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Bikes. Parts. Chaos.

A couple weeks ago, an Alpacka Denali Llama packraft showed up in the Surly office. Our adventurous friend, Marlin Ledin, loaned it to us, so we could try bikerafting with an inflatable boat that weighs about 2.2 kilograms. I don't have much experience in a raft or canoe...even though I've lived in the Land of 10,000 Lakes for the vast majority of my life, so the thought of getting into a little boat with a bike and camping gear strapped to it was a little intimidating. But I knew that my first outing would be on the low ‘n' slow Minnesota River with little boat traffic. That damped the anxiety to some degree. The plan was to ride to the river after work, float/paddle downstream, find a suitable hammock spot, sleep overnight, paddle to the Mississippi/Minnesota River junction, pack up the boat and gear, and ride a short distance to my home. Thursday night, I packed my gear, including the boat, two-part paddle, and PFD (personal floatation device), onto my Travelers Check, which was equipped with a full array of Epic Designs bags and an Axiom handlebar bag…. Epic Frame bag: stove, cookpot, tools, tube, raft inflation bag and patch kit, food, clothing, water, water filter, beer. Epic Monster Twinkie saddlebag: PFD, Hennessy Hammock with Hex Fly, down quilt, food, headlamp, digi camera…Canon SD1200 in waterproof Otter Box. Epic Handlebar harness: packraft inside Xtracycle drybag, reflective tarp Epic Handlebar harness bag: food, toiletries. Epic Gas Tank: Junk Straps, misc. energy bars, Honey Stingers Axiom Adirondack handlebar bag (on top of stem): full survival kit. I carry this with me most of the time…commuting, camping, and traveling. I can truly survive in the wilderness using the contents of this bag. That's the point…right? One of these days, I'll lay out the contents. There's a lot of stuff in that little bag. Beer got priority seating in my bags, so my Klean Kanteen bottles were strapped to my Tubus lowrider racks with Velcro One-Wrap straps. I rode to the office and worked a couple hours on Friday. At 4:30pm, I switched to the lower gear on my “dingled” drivetrain and set out toward the river a few miles away. My intended launch point wasn't conducive to loading the raft, so, after wasting an hour looking for a better spot, I chose a beach area that looked more appropriate. Looks can be deceiving. When I got to the water's edge, I realized that the “beach” was more like a sandy mud pit. But I was anxious to get onto the water. So I moved back from the water a bit and started to ready my watercraft. It was hard to ignore the pervasive dead fish smell, but I somehow managed to focus on the task at hand. First task: inflate the raft. A large roll-top bag is used to capture air and transfer it into the raft. When the slight breeze filled the bag (which is attached to an inflating port on the raft with a threaded fitting) I closed it, rolled the top down…effectively sealing it, and squeezed the air into the raft. After doing this about 10 times, the raft was mostly inflated, and I removed the bag and replaced it with a threaded cap. A smaller valve is used to complete the inflation process with one's lungs. The whole process took less than 10 minutes, and it was my second time inflating the raft. Veterans can inflate an Alpacka raft in a few minutes. Second task: load the bike and gear. I emptied some of my gear…the stuff that wasn't waterproof… from the bike bags and put it in the Xtracycle drybag. Then I pulled off the front wheel, laid the bike on the raft…drive-side up, put the front wheel on top, and lashed the TC to the raft's tie-down loops using Surly Junk Straps. So far, so good. I positioned the drybag on top of the spray skirt, near the TC's top tube, and lashed it to the bike with another Junk Strap. Time to push off. I tried to get the front of the boat into the water. But as I got closer to the water's edge, I sunk into the stinky, fishy mud that made up the shoreline. Pretty soon, I was half way up to my knees in muck and sinking deeper as the seconds ticked by. I realized I was in danger of losing my sandals (closed-toe Keens) and possibly getting stuck there permanently. I started getting a little scared. But after several lunges, I was able to free one leg…without my sandal. I reached into the muck hole, pulled out my sandal, and hucked it onto solid land. Several more lunges freed my other leg, sans sandal. Another digging session yielded the shapeless mud-covered shoe. The site of my struggle must have amused the onlookers on the nearby Ferry Bridge. Eventually, with a lot of effort and a lot of swearing, I pulled the raft over to a large rock. After rinsing off my sandals for a few minutes, I put the front end of the raft in the water. Then I lowered my butt into the boat from the rock, while hanging my feet over the sides to rinse off the nasty accumulation of shoreline scum. After getting my feet in the boat and getting comfortable, I pushed against the rock, using the paddle blade, and freed myself from the confines of land. Finally, I was floating. I wanted to be in the water by 5:30 at the latest. It was 6:45pm. So, I figured I'd just paddle fast to make up some time. Yeah, right. It was soon apparent that the raft will only go so fast, regardless of my paddling style or speed. 