Outdoors/Adventure

How 2 Alaskans crafted a packrafting book that quickly became a staple for paddlers

Author and outdoor educator Luc Mehl

After a friend died in a tragic packrafting accident almost a decade ago, Luc Mehl shifted his outlook.

The Anchorage resident started to give up much of his swashbuckling backcountry lifestyle to focus on river safety and security.

Within a few years, Mehl became an instructor, giving hands-on direction to small groups in Alaska.

Now he’s authored “The Packraft Handbook.” Originally self-published in 2021, it’s now become the bible for outdoor recreators taking their inflatable rafts into the backcountry.

The book, subtitled “An instructional guide for the curious,” covers everything from equipment and fundamental techniques to river navigation and safety procedures. Illustrated by fellow Alaskan Sarah K. Glaser, the book has found a wider readership this year, a goal Mehl had when he launched the project.

“I had been teaching in-person for maybe three or four years,” Mehl said. “And that felt good. It felt effective. I was doing the safety messaging I wanted to do, but I was reaching like, 40 people a summer, if that.”

He knew there was a larger audience for what he was doing.

“I was just trying to think of how can I get this out to more people,” he said. “I had a vision initially that was like an 80-page manual, like a true handbook.”

Author and outdoor educator Luc Mehl

Those early ambitions for the book were relatively modest. Mehl started writing about boat control and the philosophy of using the river. The final result was an exhaustive but approachable handbook that spans more than 400 pages.

“Then I went from like, a three-month project to quitting my job, so that I could go all in to make that the beast that it’s become,” he said.

Mehl said much of the book is based on personal experiences and, often, misadventures.

“I think the reason this book has been so well received is because I had paid so much attention to my own learning curve,” he said. “I think what has worked really well for people reading the book is that I say, ‘I messed this thing up. And here’s how you can avoid messing this thing up.’ ”

Mehl, who grew up in McGrath, became interested in packrafting when he left Alaska for college. Some of his friends from high school got into rafting and he was intrigued with the adventures they were taking with them.

Packrafting was often a way to make a quick return from a trip into the wilderness or save on the cost of a return flight. It eventually allowed Mehl and his friends to open up the terrain in the backcountry, reaching areas they otherwise couldn’t have by other travel methods.

But it soon shifted from a backpacking accessory to a passion, and he became friends with adventurer Roman Dial and others who opened up Mehl’s experiences with more whitewater runs.

“Oh, these rapids are amazing and these boats are so fun to go off a little waterfall or whatever,” Mehl said, recalling his experiences. “So then I shifted. I got caught up in that and really enjoy that, embracing the water.”

Author and outdoor educator Luc Mehl

As the book started to take shape, Mehl took what he had written and a bit of a market assessment to Mountaineers Books, a Seattle-based publisher that specializes in outdoors and wilderness books.

“They said, ‘This looks really interesting, but we don’t think there’s enough of a market,’ ” Mehl recalled.

That was hard for him to hear, he said. It left him asking: “Should I quit my job and throw it into this thing?”

Mehl was still in the creative process, only 50 or so pages in, when Glaser got on board.

Glaser grew up in Moose Pass and went to school in Seward. Her work as an illustrator was more of a freelance gig she’d developed in between work as a welder, graphic designer and coder. She and her partner had taken Mehl’s swiftwater class after a near-miss on an outdoors adventure of their own.

Glaser and Mehl shared a circle of friends and she had initially created only a few illustrations to go along with Mehl’s pitch to Mountaineers. Even though the pitch was rejected, Glaser’s work became a huge part of the project — in part, Mehl said, because the illustrations could easily show something harder to depict in a photograph, like clearly defined underwater images and slow motion.

“She said for visual learners,” like Glaser and Mehl themselves, “illustrations are way better than photos,” he said.

A Sarah K. Glaser illustration from "The Packraft Handbook"

Glaser’s illustrations brought the book to life, from zooming in on a minute detail to accurately depicting anchor angles.

At the same time, Mehl was crowdsourcing the details of the book among his many friends and experts in the packrafting world. That meant potentially a lot of edits.

“The drawings themselves went through a lot of changes, but it was a really good process,” Glaser said. “Because at the same time, I felt like I was learning and he was clarifying what he was trying to say. So it worked. It worked really well.”

Glaser, who said her style changed throughout the course of the project, drew some inspiration from Mike Clelland, who illustrated outdoor books like “Glacier Mountaineering.”

After the rejection from Mountaineers, Mehl made the decision to self-publish the book. It was a hit and his first run sold out, leaving him at a crossroads.

“For me to publish this book was like writing a $50,000 check,” he said. “I blanked my bank account, borrowed money from my wife — like, full in. And so once I had run out of that first batch of books it was like, ‘We’re going to do this again, and we’re going to write another check?’ ”

Mehl didn’t end up writing a second check. He took the updated version of the book and information about how many he’d self-published and sold to Mountaineers. This time, the publisher said yes.

Author and outdoor educator Luc Mehl

The book went on to be named the 2021 National Outdoor Book Award winner in the outdoor adventure guide category and was officially published by Mountaineers earlier this year.

Dial, who himself had written a packraft guide, called it “the book we’ve all been waiting for.”

While Glaser points to Mehl’s sharp, precise writing as a key to the book’s success, Mehl said the illustrations helped it find a broader audience.

“If we hadn’t been working together on this, it would have been interesting, but it probably would have reached, I don’t know, just a tiny fraction of as many people because the illustrations really are so much more effective,” Mehl said.

A Sarah K. Glaser illustration from "The Packraft Handbook"

At 44, Mehl said he doesn’t have much to prove when it comes to taking high-risk trips despite the fact he’s technically as proficient as he’s ever been.

“I pushed really hard in my 30s, and I did a bunch of stuff I’m really proud of and a bunch of stuff that was sketchy in hindsight,” he said. “And so I came out of that with with this healthy respect for risk and loss, having lost some friends in that same window. I still want to spend my time outdoors. I still love Alaska. And instead of instead of getting my thrills with adrenaline, I’m kind of shifting and it’s becoming more rewarding to try to enable other people to get out safely.”

The book has changed Glaser’s outlook on her illustration work as well as her future prospects in the field.

“I hate to say it changed everything, but I think it’s changed much of where I want to go and my goals,” she said. “Before that, I saw illustration as something that I would do when I had time and would always kind of be a cool side piece and a part of what I did. ... I think it has flipped that to where I think the main thing is concentrating on longer-term book projects.”

Author Luc Mehl and illustrator Sarah K. Glaser

It’s fitting that the quintessential packrafting guide came from a creative duo from Alaska, Mehl said.

“Packrafting is so strongly connected to Alaska with the Alpacka Raft brand starting up here,” he said. “I think that there’s a lot of Alaska pride in packrafting. ... Other parts of the country and other paddlers are pushing the envelope more as far as technical water and what they’re paddling, but Alaskans love these boats. They’re made for this landscape.”

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Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.

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