Tag Archives: convert paddle to walking packstaff

Suilven packrafting

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Not much time for paddling at the moment, but with a staggering three days of cloud-free skies while the south had its traditional wet bank holiday, we had to down tools and go and do something. How about another walk over Suilven and paddle back – was last time three years ago already? The motorbike was left at Inverkirkaig, so this time it was just a paddle-and-boot  ‘biathlon’.

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With the car parked near Glencanisp Lodge, it’s about a 2-hour walk along the estate track to the turn-off leading up to Suilven saddle. On the way we pass Suileag bothy where Jon and I overnighted in May, tackling an Assynt variant on the Cape Wrath Trail.

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It’s only a mile and a quarter from the estate track to the saddle, but with the 430-metre rise, it takes up to an hour. The washed-out last few feet onto the 600-metre-high saddle are on all fours. Above at the back, Quinaig, one of the best of the Assynt mountain walks. No packraft required.

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At the breezy saddle it’s quite busy – well, ten people or so – so we decide to lounge around and not visit the 731-m summit, nice grassy spot though it is. Far down below on Fionn Loch, we think we can see three canoes heading upstream towards the canoe camp alongside the rapids (more or less the middle of the picture, above). But they’re moving so slowly, for while I thought I was mistaken. Soon we’d realise why they were creeping along at about one foot a second.

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We set off down the exceedingly steep south side of the mountain.

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Here I get my first chance to appreciate the canoe-handle T-piece I’ve added to the end of my packstaff. It makes a much better support when inching down steep slopes, and the long packstaff can reach down a foot below your boots. Anyone would think I was going on about packstaffs again.

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Coming off Suilven, the gradient begins to ease.

By Fionn lochside a strong easterly is blowing and the packraft fills up almost by itself, even if the boat is on the verge of taking off. This looks a lot more than the 15-mph forecast. The wind will blow us downstream, but it looks rather gnarly out there, and we’re only at the ‘top’ of the fetch. It’s about a mile and a half along the loch to the river inlet and will get choppier downwind.

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Visiting baboons might enjoy a view of my butt patch – glued on with Bostik 1782 and (appropriately) lined with gorilla-tape. Even though the 2014 Alpackas have a bit more back-end buoyancy (as we were about to find to our cost), for the weightier and lazier paddler, a butt patch offers useful protection in the shallows.

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Did I say it’s very windy? And to make matters worse I’m rather careless about the weight distribution, forgetting how we did it last time in much calmer conditions. With the packs in the middle of the boat and the Mrs’ legs tucked in, instead of reaching back, the bow was noticeably low.

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Once out midstream, the bow started swamping in the chop which was a little alarming. The restful 1.5-mile downwind paddle to the river inlet is abandoned. I tell the Mrs to lean towards me, and I paddle across-wind for the other bank. The odd wave splashes over the side.

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We could have tried again with the packs on my back, but were a bit unnerved. As it is, two-up the boat was a little hard to handle in the wind, and we have no pfds. So the Mrs takes to the bank – a long detour around a lagoon – while I tip out the boat then allow the wind to whip me along the loch, pulling over to wait once every few minutes.

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I’m not sure I want to engage with the wind funnel at the ‘narrows’ of Fionn Loch, as by now the whitecaps and chop are getting it on. Plus I’ve lost track of the Mrs. So I pull over and stagger over the bogs to see where she is.

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Reunited, we’re effectively on the south side of the Kirkaig river, so are still going to have to paddle across to get to the north side for the regular path back to the car park. I recall the river entrance nearby is in another bay which will be out of the easterly fetch. With better thought out trim, that crossing should be less risky.

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I know from previous experience that trying to carry an inflated packraft even five minutes to the bay in this sort of wind will be like trying to wrestling a pterodactyl. So out with the plug and under my arm it goes. That’s the great thing with packrafts: they’re as easy to paddle in as they are to walk with, though there’s probably a more elegant way of saying that.

