Packrafting - a beginner in whitewater

Turer A clever person would of course have taken a basic course in packrafting, before going on a trip like mine this summer, between Abisko and Nikkaluokta. For those who have read about that trip here and in Outside Magazine it's pretty obvious I needed it. Well, you can't always be clever, but at least I was really motivated when going to Bozeman, Montana to join the course in September. It was quite an experience.
By Jörgen Johansson

The course convened over muffins and coffee at a pond just outside Bozeman. Half a dozen students and four instructurs where pretty soon inflating the rafts. Andrew Skurka, our head instructor, pretty soon had us easing out onto the pond.
What we practised on the pond was 'wet reentry', which basically meant that we sat down in our packrafts and threw our weights around until it capsized. You then had to get out of the spray skirt, turn the raft the right way up and heave yourself back into it. Not as easy as it sounds (if it does), since the thing had a tendency of flipping you right back into the water again. The trick was to, with a mighty heave, get your center of gravity as far inside the boat as possible. We kept this up for an hour or so, much to the delight of a couple of classes of schoolchildren, whose faith in grown-ups must have taken a beating that morning.
After this we got on our bus and drove up to the Yellowstone River, which was going to be our home for the rest of the course. We started out in the lower parts of the aptly named Paradise Valley, with new practises of wet reentry, now in moving water and with a pack strapped to the foredeck. This turned out to be considerably more difficult, so the practise in the pond was really valuable.

Our instructors where hovering while we tried to offset the current pushing our legs under the raft, while flowing downstream, and do the mighty heave that would get our chest well into the boat.
The rest of the afternoon was spent flowing sedately down the Yellowstone, and getting increasingly familiar with the packraft and other members of the course.

The September weather was really benign, and packrafting with a group in circumstances like this turned out to be a really sociable activity. Lots of time to drift around and talk to various members of the group. The occasional stretch of rippling water where fairly easy to negotiate and when the sun set we made our camp and built a fire on the beach. Due to land restrictions we were only allowed to camp on public land, which had to be below the high water mark. This was reasonably easy this late in the season.

The second day we bussed up to Gardiner, on the border of Yellowstone National Park, and then got on the Yellowstone River again. Since boating of any kind, execept of course for power boats on Yellowstone Lake, is prohibited in the park we didn't enter it. But upstream from yesterday as it was, this was a different river. At least to inexperienced land lubbers like most of us students.

Going up to Gardiner we stopped the bus along the road, which followed the river the whole time, and walked over to watch some of the major rapids in Yankee Jim canyon, like The Boxcar. Looking down at this foaming maelstrom from the road certainly made it's impression. So this is what we would have to go through before nightfall? All of us students were very carefully not saying anything at all.

On this, the second day, we practised paddling in whitewater and rapids getting increasingly more difficult. I got dunked once, inspite of my spinsterish approach, leaving the more aggressive stunts to the young guns. Some of those got dunked more than once, some just breezed through the whole thing.
The main lesson for me in whitewater this day was: Lean forward and bully your way through. A good addition to this was: Once you've committed yourself to a route, go for it with all you've got. I guess this could be a lesson for life as well. Changes in midstride will usually land you on your ass.

As the afternoon progressed we went deeper into the canyon and the rapids became more and more challenging. After going through some particularly white whitewater, we rested in an eddy. Our instructors then said: Congratulations, you've just run the Yankee Jim.

Yes, we had in fact run the rapids we had looked at from the road earlier that day, with some trepidation. For me it was really good psychology not to tell us this beforehand and it felt like a great victory at the end of the day, with arms and shoulders turning into noodles and blood sugar going down.

We camped in good spirits that evening, with an interesting assortment of light shelters. They were pitched on a perfect beach below the high watermark and carefully anchored with stones. However, around 10 pm the Sheriff turned up with an aggravated land owner and evicted us all. Unknown to everybody there was obviously some law stating that even if you were on public land you couldn't camp closer than 500 yards to somebodys house. So we had to move the whole camp. Made me pretty grateful for the Swedish law of common access, which lets you camp on anybodys private land for one night, as long as it's not on their actual lot.

The third day included more pratice with whitewater. We went down the same stretch of the Yellowstone as the day before, but this day was really different. We knew that we had taken Yankee Jim without casualties yesterday, and that made for a more relaxed day.

Above is shown some practise around a 'hole', which is the washing machine thingy between the instructor and the packraft coming over the rock-induced wave. A hole tends to suck you back, and being under water in a hole can be a dangerous thing. The water is so churned up and filled with air that you get no flotation even with a PFD. If you are unlucky you'll be churned around in this until the river freezes, at which time most people would be dead.

Here I am, tightening the straps before heading into Yankee Jim canyon for the second time. The lesson for day three that stayed in my mind was: Finesse your way down.
If the day before in Yankee Jim hade been like going into the jaws of hell, this day was more like a walk in the park. It's seldom after childhood that you will experience going from not being able to do something at all to being able to do it at least moderately well in in only three days. I came away from this course feeling very satisfied and also a bit addicted...

Below you'll find links to some films. The first two show me in some of the practice parts of the Yellowstone River on day two. They're from Andrew Skurka and

The third film shows Andrew and Ryan Jordan scouting the Yankee Jim a couple of days before the course. It shows some of the tougher passages of this canyon, where everyone was to busy to film during the course.
Comment on this article in Swedish on Utsidan here and in English below.


  1. Splendid stuff. You inspired me to try something new, and I ordered the Packrafting book as a starter yesterday, lets see when the packraft will follow :D

  2. Just a warning, Hendrik, it's addictive :-)


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