An Excerpt from The Bikeraft Guide: Packrafting With Bikes on Flatwater, Fjords & Oceans
It’s not just whitewater that people packrafting with bikes need to be wary of. Take no body of water lightly, says Huw Oliver, a Scottish adventurer. On his trip to Greenland with partner Annie Lloyd-Evans, he learned this the hard way.
There, he says, they covered more ground than they ever had before on flatwater, 70 miles of it, in fact. They thoroughly prepared by doing research, getting tide charts and learning all they could. Still, the strength of the katabatic winds and the vastness of the fjords still surprised them.
Many people think it was those winds that killed a solo German packrafter in 2015.
Nothing went wrong on Huw and Annie’s trip, but it very well could have, he says.
“We saw a couple times how violent the wind could be,” he explains. The entirety of their six days on the fjord, they constantly monitored the wind and tide. “If you ever tried to work against it, it would just go. ‘NO!’ The place was just too big and too powerful. You had to wait until the tide and wind said you could pass.”
On a few different crossings, they realized how precarious their situation could be. They discovered conditions changed often and quickly in the Arctic. Or, simply if something happened. For example, Annie’s boat deflated in the middle of a lake because some grit got caught in her zipper!
“Even though the fjord was ‘sheltered,’ it gave us a really healthy fear of flatwater and definitely made us realize how vulnerable you are on open water,” Huw explains.
“Packraft and bikes can take you to amazing places, but you have to be so careful and make really good choices. It’s not the same as a kayak. You have to work with what the environment is giving you. You can’t work against it.”
Kim McNett agrees that water, especially oceans, can be terrifying. “But if you can find your humble place within them, you can go so far with these rafts it’s amazing! And then add the bicycle onto that, the real strength in that is the speed you can travel on as compared to walking. On a trip like the one we did from Point Hope to Barrow, Alaska, we would have had to carry really heavy packs. It would have taken twice as long.”
Living in Alaska, Kim and her partner, Bjorn Olson, often get to go to places in the summer nobody else goes to without a plane.
“When we come to villages and people ask us where we started and we tell them, it blows their minds. And when you show them the raft, they’re like: ‘What?! It’s so small and it’s on your handlebars!’ I can’t tell you how many times they have looked at us like we’re morons, and they’ve said, “You can’t go there!” We respond, “Oh yeah, we got a raft.” And they look at us like we’re nuts. So I love the raft for that.”
On the other hand, packrafts are so lightweight they blow around more in the wind than other boats. And they’re slower. And these things limit your choices in terms of when and where you can cross open bodies of water, for example. If the wind is blowing, it doesn’t make sense to try to cross a channel.
“Paddling has taught me incredible humility, and coming to recognize and grow my own personal strength and capabilities,” Kim explains. Packrafting taught her about choosing, sticking to and working toward a goal, though it may require repeated small and seemingly insignificant paddle strokes.
“When you add them all up, if you just keep going, you can get to a distant destination,” she says. “But you have to be focused on the thing you want, and you have to keep moving forward to get it. I love how pure it is. It’s not easy, but it is simple. And that activity can teach you how to navigate so many other challenges in life.”
In this section, Doom, Liz Sampey and Kim answer some questions about the different kinds of water you might find, what you should watch out for, and how to prepare. All answers are Doom’s unless otherwise marked.
How should I deal with my bike in saltwater?
Just know your bike is going to get wrecked by salt water. Clean it with fresh water every opportunity you get. Salt water is corrosive. As soon as I get home from a 10-day or less trip, I take my bike apart and clean all the saltwater out of it. If I don’t, more corrosion will happen over time. Don’t just spray the bike down. Take your bottom bracket off, take your headset out, pull your fork, clean your bearings and then grease everything and lube and oil everything!
If you’re not well-versed in bicycle mechanics consult with your local bike shop.
What do I need to know about crossing fjords and oceans?
