Magazine article Geographical

Hard Graft with a Raft: When Alastair Humphreys Decided to Cross Iceland, He Wanted to Work with the Country's Spectacular Geography to Ensure His Journey Offered a Diverse Experience. and That Involved Packing a New Piece of Gear in His Rucksack: A Boat

Magazine article Geographical

Hard Graft with a Raft: When Alastair Humphreys Decided to Cross Iceland, He Wanted to Work with the Country's Spectacular Geography to Ensure His Journey Offered a Diverse Experience. and That Involved Packing a New Piece of Gear in His Rucksack: A Boat

Article excerpt

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With aching shoulders and tired legs, we spent each day cursing the weight of our packs. The rucksacks, which contained all of our equipment and 25 days' food, weighed 40 kilograms apiece. And yet each evening, as I scraped every last morsel from my boil-in-the-bag meal, I bemoaned the fact that I was permanently hungry and wished that we had brought more food.

But today was different. We descended from the Hofsjokull glacier to the headwaters of the Thjorsa river. There we inflated small packrafts, strapped our backpacks onto the bows, and let the racing glacial waters whisk us swiftly on our way. Things suddenly felt a lot more enjoyable and exciting.

COAST TO COAST

Together with Chris Herwig, my expedition partner and photographer, I had set out to try to cross Iceland. The plan was simple: we would hike inland from the coast, carrying all of our food and gear. When we reached the watershed, we would inflate packrafts and paddle down to the opposite coast. It would be a coast-to-coast journey with more variety and challenge than merely hiking.

Packrafts are inflatable boats that are sufficiently small and light to be carried long distances. I discovered them after reflecting on how I could combine several different elements that are important to me into my expeditions. These include simplicity, variety, relatively low cost and skill requirements, gaining easy access to wilderness areas, and finding projects that are challenging, rewarding and interesting but also of short duration.

Packrafting requires more kit than an ordinary trekking journey. Careful consideration of equipment is required if the benefits of having a packraft aren't to become outweighed, literally, by the inconvenience of carrying too much stuff. Compromise and versatility are key. We could have crossed Iceland by hiking the whole way and crossing rivers at shallow points. We chose to use packrafts because they added value to our expedition by making the project more logistically and intellectually interesting. And they added excitement, difficulty and a sense of discovery without adding a large burden of complication, cost or weight.

INGENIOUS INVENTION

The Royal Navy's Lieutenant Peter Halkett built the first prototype for today's packrafts during the 1840s. He was interested in designing a boat that was light enough to be carried, but tough enough to be used on arduous journeys in the Canadian Arctic. His first design was ingenious: when not in use, the raft doubled as a cloak, the oar as a walking stick, and the sail as an umbrella. John Franklin held the design in high regard, taking one with him on his ill-fated final expedition.

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During the 1980s, packrafts began gaining popularity in long-distance adventure races in Alaska, and Alaska remains at the forefront of using packrafts on non-motorised, long-distance, cross-country journeys.

Modern packrafts sit somewhere between a child's rubber dinghy and a whitewater-rafting boat. Prices vary correspondingly, from cheaper boats designed to help you cross an occasional lake or wide river, right up to extremely robust, and more expensive, rafts capable of taking on serious whitewater.

If you want to try something basic before investing too heavily, then look at boats made by Sevylor. And if weight is more important to you than performance, try FlyWeight Designs. Their new FlytePacker weighs a smidgen over one kilogram, but can hold 140 kilograms. At the other end of the scale, the African River Kraft Gecko is a heavier and tougher option.

I used Alpacka's Denali Llama raft for the Iceland crossing. Chris is shorter than me, so chose the Alpacka Yak. Our boats were supplied with ingenious inflation bags (enabling them to be blown up in a couple of minutes) and fitted with spray decks, which are essential for whitewater paddling.

We bashed our boats on rocks, scraped them down shallow glacial floodplains, capsized them in big waves, and even sheltered beneath them in a sudden hailstorm. …

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