka Pine Creek Gorge and doing a packrafting/trail running/biking extravaganza.  And once I received the raft, I started seeing mentions of them everywhere.  The most recent NOLS magazine included an entire article on a new packrafting course.  Then I went to the Banff Film Festival and three of the films had adventurers using packrafts.  I also read Jon Waterman's book, Running Dry, that is his account of paddling the Colorado River from source to sea using a packraft for many sections.  And the packrafts used in all of these occurences: Alpacka Raft's.  I had made the right decision apparently.
What a dork.
When I got the box in the mail that I had shelled out over a grand for, I thought that I had been swindled.  I have owned three person tents that couldn't fit into this box that was supposed to hold a whitewater packraft and a four piece kayak paddle.  It didn't weigh much either.  Sure enough though, it held a sub 6lb whitewater raft and a paddle.  Holy shit.  The Denali Llama is their biggest single person whitewater model and it weighs in at 5lb 3oz.  The optional spray deck that is welded on at the factory is an additional 8oz.  I also got an Aqua-Bound Manta Ray fiberglass four piece kayak paddle.

Overall, the packed raft was about the size of a two person backpacking tent.  This along with the paddles can easily be strapped somewheres on a backpack or to the rear rack of a bicycle.  Inflating the raft is an absolute snap.  Included with the raft is an inflation sack, which is a big sil-nylon sack with one end open and the other with a threaded valve on it.  Screw the valve into the port on the raft, fill the bag with air, compress the bag and push the air into the raft.  Their video does a better job explaining this.  After practicing twice, I easily inflated the raft streamside yesterday in less than a minute.  One initial point of concern however was that the valve on the boat is not a one way valve.  Thus, when you stop pumping or take off the inflation bag, air will flow out of the boat.  It turned out to not be a problem in the end.  I could unscrew the inflation bag quickly enough and cap the valve without losing too much air.  Then there is a small secondary port to inflate by mouth to reach final desired pressure.  No problemo.
Just add water!
So after weeks of staring at my neglected packraft, yesterday morning I got the message that streams were boatable.  As an initial test, I didn't want to paddle with my bike strapped on the boat but rather just get a feel for how the boat handled.  To be completely honest, I haven't kayaked much at all, so all my boating experience comes from canoeing.  I biked over to the whitewater course on Spring Creek behind Tussey Mountain Outfitters in Bellefonte.  On the ride there, I barely noticed the boat on my rear rack.  Of course before launching, I stopped by my friend Jeff's office to grab lunch so that we could discuss packrafting, biking and interoffice politics.  But after that, I made my way down to the creek and readied my craft.

The stream was flowing much faster and higher than I had ever previously seen when I canoed there.  But my enthusiasm for trying out the boat told me the hell with it and to just goof around in the eddies.  I paddled around in some of the eddies and slackwater to familiarize myself with the boat.  Then I began ferrying back and forth across the main current from bank to bank to see how it would respond to me.  While I personally couldn't paddle against the strongest parts of the current and move upstream, the raft otherwise behaved beautifully.

With the paddler sitting so low in the craft, it is quite stable.  However, with such a low position and an inflated tube at your side, paddling is a little more difficult.  I found myself bringing the paddle higher and paddling at a sharper downward angle than you would have to in other craft.  I am sure though that this is also a function of me needing to get more accustom to using a kayak paddle.  With the raft being flat bottomed and with the bow having less of a pronounced "point" than a canoe, I found it a little harder to paddle upstream and track into the current, but again this could be a function of poor paddle skills too.  With the flat bottom and the raft floating high, I noticed that breezes easily affected the boat, so paddling flatwater into a headwind would probably suck.

Overall however, I am absolutely pleased with my investment in a Denali Llama packraft from Alpacka Raft.    After reading about the rafts, their history, and accounts of what others have done with them on the company's site, I know that I have made the correct decision for a craft that fits into my car free and adventure filled lifestyle.  Just the other day, at a lunch with my friends Jason and Eric, we were discussing a particular ice route that forms in the Pine Creek Gorge.  You can cross country ski into the route on a rail trail, but you are still on the opposite side of the creek from the climb and the creek isn't always frozen over.  Our concerns over whether or not the creek is frozen evaporated with the realization that we have a packraft in our quiver now.  Stay tuned...


  1. Great review, I'm torn between the Llama or the mule as I'm 6'4" how tall are you please.

    1. I am 6'2" and with the included seatback inflated, I don't have much extra space with my legs extended straight. If you are planning to pack anything in the boat such as a backpack or use a sleeping mat as floor insulation, I think you'd probably be happier with the Mule with its 3 extra inches of interior length.

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