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.

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

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.