Thursday, January 18, 2024

Colombia Paragliding, January 2024

I have just returned from a paragliding trip to Colombia – and what a special trip it was! 9 days of flying (flying every single day!) for a total of nearly 20 hours of airtime, setting several personal bests (longest flight both by time and distance; reaching the highest altitude to date) and acquiring new skills and experiences (flying to cloudbase, flying near/into the wispy parts of clouds, landing in random fields scouted from the air, and having the right setup for long flights).





My brother was already in Colombia, and my mom and I joined him there. I would fly solo, while my mom would fly tandem with him (except on one of the days where I flew tandem with Ariel instead, so that he could narrate his thought process through the sky).




We stayed in a beautiful villa in Santa Elena, a 20-minute ride from the landing zone, with another 20 minutes by Jeep from there to the launch. Most days looked as follows:

  1. Eat breakfast
  2. Take a taxi to the landing zone
  3. Take a jeep to the launch
  4. Take off, find a thermal, and climb up to cloud level.
  5. Determine where the next thermal might be, and glide to that. Keep going for an hour or two or three.
  6. Eventually land either at the landing zone, or in some random farm field, and figure out a way to get back.
  7. Swim at the pool (we had our own pool at the villa, and it was awesome!)
  8. Dinner
  9. Rinse and repeat




The Colombia clouds were wonderful, a land of puffy marshmallow-like animal shapes. I was initially fearful of the clouds, having heard of the dreaded "cloud suck"; but I gradually figured out central clouds are to cross-country flying, and how it's possible to avoid getting sucked up by maintaining the proper angle to the cloud. The clouds became a welcome altitude refill station, and also just really beautiful things to fly through on the edges. It was of course pivotal to be aware of any other pilots in the area and make sure you were the only one in the vicinity – and there were hundreds of pilots in the air – and to also have a compass and the techniques for getting down. But with those prerequisites fulfilled, the clouds were fantastic.





A fun element of flying in Colombia was landing anywhere – the countryside is full of fields, and there's always some mowed-down or recently-sowed field that can be used if needed – and then packing up, walking to the nearest road, and hitching a ride. The walks through the fields were always scenic, and added a dose of adventure.



Some of the days had more adventure to them than others. I always write a flight log after each of my flights; copying a few of the more interesting logs here:

January 12 (Day 5): 1 hour and 7 minutes:

For the second time in as many days, got soaking wet — this time, along with the wing. After waiting 2-3 hours on launch and with only a couple hours of daylight remaining, we finally saw what looked like a good (or at least, workable) window of opportunity. Took off, and was able to soar near launch, but wasn’t really making progress. NW wind was picking up to 10ish mph, blowing away thermals. Decided to ditch the hill and fly south to another one facing directly into NW, which Ariel and our mom were already on at cloudbase. Arrived a 1k feet AGL and immediately started rising, soaring up to near cloudbase. Noticed rain moving in from NE, and also some further in the valley to the West. Right around that time, started feeling mild drizzle, and decided to stop climbing up and instead go to an LZ field. The face kept wanting to soar me up, so did speedbar (but no big ears to have more forward momentum and since wing was starting to get wet). Once I got closer to a good field, and as rain started intensifying, did some quality spirals to about 500 AGL (figured would be good speed and wing loading, and that getting down and wing less soaked in the air was a priority). Had a choice between two fields, a soccer one and a farm field. All other things being equal, would have preferred the grass on the soccer field, but didn’t like that it was narrow into the wind, and surrounded by trees on both ends. Opted for the farm field instead, giving myself clearance in front and behind. Despite visible gusts on vegetation, landing was perfect, albeit completely vertical. Was preparing to get dragged by the wing while on the ground and need to immediately de-power it, but it dropped into a small 1-ft ditch behind the raised planted portion and lay happily there.

Meanwhile, the rain intensified further. I hid the harness into a black compactor bag, figuring to prioritize the harness and the reserved therein. I also hid my flight deck and the front-mount reserve contained therein, though it turned out that it had already got pretty wet during flight, so ultimately decided to repack the reserve back at our villa; a later story. Despite getting caught in the rain, I felt good about my wing-handling and decision-making once I was in the thick of it.

While it lay in the ditch, the wing immediately accumulated a few inches of water and got completely soaked; I imagined I’d soon start seeing fish swim in it. I drained it and moved it to a flat spot, then put into stuff sack with the still-wrapped-in-plastic harness. I walked into the road and towards where Ariel had landed near a church. I almost reached them half-a-mile later, when a car containing my mom and Ariel picked me up, and took us all back to the villa.

