September 20, 2022
The North Fork of the Gunnison River in southwestern Colorado is an incredible place to visit and offers an easy-to-moderate one-day (or half-day) float for individuals and families. This is where I was first introduced to Alpacka Raft and the world of packrafting.
If you’ve never heard of or gone packrafting before, it's a fun and exciting activity that allows you to traverse land and water at the same time. A small, lightweight raft called a packraft is used. Due to its size and weight, a packraft can be easily carried in your pack with other gear. It's perfect for short- and long-distance hikes or when you want to float back to your initial location.
Packrafts come in all shapes, sizes, and durability. The packraft you should get depends on what type of adventure you plan to use it for. Alpacka Raft has a wide variety of packrafts designed for all types of uses. Whether you are a hunter or an angler wanting to access hard-to-reach wilderness waterways, an experienced rafter who enjoys paddling high-energy whitewater rapids, or a novice paddler looking for a laid-back river float experience, Alpacka Raft has a packraft suited for the job.
For an easy-going float trip, such as floating the North Fork of the Gunnison River, I recommend Alpacka Raft's Scout packraft. It weighs just 3.8 pounds and is perfect for mountain lakes and short river floats. This is the packraft I used to float the Gunnison River last fall. The Scout is light and durable, built with lightweight 210-denier high-count nylon tube fabric (hull) and 420-denier nylon (floor).
Packrafting the Lower Gunnison River, Near Delta
The Gunnison River runs through the southwest region of Colorado and is considered one of the state's Gold Medal fishing waters, offering quality brown, cutthroat and rainbow trout. It snakes its way through half of Colorado, creating breathtaking canyons and Class I to V rapids along the way.
While the Gunnison River is a favorite destination for extreme rafters due to its intense, fast-paced whitewater, it is also popular for its easy-going floating and fishing trips.
If a short painless hike with beautiful scenery and a relaxing time on the water is what you're after, consider rafting the lower portion of the Gunnison River, from Delta or above. This section is perfect for families and fly anglers because the whitewater rapids are mild (consisting of only Class I to II rapids), and it's only a short hike to get there. In fact, this is the area I first experienced packrafting and I've had an itch to return and do it again ever since.
Fall Float Trip with Alpacka Raft
Last September I met up with the Alpacka Raft team and some other outdoor industry professionals at Gunnison River Pleasure Park for a short hike and a leisurely float with some fly fishing. Gunnison River Pleasure Park is located where the North Fork Gunnison River meets the Gunnison River in Hotchkiss, Colo. It's an excellent spot to park and access the river for boating and fishing.
Thor Tingey, co-founder and owner of Alpacka Raft, brought two packraft models for us to float with that day, the Scout (an ultralight packraft) and the Ranger (a one-person hunting and fishing packraft). The Scout is part of Alpacka Raft's Ultralight Series and would make a great beginner raft for families. It's the perfect-sized watercraft for solo paddlers and durable enough for everyday use on lakes and rivers. The larger Ranger is part of the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Series, a collection of packrafts designed for sportsmen and women looking to access wilderness waterways. The Ranger is a first-rate river-based hunting and fishing packraft. It's large enough to carry all of your fishing gear plus a cooler. You can use it for waterfowl hunting and have room to take your bird dog along. It also has plenty of carrying capacity to haul medium to large game (like caribou or deer).
After reviewing the features of the packrafts, Tingey and his team demonstrated how to properly inflate the watercrafts using an inflation bag. (Both the Scout and Ranger come with an inflation bag.) Inflating the packrafts was much simpler than I expected.
I was paired up with the Scout packraft. Rolled up, the Scout can easily fit in most standard-size hiking packs for easy carry. I happened to be using my small but mighty YETI Crossroads 22L Backpack, so I attached the rolled-up raft to it using a couple of carabineers. It worked out great! Who knew carrying a boat/raft could be so effortless?
Once we were all set on how to inflate and stow away our packrafts, we each strapped on a personal flotation device (PFD) and began our hike along the North Fork of the Gunnison River. It wasn't long before we needed to cross the river to continue our hike along the other side. To cross the river, we used a basic paddling technique called "Ferry Gliding." We faced the nose of the packraft upstream at an angle and paddled fast so as not to get pushed downstream. One by one we arrived on the other side of the river, then packed up our boats and headed up the trail. Surprisingly, the river canyon wasn't crowded at all. We saw some other fly anglers and a couple of kayakers, but that was pretty much it.
