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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Packrafting


A dramatic whitewater adventure in an unlikely type of boat


Roman Dial running Class III rapids below Rafters Basin. Bill Hatcher took this image during a five-day packraft trip down the Franklin River from Donaghys Hill to Sir John Falls, Tasmania.

When adventurer and packraft legend Roman Dial asked if I wanted to join him and his son Cody on a packraft descent of Tasmania's iconic Franklin River, I said to count me in. I knew the Franklin, located in South West Tasmania, could offer amazing photo potential, but was I being brash? The river has a fearsome reputation for rapids, unpredictable floods and deadly strainers. If that wasn't enough, there are no bailouts as it descends into rocky gorges through Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, so once you're in, it's a total commitment.

The trip would involve descending 100 kilometers of whitewater with many portages, starting with a short three-kilometer hike. I consider myself to be an experienced boater who can handle Class III conditions just fine, but if I decided to kayak the Franklin in a hardshell, I would have been way out of my league. With a packraft, however, I knew I had a fighting chance to run one of the best multiday wilderness rivers in the Southern Hemisphere. An opportunity to make some great photos is what any photographer wants, and I knew the packraft would be my ticket on the Franklin.

My first time in a packraft was back in 1997 while photographing Dial and two others as they completed an 800-mile mountain bike traverse of the Alaska Range for National Geographic. In the course of that trip, I used the boat only a few times for crossing rivers and descending sluggish waters like the Clark River in western Alaska. That was the style of packrafting back then, but today that has changed. Back then I never would have thought that the humble little four-pound boat might one day morph into a sports craft that would inspire ultradistance adventurers, whitewater boaters and even photographers. Fifteen years later, that's just what has happened. Look at the accomplishments of adventurers like ultradistance hiker Andy Skurka's 4,500-mile traverse in Alaska, Alastair Humphrey's self-supported crossing of Iceland and countless young river rats who use packrafts to descend whitewater creeks.

It seems the packraft has become an invaluable tool for today's wilderness adventurers and the photographers who chase them. The reason is that the modern packraft is a very capable whitewater craft, yet is much easier to handle and far more stable than a kayak. It's so stable that even an inexperienced boater can tackle Class II and III whitewater. Of course, before dropping down your local whitewater run, it's recommended you learn about river safety and the boat with an experienced river runner.

Arriving in Tasmania, we discussed the river and pored over maps with another experienced boater and photographer, Matt Newton. Today, most people who descend the Franklin join commercial trips in 12-foot paddle rafts or in kayaks. We couldn't find anyone who had packrafted the river recently without other raft support. We did discover that the Franklin has a long and remarkable history of packrafting and photography. This was nearly lost, along with the river, not long ago. The Franklin River became a World Heritage site in 1982, just a year before the final decision to build a dam hung in the balance. Due to the efforts of thousands of people, in what remains to this day Australia's biggest environmental protest, the Franklin dam project was cut by the federal government.

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