Inflatables on the Go

The NRS 120 Slipstream tackling a remote Canadian river, geared up for adventure. © NRS

Story by Troy Buzalsky

When traveling to remote areas of Alaska for an epic, multi-day, float-fishing journey, the name of the game is planning, including what you take, what you ship, what you purchase locally, and what you rent. Many of these adventures also require at least one leg of air travel via bush plane or floatplane to get you there. Depending on the aircraft’s capacity, and the number of travelers, weight and cargo must be carefully calculated, because for you, and the air-service provider, safety is the first priority.

Equipment and supplies might include clothing, rods, reels, tackle, bear spray, firearm, bug repellant, GPS, satellite communicator, camera, tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment and fuel, kitchen supplies, tables and chairs, coolers, food…and perhaps most importantly, your chosen inflatable, be it a one-person packraft or a multi-person raft. Again, weight and space management becomes one of the most important factors because it not only affects your creature comforts; it just might make the difference between a trip of a lifetime versus a total disaster.

This Boats column is going to explore four name-brand, inflatable-boat companies that are making remote travel a big piece of their portfolio. Each manufacturer brings a little something different to the table which may pique your interest should you be considering a remote float.

AIRE

Manufactured in Meridian, Idaho, since 1989, Argonaut Inflatable Research and Engineering (AIRE) lets you turn remote fishing water into your own personal fish-catching playground.

There are many inflatable raft models under the AIRE umbrella. The Super Puma is ideally suited for a pair of anglers and gear during a multi-day remote float. At 85 pounds and just over 13 feet in length, the narrow beam (5 feet, 8 inches) contributes to a sporty feel, and is great for narrow rivers. The Super Puma is well adapted for use with a rowing frame, and its 18.5-inch tubes give excellent weight-hauling capacity. Unique to AIRE, all their inflatables have a 10-year no-fault warranty, which is absolutely unmatched in the industry.

Stepping up in size, the AIRE 143E has been a staple in the fleet for Marty Decker of Frontier River Guides of Alaska for 30 years and counting. When Frontier River Guides floats one of the many rivers in which they specialize, it’s a big logistical challenge. Their adventures include two guests, a guide, and all the fishing, camping, and gourmet food necessities including a 120-pound cooler to make the eight-day floats awesome in every way possible. “We carry heavy loads and beach our boats often throughout the day,” explains Decker. “The AIRE 143E has never let us down.”

inflatable raft

Three happy anglers fishing Alaska’s remote rivers with Marty Decker of Frontier River Guides of Alaska, who exclusively utilizes AIRE Inflatables. © Marty Decker

On-the-water performance is another factor for Decker, who likes to row forward, chasing the fishing hot spots. He says, “The high bow design is shaped like a canoe, which makes it row effortlessly.” The letter E in the 143E stands for elliptical, and the boat is designed to track straight through rapids while keeping the bow forward with its straight side tubes, pointed bow, and guide-friendly stern. The 143E is 14 feet, 6 inches long with a 6-foot, 6-inch beam and 20-inch tubes. It weighs in at 115 pounds, but Decker is quick to point out, “It fits easily in a De Havilland Beaver or Cessna 207,” two of the most common planes used in Alaska’s bush. And according to Decker, a single person can assemble, disassemble, and roll the raft up.

There are some distinct similarities in many top-brand inflatable rafts, however, AIRE inflatables offer construction characteristics that are unique and worth understanding. The urethane AIRE cell bladders are protected by an outer skin made from pre-tensioned 1,670 denier fabric and coated inside and out with AIRE’s exclusive Precontraint Ferrari Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) utilizing 37-ounce PVC. The PVC is then coated with an acrylic lacquer that provides abrasion resistance and UV protection.

inflatable raft

When fishing with Marty Decker’s Frontier River Guides of Alaska, you can expect two anglers up front with a guide on the sticks, and all the gear loaded aft for 8- to 10 days’ worth of adrenaline-pumping action. © Marty Decker

This dual-layer construction process creates a nearly bullet-proof design that is rock solid when inflated and offers great performance and mobility. Decker was once floating Alaska’s American Creek when he rolled over a hidden, razor-sharp rock which Marty now calls “Bear Claw.” When his 143E struck the jagged rock it tore a 10-inch gash through the outer PVC shell and a pin-hole leak in the urethane bladder. Decker explains, “It would have been catastrophic in any other raft.” He was able to navigate to shore and make a quick field repair, noting a gash like that on other rafts would have been challenging in the field.

AIRE has two floor systems available, including the Regular Floor Pocket (RFP) and the Sealed Floor Pocket (SFP). Although both are self-bailing, they offer differing performance characteristics. For remote travelers hauling lots of gear, facing portage situations, or traveling in silted waters, the SFP is a strong recommendation. While the RFP is cheaper, and offers greater ballast to prevent tipping, the SFP is constructed using waterproof zippers to totally seal the PVC floor shell from the AIRE cell. This keeps the boat lighter and nimbler, and much easier to beach on the gravel bars encountered while fishing Alaska’s river systems. Visit aire.com for more information.

Pristine Ventures

Assisting in accessing and exploring the seldom-touched frontier is an imaginative way to present Larry Bartlett and his company, Pristine Ventures. The company’s mission is to support the growing interest in do-it-yourself (DIY) remote Alaska adventures.

Bartlett’s early days of guiding small groups into secluded and authentically remote areas groomed the path for today’s business model. As a result, a complete line of rafts and canoes have been thoughtfully engineered, are practical, and proven for the most extreme DIY adventures possible. To further support hard-core adventurers, Pristine Ventures rafts and canoes can be purchased or rented. I personally rented a PR-49 for a 10-day float down Alaska’s Aniak River, and that packraft provided a massive adventure.

The PR-49 is one of several rafts designed and manufactured by Pristine Ventures to help anglers and hunters access the truly remote areas of Alaska. © Troy Buzalsky

The Pristine Ventures PR- 49 is the company’s flagship packraft. The Kork is the slightly larger and higher-payload packraft. The Levitator is their true all-purpose raft. The Legend is the ideal raft for two persons on a multi-day remote Alaska float. The Pioneer X-stream is their all-purpose, self-bailing, super-duty canoe.

The Pioneer X-stream is 16 feet, 6 inches in length, 50 inches wide, and features twin 16-inch tapered tubes that transition to a 24-inch bow and stern with a total of five air chambers. The boat is constructed with 32-ounce PVC with 32-ounce chafe guards across the bottom. For air travel, which is pretty much required when floating Alaska’s remote river systems, the Pioneer X-stream packs down to a small footprint while weighing a mere 72 pounds when the floor is removed; the inflatable drop-stitch floor adds 16 pounds to the equation. Ideal in the angling environment and capable of carrying two anglers or hunters and all camping equipment and supplies for a week or more, the Pioneer X-stream has an impressive 1,800-pound payload.

The Pioneer X-stream is designed by Larry Bartlett for its overall on-the-water capabilities, because it’s not about the boat, it’s about where the boat takes you. The Pioneer X-stream is rated for Class IV whitewater complete with a convertible, self-bailing floor. That’s right, you decide if you want to open the floor ports for self-bailing performance, or close them for a higher-and-drier ride. The Pioneer X-stream is manufactured from PVC to decrease the raft’s weight, increase its carrying capacity, provide a better price point, and to provide a guaranteed warranty.

When fishing Alaska’s remote rivers and streams, portaging around windblown logs, waterfalls, or other impassable situations is commonplace. The lightweight Pioneer X-stream is ideal in these settings, so much so that in some cases you can leave the boat loaded with your gear and literally drag it across the tundra, bear grass, or gravel bar without the hassles of unloading and repacking. And let’s face it, when you’re in the bush, efficiency matters. For your next remote Alaska adventure, do yourself a favor and visit Pristine Ventures’ very helpful website, and with luck, Larry can coach you through the wilderness journey of a lifetime. Visit pristineventures.com for more information.

