Back to the Water

Growing up in a small town in Oregon was an adventure. When I say small, what I mean is that most people might call it a village. Wallowa county, Oregon, has 6 small towns (Wallowa, Lostine, Enterprise, Joseph, Troy, and Imnaha) with a total population of less than 7,000 people. The locals refer to it as “The County.” There are endless amounts of outdoor activities and we took full advantage of that. From the age of thirteen, I was obsessed with tubing down rivers with my cousins and friends. We would spend the entire summer exploring the creek and rivers around our house. We started with cheap plastic inflatable ones, but they popped on small branches. We upgraded and went to our local tire store and bought truck innertubes; since they would be way more durable.

Most summer days we would spend rafting. Each day, we would go just a little bit further, wondering what was around the next bend in the river. We memorized the miles of river that we would tube down. We learned about reading the river, where the fastest routes were and the biggest rapids. We learned how much to duck our heads under bridges, and where to watch out for fallen trees blocking the river. We figured out shortcuts to walk back to where we started and by the time we reached High School, we were rafting over 6 miles from town and coordinating vehicles to pick us up and drive us back. We were pro-inner-tubers. I lost count, of the amount of times we tubed down Prairie Creek to the Wallowa River. 

Thus began my love for rafting, and being on water! 

Over the last 3 months, I have been rediscovering that youthful sense of adventure with packrafts. I first saw a friend using a Kokopelli , on one of my favorite hikes in Washington. I wanted one immediately! I was amazed by how small they packed down, and how light they are. So far they seem to be incredibly durable, and are reinforced with kevlar. Plus the way you pump them up is ingenious!  

Since getting our packrafts, Maria and I have taken them all over the world. We have packrafted in Brazil, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. I want to take them everywhere! 

Some of my favorite things to photograph are reflections of mountains on lakes. Having a packraft with me, has allowed me to access new places that I couldn’t before. Once I get to a lake, I can pump up the packraft, and paddle around the lake, looking for new vantage points. It’s given me a new perspective on photography! Now, a packraft is just like another piece of my camera gear. 

On our first trip with the packrafts, we went to Brazil to photograph a wedding. After the wedding we stayed for another 8 days and went on a few adventures around the Island of Florianopolis. Our favorite day was when we chartered a boat to an island off the coast called Campeche. The forecast was rainy, but we ended up getting perfect sunny weather. Traveling with the packrafts is super easy. Two packrafts, paddles, and the pump fit into a medium sized suitcase and weighs less than 20 lbs. It was a bit tricky unloading the suitcase at the island since we had to climb down a ladder into the ocean as the waves were crashing, but it was easy enough. We realized we were the only people on the island that day! We set up our picnic area and I pumped up the boats. We got the packrafts into the water and explored a few nearby bays on the island. We didn’t go much further due to wind and large waves on the far side of the island. The water was turquoise blue, and it was as close to paradise as I have ever experienced. Most people on vacation just want to lay around, but I always want to keep exploring!

A couple weeks later we went to Hawaii. It was my first time to Hawaii! Like in Brazil, one of the best parts of packrafting, is being able to access beaches where no one else is. I have a bunch of places scouted out that I want to go back and explore next time! Also, I really want to try the packraft on some bigger waves. Being a mountain man, I get intimidated by the ocean so I need to get my sea-legs… Pro-tip; put your camera in a waterproof dry bag when not shooting. Salt water and cameras don't mix well.

After two tropical adventures back to back, we finally got the chance to use the packrafts in the Pacific Northwest. We set our sights on our favorite lakes within 3 hours drive of Seattle. Diablo Lake in the North Cacades and Lake Cushman in the Olympics. Both of these lakes, are two of the most beautiful that you can drive to, in Washington. I can’t wait to explore these lakes even more with the packrafts. The less accessible lakes, that we are really excited for, are all up in the mountains. Due to snowfall this year, most of them were still frozen this spring when I was testing out the Kokopelli packrafts. I’m excited to get them on some more backpacking adventures in late summer and fall.  I’ll be writing more about those adventures on this blog! 

The most recent adventure with the packrafts was a backpacking trip to Idaho that I’m going to talk about in a future blog-post because it deserves it’s own story. (Just a teaser...) We spent 6 days backpacking and exploring some epic mountains in Idaho. I have a video that I’m currently editing. (cutting down 6 days of footage into a 3.5 minute video is quite an endeavor!) I’ll be posting about that on my social media, so stay tuned.

This year I am eager to get the packrafts onto the river I grew up rafting. I have plans to take the packraft from the breaks of Wallowa lake to the Minam river. It’s around 17 miles and will be the first time I will take a camera with me on this adventure. I’m also looking forward to rafting down the Skykomish river in Washington. It will be just like being a 13 year old on the Wallowa River again, learning all of the bends in the river. Luckily, my neighbor is a certified river guide with class 5 experience, so I’m excited for him to show me the ropes. The Kokopellis are rated up to Class 2 but my friend @beccatarbox who I went to Idaho with, says she’s pushed hers down some class 3-ish. 

I never imagined that a packraft could become part of my photography gear checklist that I bring with me. If I’m heading out into the mountains, my packraft is one of the first things I grab from my gear closet. It truly has opened up so many possibilities for me as a photographer, and has me dreaming of the many locations I have always wanted to explore. (I’m not being paid to say any of this…)

In addition, I have discovered something new. I have been a night person my entire life, and photography has converted me into a sunrise person. I have now photographed countless sunrises over the last 8 years, and it’s never not worth the lack of sleep. 

I love photographing sunrise because of many reasons: 

There are way less people around. Sometimes even ZERO other people! 

The fog and frost from the night before makes for more dynamic sunrises. 

The sounds of the birds waking up and chirping is beautiful.

I love the blue hour light before the day starts.

The best light of the entire day is usually the first hour. 

I love the feeling of the first warmth of sun on your face.

What does that have to do with Packrafting? Well… Combine, being in a comfortable raft, by yourself, on a reflective mountain lake, as the sun is rising… Perfection. Words can not do justice to the feeling of peace and happiness it gives me.  It is the most peaceful experience ever. In the busy world that we live in, I now dream of my next adventure; alone in the mountains, watching the sunrise from the water. 

Thanks for reading about this new adventure. In future posts I will also talk more about my past and path with photography. I have always loved writing and have made writing way less of a priority in my life, than I used to. This is just the beginning of story telling on this website.

The video in this post is showcasing, Brazil, Hawaii, Washington. The images are also showcasing moments from these trips. 

Kokopelli has given me a 10% off discount for anyone interested in getting one of these amazing Packrafts. Use code: TannerWendellStewart at checkout.

I would highly recommend the Hornet Lite for lakes and backpacking. The Rogue Lite is also very nice. I have the Rogue, and it’s definitely more for rafting down class 2 rapids even though it works great for lakes and backpacking. It’s 2-3 lbs heavier than the other two because of the spray deck..

Thanks again!

Tanner Wendell Stewart

Tanner Wendell Stewart