At the villa, we got cracking on drying gear. I lay my wing out on the covered wraparound patio. I stuck a bunch of plastic patio chairs under the wing to allow for airflow, and appropriated two of the rooms’ fans to billow the wing. It worked like a charm, and was totally dry by the following morning.

We also had my two reserves to deal with. The harness one was pretty dry, so we let it be. But the front-mount had taken the brunt of the rain’s beating, and was visibly wet. We decided we’d repack it — but only it — the following morning. That way it wouldn’t take all day, and I’d have the “insurance policy” of one professionally-packed-but-maybe-slightly damp reserve, vs one that we packed ourselves but that was guaranteed dry.

The villa — we came to think of it as the “room of requirements” — was ideal for the whole process the following morning. From drying the reserve by draping it over the table and blowing a fan at it; to having a long living/dining/kitchen room for the actual repack; to having a heavy kitchen table for tying into on one end and a convenient cabinet (plus a fork for holding it shut) on the other; to even wine bottles that we used as weights. The repack took about 2 hours total, though I think if we did it again it would have taken half that. Once it was done, we reloaded into the front-mount reserve container and viola, good as new!

That’s the end of that saga, right? Stay tuned for the next installment.


January 13 (Day 6, the next day): 1 hour and 50 minutes:
With my front-mount repacked that morning, we headed to fly, arriving around 3pm and with ambitions to fly for a couple hours before things shut down around 5:30pm. It was the neighboring launch (Jorge’s launch). Ariel took off first, I followed 10 minutes later. Literally three seconds into my flight and some 20-30 ft in the air — as I wiggled to get more comfortable in my harness — the newly-packed white-as-snow reserve flopped out of its container and into my lap. Yikes!
I instinctively grabbed it and tried to find a place to stuff it. I first put it against my chest, but — if I wasn’t holding it with at least one hand — it was precarious there, and it falling out and opening would have been really unfortunate news. I next moved it between my legs, squeezing tight. This worked, freed my hands, and would be sustainable for the 7 minutes it would take to get to the landing zone. I radioed Ariel that I have an emergency, and — all thought of flying for a couple hours forgotten — made a straight-line dash to the landing field. 
I should mention that the day looked PERFECT, and the air was lifty. It seemed a shame to land, figure out what’s wrong with the reserve, take a truck back up, and maybe have a 15-minute extended sledride in the very last of the daylight, if that. I also realized that if the reserve were to stay between my legs, I would almost certainly drop it right before landing, undoing the hour+ of packing it, and possibly getting dragged in the process. Sobered by this thought, I undid the top (non-weight-bearing) chest strap of the harness, exposing a void into which I could stuff the reserve, bound by my lap on the bottom, the empty reserve container in the front, my stomach in the back, and webbing on either side. The only side missing was the top; and in due time I figured out that re-clasping the chest strap would solve that problem for me too. Unorthodox, sure, but no longer an emergency.
During all that time of fiddling with the setup, I was hightailing it to the landing zone. The topography descends fairly steeply there, whereas the air was buoyant and I had lost hardly any height. This was important, because I only dared let go of the brake lines and fiddle with my gear because I knew that I had many many hundreds of feet of clearance beneath me. Now that my reserve no longer risked flipping out — and with still my primary harness reserve attached (most pilots only fly with one), and this one also huckable by undoing just one strap, it occurred to me that maybe I don’t need to land after all. I turned around and came back to the hill and to Ariel. 
The middle portion of the flight was fun but not especially memorable. The Pacifico west wind had picked up, blowing away thermals in the valley, and forcing us to remain near the mountains and their ridge lift. I stayed at launch height for a significant time, but eventually started climbing up and was able to reach cloudbase. Ariel and another glider — and some birds — hung out there for a bit, going in and out of the wispy bits of the cloud. Then, as the day started shutting down, Ariel suggested that we try to glide to Santa Elena (the town where we were staying), or as close as we could to it. Ariel did in fact make it on his higher-performance glider, albeit just barely, to the Santa Elena Siga La Vaca LZ. I did not, but I if found a good field and landed there. I could have landed right next to the road, but I was filled with a desire to indeed make it as far as possible, so opted for a 15-minute walk back to the road (admittedly, at the time I didn’t realize it would be 15 minutes: I it turns out that aerial observations sometimes don’t match on-the-ground reality, and there was an overgrown 10-foot-deep creek ravine I would need to cross in order to take a shortcut; I opted for the long way instead). 
Once on the road, I was picked up by a couple motorcyclists who were towing a somewhat rickety trailer. Still, beggars couldn’t be choosers, and I figured that the odds of both my reserve AND a trailer malfunctioning on the same day were pretty slim. We also weren’t going that fast per se; but next time I’ll be sure to have my helmet handy to don on if I’m walking on a road. (Narrator’s commentary: the lesson didn’t immediately sink in, given that I ended up in the exact same predicament a couple days later. But the day after that, I did keep my helmet, and put it on when being picked up by a motorcyclist). 
After getting home, we figured out what was wrong with how we put in the reserve into the container. I won’t repeat that mistake again. A more general lesson is to shake the bajeezus out of the container after packing a reserve into it, esp if it’s a front-mount, which are a little more fiddly.


