Last August, my 15-year-old son, Harold, and I made a trip down the Sagavanirktok River (or “the Sag,” as we called it), north of the Brooks Range, in Alaska. We were hunting caribou, and mostly it was cold, with little sun, and rain spitting through a 40-degree gloom.
The caribou were not yet in the mighty valley of the Sag, but what we found, there on the edge of the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, was a vast, vibrating wilderness of wolf and grizzly, musk ox and grayling. We camped below the stone circles of ancient caribou hunting grounds, the raw earth strewn with shards of chert from artisans a thousand years’ dead. We fueled with blueberries and lingonberries by the handful during our long hikes across the tundra, glassing for the migration at every high point. We hauled back huge shed horns on our packs, but no meat.
For long stretches, the Sag is calm; in other spots, it is a fast-moving hiss through big cobbles. I am no master of the oars, and at times it was a white-knuckled descent for me, as Harold bailed us out madly with a cut-off jug, the water sloshing about our knees.
On the third day, as we pitched tents above a particularly troubling stretch of whitewater, it started to snow. And it didn’t stop.
There is one thing I learned about traveling in the High Arctic: You really need a way to dry out your gear. We didn’t find any caribou on that trip, but we never lost our desire to hunt. Staying warm and dry kept our spirits up and further instilled the importance of packing correctly for such an outing. I tell folks who are facing a river like the Sag to pack as if they were headed on an extended backpacking trip—especially if they might be hauling caribou meat. Here are the essentials I recommend to help keep you dry, without adding too much weight to your load, when on a backcountry hunt via canoe.
Sag River Gear List
With thanks to Barry Whitehill.
One pair of river shoes or wading boots.
I recommend the Simms Headwaters wading boot, or a similar model, paired with 3mm neoprene NRS river socks.
One pair of dry, light hiking boots and wool socks (for in-camp).
OBoz Bridgers are light and precise while also providing good foot and ankle support.
Two pairs of long, quick-drying synthetic/wool pants.
Harold wore his new Patagonia Simul Alpine Pants, which are the quickest of the quick-dry, mostly windproof, and hard to tear. But he also wore a cheap wetsuit when on the river. The wetsuit allows you to jump out during a portage without worrying about going in over your waders. I wore a pair of Orvis Silver Sonic Convertible-Top Waders pretty much full time on the river, and light fleece pants or a pair of expedition-weight polypro underwear under the waders. Off the water, I wore my worn-out pair of Patagonia Guide pants that date back to the 1990s. With a pair of midweight long johns under the pants, most mosquitoes can’t get the old proboscis through to the good stuff.
Two polypro T-shirts.
Any good-quality, long underwear polypro shirt will work—and there are so many these days. I have a basic Patagonia Capilene midweight that is almost 20 years old. It has lasted forever and proven itself a good investment. I’ve never found anything that outperforms it.
Two spare pairs of long underwear.
Light- and midweight polypro or Smartwool long underwear bottoms.
One upper-body insulation layer.
Look for a wool or polypro fleece pullover or sweater.
**One jacket that can insulate and break the wind. **
Lightweight, puffy jackets are fine, so long as you have good rain gear to go over them. I like wind-blocking fleece for hunting when it’s not raining, or under a rain jacket when it is. On this trip, I had a loaner Sitka Kelvin Jacket, and Harold had a First Lite Uncompahgre. Both jackets were top notch.
Two warm hats.
Bring two just in case you lose one. I look for a hat with a water-resistant finish. Yes, they will make your head sweat when you’re working hard or going uphill, but the upsides outweigh the minor discomforts.
One rain jacket and a set of rain pants.
I had a Simms Slick Jacket, and wearing one is like being inside a wall tent with the wood stove cranking while blizzards rage. Harold borrowed my Outdoor Research Raincoat. You may not need $300-plus raingear, but you need very good rain gear, the best you can afford or borrow. Old-timers did this kind of trip in wool pants and rubber cagoules, and you still can. But you will suffer, and you may even die.
BOATING AND CAMPING GEAR
NRS Paddler’s Gloves.
Neoprene fishing gloves work, but they tear, and the tight neoprene can constrict blood flow to your fingers and make them cold, even when it is in the 40s.
You want the best PFD you can afford that allows lots of free movement. Wear it beforehand, in raingear and while working or exercising. You’ll be in it all day, every day, and you’ll need to know if there are chafe spots, or anything that might restrict your movements at a crucial moment. NRS rules the roost.
We used an old North Face we’d borrowed that was equivalent to the North Face Stormbreak3. We stayed pretty dry, considering. Sticky sand and constant rain will abrade the best waterproof coatings.
Wood stove and tipi tent.
The Seek Outside Ultralight Tipi is a good alternative to a regular tent. It can fit four people in a pinch and two fairly comfortably. And with the Ultralight Titanium Wood Stove, it is the ultimate home in the wilderness for a solo trekker or hunter. (The tipi weighs 4 pounds 2 ounces; the stove we used was 34.6 pounds). Each of them is an awesome upgrade if you can swing it.
Lightweight sleeping bag.
You need a real sleeping bag. Mine was rated down to 20°F, which proved not enough, even though it wasn’t dangerously cold. The best sleeping bag on Earth will not work if it’s soaked, so you’ll need a decent 0—20°F bag in a badass dry bag. I also carry an old, very small Gore-Tex bivy sack that LL Bean made in the 1990s. This will save you from tent leaks (or if you have to spend a night out of camp). The downside to a bivy sack is that you will have to deal with condensation, which wets your bag.
Lightweight sleeping pad.
I went with a cheap foam roll-up, which I could also use to pad canoes against truck beds, to kneel and lie on for long-range shooting practice, and sit on in the snow. Our fellow river rats, however, had Therm-A-Rest NeoAirs.
Waterproof dry bags.
I like the NRS 3.8 Heavy-Duty Bill’s Bag. You’ll also need a small dry bag (to strap onto the boat) to store water, food, an extra shirt, and foul-weather gear.
Waterproof day pack.
Bring a modest day pack for hunting and wandering. You won’t be able to pack any meat in the Orvis Gale Force Backpack—but it is not made for that. It is your boat bag for extra clothes, food, ammo, fire-kit, etc.
Jetboil, coffee cups, and extra fuel bottles.
There were some willows for firewood, but not enough to really cook over, so make sure to bring along a Jetboil.
All personal gear on this list must fit into the two waterproof bags listed above. The larger river bag will be secured in the boats and will not be accessible until you reach camp in the evening. The smaller waterproof day bag, however, will be accessible during the day while on the river.
• Water bottle with clip
• Headlamp and spare batteries
• Sunscreen and lip balm
• Wet wipes, small package
• Moisturizing lotion for chapped, cracked hands
• Insect repellent; one small container of 100% DEET should be fine
• Hygiene kit
• First Aid Kit
• Camera in waterproof bag
• Snacks for floating
• For firearms, the group had a hodgepodge, none of them fancy. We carried only one rifle— the family knockaround, all-purpose freezer-filler—a Remington Model 7 Youth, in 7mm-08. It had a basic Weaver 6X power scope on it, and my special cheek pad, part of a foam sleeping pad strapped on with duct tape. Make sure you have a good hard case for whatever you bring, and make sure you have a good sling for long, long days of carrying and glassing.