This trip, seemingly simple on paper, took quite a bit of planning! Sorting out a route, agonizing over water levels, and finding packrafts took some doing. No one on the east coast rents out packrafts, but after some hunting I found some places that would ship them to us at a fairly reasonable cost. Matt at Back Country Packrafts was very helpful in getting that sorted out. We had some last minute dropouts due to life happening, so miraculously, we had too many packrafts!
Glad it was finally time to tackle this new challenge, Hua, Sudip and I left my place Saturday morning to meet Nick and Melissa at the Vienna metro stop. There, we ran into Kylie and Karan. We tried to recruit them - but they were dedicated to their trail magic mission and couldn't be swayed to use our two extra rafts.
We made it to the the Bentonville boat-launch parking right next to the shiny new 613 bridge within 5 minutes of Dave. Excellent timing! We had a multi-generational gathering of Subarus between us with our three silver Foresters. With the team assembled, we set out on the blue blazed Tuscarora Trail with our packraft laden packs. Climbing to the Massauntten Trail with an extra 20 lbs of rafts and water in 90 degree with 100% humidity? Who's idea was this anyway?
We were quickly soaked, but achieved the ridgeline in good time. A large group of teenagers we had passed at the trailhead caught up to us as we took a regroup-break, bound for Milford gap and a canoe put in. They seemed to have a vastly inadequate water supply to Dave and I.
After the break, we set out south following the familiar oranges blazes of the MT. We took another break for a late lunch 4 miles later at Milford Gap. The wondrous power of Permethrin was discussed as we watched ticks die on our pants. I was a little concerned when Sudip didn't show up here, but figured he had stopped for a break himself. Rather than sitting around getting thirsty, we trudged on.
Another 4 miles on, we reached the Habron Gap trail. I waited at the intersection while the others descended a few hundred feet to a roomy site with a fire ring but no water. Just minutes later, I got a text from Sudip; he had a severe headache and was going to take a break. I was a bit worried, but he had plenty of water and rest was the right course of action. I told him to text again when he got moving or if the headache got worse, then headed for camp myself.
It was only four o'clock. Pretty early to camp for DCUL! And pretty good time considering the heat and weight of our packs. Especially since we had killed a couple of hours in downtime on the ridge. We were all pretty spent despite the low miles.
Having burned through the 4-5 liters we had each carried in, Dave, Melissa and Nick walked downhill to fetch water after making camp. A few minutes later, a small black bear wandered into camp looking for berries. I gave him quite a start when I stood up to try and get a camera phone shot. He bounded up the slope in a panic. If you can believe it, that was the first Black Bear I’ve seen in the wild! Shortly after, Hua declared it was "too hot for fire!" and retired for a nap. That should give everyone who knows her an idea of the conditions.
No message from Sudip yet. I was getting worried and decided to backtrack. It was awfully hot. The conditions were right for heat exhaustion. Not long after I got a text that he was a mile from Habron Gap and his headache was worse.
We ran into each other exactly a mile back, I went into WFA mode. I decided electrolytes and pain killers were the thing. A couple of Mountain Berry Shot Bloks (these things are a miracle of nature) and a tylenol were deployed, then we kept going at a slow pace. Back at camp, the team had returned after a successful water hunt and slogging the 1.5 miles or so back up the mountain. I was immensely grateful!
Eventually temps dropped enough to make a fire tolerable, Nick and I got a one going so we could roast some dinner. Supid’s symptoms abated, thankfully. After some fireside chatting while Hua slept, a light rain started. It was just about backpacker midnight anyway so we all retired to our shelters. As I tried to fall asleep, some creature (I guessed a pissed off turkey) starting screaming.
The night didn’t cool off much. I couldn’t stand to have my underquilt touch me, and barely used my silk bag liner, as thin as it was. Dave, also hammocking, barely used his quilts at all. Melissa and Sudip complained of sticking to their pads!
