Packrafts expand Grand Canyon itineraries
Lightweight inflatable boats open up new loops to land-water trips but cause controversy.
By Turner Resor, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 21, 2012
Technological innovations have the power to change the way we view the world and interact with our surroundings. For Jackson Hole residents Tom Turiano and Mik Shain, packraft improvements have enhanced their ability to access the Western wilderness and have engendered a conversation among visitors and officials at Grand Canyon National Park concerning the appropriate place for packrafts in the park.
Earlier this month, Turiano and Shain, along with Chris Erickson and Brad Meiklejohn, founding president of the American Packrafting Association, completed a six-day technical canyoneering and packrafting loop in the Shivwits Plateau region of Grand Canyon National Park.
At a glance, the trip was an adventure into a remote corner of one of the world’s seven natural wonders, a journey from rim to river and back again. From Nov. 4 to 9, beginning at a peninsular extension of the canyon’s north rim called Twin Point, the four canyoneers descended the narrows and valleys of Surprise Canyon, eventually reaching the Colorado River. Once at the river, the climbers inflated their rafts and floated 12 miles downstream to Burnt Canyon. From there they ascended through a slot and side canyon, returning to Twin Point and their car.
The trip renewed an ongoing dialogue between National Park Service rangers and avant-garde explorers who hope to demonstrate the feasibility of using packrafts to explore side canyons in Grand Canyon National Park.
Packrafts are small inflatable watercraft that can weigh as little as 1.5 pounds. They fit easily into a backpack and are beginning to revolutionize the scope of wilderness adventure. As the group demonstrated, packrafts are an ideal vehicle for trips that mix extensive land and water travel.
“There is amazing potential for the Grand Canyon as a place for packrafting,” Turiano said.
Using the Colorado River as a passageway, the group was able to traverse a loop, an option seldom available within the Grand Canyon.
“With packrafts,” Turiano said, “the river becomes a travel corridor. It becomes a trail.”
A challenge to status quo
The controversial nature of packrafts in Grand Canyon National Park is related to the necessarily schizophrenic nature of the park’s permitting process.
People who want to visit the park on foot and camp overnight must obtain a backcountry permit. Those who wish to travel through the Grand Canyon by boat must join a commercial trip or obtain a coveted river permit through a highly competitive lottery system. In a sense, each permit confines a visitor to a certain kind of park experience.
Before the appearance of packrafts, the separation of wilderness experiences seemed natural, because a backpacker would not have been able to carry river gear and a river runner would always be to a certain degree confined to the river corridor. Packrafts offer a new flexibility by giving unprecedented access to both land and water. By doing so, they challenge the status quo and represent a unique challenge for land managers.
The packraft has come to be recognized as an amazing tool by canyoneers looking to explore the countless side canyons within the Grand Canyon. Because some side canyons cannot be ascended as easily as they are descended, they can’t be accessed unless there is an alternate way out.
“We found ourselves doing more and more slot canyons where you got down to the river and you were stuck,” said Rich Rudow, an American Canyoneers board member and Grand Canyon canyoneering pioneer. “Packrafting became immediately evident as a way of getting around the obstacle of the river.”
The first people to realize what the packraft had to offer in terms of exploration within the Grand Canyon found themselves in a morass of legal ambiguity, and they navigated the river and the rules at the risk of getting caught and fined.
Rudow tells of a trip on which he and his team members used one packraft and a fishing rod to cross the Colorado. With the fishing line attached to the back of the boat, they paddled across the river one at a time. The boat was reeled back until each person was on the other side.
Ironically, it was not until an effort was made to legalize packrafting that it became controversial. In 2006, in what the packrafting community refers to as “Dial-Gate,” packrafter Roman Dial applied for and won a river permit for the Grand Canyon.
Two weeks before his launch date, Dial called the river office to inform rangers he would be putting in nearly 100 miles downstream at Hermit Rapid, rather than at Lee’s Ferry, where all other permitted trips begin. Dial wanted to hike down Hermit Canyon, use a packraft to travel to Havasu Canyon and then hike out. Putting in at Lee’s Ferry would have been impractical because packrafts can’t carry sufficient provisions for extended trips.
Issue brought out in the open
While the rangers — though initially confused and resistant — eventually agreed to Dial’s request, the question of what place packrafting had in the canyon was brought out into the open, and the practice faced criticism.
Commercial guides are concerned that packrafters will take the best campsites. Rangers fear that packrafters will not be properly equipped and might need costly rescues, and private boaters worry that the already scarce number of river permits will go to smaller groups running shorter trips.
Others fear that packrafts would be used as a way of accessing the river without having to go through the standard river permitting process.
Rudow denies that this is the intention of the packrafting community.
“The packraft is a tool so that the river is not a barrier to travel,” Rudow said. “It is not a covert way of doing a river trip.”
Since 2006, the Park Service has used the acronym RABbiT, which stands for “raft-assisted backcountry travel.” The creation of the acronym is an indication of Grand Canyon National Park’s efforts to consider this new kind of backcountry experience in its backcountry management plan, which is due for revision. At the same time, the name reflects the desire of the river community to distance itself from packrafters by grouping them with backcountry users.
The park also has created an interim rule stating that packrafters may float up to five miles of the Colorado River in order to create loop hikes or access exit canyons.
Most packrafters, while grateful for the park’s efforts, feel that five miles is not enough.
Testing the system
Turiano and Shain’s group knew full well that their proposal would be controversial, since it required 12 miles of river travel, as opposed to the five currently allowed for packrafters. They also wanted to make sure their trip was acknowledged and approved by Grand Canyon rangers, in part because they wanted to know how the park would respond.
“We wanted to test the system,” Turiano said.
Like Dial, their approach was to get a river permit first, which was made easier by the fact that their trip would be below Diamond Creek, the point where most Grand Canyon river trips take out. Finding the request to be in a regulatory gray area, the park eventually consented. Turiano, Shain, Erickson and Meiklejohn got their permit and succeeded in becoming advocates for safe and sanctioned packraft use in the Grand Canyon.
With the backcountry management plan under review, the American Packrafting Association knows that now is the time to influence the issue. Trips like Turiano’s demonstrate to rangers and river users how valuable a packraft can be in creating a more holistic park experience as well as providing access to corners of the park that have only been seen by a few.
In a way, the association is following in the footsteps of other Grand Canyon explorers. The history of human interaction with that region could be described as one in which the boundaries of what is possible, or what can be seen and experienced, are continually being tested and pushed.
“In 1869, when John Wesley Powell came down the Grand Canyon for the first time, the river was the obstacle,” Rudow said.
The river remains an exciting obstacle today, and with a backcountry management plan that allows packrafting, the interplay between man, mountain and river just might be revolutionized.
This article was corrected to reflect the proper name of the organization of which Rich Rudow is a board member — Ed.