January 15 (Day 8): my longest flight ever, 4 hours and 22 minutes!

This was the flight where I really started piecing things together — and also my longest (both by time and distance) and highest-altitude one to date. My mom took a break from flying that day, so this time it was Ariel and me each on our solo wings. I once again set up a pee tube, and it worked without mishap. I also got two Gu energy gel packets from Andy — a game changer! — who cleverly attaches them to his flight deck with Velcro. In my coat pockets were two tiny water bottles. I was preparing for a long haul, and the day delivered!
Ariel launched first while I fiddled with my gear. Once I joined him, we essentially team-flew (mas-minus) the entire day. Ariel was on a higher-performance wing, so would often need to circle back to me, spiral down to me, wingover to me, etc. Still, we flew together, thermalling up to cloudbase and then gliding to the next thermal, over and over again. We used birds, other gliders, and — when all else failed — topographic intuition to find the triggers. We traveled north past the town of Costa Rica, past the land north of it, and probably another mile or two beyond that, before turning around and heading back. Once I got fairly low, but was able to find something workable and get back up to a comfortable altitude. A couple hours in, I sampled the Gu (scrumptious), drank a bit of water, and used the pee tube (though it’s apparently not quite so easy to relax the necessary muscles while flying!). Ariel, not equipped with the latter, top-landed and re-joined me twice over the course of the flight. 
Once back over launch, we were able to get really high, eventually to 9k on the mountain above the launch. There were neat views of the taller mountain ranges beyond the mountains that we were at. We could have stayed longer, but I felt like I’d already gotten a great experience, and I was getting a little tired. We cruised to the mountain north of launch, topped up, and headed due west to Santa Elena. We had plenty of height available, flying directly over our villa, and then circling over to the field northeast of it. I blew off some altitude by doing a few spirals. What a flight!
After packing up, we walked onto the road, where we were picked up by a motorcyclist hauling a triangular-shaped trailer (like one for carrying plywood, windows, etc). Ariel and I hung on either side, laughing uproariously, and were delivered safely to the town square (though I once again re-determined to make sure to have my helmet out when getting onto the road!)


January 16 (Day 9): 2 hours and 42 minutes

A magical flight, and — though it wasn’t the longest — it was in some sense the capstone of the trip and of my progression here. 

We started late, partially because the day looked like it would turn on late anyway, and partially to start packing. We also had a leisurely breakfast at the “Montifiori” cafe (our own name for it), and swam in the pool. Suddenly it was very much time to go, so away we sped.

On launch, there were somewhat thick clouds that were just starting to break apart. Ariel and my mom launched, and I followed right behind. Cloudbase was high and there was an inversion layer, but eventually we made it to the clouds and soared blissfully amidst them for a few minutes. I also munched on another Gu energy gel, drank some water, relaxed sufficiently to use the pee tube (talk about an outhouse with a view!), and generally felt very accomplished. As Ariel correctly pointed out, this trip — among other things — taught me the proper setup for being able to do longer flights elsewhere too. 

As the day started shutting down, with western wind blowing away thermals, I moved from the valley closer to the mountains. I spent the next hour ridge-soaring above launch, porpoising, doing teeny-tiny wingovers, and just enjoying the feel of being in the air. I decided not to try to make it to Santa Elena, but rather to land at the Piedechinche LZ: this would maximize my air time, and also offer me a quick ride back to town. I put on some music (Phantom of the Opera soundtrack in Russian) and had a grand old time in the air. I was the second-to-last wing to land, with the other pilot landing just 15 seconds after me. 

