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Packrafts in national parks?

Kris Farmen

The morning sun was just breaking over Bonanza Ridge when a group of wilderness racers gathered last summer in the decommissioned copper mining town of Kennicott in Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains. The iconic red-and-white industrial buildings from nearly 100 years ago, now a national historic monument and undergoing restoration by the National Park Service, glowed in the light of the new day as Monte Montepare, co-owner of Kennicott Wilderness Guides, faced the crowd. Everyone had gathered for a one-of-a-kind race, a dash on foot up Bonanza, then down the backside to the upper reaches of McCarthy Creek.        

McCarthy Creek parallels the spine of Bonanza Ridge for several miles until it curves like a fishhook around the base of Sourdough Peak.

Upon reaching the creek, the racers would dump their packs, inflate the boats they carried with them, then shoot down 10 miles of rapids to Kennicott’s sister town of McCarthy. The finish line, not coincidentally, was right in front of the town’s only bar.

The boat carried by each of these racers is the 21st century incarnation of a design concept that’s been around for a couple decades now. Packrafts are lightweight (about 5 pounds), compact, and easily stuffed into a backpack. Essentially, they’re super-tough one-person rubber rafts, the diminutive cousins of the 16- and 20-footers used for more mainstream river trips. Small size is the secret of their advantage: A packraft gives the wilderness traveler the sort of amphibious capability that humans have longed for since the earliest days of our species. A hundred years ago, your only real option was to build a raft or hope you could find a canoe cached on your side of the river. Now, with a packraft, the backcountry trekker can go virtually anywhere, including a fast boogie up and over a mountain, then downstream through some substantial whitewater in time for beer-thirty.

Montepare welcomed all the racers and laid out the rules in front of the Kennicott Wilderness Guides main office; then head ranger Stephens Harper got up and delivered a safety and environmental briefing every bit as mandatory as the helmet and drysuit each racer was required to have. The first annual McCarthy Creek Packraft Race, which started as a way for Kennicott Wilderness to promote its guiding business and have some fun, had grown in importance from being just a bunch of whitewater bums looking for a thrill.  

Pretty much by accident, the company and its owners, as well as the racers, found themselves front and center in a rancorous debate over land use, backcountry permitting and public lands policy taking place thousands of miles from the Wrangell Mountains. The jaundiced eyes of nonprofit conservation groups were watching.

Grand Canyon episode

Back in 2011, an erstwhile river warrior hiked down into the Grand Canyon with a packraft, blew it up, and shoved off into Hance, one of the longer and more difficult rapids. Within seconds he’d dumped his boat and was being sucked down into the gorge below while his girlfriend stood helplessly on the bank.

He made it out by the skin of his teeth, with the whole thing on tape, thanks to a GoPro cam. And, of course, what good is a near-drowning experience if you haven’t posted the video on YouTube? It didn’t take long for the National Park Service staff at the Grand Canyon to see it and decide, based on this one incident, that packrafters were a menace both to themselves and to public lands. The video was pulled after a few days but the damage was done.

This tale might seem familiar to readers here in Alaska, given the recent tragic death of Rob Kehrer while packrafting in Wrangell-St. Elias as part of the Alaska Wilderness Classic race. Earlier this month he launched his packraft into the treacherous Tana River and disappeared behind a wall of whitewater. His body was found on a gravel bar downstream.

One can understand how NPS managers might take a dim view of packrafters in their parks, given events such as these. But as with most thorny management issues, there is a lot more to the story than those few incidents that make the headlines.      

‘Freelance dirtbags’

“We’re more like backpackers with boats,” says Brad Meiklejohn of Anchorage, president of the American Packraft Association, the organization that convinced the Hance swimmer to remove the helmet-cam footage. The packraft association has been at the forefront of an effort to lift bans on paddling and packrafting in many national parks in the western U.S., most prominently Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

Packrafting in Alaska’s national parks involves a different set of legal circumstances than in parks in the Lower 48, mainly because the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that created most Alaska parks specifically protects non-motorized boat access on park waters. Park managers in the rest of the country, however, have it entirely in their power to ban any user group they see fit, including packrafters.

The organization’s quest to gain access to Yellowstone and Grand Teton has been arduous, and packrafters’ renegade reputation has not helped.  

