2010-07-22

The Education Continues...

So, the Coal, Wood, Glitter trip may not have worked out for various reasons as I'll explain below, but the time wasn't a complete flop. What JR & I learned in 4.5 days and 1500 miles of driving through Alaska is impressive, I think.
Here's my take on it all...



Before starting a big trip, do extensive research on the feasibility and safety of the route, including land ownership and activity (mining?), and talk to someone who’s done the route already and get their opinion and notes. Otherwise, do a scouting trip prior to the main trip, or just keep things simple according to what information is available.

Bikes are extremely beneficial to use for backcountry travel in nearly all mountainous environments, but they extremely complicate the trip to the point where they may not be practical for more than one night’s worth of travel, as they are very fragile and mechanically complicated. Breakages occur far too frequently for practical application of mountain bikes on extended backcountry travel, in my opinion. See Eric Parson's accounts of their Lost Coast, Wrangell Mountains, and 2010 AMWC trips, regarding the catastrophic failures they had. However, bikes were apparently built better back in the day when Roman Dial did his Hellbiking across the Alaska Range.

When going on a trip, plan for all possible types of recreation. For example, if going on a biking and packrafting trip, also bring hiking gear in case your plans change. On the attempted route, bikes proved to be impractical, but the route could have been hiked and packrafted in the time we had available. Unfortunately, we did not have quite the appropriate hiking gear to attempt the route without bikes, since we were originally planning on carrying all our gear on the bikes. This prevented the route from being accomplished, all together.

Packrafts were made for Alaskan rivers and backcountry travel. However, paddling on lakes without current for more than just a simple and short crossing is slow and strenuous, especially if there are headwinds, which is normally the case. Stick to current, mostly rivers, above class I, to make it interesting and appropriate for using a packraft.

Sleeping on packrafts allows for a simpler and more comfortable approach to packraft/raftpack camping, if executed properly. When sleeping on a packraft right side up (floating style), the raft should be inflated to 4-5 inflation bags worth of air to allow for a soft mattress and the highest amount of comfort. I used a Llama, although I am only 6' tall, and I slept very comfortably by laying inside the boat, with my head on the stern and feet propped up on the bow, almost similar to a hammock. Sleeping on the packraft upside down provides a soft, flat surface that is elevated off the ground, almost comparable to a quality cot. The raft should be deflated some (from full inflation) and lie flat on the ground when laying atop it (just soft enough to flatten out the upturned bow and stern). Remember that an inflated raft is more puncture resistant than a deflated raft used as a ground sheet. Be extremely cognizant of your campsite selection as to reduce the amount of abrasion on the raft as much as possible. Putting a sleeping pad on the floor greatly increases the thermal efficiency of the set-up and will allow more comfortable, longer lasting sleep in both raft scenarios. I could feel a significant difference between laying on the pad and off of it, where my feet happened to be. The two inflated packrafts were used inside of a GoLite Hex 3 shelter (one Llama & one Yak). Although it was tight, there was still enough room to set shoes, etc, between the rafts and have room for backpacks near the head and feet of the hexagonal shelter.

Sleeping bags are not necessary for travel during summer in Alaska’s backcountry. Clothing applicable to the current weather conditions is sufficient for sleeping when combined with a light bivy bag, in the proper shelter. We used our clothing, coupled with 6.5 oz ripstop/silnylon bivy bags, and slept on our packrafts under a GoLite Hex 3. The packrafts fit well in the hexagonal teepee shelter, which seemingly holds heat well. We were able to sleep for a full 8+ hours, most of which was almost too warm. Being too warm can pose problematic, though, as one would become damp from sweat and then cool far too much to remain comfortable. Sleeping bags, however, provide a great amount of comfort and security, which can also be lighter and more practical than sleeping in clothing only. After wearing clothing all day, in all weather conditions, the clothing can be damp and sleep can be challenging. We found the system of bringing just enough clothes for the conditions and a slightly lighter sleeping bag than appropriate for the conditions was the most effective and lightest technique when used together, as a sleeping system. This is the same findings and methodology that many adventurers on light and extended backcountry trips have agreed upon and found to be most effective.

Prior to going on an extended backcountry trip, test every piece of gear, system, and technique you will be using on the trip in a smaller-scale version of the same difficulty as the trip to be attempted. This is mandatory to evaluate the most practical and effective gear and techniques for accomplishing the goal to minimize problems and increase efficiency.

It has been commonly found that the standard u-shaped seat in packrafts puts pressure on the sciatic nerve in the hips/butt and causes legs to ‘fall asleep.’ I inflated a 2.5L platypus bag bottle and placed it in a drysack, strapped to the back/bottom of the u-shaped seat. This gave support from directly underneath my butt and decreased pressure on the sciatic nerve, completely eliminating the dead leg problem. Bottom line: I found that a flat or slightly contoured/flat seat is ten-fold more comfortable than the standard seat in packrafts and it eliminated the problem of my legs falling painfully asleep after only 45 minutes of paddling.

Sufficient rest/sleep is one of the most critical aspects of a trip to be able to perform at a competent and safe level, especially when in remote regions on a backcountry adventure.

Running a larger packraft than what is the ‘proper’ fit is very beneficial for increased flotation, stability, room, and I personally think the larger boats track better. However, one must adjust for the increased length by putting gear or an inflated dry bag under the deck in the bow or moving the seat forward and modifying the deck to compensate for the adjusted sitting position. Do this, and you'll be far better off than the standard fit model if you plan on running any larger whitewater. See Roman Dial's blog for modifications.

Being a resident of the Middle Tanana Valley in Interior Alaska, I’ve gotten used to the warm, dry weather and getting wet during a float, especially when day-boating, isn’t an issue, thus resulting in rain gear being sufficient in order to stay dry (at least to a degree). However, south of the Alaska Range (mostly around Anchorage and south onto the Kenai Peninsula), weather can often be cool and wet for days, plus much of the water is glacier-fed and cold. I’ve found this is where spray tops and dry suits would be beneficial to stay dry and comfortably warm.

Febreeze is a god-send for water shoes that go through the wet-dry process, which really can cause a nasty funk.

Denali National Park is apparently the only place in Alaska with a real population of brown or grizzly bears. I’ve seen some incredibly wild areas of Alaska, including the Kenai Peninsula, and Denali is the only place where I’ve seen a real habitation, although the salmon weren’t ‘running.’ I’d love to see otherwise, but have yet to.

An inflatable floor for the packraft is a huge advantage for running whitewater. After doing some shallow water butt-boating with and (unfortunately) without a 2.5 inch thick inflatable sleeping pad floor, I’ve come to love carrying the extra 11.5 oz for the benefits it offers. Not only does it stiffen and stabilize the boat, but it flattens the bottom of the boat and eliminates the sag created by your weight directly below the seat which can cause some serious dragging that is completely avoidable. Also, it raises you up in the boat, allowing for better vision on the water. This means a higher center of gravity, which is acceptable because it doesn’t give you the buried in the boat type feeling you get when only sitting on the stock inflatable seat. I like being up higher and feel more capable and responsive because of it. The inflatable floor principle is exactly why a flat-bottomed jet boat performs better than a v-hull in shallow water boating. Your packraft will be flatter & stiffer, with less drag & better visibility. Well worth the weight.

Fleece is awesome under a spray top, drysuit, or just rain gear for insulation. It’s soft, gives that under-the-covers type comfort, and retains its loft well, plus it’s fairly warm for its weight when layered under a waterproof layer. I’d much rather run a fleece under my spray top or drysuit than an ultralight, thin poly fill jacket, exclusively for the comfort, even if it is an ounce or two heaver. How much is that comfort worth to you? Only hiking and no boating? Then, I prefer to carry synthetic insulated jackets any day.

I took the handles off my titanium 1L pot and found it to be more user-friendly than with the handles on. The flip-out handles would often get in the way when packing and were more of a nuisance. The titanium loses heat incredibly fast and if just moving the pot from a fire or off the stove to the ground, handles are best left at home. Melting snow and pouring food, etc? Maybe think otherwise.

When trying to go fast and light, a butane stove is absolutely worth the weight for its sheer speed of use. While denatured alcohol ‘cat stoves’ are far simpler in design and fairly fast, plus super light, they are more finicky and complicated in their use, super susceptible to wind, and slower than butane, which is functionally simple in the can and burner, with not a whole lot to break or have problems with (above freezing). I like simplicity, but simplicity in function can be more important than simplicity in design, depending on the application. How often have you heard of a high-quality butane stove breaking or not working?

As a professional photographer, I know what good picture quality is and I’m quite the snob about it. I also know that a big and heavy SLR is best carried in a backpack, exactly where it can’t take photos. This is why I’ve come to love my new Sony Cybershot TX-5 because it’s waterproof and takes awesome quality photos, plus has amazing features that make it a true 2010 camera, unlike some of the other waterproofs that you’d swear were from 1998. Not only do I take way more photos with it, but at ¾” thick, I can store it in the front pocket of pants or napoleon pocket on a jacket, and also strap it to my helmet with a Gorillapod for taking 780p video while packrafting. Get one. You’ll love it.

This is what I've learned in less than one week of adventure travelling.
I may be out of school, but the education continues.

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