Sanctuary River and Alpacka Gnu

My daughter and I packrafted the Sanctuary River in Denali N.P., Alaska on July 29 in an Alpacka Gnu.

We got off the park road just east of the Sable Pass wildlife closure. There is a distinct use trail leading down to and across Igloo Creek, then east for two miles up a tundra bench with easy walking to the Teklanika river valley. The descent down to the Teklanika was brushy and had a few challenging sections of bushwacking, maybe you can find a better route than I did. Always uncomfortable to bushwalk with the packraft strapped to the backpack, but as usual with Alpackas the boat was none the worse for wear.

The walking on the Teklanika river bar was easy, the many braids of the river easily crossed. The bears were very active during the few days we were in the park prior to setting out on this trip, especially around the park road and the river bars. We encountered one to the north of the park road when we got off the bus, and two on the Teklanika river bar about an hour apart. At least one of the bears on the Teklanika took note of us, but neither had any interest. We made a pretty easy 9 miles before we made camp along a headwaters branch to the east.

The next day we climbed to a pass from the Teklanika into Refuge Valley of the Sanctuary River. The route finding was a challenge. A glacier depicted on the USGS map is no longer there (it has receded many miles up valley), leaving a large river which is not depicted on the map. Once we figured that out, there seemed to be several potential corridors on either side of a drainage to approach the pass. Unfortunately only one of these corridors would ultimately make it, the others eventually cliff out or were otherwise impassable, but you wouldn’t know it until several miles and 1,000-1,500 feet of ascent. We were lucky with our choice, and reading prior trip reports gave me some good clues, but there was a constant uncertainty until the pass was in site. Most of the first half of the approach is on grassy tundra, the second half is harder, mostly sidehill ascent with a lot of scree. We were in the south side of the drainage approaching the pass. Towards the end a use trail crossed over to the north side and made it to the pass, but we stayed on the south side and found it equally passable. There was no retained snow on either side of the pass this year, which likely made it easier than it could have been.

The view from the pass of a large side valley leading into Refuge Valley is spectacular, but too cold to linger. The Sanctuary side of the pass is extremely steep and completely scree covered. This allowed scree skiing to get down. It would be exceptionally hard or impossible in my opinion to ascend the pass from the Sanctuary side. Based on reports that the drainage in this side valley of Refuge Valley has a number of impassable waterfalls, we stayed as south as possible along a bench, and this not only worked well but led to some beautiful spots with potential campsites. We camped high on a tundra bench here, with caribou wandering around and a large number of Dall sheep on the hill behind us.

The next day was easy walking down to the main Refuge Valley of the Sanctuary. A lot of caribou. We blew up the boat and put in one mile before the main confluence of the headwater branches of the Sanctuary. In retrospect, we should have waited until the main confluence. We had to get out and drag 8-10 times before the confluence. After the confluence, we probably only had to scrape or get out and pull 2-3 times in 15 miles.

The Sanctuary is a great packrafting river, pretty easy but fast floating and great scenery. The upper half is gravel bar, alpine tundra on the banks, big mountains. The lower half more wooded, foothills. The river was class 1-2 for the first half, fast but no big challenges. Need to navigate channels to stay in floatable water but not too hard to do so, and got progressively easier as more drainages added water to the river. The second half was solid class 2 on the day we did it, some significant wave trains and bigger sections of whitewater, but no difficult hydraulics. Wood was a bigger issue. There were numerous minor sweepers/strainers that were easy to avoid, but two particular sweepers that I noted that were both challenging to avoid and could have done significant potential damage to boat or boater. We took out river left 15 feet from the park road, but there was also an easy take out on the right just before the bridge.

While I have never been on the Sanctuary before and therefore can’t accurately assess the water level, and there are no flow gauges, I think the river was running on the high side the day we ran it. I say this because there had been intermittent to steady rain for several days prior to our trip, and then it was sunny and warm in the morning prior to our noon put in, both of which probably contributed water. Additionally, most prior reports don’t describe as much whitewater and splashy waves as we encountered in the lower river, and it seems like the 4 hours it took us is on the faster side compared to other reports I found. Could be wrong, just my guess.

We floated in rain gear, which means we were soaked. Even on a day with intermittent sun, we were pretty cold and towards the end pretty uncomfortable. I didn’t want to spend the weight on drysuits for a trip that was 2.5 days backpacking, 4 hours floating, but if I could do it again I’d bring drysuits.

We used the Alpacka Gnu, and bought it specifically for this trip. My 12 year old daughter had not piloted her own boat before, so I wanted to use a two person. Our Gnu had the Vectran material. Alpacka outfits the boat with an inflatable tube in the middle of the boat, that they call a kneeling pillow. Their recommended style of boating with the Gnu is for boaters to kneel, and use canoe paddles. This was a non-starter – on some practice floats around the house we couldn’t last 15 minutes in the kneeling position before our ankles and knees complained, and not just my 45 year old joints but my limber 12 year old couldn’t tolerate it either. So we got rid of this kneeling pillow – I’m sure it adds structural rigidity to the boat and makes it more stable in stronger rapids, but we didn’t notice or miss it on the sanctuary. There is a Ti-zip in the kneeling pillow so that it can be used for additional storage, but the ti-zip is difficult to access, on the bottom of the pillow, and doesn’t seem like a very practical option as you would have to reinflate every time you access anything.

We experimented with some different options prior to the trip, and ended up with the following: We sat on our backpacks, with our legs on the side tubes. It was marginally comfortable, but got old after a while and not nearly as comfortable nor as capable for paddling as the standard seat and position on a Yukon Yak. The rear paddler has the option of sitting on the rear of the boat, on the tube, with feet in the boat. I did this a fair bit, but the higher center of gravity is not stable in rougher water, and your knees stick up and make paddling a bit awkward.

We also experimented with the hiking pole that converts to a paddle, made by exped and sold by alpacka on their website. Very attractive from a weight/multi-use perspective, but not very functional as a paddle. It doesn’t have the rigidity or the horsepower to do much with it. I brought my usual splat kayak paddle as the rear paddler, and my daughter used the hiking pole paddle with one blade and the hiking handle left on the other side, as a canoe paddle in the front. We didn’t need much power from the front paddler for the Sanctuary, so this worked OK. With two adults, and if you need more power up front, this won’t work well. We found while practicing that two people using kayak paddles will not work, you will bang paddles regularly.

The Gnu performed reasonably well. It maneuvers OK, but being bigger and heavier it is not anywhere close to as nimble as my Yukon Yak. It handled waves fine. We didn’t use a spray deck since the spray deck is designed for use in the kneeling position with the kneeling pillow. I can’t see ever using it this way, and now sorry I spent the money on it. Overall I would much prefer to be in the Yukon Yak, but the Gnu is a reasonable specialty boat for occasions were you need to get two people in the boat or have a ton of other gear.

Quick Correction…The Sanctuary Gage is active and available online:


Thanks for the heads up re the gnu. I like you am looking for a two person packraft for trips with the family. Kneeling for extended periods sounds like a non starter. I wonder if Alpacka is looking into other seating options? Seems like a light weight aluminum or carbon fiber seat pan that spans the tubes would do the trick. Or even a wooden stick frame with webbing.