“Packrafters tend to be freelance dirtbags,” Meiklejohn says. “We’re not organized people by nature.” It might be said, probably with some justification, that much of the opposition to allowing packrafters in national parks stems from a disdain for what might be called them and their ilk. Columnist Todd Wilkinson of the Jackson Hole News & Guide described packrafters as “a narrow fold of self-interested boaters,” a condescending description that misses the fundamental point that packrafters are conservationists and land stewards at heart. The packraft association, of course, can’t necessarily speak for every single packrafter in the world but it does speak for a great many of them, and their feet are firmly planted in the ethos of Leave No Trace. The tiny size of their boats and the fact that everything they carry (including the boat) has to go on their backs mean that packraft journeys are by definition low impact. With space and weight at such a premium, you aren’t taking cases of beer and shrink-wrapped steaks, then leaving the refuse behind on the bank.

When the packraft association approached Yellowstone and Grand Teton management about allowing packrafts on their rivers, they were, in Meiklejohn’s words, “blown off.” At the core of the issue in these two adjacent parks was a ban on all river craft in Yellowstone that has been in place since 1950, and a congruent ban in Grand Teton dating to 1962. These regulations were originally created to protect the parks’ rivers from overfishing.  In fact, park managers claimed they were specifically prohibited from even studying the possibility of allowing river paddling of any kind in either unit.

With park management and other conservation groups unwilling to listen, the packraft association took its case to Congress. The association found an unlikely ally in Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Republican. In 2013, Lummis introduced the River Paddling Protection Act, also known as HR 3492.  The summary of the bill states that it “opens the rivers and streams of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming to hand-propelled vessels.” It also “declares specified regulations (meaning the 1950 and 1962 river traffic bans) to have no force or effect with regard to the closing of rivers and streams of such parks to such vessels.”

The bill sailed through the House of Representatives and went over to the Senate this February. Now known as S 2018, the bill is in the Senate Energy Committee. Meiklejohn gives it a 50-50 chance of passing.

If that happens, the act would take effect three years after being signed into law. The idea is to allow Yellowstone and Grand Teton staff time to conduct appropriate studies and prepare a sensible management strategy. It’s worth noting that the packraft association is not necessarily asking for all rivers in these two parks to be thrown wide open to every yahoo with an inner tube and a pair of swim trunks. Park managers would retain full regulatory authority, something the packraft association agrees with.  

“There’s a lot of places in Yellowstone where paddling shouldn’t take place,” Meiklejohn says. “We’re willing to be respectful of those places and recommend they remain closed.” Furthermore, he adds, “If studies say river traffic is going to degrade Yellowstone, APA would live by that.”  

Ultimately, the packrafters want nothing more than the opportunity to have their case considered.

Packrafters’ reputation at stake      

National park superintendents in Alaska may not have the authority to ban packrafts but they still have plenty of jurisdiction over backcountry travel. Park staff at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park had plenty of worries about the McCarthy Creek race, and the packraft community had a vested interest in dealing with those worries, given that their reputation in the rest of the country was at stake.

“The main concerns from the get-go were safety concerns and then the possible impacts to alpine territory up high in National Creek Pass,” says Stephens Harper, the lead Kennicott ranger,  who delivered the briefing before the race.  McCarthy Creek runs through a narrow valley with only one primitive airstrip, so if anyone got injured along the route, it was almost certainly going to mean a helicopter rescue, which does not come cheap. With this in mind, Kennicott Wilderness Guides and the Wrangell-St. Elias staff pursued a strategy emphasizing prevention.

McCarthy Creek is not especially large — you can easily throw a rock across it — but for a small one-person craft, it packs plenty of punch. The Kennicott guides knew the race route well but all the same began their safety assessments well in advance. Small as it is, the creek can be deceptive; just a half-mile down from the put-in, it rumbles into a canyon barely 10 feet wide.  

“We don’t even know what’s in it,” says Jared Steyaert, co-owner with Montepare. He and some of the crew rappelled down into the gorge to try to scout the danger level but there’s only so much you can tell when you’re dangling from a rope tied to a spruce tree. Clearly, there were hazards. Steyaert’s voice lowers half an octave when he describes the water:  “The entrance into the canyon is this drop that hits a sieve … all the water pounds into this cave. If you swam there, you’d get pinned.”

The gorge was just too gnarly, and Steyaert did not relish the prospect of having to go down into it to rescue a boater in distress. They marked the trail along the side of the canyon and made it a mandatory portage.  As extra insurance, they stationed a support crew at the top of the gorge with throw bags and rescue gear just in case someone got swept down and couldn’t make the last eddy in time.    

A perilous precedent?