At the LZ, a motorcyclist offered to take be to the Siga La Vaca hotel/restaurant in Santa Elena, where Ariel and my mom were waiting. I’ve never ridden on a motorcycle before — and generally haven’t been a fan — but this was REALLY fun! I had my helmet handy this time (see, all the learnings from the trip were coming together by the end!), and enjoyed the 15-minute ride as a final way of parting with Colombia. 



Friday, August 27, 2021

Paragliding Maneuvers Clinic (aka "SIV clinic")

This past weekend, I did a paragliding maneuvers clinic (aka "SIV clinic"), simulating incidents that can occur during flight, and learning to handle them. The gist is simple: you get towed by a boat over a lake, get to about 2,500ft above the water, release the tow line, and then listen to the instructor (who's watching you from ground level) walk you through maneuvers over the walkie-talkies strapped to your shoulders. In my particular case, the instructor was Matty Senior, a New Zealander with an Australian accent and one of Washington's best pilots. "Alright mate, now we're going to induce a collapse on the left side, so go ahead and pull on the left A risers. Yep, there you go. Now shift right to control the heading, then apply right brake to enter a low-g spiral. Keep applying, keep applying. Well done, mate. Let's do a full 360, then exit the spiral by releasing the brake, then releasing the collapse, and then take that wing's energy into a turn into the same direction to prevent a surge. Nicely done. Now let's do it in the opposite direction."

Ten minutes to tow, then 3-4 minutes of maneuvers (you're inducing collapses, stalls, spirals, and spins, so they burn through altitude pretty fast), then another 5-15 minutes of ridge soaring by the beach if the wind conditions allow... and you're back on the ground, watching the other five people in the group take their turn. Three runs on Saturday, three runs on Sunday – and you've got yourself a weekend SIV clinic. I was reminded of the phrase "long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror," which apparently is a war adage, whereas this was a strictly voluntary activity – and in any case, the boredom wasn't long and the terror wasn't sheer. Never-the-less, there's definitely an interesting rhythm to the SIV exercise...



Matty gave us an excellent hour-long briefing before the start, but by the time we got to the boat, unpacked everything, and got going, I'll admit that I forgot a good chunk of it. Most crucially, I forgot how/when to release the tow line, so my first tow was quite the experience. Relative to normal launching, towing is a weird experience, as you have to keep making course adjustments to keep the tow line taut when the boat turns. I was so focused on watching the boat and making adjustment on my first tow, that it was quite unexpected when I realized that I was about to go into the clouds, which were fairly low that morning. Due to a problem with my radios, I couldn't make out what the boat operator was telling me to do, but I definitely wanted to remain tethered to something as I got engulfed in whiteness all around. I've never been in the clouds before, but I've heard the horror stories of going into the "white room." By remaining tethered, I at least wouldn't be lost flying around in circles or heading into the mountainous terrain nearby (it's very easy to get disoriented, and for the SIV course I didn't have the instruments that I usually fly with), and I wouldn't get sucked higher into the clouds. Engulfed in the dense white fog, I gave a nice pep talk to my wing, and we eventually emerged out the side of the cloud. By that point, the boat had stopped, and I was beginning to overshoot it, and the tow line was tugging awkwardly at me from the wrong angle. The situation didn't feel sustainable, and there were more clouds coming up, so I let go of the brakes, yanked on what I rightly guessed to be the release handle, and was back under my own control right as I heard Matty's voice come quietly on the radio to encourage me to do just that. Matty's voice transmitted louder than the boat driver's, so I was able to execute a few simple maneuvers (collapses and spirals) on that first run – and we corrected the volume issue for the subsequent runs.



Observations and lessons learned:
  1. If in doubt, speak up. I thought the volume felt quiet even before takeoff, and should have double-checked that while still on the ground.

  2. Once I got used to it, and when I wasn't going into the clouds, towing was sort of fun – a slightly surreal experience that reminded me of my tandem-passenger experience with my brother (maybe because you don't have control over the direction, and so you're basically there for the ride like a passenger, when the boat is going straight?).

  3. For the types of wings that all of us had (beginner wings, A-s or B-s), that wing just wants to fly. It wants to recover from collapses, it wants to fly straight, and it can recover from just about anything, provided that you have enough ground clearance for it to do its thing. I feel like the SIV really reset my feeling for what bad turbulence is, and what my wing can handle. If there's one thing I learned this weekend, it's that – while its pilot is still a work in progress – my wing is rock solid!

