After the death of a friend in a tragic packrafting accident almost ten years ago, Luc Mehl changed his mind.
The Anchorage resident has begun to abandon much of his backcountry swashbuckling lifestyle to focus on river safety and security.
In a few years, Mehl became an instructor, giving hands-on instruction to small groups in Alaska.
He is now the author of “The Packraft Handbook”. Originally self-published in 2021, it has now become the bible for outdoor enthusiasts who take their inflatable rafts out into the backcountry.
The book, subtitled “A Teaching Guide for the Curious,” covers everything from fundamental equipment and techniques to river navigation and safety procedures. Illustrated by fellow Alaskan Sarah K. Glaser, the book found a wider readership this year, a goal Mehl had when he started the project.
“I had been teaching in person for maybe three or four years,” Mehl said. “And it felt good. It was effective. I was doing the security post that I wanted to do, but I was reaching about 40 people a summer, if that.
He knew there was a larger audience for what he was doing.
“I was just trying to think how can I get more people to know about this,” he said. “I initially had a vision that felt like an 80-page manual, like a real manual.”
These early ambitions for the book were relatively modest. Mehl began writing about boat control and the philosophy of river use. The end result was a comprehensive yet accessible manual that spans over 400 pages.
“Then I went from a three-month project to quitting my job, so I could do everything to make him the beast he became,” he said.
Mehl said much of the book is based on personal experiences and, often, misadventures.
“I think the reason this book was so well received is that I had paid so much attention to my own learning curve,” he said. “I think what’s really worked well for people reading the book is me saying, ‘I messed this thing up. And here’s how you can avoid messing it up. ”
Mehl, who grew up in McGrath, became interested in packrafting when he left Alaska for college. Some of his high school friends got into rafting and he was intrigued by the adventures they had with them.
Packrafting was often a way to make a quick return from a wilderness trip or save on the cost of a return flight. This finally allowed Mehl and his friends to open up the terrain in the backcountry, reaching areas they otherwise would not have been able to by other methods of travel.
But he quickly grew from a hiking accessory to a passion, and he befriended adventurer Roman Dial and others who opened up Mehl’s experiences with more rafting.
“Oh, those rapids are amazing and those boats are so much fun to go down a little waterfall or whatever,” Mehl said, recalling his experiences. “So I changed. I got carried away with it and really enjoyed it, embracing the water.
As the book began to take shape, Mehl took what he had written and a little market appraisal to Mountaineers Books, a Seattle-based publisher that specializes in outdoor and wilderness books.
“They said, ‘It looks really interesting, but we don’t think there’s enough of a market,'” Mehl recalls.
It was hard for him to hear, he said. This left him asking, “Should I quit my job and throw him into this thing?”
Mehl was still in the creative process, at only around 50 pages, when Glaser came on board.
Glaser grew up in Moose Pass and went to school in Seward. Her work as an illustrator was more of an independent job that she had developed between her work as a welder, graphic designer and encoder. She and her partner had taken the Mehl whitewater course after a near miss during an outdoor adventure of their own.
Glaser and Mehl shared a circle of friends and she initially only created some illustrations to accompany Mehl’s speech to Mountaineers. Even though the pitch was rejected, Glaser’s work became an important part of the project — in part, Mehl said, because the illustrations could easily show something more difficult to portray in photography, like understated images. clearly defined seascapes and slow motion.
“She said that for visual learners,” like Glaser and Mehl themselves, “illustrations are much better than photos,” he said.
Glaser’s illustrations brought the book to life, from zooming in on a tiny detail to accurately depicting the anchor angles.
At the same time, Mehl has been crowdsourcing the details of the book among his many friends and experts in the packrafting world. This potentially meant a lot of modifications.
“The designs themselves went through a lot of changes, but it was a really good process,” Glaser said. “Because at the same time, I felt like I was learning and he was clarifying what he was trying to say. So it worked. It worked really well.
Glaser, who said her style changed throughout the project, was inspired by Mike Clelland, who illustrated outdoor books like “Glacier Mountaineering.”
After Mountaineers’ rejection, Mehl made the decision to self-publish the book. It was a success and his first race sold out, leaving him at a crossroads.
“For me, publishing this book was like writing a check for $50,000,” he said. “I wiped out my bank account, borrowed money from my wife – like, full. And so once I used up that first batch of books, it was like, ‘We’re going to do this again, and we let’s write another check?”
Mehl didn’t end up writing a second check. He took the updated version of the book and information on how many books he had self-published and sold to Mountaineers. This time the editor said yes.
The book was subsequently named the 2021 National Outdoor Book Award winner in the outdoor adventure guide category and was officially published by Mountaineers earlier this year.
Dial, who had written a packrafting guide himself, called it “the book we’ve all been waiting for.”
While Glaser points out that Mehl’s crisp, precise writing is key to the book’s success, Mehl said the illustrations helped him find a wider audience.
“If we hadn’t worked on this together it would have been interesting, but it probably would have only reached, I don’t know, a tiny fraction of the number of people because the illustrations are really much more effective,” said Mehl.
At 44, Mehl said he had little to prove when it came to taking high-risk trips despite being as technically adept as he ever was. summer.
“I pushed really hard in my 30s, and I did a bunch of stuff that I’m really proud of and a bunch of stuff that was sketchy in hindsight,” he said. “And so I came out of that with this healthy respect for risk and loss, having lost friends in that same window. I always want to spend my time outdoors. I still love Alaska. And instead of having adrenaline thrills, I’m kind of changing and it’s becoming more rewarding trying to get others out safely.
The book changed Glaser’s outlook on his illustration work as well as his future prospects in the field.
“I hate to say it changed everything, but I think it changed a lot of where I want to go and my goals,” she said. “Before that, I thought of illustration as something I would do when I had the time and still kind of be a cool prop and part of what I did. … I think that tipped over there where I think the main thing is to focus on longer-term book projects.
It’s fitting that the ultimate packraft guide comes from a creative duo from Alaska, Mehl said.
“Packrafting is so strongly tied to Alaska with the Alpacka Raft brand that started here,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of Alaskan pride in packrafting. … Other parts of the country and other paddlers push the limits more when it comes to technical water and what they paddle, but Alaskans love these boats. They are made for this landscape.
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