Make sure to bring a camera because the scenery during the hike is stunning! From the glistening river to the canyon walls with ancient rock layers and swallow nests, there are plenty of photo opportunities. Beware, however, the plants along the river are interspersed with poison ivy, so if you plan to do this trip, consider wearing long pants and a lightweight long-sleeved shirt. (If you aren't familiar with poison ivy and how to identify it, do some research beforehand. You should know how to recognize poison ivy and any other poisonous plants you may encounter before going on any type of outdoor adventure.)
We journeyed for a couple of hours, taking in the beautiful views and stopping about halfway through for lunch, until we reached the end of the trail. This was the point where we planned to hop in our packrafts and float down the North Fork of the Gunnison River, back to the trailhead where we started. If you are traveling with young children, you could hop on the river at any point of the hike. No need to hike for hours to make it a fun outing for the family.
It was a long and relaxing afternoon of floating down the river. We'd occasionally pull off to the side, get out of our packrafts, and do some fly fishing. We fished directly from the raft while floating as well, although it was a bit more difficult with the current. I hooked two fish that day but unfortunately, they broke free before I had a chance to reel them in.
I found the Scout simple to unpack and inflate, and easy to maneuver across and on the river. Along with myself and a paddle, I comfortably fit my backpack, a small dry bag, and an Orvis Helios 3F 5-Weight Fly Rod with a Mirage Reel and still had room to spare. For longer river trips, the Ranger would be more ideal, because it offers additional carrying capacity, meaning extra space for even more gear.
When we finally reached the trailhead, we exited the river, packed up our packrafts, and enjoyed a well-deserved beer.
It can be difficult to plan an outdoor getaway that will please the whole family. If you're looking for a family-friendly outdoor activity with fly-fishing opportunities, I recommend getting some packrafts and planning a float trip down the lower Gunnison River in Colorado. My first packrafting experience was a blast! I can't wait to get back out there and am looking forward to revisiting the river with my family.
About Alpacka Raft
Alpacka Raft’s story began in 2000, when Sheri Tingey combined her kayaking and clothing design knowledge with her son Thor's ideas to create a better packraft for the backcountry. Together they created their first packraft, "The White Boat," and it was a hit with the packrafting community.
The company recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and its founder with a film called "Sheri." The story of how Sheri revolutionized the outdoor industry and the hurdles she had to overcome to launch Alpacka Raft is absolutely fascinating. If you are interested in seeing the film, visit https://alpackaraft.com/sheri for more info and upcoming viewing opportunities.
How to Inflate an Alpacka Raft Packraft
- First, turn the valve core on the packraft counterclockwise (to open it).
- Thread the inflation bag's valve adaptor onto the packraft’s valve.
- Take the inflation bag, capture air into it, and tightly close the bag with your hand to trap the air inside.
- Squeeze or roll the bag down to push the air into the packraft and inflate it. (You can also cross your arm over the bag and squat to push the air out – this is Tingey's preferred method.) Continue capturing air and releasing it into the packraft until the raft appears to be fully inflated.
- Once complete, unscrew the inflation bag's adaptor from the packraft valve.
- Next, you'll want to top off the air. You can do this by breathing into the packraft valve or using a pump.
- The final step is to close the cap on the packraft valve (by turning it clockwise). Now your packraft is ready to float!
Watch: How to Inflate Your Packraft
How to Identify Poison Ivy
These catchy phrases can help you identify the characteristics of poison ivy:
- Leaves of three, leave them be: Poison ivy leaves are compound, composed of three broad, tear-shaped leaflets.
- Longer middle stem, don't touch them: The middle leaflet is on a visibly longer stem.
- Hairy vine, no friend of mine: Thin roots that branch off the vines give poison ivy vines a "hairy" appearance.
- Berries white, run in fright: Poison ivy can produce small off-white or yellowish berries. The berries are also poisonous.
Tips on Identifying Poisonous Plants: Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac