Dubbed by many as “the run” on the Haul Road, the Atigun-Sagavanirktok float offers intense boating through the northern reaches of the Brooks Range and onto the North Slope. I had wanted to do the trip since arriving in the country. Something always seemed to be lacking, mainly a partner or time. In late August, I finally had both as my friend Ian and I took off north to the tundra. Such a route was not without a troubled history. Some had lost their lives in the past, falling off of cliffs and drowning after flipping their boats.
From the road, the river teases you. It winds back and forth across the broad Atigun valley, slowly meandering towards the north. It almost leads one to believe that it offers a gentle float to the coast. For those who have travelled its lower reaches, they know that this is hardly the case. The river makes a hard right at Galbraith Lake and heads east into the mountains, through what’s known as Atigun Gorge.
Not long after putting in, the action began. Class II/III rapids were the rule. Flat sections of any length were the exception. We took out and scouted everything that looked questionable as a precaution, but ended up running everything with the exception of a bend where the main channel funneled directly into a rock face. It was thrilling, we were always on edge. Peeking around corners and craning our necks to see what lay ahead. At the edge of our comfort zones, the experience was also mentally draining. As such, we spent only a few hours on the river that first day. A couple friends of mine were running the river as well and we joined their camp that first evening.
The river provided much of the same character that next day with almost non-stop action, bend after bend. In one set of rapids, I glanced further downstream to see Ian’s boat floating upside down. A quick scan of the water found him near shore unharmed. He had lost his paddle and was a little shaken up. We set out along the river’s edge, scanning up and down the bank for its tell tale bright yellow blades. Without luck, we continued on. The incident had occurred near where my friend’s group had taken out to scout for caribou. Glassing amongst traditional campsites of traditional peoples, they offered Ian a ride down river on one of their bigger boats. A much larger convoy travelled down the river. The big boats took the lead, my packraft and I bringing up the rear. One large rapid remained before we left the Gorge and in light of the recent event, I decided to portage. Instead helping the big boats come through before moving on. The tight enclosing nature of the Gorge was behind us. No longer were we surrounded by cliffs and mountains rising up directly from the river. We encountered a seemingly larger landscape upon entering the broad Sag valley. Rugged mountains rose out of the valley to the south. Downriver the foothills of the Brooks Range rolled out onto the North Slope. For now, gone were the major rapids. The gas wasn’t flat, but much more gentle than what we had experienced over the past couple days. Camping with my friends again that night, we moved in and out of the rain. We shared meals (or receiving them in our case…Thanks Barry!) and stories, enjoying the experience of being out in the country. In the evening, Ian and I wandered over the tundra. We found numerous caribou antler sheds, signs of movements in the past. Rain drizzled down as we walked towards a small lake, picking blueberries along the way.
Before we had arrived in camp, Ian had found his paddle. It had floated a few miles down from where he had flipped and had washed up on a bank. With necessary gear in hand (or boat) again, we set off the following day. It was just the two of us continuing on, the others would remain to hunt caribou. Like the Atigun, the Sag at this stretch was deceptive, with calm and flat waters. We knew it’d pick up later on with more nonstop action and one large class IV rapid before we were to end our time on the water. Pyramid Peak came into sight, the marker for which we were told was a sign of the big rapid somewhere in the not too distant future. Out front, I craned my neck at the riffles ahead. It seemed to be just lower grade rapids so I turned to give Ian the all clear sign. How wrong I was. It was the big one. Big rapids amongst a large boulder garden. I maneuvered as best I could, constantly attempting to scan ahead for obstacles. Water filled my boat and I had bounced off a few rocks but I had made it out safely. I dumped my boat out, looking back and hoping that Ian had recognized my mistake (he did).
It was rock n’ roll from there to the take out with large wave trains every few hundred yards. On a flat stretch, we watched a grizzly walking on the gravel bar towards the river. Once it sighted us, it took off and bolted the opposite direction, only stopping to glance back when it had reached higher ground.
The river was thrilling, providing plenty of challenge and excitiement but not too much to be overly intense. With the incident the day before, Ian wasn’t feeling completely comfortable. We took out early, hiking the few miles back to the road near Slope Mountain.
This was a great trip and one I plan to make again somewhere further down the line. For those who are skilled and short on time, the trip can be done in one long (intense) day during the summer. Total float time was probably around 16 hours or so, with lots of scouting.
The end of the trip ended up being the most frustrating aspect. Ian’s truck was parked back at the put in, 30 miles down the road. We tried to hitch back, standing at the side of the road for about 2 hours. With no luck, we decided to start walking. It was another 3 hours and 10 miles of walking before we caught a ride at last light. A state trooper and a couple in a Subaru were the only ones that stopped before we were able to get a ride. The couple stopped to ask us if we had seen any caribou. When we said no, the driver gave us a disgusted look and drove on. Break down in a car on the side of the road? Plenty of people will stop for you. Find yourself looking to get a ride without one? Good luck. It seems to become harder and harder with each passing year.