By: Scott Nechemias
Scott Nechemis is an avid backcountry backpacker, but this was his first time packrafting. He, his partner Jordan McKinney, and Aqua Bound ambassador Dan Ransom took an overnight trip to the John Day River. Located in eastern Oregon, the John Day River flows through several colorful canyons, broad valleys, and breathtaking terrain. You can also see a variety of Oregon backcountry wildlife from bighorn sheep, mule deer, and elk to peregrine falcons and bald eagles. Here is Scott’s trip report:
Jordan McKinney, first-time packrafter, paddling on the John Day River.
In my early thirties I started to take the plunge into ultralight backpacking, a world where backcountry enthusiasts communicate in a special lingo that I did not speak. Terms like baseweight, consumables, and arcane initializations like TPW (total pack weight) and FSO (from skin out). After a few years down the rabbit hole, you’d find me without hesitation rattling off a sentence such as “the last 2.5 layer shell I had was 10D, had a 4000mm hydrostatic head, and a very low CFM, but I found myself looking for something… wanting something with a 20K plus g/m2”. This sort of talk was a real hit on first dates.
That descent into the rabbit hole of ultralight backpacking was very much on my mind as I watched Dan proceed to unload item after item of gear from his van that I didn’t even know what to call it, nonetheless how it compared to a similar product. I mostly remained silent as the words “comb,” “spray skirt,” “thigh straps,” “rigging” and “twinkies” were thrown around and watched as Dan and my partner Jordan loaded up their packs and followed suit as seemed appropriate.
The twinkies turned out to not be of the edible sort, which was OK, because I had packed other Hostess products in large quantities. Inwardly I reflected that if miniature lemon bundt cakes also turn out to be a part of a boat I might be in for a long weekend.
A “twinkie” is a slang term used in packrafting to describe placing dry bags in the Internal Storage System (ISS) of a packraft, typically found in the stern. Alpacka Raft makes Internal Drybags specific for their models, but other dry bags can also be used. If you’re interested in learning more about packrafting gear storage, check out this short introductory article by winterbear.com.
We finished loading up our packs and made the trek 6.5 miles down to the John Day River’s Thirty Mile Boat launch, which is closed to vehicles from November to May but makes a pleasant enough walk down to the river, which was good considering the filled to the brim pack I was carrying. In addition to the weight of the rafting gear, I’d brought different styles of layers to wear under my drysuit, figuring the coming days would provide some good opportunities to experiment. That, plus the extra packrafting gear, made for a carry that in normal three-season-conditions would be the equivalent of 16 or so days without having to resupply.
The plan was to raft the 45-or-so river miles down to Cottonwood State Park where we had left Jordan’s car. The funny thing about being such a fish out of water on this trip is that it was because… I was on the water. I know this area potentially better than anyone. I’ve spent many nights hiking the Thirty Mile and Lower John Day Wilderness Study Areas overland and had used very small rafts to skitter across the river when needed, but never undertook extended travel on the river.
In relatively short order, which must have seemed like an eternity to those well-practiced, we were on the river taking in the canyons and enjoying little bits of fast-moving water here and there, generally moving at a leisurely pace.
I got to ingest more lingo about C’s and V’s, surrounded by red and green cliff faces dotted with little yellow wildflower blooms that competed for my attention. The weather turned a little sour and we took a late afternoon rain pelting that eventually turned into a magical double rainbow.
We were pretty giddy about the sky having given us all the beauty we could ask for short of flying unicorns and narwhals. It was a bit like finding yourself living in the art you might find on an elementary student's trapper keeper.
We pulled up to a fine river camp perfectly placed at the start of the next morning’s side hike. Dan walked us through our boat care for the evening, and then we made camp just in time for a spring thunderstorm. It passed, as did the rest of the night in a peaceful manner.
