Alaska is astounding.
The Mighty Copper River
I wasn’t entranced at the prospect of traveling with twenty other people, all young enough to be my children or even my grandchildren, but I knew that I would probably never get another opportunity to raft the mighty Copper River. And, in spite of the fact that I do a lot of things on my own, this wasn’t something I would attempt without company.
We met at Chitina, just across the bridge on the road to McCarthy. All these towns are tiny, with permanent populations around one hundred. Alaska only has a dozen or so size-able towns in the whole state. Here at Chitina, the river flowed implacably, about a hundred yards wide, with a sandy estuary on one side, where many fish wheels were operating. A fish wheel is a machine with several baskets on arms, that rotate round and round, propelled by the force of the water. A million salmon are making their way up the banks of the river to spawn, and they cannot see the wheels for the same reason that we cannot see the fish – the river carries an enormous amount of silt, which makes it a thick grayish brown. So a few of the fish are caught in the wheels and flung into a box, where they wait until the fish wheel owner collects them. I was told that they often catch as many as sixty in a night, each one at least four pounds in weight, and many bigger. In Alaska, people expect to start the winter with a freezer full of salmon.
We arrived in several truckloads. The group from Fairbanks drove across the bridge sporting a skull and crossbones flag. The back of the truck was piled high with equipment and two of the group were sitting on top, whooping and yelling. This was not going to be a staid trip. They had lost some of the luggage on their way here, which meant one of their group had no sleeping bag, no spare clothes, no tent, and no dry suit.
The last to arrive, at 9pm, were Zach and a couple of others who had been working that day – they were professional raft guides. Although things might be really disorganized, I knew at least that I didn’t have to worry about their competence in managing the rafts. Zach had wanted to bring a small pig to roast on the way, which would have meant traveling with it alive in a crate for two days. I was deeply relieved that he never managed to find a pig of the right size.
After pumping up the four big rafts, we loaded them with our stuff. Besides a phenomenal amount of beer, there was quite a quantity of hard spirits. By the time we set off, everyone except me was swigging from beer cans. During the whole four day trip, I don’t think there was more than an hour in the early morning when there were no open beer cans. In spite of that, a few people, such as Zach, never seemed to get drunk. He was the only one who had been down this river before, and he warned us that although there were no rapids on this first stretch, there was a very strong current. “Don’t fall in,” he called, his voice reaching all four rafts as we jumped aboard, picking out places to sit. “The current here is so strong that you’ll get carried away before we can catch you.”
I chose to go in the raft that had the most gear and the least people – Zach, Tony, Chris and Chris‘s dog, a retriever who really didn‘t like water, and spent most of the trip cowering on the luggage, looking miserable. We set off against a powerful and bitterly cold wind, making it very hard to get away from the bank. It was already dusk, although I wasn’t too worried about that since it barely ever gets fully dark in Alaska in late July. I quickly did get worried about the cold – the clothes I had that could deal with a wind like this, blowing straight off the glaciers, were buried at the bottom of the raft. I wrapped myself in a tarp and munched on trail mix.
We floated for about three hours that night, down the only part of the river that was anything like a canyon. It remained wide, but contained by walls that were mostly rock, not much tree-clad, and rising fairly steeply a few hundred feet. We saw a big blond bear – a grizzly – surging up one of those slopes, with a power that was almost tangible.
Once out of the canyon, Zach rowed us to one side, where there was a wide sandy beach he said would be good for camping. But in the darkness, the other rafts behind us missed the eddy that would have carried them in to join us, so we had to pull back out to follow them. In such a huge river, you had to plan your landing in advance, and we weren’t that organized.
Now we were a little way behind the others, and Zach rowed hard to catch up with them, but suddenly he stopped and eyed the bank. “There’s a fish wheel over there,” he said. “And it’s turning! Let‘s have fish for dinner.“ I could hear the grin in his voice. We all peered through the gloomy light. My eyesight was abysmal compared to Zach’s eagle eyes, so I could see nothing. He swung the raft round to catch an eddy that brought us onto shore, and then I could see the structure, the wheels rotating silently amidst the sound of the river.