  4. Spirals were intense, especially the first few times (and I'm glad I got to experience them twice before when flying tandem, once with my brother and once with Matty a few months ago). But they were also kind of fun. Apparently, you can remove some of that intensity by doing do a low-g spiral by collapsing the outside portion of the wing. In practice, I'm not sure I could tell the difference (but maybe I would after more revolutions – I was exiting my spirals after a max of 2 revolutions to not burn up too much altitude).

  5. The B-line stall was fun, and felt like doing a pullup on my wing. It felt very mellow. Full stalls, on the other hand, felt like chaos – the wing flapping like crazy overhead. Finding the backfly (tailslide) position was cool, but coming out of it symmetrically wasn't easy. Out of the dozen stalls that I did, on at least two instances I came out spinning, under no control whatsoever – and was basically relying on either the wing to do its thing or for Matty to tell me what to do. Spinning was super disorienting, and I considered throwing the reserve if the spinning wouldn't stop within a few seconds, though I thankfully regained control soon (not sure whether through my efforts or not).
    • If I understood it correctly, the trick to doing it right is to release the backfly just a bit (and symmetrically!), while looking up at the wing. At that point the wing will surge forward. Then apply the brakes before the wing surges too far ahead, and again, make sure that everything is symmetric.
    • If it's NOT symmetric, you can just re-stall the wing. A stall is a reset button after all, and will stop the spinning. By the time we talked about this after my run, it was time to start other maneuvers so I didn't have a chance to try it out.
    • Along the same lines, something that wasn't obvious to me, but that another fellow classmate explained to me: if you're spinning, you want to apply brake to the outside to slow it down. I.e., if you're spinning to the right (clockwise), apply left brake to get that side to slow down, and you won't be spinning anymore! Again, didn't get a chance to practice it, but it seems obvious when put that way.

  6. I did get very good at clearing cravattes, which I got after half my stalls. Pumping the brakes works for small cravattes, but for larger ones I found that the only way I could get them out was by pulling the same-side stabilo line.
    • If I understood correctly, the trick to avoiding the cravattes in the first place after a stall is to semi-aggressively pull the brakes after releasing the backfly (or at least to maintain good pressure?). Without enough pressure, the wing tips get tucked under and then require clearing.

  7. I could not get the hang of an asymmetric spiral (though it meant I basically practiced exiting the spiral over and over again). If I understood correctly, the idea was to start with a regular spiral and then weight-shift to the other side while exiting. It sounded like I was a little late with my weight-shift and/or my exit. Matty said that the asymmetric spirals are a great way to build up to wingovers (and, in his mind, are the safer way to approach wingovers), so I would like to learn this eventually... but it may have to wait till I do another SIV.

Though each run of maneuvers was just a handful of minutes, both days felt quite long and I learned a lot – both during my own flying and when watching the others. Driving back from Riffe Lake, I felt nicely satiated. But, writing this report four days later, I'm already excited about doing another SIV (I was initially thinking that I can wait another couple years... but maybe next year?). And I'm looking forward to doing some regular non-maneuver-y flying this weekend.


Thanks, Matty, for the excellent coaching, and to Kevin Stone & Maggie Johnescu for the excellent video footage!

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Spreadsheet Adventures: Coloring Fun with Conditional Formatting

They say Isaac Newton invented Calculus while quarantining from the Plague. While my dad hasn't reached that level of quarantine boredom, he's devised a really fun and artistic approach for teaching Excel – and yesterday released the first e-book in his "Spreadsheet Adventures" series.

"Coloring Fun with Conditional Formatting" is a step-by-step guide and puzzle collection. It shows how to create beautiful mathematical patterns in Excel, while building up the reader's familiarity with formulas and conditional formatting. In proofreading my dad's initial draft, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and was blown away by the beauty and unpredictability of some of the patterns. I'm including just a few of the images below.

If this piques your interest, you can purchase the e-book here: https://leanpub.com/spreadsheetadventures/.

More info about the Spreadsheet Adventure series can be found on my dad's website: http://spreadsheetadventures.com. And you can also follow him on the Facebook, where he plans to post weekly puzzles and beautiful pictures at https://facebook.com/spreadsheetadventures.

I hope you enjoy it (and if you can think of someone else who'd benefit from the book, please help spread the word :-)).










