This summer, Alaska Pacific University offered a summer rafting trip on the Copper River for prospective students. We floated from Copper Center, a roughly three and-a-half hour drive from Anchorage to Cordova, a coastal port town that is only accessible by plane or boat. We allocated seven days for the rafting section which totaled about 150 miles. Depending on the level of the water, which is measured in cubic feet per second (CFS), a raft can go at 10 mph without even lifting a paddle. Prior to our departure, we looked at water levels and found that the Copper was at 240,000 CFS. When looking at historical water flow data, that was very high in relation to its median water height during the same period.
This year there were three guides, three prospective students, and two rafts. It was a small group, which made the trip manageable, and we were able to get to know each other really well. We put in on the Klutina River off of the Richardson Highway and floated a short distance to the Copper River. The weather consisted of light rain but we were eager to get on the river and get moving downstream. There were plenty of salmon running upstream, meaning a lot of fishermen were around as well. After merging onto the Copper River, we saw no signs of anyone else on the river and it began to feel like a true wilderness experience.
The Copper River is well known for its salmon runs which attract many Alaskans that rely on them for subsistence living, and for filling their freezers for the year. On our second and third days, we camped and passed through the town of Chitna, which is a popular destination for dip-netting, and there are several jet boat operations that transport dip netters to Wood Canyon further downstream.
Wood Canyon is an exciting section of river because of its narrowness, and there are many interesting hydrodynamics of bubbling water, strong eddy currents, and other sections of river that you should definitely be avoided by a raft. The canyon also has towering sections of rock on either side of the river, and little oases of sandy beaches that have signs that read, “Do not enter.” It can be challenging to keep your eyes on the river as the scenery all around you is distracting in its beauty.
Once through the canyon, the river widens and there are vast mountain peaks that stare you down on either side of the river that climb as high as six thousand feet. We found a nice sandy beach to camp on that had a small, dry river channel filled with glacial silt. The slippery silt was fun to play in, and made for a great game of tag football.
Each day had a loose schedule: we woke up to the sound of the river flowing by and mosquitoes hugging our tent, then walked over to the cook tent to heat water for coffee and open our coolers and dry boxes to see what ingredients we had for breakfast. After eating and enjoying the morning, we broke camp and hauled equipment back into the rafts. We pushed off and drifted with the current’s rhythm. During mid-day we were on the lookout for a nice beach to break for lunch, though we always had snacks readily available on the rafts throughout the day. Every day, prior to leaving camp, we would look at the map and make a rough plan for how far we wanted to make it by the end of the day. Once we reached that general area, we would start looking for suitable areas to camp, land, unload rafts, set up camp, eat dinner, and enjoy the evening.
Toward the end of the trip, we went through the Abercrombie rapids, a class III section of whitewater consisting of large standing waves. Prior to that, we wanted to scout the rapids on the right hand side, or “river right” in boating lingo. I had heard that this area can have a lot of bears that are attracted to the abundant fish. Once we got out of the boat, I felt like I had just stepped into the bear pen at the Alaska Zoo. There were bear droppings everywhere and large bear tracks in the sand. We quickly scouted the rapids up ahead and then got out of there! We made sure to make plenty of noise, a common tactic to scare off any bears in the area.
Once we got back into the rafts and started back downstream, we saw four brown bears on “river left” and three more bears on river right! It was hard to focus on the rapids with all the bears around. Once we passed the rapids, the river poured into Miles Lake, which moves very slowly and is bordered by the Miles Glacier. We found an island that made for a nice camp and allowed us to sleep well, as it was separated by a moat which we hoped would deter any bears from crossing.
On the last day of the trip, we crossed Miles Lake and pulled off at the Million Dollar Bridge, which was built in 1910 to gain rail road access to a copper mine. We got out of the rafts and explored the bridge; there was a viewing platform which provided a great view of Childs Glacier, which the river flows by. After that, we floated that last 20 or so miles to Flag Point and then made camp. The following day, we got packed up and drove to Cordova, then concluded our trip by taking a ferry from Cordova to Whittier, from which we made the hour-long drive back to Anchorage.
It was a great trip, with great weather, and it was incredible to have the opportunity to see a big portion of the state and all that it has to offer: wildlife, epic landscapes, and culture.