A Beginner's Guide to Packrafting Podcast, Episode #4 With Jeff Creamer

Jeff Creamer, Class V Adventure Boater dives into expedition planning & more

Today for our fourth episode of A Beginner’s Guide to Packrafting & Bikerafting, we’re bringing you an interview with Jeff Creamer. Jeff teaches Swiftwater Safety Institute rescue courses and tests and makes boats for Alpacka Raft. One of America’s top packrafters, he’s done numerous remote, challenging expeditions on up to Class V whitewater in the mountains, along with some creative trips pairing boats and skis. He’s also a Level 3 American Canoe Assoc. Packraft Instructor. We are stoked this year that Jeff is teaching our 3rd annual Level 4, Intermediate/Advanced Packraft Mastery: Advanced Whitewater Paddling Skills course, May 17-19, 2024, along with two sold out Swiftwater Safety Certification courses.

In the first 15 minutes of this episode we learn about Jeff’s previous life as an ocean canoe racer and PhD student. Then he talks about his packrafting mentors Dan Thurber and Mike Curiak, and his early adventures skiing, packrafting and backpacking. Finally, we dive into Jeff’s expeditions, how he plans for them, how he chooses partners, and more. Check out the show notes on our blog.

Jeff Creamer, photo by Hanna Sturm.
Jeff Creamer, photo by Hanna Sturm.

Show notes: some highlights from the interview

  1. Benefits of learning paddling skills in a kayak

  2. Benefits of packrafting for people who think their paddling careers are done.

  3. Packrafts, Jeff says, are lightweight and easy to carry: “It’s kind of a second wind for  people in their fifties or sixties who view themselves as being at the end of or past their whitewater career. And then they discover the packraft really gives entirely new life to their adventuring career.”

  4. How Jeff learned to do bigger and better adventures both from and with his mentors. I.e. he learned from his mentors, and then began doing ever more remote and wild adventures with them.

  5. The world of expedition planning: how Jeff does research, his favorite places to do research (online, on social media, from guide books, USGS river flow data). “So first working on identifying objectives that are relatively easy to time and those mostly come in the form of mountain drainages that are fed by spring runoff from snow. Those are the kinds of objectives I focused on and tried to develop my expedition planning skills on initially. And subsequently having had a lot of success in those easier, more regular and predictable drainages.”

  6. How Jeff choose partners for his expeditions. “I end up doing successful and comfortable trips with people who have a lot more experience and are much more skilled than me. And I also do lots of trips and even expeditions with people who have way less experience and lesser developed paddling skills than me. So I’m not necessarily looking for someone in general that is well matched to me in terms of experience and paddling skills, although that often ends up working really well. I think the most important feature I look for is a similar mindset for risk tolerance and a mindfulness of managing hazards or potential hazards.”

  7. Lists as a way to help plan for a trip and also share information with partners.  

  8. Jeff discusses not “packing your fears.” “So for each piece of equipment, I’ll carefully evaluate what the chances are or risk of having an injury or other rescue situation or disaster based on that equipment downgrade. So what’s the chance of that happening? And then what is the consequence of that happening if I choose to potentially eliminate or downgrade a piece of equipment that I might always take on a roadside run?”

  9. On taking big drops in a packraft. 

Please be patient with us, as the first five minutes of the podcast are not as clear as we would have liked. We were still figuring out what worked best, earbuds or no earbuds. The audio is clear for 95% of the interview. We hope you enjoy our interview! Feature photo of Jeff creeking in Dark Canyon, by John Baker.

Q&A With Jeff Creamer, edited by Ai for clarity

JEFF CREAMER (02:47):

I’m Jeff Creamer, living in Mancos, Colorado, at the bottom left corner of Colorado, near Mesa Verde. We have a fantastic home river over in Durango, the Animas.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve identified as a packrafter. This identity has shaped my work with Swiftwater Safety Institute, SSI, as a Swiftwater Rescue and Packraft paddling skills instructor, and at Alpacka Raft, where I spend most of my time. Based in Mancos, Colorado, I primarily engage in the manufacturing of packrafts, but also in packraft testing and design.