“Who does it belong to?“ We’d only passed one building on the bank of the river so far, but I’d have thought the fish wheel owner wasn’t far away and I didn’t relish the idea of being caught stealing. “Oh, it’s probably a government one,” said Tony dismissively.
As soon as we beached the raft, all three of them ran off gleefully to raid the box, while I stayed near the boat to make sure it didn’t float away. Zach, laughing with delight, used the convenient long handled net to fish out five big salmon, one by one, throwing them to the other two on land, who beat them to death with stones. They carried their spoil back to the raft, congratulating themselves loudly and busily.
Now that we were really behind the others, they were wondering where we’d got to. We could hear them faintly in the distant darkness, shouting, and blowing whistles. They’d found a campsite on the opposite bank, a large flat sandy area with a few willow trees. We soon pulled up on shore next to them, with Zach, Tony and Chris all shouting about fish for dinner.
Dan, a big guy from Montana, built a roaring fire with driftwood, and we grilled the fileted salmon. I was quite surprised at myself; I’d thought I would be really tired, since I am usually early to bed, and half the crew did disappear into their tents before the salmon was cooked, but I stayed up. Copper River Reds are supposed to be the tastiest salmon in the world. It was indeed delicious.
The wind died that night, thankfully. The morning was cloudy but warmer. We all stood yawning around the fire, while kettles boiled for tea and coffee. Someone cooked eggs and bacon. It was twelve o’clock before we had everything packed, and pushed the rafts off again into the main flow of the river. Making sure I had access to extra clothing, water, and munchies, I settled myself amongst the luggage behind Tony, who was rowing our raft today. It was a little tricky keeping things to hand in that crowded space, without worrying that they would be squashed by an errant foot or accidentally knocked overboard, since people were moving to and fro on the rafts during the day. I lost my water bottle a couple of times, recovering it in the evening in the bottom of the raft, once we‘d removed all our luggage.
The scenery had broadened here: the banks of the river, usually spruce covered, gradually sloped up to the timberline on the mountains, where greenish scrub and grass, or bare rock, took over. The spruce forests were such dark green as to be almost black, and in places where they had been hit by the bark beetle – which has caused devastation in some areas of Alaska – the green was dotted with grayish patches of dead or dying trees.
The river now was wider and consequently shallower in places. Occasionally it meandered around flat islands decorated with willows. We had to watch not to get caught on these shallows. Zach or Tony were always reading the water, discussing which of the various channels to take, and complaining that it was a really hard river to read because it was so wide. It wasn’t the end of the world to get stuck on a shallow spot, since it would only be knee deep at that point – some of the lads were always wearing dry suits, so they would jump in and push us off. The tricky part was making sure they got back on before it got too deep. A couple of times, when the bottom suddenly dropped off, one of us had to leap over the luggage to grab the pusher by his collar to drag him aboard.
Distances were deceptive – it took us an hour or more to round a corner ahead of us, defined by short cliffs. We floated along until a new view was revealed and I realized we must have finally rounded the bend.
I decided that it was time for me to learn how to row, partly because it would be a physical activity to keep me warm. The other three were fine about teaching me, although I had terrible trouble working out which was forwards and backwards, for two reasons; firstly because you have to pull backwards in order to go forwards (supposing that you are facing in the opposite direction you want to be going in, which is the standard position for rowboats), and secondly because there is no obvious front and back in those rafts. They are rectangular. You can be floating either way round, and you can be sitting either way round. It wasn’t until the second day that I began to get the hang of it, and then only when I had started to understand why and when one would want to row one way or the other, which was a matter of learning to read the water, seeing when eddies or shallows were to be caught or avoided and then deciding how to row to achieve the desired affect.
