There aren't many whitewater-specific packrafts out there as yet. There may be something new available in the past ~week that I haven't yet heard about, but failing that I've spent a good chunk of time in every packraft that makes any claim to whitewater competence. Of these, Alpacka's Alpackalypse and Gnarwhal stand head and shoulders above the rest.
About to go deep in Slaughterhouse Falls. Jesse Selwyn photo.
Honestly, it really isn't even close -- any/every other boat out there has at least one fatal flaw that immediately demotes it in my eyes. I think of everything else as a 'class III boat': not really apropos for paddlers intent on progressing beyond that level, nor for experts to come to from a kayak background and expect the boat to perform and/or last very long.
I've been paddling an Alpackalypse full-time, roughly 80 to 100 on-water days per year, since 2013. I'd guesstimate a minimum of 400 on-water days in that time.
Surfing at 29 road. Greg Luck photo.
Do the math indicated above and you might conclude that I have more time in a 'lypse than probably anyone else on the planet. Couple that with me being one opinionated (and picky) S.O.B. and you can bet I have a lot to say about the boat.
The first and most obvious thing I can say about the Alpackalypse is that it's not for everyone, and in fact I think it's got a pretty narrow range of ideal end users. If you want to be able to carry your dog, your bike, or your partner at times, the 'lypse can do it but it certainly isn't the ideal boat -- none of those were part of the design intent. If what you aspire to do is become more competent at technical whitewater, the 'lypse is inarguably the best inflatable on the planet for that purpose. If competence in whitewater is your goal, and traveling far or deep to get to it is on your agenda, then I think the Alpackalypse might be one of the best products you could ever spend your money on.
About to get slapped down on the Salt. Moe Witschard photo.
The first 3 'lypses I paddled extensively were pre-production prototypes that Alpacka loaned to me in exchange for honest, critical feedback as they were fine-tuning the original production hull. These boats all had compromises -- that's the nature of pre-production iterations -- but Alpacka provided them because they were genuinely, aggressively pursuing improvement of every detail.
They were experimenting with variations in hull shape, hull materials, coaming size and shape, skirt material and fit, and they spent literal years fine-tuning the rigging that keeps the paddler locked into the boat. The initial production iteration that hit the market was awesome relative to everything that came before. But everything can be made better -- weight removed, comfort increased, performance ramped, durability improved, price dropped. Each of the above has been systematically addressed since that first Alpackalypse I paddled back in the spring of 2013. Could it still be improved incrementally? Sure -- everything can. That said, the Alpackalypse has arrived at a place such that what I want at this point has nothing to do with changing the boat, and everything to do with simply finding more time to be in it.
Getting stopped on Four Falls, Bailey. Evan Stafford photo.
I'm not an aggressive paddler. I didn't get into a boat until I was in my 40's and I'd spent the previous 35 years riding bikes. With brakes. I think I'm just conditioned to be able to squeeze the binders and slow down, or stop, now -- and since that really doesn't work in a boat, I prefer to move slowly, pensively, unwilling to just commit to a rapid where I can't see a clean line or at minimum the next eddy. I tend to drift and look a little longer than I should, when I should be digging hard to build momentum to break an eddy line or punch a hole. This doesn't really work in the Alpackalypse -- it demands that you paddle aggressively at all times. It rewards being on your toes, punishes lollygaggers whom sit back on their heels. The Alpackalypse -- each successive iteration -- has forced me to become a more aggressive paddler.
Exiting Trash Can, Vallecito Creek. John Baker photo.
I learned to roll within my first year of paddling whitewater, and I continually work to maintain and refine that skill. More and more people are rolling their packrafts now, but a far larger number are content to swim when they flip, and then perform a wet re-entry. One way to know if the Alpackalypse is right for you is where you fall in that range. Plan to swim or learn to roll? If the latter, you're a good candidate for a 'lypse, for many reasons.
Taking advantage of a predictable, safe environment to refine new skills: Montrose Whitewater Park. Greg Luck video.
If you have little interest in learning to roll -- for whatever reason -- then I'd encourage you to choose a Gnarwhal and learn it's limitations, then stay within them. Swimming is fun -- or at least fine -- in certain places, but the harder the whitewater the more likely a swim will eventually lead to injury. The Gnarwhal is a big, wide (and thus stable), capable yet forgiving boat that doesn't require you to be on your toes at all times. It's not a stretch to say that it will save your ass more times than you can count, or even realize. This is good in that hey -- we all like to get away with mistakes, especially when learning. The stability and forgiveness of the Gnarwhal is bad in that it can lull you into thinking that you're a more competent paddler than you are, and for a certain type of person that might mean they push their limits in more challenging whitewater before they're really ready for it.
