GAMECHANGERS, a Colorado Sun series on innovators who are changing the way we play outdoors.
GUNNISON RIVER — Thor Tingey calls it “a personal first descent.”
“We really like showing people places where they can find their own adventure and exploration without necessarily traveling to the ends of the Earth,” says Tingey, who sparked his designer-artist mom on a new concept for backcountry travel nearly 20 years ago. “I think people like to see places — any place, really — for their first time. I tell people they might get more out of a less-spectacular unknown than they do with a super-spectacular known.”
As an intrepid Colorado College student in 2000, Tingey ventured deep into Alaska’s backcountry armed with a flimsy, backpacking raft that didn’t survive prolonged treks. He came back to his mother, a longtime kayaker who designed custom ski clothing in the 1960s and 70s, with dreams of a better raft. Something light, but durable. It could roll up small, yet float heavy loads. Thor went back to school, but his mom, Sheri Tingey, took the idea and birthed Alpacka Raft, an ingenious vessel that has forever changed how people move across wet and wild landscapes.
Today, the company’s more than two dozen employees design, cut, weld, glue, test and ship more than 2,600 Alpacka rafts across the world every year. Working from a renovated 12,000 square-foot former hardware store on the banks of the Mancos River, the Tingeys have forged not just an economic engine that fuels their southwest Colorado town but a new sport that melds kayaking and backpacking.
Alpacka rafts are not Walmart cheap, where rubber flatwater rafts cost about $100. A new Alpacka with all the bells and whistles — dry bags, removable whitewater deck, burly Vectran polymer fabric — can run more than $2,000. But adventurers don’t balk at a craft that has transformed the way they move through the mountains, using a 7-pound raft that fits in a backpack and easily floats 300-plus pounds through challenging whitewater.
“When I found out you could carry a boat and put a bike on it, immediately there was a click and I was like I have to have that tool,” said Steve Fassbinder a legendary long-haul bike adventurer whose adoption of Alpacka rafts in his expeditions has inspired countless first-ever missions partnering bikes with whitewater.
Fassbinder works at Alpacka now, helping in not just R&D but construction of the boats. On a busy day early in July, Sheri walks up with a piece of Vectran fabric she has just bonded with her new pool table-sized ultrasonic welder, which uses high-frequency vibrations to bond sheets of plastic.
The machine will save hours of labor and make even stronger seams than heat-and-glue welds. Sheri, 72, is ecstatic with the new tool, which, in her design realm, is more like a toy.
“Wow, what a tight weld,” Fassbinder says, pulling at the fabric. “That’s an amazing tool.”
The same can be said for all Alpacka products, which blur the line between tool and toy. New designs — with upturned, or “rockered” bows, and high-volume, pointy sterns — are getting pushed by strong paddlers into increasingly audacious stretches of whitewater. Thor Tingey has taken his boats down some of the West’s most intimidating rivers, including the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
Sheri created the first Alpacka rafts in 2000, when, inspired by her son’s trek across Alaska’s Brooks Range, she started tinkering with a thousand yards of plastic fabric intended for industrial bladders in manufacturing. The boats were an immediate hit with Alaska’s thrill-seekers, whose backcountry excursions were often slowed — or even stymied — by rushing rivers that forced arduous work-arounds. Soon the floating explorers started outfitting their Alpackas with thigh-straps. That enabled paddlers to lean and guide the rafts down challenging stretches of whitewater. Sheri resisted, fearing the straps could entangle a user. She didn’t want to get sued.
“People were pushing the boundaries in Alaska and took the position that we were being sticks-in-the-mud,” Thor says, noting that the concern largely centered around liability and the potential for people getting stuck in the boats in surging whitewater. “What really happened was Sheri spent six years going through countless prototypes trying to design a more performance-oriented boat.”
Thor, during all this, was going to law school in Oregon. He practiced law and returned to the company, with his wife, Sarah, in 2016, shortly after Sheri unveiled the Alpackalypse and several years after she moved the company from Alaska to Colorado’s Four Corners region. That whitewater design opened the boat to experienced paddlers, changing Alpacka rafts from backpacking tools into bonafide river-runners.
“Sometimes the longer road has more rewards at the end of it,” Thor says. “This quest to find a better design and a better set-up led us to create a whitewater boat.”
Soon the innovation grew, with waterproof zippers that allowed the inflated boats to store gear inside the tubes. More aggressive whitewater designs followed. Today, the company offers more than 1,600 different variations of rafts and accessories, and about 85 percent of all Alpacka sales are direct to buyers. Every raft is designed and built to order in the Mancos shop, making it one of the largest custom outdoor gear manufacturing shops in the country.
Thor is standing on a sandy beach along the Gunnison River, where he and a crew have just hauled a few days of supplies and several Alpacka rafts down to the river via a grueling 5-mile plummet of a trail. He’s deep in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the salmon-fly hatch is on. Soon, the team is washing off haunting memories of the treacherous descent in Class IV rapids and pocket pools of trout gorging on yellow Sally nymphs.
Without an Alpacka, the team would have had to rappel 2,000 feet into the gorge or paddle through a two-day, 16-mile cascade of Class V rapids that rank as some of the burliest in Colorado.
“It’s a new way to see the world, that’s for sure,” says Thor, captaining his two-man Forager toward a shady channel where fish linger.
Miles downstream, a rubber flotilla of commercial guides row casting clients toward trout in giant rafts ferried to the river by mules.
“Hey, you aren’t going to tell anyone about those things are you?” a guide yells. He’s half-joking.
Thor laughs. That would not be a very good business plan, but he respects the guide’s notion that some places should not be trumpeted.
“I remember when I first sat in one of those boats,” the guide says. “I knew, man, this is going to change everything.”