3-4 kph is about all I could hope for. The moderate headwind didn't help matters. And because the water level was so low, I was hitting mud, with the paddle, as far out as 10 meters from shore. The lack of water also meant that the current was really slow…almost nonexistent. At 9:00pm, as daylight faded, I realized that there was little chance of getting to a good campsite before dark. But I needed some calories. So I found the one sandy spot on the river, beached the craft, ate some snacks, and ran through my options: I could find a camping spot ASAP while there was still some light, or I could keep paddling after dark with hopes that when I was ready to get back on land I'd find a place to pull the raft out of the water without sinking up to my junk in quicksand. I decided to keep paddling after dark. For an hour, I paddled under a cloudy sky that spread the ambient light of Minneapolis to the surrounding suburbs. I was alone, except for an occasional fisherman on the shore. Then the rumbling of distant thunder and flashes of lightning made me second-guess my decision to keep paddling. I proceeded further downstream, hoping the storm would pass by without unleashing its fury on me. Wishful thinking. Large raindrops began to fall shortly after 10pm, and I decided that land would be safer than water in the brewing storm. I was in an area where barges were moored to pilings in the river, so there were few spots to land the raft. I finally found a shallow spot that would allow me to get the Llama out of the water. But when I jumped out to pull the boat ashore, I once again found myself mired in fragrant brown goop. And, again, both sandals were sucked from my feet as I struggled to get the packraft out of the water. When my sandals were finally retrieved and the raft was mostly out of the water, I had to make a decision: set up camp nearby or wait out the storm under a tarp. The heavily forested shoreline wasn't going to allow easy access to a good camping spot, and I was quickly getting soaked. So I decided to wait out the storm under my tarp while sitting in the boat that was conveniently located next to a large rotting carp head. My 150cm x 315cm emergency blanket/tarp covered me, my gear, and most of the boat. The silver reflective side bounced some of my body heat back into my little temporary shelter. My PFD, worn over an Ibex wool t-shirt, kept my upper body pretty warm, and the raft's spray skirt kept my legs warm. I was muddy and wet, but I was confident that I wouldn't become hypothermic unless the storm lasted all night and/or the temperature dropped significantly. At one point, a tugboat pushed barges past my lovely home away from home. I was concerned that the waves might pull the boat back into the river, but they just taunted me a bit before subsiding. I sat under the tarp for an hour before the rain stopped. Then the sky cleared, the stars came out, and the wind pushed from upriver. The infusion of rain added a little current to the lazy river, and it seemed like a good time to get back in the water and paddle for a while. My sandals had been washed clean in the hour-long shower, and I had learned my lesson: leave the shoes in the boat when launching and landing. I labored to get the boat back in the water, got my butt situated in the raft, washed off my feet, and pushed off toward the middle of the channel. Floating again. I paddled for 2 more hours, finally reaching the boat launch at the south end of Lyndale Avenue at 1:15am, and pulled the raft from the water. The original plan was to camp out and proceed down the river in the morning…. but I wasn't feeling it. I was hungry, sore, tired, dirty, and wet, and I didn't feel like getting back in the water. So I made the call: .it was time to make some dinner, pack up my gear, and ride home. I didn't feel any sense of failure or regret. In fact, I was really happy. I had paddled a good distance…an estimated 8 kilometers… in an unfamiliar boat loaded with gear, weathered a storm, and lived to tell about it. And I was actually looking forward to a relatively easy ride home over empty streets on a warm summer night with a convenient tailwind. I lit my Esbit stove to boil the water that would make my bag of dried food wet and delicious. While the water was heating, I put my bike back together, deflated the raft, and packed up my gear for the roll home. As I sat and ate my bag o' Seafood Chowder (Mountain House brand, I believe) several unique boats, with powerful and plentiful headlights and what appeared to be jet-like propulsion systems, landed and were quickly put onto their trailers. I finally asked one of the fishermen about all the late-night activity, and he told me they were fishing for flathead and channel catfish. Ahhhh...that explains the unique boats. Cats like to hang out under and near fallen trees and other debris in the river. A boat prop would be vulnerable to much of the structure lying just under the water surface. The jet propulsion…actually a high-powered water pump…nicely addresses the issue and makes it possible for these guys to get into the shallow backwater and narrow channels where the big cats hang out. The lights would be needed for navigating the logjams found in the shallows and for seeing the aquatic beasties as they get reeled closer to the surface of the water. Days later I spent way too much time learning about catfish, catfishing, and the appropriate equipment to lure and land these monsters. Some of the videos showed 20 kg catfish being pulled from the Minnesota River, and I know they certainly get bigger than that. Belly full, bike packed, eyelids getting droopy. Time to pedal. I switched back to my high gear, a 42t x 18t…which is high enough when the bike is loaded with gear, and pointed northeast. I slow-rolled home, despite the helpful tailwind, through the southern ‘burbs and into Minneapolis. I neglected to pack a taillight…not originally intending to ride home in the dark, but with no traffic on the roads, it wasn't much of an issue. The ride was an ideal time to think about my time on the river and what I'd do differently, what gear I'd take, and what precious love songs I'd sing the next time I put the packraft in the water. I got home around 5am, satisfied. -----