By Brian Grzelak
"It's epic, man."
We heard that phrase so often from the folks at Alaska River Wrangellers that it quickly became our own private little joke—as if we’d accidentally wandered into a Cheech and Chong movie. But as The Wife and I unloaded our gear in Chitina under a steady rain, and looked at a river that made us think what dam just broke?, neither of us was laughing.
After years of prodding, I had finally convinced The Wife to undertake a vacation adventure in grizzly country USA: Alaska. Although we regularly backpack in the Lower 48, our (her) agreement had previously always been black bear habitat only. Yes I realize that most men would be amazed and many quite envious of a spouse who actually tolerates and even enjoys sleeping on the ground in a tent. But Alaska had always been a dream of mine. So ignoring all marital common sense, I doggedly badgered on, utilizing a creative sales pitch that was heavily based on the argument that a raft trip would eliminate 75-80 percent of all grizzly encounters by not actually being on land. [Full Disclosure: my estimate, not Wikipedia's.] There would be no way to surprise a grizzly munching on caribou carcass tartar or perhaps more importantly, to get between momma and her cub while in a raft. So with that rationalization, the two of us (and two large cans of pepper spray) set off for five days and nearly 100 miles of rafting on the Copper River. And to friends asking if we were doing a cruise, I simply answered, yes while The Wife rolled her eyes.
I had done much of my research in the aptly described guidebook to Alaska rivers called "Fast and Cold.” The Copper should have been in its own chapter titled "Really Really Big, Fast and Cold" as it was all of the above. Those factors, combined with considerable isolation and the fact that The Wife and I would be on our own would hopefully be balanced by the relative lack of technical whitewater.
After arriving in Anchorage by plane, we immediately set off on a 4-hour drive on the Glenn Highway to Copper Center which fits the description of "Don't expect to find much and you won't be disappointed." Here we would swing by the outfitter for dry bags and a park ranger station for an extra bear-proof storage cylinder before heading a few miles down the road to our first night's stay at a small, welcoming B&B, Sawing Logzz, run by Gary and Luann Mullen. That evening, we calmly arranged and packed our gear including tent, sleeping bags, stove, food and oh yes, did I mention pepper spray, into their appropriate bag or container.
The next morning, dressed in dry suits, we quietly ignored the steady rain falling. Between exclamations of "Epic!" Danny, our driver and co-manager at Wrangellers, couldn't help point out that it hadn't rained this hard up there all summer. I chose to avoid eye contact with The Wife. After unloading our gear at the river, Danny offered to wait around until we pushed off however we preferred to rehabilitate our nerves in private and sent Danny on his way.
It can be difficult to judge speed on a very large river due to your significant distance from reference points on shore. But even on a river well over a quarter-mile wide in some places and running over 700,000 cfs, covering the first six miles in 30 minutes provides a sobering sensation. As the rain eventually moved out, the clouds began to break up, revealing spectacular waterfalls and distant glaciers in the mountains that often reached the river's edge. The strength and speed of the river was almost mesmerizing given the surrounding beauty. And it was certainly deceiving until we would spot a gravel bar suitable for a campsite or a lunch break and I belatedly attempted to ferry out of the current before admitting failure. Camp site engineering was a relatively simple three part affair: tent, raft, food – each had its own separate location to limit damage or bloodshed in the case of uninvited overnight dinner guests.
Back at the turn of the century, the Copper River provided a valley corridor for 100 miles of the 190-mile Copper River and Northwestern Railway that was constructed from the port in Cordova to reach one of the world's richest copper deposits in the Wrangell St. Elias Mountains. The entrepreneurial team of JP Morgan and the Guggenheim family spent over $13 million in 1910 dollars for the rail line alone to the Kennicott mines, namesake for what became the Kennicott Copper Company. Working in conditions reminiscent of a Siberian gulag, laborers built bridges or wooden trestles for nearly 90 miles of the total line. Today, other than several stretches of the rail bed near Cordova and Kennicott that were converted to gravel roadways, nature has largely reclaimed the old right of way. Occasionally, lengths of continuous rail hover suspended in midair along the shore, the supporting wooden trestle long since washed away.
