Packrafting with Jaron!
Jaron Segay worked the 2022 spring/summer guide season at Scullbinder Ranch for Four Corners Guides in 2022. Doom and I first met Jaron on a bikerafting trip that we ran in conjunction with Jon Yazzie and Nadine Johnson, founders of Dzil Ta’ah Adventures and the Navajo Youth Bikepacking Program. The bikerafting trip to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area capped off the first season of their program teaching kids how to bikepack, and Jaron impressed us with his knowledge of bikes and camping and how he took care of his sisters, Janessa and Jodessa.
Jaron and his Siblings were the first three participants of the program, and Jon and Nadine trained them to be mentors for future youth participants. Unfortunately, the pandemic really put a dent on recruitment for the program since the Navajo Nation was mostly closed for the duration. However, Jon and Nadine are currently trying to revive the program. As part of hiss three months with FCG, Jaron got to take a course of his choosing. This is his trip report from that adventure. ~Lizzy Scully
Every Day is a Fun Day
Story by Jaron Segay, photos by Steve Fassbinder from two different trips (bikerafting Utah and the Colorado course summer 2022)
Waking up on a Tuesday morning is really nothing new. A day after Monday, not yet halfway through the week. Pretty normal eh? While working for Doom and Lizzy at Four Corners Guides, everyday is a fun day. Out there, anything can happen at any minute. Anything from running out of water, to taking Rubber (the house cat) to an emergency visit to the vet.
I am somewhat the “emergency guy” at the ranch in case anything happens, which I gladly love doing. After a bit of morning coffee with eggs drenched with hot sauce, I heard news of a few people backing out of the packrafting course planned for that week. Although unfortunate and sometimes frustrating for people to cancel, this opened up an opportunity for me to tag along the beginners packrafting trip!
My packraft experience was limited to a previous bikerafting loop we did with Doom and my uncle, Jon Yazzie, in the Hite, Utah area. But I was stoked! We paddled a couple days on the Colorado River, leading into Lake Powell. And then biked out of the canyon and back to our vehicles.
I thought I had enough experience to go on a packraft adventure. However, after learning that the paddling would be more difficult, with possible whitewater, I was feeling a bit shaken. Being an avid mountain biker and fisherman, whitewater rafting, or even doing the smallest rapid on the river, never crossed my mind.
A few lingering thoughts came to my mind as I considered the course. What if I flipped in the water? Would I get stuck on a rock? How do I navigate a rapid? Also, not being a good swimmer brought my confidence down a bit. But after watching YouTube videos and getting a good night’s sleep, I decided to send it anyway. Best decision ever!
Day 1: Flipping Boats, Eddies & Self Rescuing (or not)
Fresh off a few cups of coffee and spicy eggs, we all piled in the vehicle and headed to the Dolores River. We needed to do a shakedown run before heading off into the wild.
I felt tense and unprepared. I had running shorts, a rain jacket from Walmart, pockets full of snack bars and a bike bottle of water. The others were fully kitted out with drysuits, boat bags with supplies, good pairs of water shoes and more experience (I missed the first day of the 5-day course because of work).
But after a few little sandwiches and splashes with Saddle, the river dog, I felt ready to get in the water. Once we blew up the boats, prepped them, strapped up the PFD’s and helmets, I readied myself for battle. Once we were off, I felt relaxed and familiar with the raft again.
As we floated downriver, the water splashing against my skin, the smells of the river, the trees and the sound of rushing water made me feel like a kid all over again. A stick flipped me in the first 100 yards of the journey, and my boat filled up with water like a bathtub. But I got used to the cold water quickly and actually felt fairly warm.
Then came the first rapids.
Paddling alongside my friend Waldo, who I worked with at the Ranch the month of May, I learned a few tips for charging into the rapids. Most importantly I would aim for the center of the tongue.
“Find a good line,” he told me. Familiar with this term from mountain biking, I started imagining a line through the rapids. After following Waldo through a few, I felt confident in choosing my own line, including the biggest of the day. While Waldo caught up, I had to laugh when he called them, “little waves.” But as we paddled I started to fall in love with being on the water in a huge pool floatie.
Catch The Eddy!
At one point, I heard Doom yell, “Let’s catch this eddy.”
