Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Confessions of an Novice Packrafter

Of the four seasons, fall is perhaps the most transitory. Sure, nausea-inducing Pumpkin Spice Season drags on forever, but the actual epoch of colorful leaves only lasts a couple weeks. Two weeks ago, the colors were at their peak in Michigan. One week later, all those leaves had fallen, whereupon I spent some quality time bonding with the leaf blower. So when a beautiful weather window presented itself this weekend, I knew I'd have to head south to catch the last vestiges of color.

Indiana has exactly one Wilderness area, the Charles C. Deam Wilderness near Bloomington. A series of steep hills and incised ravines cut through the landscape, all bordered to the north by a large reservoir. Speaking of water though, I found relatively little of it. Every time I dipped down into a hollow, I'd find a mostly-dry stream bed, sometimes punctuated by a couple pools of tannic water. Spelunkers love the Swiss cheese limestone bedrock of Kentucky and southern Indiana. But for backpackers, it's a bit annoying that streams appear and disappear seemingly at random. Karst topography makes for an unpredictable water situation.

At any rate, the Deam features a well-developed trail network. I strung together several of these trails into a 30-mile loop. Given that a couple of the trails dead-ended at different points along the Lake Monroe shoreline, I couldn't resist the opportunity to take my new packraft out for a spin.

Packraft? Yes indeed. A compact, inflatable boat designed to be carried in a backpack. Including a paddle and life jacket, the whole kit weighs about 6 pounds. I primarily plan to use it in order to explore tough-to-access landscapes. Oftentimes in southern Utah, I hike from the top of a canyon down to where it empties into one of the Colorado Plateau's major rivers. Without a packraft, I have no choice but to return the way I came. With a packraft however, I can float down the river and the journey can continue. Rivers and lakes, once obstacles to forward progress, suddenly become conduits.

The packraft wasn't the only nicety that I brought on this trip. I toted an isobutane stove, and my trusty pair of $4.36 knockoff Crocs purchased four years ago from Walmart in Las Cruces, NM. I typically forego the stove and camp shoes, but given the long November nights, it made sense to carry a couple extra pounds to be more comfortable in camp.

Day One

The first day dawned bright and sunny, albeit a bit chilly. I was feeling cozy, and it wasn't until the sun was fully up that I reluctantly emerged from the cocoon in the back of my car. It wasn't entirely clear whether I was actually parked in a designated area or not, and trailhead fee verbiage was unclear, so I chucked a long-expired America The Beautiful pass on my dashboard and hoped for the best. 

I crunched my way through the forest as sun began to filter through the oaks and sycamores. Oak has a tendency to underwhelm; its leaves often go directly from green to brown, or at best sport a sickly maroon twinge for a few days. The sycamores were a bit more impressive. Several were yellow - perhaps not the brilliant yellow of an aspen or cottonwood, but delightful all the same. A couple trees stood out with a bit more orangey coloration. There would be crimson maples on this trip, sadly. 

I did appreciate, however, the sounds of fall. Either the region has been quite dry recently, or else someone's been curating the forest floor for maximal crunchiness. Even while walking right on the trail, I was trudging through several inches of freshly fallen, crispy leaves in a delightful cacophany that practically screams "autumn". I pitied the deer around here; there'd be no sneaking away from hunters. On the other hand, neither could the hunters move without themselves creating a racket. Mutually Assured Decibels, I grinned to myself. 

I wound my way down a series of switchbacks into a ravine. To my surprise, I found no flowing water, just a small puddle. I wouldn't find any flow in the next hollow either. In fact, I didn't see any flowing streams for the entirety of my three days in the Deam. Karst strikes again! I found puddles in several ravines, but much of the water has been discolored by tannins. It looked like iced tea, but generally tasted fine. After years of drinking from desert cow-poop sources, my "acceptable water" standard is pretty low, but pickier backpackers might have grimaced. 

The little-used trail wound its way over a series of ridges. I gained and lost a surprising amount of elevation. Though the hills weren't huge, the trail always seemed to be climbing or descending. It was well-graded and pleasant though, with a few switchbacks when the terrain demanded it. I met a couple horsepackers and fellow weekend backpackers along the way, but the trail was mostly quiet until I reached the fire tower.