Sunday, January 10, 2021

PNW Packrafting FAQs

There's been a growing interest in packrafting in Washington, with over 100 people joining our "PNW Packrafting" Facebook group group over the past month! I though it'd be useful to compile a list of FAQs related to packrafting in Washington. I posted this set of FAQs on our Facebook group this morning, but since that post is only visible to group members, I am re-posting it here for public viewing. For folks living in Washington/PNW and interested in packrafting, I highly recommend joining that group (we frequently do group outings together, and members will often share trip reports and recommendations).

Q: What are packrafts? What does one do with them?

A: Packrafts are an lightweight but rugged inflatable boats. Packrafts are versatile, and are great for anything from floating on an alpine lake, to floating on Class III/IV rivers (or even higher!). For running rivers, packrafts are akin to whitewater kayaks, but are more stable and easier to get started on. Packrafts generally have whitewater decks, similar to whitewater kayaks. For winter trips, it's best to have a drysuit -- but in the summer and/or on easier rivers/lakes, it's possible to go without.

Q: What are the best packraft brands? What about DIY packrafts?

A: The two most common brands are Alpacka and Kokopelli. Alpacka is generally considered the higher-end of the two (and is a little more expensive), but both are good brands.

I own three Alpacka packrafts. They are all of the "classic" variety (click on "classic" on https://www.alpackaraft.com/), with a "Whitewater Deck" build configuration. I bought mine before either the Cargo Fly or the ability the whitewater deck to be a Removable Whitewater Deck were in an option. If I were buying now, I would definitely get the latter and I would maybe get the cargo fly, though I'm less sold on that and it costs a little more extra. For most people, and especially if you'll only have one boat, I do think that getting a whitewater deck (of one type or another) is better than going down the self-bailing option, but there are folks who really like their self-bailers.

My other packraft is a Kokopelli Nirvana with a spray deck. It's a little heavier and bulkier, but the price for Kokopelli is definitely cheaper. So if price is a large consideration for you, you could get a Kokopelli and still have a great time.

There is also an exclusively self-bailing Bakraft by Aire. It's an interesting boat -- I've been in one before, in Costa Rica -- but I haven't seen them in use in either Washington or Alaska. Like I said, for Washington/PNW/Alaska, most folks go for having a whitewater deck.

There are the really cheap floatables as well, e.g., the Uncharted Rapid Raft or the Klymin LiteWater Dinghy. I don't have direct experience with either, and they might be good boats for going out on a lake, but they're not whitewater boats.

Finally, there are do-it-yourself packrafts. I personally don't have any experience with them -- and have some skepticism regarding the amount of time it would take to do a quality job, and/or the amount of glue fumes you would end up breathing in in the process -- but it is a thing. There was a discussion about it earlier this year: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1152724471784252/permalink/1418021261921237/

Side-note: why do I have four boats? My wife and I bought a boat for each of us, to be able to do trips together. However, we found that we often had friends who wanted to join, so we bought a third boat. Then we realized that most guests/friends come in pairs, so we eventually bought a fourth one. I rarely need all four boats, so if you're just starting to look into packrafting and would like to borrow one to try it out -- especially on a trip that I'm already going on -- just let me know.

Q: Talk to me about safety

A: I'm a firm believer in a packrafting safety culture! Packrafts are a lot of fun, but especially when in the PNW, you're going in fairly cold water, and there are frequently downed trees and logjams in rivers. So please, get into this sport safely!

The first element of safety is being prepared. If you're new, go with someone who's experienced. Progress slowly -- start at Class I/II- rivers before progressing to II/II+/III-. Have a quality life jacket (and make sure it's buckled snugly) and drysuit (more on that below). Bring a change of clothes in a dry bag. Unless it's a super easy river that you've done before, don't go solo. Check the water levels before you go, to make sure that the river isn't running too high. Use this group to let folks know that you're thinking of doing such-and-such river, and see if others in your skill level want to join!

While you can be a self-taught packrafter ("self-taught" as in taught by a more experienced buddy), it is a good idea to take a class. I took one such course two years ago, and it's made me a much more competent and confident paddler, especially with regards to self-rescue and running Class III whitewater. It's also where I tried out a drysuit for the first time, and subsequently bought my own. We are fortunate enough to have such trainings offered in North Bend (an hour east of Seattle) once a year or so. The North Bend course is led by Zak Sears from the Swiftwater Safety Institute (same guy who led it two years ago). This year, the North Bend dates are April 6-7 and April 12-13. See https://swiftwatersafetyinstitute.com/ssi-courses/packraft-specific-training/ for more info. A different company (but listed on same site) is also going to be offering a similar course in Idaho on July 27-28, right before the 2021 APA Packraft Roundup that's scheduled for July 29-August 1st.