The flow of current gradually eased up as the trip progressed. Numerous bald eagles could be seen along the shoreline however unexpected entertainment was provided by the increasing abundance of harbor seals who ventured up river out of Prince William Sound. These bald-looking cartoon characters would suddenly surface and disappear at will, occasionally one might follow our raft for a mile or more. Apparently they found us to be equally amusing.
This stretch of the Copper is probably most famous for the Million Dollar Bridge which was used by the railroad to cross between river banks, thus avoiding the Child and Miles Glaciers which both emptied directly into the Copper from nearly opposite sides. Miles Glacier is reached first, just after Abercrombie Rapid where we viewed a grizzly fishing along the shoreline exactly as the guidebook had predicted. It almost felt staged. In front of Miles Glacier, the river widens and forms the 4 mile long Miles Lake. The guidebook mentioned the existence of floating icebergs in the slow moving current of the lake, remnants of glacier calving at the water's edge. Our mood was initially disappointment as the blocks of floating ice seemed well off our path through the lake. Disappointment turned to excitement as we realized our paths would eventually cross. Excitement then turned to concern as we became virtually surrounded by floating blocks of ice the size of cars or small houses, blocks which would occasionally break apart or flip over as their large underwater mass hit a shallow gravel bar. Our hope was to avoid becoming another Titanic.
We finally arrived at the bridge on our fourth day, somewhat relieved that the most challenging days were likely behind us. We had grown used to the river and the numerous grizzly paw prints that seemed to proliferate every sand bar we stopped at. We left them alone and they returned the favor. Million Dollar Bridge actually cost a reported $1.5 million dollars which probably exceeded the Powerball drawing of its day. It is an engineering wonder to view today, considering the logistics it took to deliver tons of iron beams to this remote location and construct piers in the midst of a broad, iceberg filled river. The bridge had been the last point accessible by car today from the town of Cordova along the old rail bed line which had been converted to a gravel road. However in 2012, a much smaller span closer to Cordova had received major damage from high water and was closed for safety. With limited public funds for costly repairs, access to the Million Dollar Bridge (and a small National Forest Campground) was either by rafters like us or, a combination vehicle/boat shuttle with Cordova based outfitters. As we pushed off in the raft from the bridge pier, we saw two small groups on the shore, the only people we would see for our five days on the water.
As the Copper draws closer to Prince William Sound, it develops braided channels in places, adding a mild challenge to select the channel with the best current and fewest gravel bars. Approaching one such channel, we encountered an adolescent cub, pacing and wailing fervently on the left shoreline. Wanting no part of a hidden and potentially anxious momma bear, I started hugging the right shoreline as the river approached a bend in that direction. Being preoccupied by the cub, I was a bit startled to see that Momma was in fact, on the right shoreline less than 20 feet ahead and starting to cross the river to her cub. Our paths appeared to be on a collision course much like a car and a deer. Two thoughts instantly crossed my mind; how embarrassing it would be to collide with a bear on one of the largest rivers in North America and, if we did, would it flip into the raft and land on The Wife's lap much like a deer that comes through a car windshield? The Wife on the other hand had only one thought and that was to grab for the pepper spray in our day use bag. Anticipating the Wife's move (as well as quick action by both Momma and myself to alter the previous collision course), I screamed for her to instead grab the camera. At that point, I was forced to re-evaluate my earlier assurances about not getting between a mother grizzly and her cub while rafting.
I must add that the Wife took the incident rather well and allowed me to stay on the raft with her. Our last campsite may have been the most spectacular of an outrageously beautiful collection, notwithstanding the dinner plate-sized paw prints that passed within ten feet of our tent during the night. After the first day's rain, the weather had turned nearly perfect with highs around 70 and lows rarely below 50. Our late August start successfully avoided the infamous Alaska mosquito onslaught.
