Leader of the Pack

The last time I floated down the Madison, I was waist-deep in water, scuffing along the bottom in an underinflated, sinking kiddy pool. I had on far too little clothing given the circumstances and with both hands full of beer; navigation of such a vessel was simply out of the question. It appeared as though we had jumped the gun a bit on a good old-fashioned Madison float, as was evident by the 50-degree temps, hard nipples, heavy wind, and encroaching lightning. So when Backpacking Light—a Bozeman-based company devoted to lightweight outdoor adventure—offered me a chance to take a three-day packrafting course with them on the Madison, I was rightfully hesitant.

But what the hell, I’m always looking for a chance to expand my adventure base, and learning the art of packrafting actually sounded pretty appealing. As it turns out, this stuff is right up my alley. Lightening my load and traversing otherwise-inaccessible territory is something that could really benefit me.

First used sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, packrafts quickly gained popularity among adventure racers and lightweight backpackers all around the world. These little guys are compact and lightweight enough that you can actually carry one on your back, along with a collapsible kayak paddle. The idea is to hike to a river, lash your pack to the front, float to desired destination, hike some more, and so on. No longer are we limited to just hiking or just rafting—packrafting allows you to combine the two and double your mobility within the landscape.

I met up with the Backpacking Light crew at the Bozeman Pond in the morning, where we learned about all the various lightweight tools available and how to inflate our Alpacka rafts. We then got a crash course in re-entering the raft after an unplanned exit, rehearsing this move a few too many times in the frigid water. At least it was warm outside. And with that we were ready to hit the Madison.

At the put-in, we learned all the necessary packrafting moves: back ferrying, pirouetting, and a number of other assorted techniques used to avoid rocks, catch eddies, and generally maneuver our way down a river successfully. Day one saw a calm stretch of the river for about six miles, which turned out to be the ideal introduction. We spent the night at the Greycliff campground in an unusual setting featuring a rowdy group sporting wife-beater tan lines and blaring rap music. Not your usual camping experience, but who am I to judge.

Day two was when I realized the true potential of packrafting. Floating the rapids of Greycliff in the morning led us to a meandering section of river before some more gentle rapids took us into Three Forks. The distance went by comfortably; I simply sat in the boat with the water rushing by and the sun on my face. Watching the vast Montana landscape all around as the miles slowly ticked by, there was nothing to do but enjoy the day and float this great river.

We soon joined up with the Jefferson and not long after, the Gallatin—we were now in the mighty Missouri River, where we could see and hear the difference in water. The river widened considerably and the silt was audible on the bottom of our rafts. As happy as I was floating for hours on end, it was nice to get out of my boat and stretch at the end of the day—almost a little bittersweet, knowing that tomorrow we would float our last stretch of river and the trip would be complete. That night around the campfire, we all struggled to keep the mosquitoes as bay, but the human company more than made up for it. We swapped stories of past adventures and got to know each other a little better.

The final day we ticked off another grand stretch of water with the sun shining down from above. Finally arriving at the Toston Dam, we portaged before putting back in one final time and floating the remaining few miles. We furiously paddled to catch every last rapid along the way, and as the takeout came in sight, we thought about how much fun we’d had the last few days, and wondered where our next packrafting adventure would take us.

Backpacking Light’s Wilderness Trekking School offers in-depth instruction and outdoor adventures for people of all experience levels. Visit Backpackinglight.com and click on “School” for a full list of courses and to check availability and dates.