The scale of our adventure didn’t hit me until the yellow Cessna 185 bounced down the grass airstrip and slowly climbed above the trees. I couldn’t look away and watched it vanish in the distance, the hum of the engine replaced with the buzz of mosquitos and the quiet of wilderness. A quick survey of our surroundings put everything in sharp perspective. Our only way out of the Alaskan bush involved a 45-mile packraft down a wild river. Adding to the excitement, I had only learned to paddle my wee boat hours earlier. Before my nerves got the better of me, I reminded myself why I was there.
Somewhere in the midst of my adventurous lifestyle I stopped learning new skills and trying new things. When asked if I wanted to join a group of seven other friends on a packrafting trip, my initial response was a firm, “No thanks, I don’t do rivers.” When informed the outing included professional instruction, my no turned into a tepid maybe. It was the destination that tipped the balance. As a former resident of Alaska I never pass up a chance to go back––and so I went.
If we’re not careful, our regular activities conspire to keep us cordoned within well-defined comfort zones
Three days before waving goodbye to our bush plane––in the bush––our group of rookie packrafters gathered in the historic mining town of McCarthy. The gateway to Wrangell Saint Elias National Park, it’s one of the most beautiful and authentic Alaskan towns in the state. Which is to say there are fewer than 200 residents, but two fantastic bars. It’s also home to the mavens of all things packraft, Kennicott Wilderness Guides.
During our first day of instruction, Jared Steyaert, the owner of KWG, brought us to the shores of a glassy lake on the edge of town. There we met Spencer Williamson, our primary guide and instructor. I would best describe him as a rare variant of an Alaskan centaur, half man and half packraft. Although he has legs and walks on land, I know as I’ve seen him do it, he is most at home squeezed into his little boat.
After a solid hour sorting gear we finally launched rafts into the lake like a little jelly bean colored armada. Spencer taught us the basic fundamentals of paddle strokes and boat control with a few wet-exits thrown in to build confidence. For a bunch of experienced outdoor athletes, our first few hours were clumsy at best, but by morning’s end, we matriculated to moving water. There we bobbled over every slight ripple and swirl in the water’s surface. Rapids? Those still seemed impossible on day one, but through the magic of good tutelage and collective stoke, the second day involved wave trains, hydraulics, and practiced wet-exits in tumultuous conditions. What seemed intimidating at the onset was made fun. Spencer eventually gave us the thumbs up. We were ready.
Although watching our plane disappear over the horizon put my stomach in knots, the backcountry reminded me why Alaska is so special. Within hours of arriving at our lakeside camp we spotted six brown bears amidst a backdrop of craggy mountains and fields of purple flowers. The summer solstice looped the sun around the night sky and a full moon hovered over snowy peaks. Just when it seemed Mother Nature could deliver no more, the glacier only a few hundred yards away calved into the lake in a jaw-dropping display of power. It was the most incredible evening I had ever spent in our 49th state.
For the next two days, our packrafting posse tumbled over rapids and rallied every time we survived a tough section unscathed. Perhaps it was the newness of our shared experience that made it so rewarding. Anytime we’d pick a bad line or get caught in tight spot, Spencer and Jared shouted helpful instructions, always followed with words of encouragement. And just as quickly as it started, it came to an end. The put-in was quieted by nerves and trepidation. The take-out hushed by a sense it was over all too soon.
Everyone has preferred hobbies and things we like to do. If we’re not careful, our regular activities conspire to keep us cordoned within well-defined comfort zones. It was refreshing to tackle a big outing as a newbie. It felt good being bumbly and awkward and I reveled in new skills learned with enough proficiency to put them to use in such a beautiful landscape. I went into my Alaskan packrafting adventure as a greenhorn. After just a few days I left as––still a greenhorn––but one with experience and a big story to tell.