Packrafting New Zealand

Andrew Harding covers more river miles with less effort

It was Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows) who wrote, ‘there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’ Well, he was right, perhaps only eclipsed by the fine art of fly fishing. Roll back the clock 25 years to the Tararua Ranges at the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island, neck deep in a desolate backcountry gorge, an eel-infested no-man’s land, a ravine that sees an hour of sunlight a day. I’d have killed to have a raft at my disposal to cross those pools. I’d be dry, I’d be warm and I’d feel like there was no barrier capable of stopping my thirst for exploration of Wellington’s magnificent wilderness ever again, but how on earth can you carry a whitewater-capable raft into the back country? The humble lilo was my starting point, and it was a fantastic tool, albeit a rather wet and cold one; crossing gorge pools and pushing upstream against the current was no fun. The lilo served its purpose well though, but was limited to high-summer exploration only, as you got very wet and it was hardly a safe means of navigating ‘tortumptuous’ rapids heading back downstream. It just stopped me from having to swim as much. Packrafts are not new, they have been around since the mid ’70s, a tool developed for traversing the vast Alaskan wilderness. Advancements in the last 10 years have seen them grow enormously in popularity for adventurers, hunters, and tour operators advertising leisurely floats down idyllic, scenic waterways. But the packraft has a meaningful place in fly fishing and for me has served as a primary tool for exploring remote New Zealand waterways for over 10 years now, having taken the punt and imported one of those (at the time) expensive ‘blowup-boats’ from the USA. However, they are still a little known craft in Australia and New Zealand, and are met with a certain amount of skepticism from anglers, and sometimes even angst. PACKRAFT BASICS A packraft is essentially a raft that fits in your pack, weighing less than 3 kg, taking up about the same amount of space as a down sleeping bag, but a sleeping bag sized item that’s capable of running whitewater up to class IV if you dare. Add a carbon paddle weighing less than 700 grams and an inflatable lifejacket and you have an unbelievably handy tool in your pack to tackle any river or other body of water you come across — all this, and able to be comfortably squeezed along with all manner of fly fishing gear into a backpack of merely 35 to 40 litres capacity! In addition to eliminating that 2–3 hour hard slog back to your vehicle after a day traipsing up a river bed in the blazing summer heat, we’ve also been using our packrafts (made by Alpacka, out of Mancos in Colorado) to paddle open bodies of water to access remote streams and stream mouths. Streams that even that quintessential Kiwi river transport tool, the jetboat, is unable to reach due to launching limitations. You don’t need a ramp or beach — anywhere you can stand with ankle deep water is an ideal spot to launch. I still love seeing the look on fellow anglers’ faces when you proceed to pull a full-sized raft from your day-pack… GETTING STARTED The inflation system on packrafts is nothing short of genius! Inflation is via an ultra-light fabric sack that you screw into the raft’s valve, hold open at the other end, wave around a little to scoop up some air, then proceed to squeeze this air into the raft’s single tube. All very easy and surprisingly quick to undertake. You then use your mouth for a few quick breaths to top-up the raft’s volume so it’s nice and firm — something you will also need to do a few times during use, as a packraft needs to be ‘tempered’ to adjust for the expansion and contraction of warm air versus cold water in the initial ten minutes of use. Typically, from unpacking to floating, you’re looking at ten minutes tops. That’s donning your life jacket, strapping your pack and fly rod to the front of the raft, assembling the 4-piece carbon paddle and pushing off. Many packrafts these days come with a waterproof ‘TiZip’ in the stern. This means you can stow items like vests, packs, rods and nets inside the tubes for a clean deck and improved handling on more boisterous white- water should you encounter it — not to mention the safety factor of eliminating the chance of entanglement with any externally mounted gear in the rare chance you do tip-out of these very stable craft. Stability is one of the biggest drawcards of the packraft — you’d have to do something pretty stupid to fall out of one. The wide beam and large diameter pontoons are more than capable of supporting any gear you can throw at them. Even a mountain bike, a deer, or a 20 kg pack strung across the bow does little to affect stability with a 100 kg paddler in tow. Newer trends in design see self-bailing options added by various manufacturers. Yes, you do sit in a small puddle of water, but any water that comes on board is quickly ejected through the holes in