Packrafting Adventures: Interview with Byron Hartzler of Myanmar Adventure Outfitters
Today we have the pleasure of interviewing our dear friend, Byron Hartzler, director of Myanmar Adventure Outfitters.
How did you get into packrafting?
I’ve been heading up a social impact adventure guiding company out of Lashio, Myanmar, called Myanmar Adventure Outfitters. We had picked this under-touristed area to create economy in the local community, but being untouristed, the map was a blank canvas that we had to do all the research ourselves, through jungles, remote villages and farms, mountains and valleys, lakes and rivers. For a few years we had offered a solid multi-activity program with mountain biking, rock climbing, dirt biking, standup paddleboarding on lakes, and navigating on foot over mountains and valleys and through rivers and waterfalls. I had been intrigued by packrafting because of the portability of being able to take them on our existing trips and turn rivers into trails. We had only looked at trails on land, but with paddling, we had the potential of seeing the landscape from the river and developing a whole new set of trails. A couple of years ago, we bought our first packrafts to do some river research and see if they would work for addition into our company. Very quickly, we fell in love with both paddling and with the ability to take them along anywhere and turn a hiking or mountain biking trip into a paddling trip as well. We discovered packrafting for developing our company routes, but now I’m addicted and am out all the time paddling rivers that no one has ever paddled before, and it's so incredible to be able to get a boat into these remote areas and paddle in frontiers.
What are some of your favourite places you’ve been on your raft?
My two home bases are on the eastern slope of the Canadian Rockies when I am back home, and my adventure company home in Lashio, Myanmar. These are the two areas I’ve done all my packrafting. Being new to river paddling, I’ve been slowly building up confidence and taking swift water rescue courses to be able to push my boundaries a little more. There is a small river outside of Lashio, Myanmar, that we’ve been exploring waterfalls on for the last several years. It drops a lot of elevation, with limestone outcroppings on the shore and underwater limestone formations that contrast the brilliant turquoise waters. There is a really fun little section we love to paddle with several small drops and a lot of wave trains that at this stage is enough for us, and the occasional waterfall to play around learning how to drop waterfalls. The largest fall we’ve dropped is about 15 feet, but more or less just playing and trying to get better and more confident in the water.
What kinds of rafts do you use?
Being based in Asia, it is easier to deal with Asian-based companies. Our first boats came from MRS (Micro Rafting Systems), a boutique manufacturer out of Chengdu, China, that has a great reputation in the packrafting community for both their quality and customer service, both of which I have also been very impressed by. MRS has been responsive and has helped with troubleshooting and sending additional products or materials. I’ve been using the Alligator 2S from MRS, a white water boat with spray deck and skirt, and have loved it! Lately, I’ve been looking at Frontier Packrafts, manufactured by Audac Sports in China. I’ve talked with a couple of European companies that manufacture with them and have been impressed, and I think our next boats will come from them, as we endeavour to find quality and affordability in our local region.
Any other gear you don’t leave home without?
Obviously, safety comes first, so we don’t leave home without being prepared for any situation. Being from Canada, our Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) makes some quality gear, like a very affordable throw bag and the MEC Slogg 35L dry backpack that we carry the packraft in, but also tether to the front of the boat to store our gear. We also have Outdoor Research Dry backpacks and Sea to Summit dry backpacks that are also very good. My PFD of choice is Astral V-Eight. I also love my WRSI helmet, especially in cold waters. I have a simple NRS helmet with lots of breathability. I carry a paddling knife, a first aid kit, and then my iPhone and Apple Watch with the Paddle Logger App that keeps track of my route and fitness along the way.
What are some of your most memorable experiences packrafting?
Of course, the first time out exploring and seeing what we can do with a packraft is memorable. Exploring on the river has enabled us to discover things we would have never otherwise discovered. On one river in Myanmar, we approached a limestone cliff to check about cliff jumping and discovered hot water bubbling up and a cave. The cave had hot water under the surface that created a cave that felt like a sauna inside. All was good until a large snake appeared and made our exit much quicker than our entrance!!! From a paddling perspective, being out with a friend and navigating new rivers is always fun. I always feel that sense of excitement and anticipation of what is coming around every corner.
What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out?
Just get one and start playing. People who have never packrafted have a tendency to compare them to a cheap rubber dinghy, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. They are built to withstand a lot of abuse. Get one, and get out and start playing, but of course, get to know how to match your new paddling addiction with safety on the body of water you’re paddling.
We wish Byron, his family and business all the best, especially as they seek to bring transformation in the lives of local Myanmar villagers. For more stories from Byron, follow Myanmar Adventure Outfitters on Facebook and Instagram.