I’ve been formally working at Alpacka Raft for about two and a half years, but I started testing for them about five years ago. This coincided with the initial work on the Valkyrie, a high-end Whitewater performance packraft that has been out for a couple of years now and continues to develop.

Devils Washbowl Slide on Middle Kings River, CA. Photo by Dan Thurber.
Devils Washbowl Slide on Middle Kings River, CA. Photo by Dan Thurber.

LIZZY: WHAT’S YOUR BACKGROUND, EARLY LIFE? (04:09)

I’m curious about your background. Where were you born, what was your schooling, and how did you end up in Colorado?

JEFF CREAMER (04:24)

I was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated there. I completed my undergrad in geology in Pennsylvania and then pursued my PhD in geochemistry based in Southern California. All my training is as a scientist and geologist.

I was based in Southern California for about seven years. At that point, I hadn’t been introduced to river sports. But while I was based on the coast of Southern California, I joined an ocean canoe paddling team. I paddled seriously for about two years, which formed some of my background in terms of paddle skills.

LIZZY: TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR FORAY INTO OCEAN CANOEING (05:08)

Can you explain more about what ocean canoe paddling involves?

JEFF CREAMER (05:15):

Ocean canoeing is prevalent in many of the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Australia, and the West Coast of the US. These places have very active ocean canoe or outrigger canoe racing scenes. The league I was in raced 6-man canoes that are 44 feet long. Most of the races and training are carried out in the open ocean, with swell, waves, and winds, moving along at nine to 12 knots depending on conditions.

LIZZY: HOW DID YOU GET INTO OCEAN CANOE RACING? (06:00)

How did you get into that? I’ve never even heard of that sport.

JEFF CREAMER (06:08)

I hadn’t heard of it either. But a coworker was on a team in Santa Barbara, and I went to check it out one Sunday afternoon and got hooked.

LIZZY: WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO BE ON THE OCEAN IN THAT SORT OF SITUATION? (06:21)

What was it like to be on the ocean? Did you paddle through big swells?

JEFF CREAMER (06:32)

As someone who loves the ocean and grew up on it, I enjoyed being out in a race canoe, even though it could get quite crazy at times because you’re moving fast through swelling waves. Even though the 6-man boats are really long, they’re still only just as wide as your hips. You have an outrigger set maybe five or six feet out to one side. But occasionally your team will flip, and you’ll have to figure out how to right it and bail it.

The pinnacle of the sport are these long haul open ocean races called change races. You have a 6-man canoe and a team of nine paddlers. These races might be 30, 40, or 60 miles often between islands or from the mainland to an island.

JEFF CREAMER CONTINUES… (07:40)

In these races, you have more paddlers than your boat can fit. You have a support motorboat, and every hour or so, your support boat will race out a quarter mile in front of your race canoe and drop one, two, or three paddlers into the water.

From the perspective of someone changing out, you jump off your support boat and bob up and down, sometimes in three, six, or eight-foot swell. Then, a boat that’s just as wide as your hips comes at you at 10 or 12 knots. You have to grab onto the right side of the boat with your hands at just the right position and moment and pull yourself up into your assigned seat. You do this right as the person you’re replacing rolls off the other side. It was really exciting and really intimidating to learn.

LIZZY: WHAT WAS THE TRANSITION TO PACKRAFTING? (08:41)

So, what was the transition then to packrafting? They seem like different sports, although there are some similarities.

JEFF CREAMER (08:52)

There are very few similarities in river travel and navigating whitewater. You end up using a large diversity of paddle strokes in packrafting, whereas in ocean canoeing, you use very few.

However, I felt a sense of shared development trajectory with Mike Curiak, a longtime packrafter, who is best known in the biking world. After he ended his racing and expedition biking career, he developed himself as a whitewater packrafter. Just like me, he developed his skills and experience mainly in a raft without any training or background in whitewater kayaking.

Another mentor, Dan Thurber, also an instructor with Swiftwater Safety Institute, was a longtime class V kayaker and whitewater paddling instructor who knew nothing about rafting. He saw value in the packraft as a river travel tool and changed the trajectory and focus of his outdoor experiences and river travel.

