DCUL has been doing an Intro to Packrafting trip for a number of years usually led by Savage. After getting a new packraft this past year, I was motivated to continue the tradition. This trip is a great way to get your feet wet (literally!) with a new type of trip but it also requires a couple pieces of not so standard equipment: a packraft, a paddle, and a lifejacket. All said, you are likely adding somewhere between 7-10lbs to your base weight when including a few other odds and ends this trip requires.
Our pre-trip saw a massive amount of interest and a long waitlist; however, as the realities of getting (borrowing/renting/buying) all the gear sunk in, we had a TON of turnover on the list and ended up with a a crew of experienced backpackers: 2 experienced packrafters (Dmitri and myself) and 3 newbies (Shenanigans, Brightside, and Alex). Alex was the ultimate late addition, managing to join the trip 2 days out and borrow a packraft from Savage–he was a welcome addition to the crew!
As I walk us through the trip, I want to note ahead of time that we had beautiful weather, which included a light breeze, partly cloudy skys, but also temps in the high 80s. From the car, our entire Saturday is dry, including camp, 13 miles total. The closest source to camp is about .75-1 miles down the trail including about 800ft of descent.
Suffice to say, we all started out from the cars with about as heavy a pack as you are likely to ever see on a weekend trip. Think your base weight, plus 10lbs of packrafting gear, 4L of water, plus of course some other liquid refreshments. We all knew we had plenty of time to cover the 13miles to camp and while we all talked a ton about “taking it easy” and “going slow” our crew is a speedy one and we got to camp plenty early despite the heavy loads. Our road walk took us along the Tuscarora Trail before beginning our ascent to Massanutten’s ridge along an old road George Washington had commissioned during the Revolutionary War as a means of retreat into Fort Valley for a last stand that never occurred.
This part of the ridge holds special sentiment to me as its where I got engaged a little over a year ago overlooking the South Fork of the Shenandoah River and the mountains of Shenandoah National Park. Celebratory beers were had. I think we all also were interested in a break after a tough 1,000+ ft climb with brutally heavy packs in the heat. From here we just had about 10 miles of “gentle” ridge walking to our campsite. I say gentle because by Massanutten standards that’s true, but I don’t think anyone who hasn’t down the full Massanutten Trail loop would agree with that assessment.
We were thankful for the gentle breeze on the exposed ridge though. Two years prior we had 90+ degree heat along this ridge and no breeze–it was about as close to heat exhaustion as I’d ever been. After a great afternoon along the ridge, we arrived at our campsite about .25 down the ridge along the Habron Gap trail. Our usual campsite was slightly more overgrown than the last time I was here 2 years ago–the access trail overgrown with grass and the fire pit sprouting some healthy green plants from the charcoal. It’s entirely possible that no one had camped here since our last DCUL adventure to the area.
The one downside of this trip is the issue of water access–it tends to be a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Two years ago I carried 6L of water and arrived at camp with 1.5L feeling pretty dehydrated (I know, I drink alot of water–that’s why I’m Water Dog!) This year I only carried 4L and arrived with about a liter. On both trips I’ve had to descend the the 800ft and about a mile of trail to a water source; at least this year I planned on doing it, as had the entire crew.
Unfortunately for us, it’d been a pretty dry month leading up to the trip. Our bushwack off trail to the creek led us to a dry creek bed, forcing us to follow it downhill someone until we found a trickle we could tank up at. We then trudged back up the 800ft to camp and settled in with a nice bug repelling camp fire. We were all exhausted from our 13 mile day, but were excited for our float day tomorrow. Dmitri also explained to folks the fireworks, gunshots, and “artillery fire” sounds that kept us up at this campsite 2 years ago–this year had plenty of fireworks and gunshots as well, but much quieter and further away than the last trip.
While Alex, Dmitri, and Shenanigans all tent camped, Mark and I both were in our bug bivys (unfortunately all zipped up because there were ALOT of ants.) This is also probably the point to mention that although mentally I’d been thinking about cowboy camping all day, I also realized at camp that I had forgotten my stakes so pitching my tarp would have required some creativity. I think I subliminally knew I was missing my stakes–I also recently moved so all my gear is in new spots; I consider only forgetting stakes to be a win.
In the morning, we packed up quickly and descended the 2 miles to Fosters Boat Ramp and tanked up for the day where the creek crosses the trail. It was still only a bit more than a trickle requiring some creativity. Finally, it was time to ASSEMBLE THE FLOTILLA! Dmitri put us all to shame and had his raft ready to go in about 5 minutes, and the new folks learned the gentle art of filling and hugging the air out of the inflation bags. Our fleet consisted of 4 alpackas and a Kylmit Light Water Dinghy (LWD). I’ve seen LWD used on previous trips so I knew it could be done, but now having a sample size of n=3, I’m just going to say that they really should not be used for anything that requires more than about 30 minutes of paddling. They don’t point well (they rotate about 30-45 degrees with each stroke) and everyone I’ve seen use them before has been incredibly fit and still get left in the dust. In the future I won’t let them on trips that require this much paddling.
Anyway, we got our rafts into the water, let them temper a bit in the cold water and added a bit more air, ensured our packs were all secured to the bows of our boats, and hit the water! It felt great to be gently carried by the river in the cool morning air. The river was unfortunately on the lower end of “runnable” which meant that to get past certain riffles required some smart paddling and good reading of the water–or getting stuck on your but and having to get out to drag the raft 1-2ft before getting back in. We later learned that the tubing/rafting company was only floating folks on about 3 miles of our 17 mile route.
Our float alternated between a nice current, flatwater, and a couple of interesting Class I rapids, and culminated in passing through Compton Rapids which are Class II–all escaped unscathed. Along the way we passed river banks full of car campers, some tubers and some folks on rafts. A tuber asked where she could get rafts like ours and I told her with the caveat that they are quite expensive. Alex and I discussed just how different a packraft was from an inflatable kayak (the short answer is about 35lbs difference.) Brightside, despite his initial opinion of “I don’t really need a packraft” was eventually a convert to just how fun an unique a trip a packraft can create. Shenanigans brought up the rear and most certainly had the most amount of suffering but still ended the trip with a smile and enthusiasm to do another–just perhaps with a better raft!
We capped the trip off with a trip to Spelunker’s where we all gorged ourselves and began the journey back to DC and Baltimore. I think this trip started with a few packrafting skeptics and ended with some new converts!