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Alpacka Raft celebrates 20th anniversary

A look back at the history of one of pack rafting’s most influential designers
Sheri Tingey holds a deflated Alpacka Raft to show just how easy they are to pack around. Tingey, who runs her business out of Mancos, started Alpacka Raft 20 years ago. (The Journal file)

Sheri Tingey has been sewing since she was 3 years old. The 76-year-old never thought the skill would make her one of the pioneers in the pack raft industry. But as her company Alpacka Raft celebrates its 20th anniversary, she is reflecting on her journey.

Tingey began designing ski clothes in the late 1960s while living in Jackson Hole. She said it happened after she lost her job as a server and had no idea where her life was headed.

“I went downtown and found some fabric and made myself a ski suit because in those days, Rossi (Rossignol) and Bogner were the only two brands available and none of those things were really action-wear clothing,” she said.

Tingey’s ski suits gained popularity in Jackson Hole and she started a business called Designed by Sheri. Designed by Sheri operated for about 12 years until she became sick, developing viral pneumonia and chronic fatigue.

“At that point, I had to give up my business. I was too sick to work,” Tingey said.

Mancos business owner Sheri Tingey designs durable rafts that can be rolled up and packed into the backcountry. (The Journal file)

In 1981, she moved to Denali National Park because her husband at the time worked for the Park Service. Tingey said she was sick for about 17 years to the point she could not function. When her son, Thor, went to college in 1996, he became interested in long rafting expeditions.

He went on a 160-mile trip through the Alaska range and a 600-mile trip through the Brooks range. Tingey said her son used boats made by Sherpa that were great for floating above low water but not on a glacier river. She said the boats were made out of lightweight material and weighed only 2 pounds. At this point, Tingey’s health improved and she decided to put her efforts toward building a pack raft for her son.

“Suddenly, all these things that had been parts of my life came into play with the idea of making pack rafts,” she said.

She realized none of the pack rafts during this time were able to run down a river, and she spent the summer experimenting with different raft designs. When she found a length and size she liked, Tingey and her son started what would become Alpacka Raft.

Tingey said the equipment needed to build a pack raft is expensive, and after manufacturing 30 rafts, decided she could not produce them by herself. Her son found Jack’s Plastic Welding in Aztec to build the tubes for the boats.

“I was in my mid-50s and I couldn’t afford to fail at that age,” she said. “I didn’t have money anyway and I couldn’t afford to just throw this out and believe this may work.”

For two years, Jack’s Plastic Welding would make the tubes and send them to Phoenix where Tingey’s brother-in-law would glue the floors to the tubes. The boats were then shipped to Alaska.

After realizing Jack’s Plastic Welding did not have the equipment needed to build the boats the way Tingey wanted, she found another company to build the tubes. She started working with Feathercraft, a company known for making portable sea kayaks.

Feathercraft provided the necessary equipment for the boats, but Tingey still struggled making money on the rafts. After three years working with Feathercraft, she decided to start manufacturing the rafts.

“I came to realize several things. When you’re small, the only money you’re going to make is in the manufacturing,” she said. “Your margins are so small, and especially in those days the price I would have had to charge to make a living, people wouldn’t have bought the boat for that.”

Sheri Tingey cruises the rapids in one of her pack rafts. (Courtesy of Alpacka Raft)

She said because of shipping costs and the utility cost of her building, Alaska was not the right place to manufacture rafts. During this time she was also struck with tragedy. Her sister was killed in a car crash and she decided she needed to be closer to her mother who was living in Phoenix.

In 2007, Alpacka moved from Alaska to Mancos because of Sam Perry, the owner of Fenceline Cider. Perry was a former Alpacka customer who had recently purchased a ranch in Mancos. He offered Tingey a workshop space on his ranch, and from there Alpacka was able to flourish.

In celebration of Alpacka’s 20th anniversary, Tingey’s story was made into a documentary shown at the Telluride Mountainfilm festival. She said she did not know the movie was about her until attending the festival.

“I thought it would be about Alpacka,” she said.

Tingey had worked on a high-quality raft called the Valkyrie for a long time and she thought the film was about the raft. She was surprised on Memorial Day when she saw the film for the first time.