the bottom of the boat, eliminating the need to stop every dozen or so pools to empty out the water that does inevitably splash aboard through more boisterous rapids. We’re fly fishers, so we are used to having wet nether-regions! COVERING WATER Covering as much water as possible can do wonders for success on rivers. It simply boils down to more time on the water and more chances at fish. A typical big backcountry day would see us covering about 10-plus kilometres on a large river system. Now that’s a fair walk back — 2 to 3 hours plus — often over ankle-twisting, slippery boulders, and that 2–3 hours, whilst great exercise is the last thing I want to do after being on my feet since dawn. One exploratory trip in particular comes to mind. Dan and I had poured over Google Earth the night before, planning a huge day hike into the headwaters of a large braided river in the very deepest, darkest corner of the South Island. Seldom fished, it was said to be desolate on the trout front, with waterfalls preventing jetboat access — always a major plus when fishing in the South Island! Dan and I walked and stalked, seeing the odd fish here and there and an occasional spawning salmon. With no fish to the net and 3:00 p.m. showing on the dial we contemplated calling it a day and floating back to the car, but pressed on. The rewards came suddenly, with browns averaging 6 lb coming thick and fast. As the sun slipped behind the beech-clad mountains and the native kereru (pigeons) prepared for their dusk missions, Dan and I inflated our rafts. Spent, exhausted and having had one of our most memorable days ever, we simply floated back to the campervan, with the river’s current doing all the leg-work. Where we did have to pull ashore to navigate the falls and a couple of nasty log-jams, hoisting the weight of a sub-3-kg packraft and backpack for a few hundred metres was a non-event. In the slower stretches of river we chewed the fat about life and fishing, Dan sipping on a cup of tea from his thermos — a tradition he’s become accustomed to as part of packraft life. The sedate pace was interspersed by the occasional chute of fast water, where again, virtually no effort was required other than a few paddle strokes to keep on track. At times we were travelling at running pace, this turning into a fast sprint through the whitewater heads. About 35 minutes later we arrived back at the campervan, refreshed and happy. I turned to Dan and said, ‘Mate, that float back was the highlight of my day.’ We both agreed; it’s not often I say that after a day’s fishing. A quick deflate and stowage back under the seat of the campervan. Job done. What an experience… what a fantastic and fun tool. PRACTICALITIES Can you fish from the packrafts themselves? In desperation perhaps, and I have done this a few times. In calm weather you can float and cast, but the single air-chamber nature of the packraft design makes it a bit more susceptible to hook punctures from wayward casts. Not that this is an issue, as contrary to popular belief, a packraft won’t instantly deflate in a death defying ‘whoosh’, but rather slowly lose pressure over the course of a day or more. Patching the incredibly tough TPU coated fabric is very easy and done in minutes, but punctures are not really something you need to worry about. Having dragged my packraft over coarse granite boulders, through scrub, bounced off sharp protruding sticks on central North Island lakes and used it as a sleeping mat (which they double for incredibly well), I’ve yet to see a puncture. What makes them less suitable for stillwater fly fishing is the fact that unless underway, the straight line tracking is quite poor, meaning as soon as you let off the paddle strokes, the raft, having no keel as such, will spin 360 degrees. I for one love this facet of them. When paddling back to the car at the end of the day I simply let off the paddle and gently spin around in the current to get an automatic panorama of New Zealand’s magnificent landscape. It’s as if the packraft wants you to just stop and admire the vista, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Packrafts are the pinnacle of stealth on the river, silent and light. Drawing no more than a few inches of water, it’s incredible how close you can get to fish when floating downstream, far more so than in a kayak or dinghy. Often trout will continue feeding within paddle-reach of your raft. The angst I mentioned earlier can come from fellow anglers downstream of you. Nobody enjoys seeing any form of watercraft bearing down on them in a remote fishery, so some common sense and communication goes a long way to smoothing the frustration of other anglers you might encounter. Pulling out well upstream and walking past with a friendly chat will help to alleviate what could become a tense situation, especially given the rising popularity of packrafts in the backcountry of New Zealand. As a tool for fly fishing and lazy buggers like myself, packrafts are simply wonderful.

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