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Atigun/Sag info

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  • Atigun/Sag info

    I just discovered this forum yesterday and thought Iíd share my experience on the Atigun & Sagavanirktok. Please bear in mind that my experience is now 4 years old and that I realize the river has probably changed somewhat since my trip.

    First a little background for those who have never made the trip north:
    The haul road or James Dalton Highway begins about 100 road miles north of Fairbanks and runs, by and large, due north ending 414 miles later in Deadhorse just shy of Prudhoe Bay. As discussed in other threads there is bow-hunting only for 5 miles on either side of the road. The Dalton Highway crosses the range at Atigun Pass, mile post (mp) 230. This trip is roughly 40 miles from the put-in at Atigun #2 to the take out at Sag River DOT. As you continue north and down the back side of the pass, the Atigun River emerges as a mere trickle from the west side of the Atigun Valley, paralleling the road until mp 271 where it turns and flows east another 13-14 miles through Atigun Gorge and onto a broad floodplain where it joins the Sagavanirktok, or just Sag. The Sag in turn flows north until it reaches the Arctic Ocean just east of Prudhoe. From the confluence itís about 26-27 miles until the Sag comes alongside the road near the Sag River DOT station at mp 305.

    I was told that most people who have considered running the Gorge have either been frightened out of the idea by the awful density of contour lines on the topo maps or talked out of it by people who have been frightened out of the idea by the awful density of contour lines on the topo maps. Iím sure others have done it but I donít personally know anyone who has.

    My partner and I put in at the Atigun #2 bridge on September 5th 2002 and ran the Gorge to get outside the 5 mile corridor so we could hunt caribou with rifles. We launched in decent weather but it had been raining the 4 days prior to our arrival which I thought good since the major obstacle on the Atigun is shallow water, exposed shale and boulder gardens.

    The Gorge was exiting in spots but not too difficult. Mostly fast Class II with a few Class III spots. Skilled kayakers in hard shell boats will have a blast but I think it would be near suicide in a canoe. The turns are tight and the rocks are sharp in spots where the water has exposed the shale bed, but this trip is not too difficult for VERY experienced cat-rafters who are quick on the oars. I would not recommend any raft other than an internal bladder cataraftóunless you like to portage.

    The first 10 miles on the Atigun are tight, shallow in spots with lots and lots of boulders to maneuver around. It isnít until you actually exit the Gorge that the water gets big. A half mile or so of twisty, boulder strewn, staircase rapids. Mostly Class IV (due to maneuvering difficulty) with one spot that might go Class V depending on water volume. This rapid is unnamed as far as I know but it unfolds as follows: Up and over a 6 or 7 foot standing wave that dumps into an 8 foot drop-hard pivot right-crab-hard pivot left to straight-then immediately over another 7-footer backed by a real sticky hole. Because of the rocks there was no sneak option and lining was possible but very difficult 2 person job. This rapid was only 150 feet or so and then mellow Class I river for the next 3 miles to the confluence with the Sag.

    We camped downstream from the confluence for a few days. The caribou Shangri-la I hoped to find after "surviving" the Gorge was not to be. The herd was still too far north but since that week was our only window to hunt we took our chances. During the next two days we did see bulls on the distant ridges and gave chase but no dice. Many miles were logged (or should I say slogged) across the boggy tundra to no avail, and to no caribou. We did see a humongous bull moose but of course there was no open season for humongous bull moose in 26B in 2002.

    After breaking camp we figured we had 20 miles or, 5 to 6 hours to float until we hit the take-out. It turned out to be 7 and a half. We floated into a stiff head wind, cold rain and the biggest, nastiest stretch of whitewater I have ever been on.

    The first 15-17 miles from the Atigun-Sag confluence is fast Class I with the occasional splashy spot, but the last 10 were spent in near continuous rapids. While not technically difficult it was exhausting due to the constant effort of controlling a loaded boat. Stretches of Class III or bigger water, a mile or longer, broken for the most part by fast Class II. At one point we were in nonstop rapids for over an hour.

    The hairiest rapid on the whole trip is just above Accomplishment Creek. Some might describe it as a staircase rapid but IMO itís a steep (100 ft per mile) boulder garden/slalom course. In-fact if its not already named Iíd like to take this opportunity to dub it the Super-G. Car sized boulders, 6-7 foot standing waves, and hole-backed sleepers require nonstop zigzag maneuvering for about 200 yards before entering a hard right turn framed by two massive sleepers that drop off into equally massive holes. I saw the one on the left and reefed on the oars for all I was worth only to set myself up to hit the bigger one to the right dead on. I should add here that if you keep your momentum after exiting Super-G and drive straight across the turn you can beach on the gravel bar and scout the turn or line the boats on the far left.

    I scouted the Super-G but didnít go far enough downstream to properly assess the turn and sleepers, so I didnít realize the big hole was there until it was too late. I barely got the nose centered and over we go. An 8 to 10 foot dropÖmy 16 ft Jag entered the hole nearly vertical and I went in far enough to go under. Luckily we didnít flip but when the boat popped up the left tube was sucked into the hydraulic and the force of the water tweaked my left blade. After a couple minutes of struggling to get the spare in place (which felt like an eternity) I was able to get traction on the left and pivot out of the hole. From that point the remaining 5 or so miles was choppy and cold but not technically difficult.

    We made it to the take-out at near dark after deciding that if we didn't make it in the next half an hour we were camping again while we still had some light. 2 or 3 minutes later, literally around the next bend, we could see the Sag River DOT camp. We had been worried about the "Gorge" when it was the so-called easy river that almost did us in.

    It was an exciting trip and I'll probably do it again but not until I get a new boat. At some point transiting the Gorge I tore a gash in left pontoon about 16 inches long. Fortunately I was able to repair it just like the video shows and we finished the trip. Kudo's to the folks at Aire for building a rugged and easy-to-fix boat.

    Of course, on the trip north as we floated back into the bow only zone we started seeing caribou along the river. So even though the caribou didn't cooperate we had a great tripÖit might have been the fog and wind streaking my glasses but I could've sworn they were stickin' their tongues out at us as we drifted by.

    If anyone else has run it more recently, I'd love to compare notes with you.

    If cave men had been trophy hunters the Wooly Mammoth would be alive today

  • #2

    Hi Erik.
    Thanks for saving my life with your report.
    Have you ever done the Ivishak to go beyong the 5m zone. Thanks Dave


    • #3
      Your welcome?
      No, I haven't, but I do know that the Ivishak has become very popular since the public boat ramp was put in just north of Pump 2. The Ivi also has long stretches of shallow water under normal conditions and is only "jet-boatable" for the first few miles unless its been raining. (but then you risk getting stuck upriver) I'm told its more of an airboater's river.

      The Atigun-Sag trip is doable but you need to be experienced and prepared. Knowing what I know now, I could avoid nearly every rough spot. I think I'm going to run it again next year unless I draw a sheep tag. I'm going to bring my GPS and video camera to document and map the rapids for an accurate trip report.
      If cave men had been trophy hunters the Wooly Mammoth would be alive today


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