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Bikerafting the Minnehaha

In August of 2009, Marlin Ledin lent us his packraft…an Alpacka Raft Denali Llama…for a spell. It was a sweet, unsolicited late-summer surprise. Swervy and I took advantage of the opportunity and integrated this new (to us) mode of transportation into some of our outdoor plans: Swervy's Fourbeer float, my first bikerafting session, and some good ol’ fashioned unirafting.

It’s not hard to grow attached to these small, light inflatable wonders. And I was sorry to see it go when it was finally sent back to Marlin. This is another toy in the toybox…another tool in the toolbox…or both at once. I was pretty sure, at the time, that I’d eventually check ‘packraft’ off my toy acquisition list.

Recently, a late-summer trip plan was proposed. It involves packrafts, camping, and bikes. I’ve got the bike/camping thing down pretty well, but I’m still a newb when it comes to captaining a packraft. So, with lakes and streams melting and flooding, I figured there’s no better time than the present to start paddling with a loaded raft.

On Monday, the slender brown box showed up on the employee package shelf at work. I expected something larger. I thought it must be a partial shipment. Nope, it was all in there: Denali Llama with spray skirt, 4-piece Aqua-Bound Splat paddle, Roman Dial’s Packrafting! book, and a small Thermorest Prolite self-inflating pad (for the bottom of the raft).

I brought my goodies home on the Big Dummy, anticipating an evening of geeking out on some new gear. As soon as my wife and son retired for the evening, I unrolled the raft in the living room and inflated it using its included inflation bag. Then I sat in it…for an hour and a half…watching a couple episodes of ‘Man vs. Wild’ and playing with the zippers and Velcro closures.

Friday’s forecast predicted morning rain with afternoon sunshine. Promising enough. Early in the week, I sent out the “Out Friday” e-mail to my Surly partners-in-crime. I was going bikerafting come hell or high water. High water it was.

On Thursday night/early Friday morning I packed, unpacked, and repacked. My chosen mule, a single-speed Travelers Check, was equipped with a full array of Revelate Designs bags: Super Twinkie saddle bag, frame bag, Gas Tank, handlebar harness, and harness bag. Those bags are lightweight, weather-resistant, and durable…all good. But they have a finite volume. It’s tough to get the packing right on the first go. Without racks, I had to carry the raft, paddle, PFD (NRS Chinook), Thermorest pad, closed-cell foam pads (for bike frame protection while it’s on the raft), bike tools, knives, dry bag, paddling clothes, rope, straps, extra paddling/cycling/emergency clothing, food, water, solid-fuel stove, cookpot, and a well-equipped survival kit.

I didn’t get out of the house until 12:30pm on Friday, because I slept too late, read work e-mail, and dicked around too much before leaving. Heading northwest, I bucked a headwind all the way to the dam at Gray’s bay, the source of the Minnehaha Creek…16.5 miles from my house. The wind direction was actually a good thing. It meant that I’d have a tailwind while paddling. The rain had stopped early in the morning, so roads and trails were mostly dry. Overall, biking conditions were pretty good.

I arrived at the dam, after stopping for directions at the local community center, a few minutes before 3:00. The overcast sky was showing signs of clearing, and the temperature was rising. I wanted to get as far down the creek as possible before the 7:41 sunset, so I immediately set to work inflating the raft, breaking down the bike, donning appropriate clothing, and strapping my bike and gear onto the raft. That took 45 minutes. In a couple months, I’ll have that routine down to 15 minutes or less. Like most facets of my life, this is about the journey…not the destination. Packing and unpacking is an important part of the trip. I welcome the challenge of streamlining those processes.

I’ve rafted with Travelers Checks (single-speed and geared) in the past, but I didn’t take the frames apart. Didn’t seem necessary. But this time I wanted to undo the couplers and float with a more compact bike pile. I’m glad I did. Though it stacks up a bit higher than the intact frame, it’s less likely to snag branches that reach out from the banks of the creek.

My 15-liter Pacific Outdoor Equipment Drysack, containing my clothing and survival gear, was attached to the rear tie-down loops of the raft with carabiners. Simple and secure. The remaining items rode in the frame bag that stayed attached to the TC's front triangle.