Even on "mellow" runs, the deadliest thing to watch out for are wood hazards (log jams, trees across the river, etc). Do not underestimate the force with which current would push you into/under one of those things -- and avoid encountering them at all cost! If you can't see around a river bend, and especially if the river is narrow, get out to scout if you need to; portage the boat around those hazards if you can't navigate the water safely with enough margin for error; paddle at an angle upstream if you have to in order to get to shore before hitting one of these things. The other thing to remember is -- if you flip on a rapid and go into the water -- to swim in a "defensive swimming" position with your feet up to avoid entrapment. Look it up online (e.g., at https://paddling.com/learn/self-rescue-swimming), and once again: consider taking a whitewater safety course as soon as is practical!

If you'll be in an area outside of cell reception, I'm also a big fan of having a Garmin InReach (which I use for my other sports, e.g., hiking and paragliding). It gives you a way to communicate to the outside world in case of an emergency, and to be able to check in ("running later than expected, but I'm all good").

Q: How do I get started? What are some rivers to run? What are good resources?

A: If you're in the Seattle eastside area -- which is the area I'm most familiar with -- there are a number of great rivers to get started on, that are Class I or II-. Classic car-accessible runs include:

For slightly more advanced runs, the Upper Middle Snoqualmie Fork (listed as Class II, though I would call the beginning section of it a II+) is one of my all-time favorites: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2219. There is also a short-and-sweet II+ run on the South Fork of the Snoqualmie: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2224.

Going up to more of a II+/III-, the Sauk (near Darrington) has several different sections that are all great, and can accommodate multiple skill levels. The lower Sauk is a Class II (https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2201/), though be on the watch out for logs. There's a slightly more advanced (II to III-) section at https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2198/. And finally there's a more advanced run in-between those two sections, that is a III+, though it can be started a little later to make it a III-: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2199. Further up north, there is also the beautiful Nooksack: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2171

I really love the recently-updated "River Info" map page on the American Whitewater site: https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-index. You can pan around the map to find rivers that are in your area, color-coded by difficult level. From there, just click on a river and view the details (which will often include the current flow rate and the recommended flow range).

I've also used the "Paddling Washington" book before, which I own in Kindle format for easier searching: https://www.amazon.com/Paddling-Washington-Flatwater-Whitewater-Northwest/dp/1594850569.

Of course, packrafting offers a lot more opportunities than just doing the sorts of rivers that river kayakers can do! I've had a great time taking a packraft up to Colchuck Lake (https://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/colchuck-lake) and to Goat Lake (https://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/goat-lake). I also had a good time hiking with my wife up the Queets River in the Olympic Peninsula, and then floating back down. I'm sure there are many other trip opportunities as well -- and I encourage folks to post trip reports to get the community excited about these!

Finally, for those wanting a book about packrafting as a sport, Luc Mehl -- a packrafting legend in Alaska -- is currently writing a Packrafting Handbook that I'm really excited about, to be released in May of this year. You can learn more about the book, and join the mailing list, here: https://thingstolucat.com/packrafthandbook/

Q: What other gear do I need? (Drysuit, paddle, life jacket, throw rope, helmet)

A: For any serious paddling in Washington (class III) and/or serious winter paddling, a drysuit is a must. Mine is a fairly basic one, and I'm perfectly happy with it. For me personally, having borrowed a drysuit with a standard neck gasket during the packrafting safety course -- and having hated it! -- I've opted to go for a "semi-dry" drysuit that uses a neoprene collar in place of the latex. My thought is that unlike river kayakers (who do Eskimo Rolls, etc.), packrafters don't intend to spent much time with their head underwater, and I'd rather be comfortable rather than feeling like the neck gasket is trying to strangle me. But I'm a bit of an anomaly in that regard. For those who are curious, my drysuit is https://www.nrs.com/product/23008.03/kokatat-mens-supernova-hydrus-25-semi-drysuit. Get a set of neoprene socks to go over the top of the drysuit, to protect the feet more. I then use the Astral Brewer 2.0 Water shoes -- two sizes larger than than what I usually would wear -- for footwear on the river.

