NOLS instructor Amy Christeson reflects on "type 2 fun" while packrafting in New Zealand.
"This seems awfully dodgy, it can’t possibly be the way?" I shout ahead as my hands frantically search for more than just loose scree to grasp, hoping that my toe hold doesn’t give way while I get a quick glance at the ever-steepening terrain.
"Aw, she'll be right." I hear the reply in a thick Kiwi accent from what seems to be impossibly far above me.
She’ll be right? I’ve heard this classic New Zealand saying before. The thickest, wettest bushwhacking you can imagine at a sustained 45-degree slope for 1,000 meters? She'll be right. Caught at 10:00 pm above treeline with thick fog and no water source, and already two days behind schedule? She'll be right.
"This is normal for Kiwis," is offered from above as reassurance; I take it as a courteous prod to keep moving. I scramble—no, climb—my way up to the rocky outcropping, panting with the weight of my packraft and whitewater gear, in addition to the backpacking items. Welcome to Kiwi boot camp!
Is this really my vacation? Did I travel halfway around the world for Type 2 Fun? Of course. As members of the NOLS community, we're likely all linked by our unspoken understanding that our spirits thrive with healthy challenges. So, with the help of the Instructor Development Fund and NOLS Kiwi instructor Dulkara’s offer of a month of packrafting adventures, there I was on the South Island.
January started with a packrafting meet-up in Murchison, hosted by Dulkara. This was the largest gathering of packrafters in the Southern Hemisphere, ever. The rest of the month was filled with a multiday run on the Clarence River, roadside day trips in the Murchison region, short hut trips including the towns of Taipo and Wanganui, and, of course, our epic hike over a low pass on the Southern Alps to reach the Landsborough River.
New Zealand is a landscape of extremes. Take Alaska and compress it so that jagged mountain peaks explode from the center of the region, with Class V+ rivers pouring out and gradually empty into the sea. Beaches have golden sand, ferns are Jurassic in size, monstrous wind and heavy rains appear out of nowhere.
The exposure to a variety of river types, trip styles and boat design and outfitting gave me a great perspective from the personal boating world to take back to the NOLS educational and institutional setting. This I expected and am excited to share with the NOLS Alaska packrafting program.
However, a surprising, more meaningful takeaway was the real-life decision making in challenging conditions, with conflicting solutions, with differing skill levels, among friends.
Consider: the river is too high to paddle and we’re overdue for our return time. It’s likely a two-day hike out in difficult terrain, and a half day paddle with less water. Do we wait for river levels to drop? What if it doesn’t stop raining for several days? Should we start hiking immediately to minimize our overdue time? How much do we consider the outside world, with worried family members, in our decision-making? Which option minimizes our own risk and exposure? Which option minimizes the chance that Search and Rescue will be notified? But we really, really want to go boating since we carried the packrafts all the way out here. But we really, really are sick of rationing out a small bag of unsalted peanuts and mashed potatoes and are ready to start hiking towards cell phones and fish & chips.
She’ll be right. And it was.
About the Author: Amy has been working as a field instructor for NOLS since 2007. She had the pleasure of being part of the instructor team on the very first NOLS packrafting course in Alaska several years ago, and has been hooked since. Amy looks forward to transitioning to supporting instructor teams from her new position as a Program Supervisor in Alaska for the summer of 2016.
[Editor's Note: As of January 2020, NOLS no longer offers packrafting courses. But you can check out our other types of wilderness expeditions here!]