My mind froze, and I thought “huh?” I knew what an eddy was; it’s where fish chill in the little pool of calm water when the water is rushing around a rock. But the term “catching an eddy” was foreign to me. Watching the othres, I finally figured out what it meant. But I floated past the first opportunity.
During our midday break we all ate snacks and shared more tips on catching eddies, finding good lines and what to do in certain situations. I began to understand more and more about how to navigate the rapids. Only eddies remained a huge weakness.
Learning to “Swim”
I attempted to catch an eddy in faster water, but was quickly humbled about how powerful water could be even while looking slow and flat. Once, I charged toward an eddy on river right, aiming 45 degrees toward the rock as I was told. I paddled hard. And then I dug the left paddle into the eddy to catch it and have the water pull me upstream. And it did. The boat just didn’t go along with me. I flipped immediately.
Not being a good swimmer, I did what any non swimmer would do in water… panic. But only for about three seconds. Then I remembered that my PFD could easily float me up to the surface like a seal.
After Waldo retrieved my boat and paddle, I tried to jump back into the raft. I had seen Doom demonstrate how to get back into a raft. He made it look so simple and easy. In my attempt, I jumped too hard and ended up going over the other side of the boat back into the water. After a few failed attempts, I gave up, went to the nearest shallow water, and had a few laughs as I stumbled back in the boat. While we finished up the float on the river for the day, I felt ready to go into the wild for some rafting.
We wrapped up the night in an epic camp spot upriver, near Rico. I got to know and get familiar with my fellow raft friends, but went to bed early. My only gripe so far was that I should have brought extra shoes. Waddling around with soggy shoes sucks on a chilly night.
Day 2: Why Packrafting? Because The Water Takes You Places
Waking up rested, I did the morning routine and packed up with my bare feet. I became more excited as we headed off to the San Miguel River. When we arrived, I was totally ready to get on the water. We learned how to pack the drybags into the boat, maintain the cargo zipper and balance the weight on the bags in the boat. And then we were ready to head off, me with the mantra of: “I cannot swim today.”
After a few miles of easy paddling, and singing endless songs to myself, I started to realize how epic this journey was about to become. We hit the first rapid in the river, and the canyon started to close up and reveal more of its history on its walls. Seeing pictures of the place or seeing it from afar is one thing. But nothing compares to being there in person. I was just is just a tiny blip of what nature has to offer, which is what I love most about adventuring.
And why packrafting? Because the water takes you through places of history and some wild natural structures.
After a few hours of paddling and a few sticks of mini beef jerky, we arrived at the first camp spot, which unfortunately, was taken. But overlooking the camp was this huge structure of wooden beams, anchored into the sandstone. Back in the 1800s, an aqueduct was built to bring water down the canyon.
“How the heck did they do it,” I thought to myself. In all honesty it wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Sandstone and drilling do not mix well. But I thought a lot about the engineering behind it.
Mishaps, Leaky Boats & Making Camp
We continued through the walls of the canyon. The shadows of the overhanging wood structures and walls of rock began to open up. We practiced more techniques with Waldo leading the way. I started to feel more comfortable catching eddies and ferrying across faster water.
What I wasn’t expecting is that just like biking, equipment failure is always a factor. In this case, a fellow floater’s boat began to leak air out of the blow valve in a strange way. Not knowing exactly how air was escaping, we decided to continue to camp and cook up a solution to the little problem.
Once we all floated into camp and set up, I got lost into the world around me again. Seeing the curves, the cuts and waves of the rock intrigued me. When Doom announced that we were going to take a hike, I first felt hesitant. Hiking in soggy running shoes wasn’t the best idea. But I went anyway. Because, why not?
Into the Wild
We took off into the wild and started walking up the slopes and walls of the canyon. I imagined myself as a mountain goat… how awesome would it be to be a mountain goat?! And while we hiked I got lost in my own little world, and I started looking for drops, steep lines, and places to ride down and send on a bike.
Soon we arrived to the top of the hike, where we looked up to this huge hole in the rock. How crazy that stuff like that can naturally just happen! After a few minutes of sightseeing, the rock became cool and cozy from the shadows. I wandered around and found a comfortable hole to sit in. The peacefulness and quietness of the place gave me a sense of relief.. relief from the crazy things in the world and the stresses of life. Soaking up the natural beauty of the world, I felt one with the earth again.
