Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Copper River - September 2020

After a great fly-in trip on the Chickaloon, we went back to Anchorage to refuel, check emails, repack, then hit the road for Chitina. The drive was a mix of fall colors, snowy peaks, and Planet Money. At the river the winds were blowing sand into our eyes as we loaded our boats and tucked the car behind a sad bunch of trees.

There were seals (and a few dipnetters) in Wood Canyon as we zipped thru. The water in the canyon was flat, but the eddy lines were strong, and it was impressive to see the river piling into the rock walls and spinning off 50 foot whirlpools. 

Even with the headwind and low flows we made an easy six miles in the first hour. As we exited the canyon, the winds died down, the country opened up around us, and we leaned back to look around.

The mountains rose above as we floated down the river. I've never seen 8,000 feet of relief from a river before.

We camped for the night where the Tiekel River met the Copper. Across the way, Peak 8010 rose 8,000 feet straight above us. 

The next morning the wind was blowing down river and it felt like we had sails as we pushed off. We pulled of for a bathroom break at the Bremner Dunes where there were comically huge (and very recent) tracks of a brown bear jumping off the dunes to the bank below. I'd expected the dunes to look like the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado, and thought they looked more of sand "flats".

Despite ubiquitous tracks from wolves, bears, and moose we saw few animals along the river. Occasionally we'd see a bear vacuuming berries in a meadow or sulking along the water's edge.

As we approached the coast and the temperature rainforest that is the Gulf of Alaska, the glaciers began to creep towards the water.

The seal density increased as we continued downstream. By Baird Canyon groups of five were watching us, and an inquisitive one we dubbed "Shannon" followed us for miles and came to within 10 feet of Nyssa's boat.

We'd heard differing reports on the Abercrombie Rapids from certain death to non-existent, so weren't really sure what to expect when the constriction appeared in front of us. "Rapids" seems like a stretch - there was a wave train on the outside corner, but the middle was smooth. At higher water I'm sure the eddies and seams are stronger, but I suspect there's still a smooth tongue down the middle. Having survived the rapids we pulled off for the night. 

Tucked out of the persistent wind behind a sofa of a rock, we sipped whiskey, read out loud, and played with sand between our toes while soaking in the evening sun.

In the morning Nyssa found fresh bear tracks in camp, and we watched a brown bear bumbling sleepily along the opposite bank as we packed the boats. Then we were off towards Miles Lake. At low flow it was more like Miles Sandbar, and we zig zagged back and forth trying to find a way thru. At one point we gave up on the water, walking on sand while our boats imitated sails in the harsh winds.

The Million Dollar Bridge and the Childs Glacier were a huge relief from the lake's sandblast punishment. I thought back to years ago, skiing at the headwaters of the Childs when I first moved to Alaska. I'd love to back there and ski more - which is how I felt last time too.

Nine miles after the Childs we hung a right aimed for the channel to Flag Point and the takeout at 27 Mile bridge. Upon entering the channel the character of the river changed - from straight and swift it became slow and curving. Going straight to 36 Mile bridge would likely be faster if you're in a rush.

We called Toni to let her know we'd be off the river soon, and in no time she was waving to us from the takeout. She'd brought us beer, chips, and berry picking and hiking plans. Toni and I have so many fun memories together - biking on the Kenai, skiing in the Talkeetnas, hunting on Hinchinbrook; getting to spend sunny days in Cordova with her was the cherry on top.

A couple days of munching and hiking our way around Cordova and it was time to board the plane home. I'd do this trip again in an instant; there's so much to explore in Copper River country.

Note: Especially with relatively low fall flows, we didn't know how long the float would take. But, boy that river rips - it took us 17 hours on the water to go 105 miles.

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