Packrafting Western Lakes

Greg French adds a new ‘pool toy’ to his bag of tricks

Many of my favourite wilderness lakes are too scrubby for practical shore-based fishing and too deep to wade. What I’ve always wanted is a good packable boat – something lightweight, easily manoeuvrable on the water, well suited to polaroiding, fast enough for chasing fish, big enough for two anglers. Over the years I’ve tried all manner of float tubes, polypropylene kayaks and inflatable water striders (float boats). All proved to be so heavy and cumbersome that I eventually gave up using them. SINGLES I first encountered packrafts while campaigning to maintain free public access to Tasmania’s Western Lakes. In 2019, during the Reclaim Malbena rally, a bunch of fellow activists used packrafts to transport themselves across Lake Malbena to the newly privatised Halls Island. Many of these people belonged to a community of wilderness whitewater rafters, and regularly kayaked the Nive River from Malbena all the way to Gowan Brae (trawtha makuminya). I trialled a couple of the one-person models being used during the protest, but was underwhelmed. Surely no trout hunter would enjoy sitting so low in the water, or being spun around by the wind whenever he put down the paddle to cast a fly. I could see that these lightweight inflatable kayaks might be useful as a method of transport on some of my favourite New Zealand backcountry streams (see Andrew Harding’s excellent article on page 38), but I couldn’t justify the cost, not for one expedition every couple of years. Anyway, I got a bit uneasy about what NZ rivers might look like if packrafting really took off. DOUBLES Meanwhile, at the same Malbena protest, my friends Ric and Janet took the opportunity to trial a two-person packraft. This model was more of an inflatable Canadian canoe than a kayak, and it seemed like it might be better suited for fishing. ‘You can try before you buy’, the owners suggested helpfully. ‘Pack Raft Australia rents them, and the Paddle Tasmania website lists a number of helpful clubs.’ Janet ultimately organised with Paddle Tasmania for her and Ric to trial an Alpacka ‘Oryx’ at a weekend rafting school on Tassie’s famous Mersey Whitewater. Afterwards she concluded that the Canadian-style Oryx wasn’t suitable for whitewater because you sat too high out of the water and were prone to fall out. But she and Ric were impressed by the craft’s performance on Lake Parangana. I ribbed them about the cost – almost $3,000 including the paddle and other essentials. ‘But it’s so lightweight,’ Ric insisted. ‘Less than 5 kg all up.’ PLANNING Last summer we Tasmanians endured a long stretch of unseasonably lousy fishing conditions. Eventually, though, Ric phoned with good news. ‘There’s a three-day window of perfect weather ahead – blue sky, light breezes. Janet and I have bitten the bullet and bought an Oryx. Do you want to come out to the Western Lakes with us?’ ‘I can see it now,’ I protested. ‘You guys lazing back in the raft, me scrub-bashing my way through tea-tree, banksia and hakea carrying the bulk of your camping gear.’ ‘The raft is easily capable of carrying all three of us, plus all our gear,’ Ric insisted, somewhat disingenuously I thought. We decided to start off by walking the Juno Creek Track (a vague footpad) from the Mersey Forest Road to the outflow of Lake Louisa. That would involve trekking 400 m uphill over a couple of kilometres – not too much of a grunt. From here we could paddle 4 km to the head of Louisa, then scrub-bash our way up the inflow creek – a 200 m climb over 1 km – to trout-free Lake Poa, where we could set up a base camp on a sheltered bed of coral fern. The next day we could do a daytrip to Lake Meston. That would involve just two kilometres of relatively flat going (each way) on a well-formed track, giving us plenty of time to paddle on the lake. And on the last day we could walk out via the well-formed Lake Myrtle Track past lakes Myrtle and Bill – a walk of just 8 km, mostly flattish except for the final dramatic descent of 400 m over 1 km. LOUISA Lake Louisa is surrounded by rainforest, including a magnificent stand of giant King Billy pines in the north-eastern corner. Delightful camps can be scouted out on the mossy forest-floor east of the outflow. The weather was warm and still when we arrived, and had we been confined to shore we would have been frustrated by the sound and sight of numerous brown trout leaping for black spinners and blue damsels along the deep outer edges of the pin-rushes. I watched apprehensively as Ric and Janet quickly set up their new watercraft. The thin plastic gave it the appearance of a pool toy. I half expected it to have a swan’s neck and officious label warning that it not be used without parental supervision. The real shock, however, was the ‘cargo hold’. The stern had a waterproof TiZip, the same as the one on my waterproof daypack, giving easy access to the interior of the inflatable ‘doughnut tube’. There were no baffles, so everything slid in easily – our sleeping bags, spare clothes, tent, food, alcohol and three backpacks. More than 60 kg in total. Everything stowed, Ric zipped up the hull, attached an ‘inflation bag’ to a special valve and, after a few minutes of pumping, the boat was ready to use. (Andrew Harding is right – the inflation system is brilliant.) It was hard to believe that we had so much gear hidden inside, hard to believe that the floor and sides were so completely uncluttered. Next, Janet inflated two plastic seats, one for the paddler at the back and another for the angler at the front. ‘We polaroiders like riding high,’ Ric said, needlessly. The paddle was ingenious too – a six-piece carbon-fibre contraption that could be converted into either one double-bladed kayak paddle or two single-bladed canoe paddles. ‘Impressed?’ Ric asked smugly. ‘Most anglers would worry that the red hull would scare the fish,’ I countered. ‘Will it?’ Janet asked. ‘No,’ I conceded. ‘I’ve used all manner of rafts over the years and, no matter the colour, it’s amazing how close you can get to trout when drifting naturally. Sometimes you can float right over them without spooking them. The only things you have to be careful of are the paddles. When you’re close to spooky fish, the slightest dip of a blade can scare the scales off them. Paddling is as big a skill as fishing.’ I opted to wade the short stretch of shallow water so I could take photos of my mates in action. Then, after they’d boated several fine trout, I hopped into the bow and the three of us headed towards the other end of the lake. With three aboard, things were a little cramped, but it was still a cinch to chase down rising trout. Fishing to the late-afternoon beetle feeders was a real joy. SAFETY Over the course of the day, the breezes mostly ranged from 5–10 km/h, making things easy for both boat handler and angler. At 15 km/h we could still fish reasonably well, but had the wind reached 20 km/h, I think we’d have got off the water. Although the boat was amazingly stable, Janet insisted that paddler and paddle be tethered (separately) to the raft. ‘If you fall out, the boat will blow away in a flash.’ She was easily the most experienced paddler amongst us, so we weren’t about to argue, not even when she insisted that we wear a PFD when paddling more than a short distance offshore. ‘I know we’re all strong swimmers, but if the water and air were even slightly cooler you’d be mad not to wear a PFD at all times.’ ‘What if we get a puncture,’ I asked. ‘Will we shoot off like an errant balloon?’ ‘This material doesn’t rip, so any leak is going to be slow,’ Janet insisted. ‘It pays to be careful with snags though, and to always carry a repair kit.’ MESTON The next day we went to Lake Meston as planned, and this was the day I was really able to contextualise the practicalities of packrafting. Meston is one of my all-time favourite lakes and I fish it multiple times every year. It’s a big, open, rainbow-only water where the fish love to feed along the deepest banks and in the offshore windlanes. Beetles and midges are staples, and if you can get out to where the fish are, big bags are there for the taking. Because boating is such an advantage on this water, I’ve spent a lot of time fishing from a float boat (Craig Rist has too – FL#82). The main problem with my float boat is that it weighs 20 kg (including accessories) and is only designed to carry one person. On top of that, the design incorporates a half-floor, so your legs dangle in the water. If you want to polaroid properly, you have to kneel on the seat while you row. The half floor also means that the craft pushes a lot of water, making rowing at speed a chore. I preferred almost everything about the packraft. The weight (5 kg shared between two people) was the biggest advantage. But polaroiding was easier, and paddling was easier. I’d have no qualms about circumnavigating Meston several times in a day, and no qualms about chasing-down offshore rainbows in a 10 km/h breeze. My only trepidation was when a huge wedge-tailed eagle came in for a very close look, hovering persistently above us, seemingly at arm’s length. We’d recently watched an eagle take out an annoying drone (hilariously funny once we’d reassured ourselves that the bird was unharmed) and I wondered if the red hull might trigger an aggression response. But the bird seemed more curious than alarmed, and our apprehension soon morphed into delight. BILL On the last day, we walked past Lake Myrtle and put-in at Lake Bill. Bill is shallower than most nearby lakes, and there’s ample room for wading along much of the shoreline. Currently you can even fish from the steeper banks because the last bushfire cleared out much of the dense understory. Shore-based fishing can be frustrating, however, with the best dun hatches occurring in deep water well beyond casting distance. The brown trout out there are big too – 3 lb average with some in excess of 5 lb. Given our success over the previous two days we paddled off with high expectations, but ultimately we only spotted three fish, none of which was catchable. Oh well, it was a glorious day, and we enjoyed the paddle. It wasn’t such a bad way to end the trip. LOOKING AHEAD We are so inspired by packrafting that we’re already thinking of daytrips to the Mt Field lakes, Lake Skinner, Travellers Rest Lake, Lake Beatrice and Lake Margaret. But the main attraction of the packraft remains its suitability for multiday expeditions. We’ve had the map out, and it’s been thrilling to contemplate the options for paddling across the Western Lakes from north to south and east to west. Then there is the ‘overseas’ dimension. In Patagonia, for example, it can be difficult to hire a car with roof-racks or tow ball, and even more difficult to hire a kayak or dinghy. Yet many of the lakes, even the road- accessible ones, need to be fished from a boat. Packrafts are the answer, I’m sure.

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