Monday, June 24, 2013

Copper River Adventure, Sixth and Final Day

          Boom!  A cannon blast interrupting our sleep?  Thunder?  No—new icebergs splitting from the face of Child’s Glacier and tumbling into the sea provided last night's sporadic rumblings.  In the stillness the roars were magnified; with each calving I envisioned waves and ice crashing through the sides of our tent.  You might think this would elicit fear but instead I found it thrilling and then comforting to experience these rhythms of the far north.

After sipping mugs of peppermint-chamomile tea Husband Tim and I packed our gear while Guide Tim and Kate cooked breakfast.  We stuffed our dry bags with sleeping bags and clothes and surveyed the interior of our canvas home one final time.  Red smears covered the walls and ceiling of our yellow rental tent, evidence of our nightly mosquito-crushing ritual.  Only when every last blood-filled critter was destroyed could I drift off to sleep.   I would miss the wilderness, yes, but not its tiny tormentors.  

Goodbye Camp Five.  Leaving the wilderness—and the

We enjoyed a brunch of vegetarian burgers, bagels and scrambled eggs with cheese, then cleaned up and pushed off from Camp Five, the finest campsite of the expedition.  Within half an hour we arrived at the take-out spot to find a snow-covered road where we expected to see the shuttle van parked and waiting.  Guide Tim hopped out and walked the snowy road for a quarter mile—no van in sight.  We’d have to row to another take-out spot downriver.  The good news: it’s not too far away.  The bad news: the van will meet us at Child’s Glacier overlook where the six of us will have to carry all the gear 100 yards uphill to the parking area.
Upon arrival at the revised take-out site, we emptied the rafts and portaged loads of gear up the muddy trail.  Finally Kate, Yag, Deepa, the two Tims and I carried each several-hundred-pound raft to the waiting van.  This was more work than we bargained for on our last day. 

Finally, the gear is loaded into the "luxury" van, our
transport for the ride to Cordova.

That task completed, husband Tim and I walked to the Child’s Glacier viewing platform where we read about the glacier, the mountains and the river and digested these facts:  the mountains surrounding the Copper River receive an average of 60 feet of snow per year—the heaviest snowpack in the world; the Copper River is the fourth largest in Alaska and one of the most silty and turbid rivers in the world; Child’s Glacier is capable of calving huge chunks of ice—in 1993 an iceberg split from the glacier across from where we now stood, sending a 30 foot wave crashing over this viewing platform.  We hoped the same thing wouldn’t happen today.  And it didn’t.  
While snapping our final photos though, a large section of the ice wall fell away from the glacier, producing a boom and several small waves.  This would be our send-off as it was time to board the van for the 60 mile drive to the harbor town of Cordova.  We drove along the Copper River Delta and watched shorebirds searching the mudflats for food.   We also spotted a swan couple with two fluffy babies (cygnets)—the birding highlight of the drive.

Danger!  This poster at the Child's Glacier viewing platform
shows what can happen if you're in the wrong place
at the wrong time.
After reading the above poster part of the ice wall
came crashing down.  Kayakers had paddled past
this spot only minutes before.

       In Cordova we stopped at The Lighthouse Restaurant for personal pan pizzas and tall glasses of iced tea, then said our goodbyes before being dropped off at Cordova’s one-room airport.  We arrived in Anchorage after a short and smooth flight, picked up the rental car, checked in to the Courtyard Marriott at 8:45 p.m., and by 9:00 I was luxuriating under a hot shower.  Every day you shower without really thinking about it, don’t you?  Well, after six days in the Alaskan outback, when you step into the shower you feel every drop of water on your skin—washing away the accumulated sweat, grime, sunblock and bug spray.  It’s glorious.

"Quaint" is the over-used word I would pick to describe
the fishing village of Cordova.  If I return to Alaska I'd like
to spend more time exploring this town.

      Clean and refreshed, Tim and I reflected on our Copper River experience.  What we liked:  the food, the campsites, the solitude.  What we didn’t like:  the rafting!  We both agreed that the hours spent fighting the wind on the cold, silty (no fishing) water were not our favorite.  However, we realized that we couldn’t have gotten to our wilderness campsites without traveling the river.  This six-day trip was a once-in-a-lifetime journey for us, but the next time we visit Alaska we’ll most likely travel the roadways or hiking paths to access Alaska’s wild lands.

Re-live the first five days of the raft trip by clicking on the links below:

Interested in a Copper River Raft Trip?  Copper Oar rafting company provided our guides and equipment.  The National Park Service offers information about the Copper River Float through Wrangell St. Elias National Park at this website: River Float.pdf

Note:  After spending a couple days in civilization (Anchorage) we traveled by float plane to Swan Lake in the Kenai Peninsula where we rented a US Forest Service cabin.  You can read about that adventure by clicking on the following links.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Copper River Adventure, Day Five

Gloomy with rain this morning.  Husband Tim and I emerged from our tent to find a tarp erected over the breakfast nook.  Kate and Guide Tim were cooking breakfast and singing in the rain to lighten the mood.  This is Alaska, after all, and our guides have experienced more than a few downpours during their years of rafting the Copper River.
As we savored crisp bacon and sweet pancakes the rain tapered off to a drizzle and then stopped completely while we packed up and loaded the rafts.

Breakfast and a smile:  Kate lightens the mood
as she prepares breakfast.

Guides Kate and Tim started a small blaze to warm
our outdoor cafe on this dreary morning.

The first half-hour on the river we alternated between calm waters and small riffles.  And then we heard it—that combination sound of howling wind and driving rain that tightens your stomach and raises the hairs on your arms—the forewarning of big rapids.  I believe that somewhere in our DNA we’re programmed to fear the roar of rushing water.  Today that roar signaled our approach to the Abercrombie Rapid, our only Class III rapid of the entire trip.