NRS

Northwest River Supplies (NRS) is more than a product; it’s an ensemble of products all framed around outdoor adventure. They’ve been doing it right since 1972. Apparel, bags, boxes, camping supplies, frames, helmets, life jackets, oars, and paddles are all part of the product offering; however it’s the NRS Inflatables that have truly projected NRS as an industry leader for adventure seekers worldwide. Today, NRS is 100% employee-owned and operates out of Moscow, Idaho.

With the demand for increased outdoor access from the angling community, NRS dove in the deep end of the pool, emerging with a fishing inflatable like no other: The Slipstream Fishing Raft. Trust me, the devil is in the details of the Slipstream, putting it in a league of its own.

“The Slipstream is a departure from a raft and a fishing frame,” explains Mike Dolmage, NRS Fishing Category Manager and NRS Hard Goods Product Manager. “When designing and engineering the Slipstream, the goal was to listen to the anglers and the person rowing the raft, and glean the most important fishing elements, without adding weight.” Before the Slipstream, anglers and outfitters would select a raft and a frame, and make it work, albeit heavy and bulky due to the frame and floorboards. Now, with the development of NRS Slipstream Fishing Raft, it’s one integral package.

The NRS Slipstream modernized its typical raft design by carefully removing or relocating catch points, a common frustration for anglers. This included scrutinizing every D-ring, valve, and handle, and placing them where needed, while being out of the way. Another angling-friendly engineering feat was to create an anchor system that works when the aft end of the raft is loaded with gear and equipment typical of multi-day remote voyages. The result is the internal anchor system, where the anchor rope runs through the rowing frame to a centerline anchor davit, absolutely unencumbered by gear and cargo. To create a stable walking and casting platform, the Slipstream features a ridged, 4-inch, drop-stitched, self-bailing floor that is covered with non-slip ethylene-vinyl-acetate (EVA) foam.

It’s hard to imagine the places you visit when going remote. © NRS

Keeping with fishing-friendly features, the Slipstream Deluxe package includes Cataract SGG oars and Cutthroat oar blades, cup holders, and dual 9-foot protective rod holders, so the angler can have additional rods set up and ready to roll, while being stored safely out of the way. For real fishy groups, the Slipstream can be set up with a second pair of rod holders, ideal for changing water conditions and fish species over that 100-mile float.

Available in three sizes, the Slipstream 96 is 9 feet, 6 inches long and weighs in at 130 pounds complete with frame, floor and accessories. The 120 series is 12 feet, 9 inches long with a 6-foot beam and is considered the perfect 2-person, multi-day fishing raft, with one person on the sticks, one sitting up front fishing, and with the gear stowed in the aft section. The 139 series is the big boy, being 13 feet, 9 inches long with a width of 6 feet, 7 inches and weighing in at 235 pounds. The 139 is perfect for 2 front-seated anglers, a person on the oars, and enough gear for the trio for fishing from a high-lake drop-off point to a tidewater pick-up location. And to make things more custom, rowing frames can be created for various seating, cooler, and gear applications.

Like other inflatables in the NRS fleet, the Slipstream Fishing Raft is constructed with 52-ounce, 2,000 denier tubes with integrated 68-ounce, 4,000 denier wear patches on the underside. The rafts are equipped with Leafield C7 valves and come complete with a 5-year warranty.

The NRS Slipstream Fishing Raft is earning high praise and has proven to be well adapted for remote fishing adventures from vehicles, bush planes, or even from helicopters, as evidenced during a recent remote Canada fishing expedition. Visit nrs.com for more information.

Dave Scadden Paddlesports

Dave Scadden was born into a flyfishing family. Growing up in southwest Montana, he started tying flies at 9, and selling them commercially by the time he was 12. By 18, he was running Wolfe’s Sporting Goods. Custom rod building soon followed. However, things were changing in Montana.

