Dumping is fun, and other lessons learned in a pack rafting safety class

A bunch of us from Fairbanks headed down to the Willow area last weekend to take a pack rafting safety class from Jim Gonski of the Alaska Kayak Academy. The class is highly recommended – I learned a lot.

Some of the things that I learned, in no particular order:

  • Flipping is no big deal – we spent quite a bit of time in the water, which made me quite a bit more comfortable in moving water out of the boat. I also had the experience of being the only student who flipped accidentally – hurrah for me! Amazingly it was while everyone was watching too – success! The end result was that I learned that flipping was not a big deal.
  • Getting back in after flipping is also not a  big deal – we spent a bit of time on getting back into the packrafts after flipping – it was a lot easier than I expected.
  • Throwbags and helmets are a good idea in any sort of harder water. After watching another student having a bit of trouble getting out of a flipped packraft it was pretty clear that head protection of some sort is a really good idea. On the second day as we got ready to float we had to toss a throw bag some random packrafter who had dumped just upstream of our put in. Alas, my throwbag is about 1lb dry, and lots more wet – I think a future sewing project will be to sew a slightly lighter throw bag made of less absorbent material that still allows the rope to dry. More to come on this subject..
  • Eddies are fun – I knew intellectually how eddies can be used to slow down and reposition, but this class really brought out their usefulness. I need to find a section of river with some good eddies to practice with (or perhaps play?)  the greater Fairbanks area!
  • Those extra strokes – I had learned the sculling and draw strokes, and to some extent learned when to use them. They appear to be quite a bit more useful than I initially expected..
  • Even day one should pack the minimum set of backup gear – in the class one of the students lost her valve cap, leading to sudden deflation excitement. One one had a backup cap, a inflation cap, or even a patch kit.. This drove home the point that even on short day pack raft trips I should carry the minimum set of emergency gear.
  • River ratings are very subjective – the hardest section of Willow Creek we did was according to the instructor, rated class III. It felt much more like class II stuff though, so I guess ratings must vary a lot and are perhaps subjective.
  • Rigging – I have a line all the way around my boat – a “fun-rail” as Roman Dial calls it. My boat was used for the classe’s test flips, and no one got tangled up in them or lost hold of the boat, so I guess this was a success.

    The instructor’s boat was rigged like this:

    • View of the “fun-rail”
    • The grab line on the bow

    Some of the interesting thing to note – he had the full around rail, a daisy chained line on the bow, and a “flip line” made of webbing which is supposed to help you flip the boat over after an upset. He also had a whiffle ball attached to the spray skirt’s release tab – alas I have no pictures of that.

Alas, I am afraid I was not the best student – I had a hard time paying attention with all the river noise, my packraft ADD, and the hockey helmets we had on. I also regret not taking some extra runs Saturday evening, as we had dry suits and Willow Creek was very, very fun.

I think I will take it again next year – especially if Jim G. offers a class that is the “next step” up in difficulty.  I might also take the full on swift water rescue class, though all the rigging drills sound less than useful.

In any case, this class is highly recommended – everyone who packrafts and has the free time should take it.

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