LIZZY: WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF PACKRAFTING IN TERMS OF AGE OR INJURY? (24:10)

I think the older people get and the more difficult it is to carry things and the more back problems they have. When you’re young, it’s pretty easy to look down on things like packrafting. But then when you get older and you can’t carry your boat anymore for whatever reason, I think it becomes a lot more attractive.

JEFF CREAMER (24:54)

Yeah, that’s really interesting question because running waterfalls in packraft can be a very different experience. I mean, I don’t have much hard shell experience. But I have watched videos of other people running waterfalls. And there are a lot of significant differences between how hard shells and packrafts deal with taller drops because packrafts are so much larger in volume than hard shells. There’s a pretty, seemingly a pretty hard and abrupt upper limit on waterfall height. Because if you run a drop that’s too tall in a packraft, then even if you try to tuck and pencil vertically running a waterfall, your packraft, because it’s so buoyant, might not go underwater at all.

It’s kind of a second wind for  people in their fifties or sixties who view themselves as being at the end of or past their whitewater career. And then they discover the packraft really gives entirely new life to their adventuring career.

LIZZY (25:50)

I feel that way, although I wasn’t really a paddler before. In my mid-forties I started packrafting. But I never even imagined paddling at all really, certainly not in a kayak. I had some experience in a kayak. But I just was petrified all the time. So packrafting just opened up this whole new world for me and a world that I get to share with Steve, which makes life a lot more fun.

LIZZY: LET’S TALK ABOUT EXPEDITION PACKRAFTING. HOW DO YOU CHOOSE AN ADVENTURE?

Hey, so can I want to switch over to expeditions? What are some of your biggest considerations when you choose an adventure as far as where you go?

JEFF CREAMER (26:26)

Okay, so unpacking a little bit the world of expedition planning or packraft expeditions… There’s an infinite number of things that we could go through.

LIZZY: HOW DO YOU CHOOSE AN EXPEDITION?

So how do I choose an expedition? So there are a couple of different things we could talk about. So the expedition choice or research phase, what do I do?

So it can be a really big challenge to figure out where to discover back country, wilderness, or river objectives. So I use a pretty large number of sources. At some points I actually end up using or cruising through social media quite a bit to look for ideas just as a background activity. And a lot of people do this. I joined different raft focused Facebook groups. So my other social media like Instagram is curated towards packrafting. And I’m always on the lookout for cool looking photos or places or even individual rapids or stories on the social media to look for new places.

LIZZY: OKAY, SO WHAT ARE THE STEPS THAT YOU TAKE ONCE YOU FIGURE OUT THE SPOT THAT YOU WANT TO GO ON? (27:36)

JEFF CREAMER (27:42)

I have a big library of printed river guide books. Also I use American Whitewaters online resources, I consult friends, I sort through social media. And then I eventually settle on a particular river or objective for an expedition.

So at that point I will head down a couple different pathways to get a sense of when and under what conditions I should look at heading to that particular river.

Yeah, so usually the first thing I’ll do is figure the window I need to target a certain flow level or range of flows on a certain river, which hopefully has a gauge on it. Thus, the first step will be to do research either from talking to people with local knowledge or reading online or printed guidebooks. With those resources I’ll figure out what an appropriate flow is given the nature of the rapids on that particular river, given my paddling experience and paddling skills as an individual and as a team.

HOW DO YOU USE FLOW RANGE, HYDROGRAPHS, ETC? (28:54)

So first step, figuring out what flow range is appropriate and then secondly, digging into the data to figure out what time of year and or under what kinds of weather conditions those flows are likely to appear. That probably means digging through hydrograph records, at least for the Western US. Almost all states, partially with the exception of California, there’s a network of river gauges operated by the USGS that many of which have decades of record.

I spend a lot of time digging back through, figuring out, okay, so say right now it’s springtime in the year 2024. So if I was thinking about doing a river in the Sierra Nevada sometime this year, I’d first see if there are any USGS or other river gauges operating on that river. And then I would identify flows, what range of flows is appropriate for me as a paddler and for my team as a team of paddlers. Then I’d dig through years or even decades of… And it takes a lot of time and it’s not very glorious work. But it’s worth the investment if it means a difference between having a successful and safe expedition versus being skunked by low flows or having a serious rescue situation.

LIZZY: TELL US ABOUT THE RESERCH YOU DO (30:25)

From my perspective, it’s worth spending hours or tens of hours doing research in advance of an expedition.

LIZZY: AND DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU CAN PINPOINT FLOWS PRETTY WELL DOING ALL THE RESEARCH YOU DO? (30:31)

And you think that does it actually, it just seems that flows are so ephemeral often you feel like you can pinpoint it pretty well to when you should go.

JEFF CREAMER  (30:40)

I mean, in some cases it’s a difficult science and art chasing flows. So when I first started doing headwaters and wilderness rivers where there weren’t even necessarily gauges or where flows were very ephemeral, one of the things I did initially was to look for drainages, look for rivers that were relatively predictable. There are some mountain drainages that where there is very regular and predictable snow melt, you can potentially as an expedition planner see appropriate flows coming weeks or maybe even months say weeks in advance.

So first working on identifying objectives that are relatively easy to time and those mostly come in the form of mountain drainages that are fed by spring runoff from snow. Those are the kinds of objectives I focused on and tried to develop my expedition planning skills on initially. And subsequently having had a lot of success in those easier, more regular and predictable drainages.

I have also spent time trying to chase really ephemeral borderline flash flood conditions based on monsoon thunderstorms in the region. But I don’t recommend starting there. Those are very difficult to time. You have to have a lot of background and familiarity with a great number of factors. Even having attempted those kinds of things, chasing flash floods essentially for many years now, I still get skunked a lot.

LIZZY: CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT, IN TERMS OF OTHER PARTNERS, WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A PARTNER WHEN YOU’RE DOING THESE BIGGER, MORE REMOTE TRIPS? (32:24)

JEFF CREAMER  (32:31)

Yeah, that’s a great question. And I end up doing successfull and comfortable trips with people who have a lot more experience and are much more skilled than me. And I also do lots of trips and even expeditions with people who have way less experience and lesser developed paddling skills than me. So I’m not necessarily looking for someone in general that is well matched to me in terms of experience and paddling skills, although that often ends up working really well.

I think the most important feature I look for is a similar mindset for risk tolerance and a mindfulness of managing hazards or potential hazards. So say if I’m a Class V paddler, I often choose to go out on serious expeditions with people who are Class III or even Class II paddlers. You go out with the mindset or discuss in advance what happens.

LIZZY: HOW TO YOU PLAN FOR YOUR PARTNER’S BOATING LEVELS FOR EXPEDITION PACKRAFTING ADVENTURES? (33:38)

JEFF CREAMER

If I might take a Class III paddler out on a river that has Class IV rapid, then we’ll just have an advanced plan. We will out where there are serious hazards or rapids that are inappropriate for one or more members of the team. And we’ll just walk around them.

LIZZY: WHAT IS THE MOST VALUABLE TRAIT OF A GREAT EXPEDITION PARTNER?

JEFF CREAMER

So maybe reframing that a little bit. The most valuable partner for me is a person who is comfortable with their own limits. And who has the ability to communicate what those limits are and the ability to make the decision to not put themselves and the team at risk.

LIZZY: DO PACKING LISTS HELP? (34:28)

Can you tell me, I’m going to switch gears a little curious. Do you do packing lists and weighing your food or any of that kind of stuff?

JEFF CREAMER (34:39)

I do end up making packing lists. And I do research to figure out what balance of the highest performance and latest particular piece of equipment is. Also I end up spending quite a bit of time doing that.  So I would say at least over the past couple of years, the main thing driving me to do that is I’ve started to focus quite a bit on combination ski touring and packrafting expeditions. And some of those expeditions are 10 or 12 or 14 days and to carry overnight or winter camping gear plus glacier travel gear plus ski touring gear and repair kits, and then a full whitewater kit.