Putting those skills to use on the LCR. Rich Rudow photo.
I remain in an Alpackalypse for exactly that reason: If I stay in the boat and paddle well it's because I'm doing things right, not because the boat is saving my ass repeatedly. I think it's a great tool to keep me honest, to keep me from attempting runs that are over my head.
Knocked over in the crux of Tampax, Bailey. I rolled up more or less in the lap of the photographer. Not sure who took this photo -- possibly Austin Woody.
It's difficult to talk about the Alpackalypse -- a packraft meant to run technical, challenging whitewater -- without comparing it to a creekboat or river runner. And the simple fact is that I just don't have enough time in hard boats to be able to compare them with any level of accuracy. I should limit my comparison to saying that If you come from a kayak background you'll be both amazed and confused at what the Alpackalypse can do. It will feel substantially more stable than almost any hardshell kayak, damn near as maneuverable, capable of catching any/every eddy, yet because of its light weight and buoyancy will be more likely to get knocked off line in pushy water. That light weight also makes it eminently boofable.
Staircase in Dark Canyon. Greg Luck photo.
There is a certain evolution that needs to take place in your head to step out of your kayak and paddle this boat effectively, and most of it is in how you read water. Because of the 'lypse's buoyancy you don't draw as much water, and as such need to pay closer attention to the boils, swirls, seams, and foam on the surface than you normally would in your hard boat. Most kayakers pick up on this immediately and intuitively, others require getting unintentionally surfed a few times to internalize the lesson.
Eyes wide open in Nightmare on the Elwha. Tom Diegel photo.
Packrafts have come so far in the past few years, much farther than I think most can understand if they haven't been in one. A few years ago in his seminal class IV packrafting guide, Luc Mehl admonished packrafters interested in class V to "buy a kayak". Luc wasn't wrong then and he isn't wrong now, because spending time in a kayak is going to improve anyone's skillset. I think the evolution in boats the past few years makes his blanket statement inaccurate in that the Alpackalypse is certainly capable of class V -- it's the paddler that is now the limiting factor.
I built this park bike for Jeny. She rode it a total of 4 times -- all in 2016. Never got out in 2017.
Basically, since my ankles are fooked and I can't ride DH anymore, Jeny no longer has a partner for lift-served days. Thus we're selling her park bike.
It's a LenzSport PBJ. Size medium, 29" wheels, 160mm travel f and 170mm r.
Rear shock is a Vivid Coil with Ti spring. Sprung for a ~130# rider.
Wolftooth n/w 32t ring, MRP G3 guide, and clutched rear der mean that chain ain't coming off.
Rear der is an X9 10 speed short cage, moving the SRAM chain across a SRAM 11-32 cassette. A little wider spread than you see on most park bikes these days -- because we did (once upon a time) self-shuttle.
Tires are as seen above. Hard to beat DHF's in 2.5".
Fork is a 2016 Pike -- before they lightened things up. Buttery smoove.
Front wheel is a DT FR front hub laced to a Derby carbon rim with DT Competition spokes and DT Prolock nips. Tubeless. Goop could probably use a recharge.
It's a relatively simple bike. Meant to do one thing really well: go downhill, fast, through rough terrain.
Hayes Prime Comp brakes are simple and reliable, and use D.O.T. fluid. Rotors are Ashima 8" f and 7" r.
Rear wheel is a Stans Flow EX laced to a DT 350 12 x 157 hub using DT Swiss Competition spokes and DT Prolock nips. Also tubeless. Maxle Ultimate -- same as on the Pike up front.
If you're into ripping DH laps 5 days a week all summer and boosting triples that were built as doubles, this is probably not the ideal bike for you -- but only because of the Pike. Swap it for a Dorado or Boxxer or 49 or Bartlett and it suddenly has few peers. Happy to include 20mm end caps for the front hub.
If you get out on weekends and like chasing your friends down any/every kind of trail, this bike will excel at that as-is and save your gucci/light trail bike from a lot of abuse.
As pictured this bike would cost over $5000 to assemble. Selling it now, including shipping to the Lower 48, for $2600.
Happy to meet you at any of Colorado's bike parks to hand it off in person.
Need it? Or have questions on details I inadvertently omitted?
