Packrafting the Arctic Refuge the Dirtbag Way

It’s often said that a river trip in the Arctic Refuge is only possible for the “wealthy elite” who can afford the air taxi flights that now run in the thousands of dollars. But, armed with a packraft, a multi-river Arctic Refuge trip is possible for only the cost of gas to drive to Mile 275 of the Dalton Highway.

The western boundary of the Arctic Refuge comes nearly to the Dalton Highway at the second Atigun River bridge where the river begins to drop into Atigun Gorge. This 15-mile stretch of the Atigun is spectacular and great boating, mostly Class III boulder gardens and wall pushes. As the Atigun Gorge ends and opens to the Sagavanirktok River valley, the river drops abruptly through several Class IV rapids before easing up again to Class II water for the remaining mile to the Sag confluence. While steep canyon walls make it difficult to walk along either bank the entire distance of the Atigun Gorge, the gorge is never completely walled in so you can portage anything you don’t want to run.
Atigun River Gorge.jpg
Accompanied by my two dogs, I continued eastward up the east fork of the Sag and eventually reached the south fork of the Ribdon River, which I was able to float for approximately 10 miles of fast Class II braids. At the mainstem of the Ribdon we continued further east, eventually reaching the Ivishak River. The Ivishak is the Mother of All Braided Rivers, at times sizeable with a wide and deep channel and at other times disappearing nearly entirely into a maze of gravel. In late season in a dry year a packraft is the only craft that can float the Ivishak, which means you’ll have the place to yourself.
We floated the Ivishak for roughly 70 miles before rejoining the Sag and the Dalton Highway near Pump Station 2. A thumb and kind Fairbanksans completed the shuttle back to the Atigun River.

The trip was roughly 180 miles with approximately equal parts walking and boating. The Atigun is guaged, and like many arctic river is very flashy, meaning it can come up and go down quickly. I boated it at roughly 650 cfs and suspect that less than 500 cfs would be too bony and above 2,000 cfs it could be very exciting whitewater in the Atigun Gorge.
Packraft Rats.jpg
The Atigun River approach could also be adapted to access the south-flowing Wind and Chandalar rivers, or with a bit more walking, the Marsh Fork of the Canning. A shorter version involving only the Atigun and the Sag is another option that is often done by caribou hunters looking to get the required 5 miles from the Dalton Highway.

Lastly, it’s called the Arctic Refuge, not the ugly “ANWR” acronym, please.


Not only do you embark on a great trip, but you include your dogs, I bet they loved it. I certainly loved reading about it.

It was reading of the trips by Packrafters like yourself which inspired me to get a Denali Llama, and then a Dory and to have my own adventures.

I think the motto of the Alpacka Packrafters should be: ‘Limited By Imagination Only!’


Sounds like fun! I have a friend who was on the river doing a hunting trip at the same time you were. He mentioned he saw a packrafter walk by with two dogs and was incredulous!

This sounds like a very fun trip!! What time of year did you do it and how many days did you take?