From: David Dapkus
Subject: Field Inspection of the Sagavanirktok River
June 19-30, 1978
A field inspection of the Sagavanirktok River (Sag River) was conducted June
19-30, 1978, by an interagency team as part of a HCRS study of the river area.
The HCRS study is being done as technical assistance to the Bureau of Land
Management in evaluating river related resources within BLM administered
areas. The area in this study is in part of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline
corridor. The approximate upper 2/3 of the river is located within the
Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline corridor under the administration of BLM. The lower
1/3, including the Prudhoe Bay area, is on lands that are owned by the State
Participating in the field inspection were following people:
Hope Reed, Div. of Parks, State of Alaska
Terry O'Sullivan, BLM, Fairbanks District
Elliot Lowell, BLM, Fairbanks District
Don Pendergrast, BLM, Fairbanks District
LaRalle Smith, BLM, State Office
Mike Brown, BLM, State Office David Dapkus, HCRS, Anchorage
LaRalle took the first half of the trip from the 19th thru the 24th and Mike
was on the second half from the 24th through the 30th.
Two 17 foot (shoe keel) Grumman canoes and one 17 foot (standard keel) Grumman
canoe were used for the river inspection.
NOTE: These reports may not
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I picked up a GSA Ford van at 7:30a.m., drove to the office and loaded the
gear. Hope Reed and LaRalle Smith met me there for the drive north. We left
the office at approximately 9:30 a.m., and drove to Fairbanks. We overnighted
at the Fairbanks Inn.
The remainder of the inspection team met us at the Fairbanks Inn for
breakfast. We all then left at 7:00a.m. in two vehicles to drive to the
Sagavanirktok River via the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline (TAPS) haul road. We had
a two hour delay at the Yukon River bridge crossing, which I've found not
unusual. We arrived at Galbraith Lake, which is the start at the Atigun River
at 8:00 p.m. The plan was to float ten miles of the Atigun to where it joins
the Sagavanirktok and then float the Sag to Franklin Bluffs. We observed six
black bear between the Yukon River bridge and Dietrich camp, three red fox and
two moose. We camped overnight near the bridge crossing of the Atigun River
near Galbraith Lake.
While most of the team remained in camp getting ready for the start of the
float Terry and I shuttled vehicles to Franklin Bluff's camp which was our
planned take-out point. The road was extremely muddy. During the drive Terry
saw two sand hill cranes, about two dozen ducks, 30 caribou and a wolf.
Broke camp early afternoon and floated down about two miles down the Atigun
before making camp again. The Atigun is a small Clearwater River, 50 feet
wide, one to five feet deep, with an average 4 to 5 mph current. The water
high. There were numerous stove and refrigerator size boulders in the river
and some sand along the banks. This part of the Atigun River was Class II on
the International Whitewater Scale.
Dominant vegetation was alpine tundra with some low (4 ') willow brush
immediately along the river. We found many good campsites on the gravel bars,
limited firewood was available. The narrow valley offered good hiking from the
river up the fairly steep ridges which are part of the northern mountains of
the Brooks Range. The scenery was no less than spectacular. The Atigun River
flows through a 1/2 to one mile wide valley that lies within the northern
mountains of the Brooks Range. These rugged mountains are either talus sloped
or have vertical rock walls that were capped with heavy snow.
The weather was quite cool with heavy clouds that omitted sprinkles first and
then rain. The clouds and rain dissipated be evening, leaving a brilliant blue
sky to magnify the beauty of the Brooks Range.
It was a windy, rainy, and cold day. The river appeared high and all Class II
water as we started out. About 1/2 hour floating time down the river we were
into Class II mixed with some Class III water, The river was covered on this
area with refrigerator size boulders. All of a sudden a large boulder jumped
out of the river and tried to eat our canoe. The next 45 minutes were spent
fighting the vicious rock. During this process I was swept away but finally
managed to swim to shore. Terry continued the battle while standing chest deep
in the river, finally freeing the canoe. We tossed two lines to him, one he
attached to the canoe and the other to himself; we then pulled both to shore.
It was a wonder that Terry had not gone under considering the time spent in
near freezing water. The only damage done was we lost one of the office rain
coats and had gotten most of Terry's gear and the tent wet. No one was hurt.
Elliot and LaRalle had quickly come to our rescue. Hope and Don were
downstream some distance, but quickly came upstream to aid. We spent the rest
of the day drying out. We put the Coleman stove inside of the wet tent, which
dried quickly and well. This is somewhat dangerous, therefore no one should
spend much time in the tent due to possible carbon monoxide poisoning.
We awoke to a fresh 1/2" cover of snow and 30°F temperatures. It proceeded to
snow lightly all day, and remained cold (32°F). The river continued to rise.
Before going further we decided to dry more clothing, by the previous evening
most of the team had much wet clothing and hike downstream through Atigun
Canyon to ascertain the rivers character.
