Last summer, Sheri Tingey set out in an inflatable raft on a five-day trek down a Class III river in Alaska filled with razor-sharp volcanic rock. Five years ago, this would have been a suicide mission. Inflatable rafts weren't much better than pool toys, and most backpackers were lucky if they'd make it three miles down river before springing a leak. But Tingey -- and the raft she spent 18 months designing -- survived without a scratch.
She describes her creation as a sort of bumper-car kayak that bounces off objects in the water, a major innovation for inflatable rafts used in backpacking. This year, Tingey's company, Alpacka Raft, won Backpacker magazine's Editor's Choice Award.
BusinessWeek SmallBiz contributor Rachael King recently spoke with Tingey about how she created her raft. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Q: How did you wind up in Alaska?
A: My husband works for the park service, and we came to Alaska in 1981. We met in Jackson Hole, Wyo. I made ski clothing there for 20 years. We had this opportunity to come to Alaska.
I was one of those early people who got chronic fatigue syndrome. I was quite ill, so I sold my ski-clothing business to a gal who worked for me, and we came up here. I took a long break from doing anything.
That's what made this all kind of fun for me, because about the time my health came back, this thing walks through the door. It's not what I would have expected. I feel like I got a second shot at life.
Q: Why did you decide to make pack rafts?
A: My son and other people had been using pack rafts for 25 years. They'd been using little pool toys, all kinds of things. Alaska's got a lot of water and no roads, and it's hard to get around the back country here without some way to get across rivers.
In the early '80s, Sherpa Snowshoe Company made a little pack raft, and it was way ahead of its time. They only made them for a couple years, and a lot of people here bought them. They got to be like family heirlooms, and you'd beg, borrow, or steal one. The concept has been here for a long time, but there was never a decent boat.
Q: What prepared you for designing pack rafts?
A: I started my ski-clothing business in 1967. I made one-of-a-kind garments. I'd been designing clothing, and I'd been a kayaker. I think I owned just about the first kayak in Jackson Hole. Sports and clothing were my whole life before I got sick. I understood what I wanted with the boat.
Q: Did you go through many prototypes of the raft?
A: I built the boat out of duct tape and visqueen, clear plastic. You do your pattern, blow it up with a vacuum cleaner, and look at it. It's very fast. You could see it right away. When it was aesthetically right, I'd make a real one, and then go out and try it. I probably did seven or eight designs before I got exactly what I wanted. None of them sunk, but some of them leaked.
Q: Did you get feedback from other rafters?
A: In Alaska, there are some crazies, people who do phenomenal things with pack rafts. I asked them to give me wish lists. It cut off a huge amount of testing. No. 1 on the wish list was that people would carry up to five pounds, preferably four. I had a tight window to make a four-to-five pound boat and make it not sink.
Q: How much does your raft cost?
A: I wanted to make a $300 boat, but it wasn't better than a $79.95 boat. I had fabrics designed for me, and it took me a year and a half to get the company to work with me. I have fabrics that are state-of-the-art. That's why the boat is so great. The price of the raft is $620.