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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Packrafting


A dramatic whitewater adventure in an unlikely type of boat

What you usually don't read in the various accounts of saving the Franklin is the role the little packraft played. In 1976, Bob Brown and his friend Paul Smith wanted to see and photograph firsthand what was to be lost if a dam was built on the Franklin. Their three-week expedition would be the first inflatable packraft descent of the Franklin. Following that trip, Brown was so moved by what he saw that he dropped his medical practice to spearhead the effort to save the river. After that pioneering trip in '76, Brown encouraged others to descend the Franklin in the same packrafting style; hundreds and perhaps thousands did, including many photographers and filmmakers. The resulting images by photographers such as Peter Dombrovskis galvanized public opinion to save the river. Twenty years later, the Franklin is still a wild river, and Brown is now Senator Bob Brown, leader of Australia's Green Party, a party that has considerable power in Australia. Senator Brown was last down the Franklin in 2006; it was his ninth trip down the river.

We packed for a seven-day trip. All of our gear was minimized, but we each had a dry suit, PFD, helmet, whitewater rescue equipment and other standard gear a whitewater kayaker would take on a remote river. The total weight of my pack, including the packraft and paddle, came to about 45 pounds. Originally, I had intended to bring a couple of cameras, including an SLR and my Canon PowerShot G11 with its waterproof housing. But when I learned that Dial was bringing two Olympus waterproof point-and-shoots for video (check out Dial's collection of over 70 packrafting videos on YouTube!), I left my Canon in Hobart. I brought my current compact expedition camera kit: a Nikon D300S with a Nikkor 16-85mm VR lens and a Nikkor 35mm ƒ/1.8 G lens. I knew the Franklin wasn't a wide river, so there was no need for a bigger telephoto lens. I brought a couple of filters—my polarizer/warming filter and my five-stop ND—a small carbon-fiber Gitzo tripod, two extra batteries, memory cards and a few microfiber lens cloths. I also left my flash in Hobart. The camera kit was kept dry and snug in a Pelican 1200 case. When I was running rapids, which was most of the time, I had the Pelican box strapped to the floor of the raft just in front of where I was seated. I used Ensolite™ foam under it to prevent the hard box from puncturing the floor of the boat should I hit a rock, which I did numerous times. The camera system worked perfectly, allowing me to quickly access the Pelican to shoot from the boat or free the box so I could jump to shore as the others ran rapids.

The Franklin was every bit of the challenge I thought it might be. There were rarely moments of quiet on the river except in camp where I had the leisure to absorb the beauty of the river and to photograph the verdant canyons it flowed through. For most of the five days, the challenges on the river kept our rapt attention, involving paddling countless rapids and negotiating the numerous portages and log jams. I admit there were more than a few moments of gut-churning fear as I contemplated dropping into another log-choked rapid. But it was worth it, and I'm planning to return.

You can visit Bill Hatcher's website at www.billhatcher.com.

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