It’s a little bit of a paradox because I am carrying around 60 or 80 or 90 pounds of the highest quality ultralight gear there is. But for those kinds of ski plus trips I’ve been doing, it’s become so important cut every ounce that I have ended up really nerding out in the details of gear to be able to even do those trips at all.

LIZZY: LISTS VS. NO LISTS (35:46)

JEFF CREAMER

I also have a lot of respect for people who avoid being weight weenies and just get functional pieces of equipment and go out. I admire their ability to ignore the nerding out and gear orientation that I have.

LIZZY: HOW DO YOU LEAVE BEHIND GEAR YOU DON’T NEED?

JEFF CREAMER

Actually, one thing I would like to say about gear choices for expeditions in particular is less on specific pieces of gear, but more so the mindset that me or my expedition team will take for gear selection. So for a packraft expedition, we will have identified an objective, a particular river, we’ll dive into the data, do the research, figuring out what time of year we’re going to do it. And then we will make efforts to include all of the gear we need to safely execute the expedition. At the same time, and this is a huge temptation for packrafters, since we carry everything everywhere, eliminate as much extraneous gear and weight as we can.

So at that stage of expedition planning, along with my expedition partners, I will carefully evaluate all of my gear choices from a risk consequence perspective. So say I’m thinking about my paddling helmet, I might be skiing in 50 miles or hiking in 50 miles to run this river that is well within my skill threshold and say it’s a class two river way in the back country, I might be faced with the decision of bringing my full, proper rated whitewater helmet versus a bike helmet. From a pure safety perspective in the kayak community, that’s not even a discussion that they ever have. They always go for the very best and safest option. You don’t see kayakers out there, or at least you shouldn’t paddling and bike helmets. But that is a legitimate type of discussion to have as a packrafter because carrying extra gear or extraneous gear and weight can be a serious penalty. But I don’t discard safety gear or other equipment.

LIZZY: HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHAT TO KEEP AND WHAT TO LEAVE BEHIND?

JEFF CREAMER

So for each piece of equipment might be a PFD type, might be my packraft choice or paddle choice or my decision to take zero or one or two spare paddles or choosing my helmet type, I’ll carefully evaluate what the chances are or risk of having an injury or other rescue situation or disaster based on that equipment downgrade. So what’s the chance of that happening? And then what is the consequence of that happening if I choose to potentially eliminate or downgrade a piece of equipment that I might always take on a roadside run?

LIZZY: IS YOUR PROCESS PRETTY AUTOMATED BY NOW? (38:46)

So I am curious, would you say that this process that you’ve come to, maybe it’s more automatic now, but you spent years sort of honing it to get to the point where you are now where, I mean clearly you still think very carefully about each piece of gear… But would you say that it’s a little bit more natural now in what you choose and what you don’t choose?

JEFF CREAMER (39:08)

Yeah, it’s taken a lot of time. I mean, in order to be able to assess what are the chances of breaking a paddle on a particular run for a particular person, for a particular paddle type, only something that you can be informed about based on experience. So absolutely developing that perspective of equipment choices based on experiences. But also initially approaching it from a safer standpoint is something that develops naturally.

LIZZY: HOW DO WE TEACH PEOPLE TO NOT CARRY THEIR FEARS AND BE OK WITH LEAVING UNNECESSARY ITEMS BEHIND? (39:46)

So we confront this a lot with beginners or even not beginners, just people come to us wanting to learn more, but they have their set ways with their gear… It’s very, very hard for them to part with certain things that could be a detriment to the group expedition, for example. When we do expedition courses, what would you say would be helpful for these folks to learn not to pack their fears? To learn what they really do need and what they don’t need? I mean, clearly experience is one thing. But what are some tools that could potentially help people?

JEFF CREAMER (40:21)

Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say I don’t think making lists works well for everyone. I have a lot of very seasoned expedition partners that really seem to reject or ignore that when I pushed it on them. But it does work really well for some people. I’m one of those people.

So maybe I recommend at least experimenting that with list creation. Or at least with the idea of creating it so that you can use it as a guide for the next or subsequent expeditions. And also more so using it to share with your expedition or paddling partners to ask for their perspective, especially even create a list and send it to someone who’s not necessarily going on the trip with you, but who you view as being more experienced or someone that’s in a mentorship role for you and asking their perspective. So list creation can be really useful.