Locked gates and “No Trespassing” signs became frequent obstacles to his beloved Madison River as well as others. Looking for a solution to the access issue, he began developing float tubes to use in moving water. This presented some safety issues, and he began to develop other floating craft designed to keep his hands free while floating rivers. Collaborating with noted fly anglers Doug Swisher and Daryl Osborne, he developed the original Water Otter.

inflatable raft

The rigid, inflated “airlock” leg-lock system makes it easy for anglers to stand in the boat, either at the bow or the stern. © Dave Scadden Paddlesports

Years have passed and Dave Scadden Paddlesports now sells 17 different watercraft packages aimed at providing anglers access to both moving and still waters. The latest, and perhaps most impressive, is Dave Scadden’s 2024 Box Canyon.

At 12 feet, 8 inches long and 59 inches wide, the Box Canyon is a 1- to 3-person, frameless, rigid inflatable with a weight capacity of 1,800 pounds, yet weighs only 65 pounds. It was made with fly anglers in mind, but with its built-in rod holders, it is functional for gear anglers pulling plugs as well. Think of it as an inflatable drift boat.

The Box Canyon’s accentuated rocker hull offers otherworldly levels of performance. It incorporates the most advanced bladderless heat-welded technology in the world. Coupled with its exclusive rigid inflated floor, rigid inflated seat panels, rigid inflated “airpad” oar-lock system, plus the revolutionary new rigid inflated “airlock” leg lock system makes this boat completely frameless and light as a feather on the water. The tubes are 20 inches in diameter. There are 10 premium Bravo valves for inflating the hull and other parts.  The boat comes with two integrated, detachable rod holders, with the capability to have four. It also has an integrated, detachable motor mount that can handle up to a six-horsepower outboard or any electric motor. Included in the package is a high-volume foot pump. The oars are two-piece, aircraft-grade aluminum. Carbon-fiber oars are available as an option. Another nice feature is the integrated, insulated gear bags that have built-in rod holders and tippet dispensers, and can double as coolers.

At 12 feet, 8 inches long and 59 inches wide, the Box Canyon is a 1- to 3-person, frameless, rigid inflatable with a weight capacity of 1,800 pounds, yet weighs only 65 pounds. © Dave Scadden Paddlesports

The new Box Canyon has already gained a reputation as the ultimate flyfishing play boat. It has proven to excel in virtually every category over traditional rafts and drift boats. Unlike those others, it’s a joy to row, being lightweight, portable, high-performance, and extremely user-friendly.

Packed dimensions are 40 inches by 24 inches by 12 inches. You can pull it out of your rig and have it inflated and ready to roll in just ten minutes. No assembly is required, no messing around with bulky aluminum rowing frames…making it something that could easily be flown to remote streams in a bush plane. Alternatively, it would be simple to put in the back of the truck, on a snow-machine trailer, on a side-by-side or auto roof rack, as airline checked baggage (an optional airline-specific travel bag is available), in an RV, or in the trunk of your car, headed to a road-system river for a float. Dave claims the Box Canyon is the most technically advanced drift boat in the world.

Versatility is key, and with this boat working well for one, two, or three people, this boat is just that—versatile. Visit davescaddenpaddlesports.com for more information on the Box Canyon and the other boat packages they carry.

Editor’s Note: While creating this issue of Fish Alaska magazine, we were notified that NRS founder, Bill Parks, had passed away, leaving behind a 50-year legacy. Bill’s mantra was that of serving customers, the community, people, and the planet. He held a steadfast belief that business can be a force for good in the world. Although turning over 100% of the company to its employee owner group in 2014, Parks was still involved with NRS until the end. It’s with heavy hearts that we salute Bill Parks as he rides the wave-train into his next chapter.

Troy Buzalsky is the Boats columnist for Fish Alaska magazine, and when not writing about boats he can likely be found chasing fish in the Pacific Northwest and the 49th state and writing about those adventures. Troy can be reached at troybuz@comcast.net.

For more inflatable raft and general boating reading, check out the Fish Alaska Boats blog.

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