We were up at sunrise, quickly broke camp and descended to tank up and snack at the water source near the bottom. Then cruised through the last half mile to the boat launch at Fosters Landing. We spent maybe 30 minutes getting our boats inflated, and packs strapped on. Then off we went!
The water flow was slow, but actually a little faster than I feared it might be. We bounced through easy rapids, and paddled hard across the still sections of flat water. Occasionally the bottom of our Alpackas scrapped over the bottom, and every once in a while one of us would pick a bad line and end up stuck atop a rock while navigating the faster moving water. We always bounced our way off though! The maneuvers became easier as we made our way downstream.
The heat wasn’t so bad here on the river, and we made decent time. It just took more paddling then we would have liked. We passed countless people in canoes, kayaks, and a few larger rafts. In the slower portions were throngs of people, and of course clusters of tubes full of sunburned drunks. But fortunately most sections were quiet so we could enjoy the scenery.
Our one heart pounding challenge came around half way when we came upon the one and only Class II rapid of the route. Dave, Nick and I were discussing the merits of scouting when Melissa who was slightly ahead of us charged right through!
I switched on my GoPro and followed. I cleared the first, seemingly trickiest part with no problem. But on the back half, I slide into a funnel. Here I realized where the evolution of the newer Alpacka’s tails had come from - my stern got pushed up, and with no back stability I flipped right over. Somehow I held onto my raft and paddle as I drifted by an ongoing Swift-Water rescue class, much to their amusement. The rest of the team made it through like champs. We eddied out for a few minutes to make sure everyone was in one piece, and to dump water from our boats.
More flat water, interspersed with small rapids. We tried to stick to the faster current when the river divided around small islands. We snacked and drank during the slow bits. The last couple of challenges were some drops of 1-2 feet. Dave, Melissa, Nick and I thought we had done well after clearing the final one, when we looked back to see Hua run through it sideways-on - eliciting cheers from a family swimming nearby. As we rounded the next bend, I turned around to watch Sudip clear this last hurdle with ease. We had just a few more river-bends to navigate to our take-out point.
I think we were all grateful when the beautiful 613 bridge came into view! Our arms and shoulders were spent, and hands were getting pruny. Some sunburn had set in. We weaved our way through a throng of swimmers and other paddlers landing their boats, and were glad to disembark and stretch our legs. It was 2:15pm - 17 miles in 6 hours! Not bad at all I thought.
At this point things got interesting. Sudip somehow went into stealth mode and slipped by the boat launch in the narrow window as we carried our boats up the ramp. When 3pm rolled around, and the drunken-tubers we had passed an hour ago started rolling in, I was worried, and perplexed. Dave suggested he might have passed us. I didn’t think it was possible, so hopped in my car to scour upriver with Hua. After my first run turned up nothing, Dave headed downriver to check the other takeouts. Melissa and Hua stayed on station at the bridge. I headed back south with Nick to check upriver again.
After turning up nothing, we got back to the bridge slightly after 4pm. Still no Sudip. Dave had turned up nothing, but was on station further down at another take-out to make sure we couldn’t miss him. I was grasping at straws and still wasn’t convinced he had gotten by us. I interrogated paddlers as they landed their boats. No one had seen a solo paddler. But I didn’t put a lot of stock in any of the intel I received. They all seemed perplexed by our packraft descriptions. I told myself at 4:15 I would call search and rescue. 5 minutes before my deadline Melissa luckily checked Meetup, and sure enough Sudip had posted a comment! He was indeed downriver, at the Shenandoah canoe launch. I hastily piled everyone into the cars, and we raced there.
We located the launch - but Sudip was nowhere in sight. I was stumped, and not sure how to proceed at this point. By some chance, a woman stopped and asked us if we were looking for a guy with a packraft. “YES!”, we exclaimed. Turns out his phone was dead, and he had borrowed hers to post on Meetup. She told us, he had gotten back on the river and headed to the next take-out, another 7 miles away. Astounded, we got back in the cars and drove there.
