Floating the Copper River
July 21 - 27, 1999
In late July, we tried a new and somewhat scary adventure, floating the Copper River 100 miles through wilderness from Chitina to Flag Point near Cordova. The Copper River is a huge, silty, glacial river that drains 24,000 square miles. Although it's not technically difficult, it's remote, fast, cold, and BIG. Only two of the friends we invited were brave enough to join us.
It snowed the day before we left (July 20), but the weather cleared and we floated in hot sunshine the first day, past a terrifying whirlpool. The massive river drops an average of 12 feet per mile, with a current of about 7 mph. The second day we explored a peninsula covered with sand dunes at the confluence of the Copper and Bremner Rivers. It reminded us of the Sahara, but with glaciers as a backdrop. That evening we were pitching tents when Dennis shouted, "Bear!" A large grizzly was casually ambling down the draw toward us. He seemed shocked to discover he had neighbors! He spun around and fled before anyone could grab a camera!
I read the history of the area as we floated. The first railroad to Alaska's interior was built along this river in 1908-1911, to the Kennicott Copper Mines. Most people said it couldn't be done, but Michael Heney, who won fame as the builder of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad from Skagway to the Klondike, said, "Give me enough snoose and dynamite and I'll build you a road to hell!" His men did the impossible. They built a bridge over the river between two enormous glaciers (photo below), hauled a steam paddleboat in pieces over a treacherous pass in midwinter, and much more. We floated under the Million Dollar Bridge which was completed in 1910 just hours before the river ice shifted and swept away all the by-then-unneeded temporary supports.
The next day we continued on, floating past the face of Childs Glacier, the highlight of the trip (photo above). Here's what Karen Jettmar wrote about it in the Alaska River Guide:
Where Childs Glacier enters from the west, there is a vertical wall of ice towering to 300 feet and extending more than 2.5 miles along the river. Great icebergs are constantly discharged from the terminus of the glacier. As they drop into the river, which is only 10 to 20 feet deep in front of the glacier, the water creates "tidal" waves as high as 200 feet. The resulting swells sometimes wash across the river to the east bank, which rises 25 feet above the river, and have been known to flood 100 - 200 feet into the alder thickets. Boats caught on the river or on shore in front of the glacier have been thrown as far as 150 feet up on shore.
Fortunately for us, the towering glacier boomed but didn't calve during the long minutes it took us to float past.
The plan was to catch a taxi from the river to the ferry dock, then travel as walk-on passengers, leaving the rafts and gear on the car deck. Little did we suspect that "raft" was a four-letter word to the ferry crew. Apparently, other Copper River rafters and commercial operators had gotten crosswise with the captain and crew.
Fortunately for us, one of the only two friends who accepted our invitation to join us on the trip had been Chief Engineer on that very ferry. The captain and former co-workers were happy to see him again. We were given a tour of the bridge. Our friend was invited to enjoy a meal with the captain.
What none of his former shipmates could understand, though, was that he'd fallen from the lofty height of Chief Engineer to despised rafter. Was that what retirement did to a person?
Go on to read An Unexpected Swim
Source: www.SusanCAnthony.com, ©Susan C. Anthony