LIZZY: LAST QUESTION. WHAT’S IT LIKE TAKING BIG DROPS IN A PACKRAFT? (41:15)

This has been a really good interview. I’m super interested in everything you have to say. And I’m really excited to edit this and put it out there. I think a lot of people actually are going to benefit from this. But I do have two questions that my friend Pat Do had specifically for you. He wants to know the highest waterfall you’ve run in a packraft, and was it fun?

JEFF CREAMER (41:35)

Yeah, that’s really interesting question because running waterfalls in packraft can be a very different experience. I mean, I don’t have much hard shell experience. But I can see watch videos and other people run waterfalls. And there are a lot of significant differences between how hard shells and packrafts deal with taller drops because packrafts are so much larger in volume than hard shells. There’s a pretty, seemingly a pretty hard and abrupt upper limit on waterfall height. Because if you run a drop that’s too tall in a packraft, then even if you try to tuck and pencil vertically running a waterfall, your packraft, because it’s so buoyant, might not go underwater at all.

I’m thinking back to it’s my second rundown upper Cherry Creek in the Sierra, famous granite slide and waterfall back country run. And I watched my friend Dan Thurber go off this 35-foot drop, which even before watching him go off this, I had no interest in trying it.

LIZZY: TELL ME ABOUT THE 35-FOOT WATERFALL DROP DAN DID IN A PACKRAFT! (42:44)

JEFF CREAMER

So we carefully scouted and evaluated everything we could think of all aspects and elements of this drop. Dan decided it was a go for him. Because it’s such a tall drop he intended to go over it with a vertical pencil orientation tucking what he did. And even despite that, his boat on the landing probably only went half underwater. Whoa. So it was an extremely harsh landing from that height, and he decided and everyone else would’ve watching what happened that that was well above his limit for the future.

For me personally, I can think of some 18 and 20-foot drops, a couple of 20 foot drops I’ve done. And most of those drops at 20 feet, no matter what I’m doing with my body or boat orientation, end up being pretty harsh. So for me, 20 foot is pretty hard upper limit. They’re at probably some 18 and 20 foot waterfalls that I’d look at and absolutely walk around because the risk of harsh landing and shoulder or back injuries is pretty high even from those heights.

LIZZY: DOES YOUR BACK HURT WHEN YOU DO DROPS? (43:57)

Okay. That’s really interesting because my next question was about does your back hurt after you run a waterfall? I guess it depends on the size.

JEFF (44:04)

Yes, sometimes. Yeah. So in terms of paddling, a bigger drop, a taller drop, and what you try to do with your boat and body orientation for a smaller drops like a five or six footer, the ideal thing to do is to execute a stroke and body motion that will result in your boat landing flat or horizontal. And a five or six foot drop ends being usually pretty low impact on your body. But if you attempt to do that off packraft off of a 15 foot waterfall and end up landing flat, then you can mitigate potential injury by landing in a forward position so that your spine isn’t in vertical alignment. But even so landing flat or close to flat on a 15 foot waterfall in a pack raft, your back’s going to hurt. I really pick and choose the bigger drops that I run because I value having a functional non-injured back.

LIZZY (45:16)

Yeah. Well, cool. I appreciate that and Pat will appreciate that answer too. Generally I ask people if there’s anything I’m not asking that you want to share with me, but we have gone over an hour and I know you’re tired, so if you’re finished then that’s totally fine. This has been an awesome interview. I really appreciate it. Is there anything else you want to say?

JEFF (45:35)

Yeah, not that I can think of. I’m just excited that runoff is coming soon and I can switch back to paddling is that time of year for us.

CONCLUSION OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH JEFF CREAMER (45:47)

Thanks so much for joining us for the Beginner’s Guide to Packrafting and Bikerafting podcast. If you’d like to follow us, you can do so on Podbean or Spotify. You can also find the show notes on the four corners guides.com blog and on the podcast page. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please email us at four Corners [email protected]. Thanks so much for listening.