Alaska has over 3,000 rivers, most of which are not accessible from the road. If you want to canoe or raft these rivers, chances are you’re going to need a boat that fits into an airplane. So what is the best boat for an Alaska fly-in river? After decades of running northern Alaska’s rivers here are our choices:
When we want the stability and safety of a raft we use 12′ Avon Pathfinder and Scout Rafts. For white-water rivers like the Hulahula or the Kobuk these lightweight and durable rafts are ideal. Because we buy them without a self-bailing inflatable floor that lets water drain through it, our rafts weigh less than 100 pounds and roll into a tight enough package that they fit in almost any aircraft. On our northern rivers which have relatively low water volumes, the weight and bulk of the self-bailing floor isn’t justified.
On our guided wilderness trips, we prefer to rig our boats as paddle-rafts. Everyone on the trip has a paddle and uses it to propel the raft. This keeps everyone in the rafts engaged, warm, and happy. There are no passengers on our trips; only participants. These wonderful little rafts carry a nice big load which is important on long wilderness trips. There are times when a larger raft, complete with oars and a rigid frame is nice and we have a couple 16′ oar-boats for larger volume rivers like the Copper, but our simple and sturdy Avon rafts are just about perfect for northern Alaska’s fly-in rivers.
Nothing paddles as well as a ridged hard-shelled canoe, but in Alaska’s fly-in wilderness hard-shells are rarely an option. Fortunately the Norwegian company Bergens makes the next best thing. We have paddled ALLY canoes thousands upon thousands of miles and they handle remarkably well. They are time consuming and a little difficult to assemble (especially in the cold) but once you get it hammered together and locked in place the canoe is ready for most anything you would do in a traditional boat. We find that the 16′ model strikes a good balance between volume, rigidity and maneuverability. There is a US made knock-off of the Ally Canoe called a “Pak-Boat”. It is much easier to assemble but the end result is floppy and the boats are nowhere near as durable. ALLY canoes do require some maintenance but they are comfortable and seaworthy boats that fit in a large duffel bag and weigh only 50 pounds.
On some rivers we want a more forgiving canoe with additional stability. There are several good choices for inflatable canoes all of which are similar to narrow rafts. We use a 16′ SOAR and think it offers a good balance between stability, a low wind profile and capacity. We added D-rings on top of the tubes and doubled the cargo capacity of the boat. An ALLY canoe is faster especially in the wind but if you need stability then an inflatable canoe is a good choice.
And of course the most portable boat of them all is the small but mighty Packraft. Accept no substitutes. Alpacka is definitely the packraft to buy if you plan to do anything more than just cross a river.