Back at camp, the sounds of portable stoves turning on and sealed bags shaking meant it was time for some chow. Waldo pulled out his endless bag of chips from his drybag. We all laughed and shared stories, eating camp meals and digging into the bag. The coolest part about trips like this is that the people you’re around for a few days become close friends, even though you may see them only once in your lifetime.
Day 3: Rain Doesn’t Dampen the Spirits
On the final day of the backcountry portion of the course, the sun lit up the canyon with a glowing orange hue, which quickly turned into dark gloomy clouds. I felt pretty nervous at the start.
“What if it rains? What if I swim?! My feet would be miserable at the end of the trip!” But those thoughts disappeared as I finished packing my tent and stuffed my sleeping stuff into my dry bag.
Everyone suited up and got ready, and we began to paddle downstream. My mind wandered, and I forgot I was floating on a river and nearly flipped on little rock in the shallow water. From the biggest rock to the little frogs, everything amazed me. As we got near the take out point, Doom spoke of another take out spot a few miles down river that we had the option of floating to. With nothing but smiles, everyone quickly jumped back into their boats.
After another hour’s paddle I felt a little drop of rain slap the brim of my hat. And I quickly thought “oh… crap,” considering my damp feet and wet clothes. It kept raining until we pulled up to the take out. Unpacking was unexpectedly harder than I had imagined. The mud turned into quicksand, and we nearly lost our shoes! While we did the best to clean our gear and pack it into the vehicle, mud got on everything.
Rolling back into town we grabbed snacks and food. I stocked up on the most unhealthiest bag of chips, hot wings and a can of Rockstar for the trip back to Scullbinder Ranch. For me the worst part of every journey is unpacking afterwards because I’m tired and sore.
What was coming up the next day would be the most challenging but most epic day ever!
Day 4: Back to the Animas River
Editor’s Note: Due to weather patterns, the team opted to do their 3-day backcountry adventure on days 2, 3 and 4 instead of the last three days of the five-day course. So they spent the last day honing their newly-acquired packrafting skills on the Animas River.
Waking up bright and early, the crew and I headed out to Durango for the last day of the packraft course. I actually came somewhat prepared this time with a wet suit.
After doing a few warmups on a little eddy and some paddling, we headed to the upper part of the river to challenge ourselves with some faster, bigger water. And by bigger water, I mean BIG water… well for me. We mainly focused on catching eddies on the first rapid. I got the hang of it. While I still had a few missing pieces, I decided to hit the bigger rapid to challenge myself. Doom demonstrated how to flip his boat, go under water and then self rescue. And then I charged into the rapid.
Unfortunately, I mistakenly leaned the wrong way into the eddy and flipped. I experienced the gnarliest swim of my life. Although I swam only 10 seconds, it felt like minutes. And swimming the rapid was intense. My body went under the rapid and bobbed up and down in the water. I barely made it to the shore, where I breathed heavily and laughed with relief.
Round 2, 3, 4… No More
Yes, the swim and feeling the adrenaline rush was fun, but man it is scary. Walking back up the river for round two, I felt I had conquered the rapid and eddy fairly decently. But I still needed a lot of practice before I could do anything bigger. After a few more hours of practice, we decided to catch an eddy on the opposite side. I felt confident and did it well enough to receive a thumbs up from Doom and Waldo. Badass!
We practiced more ferrying across the water and catching the current to head downstream (peeling into the current). I swam once more on my fourth run, and this time scared me most of all. The rapid instantly sucked me in, and I went straight down the middle. My head barely stayed above water. I did my best to swim into an eddy, but got sucked into the rapid below again. After floating through those two rapids I finally floated on my back into calmer water and swam to the shore. After I retrieved my paddle and boat, I decided to call it a day.
At the end of the day we packed up and said our goodbyes to Waldo, who was heading back to his home country, Chile, that afternoon. Then we started making our way back slowly to the Ranch.
Although I have so much more to learn, that was one of the best learning experiences I have ever had, from falling into the water to camping with friends to being awed by the beauty of nature. I feel like I can do more, explore more with the knowledge I have gained.