In the meantime, one of the lads sitting up on the luggage watching the water would shout instructions, consisting of something like “backwards on the left!” or “push on both sides!” On the first day I rarely got it right. Zach was sitting beside me at one point, wielding the oar on his side, and he shook his head sadly, pursing his lips. “You are a really bad rower,” he said. I laughed. “You wait, I’ll learn!” And I did.
Wielding both oars at once was great whole body exercise, which certainly did keep me warm. We kept going all day, and tied the four rafts together so that we could party. Perhaps I shouldn’t say ‘we,’ since I didn’t join in much, and would have preferred floating alone, which would give rise to more possibility of intelligent conversation. I was impressed at the amount of alcohol consumed – I think I remember when I was the age to be doing that, when getting out of your head was a must, and there was an unspoken competition to see who could hold the most alcohol or other drug. Perhaps it wasn’t so much a competition, it was just that we all egged each other on. In any case, some of the guys got to the point of passing out or throwing up quite early in the day, to everyone else’s great amusement. Several people were taking videos, although I can’t imagine why they would want a movie of someone puking. I was a little anxious about the possibility of alcohol poisoning, but they seemed like a very tough bunch – when I was wrapped up in two jackets and a balaclava, Zach was still wearing a T-shirt, with his dry suit draped around his waist.
One of the older and more sensible guys was Justus, who now lived and worked in New York, for a TV program that gave him the summers off. Every summer he went adventuring. He’d started when he was seventeen – before he’d even left school, Outward Bound were offering him work. Then before he was eighteen, he was offered a job scouting white water in South America for a company that wanted to set up businesses offering whitewater kayaking trips. He‘d spent two years on his own down there, testing virgin waters, with all expenses paid and no holds barred. He shot up several notches in my estimation when he told me this. I couldn’t imagine what kind of person you would have to be do that – whitewater kayaking is a dangerous sport when you are accompanied by others who know what they’re doing, and the water has been tested already. Spending years exploring rivers that were completely untried, in wilderness areas where no white people had been before, was an extraordinary thing to do. Quite apart from the physical side of it, to live in such foreign cultures for that long, at that age, separate from friends and family, would foster a profound self confidence, as well as a very deep understanding of the world and what makes people tick.
Interestingly, Justus was traveling with one of the youngest guys, Pete, who tied with James and Dan when it came to getting very drunk. At one point, a bottle of vodka and orange fell in the water when it was being thrown from hand to hand and raft to raft. Pete jumped in and swam to get it, standing up in the shallows as he held it triumphantly aloft, to the sound of loud cheers from everyone on the rafts.
Pete had a small raft with an outboard motor which he couldn’t always manage very well. Sometimes he shot off into the distance, appearing to know exactly what he was doing; other times, when he was not in a state to be in charge of any motorized vehicle, he went in uncontrolled circles, spraying us all with water as he lifted the motor out too far.
An astonishing number of firearms had been brought on the trip. Pete had assured me before we left that he would teach me how to use his shotgun, but he was too out of it most of the time to be anywhere near a gun. We stopped a couple of times to shoot them off, though, for no good reason except that there’s something heady about such a small, dangerous and noisy thing. It’s the kind of behavior that I normally abhor, because I don’t like the sound and I don‘t generally like killing things, but since I was traveling with them, I thought I might as well join in, so I got lessons in using a forty-five and an automatic. Kristine and her boyfriend, who were the oldest people on the trip apart from me, and relatively sensible, had five guns with them. I asked her why.
“Well, we just happen to have them so we brought them along. They’re all different. It‘s good to keep in practice with them, and they‘re perfectly safe if you use them properly.”
“I guess that’s the kicker, you have to use them safely.” And not when you’re drunk.
“Yes, and people need to be taught how to use them safely. My Dad taught us about guns when we were little kids, I think that was a really good thing, you gotta teach people that you don’t play games with them. You gotta demystify them so they know they’re not toys.”
Watching Dan firing off the fortyfive into the water, I wondered how come everyone here missed out on that lesson.