The NRS Chinook PFD is a fishing-oriented model. I chose it for its adjustability and abundance of pockets. The pockets hold my phone (in a waterproof bag), my camera (in a waterproof hardcase), my fire kit, my wallet, a folding knife with a serrated stainless blade, and sunscreen. The Chinook is designed for high-back boat seats, and it plays nice with the profile of the packraft.

As the blue sky appeared, I shoved off the dock and tried to get into a paddling rhythm in the slow-moving current. It didn’t take long before I was moving at a respectable-for-a-packraft pace through the wide channel. I stopped paddling occasionally to make clothing adjustments, take photos, and appreciate the unique point of view that was solely mine. I didn’t see another watercraft all day. I saw one cyclist while I moved downstream…a guy on a purple Pugsley with first-production skinwall Endomorph tires. He warned me of the upcoming “rapids” then rode ahead to watch me paddle through them, probably hoping I’d flail around and put on a show while struggling to maintain control. I’m sure I disappointed him. The Alpacka is an inherently stable boat that’s designed for whitewater use. The Class I and Class II stuff on the creek doesn’t really challenge it much. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t challenge me. I got a little scared every time the current got fast and turbulent. Like I said before…I’m a newb. I don’t know the limitations of the raft, and I don’t know my own limitations. That uncertainty is thrilling and terrifying at times.

For miles I paddled in the ever-changing creek conditions. It narrowed and widened, sped up and slowed down. There was something new around every corner…wilderness, industry, and looming creekside homes. For lunch, I stopped briefly to fuel up on a schooner of energy drink and a pile of junk food procured from a convenience store built in the vicinity of the waterway. Canoeing and kayaking are promoted on this creek, and there are several places to stop and stretch if one needs to take a break enroute to his final destination. Nice amenities.

As the sun got lower to the horizon, I suspected I was probably going to reach the end of my paddle sooner than later. Not because I was too tired, or because I was out of light. Meadowbrook Lake, 9.2 miles downstream from the dam, was likely going to be covered in ice. As I approached the lake, those hunches were verified. A narrow channel, surrounded by 1”-thick ice, led out into the middle of the lake and abruptly ended. I paddled to that open-water terminus, and slid the front of the raft onto the ice. The ice yielded under my weight, so I moved forward a bit more. I thought there might be a small chance that I could bully my way through, but eventually the ice resisted my efforts and failed to fracture. That just meant that it was time to turn around and head back up the channel to the canoe landing nearby.

I pulled the raft onto a grassy spot, on-shore and out of the wind, and commenced the teardown routine. When I found my little Esbit stove and ti cookpot, I put on some water to brew tea. The sun was disappearing, and the temperature was dropping. A hot cup o’ tea would be perfect.

It took me an hour to reassemble the bike and pack up my gear. I could certainly do it a lot faster, but I was drinking tea and stuffing food in my face as I was packing up. I felt no sense of urgency, so I bumbled along and put the puzzle back together at a snail’s pace. It felt good to be out in the spring air.

It turns out that I’d stopped at a good spot. The canoe landing was due west of my house, and that ever-present tailwind pushed me home. The Travelers Check seemed to move along effortlessly on the smooth, chubby Michelin City tires, and I truly enjoyed the last leg…the peddling portion…of the trip. I got home at 10:20pm. That was a solid day of human-powered fun.

I plan to ride back to my raft take-out point and resume travel down the rest of the creek (12+ miles) until I reach the portage spot above Minnehaha Falls. From there, I’ll ride north 2 miles to my house. The ice should be out of the lakes in a few days. Maybe, I’ll play again this weekend.

Brother David Sunshine's avatar

About Brother David Sunshine

Dave Gray is a product designer at Surly Bikes and was the second employee to be brought into the Surly fold. Dave is the brain behind such products as the Big Dummy, Pugsley, 24 Pack Rack, and numerous other cargo related items. Dave has a penchant for carrying things with his bike many people would have difficulty fitting into their car. To say Dave knows cargo would be a gross understatement. Dave is like the mist, briefly descending, only to disappear into the forest again, but if you need to find him, head to the deep slop and listen for the sounds of freestyling. That is where you’ll find him.

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