The second day of the trip started with a 6-mile side hike, and so I once again found myself on my specialty, terra firma. We unhooked our bow bags, which conveniently transition into daypacks, and set off to climb up and around the rim of a big horseshoe bend in the river. We returned on the middle bench before dropping back down to our river camp.
Once back in camp I was able to get my gear together and loaded up with slightly more alacrity than the previous day, a sure sign of progress in my eyes even though it had nothing to do with paddle skill per se. I have a natural disdain for gear fussing taking up trip time, so I was happy to see most of the bits and pieces that had seemed mysterious and time consuming the day before now fit naturally in place with an obvious purpose the second time around. Pondering the gap between my abilities afoot versus afloat, I thought of my favorite stanza from Coledridge’s RIme of the Ancient Mariner and giggled:
I took the oars: the Pilot's boy,
Who now doth crazy go,
Laughed loud and long, and all the while
His eyes went to and fro.
'Ha! ha!' quoth he, 'full plain I see,
The Devil knows how to row.
Back on the water we resumed our lazy downriver travel, but still putting miles behind us at a boggling pace to my hiker’s mindset. As the sights passed, I gleaned a few more tips from Dan and offered insight to the lands and side canyons not in view from the river at an attempt in relevancy. It turned out our second planned side hike would have come much too early in the day, and we were enjoying the spectacular scenery, so we resolved to do a few more river miles than planned to be positioned at another point of interest in the morning. We were rewarded for this with more red and green cliff faces, views of some mule deer, white tail, and bighorn, and another spectacular camp. The second evening was fair and calm, making for some social whiskey time before turning in.
The following morning, we had a few extended episodes of what Dan called “Bighorn TV”, as a small herd was hanging out on the cliffs on the opposite side of the river. This is about the best view entertainment you can get with your morning coffee.
Bighorn TV courtesy of Dan Ransom
After suitable levels of caffeine were bodily onboarded, I led the group around the bend back upriver to see some huge chunks of basalt cliffs that had sheared off and settled leaning against a cliff face. They sit just a couple contours above the river on a line that doesn’t look hikeable, but an easy travel is possible to walk through the gaps between the cliffs and the fallen rock slabs, creating what Jordan refers to as the “Doors of Destiny.”
The “Doors of Destiny” formed by cliffs and fallen rock slab make for an epic hike.
Returning back to camp, we packed up and took note of the rapidly rising river. The pace from here to the car was a speedy and uneventful 6mph, except for the moment I smacked into a wave sideways and launched myself from my raft into the welcoming bosom of the John Day River. Turns out dry suits really do work as advertised.
Dan corralled my raft, Jordan corralled me, and I learned that I am far better at getting back into a raft than staying in one–at least with my present amount of experience. Presumably there are more such moments in my future.
Back at the car we broke down gear to shuttle back to our first car, and I found myself categorizing and sorting all the new information in my head. One thing that strikes me as fascinating about packrafting is it seems like a lot of the technical skills such as paddling, reading water, and familiarization with gear can be done in front country day trips, especially in my home locale of Portland, Oregon, surrounded by plentiful rivers with waters of all classes. All of these thoughts were spinning in my head, but most of all plotting what my trip will be with a raft in my pack.
On this trip, we carried 3 separate paddles, mainly so we could swap between them to try different options. We carried a Shred Carbon, a Manta Ray Fiberglass in the new Sunset Red, and a Whiskey Fiberglass in Fuego, all 200cm and all 4 pieces.
Each of the three options had their strengths and weaknesses, but for this trip the Whiskey and the Manta Ray were preferred simply because of their lower swing weight and the ounces they saved when carrying them in the pack. In more challenging whitewater, the Shred would probably be the better choice, but for this trip with class I+ water, the lighter paddles were the perfect option.
When comparing the snap-button of the Manta Ray with the Posi-Lok on the Whiskey, we all unanimously prefer the Posi-Lok, which allows infinite feather angles which was awesome for our first time paddling to figure out what angle was the most comfortable.
All photos courtesy of Dan Ransom.
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