Fire towers are always a crowd-pleaser, particularly when they're easily accessible. A dirt road bisects the Wilderness to allow access to the fire tower. When I got there, the parking lot was full, yet I had a few quiet minutes between groups at the top of the tower. It's the only remaining fire tower left in the Hoosier National Forest. Nationally, the few that still exist are often locked and sealed with barbed wire, so getting to look out over the forest on a sunny day was a real treat.

Eventually, it was time to leave the crowds and return to the comfort of the woods. I dropped down a series of switchbacks on a hiking-only trail. I paused to water up in a random puddle before making the climb back up to the ridgetop where I made camp.

Day Two

I woke up almost giddy. After a pot of hot chocolate, I made quick work of the few miles down a spur trail that led to the shoreline of Lake Monroe. There, I inflated my packraft and tiptoed around the deep, gloppy muck that rings the reservoir. I flopped into my boat with all the grace and dignity of a beached seal and paddled out a few hundred yards into the lake... and only then realized I'd left my trekking poles on shore. Sigh. Time to retrace my steps.

To make matters worse, I couldn't find the exact path that I'd used to avoid the calf-sucking mud the first time around, and got deeply, hilariously mired as soon as I got out of the raft. I hoped there was nobody watching from shore, as I was train-wrecking real hard. Each footstep was followed by thirty seconds of squelching as I attempted to extract my Croc from the mud. I had to retreat to the boat and paddle up and down the shoreline, probing different spots, before I finally found one that wasn't too squishy. Chastened, I grabbed the poles, slunk back to my packraft and set sail again. 

The rest of the rafting segment involved a lot more beauty and a lot less drama. I paddled about 4 miles of flat water across the open lake. Conditions were perfect - glassy-calm, not even the slightest breeze, beautiful sunshine, and no bugs at this time of year. I stopped for a littoral lunch on a convenient piece of driftwood, and continued a short distance to my destination, the end of a prominent peninsula that juts out into the reservoir. The peninsula is the most popular area in the Wilderness, and accessing it via the water, rather than the trail felt sneaky and fun. I set up an early camp on the tip of the peninsula, surrounded by cypress knees. I paddled around the shoreline for a while, experimenting with my boat to see how it handles, and generally romped around. 

I quit a bit early that day. I'd managed to drip quite a bit of water on everything (a consequence of splashy, inefficient paddle strokes) and I wanted to dry everything off before the sun got too low in the western horizon. I practiced deploying and stowing my boat a few times to work out the kinks and build muscle memory.

Dinner that evening was another stove affair - coucous with tuna, if you care to know. The wind was still calm and I caught a decent sunrise over the lake. Today was the first day of Standard Time, and sunset at 5:30pm reminded me of the doldrums to come. I gulped hot chocolate and nestled into my quilt for the night. 

Day Three

The slightest of breezes was beginning to kick up when I awoke. I knew a front was moving in later in the day, so I got up early and kept moving to stay ahead of it. I followed the famous Peninsula Trail to where it connected with the rest of the trail network, then turned off on a seldom-used, quasi-abandoned trail back to my car. A couple nice ridgetop views, a few dozen blowdowns, and one particularly brilliant sycamore later, I found myself at my car - thankfully not towed, ticketed, or totaled. Small victories, right?


I'm far from an expert on Indiana, but there seems to be a consensus that the Deam Wilderness is some of the best backpacking in the state, perhaps the best. I understand why. There's some interesting topography, a fire tower, a lake, even a few geodes to be found. Using a packraft really jazzed up the trip. I'm solidly in the "bumbling idiot" phase of the learning curve, but truth be told, I'm enjoying the process. I'm having fun picking up a new skill, especially one that will help expand my range of future trip possibilities.



  1. I am delighted as always to read of your newest exploits LB. You have a real knack for descriptive writing. I look forward to the next one.

    1. Thanks Skeeter. Hope you can find your way out to UT soon!

  2. Sounds like an enjoyable trip. I think you'll find that packrafting adds an enjoyable new way to experience the backcountry.