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This rotting transom is all that remains of the last boat that came this way.

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Another quick air up…

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…and we set off across the small bay…

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…for a small beach by the river entrance (above my right boot). Two up with the wind, I don’t want to get involved with the swift current flowing through the inlet towards bone-crunching waterfalls.

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Back ashore I roll up the Yakpacka…

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…and we set off for the 3.5-mile walk back to the bike at Inverkirkaig. And even here on the path the wind nearly knocks we over a couple of times. It was only an 11.5-mile day (10 for me on foot + 1.5 paddle), but by the time we get back to the bike we are pooped. Luckily, this year we have a lovely house to go back to.

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Convert your paddle into a Packstaff

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No one’s ever asked me how to make a packstaff attachment for their four-part paddle, but I’m going to tell you anyway. IK&P paddles are here, btw.

What’s so good about packstaffs? Well, they’re a great way of converting your light but strong paddle shaft into a light but strong walking staff that’s stronger and longer than walking poles which are useful on the trail, but redundant on the water. Not necessary on the flat ground, staffs help you trek uphill and down dale for the same reasons as walking poles; they help spread the load to your arms and pecs and off your legs in general and ageing knees in particular. I am sure my legs have felt less tired after a full day of loaded packstaff walking in the hills.

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Plus a longer packstaff can easily take your full weight as you ease down a steep gully with a heavy backpack pushing you forward. A friction-fit telescopic walking pole would collapse, or sure feels like it might. Like any long staff they’re also handy for prodding boggy-looking ground, fighting off Turkish mastiffs and help with vaulting streams and the like. Again, a lightweight walking pole may not be stiff enough to do this. A packstaff nib weighs not much, costs next to nothing, and works with any four-part paddle, like my Aquabound Manta Ray (left).

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Find a bit of tube that’s close to the right diametre to slip into your paddle where the blade goes. My blue tube is from some cheap paddle that came with a long-gone slack raft. Add tape to make a snug fit, if necessary. But not so tight that you risk jamming when wet or wearing the shaft with possible blade fit loosening implications. Drill a hole at a point where there’s enough overlap to make the assembly strong, and then fit a spring clip. I bought a pair on eBay for a fiver, though you can buy cheaper pressed out ones for less.
As it happens it turns out my AquaBound uses cheap pressed clips. You may not be able to find the typical 7-8mm buttons to fit the AB files. I settled with 6mm. This spring clip is easy to fit and a big improvement over my previous ‘slip-on’ nib which got sucked off in bogs.

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Next, line up the two holes or fit the spring clip and add a collar. You don’t want the nib’s striking force impacting on the clip’s button alone. I sawed a bit of old fibreglass kayak shaft which was a tight fit on the blue tube, so split it then glued it on. That glue didn’t work so well so I roughed it up, more glue then added a couple of rivets. The collar also protects the end of the paddle shaft a bit. The actual end ‘nib’ is currently a black plastic screw section. Stuff and glue in a bit of cork or other blockage in your nib end (right) to stop the tube slowly filling with mud or stones. The nib weighs 128g

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Using the packstaff with an open shaft at the top end, I sometimes worry that stumbling onto that shaft at face height would be nasty. With a canoe T-grip (left; fiver eBay) you can press comfortably on the staff coming down a hill and it also acts as a handy hook. Mine had to be ground down to fit. It weighs 74g, so all up my packstaff extras weigh 200g. The AB paddle weighs 890g.

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Paddles for IKs and packrafts

See also: Anfibio Fly

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Like most beginners I started my IK-ing with a super cheap 3-piece TNP shovel. Then, after picking up a much better used 2-piece fibreglass Lendal Archipelago which eventually seized up, for Shark Bay in 2006 I splashed out on a decent light, rigid, bent-shaft, adjustable, low angle 2-piece, 230cm Werner Camano. At £230, it cost more than my first two boats but over the years on I have no regrets. The Camano just works.