Dave was already on station here, having kept a watchful eye on the river for over an hour. Confident we were at last ahead of him, I cut everyone else loose at 5. Hua stayed with me. We questioned more paddlers as they arrived, and gave a family a jump start while we waited. No one remember seeing a packraft...but I had zero faith in any eye-witness testimony at this point.
Around 6:30, Hua cried “I see him!”. Hallelujah! She waded out into the water to wave him over, yelling, “You paddled 27 miles!”. Sudip came ashore, looking utterly spent. I put a bottle of water in his hand, then we bundled up his gear, and hit the road.
Thanks to everyone for participating in The Search for Sudip (screen play in the works). This was a ton of fun! It was a pleasure sharing the river with you all. The heat was a challenge, and we had to work a lot harder on the river paddling then was entirely pleasant. But I hope it was a good learning experience, and leads to future packraft trips!
Wow, sounds like an adventure! Excellent write up!
Hey, Will, thanks a million for planing, organizing, and leading this SUPER FUN adventure!!! You have done so much for the group: Pray the God for rains, boat rentel, carpool, waiting for the "sick" hiker along the trail, and at campsite turning point; hunting down the "by pass" paddler. All your patinece paied off, finally everyone came out safe and sound. I caught a "Lactolose intolaunce" after drainking the whole milk orange milk shake. Thanks for the quik resoulve at your house, had no problem after. Love your vivid trip report with all the lovely photos, especially the "Map Nap"[:D]
To paraphrase Homer Simpson on alcohol: "To packrafts! The cause of... and solution to... all of our trip's challenges!"
Will - Great write up!
Hua - Thanks for taking all of those cool photos!
All - Thanks for the great trip! Hope to see you all out on the water/trail again!
This is a really great trip. I could see a spring or fall variant becoming an "intro to packrafting" staple for DC UL. The water level around the time of Gear Swap was pretty ideal. It'll be easier after Will sets up that packraft rental company he kept talking about.
I'm definitely re-thinking what a realistic distance is for future trips. The extra gear really makes you rethink your list. For what it's worth I could have crammed a Notch vertically into my Circuit beside the vertical packraft but that's it. The rest would have to sit on top (inside the pack). As it was it stuffed my tarp and cook kit down beside the packraft and put the dry bag with my quilts and hammock on top. It turns out there was still plenty of room but it's all very dense stuff.
My choice of old paracord for attaching the pack to the raft was a bad choice. It stretched as it got wet and the pack kept slipping sideways. It was still on solid that it wasn't going to follow off but it threw the balance of the raft off. I need to work on a better attachment system.
I think I'd trade in the 3 mile round trip water run to see the bear.
Mike - you need to be on the next one! I promise not to make anyone paddle 17 miles again.
Hua - thanks for all the photos! I stole a few to intersperse in the report.
Nick - that is totally accurate!
Dave - I was glad you were on this one. I felt better having another organizer in case things went sideways. Limiting the mileage, and elevation gain would be key for a lengthy packraft trip for sure. You'd almost have to treat it like a winter trip and bust out the bigger packs to haul everything. And focus on lots of water time to make it worth it.
Tying with anything really is a pain. I had to cut the shock cord off Sudip's boat. The water and constant tugging just make the knots (even slip knots) impossible to undo. A hardware solution is definitely the way to go. The kit I have seems simple, but it held on without a hitch.
Thanks to all for putting up with the depressing heat!
Will, I thought the paddling was the big FUN part of the raft. I am grateful for the experiences I had gotten from the practice. Lessons learned: 1, water. My GPS extimated that I should draink 6 L for the first day hiking. But my plan was 3 L. 2, water. Needs a sponge or a portable water pump for the water in the boat. 3, food. Salty snack is needed during the hot day hiking and paddling. Like the trip report format: photos + descriptions [B-)]