River Rafting, No Car Required

One reason I live in the West is that taking a car or plane to enjoy nature always struck me as paradoxical. How can a hiker, biker, skier or camper claim to "leave no trace" when his or her carbon footprint exceeds Bigfoot's by several orders of magnitude? No, I said, let the Sherpas summit Everest and the Brie-eaters cycle Le Tour de France. We have our own outdoors, and we should enjoy it on our own two feet. Want to ski? Do it cross-country, or grab skins and take yourself up the mountain. Want to camp? Shoulder your pack and start walking, or get a bike cart, throw in your gear, and pedal until you hit the sign that says, "WILDERNESS STARTS HERE."

Then I discovered rivers. Floating—by canoe, raft or tube—pretty much required not one motor vehicle but two. The first got you to your put-in; the second delivered you from your take-out. My rule of thumb: Every 30 river miles traveled equaled a tank of gas—twice.

So I thought about it. It's taken years of exploration, weeks of practice, and more than a few days of deflating (literally) experiments, but this summer I can say my friends and I are finally ready to beat the shuttle, once and for all. The time is ripe for "free floating"—canoeing, rafting or tubing using as little gas power as possible to get there and back again—ideally none.

The first steps toward carbon freedom were canoe trips on the Bitterroot River near my home in Missoula, MT, with my friend Nick and his dog Katie. This was necessity, not environmentalism: Nick had a car, but no canoe; I had a canoe, but no car; and we both had bicycles. Attentive scouting revealed a 13-mile stretch between small towns in which the Bitterroot was paralleled not only by  Highway 93 but also by a bike path. En route by car to the put-in, we left our bikes at the take-out; then, after floating, we cycled back to retrieve Nick's Isuzu to take us home. Katie ran between us. Given her tendency to hop in and out of the canoe, the bike shuttle offered more than good exercise and great views of the Bitterroot Mountains: It gave us a chance to dry off after three hours of splashing.

Still, it felt wrong to drive at all. Enter the packraft. Sold by Alpacka, a small family firm in Mancos, CO, the best packrafts are extremely durable, ultra-lightweight inflatable rafts designed expressly for those who want to reach river's edge on trail mix alone. The simplest craft weighs just over three pounds and deflates to the size of a couple water bottles—perfect for stuffing in a backpack or bike bag. Because the raft then expands to roughly 3-by-5-feet, paddlers can fit not only themselves but also their disassembled bikes inside.

My friend and neighbor, Tod, bought a packraft last spring, and already his adventures don't just beat the shuttle—they obliterate it. He's floated the Yellowstone River through Montana's Paradise Valley, planned backcountry river expeditions in the state's Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, and even run a near-half-marathon with the raft and paddles up and over our hometown's Mount Jumbo to a popular Clark Fork River put-in. Tod introduced me to Erin McKittrick, who with her husband, Hig, moved 4,000 miles by boot, packraft and ski from their Seattle apartment to Seldovia, Alaska. "We gave ourselves one simple rule for the journey: 'No Motorized Transport,' " Erin writes in her memoir of the trip, A Long Trek Home. "Every inch... would be under our own power—viewing the world at human speed." If scientists ever discover water on the moon, true freefloaters like Erin and Hig will no doubt find a way to hike, bike or ski to outer space.

I'm not so tough. That's why my favorite freefloat is what I call Mr. Toad's Wild Tube Ride. Two blocks from my house runs a low narrow creek originating in the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area. I recently realized that the early summer runoff raises the water level just enough to fit an inner tube between my tender bottom and the rocky riverbed. For three weeks, my friends and I float almost every evening after work. The mile-long chute takes 10 minutes. Along the way we pass through a city park, coast by a fire station and several apartment complexes, slide under I-90, and even below a creek-spanning 24-hour family diner, recently closed, whose pancake-chomping patrons used to wave at us from window booths overlooking the usually uninhabited water. At the end, the creek empties into the much warmer, much slower Clark Fork, and we float that another half hour into the heart of downtown. There, a whitewater feature, Brennan's Wave, offers a final soaking thrill before we take out next to a children's carousel, whose operators very kindly allow wet swimsuits on their gaily painted wooden horses.

Afterwards, I walk 45 minutes home, just long enough for both me and the tube carried at my waist to dry completely. I beat the shuttle by becoming it. If the sun is high and dinner can wait, I plop back in the creek and do it again.

Jeremy N. Smith is the author of Growing a Garden City (Skyhorse Publishing).

This essay first appeared in High Country News.