Packraft Colorado brings lightweight rafting to the Roaring Fork River

Kaya Williams
The Aspen Times
Packrafting along a river.
Noah Zemel/Courtesy photo

Back in 2016, as a student at Colorado College, Noah Zemel and his friends found their way into the world of packrafting. With lightweight, packable water vessels in tow, they could paddle down rivers and hike out of remote canyons and take desert trips that included both long hikes and flatwater floating. 

“Eventually, we started running more whitewater, and then we all moved up here (to the Roaring Fork Valley) in 2017 and started running the Roaring Fork all the time and (the) Crystal and Colorado, all our local waterways,” said Zemel, who’s now based in Aspen. “And over the years, this is kind of just doing this for fun, it seemed to me there’s kind of a niche that needs to be filled.” 

So Zemel filled it, launching Packraft Colorado in the spring of this year. After “a lot of legwork” over the winter season, Zemel acquired some rafts in April and the first lesson took place May 10. He has taught about seven courses so far and led a few guided day trips as well on the Roaring Fork River. 

Zemel now has a fleet of about a dozen packrafts, each of which usually carries one paddler and some gear down the river on a Packraft Colorado trip. He uses rigs from Alpacka Raft, a company based in southwest Colorado; people can rent the rafts from Packraft Colorado for their own expeditions or sign up for a lesson or guided trip. 

Zemel said he still sees the Packraft Colorado venture as a “passion project.” His primary gig at the helm of a limousine company remains the money maker; it also comes in handy for the necessary shuttles and transportation to run river trips.

The goal at this point is to build up the name, and “hopefully eventually” to acquire the necessary permits to offer multi-day experiences on bigger, longer rivers.

Packrafts are well equipped for those kinds of adventures because they’re light enough to pack up and carry on foot, too. 

“Eventually, the idea of the business is to get permits to run overnight trips — you know, be able to incorporate the backpacking elements as well and focus on wilderness character in a low impact setting,” Zemel said. “That goes hand-in-hand with backpacking.” 

In the meantime, Zemel is offering both instructional courses and guided adventures for people with different levels of paddling skill and experience. 

“It’s still kind of up in the air what direction the company should go in, in terms of courses versus guided trips,” Zemel said. “Courses are great because it draws out the adventurous Colorado crowd, versus trying to market day trips towards the Aspen clientele.”

Beginner courses, for instance, start with a morning flatwater session to get familiar with the basics of setting up and getting into the boat, plus paddle technique, safety and “how to recover if you flip — that’s a really important one,” Zemel said. 

Then, an afternoon session takes rafters down the Roaring Fork River from Basalt to Catherine Store. It’s a “nice, pretty chill section of the river, very scenic,” and it gives participants the chance to implement the skills they learned about in the morning. 

Guided tours are more of a follow-the-leader situation, with a trip down the same section of river after a “basic safety talk.” 

There’s also an intermediate offering that follows the river from Woody Creek down toward where the river meets Colorado Highway 82. Self-guided floats through North Star Nature Preserve also are available.

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