The Paddling Protection Act has been met with sharp criticism, notably from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, but much of its rhetoric simply doesn’t hold water, this being an apt metaphor given the subject material. The coalition’s website claims that the act “strips away the discretion of the National Park Service and sets a perilous precedent for legislating uses into some of our nation’s most cherished natural areas without a public process or adequate analysis.” This statement is patently false on many levels. As noted earlier, all regulatory authority remains with the National Park Service. However, it is the coalition’s claim about the lack of public process that truly reveals the nature of things. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition does not quite seem to grasp the scenario: The whole reason the packraft association chose to pursue legislation is because it was being denied a public process, to say nothing of the fact that processes do not get much more public than moving a bill through Congress.

Wilkinson, the Jackson Hole columnist who called packrafters a “narrow fold of self-interested boaters,” argues passionately against the act but much of his rhetoric amounts to a bunch of carping about the fact that the packraft association chose to ally itself with a Republican. To be fair, Lummis is clearly a member of the kill it, drill it, spill it, mill it crowd.  She’s been at the forefront of the movement to gut the Endangered Species Act, among other things.  

But the opposition seems to have made the mistake of conflating packrafters with the Ted Nugent demographic. It is among the oldest of chestnuts that politics can make for strange bedfellows; the packraft association has a legitimate case, and nobody in mainstream conservation circles cared. In parks like Grand Canyon and Dinosaur, for instance, the packraft association is actively working with park managers to find ways to allow packrafters into the backcountry within existing permitting regimes, a point that seems almost willfully overlooked by the Yellowstone crowd.

Critics have also questioned why it is that paddlers must have access to Yellowstone, particularly when only five of the park’s 168 lakes are closed to boating. Setting aside the fact that a lake doesn’t take you anywhere like a river does, Yellowstone, Meiklejohn contends, is one of the last very few big wild areas left in the Lower 48 where you can do packraft journeys: “It’s like the director of the Smithsonian saying, ‘No, there’s plenty of other museums, you don’t need to come in here.  We think you’re going to degrade the exhibits and offend the other patrons.’”

Only one major accident      

The July day turned out to be long and hot as the racers picked their way down an enormous rock glacier to the put-in beach at McCarthy Creek. They could not have asked for better weather but the park’s safety concerns did prove well founded. One boater lost his raft at the midway rapid, the next station below the gorge and mandatory portage. The support crew had to fish him out of the creek with a throw bag. Fortunately, he was unhurt. This was the only major incident, and all’s well that ends well. Everyone made it down to the bar to laugh and toast their success. The fastest time was four hours and one minute, a blistering pace when covering 17 miles of country and 3,500 feet of elevation.

As for the race and the Wrangell-St. Elias management, Harper and his staff were satisfied.

“We all thought it went really, really well,” Harper said. “The final outcome was really good.  Everybody thought it was a great race and nobody got injured.”

Things went so well, in fact, that KWG just hosted the second-annual McCarthy Creek Packraft Race on July 19. Lessons learned during the 2013 race had an impact. This year, organizers held the pre-race briefing the night before, and made a point of stressing that this is very much a wilderness race, meaning that the racers had to be responsible for looking out for themselves as well as the ecosystems through which they pass. Organizers also staged more support and rescue teams along the route in response to concerns by the Wrangell-St. Elias management.

Safety will no doubt continue to be the watchword for the event, given the death of  Kehrer in the Tana. It’s worth noting that the Alaska Wilderness Classic is a very different event from the McCarthy Creek Race. The Wilderness Classic covers more than a hundred miles of terrain over several days, with no support system along the way, while the McCarthy Creek event is a one-day race over a well-established route with plenty of safety personnel present to help out should things take a turn for the worse. It’s a classic case of comparing apples to oranges, and both head ranger Peter Christian and  Harper say the Wrangell-St. Elias management has no plans to put the brakes on the McCarthy Creek race.

“It’s going to be an ever-evolving thing,” says Jared Steyaert about the planning and permitting process with the National Park Service. “There will be minor tweaks and adjustments but we’ve got a good foundation locked in to build upon.”

Now, with the second McCarthy Creek race in the books, and the Yellowstone-Grand Teton paddling legislation still waiting for its day on the Senate floor, the hope of all involved is that this race can serve as an example of a sustainable and healthy relationship between the packrafting community and the National Park Service.      

Kris Farmen is a novelist, award-winning freelance journalist and former resident of McCarthy. His books include "The Devil’s Share," "Turn Again" and "Weathered Edge."  He divides his time among Homer, Anchorage and Fairbanks.