After a friend died in a tragic packaging accident nearly a decade ago, Luke Mehl changed his outlook.
The Anchorage resident is beginning to abandon much of his ramshackle lifestyle in the countryside to focus on the safety and security of the river.
In a few years, Mehl became a coach, giving practical guidance to small groups in Alaska.
Now he has authored “The Packraft Handbook”. Originally self-published in 2021, it’s now the bible for outdoor rebuilders who take their inflatable rafts to the backcountry.
The book, titled A How-To Guide for the Curious, covers everything from basic equipment and techniques to river navigation and safety procedures. The book, drawn by fellow Alaskan Sarah K.
“I’ve been teaching personally for about three or four years,” Mehl said. “And that feels good. I felt efficient. I was sending out the safety messages I wanted to do, but I’d reach 40 people in the summer, if that was possible.”
He knew there was a larger audience for what he was doing.
“I was just trying to think of how I can get this to more people,” he said. “I had a vision at first that was like an 80-page manual, like a real pamphlet.”
Those early ambitions for the book were relatively modest. Mehl began writing about boat watching and the philosophy of using the river. The end result was a comprehensive yet friendly handbook spanning over 400 pages.
“Then I went from a three-month project to quitting my job, so I could move on to make that monster that I’ve become,” he said.
Much of the book, Mehl said, is based on personal experiences and often on adventures.
“I think the reason this book was so well received is because I paid so much attention to my learning curve,” he said. “I think what really works for people who read the book is that I say, ‘I screwed up this thing. Here’s how you can avoid messing with this thing. “
Mehl, who was raised in McGrath, became interested in packing when he left Alaska to attend college. Some of his high school friends got into canoeing and was fascinated by the adventures they had with them.
Packaging has often been a way to make a quick return from a trip into the wilderness or save on the cost of a return trip. Eventually it allowed Mehl and his friends to unlock the terrain in the hinterland, reaching areas they could not reach by other means of travel.
But he soon turned from a backpacking accessory into a passion, and befriended adventurer Roman Dial and others who unlocked Mehl’s experiences with more whitewater rides.
“Oh, these cliffs are amazing and these boats are so much fun when you’re going down a little waterfall or something,” said Meh, recalling his experiences. “And then after that I switched. I got stuck in that and really enjoying that, cuddling in the water.”
As the book began to take shape, Mehl took what he wrote and a bit of market assessment to Mountaineers Books, a Seattle publisher who specializes in outdoor and wild books.
“They said, ‘That sounds really interesting, but we don’t think there’s enough of the market,'” Mehl recalls.
He said it was hard for him to hear. I let him ask, “Should I quit my job and throw it into this thing?”
Mehl was still in the creative process, only 50 pages or so, when Glaser joined the board.
Glaser grew up in Moss Pass and went to school in Seward. Her work as an illustrator was more than just a freelance job that she developed between working as a welder, graphic designer and programmer. She and her partner had just joined Meehl’s fast-water class after nearly mistaken for an outdoor adventure of their own.
Glaser and Mehl share a circle of friends that they’ve only created in the beginning Some illustrations to go along with Mehl’s presentation on Mountaineers. Despite the pitch rejection, Glaser’s work became a big part of the project—partly, Meehl said, because illustrations could easily show something difficult to portray in a photograph, such as clearly defined underwater and slow-motion images.
“Illustrations are much better than pictures,” he said to visual learners, like Glaser and Mehl themselves.
Glaser’s illustrations brought the book to life, from zooming in on minute details to accurately depicting the angles of the anchor.
At the same time, Mehl was collecting the details of the book among his many friends and experts in the packaging world. This means that a lot of adjustments can be made.
“The graphics 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, drew some inspiration from Mike Cleland, who has painted outdoor books like “Glacier Mountaineering.”
After rejection from the Mountaineers, Mehl made the decision to publish the book himself. It was a hit and his first run sold out, bringing him to a fork in the road.
“For me, publishing this book was like writing a check for $50,000,” he said. “I emptied my bank account, and borrowed money from my wife—like, full. And so once that first batch of books ran out, it was like, ‘We’re going to do this again, and we’re going to write another check?'” “
He did not end up leisurely by writing a second check. He took the updated version of the book and information about how many he himself had published and sold it to the Mountaineers. This time, the publisher said yes.
The book was awarded the 2021 National Outdoor Book Award in the Outdoor Adventure Guide category and was officially published by the Mountaineers earlier this year.
Dial, who wrote the packaging guide himself, called it “The book we’ve all been waiting for. “
While Glaser points to Miehl’s sharp and precise writing as key to the book’s success, Miehl said the illustrations helped him find a wider audience.
“If we hadn’t been working together on this, it would have been fun, but maybe it would have arrived, I don’t know, just a tiny fraction of such a large number of people because the illustrations are really much more effective,” Mehl said.
Mehl, 44, said he doesn’t have much to prove when it comes to making high-risk rides despite the fact that he’s as technically skilled as ever.
“I pressed really hard in my thirties, and I did a bunch of things that I’m really proud of and a bunch of things that were superficial in hindsight,” he said. “And so I walked out of it with such a healthy respect for risk and loss, having lost a few friends in the same window. I still wanted to spend my time outdoors. I still love Alaska. Instead of getting excited with the adrenaline, I kind of turned and became a It is more rewarding to try to enable others to come out safely.”
The book has changed Glaser’s view of her illustration work as well as her future prospects in the field.
“I hate to say it changed everything, but I think it changed a lot in terms of where I want to go and my goals,” she said. “Before that, I saw drawing as something I would do when I had the time, and it would always be kind of a great side piece and part of what I do. … I think he flipped that to where I think the main thing was to focus on long-term book projects.”
It’s fitting that proof of the perfect packaging came from a creative duo from Alaska, Mehl said.
“Packrafting is closely associated with Alaska with the start of the Alpacka Raft brand here,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of Alaskan pride in the packaging. …Other parts of the country and other kayakers are pushing the envelope a bit more in terms of technical waters and what they row in, but Alaskans love these boats. They’re made for that spectacle” .
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