A potato gun supplied by Pete got the most use. It was simply a four inch PVC tube. You stuffed a potato down the open end, unscrewed the cap on the other end, squirted in some hairspray, quickly re-screwed it, and then pulled the trigger, which was a gas firelighter glued in place. If you were lucky, the hairspray would explode, flinging the potato out with great force, sometimes at least 200 feet through the air. It was an unreliable source of hilarity, but the fact that it so often didn’t work made everyone very delighted when it did.
One morning, Zach fired off one of the shotguns to wake everyone up. Chris’s dog, who wasn’t the boldest animal in the world, ran off into the woods, and Chris spent an hour searching before he found him. Chris, at nineteen, was the youngest member of the group by one year, and everyone called him ‘the kid.’ He took magic mushrooms one morning. Assuming he knew what he was doing, I said nothing, but I thought it wasn’t a very good scenario for tripping, to be stuck on a raft on a tricky river, with a bunch of noisy drunken people you couldn’t get away from. He quickly became very monosyllabic, lying prone on the pile of luggage. I could sympathize with that non-verbal space, and when Zach was ribbing him, trying to get him to talk, I interrupted. “Leave him alone, Zach, he can’t have a conversation.”
Later, when we had all the rafts tied together, Chris moved to the least populated boat, which was Kristine’s. Seeing her holding his hand, I went over to check on him. His eyes reflected the depths of sadness that gripped him, as a tear slid down his cheek. I remember that place of unending sorrow. Realizing he was probably beyond being able to judge his physical status, I wondered if he was in danger of hypothermia.
“Does his hand feel cold?” I asked Kristine.
“Yes, he does he feel cold, and he hasn’t eaten anything,” she replied.
“Let’s get him wrapped in a tarp,” I suggested. “Chris, can you get yourself to the seat behind you? And have you been drinking any water?”
Although he couldn’t say much, he responded well to our ministrations and I gave him some rescue remedy. He was so sweet with his heart open like that, much nicer to be around than when he was trying to be macho and denying any sign of vulnerability. Within a couple of hours he was acting fairly normally.
The next day he expressed his gratitude. “I was feeling my life was such a failure, I just needed some love,” he said. “And that rescue remedy was great, that brought me right out of it.”
Because some people had to be back at work, we only had four days to do a trip that really should have taken eight, so we couldn’t stop as often as we would have liked. Peeing was a matter of concern for many of us. The lads stood up on the leeward side of the craft to pee in the water. Most of them were very casual about it; Zach especially would just turn his back to pee, in the middle of a conversation. After hanging on desperately a few times, I discovered that Kristine’s raft had buckets. I was able to pee in a bucket without revealing anything embarrassing. Kristine had a little funnel that you could insert into your pants to pee standing up like a guy, but I didn’t think it was particularly useful – squatting over a bucket was easier.
On the third day, Dan hung out on our boat for a while. He had a very bad habit of blowing the emergency whistle that was attached to his lifejacket, for no good reason. I disliked the sound, and Chris actively hated it, he said it hurt his ears. After asking Dan to stop without any result, he jumped on him suddenly, ripped off the whistle, and threw it in the river. The argument that ensued went on for half an hour, Dan saying things like, “You could have just asked me to stop,” “That was a pretty childish way to react,” and “What did you do that for?“, while Chris responded with statements like, “I did ask you to stop,” “That noise hurts my ears,” and “There was no other way to stop you.” Zach intervened a few times, but clearly the conversation was interminable. I decided it was time to lay down the law.
“OK, I have listened to both of you for too long already, now you need to shut up. I can’t stand it any more. If I wasn’t stuck on this raft with you, I would go somewhere else, but I can’t, so you both just have to shut up. I‘m tired of listening to you saying the same thing over and over.”
Dan started to say something, and I interrupted. “Dan, I don’t want to hear it!”
The ensuing silence was long and blissful, and when someone finally spoke again, it was on a different subject.