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To me bent shafts and an indexed, ovalised grip make ergonomic sense for steady, all-day paddles rather than pulling fast moves in rapids. It’s just more compatible with the non-rectilinear human form. I did notice that when I swapped back to the slightly heavier straight Lendal (before it seized) there was noticeably less flex, but well over a decade later, the Camano is in great shape and is still my favourite for sea kayaking.

The Camano is a low-angle paddle, but I think my style, if you can call it that, is high angle, and in fact I read that high angle is the right way to do it. I find that wide, high-sided and relatively unresponsive IKs and packrafts encourage or require an energetic ‘digging’ style compared to a smooth gliding hardshell.

A paddle for  packrafting
The way I see it, even more so than most IKs, a packraft has high and fat sides and you sit low inside. So that ought to mean a long paddle to get over all that plastic and into the water. Paddling with the 220cm, big-faced Aquabound paddle, I didn’t really notice any issues other than some squeaking as I rub the sides occasionally. Longer would not have made much difference.

At less than 3kg a packraft is extremely light but it’s not an efficient shape for gliding through water. However, once on the water with a paddler in it, the total weight is nearly the same as a more glidey IK, so it boils down to the need to propel the hull using a paddle with a large surface area. Some might say a bigger blade will mean more yawing, but I figure you just dig less hard and anyway, with practice, yawing is easily controlled. Providing you have the strength, a bigger face ought to give the speed which packraft and IK lack. There are times (mostly at sea or on white water) when speed and power can mean safety.
In the US I got myself an Aqua Bound Manta Ray 4-piece high-angle in carbon (below, 220cm). Weighing under 900g this one feels more flexy than the Camano, but fits right in the bag and so makes a great packrafting or back-up paddle – apaddleinyourpack, so to speak. Mine has the two-position snap button offset which I run at 45°. You can also get an infinite-position Posi-Lok version.
The compact and light Manta Ray (70cm longest section, left) is ideal on short day trips with public transport and with no load to haul on the water. It has been fine for UK packrafting and makes a great packstaff, too, but it doesn’t always come apart easily like the Werners. Dry or wet, don’t leave it assembled for days or weeks, especially after sea use (that probably goes for all multi-piece paddles).
I’ve used my Manta sea kayaking in Australia as well as packrafting – it was fine for both. For the price this is a great paddle – so good I sold it to my Ozzie mate and bought another. I’ve never seen a 4-part Manta for sale in the UK, but in Germany the Packrafting Store sells TLC Mantas.

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I also have a straight, fibreglass-blade Werner Corrywrecken (£200 years ago). It’s the biggest paddle Werner do in 210cm+ 2-piece touring paddles: 721cm2 blade area compared to the Camaro’s middle of the road 650cm2. and 677cm2 for the Manta Ray.

At 220cm (same as the Manta Ray) I’ve also gone as short as I dare to get over the fat sides of a packraft.
There’s no indexing on the straight, carbon shaft, just a little ovalisation as on the Aqua Bound. The Corry’s face is a tad bigger than the Manta Ray (left and above) but the whole stick feels much more rigid (it’s 2-piece). It’s 7% lighter than the Manta Ray and 17% lighter than the stiffer Camano – initially you notice this. I compare my Corry and Camano in my Incept sea kayak here.

More weights & measures
According to the kitchen scales the weights of these paddles are:

  • Werner Camano 230,  2-piece – 988g – stiffest
  • Werner Corrywrecken 220, 2-piece – 816g – lightest
  • Aqua Bound Manta Ray 220, 4-piece – 880g – least stiff but still fine and cheaper

So now I have a long, comfy low-angle Camano for long, loaded IK sea trips; a straight, rigid, light, shorter big-faced Corry for packboating and guests (the Mrs likes it), and a compact, 4-piece Aqua Bound Manta for travelling.