The view from the rim is stunning. The chasm of color spreads across the horizon. But stepping off the rim and into the maze that is the Grand Canyon? That experience is hard to describe.
“The beauty in those areas, I can’t put it into words,” said Shannon Flowers. “It’s one of the most extraordinary places I’ve been.”
“The massive landscape contracts into an intimate experience between you and the rock walls,” added Shannon’s husband, Aaron Locander. “There’s a real sense of exploration. It’s one of the most visited parks in the country and there are still places people haven’t been in that park,” he said.
Places like those within Grand Canyon National Park are what the husband-and-wife team wanted to access when they designed a lightweight inflatable boat for flat water crossing and started Supai Adventure Gear.
About six years ago, Aaron was exploring Grand Canyon on a backpacking trip. To cross the river in an area devoid of bridges, the group brought a cheap inflatable pool toy and used it to shuttle their gear and themselves across. They could have taken a whitewater-capable packraft, something Aaron had used before and loved.
But the trip focus was technical canyoneering, requiring that they carry ropes, wet suits and climbing gear—so weight was at a premium. They watched each other nervously cross the river on the pool toy. They all made it.
“That trip proved to us, if we all carried boats we could really open some possibilities of exploration,” Aaron said.
They dreamed of rappelling down sheer cliff walls where the nearest hiking exit was a mile or two down the river. They envisioned floating down and then hiking out.
“And going places no has been before,” Aaron said.
Aaron cobbled together a boat from fabrics that he spent days weighing, cutting and ironing, and tested it in a pool in his backyard. He took the prototype of his lightweight packraft on his next trip and it worked. People began asking Aaron where he got the boat, so eventually he and Shannon began making more.
They tweaked the design, but kept the original requirements—it needed to be as light and as simple as possible. Unlike packrafts which can run whitewater, the Supai boat is designed only for flat water.
“We use Alpacas (packrafts) and we’re big fans,” Aaron said. “But they are like five or six pounds and the size of a throw pillow. Its just too heavy and too bulky for our use.”
Supai’s lightweight packraft folds to the size of a Nalgene water bottle and weigh about a pound and a half. The paddle adds another 12 ounces of weight.
Aaron started with outfitting his canyoneering friends with the boats, and before long he was supplying rangers in Grand Canyon National Park. Customers also began taking the boats on backpacking trips, and Shannon and Aaron took one with them while hiking the John Muir Trail.
“You get on a big lake above timberline and there’s crystal clear water,” Aaron said.
“It’s just surreal. You don’t get far from shore, but it’s amazing how that changes the experience.”
Future plans include upgrades to Supai’s machinery to create a slightly larger boat that can hold more weight. The current model holds 200 to 250 pounds, not leaving much flexibility for a bigger person and a heavy pack. Supai also designed and is currently producing one of the most lightweight paddles in the industry, weighing just 12 ounces.
And while demand has grown for the lightweight packraft, which costs a mere $300 (a paddle is another $150), the couple still works completely out of their home in Chandler, Arizona—along with keeping their day jobs. Shannon works at Paypal and Aaron works at Intel.
“We are 100 percent the founders, the designers, the customer service,” said Shannon.
Still, the Supai Adventure Gear has grown organically and by word of mouth and the couple finds they are shipping boats all over the world.
“There seems like there’s a lot of market left,” Aaron said. “There’s a lot left to explore.”