You'll obviously need a paddle. Most packrafters use a kayaking paddle, but as short as possible. I personally have always owned AquaBound paddles, and really like their Manta Ray 4-Piece Posi-Lok: https://aquabound.com/products/manta-ray-carbon-4-piece-posi-lok. Most packrafters I know use Werner paddles.

I would recommend spending the extra $50 to get a 4-piece instead of a 2-piece: it will make it easier to take hiking, or to take a spare with you in the boat on a group trip (I've had two occasions now that I've gone with a group and someone broke or permanently lost a paddle; so since then I've generally taken a spare).

You'll want a life jacket (PFD), something like the NRS Ninja: https://www.nrs.com/product/40013.04/nrs-ninja-pfd. For anything beyond Class I or II-, you'll also definitely want a helmet. You can use a bike helmet if you're in a pinch, but for more serious whitewater you'll want to get a whitewater helmet.

For winter-time paddling, I like to use either pogies (e.g., https://www.nrs.com/product/25031.02/nrs-mamba-pogies) or mitts (https://www.nrs.com/product/25027.05/nrs-toaster-mitts).

As you advance and take a whitewater safety course, you'll want to get (and know how to use!) as throw rope. The Waist Belt Throw Bag by SolGear (https://www.solgear.com/rescue_gear/waist_belt_throw_bag_with_60_of_8.2_mm_sure_grip/) is the best I've seen, and was recommended by my whitewater safety course instructor.

For folks who live in the Seattle area: I highly recommend the Kayak Academy in Issaquah, which is where I bought my drysuit (new) and helmets (used). They sell used and new gear, and also rent gear (drysuits). They have an online store as well: https://www.kayakacademy.com. Call ahead during COVID times to see whether they're still operating at the physical location...

Q: Talk to me about logistics. How do you plan which river to run? How do you shuttle back from the takeout to the put-in?

A: Like I mentioned earlier, I use the American Whitewater website (and/or the Paddling Washington book) to come up with a candidate set of rivers that I'd like to go on, and then -- as it gets closer to the day that I'm going to go -- use the current flow rates, weather, and insight into the desires & skill levels of my group to pick the river.

I like to grab a bicycle with me, and drop it off at the takeout before driving to the put-in. This solves the shuttling problem (and is especially handy during COVID times!). If I'm going with a family member who drove up with me in the same car, having them stay at the takeout is easier than packing everything up and biking up with it -- but hey, they're called "packrafts" for a reason, you can absolutely pack them down (and that's where having a 4-piece rather than a 2-piece paddle really helps too)! An overnight backpack backpack (e.g., a 70 liter+) will work for gathering your gear.

I hope this helps folks who are getting into Packrafting in the PNW -- and again, I encourage you to join the our "PNW Packrafting" Facebook group for trip reports, group-floating-trip coordination, and questions. Have fun, paddle safe, and see you on the water!

* * *

Some photos below, for a sampling of trips that I've done in Washington:

Packrafting the Upper Middle Snoqualmie Fork (https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2219).
A Class II+ run.
Oct 2019


Packrafting on Goat Lake (https://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/goat-lake). It's a 5-mile hike each way, but not too intensive.
June 2018. (Pictured here is my wife, Katrina Zlatkovsky)


Yours Truly, packrafting with a group on the Sauk river (likely the Bedal Campground to Whitechuck Boat Launch section, or maybe the section below that) in summer of 2019.


My mom on Colchuck Lake. It's a 4-mile hike each way, with the last two miles fairly steep. But *so* rewarding to be out on the water, once you make it to the top!
June 2019


Me on the Queets River, 2013. My wife wrote a blog post about it: http://blog.michaelzlat.com/2013/07/trip-to-olympic-peninsula-2013.html


Packrafting with my dog on the Snoqualmie River, just downstream of Carnation. At that point on its journey, it's a Class I river.
For the dog, I put some booties on him to prevent him from scratching the boat. He wasn't too fond of this whole affair, but if I had him sitting inside the boat and me hugging him with my legs, he stayed put. September 2018.


Class III section of the Sauk, Dec 2020. The group was assembled using the PNW Packrafting Facebook group! See https://www.facebook.com/groups/1152724471784252/permalink/1494030107653685 for a trip report.



Yakima (Class II, https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2276).
July 2020


Skagit River. Class I-II. https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/river-detail/2205
Sept 2018