During the September long weekend almost five years ago, two groups of adventure-seekers hiked into a remote lake in the Yukon, each unaware of the other’s presence. They both had the same goal: paddle the Primrose River, a stretch of difficult-to-expert whitewater tempered by a couple of scenic lakes and a mandatory portage around a deadly waterfall.
Primrose Lake is only about 12 kilometres from the nearest jumping-off point on a mining road, but Theresa Landman and her husband Bob Daffe probably hiked about three times that distance to get in. Each carried a 50-pound kayak over one shoulder, in addition to their paddling and camping gear and several days food that they packed into stuff sacks and looped through their paddles, hobo-style. The couple had to make multiple trips back and forth to lug all of their stuff. Sometimes, they had to line their kayaks down steep areas with ropes. “It was a grunt,” recalls Landman. “It was a long 12 kilometres.”
A couple of days later, they ran into three men near the portage around the waterfall. Paul Burbidge, Dylan Stewart and Paul Christensen were following the same route down the Primrose River to Kusawa Lake, but they were carrying packrafts—inflatable whitewater boats that can weigh less than 10 pounds and fit into a backpack.
Burbidge first heard about packrafts a year before his Primrose trip and, as a surveyor who spends a lot of time in the air and looking at maps, he immediately saw their potential. He liked the idea of hiking a boat into a remote area that would be unreachable—or at least, impractical—with a traditional boat. “You can go pretty much anywhere, really,” Burbidge says.
Packrafting is not new. Arctic explorers brought portable, inflatable boats on expeditions way back in the 19th century. But the sport has slowly grown since 2000, when a company based in Alaska started making lightweight vessels designed for river travel. Packrafts became popular among hardcore adventure racers in that state and interest has gradually spilled over into the Yukon and beyond.
The Primrose wasn’t the first time Landman and Daffe had lugged their kayaks into a remote area. They love discovering new rivers. The expert kayakers had even, on occasion, brought their boats out by snowmobile in the winter and then hiked to them in the spring to begin their paddle.
Sure, they knew all about packrafts, but they weren’t about to take them down a difficult river. Daffe, the founder of river-guiding company Tatshenshini Expediting, had let a couple of packrafters join a day-trip a few years earlier. It was a decision he quickly regretted. The packrafts were round like “bucket boats” and flipped easily. And, he says, the packrafters with him didn’t know how to rescue themselves after they capsized. He told Landman he wasn’t letting packrafts on any trips again. “He thought they were the stupidest boat out there,” Landman says.
Daffe’s scepticism might have been validated had he and Landman joined up with Burbidge and friends on the lower Primrose. They paddled on ahead and, when they were downriver, Burbidge went for a long, cold swim. He capsized in a boulder garden and ended up half-swimming, half-bushwacking along the shore for a couple of kilometres to catch up with his boat and his friends. Burbidge wasn’t travelling in a first-generation “bucket boat” but the Primrose is a difficult river and he was still learning. “No drysuit, no helmet, no smarts,” says Burbidge about that first season packrafting.
Burbidge was unfazed, but others have been brought past the edge of their comfort zone. As the sport grew in the Yukon, packrafters started knocking on Daffe’s door. Could he teach them some river rescue skills? He obliged, and finally tried out a packraft for the first time. That’s when he realized the designs have greatly improved since he first laid eyes on them. “It was a totally different boat,” he says. They were shaped differently, more streamlined and buoyant.
As for Landman, she was quickly hooked. “They’re so forgiving and so fun,” she says. Packrafts are less tippy and more comfortable than kayaks and they don’t have that wedged-in coffin feel. Even though she’s a kayaker at heart, Landman loves how “stress-free” packrafting is.
If business at Tatshenshini Expediting is any indication, the packrafting boom is just beginning. Last year, no one signed up for the company’s kayaking course but they ran two full packrafting courses. The two U.S. companies that supply most of the packrafts in the Yukon say they’re shipping more boats to the territory than ever before.
“I personally think the Yukon and neighbouring wilderness areas of Northern B.C. and NWT have nearly as much packrafting potential as Alaska, which is the most popular packrafting location,” says Thor Tingley of Alpacka Raft, a manufacturer that started in Alaska, but is now based out of Colorado. “We have definitely noticed that packrafting interest in Canada and particularly the Yukon is growing.”
Burbidge says there’s lots of room for it. Chances are, most newbies won’t be crowding the rivers he’s on anyway. He and his friends have learned a lot since their early days on the water. Last summer, they pulled off their biggest trip yet—a 21-day expedition in the NWT’s Mackenzie Mountains with 150 kilometres of hiking and 1,000 kilometres of paddling on ten rivers. The trip was ambitious. “Many canoe groups take five to seven days to tackle the Little Nahanni [River],” Burbidge wrote on his blog. “We had budgeted a day.”
Meanwhile, Daffe and Landman are busy planning guided multi-day packrafting trips. Even Daffe, a gruff paddling purist, has developed a fondness for the packrafting community. He says their sense of adventure reminds him of his youth, when dragging kayaks and canoes into new rivers was a regular activity.
“Packrafting has that same exploratory feeling,” he says. “You can walk over a mountain with a boat and try a new river.”