I spent a lot of time in the early '00's obsessing over and exploring what Gary Dye originally coined The Grand Loop: The trifecta of Kokopelli, Paradox, and Tabeguache trails. Collectively they form a ~350 mile loop with a crushing amount of vertical gain and loss, encircling a ruggedly corrugated and lightly populated chunk of the Colorado Plateau.
I only successfully completed the whole loop, in one go, once. My first effort ended with a broken frame and my second effort culminated in a broken -- dangerously dehydrated and depleted -- me. For that matter my one complete circumnavigation also ended in a very broken me: I still believe that, mile for mile, the Grand Loop is the most difficult event I ever attempted or completed.
Some of that difficulty comes from the tiny bits of use that the bulk of the route receives -- it is often soft, slow going, with lots of climbing (did I mention the climbing?) and it seems like you're almost always toiling away in full sun with no breeze. Plus, for much of the route water is scarce to non-existent.
The Kokopelli section of the route is ridden often and more or less loved to death. Easy access from an Interstate and being bookended by two mountain bike destination towns will do that.
The ends of the Tabeguache -- near Montrose and Grand Junction -- are also heavily used.
Which leaves the heart of the Tab and most of the Paradox. Over the long weekend Jeny, Pete and I set out to (re)acquaint ourselves with a chunk of that section.
Thanks largely to the tireless efforts of Paul Koski, the Paradox has had a veritable pile of new singletrack added to it, replacing steep, soft, rutted, often derelict double tracks. Simply put, this section used to be arguably the least enjoyable part of the route. It was new to Jeny and Pete and they likely thought it was fine. My memories of it were completely unflattering and have, thankfully, been replaced with memories as sweet as the singletrack that Paul has advocated so long to get.
Loved the recycled water tanks on Pinto Mesa -- too bad they were empty as we passed. Would love to know the stories behind them.
After a few hours of climbing, mostly on reasonable grades, we could sense the P/J giving way to the fringes of the alpine. Temps were still hot and shade rare, but the change kept happening fast.
It felt almost literally as though we'd turned a corner or crested a rise and WHAM -- we were in the lush, green alpine.
The only other time I'd been here the world was sodden -- puddles, ponds, and lakes were brim-full and water trickled across most of the meadows. Alas Colorado is destitute of moisture this year, forcing us to search off-route for springs marked on the maps.
Grim. Pete worked a bit at digging this one out enough to fill from, but eventually we continued off route and filled from a trickling Tabeguache Creek. Nothing makes you appreciate water like needing it but not having it.
We camped near the creek so that we'd have water when we woke. A statewide fire ban meant that for post-sunset entertainment we spectated broken clouds whizzing between us and the nearly full moon, until finally blustery drizzle chased us under tarps for sleep.
Waking up already in the alpine was, and always will be, priceless. We had lots of work left to attain the crest of the Uncompahgre Plateau, but with cool temps, abundant shade, and delicious iris everywhere we made quick work of it.
Ahem. At least Jeny and I felt like it went quickly. Pete, fit and fast and motivated to ride, likely felt that we were moving at a snail's pace. From his perspective we actually were. We're in very different places these days -- he wanting to cover ground continuously all day, and in fine fettle to do it, while Jeny and I are more interested in seeing and sensing and being where we are. Not interested in nor willing to rush through any of it.
We regrouped at Antone Spring and had a bit of lunch, sharing stories while enjoying cool water and luxuriant shade.
Pool Creek singletrack was fun, fast, rough, steep, and wild. This section is always the last to be clear of snow, and as such somewhat contentious among those whom would race the Grand Loop. One group believes it to be a spiritual and psychological linchpin of the route, indicative of the wild, rugged, difficult and unpredictable undertaking that the Grand Loop should always be. Another, more vocal group believes that this section should be nixed in favor of making the route "go" sooner in the season. They both have compelling reasons for advocating the positions they do.
For our part we were just happy to have arrived after the snow and mud were gone -- hence the title of this vignette.
Eventually it became obvious that the route we'd planned was a bit ambitious given our allotted time. We'd discussed and hastily drawn a track the night before, and hadn't accurately taken into account how slow the travel would likely be and how not into killing ourselves we'd feel. Thus Jeny and I opted to cut the loop much shorter while Pete soldiered on -- finally unencumbered.
On our descent off the plateau we had stunning views to the south and west. One minute the sky was blue and cloudless, the next there was a smudge on a ridgeline.
By the time we closed the loop late that afternoon the fire had grown such that smoke dominated the entire southern skyline. It's going to be that kind of summer.
I'd like to express my gratitude to Paul Koski for continuing to advocate for and develop the West End trail network. We don't get there often but we're always delighted by it when we do.