Woman designs Alaska-tough packrafts

Posted: Sunday, February 23, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Being a loving mother, Sheri Tingey couldn't say no when her river-rafting son Thor made one little request. Could she make him a packraft tough enough to take into the Alaska wilderness?

Two years later, Tingey - an athletic 57-year-old woman with the habit of throwing both hands in the air and letting out an exuberant laugh - demonstrates the evolution of her company, Alpacka Raft, by using a vacuum cleaner to blow up raft after raft in the basement of her Anchorage home.

"My son is the one who got me into this mess," she says, surrounded by large, teal green, sausage-shaped rafts. "He says 'Mom, will you build me one?' And I thought, 'What the heck.' "

In its first year of production in 2002, Tingey's company sold 200 inflatable boats, small enough when deflated to fit in a backpack. She said she could have sold 50 more. She hopes to double production this year.

Tingey said once word got around she was designing a durable-yet-light packraft the "Alaska crazies" began calling and showing up - people who like an extreme outdoor experience as far away from civilization as possible.

"The calls started coming in... 'When are you going to have these things?' " she said. "The people just started hanging around the yard. 'Can I try a boat? Can I try a boat? Can I try a boat?' "

Hans Neidig, 33, of Wasilla, used one of Tingey's rafts last summer in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, an adventure race begun in 1983. The race traverses roughly 150 miles in the Wrangell Mountains in Southcentral Alaska and requires rafting on several glacier-fed rivers.

"The raft performed really well," Neidig said. "When you are traveling the large glacial rivers, you are running into gravel bars. ... In the past the bottoms would tear out."

Thor Tingey's request to have his mother build him a sturdy boat wasn't completely off the wall. In 1968, Sheri Tingey started "Design by Sheri" and sold one-piece ski suits while living in Jackson Hole, Wyo. At the time, the style was parkas and stretch pants, not great for deep powder skiing. Her suits were sold at six shops in the United States.

Her career was sidelined by an undiagnosed thyroid and adrenal gland condition that left her wiped out most of the day. She sold the business and the family moved to Alaska in 1981, where she continued sewing custom clothing for dog mushers. She also made climbing, skiing and outdoor gear for husband Ralph and two children.

As Tingey's medical condition was diagnosed and she began feeling better, Thor returned - disgusted - from two lengthy rafting trips. He told his mother how each evening he spent precious time patching and repatching the boats.

So Tingey got to work designing a tough packraft weighing 5 pounds or less, light enough to take just about anywhere.

She began her research by examining the boats her son complained about. One of the boats, a yellow and brown model dating back to the 1980s, buckled when you sat in it because the sausage-shaped tubes, when inflated, were too small.

The other boat, a widely used smaller model designed for lakes, had an even smaller tube in the bow that allowed water to wash into the boat - chilly when rafting Alaska's glacier-fed rivers.

However, the stern of the little green boat where the tube was larger provided Tingey with the right size tube for her boats.

The older model boats were basically three pieces - two tubes that when inflated formed the sides of the boat and a floor. The boats look like the ones people float in their swimming pools. Because the boats had so few pieces, much of the boat was cut on the stretchable bias giving it a lot of flex.

Tingey designed her boat from 10 pieces, meaning that much more of the boat is cut on the grain of the fabric, making it stronger.

She decided an upturned bow would be good to keep water from washing into the boat.

She also checked the water absorbency of the fabrics used in her son's boats. She found that 1 square yard of fabric absorbed nearly 3 ounces of water in 10 minutes. In packrafts, water absorption means more weight. The fabric in her boats would have to be double-coated in urethane to keep them light and dry.

Tingey examined Thor's boats and talked to other river rafters. Nearly all the damage was to the bottoms.

"The floors were just trashed," she said.

That told her she needed to make the floors from super-tough cloth. She found what she wanted in a heavy black nylon used in police vests.

The material she chose for the teal-colored tubes also is nylon, extremely tough, light and slippery. Why slippery? So that when the boat encounters rocks, tree stumps or perhaps an iceberg chunk that could tear the fabric, the boat slips off, unscathed.

The welds on her son's boats were tiny, perhaps a quarter of an inch. One of the boats was famous for blowing up after sitting in the sun for a while. The heat welds on her boats would be 1-1/4 inch tape over seams butted together.

With the big things decided, Tingey built her prototypes out of clear plastic and duct tape. The boats held air just about long enough to test.

Her first real boat was 52 inches long and made out of red fabric. She tried it out in April 2001 on the Eagle River, a few miles from her home.

"Whoa, this thing was really weird," she said. "It just wasn't long enough."

She made about 40 design changes before coming up with her product line; the same raft for $595 in three different lengths. There's the Alpaca at 66 inches long; the Yukon Yak at 70 inches long; and the Denali Llama at 74 inches long. The largest model weighs just 4.2 pounds.

Martin Robards, 35, of Anchorage said he felt "perfectly safe" in his Tingey raft when he did the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic last summer. That feeling was especially appreciated toward the end of the race on the Nizina River near McCarthy where two channels came together.

"The raft just bounced around the top of it. The boat totally managed it," he said.

Robards said the nicest thing about the Tingey raft is that it opens up even more of Alaska's vast wilderness.

"I think it helps you to experience that pioneer spirit where you get out of your boat and forge into the wilderness, into the unknown," he said.

On the Net: www.alpackaraft.com.

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