The map (and our view from camp) indicated that the canyon was getting
narrower, I was 'concerned that we might encounter non-navigable water in a
walled canyon that would be difficult and dangerous to the extent that someone
might get seriously hurt. Terry and LaRalle stayed at camp drying more
clothes, while Hope, Elliot, Don and I hiked down Atigun Gorge. We hiked about
three miles in the snow before being stopped by an almost vertical talus
slope, which ran into the river at a bend. We could not see past the talus
slope to ascertain the river was runnable, lineable, or practically
impassable. The river from camp to where we had walked was all Class III
water, was high and silt laden, with boulders the size of a refrigerator and
bigger. Four foot high rollers were
common. The river was also fairly narrow averaging maybe 60', with no
recognizable shoot. Precipitation the prior week changed what must have been
Class II into Class III water. Two weeks earlier the Atiguk was reported as
being shallow, and perhaps two low to float. Heavy June rains in the Brooks
Range probably account for the high water. Perhaps later in the summer it is
shallow and requires lining. There are several clear side streams (3' wide, 1'
deep) running down to the Atigun. One stream had cut a beautiful waterfall
through limestone rock about 150' above the valley floor. After consultation
with Don, an excellent canoeist, I decided to line-back upstream to the road
and then put in on the Sag where it and the road are in close proximity. Don
and Hope had their canoe tied about 1/4 mile downstream from camp. They
decided on the return to camp to start lining their canoe back upstream. While
lining they dumped the canoe, almost losing Hope, and losing a fiberglass
The scenery along the Atigun River was very beautiful. The rugged mountains
exhibited talus sloped and vertical rock faces. Some caves were spotted. We
also saw a band of twelve sheep on the south bank of the Atigun. They were all
ewes and lambs. We also found a fresh fox track. Spent a second night in the
We broke camp in mixed sun and snow. It was still very cold (32F) and had
snowed more overnight. It took us three physically taxing hours to line up to
the highway bridge. After finally arriving there we found that someone had
siphoned gas out of the pickup, leaving us only about 1/2 gallon. LaRalle and
Hope took the pickup to Pump Station #4, which was approximately five miles
away and after two hours of begging managed to obtain some gas.
Terry and I then took LaRalle down to Happy Valley Camp where we were to meet
Mike Brown (who was being flown in by BLM). We got there about 8:30p.m. but
the plane had left 15 minutes earlier. It was not suppose to have come in
until 9:00 p.m. and then was suppose to wait a reasonable time. The pilot had
told Mike to call Fairbanks if we needed an airplane. Happy Valley Camp was
closed (TAPS completion) as are most of the camps, so phones are not readily
available. We drove back to Pump Station #3 where the guard was kind enough to
let us phone Fairbanks. After two hours LaRalle was promised a plane, which
was to pick him up the next day at Chandlar Camp.
At 10:00p.m. LaRalle dropped Terry, Mike, and I at the put-in spot on the Sag
River this was approximately at Township 8 South and Range 14 East, Section 5,
where the road and river are close together. LaRalle then went back to the
others that were camped at the Atigun River and spent the night.
We observed several animals along the road, including six moose and more than
The remaining team at Atigun River took LaRalle to Chandlar Camp (south side
of the Brooks Range), and then drove back to where Terry, Mike, and I were on
the Sag. They arrived about 1:00 p.m. We floated about 10 miles through the
first really nice sunshine of the trip. The wind picked up at about 3:00 p.m.,
and was very hard to maneuver against. The river was split in several
channels, each loaded with basketball to refrigerator sized boulders. It was
fairly clear, flowed along about 3 mph. The channels were 75' wide and 5' deep
except there was only one channel then and was approximately 150 feet wide. It
was all fast Class I water broken every eight of a mile by Class II and some
Class III rapids. These rapids can be easily lined. We ran all the Class II
and some Class III, lining for three Class III water. After traversing the
Class II and Class III rapids without any problems, Elliot and Mike dumped in
a very slow easy spot
about one hundred yards from the evenings camp.
The Sag followed the pipeline and haul road the entire day. Scenery consisted
of rolling foothills and tundra on three sides with the magnificent Brooks
Range on the south. We saw two rough legged hawks and numerous Arctic ground
squirrels, several with young. Made a comfortable camp on one of the numerous
large gravel bars along the Sag.
We had an exciting float through consistently encountered Class II and easy
Class III rapids as we floated to the Lupine River. The Lupine was a very
clear, large creek. It was a very scenic stream. It was cloudy with some wind
very cold. This part of the Sag is for experienced canoeist or rafter. The
rapids were filled with VW to stove size boulders. These rapids occurred ever
mile and were usually a series of two or three Class II rapids or two Class II
rapids then a Class III rapid. Each set of rapids was approximately 150 feet
long. All could be lined. The Sag was very clear, running at 4 mph. where
there is one main channel, it was usually 150 feet wide. There were many
gravel bars of sufficient length for a small wheeled plane to land. The TAPS
line was within view the entire day.
The scenery remained basically the same as the previous day. Low bluffs
appeared further diversifying the scenery. One can easily hike the ridges
lining the river. Good campsites with sufficient firewood are plentiful. The
source of firewood is the low willow (up to 10') brush scattered along the
river. This wood is either standing deadwood or washed down during high water.
