Copper River Highway

Tuesday morning dawned bright and sunny and I took an early morning stroll around Orca Lodge’s grounds.

This Black Oystercatcher makes its home on the beach by Orca Lodge.

Harlequin Ducks were almost always paddling around in the Inlet’s shallows.

This is Buck, the Lodge’s resident canine, and a 4 month old pup who came with a staff member.  Buck was amazingly patient with this little sprite.

The Lodge offers huge breakfasts. You can choose the “continental” – choice of cereals, porridge with all the toppings, fruits, yogurt, toast, English muffins and juice – or  join the local laborers tanking up with omelettes, potatoes, bacon, sausage and and pancakes  – or do a mix and match.

Above is the Lodge’s dining room, part of the “New England Cafe.” We puzzled over the cafe’s name (we are in Alaska, after all) until we realized that the cannery which operated on this site from the late 1800s until the late1980’s was called “New England Fish.”  The cannery closed after a botulism scare, and the site was purchased by the current owners, Steve and Wendy Ranney, in 1993. Since that time, they have gradually converted the old cannery buildings into this comfortable recreation complex. A bit of the old canning building is used today to process fish caught by visitors for shipping home.

After stuffing ourselves at breakfast, we all piled into our boat-like rented Ford Bronco for a drive up the Copper River Highway.

This highway passes through the Copper River delta, which spreads over 584 square miles and is the foundation of the area’s wild salmon fishing industry as well as the flyway stopover for over 500,000 migratory birds each spring. This is the only road out of Cordova, is 49.5 miles long and goes…nowhere.  It used to connect to the Million Dollar Bridge, which crosses a 1500 foot span of the Copper River between the Miles and Childs Glaciers, providing access to the Childs Glacier Lodge, which sits at the foot ofthe glacier.  When planning the trip, we had hoped to get close enough for a glimpse of this infamous bridge, but – alas – nature has prevailed over another marvel of engineering.

The Million Dollar Bridge was built between 1906-1911 as a railroad bridge to haul copper from the Kennecott Copper Mine to the port at Cordova. Kennecott built an aerial tram to transport the ore over the mountains to the end of the rail line at the top of the Copper River – i.e., the Bridge. They transported more than 200 million tons of copper ore along this line until the railroad shut down in 1938.

Today, like most mines of this era, Kennecott Copper is a Superfund Site, managed in this case by the National Park Service as an Historic Site. Fortunately, the predominantly limestone geology in which the copper was found does not release toxic metals like the more acidic rock formations in the western states, so water contamination in the Copper River does not appear to be an issue.  However, visitors at the site are advised not to touch anything to avoid heavy metal contamination through direct contact – something the Park Service doesn’t exactly highlight on its website.To learn more, read Barbara “Bo” Benson’s “Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark: A Toxic Site,” published in the National Parks Traveler. A woman after my own heart!

In 1958, the Bridge was converted to a highway bridge – possibly as part of a plan to build a connecting road to villages further up the river? Note that these little towns in the watershed are not connected to Cordova by road today, and we saw signs around town saying No! to a connecting highway.

The 1964 earthquake destroyed several bridges upriver of the Million Dollar Bridge, and damaged this one. The Bridge was repaired, first temporarily and then permanently, and rededicated in 2005.  However, the Childs Glacier had other ideas and, in 2016, a very large glacial iceberg damaged a pier, rendering the bridge unsafe. Access today is only by jetboat, but even that access has been limited by damage to another bridge 14 miles downstream which has closed the highway at mile 36. And on our visit, snow blockages on the highway prevented us from even getting as far as mile 36. Oh, well – it was a scenic drive anyway. 

So enough about what we didn’t see, and more about what we did see.  Our trip was almost aborted when the Bronco’s tire warning indicator light came on. This vehicle is old enough that it gave no indication of which tire or why the tire was unhappy, so we decided to stop by the car rental office at the airport to see if we could find someone to fix the problem.

Consistent with our experience with this very low key rental operation, there was no one in the office.  However, Gary found a compressor-powered tire inflator under the porch and undertook some self help – which seemed to be effective, since the warning light went away. We proceeded up the highway.

It’s a REALLY big delta, with massive mudflats.

The views across the valley along the way were glorious – we were very grateful for such a clear and sunny day.

After driving as far northeast as we could, we reversed course to make some scenic stops and do a bit of hiking.  The McKinley Lakes trailhead included a rest area with interesting information about an Eyak village that was once located near here, as well as the somewhat mysterious Eyak people. I found the framing of this story as “Whispers” very moving.

Not your average USFS pit toilet.

We left Gary and Crystal to hike the 1.25 mile McKinley Lake Trail, connecting to the 1.8 mile Pipeline Lakes Trail for a semi-circlular loop back to the highway.  We learned a new word associated with this area: “muskeg meadows.” Common in this part of Alaska, they are are sphagnum peat bogs with scattered trees.  The term “muskeg” is an anglicized version of the Cree and Ojibwe terms for a grassy bog.

Matt accompanied the less able bodied among us (did I mention that I was recovering from a broken kneecap?) to the Alganik Slough Trail for a couple of boardwalk strolls. The Pete Isleib Boardwalk was built over muskeg meadow along a stream, and was a lovely spot for birding.

Unfortunately, the second boardwalk we planned to take at this location was only accessible through ~ 100 yards of deep, mushy bog, so we admired the area from a distance. After retracing our steps to collect the hikers back at the Pipeline Lake Trail, we turned around once more and drove to the  Haystack Trail.  

Described as “an easy .8-mile boardwalk trail with lots of stairs,” I decided to challenge my knee and try the walk. (Dominique was wiser and relaxed by the car.) The trail meandered through old growth Sitka Spruce and Hemlock trees which had been logged, leaving crowded 2nd growth trees and stumps covered in moss. And yes, there were stairs – lots of stairs.

I made it about halfway, then turned around to join Dominique back at the car. Crystal reported a fun fact she learned about hemlock tress by persevering to the end.  As these trees age, they lift their roots above the grounds to create “knees,” sheltered areas for seedlings. And when the old trees fall, they are quickly covered in moss and liverworts, which then provide growing medium for hemlock (and other) seedlings.

Matt added some pictures from the trail after I turned around. There was a lovely view at the end!

A reward seemed in order after all that hiking, so on our way back to the Lodge, we stopped for an excellent brew at Copper River Brewing.

IN the evening, after a bit of R&R at the Lodge, we went back into town for an excellent dinner at the Reluctant Fisherman Inn – which gets my vote for best bathroom  art.

A little bathroom companion discovered in the Reluctant Fisherman’s ladies’.

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