We had prearranged for the 30-mile shuttle from the river takeout at Flag Point into Cordova to drop us off at the Reluctant Fisherman Inn for the night. The inn was conveniently located in town and offered a wonderful view overlooking the small but authentic fishing harbor.
The only way in and out of Cordova is either by plane or boat, with the Alaska State Ferry being the most frequently used and most practical choice. By summer's end, the route up to Valdez is typically only offered twice a week so catching the boat is not to be taken lightly. Although we had arranged for River Wrangellers to meet us in Valdez, it would be our responsibility to get roughly 300 pounds of raft and gear onto the ferry. And while the state ferry will regularly accept "walk on" items like bikes and kayaks, they are unwilling to accept rafts. I can't seem to understand why not although it may have something to do with the fact that dragging along 120 pounds of rolled up rubber is akin to wrestling a baby hippo. Your alternative is to politely inquire (beg) any empty delivery trucks waiting at the ferry to graciously accept your gear in exchange for a modest gratuity (bribe). Supposedly this happens quite easily according to the river guide book. I am not sure if it was just late in the season or if most of the truck traffic was headed out on a second ferry towards Wittier but our choices were essentially three pick-up trucks and seven sedans. As stereotypical as this may sound, I have found that women approaching total strangers for assistance are vastly less threatening than scraggly men who may resemble serial killers. So in exchange for my deft oarsman skills helping us avoid a mid-river collision, the Wife agreed to do the begging. Fortunately for us, a woman with a 3-year-old child on her way to do some elk hunting took pity on us and allowed us to pack her pickup truck until it looked like it belonged to the Beverly Hillbillies. We did think it was a little bold under the circumstances for a single woman with a child to be so friendly until we learned that the Good Samaritan was none other than the owner of Sue's Knife Shop in Cordova.
Ferry problem solved — or so we thought until the boarding agent suggested that it was not the smartest idea to have left our ID's in our rental car in Copper Center as boarding the ferry was a bit like boarding an airplane these days. More begging. More pity. Unfortunately the ferry and shuttle drive back to our car was through abundant rain and low lying clouds, obscuring what felt like additional post card scenery. Back at River Wrangellers, we returned the raft and gear in exchange for a few rounds of "Wasn't it epic man?"
After leaving Copper Center, we headed south back towards Chitina. As it was explained to us; "People who are hiding from something in the Lower 48, come to Alaska. People who are hiding from something in Alaska, come to Chitina." Fortunately, one of the few businesses deemed a necessity in Chitina was the beer/wine store which greeted customers with "no service for crack heads, meth junkies and wife beaters" scribbled across a paper plate nailed to the front door. The owner did not seem at all amused by my remark that "I don't beat the Wife however she often wants to beat me." His look suggested that he had come from the Lower 48 for some reason.
Chitina is the start of the McCarthy Road into the heart of the nation's largest national park: Wrangell St. Elias. Surrounded by isolation at the end of the 60-mile gravel road is the old mining town of Kennicott – an odd collection of park property and private land holdings. This arrangement resulted from the initial bankruptcy of the mine and subsequently, a failed attempt at real estate development. The imposing, partially restored old mine processing buildings almost rival the Million Dollar Bridge. The wonderful Kennicott Glacier Lodge provided a relaxing two night celebratory stay. On the second day, we ventured up a 10 mile roundtrip climb to the Bonanza Mine which offered spectacular views of the Kennicott Glacier below. Littering the ground around the dangerously dilapidated mine entrance were pieces of raw copper ore that literally glistened green in the sunlight. We had thus completed, albeit unintentionally and out of order, the Alaskan journey of Kennicott copper ore, from wilderness discovery to rail transport down the Copper River valley to freighter shipment from Cordova.
After an engaging family style dinner back at the inn, we sat on a veranda outside our room, reflecting on the entire adventure with a couple of Chitina's finest. "It really was epic" said the Wife as she gently nodded her head. Of course, I then had to comment as how grizzlies had not proven to be such a big problem, what would she think about backpacking in Denali? Which prompted an immediate reach for the pepper spray.