Boat-building instructor Bruce Campbell compares hand-assembling a packraft to ironing a shirt. He’s right that there’s ironing involved, but he undersells the amount of precision. With a shirt there’s no need to create airtight seals.
Campbell’s students at The Folk School in Alaska’s Goldstream Valley use irons about the size of a thumb that were designed for crafts such as model airplanes and leather work. To build the boats, the students carefully build and then heat-seal together 10 sections of plastic-coated nylon, which they also join to the boat’s durable floor.
When the packrafts are completed they are similar to the Alpacka-brand packrafts that sell for more than $1,000, although Campbell is quick to point out the messy joints of his homemade raft.
“It starts to look DIY (do-it-yourself) when you look on the inside,” he said.
Campbell, a retired geologist, has been building boats since he was a Boy Scout in Indiana. He’s been teaching boat building at The Folk School since 2015. With 25 students this fall, his do-it-yourself packraft clinic has been his most popular boat-building class.
Although he’s been interested in packrafts for years, he never had one until he built one last year.
“To me the packraft is the most Alaskan of all boats. It’s the only boat really invented in Alaska,” he said.
His students use kits from British Columbia boat designer Matt Pope through Pope’s website diypackraft.com. The kits come with precut pieces of fabric that need only to be assembled together.
Campbell estimates building a usable do-it-yourself raft requires about 30 hours of work. It can take another 30 hours to fully outfit one for whitewater travel with features such as thigh braces and gear attachment straps. It’s a big time investment but significantly less than some of the Folk School’s hardshell boat making classes, such as a wooden rowboat last year that took about 150 hours.
Campbell was attracted to do-it-yourself packrafts because he likes building boats anyway, and because building one from a $169-$269 kit is significantly less expensive than buying one ready assembled. At least in theory.
“If I were to buy one, an Alpacka is the way to go. But I can’t spend that kind of money on a boat. Now have I spent more than that all this?” he said, looking over a pile of raft building supplies.
“My wife has it all added up. She and I disagree substantially on what the actual number I’ve spent on it is. But since I haven’t added it up, I must be right.”
Campbell also likes tinkering with boats. He’s now built two packrafts, one from a kit, and a prototype of a tandem raft that he built from a pattern, also from diypackraft.com.
He finished the tandem packraft in time to test it Saturday on the Chena River. After a few “well placed shoves” he managed to dislodge the shore ice at the downtown Fairbanks boat launch and launch his 8¼-pound craft.
Campbell was happy with the boat, but he already sees room for improvement. He’s hoping Pope in British Columbia will develop a design for self-bailing packraft with an inflatable floor, a boat like a large whitewater raft that will drain itself as waves wash over the sides.