Guides Kate and Tim rowed to the shoreline upstream of the rapid and we all disembarked to scout our route.  The beach we walked along is a favorite fishing spot for Grizzly Bears; piles of fresh scat and sets of paw prints were scattered in the mud.   Our guides handed out whistles and we all blew the whistles and shouted to alert any nearby bears to our presence.  Amid the din from the rapids it would have been all too easy to catch a bear unaware and frighten it into charging.
From our vantage point we watched waves of six feet or more roiling like an angry ocean and rolling off the rocks along shore.  Kate said these rapids today resembled Class IV whitewater, rather than Class III.  Guides Tim and Kate seemed concerned.  Yag and Deepa looked concerned.  Husband Tim and I were concerned.  Everyone tried not to show their collective unease.
   We returned to the rafts and Guide Tim tied down our gear, secured our life vests and instructed us on protocol should the rafts flip or should we be thrown into the water. Basically, the instructions were these:  If the raft flips, try to swim back to it and hold on; if you go overboard, shout, look for the raft, point your feet downstream and keep your head above water.  Then hope for a rescue because in the icy cold of the Copper River you have about 10 minutes before hypothermia sets in, about 20 minutes before death sets in.  Reassuring.
My pulse raced as we pushed off from shore to run the Abercrombie Rapid.  Husband Tim and I helped Guide Tim with the paddling as we ran the gauntlet.  We crested waves and dipped into boughs as water crashed over our heads and splashed into the boat.  Finally the rafts emerged from the whitewater and we found ourselves floating on the surface of placid Miles Lake.
We clipped the two rafts together, drifted along, and shared celebratory snacks.  Miles Lake is surrounded on all sides by massive snow-covered mountains.  Miles Glacier, with its 300 foot vertical blue face, borders the lake’s eastern edge.  Childs Glacier borders the opposite lakeshore.  We rowed past crystalline blue icebergs and visions of an Antarctic expedition filled my mind.

Kate (rowing), Deepa and Yag relax on Miles Lake
after running Abercrombie Rapid.

Tim and I pose in front of an iceberg "raft".
Just minutes after rowing past this raft the smaller of the
two icebergs atop the raft toppled into Miles Lake, producing waves
and the roar of a shotgun blast.
Our destination for tonight was to be a campsite on the far side of the lake, next to the Miles Glacier.  Winds picked up, our pace slowed, and we realized that we wouldn’t make it across the lake before dark.  Guides Kate and Tim made the decision to drift with the current and find our sleeping accommodations wherever the flow took us.
An hour later we floated to a muddy shoreline; a sandy field up above provided space for the kitchen and our tents.  We were home for the night.  And what a home!  This proved the most panoramic campsite of the expedition.
         We relaxed with wine, cheese and crackers before savoring another of Kate and Guide Tim’s delicious dinner creations.  After dinner I wrote and read, reveling in the view of mountains and glaciers encircling the lake.  At some point in their lives, everyone should spend an evening like this.  Day Five began in gloom, but ended in grandeur.

Camp kitchen on 5th night.  Our kitchen is on a plateau
next to a snow field.  Miles Lake is to the left of
this photo.

Fifth Night's Camp—one mile from Childs Glacier.

Read about our other days of adventure on this raft trip:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Copper River Adventure, Day Four

         Hot tea, delivered to our doorway at 6:30 a.m., kick-started the fourth day of the raft trip.  Tim and I sipped the brew from our warm mugs, shook the sleep from our tired bones, and emerged from the tent refreshed and ready for another day on the water.

The Copper River rewarded us with easy paddling again this morning and we drifted along until we reached an area called “The Dunes”.  Formed by winds blowing pulverized glacial silt, the dunes seemed out of place in the Alaskan woodland wilderness.  We climbed the sandy hills while munching a pre-lunch snack of crackers and cheese.

The Dunes on an overcast day.  This area reminded me
of coastal Washington or Oregon.

Leave your inner fashionista at home when rafting in Alaska.
I'm sporting the latest in raft-wear—a decidedly unfashionable (but waterproof)
outfit of rubber pants with suspenders, topped by a rubber coat.
        Back in the rafts we caught a good current which whisked us to Shell Creek where we stopped for lunch.  Kate and Guide Tim prepared pasta salad, fruit and bagels while Husband Tim strung up his fly rod for a little casting.  No luck.
Winds picked up this afternoon and we had a tough go of it, fighting head winds all the way to our fourth night’s camp along the Wernicke River at the head of Baird Canyon. 
After making camp Husband Tim fished the Wernicke where it spills from the mountains to meet the Copper.  Again, no luck.  We later learned that the Copper River is among the most silty and turbid rivers in the world due to glacial run-off—rendering fly-fishing a thankless task.

Tim fishes the braided channels near
The Peninsula.  Beautiful spot.
No fish to be had.

The turbulent Wernicke near our campsite.
The fish weren't biting.
         We retired soon after dinner this evening, knowing we would need our rest to face tomorrow’s long day of paddling and our run through the Abercrombie rapids.

Fourth night's camp near the mouth of Baird Canyon.


          Much to Husband Tim’s dismay, the Copper River was not well-suited for either trout or for fly-fishing.  Steelhead Trout do live in the Copper River and they're prized for their salmon-like coloring and taste.  However, the prime catch on the Copper River and its tributaries are King, Silver and Sockeye Salmon.  Native Alaskans employed fish wheels to catch salmon, and the wheels are still in use on the river.  Alaska residents may also use dip nets to catch fish in the Copper (seasonal restrictions apply).  Most tourists who want to fish in Alaska sign on with a guide or charter service.  Maybe next time!

         Read about our other adventures on the Copper River Raft Trip by clicking on the links below: