Packrafting the Minam River: A Cautionary Love Story
When I first learned about packrafts, it was all I could do not to talk about them constantly (ask my girlfriend). An inflatable boat light enough to pack on your back and technical enough to take down shallow wilderness streams? Sign me up. Like so many people who have discovered packrafting, I fell in love with the fact that I could combine my love of being on the water with my love of backpacking through remote stretches of wilderness. There’s plenty of excitement around packrafting, and rightfully so. The relatively new sport has opened up seemingly endless backcountry adventure potential.
And then you start hearing the stories about paddlers in over their heads because of the uncanny stability of packrafts, waste ending up in wilderness areas where it was previously not, of “near misses,” and of fatalities.
I love packrafting, but this love story of the outdoors, like so many others, is also a cautionary tale.
In Eastern Oregon, we’re lucky to have a pretty damn awesome river for packrafting, a river with a long rich cultural and ecological history:
The Minam River
The Minam originates at Blue Lake in the heart of the Wallowa Mountains and runs for 51 miles to where it meets the Wallowa River on a journey to the Grande Ronde, the Snake and eventually the Pacific Ocean. 42 of those miles are within the Eagle Cap Wilderness and designated Wild & Scenic. The Minam River has been of incredible importance to Indigenous peoples, salmon and other wildlife, to logging and other industry, and to recreationalists. It is special as a packrafting river in the lower 48 (Alaska is a different story) because one can access it by hiking, riding a horse, or by flying into stretches of private land along its middle section, and because it can appear a relatively straightforward float.
But every year the river changes. And, every year I see new blog posts that are more inspiring than they are realistic, often painting a picture of a float trip on the Minam River that leaves out the inherent dangers and practical considerations of floating a wilderness river. I worry about these depictions because one day they will inevitably lead to a very bad ending for an ill-prepared (or even a well-prepared) boater, and have probably already begun to affect the ecosystem of the river itself as more and more people flock to experience “this beautiful river I saw on Youtube.”
I’ve loved every trip I’ve taken on the Minam. They haven’t all been easy, and they’ve each had their share of white-knuckle moments and complications due to the ever-changing nature of a river that is susceptible to wild winters and unpredictable water levels. When floating any river, and perhaps especially a wilderness stretch like the Minam that is currently gaining popularity but has very little info around it, it is important to remember:
The river isn’t here for us, we’re here for the river, and need to act accordingly.
On a remote river like the Minam with no permits or rangers telling you how to act or prepare, preparation can be both a daunting task and it one that can easily leave room for cutting corners. There have been books written on river safety and sustainability practices on the river, so I’ll just include a few big picture considerations here:
Treat the Minam like (or better than) any well-regulated, permitted river. Pack out all your waste, use WAG bags, don’t create new fire rings or camps, minimize walking in the river and habitat destruction. Succinctly, practice Leave No Trace. This will ensure the river remains unpermitted and protected for future generations.
Be cognizant of what you post and where. I love seeing new folks getting outside, but there is a lot to be learned on the journey of planning a trip. Giving away all the details of a trip or portraying only the good parts is a disservice for those who come after you.
Prepare and know what to prepare for. Where’s your river gauge? What does that mean for the stretch of river you’re floating? Where are your extraction points? What’s the latest river report? What might have changed since then? These questions and so many more are things you should be asking.
Asking who? Knowledgeable locals such as myself, the USFS, Minam River Lodge, etc. Even if you don’t use Go Wild to guide your trip, I’d much rather have you contact us about your trip then go into the wilderness with unanswered questions.
If still unsure, book a trip! As of this writing in 2023, Go Wild is the only permitted packrafting guide on the Minam. We run basic-luxury multiday trips that require previous paddling experience as well as introductory one and two day courses.
You can contact me, Dan, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch below for some quick clips of what to expect on a Go Wild packrafting tour: