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Two women die during guided river rafting trip in Arctic Alaska

Two women died Wednesday after their raft capsized on a river trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, according to North Slope Borough officials.

Borough spokesman John Boyle identified the victims in a statement Friday as 69-year-old Cheryl Minnehan of Elk Grove, California, and 67-year-old Karen Todd of Sparks, Nevada. The two women were traveling in a group of 10 as part of a multi-day rafting trip on the Kongakut River run by Alaska Alpine Adventures, according to Joan Travers, the company's director of operations.

Travers said the women shared a 16-foot inflatable canoe. There were three other canoes and one larger paddle raft on the trip, Travers said.

"Karen and Cheryl were in a raft together paddling rapids, and their raft flipped," Alaska Alpine Adventure said in a statement Friday. Travers said the women were wearing life jackets.

North Slope Borough search-and-rescue authorities were informed of the capsizing on the Kongakut River, about 75 miles south of Kaktovik, at about 1:50 p.m. Wednesday.

FILE: The Kongakut River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Photo by Richard J. Murphy)

Minnehan and Todd, who were initially reported missing, were found dead by Alaska Air Guardsmen at about 10:15 a.m. Thursday. Their bodies were flown to Fairbanks and sent to the state medical examiner's office in Anchorage.

"A joint search and rescue mission between NSB SAR and the Alaska Air National Guard was conducted," Boyle wrote. "Eight individuals from the rafting group were safely recovered and transported to Deadhorse by NSB SAR."

Boyle said Friday that no injuries were reported among the eight people taken to Deadhorse. Travers of Alaska Alpine Adventures said two of the eight were guides and the rest had paid for the trip.

Travers said she did not have information Friday about any initial rescue efforts or what caused the raft to flip.

"Words cannot adequately convey the grief and sense of loss that we feel today for the families and loved ones of Karen and Cheryl," said Dan Oberlatz, CEO of Alaska Alpine Adventures, in Friday's statement. "Our guests are an extension of the Alaska Alpine Adventures family and we feel the immensity of the loss of Karen and Cheryl."

According to Alaska Alpine Adventures' website, the company has offered hiking, backpacking and rafting trips in several Alaska national parks and wildlife refuges since 1998. Its ANWR offerings included a 12-day, 100-mile rafting trip along the Kongakut, with bookings in June and August already full.

Numerous companies offer rafting expeditions along the Kongakut, which flows from the Brooks Range to the Beaufort Sea. An overview of a 77-mile rafting route along the river, posted on travel website Alaska.org, describes an 18-mile stretch that first winds through the British Mountains and 2 miles of rocky rapids.

The river continues to Caribou Pass through about 27 miles of shallow braids, then runs another 30 miles to the Beaufort along areas that may be blocked by ice.

The incident is under investigation by the North Slope Borough Police Department.

Correction: An earlier version of this story, citing inaccurate information from the North Slope Borough, said Cheryl Minnehan and Karen Todd were both from Nevada. Minnehan was from California.

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