Floating on Air: Packrafting Birch Creek Wild and Scenic River 

That first day didn’t feel like much of a float trip. Our packrafts were buried deep in our packs and Birch Creek Wild and Scenic River wasn’t yet in view, so it felt like backpacking.

My friend Jim Herriges and I had traveled three hours up the Steese Highway for our three-day Birch Creek Wild and Scenic River float using packrafts—small, lightweight, one-person inflatable rafts that roll up to the size of a sleeping bag. More and more of our friends have raved about packrafting. This up-and-coming sport has brought considerable change to whitewater boating in Alaska. We were eager to try it out for ourselves.

Craig prepares the packrafts by using a nylon inflation bag. Photo by Jim Herriges

Craig prepares the packrafts by using a nylon inflation bag. Photo by Jim Herriges 

We had both floated Birch Creek before in canoes. On this trip, we planned to hike in and out of the river, floating the heart of what is usually a week-long trip that starts and ends on the Steese Highway. Altogether, we would traverse a 33-mile loop, with one day of floating bracketed by two days of hiking.

Before we could even get our rented packrafts wet, we faced an eight-mile hike over the high ridges of the BLM’s Steese National Conservation Area from Harrison Creek, where we parked our vehicle. The warm, sunny weather and occasional caribou drifting through the brilliant fall tundra colors made an inspiring hike.

We camped that night near the end of the ridge, and then bushwhacked several miles down to high-running Birch Creek. We inflated our rafts on a muddy riverbank, arranged our gear and packed important items in waterproof dry bags inside our backpacks.

On the River

Packrafts are barely bigger than their occupants. I strapped my backpack onto my raft’s bow and wriggled under a waterproof spray-deck to sit on the raft’s inflatable seat. It was a snug fit with my feet tucked beneath my pack and my back pressed against the stern, but it felt comfortable once I was in place with a kayak paddle in hand.

On the water, the packrafts were maneuverable and responsive, although they handled much differently than canoes.

The first few rapids were fun, but then I encountered a few stability problems—perhaps due to my sitting position, pack arrangement or inexperience—and eventually went for a brief, unplanned swim. Luckily, my personal flotation device, dry bags and warm polypropylene clothing layers all served me well!

A few miles downstream at Birch Creek’s three biggest rapids, I decided I was out of my league. Luckily, portaging my backpack and five-pound packraft around the rapids was a breeze.

Jim is a more accomplished whitewater paddler who has kayaked the Grand Canyon, so he made a smoother transition to packrafting than I did. After careful scouting, Jim successfully ran all three rapids while I watched from shore. With each run, he emerged wearing a huge grin on his face.

"I was surprised at how well [packrafts] paddled and handled," he said. "Not quite like paddling a hard-shell kayak, but a lot less like paddling an innertube than I expected."

Below the major rapids, we enjoyed a leisurely float past intense yellow hues of aspens and birches headed toward winter. A flick on the paddle and my packraft spun easily around, giving me a wonderful 360-degree panorama of tundra-covered ridges fringed with stands of spruce.

We floated the river until 10 p.m., enjoying the late evening sunshine on the nearby ridges and surprising three caribou swimming across the river. We made our second camp on a broad gravel bar beneath a huge hill where we would start our hike back to Harrison Creek the following morning.

Caribou pass the hikers on a ridge paralleling Birch Creek in the Steese National. Photo by Craig McCaa

Caribou pass the hikers on a ridge paralleling Birch Creek in the Steese National Conservation Area. 
Photo by Craig McCaa

“The packraft may be the single most liberating tool for exploring wilderness…It is far cheaper than a bush plane and easier to maintain that a yard full of huskies—it even fits in an airliner’s overhead bin. You can sleep on it beneath the stars or under it during a rain. You can strap a packraft on a bike, pedal onwards, and then later inflate it to cross and even float rivers…It’s really up to your imagination, skill, and pluck.”

—Roman Dial, Packrafting!


Up and Over

Craig prepares the packrafts by using a nylon inflation bag. Photo by Jim Herriges

Leaving Birch Creek far below, Jim hikes back along the ridge to the trip’s starting point on Harrison Creek. Photo by Craig McCaa

Neither of us was looking forward to breaking trail up the side of the 2,000-foot-high ridge back toward our vehicle. Luckily, our route went over a hillside that had burned numerous times in the last 15 years, leaving a relatively brush-free route to the top. We huffed and puffed our way up the hill, knowing what awaited us on top—sweeping views, caribou and late-season blueberries—would be worth the climb.

Finally reaching our vehicle after a long, sunny day of hiking, we reflected on how packrafts made this trip different from our previous visits to Birch Creek. Jim shared he originally thought the chief benefit of packrafts was the flexibility of access they provide – being able to float more rivers than you could reach with other kinds of boat, and doing so without having to use aircraft.

However, on this trip he learned the combination of hiking and floating fundamentally changed the travel experience. "I discovered that hiking ridges and gliding along a river all in the same trip adds a lot to the trip. The change in perspective—from ridge top to valley floor—affects how the landscape appears," he said.

We both liked the opportunity to alternate between the physical exertions of hiking and paddling. After tiring our legs on day one, it felt good to sit and paddle on day two. By day three we looked forward to hiking again.

Roman Dial, widely considered the pre-eminent Alaska packrafter, has described both of these aspects of packrafting—the hiking/paddling contrast and moving more completely through the landscape—as central to his 25-year-long enjoyment of the sport. In his book Packrafting!, Dial wrote:

"My favorite use for packrafts is crossing wild landscapes where rivers run free and the only trails crossing the country are made by wild animals. It is there, when I grow tired of walking, that I can boat, and when I grow tired of boating, I fold up my raft and hike over the ranges to another river to paddle again."

Driving back to Fairbanks, it struck me that the word "packraft" itself neatly combines two pieces of gear essential to Alaska outdoor adventure. In a similar way, the sport of packrafting combines the mountain and the river, and the hike and the float into a new and exciting experience. Packrafts, and the types of travel they allow, will definitely change how Jim and I plan trips on waterways and trails on BLM-managed public lands in Alaska.Rafting Brich Creek. Photo by Craig McCaa

—Craig McCaa,
Fairbanks District Writer/Editor 

Packrafting in Alaska

The earliest reports of packrafting in Alaska start with the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic adventure race in 1982, when a racer surprised his competitors by pulling a raft out of his pack. The state’s limited transportation options, natural wonders and adventurous travelers have since made Alaska a packrafting mecca. Early packrafters used military-surplus survival rafts or relatively fragile vinyl rafts for crossing or floating down Alaska rivers. An upswing in packrafting’s popularity during the last decade has much to do with a quantum leap in the quality and availability of packrafts. Today’s packrafts are lightweight, rugged and agile enough to run serious white-water. Businesses in Anchorage and Fairbanks rent packrafts for those wishing to give it a try before investing $800-$1000 to purchase their own.