Interview with Karen Jettmar: Wilderness guide, Retired Teacher and Author
Today we are excited to interview Karen Jettmar - packrafting enthusiast with over thirty years experience!
How did you get into packrafting?
I've been paddling one kind of boat or another since I was a child. I learned to paddle on paddleboards made by my father. These were constructed using airplane wing technology. He used thin plywood stretched over a wood framework and were up to 15-feet long. He also made feathered paddles to use with the paddleboards. It took two of us to carry one down to the beach, and then we'd just hop on and paddle to our hearts' content. I learned to row similarly. We had a small rowboat, and after a demonstration from my father, I'd row that boat all over the bay. Years later, when it came time to paddle or row down moving water, I seemed to just intuitively know what to do. My first big whitewater trip was the Tatshenshini-Alsek, and while rowing a 16-foot raft, I simply followed the raft in front of me, copying its moves and set-up. I later guided canoe, kayak and raft trips and some packrafting trips for 30 years. I've been down many of Alaska's rivers and wrote The Alaska River Guide: Canoeing, Kayaking and Rafting in the Last Frontier.
What are some of your favourite places you've been on your raft?
Everywhere I've paddled has been great. This mode of travel is just so much fun, and I'd return to any of the places I've paddled. A few favourites that come to mind are East Greenland, Sea to Sky rivers in BC (Squamish to Pemberton), New Zealand, and Arctic Alaska.
What kinds of rafts do you use?
I've used (and owned) lots of different packrafts. A better question might be: what boats haven't I used! I suppose you could say that I've closely followed the evolution of packrafts. In the early 1980s, I used a Sherpa raft to paddle around Harlequin Lake and the Situk River in Tongass National Forest outside of Yakutat, Alaska. Three of us carried a Sherpa on our traverse of Glacier Bay National Park's Outer Coast. We hiked the forelands at the foot of the Fairweather Range, walking beaches and forests, crossing rivers that emerge from the mountains and swiftly rush to the Gulf of Alaska. Most could not be crossed by wading, so a small raft was essential to go from Palma Bay north to Lituya Bay and on to Dry Bay on the Alsek River. The Sherpa raft was the first small packable raft made of sturdy military-grade fabric, yet it weighed only 1.7 kg! This company was the first to market a watercraft using the words' pack raft.'
Later, I bought a vinyl (PVC) boat made by Sevylor, the 'trail raft.' Friends and I took these down the Escalante River in Utah in the early 90s and paddled lakes and creeks on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. I bought an Alpacka raft in the early 2000s, a Yukon Yak, and took it on trips in Alaska's Brooks Range. In 2008, I learned that Feathercraft, the Vancouver builder of folding sea kayaks, was considering making packrafts. I convinced them to sell me one of their prototypes—a bombproof raft with RF (radio frequency) electronically welded seams, later named the Baylee 1.
After years of using Aire self-bailing rafts and being impressed by their 'bladder-within-a-boat' technology, I bought an Aire 'Bakraft.' This is the lightest self-bailing packraft on the market, really stiff and buoyant.
I also have a Kokopelli Rogue whitewater sprayskirt, and cargo fly, a super-light boat for backpacking, and I've used this several times in New Zealand.
I discovered Microraft Systems during an internet search, and since I'd never really heard of this company, I exchanged some emails and decided to try their packrafts on a traverse of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2018. Our party used a Microraft and an Alligator 2S. We paddled sections of 6 rivers, up to Class III, ultimately arriving on the Beaufort Sea coast at Barter Island. I was impressed with my use of the Microraft with spray deck, and my friend found the Alligator 2S with spray deck very responsive. I've since used both the Microraft and the Alligator 2S on local rivers in the Sea to Sky region of British Columbia.
This past winter, I bought an Alpacka Wolverine. I've yet to use it, as I'm currently 'separated from my gear' and out of the country. I feel super fortunate to have had a chance to try out many great packrafts, but being away from paddling this spring/summer makes me a bit crazy!
Any other gear you don't leave home without?
I never leave for a trip without basic repair items: Tyvek tape or tenacious tape, some duct tape, a tube of Aquaseal, thread and needle, marking pen, raft patch fabric, sandpaper; and these items: drysuit, knife, fire starter, water bottle, extra clothes, compass, whistle, mosquito head net, headlamp, first aid kit. Depending upon the difficulty of the river, I'll also bring a throw rope and a helmet.
What are some of your most memorable experiences packrafting?
On our traverse of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we discovered enough snowmelt run-off in a very small river running north across the coastal plain. Completing a first descent of this narrow freshet of seasonal flow was exhilarating, and we sped down through willows and sedges, narrowly skimming over gravel beds, while ptarmigan exploded from the bushes.
I joined two friends in New Zealand for part of their packrafting traverse of the South Island: we stitched together hiking segments with bodies of water, encountering meandering streams, lakes, whitewater, forest and mountain passes, and lots of cows.
Paddling the lower Green River outside of Whistler, BC, with little information beforehand, and ultimately finding ourselves in a roadless river corridor in the shadow of Mt. Currie.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out?
Buy a quality packraft, PFD and paddle (used gear is a good option). You'll regret getting a cheap knock-off if you really get into the sport. And if you don't like it, someone will always be keen to buy it off you. Learn how to be in the wild in a conscious way —practice Leave No Trace principles and leave the land and rivers unblemished. Preach land and river stewardship. Find your paddling community. If you're new to paddling, take a class (whitewater kayaking classes are great if you can't find a packrafting class).
You've been doing this for a long time - what is it that motivates you?
Being in wild places; immersion in natural beauty; meeting challenge; sharing with like-minded companions. A couple of quotes from Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, say it better than I can:
"This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me; here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely…"
"He learnt to swim and to row, and entered into the joy of running water; and with his ear to the reed-stems he caught, at intervals, something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them."
Any final thoughts?
Backpack + packraft + a friend or two = Freedom to roam
Thank you so much Karen for sharing your wisdom and stories with us! And thank you for contributing to the packrafting and outdoors community.
Be sure to check out Karen's awesome book at: https://www.nrs.com/product/3336/alaska-river-guide-book