We observed a peregrine falcon, several long tailed jaegers, terns, gulls, and
ducks. Elusive grayling were observed in several of the side streams. Three
caribou were also seen.
We woke up to bright sun that stayed all day. A light breeze made it a very
comfortable warm day. We floated from the Lupine River to the Ivishak River, a
distance of 32 miles. We did not find a good place to land a small plane at
the confluence of the Ivishak, which was hoped for. The Ivishak has been
recommended as a wild river. Gravel bars were plentiful, but not sufficiently
long enough for wheel planes and the river is not sufficiently deep or
straight enough for a floatplane. The Sag continued to be clear, running at 4
mph, had many 50 to 150 foot wide channels, and was inches to six feet deep.
It was mostly Class I water with the exception of one nice Class II rapid
about 200 yards long near the Lupine River. The large boulders encountered
previously changed to fist size rocks.
The scenery was high quality with Sagwon Bluffs and two smaller bluffs just
before and after Sagwon camp adding to the surrounding rolling tundra covered
countryside. The Brooks Range was easily seen in the background. The evening
sun turned the foothills and the Brooks Range striking shades of red. There
continued to be plentiful campsites with lots of firewood. Hiking was also
easy along the rolling ridges that lined the river.
Sagwon Bluffs consist of sandstone, but were reported by F&WS to be a
peregrine falcon nesting area. We floated by these bluffs very quickly and
quietly, observing only one peregrine falcon at the upstream end of the
bluffs. Other wildlife seen along the river included 30 caribou, 2
rough-legged hawks, gulls, and ducks.
The riverbed and gravel bars change drastically a few miles after the Lupine
River. As previously mentioned, the boulders disappeared and became fist size
rocks with only an occasional boulder, the bars became a mixture of fist size
rocks and sand. The TAPS line continued to be in view of the river. The Sag
flowed under two abandoned road bridges where connected to roads from the
highway on the west side to material sites on the right side. These were
obviously no longer used since this spur road had been washed out between the
bridge and the haul road. Passed the abandoned Sagwon Camp which lies on the
old (TAPS) winter road (right bank of the river).
Observed debris along the riverbanks in this area. The debris consisted of
different kinds of markers, drainage pipes, and 55-gallon drums. Also saw a
small caterpillar and a truck, both appeared abandoned.
The day dawned sunny, but not warm. A light breeze blew all day. We floated
approximately 18 miles in five hours to our take-out point about three miles
below Franklin Bluffs camp. The take-out point was approximately 150 yards
from the haul road, a very easy walk across the tundra flats. Franklin Bluffs
camp was easily seen from the Sag River, however the camp is about a mile away
from the river.
The river was braided and continued to clear. It was up to six feet deep, but
averaged two to three foot deep. It was all Class I water. The channels merged
in some areas into half-mile wide lakes with 1/2 mph current. Current outside
the "lakes" was 3 to 4 mph.
The surrounding countryside was FLAT except for Franklin Bluffs. The
countryside is so immense that it appears to engulf Franklin Bluffs and
diminishes their effects. Tundra vegetation remains dominant along the river.
Animals observed were 15 caribou, Arctic ground squirrels, and small
passerines. We loaded all the gear into the van, putting three canoes on top
and preceded to drive south on the haul road to camp where we had originally
put in on the Sag.
Departed camp at approximately 9:00 a.m. Ran out of gas at the north end of
Atigun Pass. After siphoning two gallons from the pickup we almost made it to
the top of the pass but ended with the pickup pushing the van over Atigun
Pass. We coasted within 1/2 mile of Chandlar Camp on the south side of the
pass. Gassed up there again at Five Mile Camp and drove on to Fairbanks
arriving about 8:00 p.m. Saw only a few animals along the way. Traffic was
large trucks, between Livengood and Fairbanks. The weather was mixed sprinkles
and sunshine. We overnighted at Fairbanks Inn.
Checked out of motel at 7:30a.m. to find a flat tire on the van, changed to
spare, finally leaving Fairbanks at 9:OOa.m. We arrived at Anchorage at 5:30
p.m. dropped gear at office and van at motor pool by 6:45 p.m. Arrived home at
We covered about four miles of the 10 miles planned on the Atigun River and
about 76 miles of the 100 miles planned on the Sagavanirktok River (the Sag is
approximately 180 miles long). The Atigun River Gorge should be observed
carefully just before attempting to float, water levels are assumed to change
drastically. The Sagavanirktok River (portion floated) offered a good mix of
Class I-II-III whitewater and was extremely fast except near Franklin Bluffs
camp. I estimate that the 110 miles between the TAPS bridge on the Atigun
River and Franklin Bluffs camp could be run in six river days. The haul road
and/or pipeline are almost always in view from the Sag. Attributes of the
river are the easily observed animals (also just as easily seen and in greater
number, from the haul road) and the good whitewater floating.
The Atigun and Sag rivers are accessible by floatplane on the put-in and the
Sag is accessible by wheeled plane and possibly floatplane for the take-out.
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