A lot. Do you have a tide chart, and do you know how to use it? You should be very familiar with how it works, and you should have a good idea of how it works as pertaining to packrafting and how the water levels are going to change. Will you be crossing a large body of water, or will you be in areas where there’s tight fjords with constrictions? Sometimes when the tide comes in and out of those constrictions those zones can turn into really fast moving water that is very similar to big, high volume rivers. Rapids can appear out of nowhere, along with whirlpools you have no control over and eddy lines you may not be familiar with. You should be extremely cautious of that stuff.
Tide charts are one thing that you have to have to cross any fjord or coastal situation, anywhere in the world. And they’re specific to the place you are. You should have those printed out and available. I’m sure there’s a tide chart app for your phone, which you should get, too. I’ve never used one, as we’ve just used the printed tide charts. But, it’s good to have both.
What else should I consider in terms of ocean environments?
(Kim) In the Arctic, the ocean environment is totally different from our ocean environment along the gulf. We get predictable tide cycles; it goes in and out twice per day. Out there on the shallow coast, the tide is wind driven. There’s a shallow bench in the ocean. When it gets an onshore wind, it just builds and stacks the water up into high water, and then it floods the lagoons. And with such a low relief on the landscape an inundated lagoon means there’s no fresh water, and you might have to go miles inland to find fresh water. That was one of the things that we had to learn about the landscape, and towards the end of our first stretch, which was the hardest one, to Point Ley, we were very thirsty.
(Liz) Another thing to consider is how to ride rip currents out to get past the waves, something I had to learn while circumnavigating Puerto Rico.
In terms of glaciers, what do I have to watch out for?
Glaciers are dangerous and volatile! When crossing below them on water, you may have to contend with large calving chunks falling at random, ice avalanches, flooding resulting from glacier flows damming a stream or river, trapping a large amount of water and then suddenly releasing it and dangerous waves that result from all these possibilities. You should take none of these things lightly. I had a near-miss experience on the La Perouse Glacier while on my Lost Coast South tour in 2011.
Also, follow these recommendations as outlined by the Kenai Fjords National Park:
- Be VERY proficient at self rescuing (both getting back into your boat and accessing your emergency kit as quickly as possible) in case a wave capsizes you.
- Use the buddy system, and paddle near a friend.
- Bring your drysuit and all the right clothing and equipment—PFDs, adequate clothing, warming kit, etc. And, you’d better have a lot of experience on smaller, cold bodies of water before you try to cross a fjord, channel, bay, etc in your packraft. Drysuits serve a dual purpose, keeping you warmer when you’re out of the boat as well as keeping you alive should you take a swim.
- Know the terrain, tides and local lagoons. Ask for advice from locals, research and learn as much as you can about where you’re going. According to the Kenai website: “Tidal currents can create standing waves, boils and confusing eddies [in lagoons]. It’s best to enter them at high, slack tide.”
- Know the weather patterns and, if possible, check the weather before you embark on your crossing by calling your designated contact via your in-Reach device.
- Prepare extra time on your trip in case you have to wait for good weather to do your crossing.
- Stay at least a half mile from the glacier terminus, and avoid landing on beaches within two miles of a tidewater glacier.
- Store your gear well above the high tide line.
- Don’t paddle between icebergs. One of Lizzy’s friends was once crushed between two. He just barely avoided certain death when one finally slipped off of him.
- Remain twice the height or width away from icebergs. Lizzy saw a massive iceberg flip over in Greenland (luckily from the shore). It created a huge series of waves.
- Don’t just read this list and think you can safely cross beneath a glacier. DO YOUR RESEARCH. Have the right gear. Be aware.
Want to read other excerpts from The Bikeraft Guide? Check out these links:
- GearJunkie.com: “Bikerafting 101: How to Last Your Bike to a Packraft.”
- Four Corners Guides YouTube, “How to Bikeraft” series.
- “Bikerafting: The First Questions You Should Ask Yourself.”