Atigun Gorge/ Sagavanirktok River and packrafter death

For over 20 years I’ve wanted to run the Atigun Gorge and Sagavanirktok River (“Satigun”) in a packraft but was always dissuaded by those who paddled other craft. On-line information also makes the Atigun-Sag sound dangerous, beginning with an early canoe attempt in the seventies ( and continuing to on-line discussions about it being too bony for big rafts - there’s even a report of a drowned packrafter this summer in the Sagavanirktok below Atigun:

Man drowns in Brooks Range’s Sagavanirktok River

By Amanda Bohman
Published Tuesday, July 14, 2009

FAIRBANKS: A 22-year-old man from St. Paul, Minn., drowned in the foothills of the Brooks Range after coming to Fairbanks this summer looking for work and adventure, authorities said.

Jaymes H. Schoenberg was beginning a back-country trip with his friend, Robert LaMontagne of Fairbanks, on Friday when his raft apparently hit a rock and overturned, LaMontagne said.

Schoenberg was swept down the Sagavanirktok River, commonly known as the Sag River, authorities and LaMontagne said. His body was found the next morning face down in the water about seven and a half miles from where LaMontagne last saw him.

Neither man wore a life jacket, according to a statement from the North Slope Borough Police Department.
“He just wanted to learn new things and have an adventure in Alaska,” LaMontagne said.

The men had just begun a 12-day rafting trip that was to end with a float down the Junjik River to Arctic Village, LaMontagne said. They met about 18 months ago at a glassblowing school in North Carolina, LaMontagne said.
Schoenberg spent about six months working on a sailboat in Mexico before traveling north.
LaMontagne said he found work as a carpenter in Fairbanks.

For the trip, the men took a shuttle up the Dalton Highway and began hiking to the Sag River about 100 miles south of Prudhoe Bay.

They were attempting to cross the river each on a single-person raft. LaMontagne said they chose a good place to cross, but the river was swollen.

“We’ve done a lot of back-country trips,” LaMontagne said. “It wasn’t like we were doing anything crazy.”

According to North Slope police, LaMontagne noticed something was wrong when he saw that Schoenberg was no longer on his raft.

LaMontagne saw his friend in the water holding onto the raft. And then he saw him being swept away.

“It happened real fast,” LaMontagne said. “He could not hold onto his boat. I never saw him again.”

He searched the water and the riverbank for his friend before walking to a Department of Transportation and Public facilities maintenance facility on the Dalton Highway to report the incident, North Slope Police Officer Steve Lee said.

“It’s a real dangerous river in my opinion,” Lee said.

An Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. helicopter located Schoenberg’s body the next morning. The body was recovered and is being transported to the state medical examiner in Anchorage for an autopsy.

Lee said the Sag River has been higher than normal because of heavy rains in the Brooks Range.
Schoenberg’;s relatives were notified of his death. His raft and backpack remain missing, Lee said.

Other online sources gave the GPS coordinates of a “Class IV” drop on the Atigun and the “Class IV” on the Sag. One of Ed Plumb’s Edventures even skipped the Atigun Gorge as not packraftable for him and his crew, while Brad M’s report on this forum described the Atigun flow at “650 cfs”.

So it was with some trepidation that my son and I headed up North last week as the gauge was reading around 1000 cfs (around 24 feet which has been the level near the historical crest according to the NOAA web page for several years).

But we need not have been nervous. The Atigun and Sag combination at the water levels we ran it at was ideal for packrafting and the packraft was the ideal boat for the level. It’s too congested for canoes and big rafts, too boring for hardshells - best in a packraft for sure. I ran it in my extra long open boat and Roman ran it in my red decked Yak. We had a couple sunny days, a north wind day plus a snowy day on the Sag.

To use Brad’s expression for a handful of the many,many creeks and rivers he runs, for intermediate packrafters at this water level The “Satigun” is an “instant classic”.

The Atigun starts slow, picks up into PR 2(Class II)-ish, then PR 3 (Class III)-ish and then the only thing we scouted the PR 4 final drop (again at 980 cfs – check the water levels before you go). We spent 4 hours running its 10 miles of Gorge and another hour and half getting to the Sag.

The Sag is mostly PR 2 (Class I), with quite a bit of PR 3 (Class II) boulder gardens of glacial erratics and a PR 4 (Class III) canyon through an old moraine. That’s Class III at the water level we ran it, not Class IV. I have trouble rating runs I haven’t done (seems like some things turn out to be harder than they look and others are easier), and even harder time rating things I haven’t seen, so I will not posit a rating for any of the runs I did except under the conditions I ran them. Everything rated “Class IV” by previous boaters is easily portaged but also doable by those who feel good running Eagle River’s Campground Rapids at 1000 cfs or so.

Again, this is The Run to do on the Haul Road. No walking, just fun floating, paddling, wildlife and scenery. We spent I guess 17 hours on the water, so three days would be enough.

We ran the Atigun at 980 cfs (on NOAA page you need to go to,1,1,1,1,1,1,1&toggles=10,7,8,2,9,15,6 and do a “make my page” with both “near Pump Station 4” and “All” checked to get flow) and the Sag at pump 3 at 1600-1700 cfs (,1,1,1,1,1,1,1).

Sounds cool Roman. Is that the good looking whitewater roadside river/creek just the other side of Atigun Pass? If so, it looked like a pretty cool little run, I eyeballed it when the old man & I floated the N. Fork of the Koyuku from Gates of the Arctic a few years back. Part of me wants to live in Wiseman up that way, but it’s too far from accessible whitewater:^) although… there is a REALLY sweet mega-gorge I’ve been wanted to go run up that way w/ a short hike-in.

Anyway, Montana Saturday? Assuming you got my email, a good group of us are going up that way.

Timmy J.

You knew this was coming:

Holy Mary that was cool. Makes my recent move from Alaska smart just a bit. But I’ve still got my Llama and Alaska isn’t going anywhere that I know of.

Roman, you made the front page of the NY Times this evening. Congrats!

Does anyone have the online source for GPS coordinates of a “Class IV” drop on the Atigun and the “Class IV” on the Sag?