A railway had been built alongside the river at the beginning of the nineteenth century, to ferry copper down to the sea from the mines in the hills. There was a lot of it up there; the native people had been using it for centuries. I had seen a picture of a man standing next to a nugget of copper found in the riverbed – it was as tall as he was. The river couldn’t be used for transport because it was too shallow in the summer and frozen in the winter, but not frozen enough to carry weight. The first delivery pf copper paid for the railway, which was built very cheaply, mostly with Chinese labor. Although abandoned now for sixty years (they got all that copper out fast), we saw bits of it on the banks, and stopped twice to explore. Once we clambered through undergrowth to find a tunnel about a hundred yards long, and the other time we visited a very dilapidated building – the roof half collapsed in onto bunk beds still standing. Zach, who had first seen this a few years previously, said that there used to be books and boxes with Chinese characters on them. “I guess people have been here taking stuff,” he said, ducking out of a very low doorway hung with moss. “People probably hike this way.”
I wasn’t sure he was right about that since it was too overgrown to be particularly passable, but we had seen a couple of other rafts on the river, and there was a small native population in the area, who might have had an eye for things that would sell.
We never had a problem finding a sandy beach to camp in the evenings, and we always built a huge fire, though the nights were not particularly cold. There was always plenty of food – one evening someone cooked a huge pot of spaghetti and sauce, another night we had tacos. In the mornings, bacon and eggs always appeared from somewhere. During the day, we snacked on trail mix of various kinds, Goldfish (there was a huge bag of them), and apples. Kristine made sandwiches for all of us, with cheese, ham, mayo and all the goods. One evening, Zach organized a game, where we all had to take turns walking several yards with a plate held between our buttocks. Since I had three layers of clothing covering that part of my body, I was no good at all. I think there were some other games after that but I went to bed, happy to be alone in my little tent, which I always pitched far enough away that I wouldn’t be disturbed by any noise.
I wasn’t sure that Zach had chosen the right career; there had to be something other than law that would put his endless propensity for entertaining people to better use. One morning, he cooked breakfast wearing a long dress, with stuffed gloves making an appearance of a cleavage. He even wore mascara and lipstick.
We saw a couple of other rafts and once a motorboat in the distance, otherwise we were on our own. On the morning of our fourth day, we went through the only rapids, bouncing over the white water waves, avoiding the most spectacular ones. Shortly after that, we stopped at a flat spot where Zach assured us there were always bears. We glimpsed two disappearing very quickly as we beached the boats. Walking as quietly as we could over the sandy area, we peered around bushes and rocks, finding only piles of poop and many very big paw prints. I explored a little on my own amongst the willow trees and sandy pools, but I found I was too nervous of meeting a mother and cubs to be able to enjoy myself. I’d seen bears close up in Montana, I wasn’t desperate to see any more.
We arrived at a huge ice field where the river spread out into a lake, the water surface dotted with icebergs of all sizes that were slowly being spewed into the water from the dirty bluey white bank. I asked Zach what differentiates an ice field from a glacier.
“An ice field is where several glaciers meet the water together. Look, you can see them.” He pointed to the hills, where several rivers of ice flowed downwards. “And there are more up there that you can’t see.”
People were a little subdued by this time, our fourth day, and we made our way separately across the lake, rowing constantly now that there was no current to carry us. Zach, Tony and Chris all fell asleep while I rowed, occasionally running over a tiny iceberg, but mostly managing to avoid them. In the distance, where the lake narrowed back down to a river, I could see the original railway bridge, which had recently been restored to prevent it falling down altogether. Beyond that was Child’s Glacier, one of the most spectacular glaciers in Alaska, and the source of many cracks and bangs, a little like thunder, that we could hear from more than a mile away, to my great curiosity. I had heard noises a little like this at another glacier, nothing like as loud. What was it going to look like?
Once under the bridge, we rounded a bend, and Zach took over the rowing. “We have to make sure we stay to this bank,” he said, “but not too close in case the glacier calves a big one.” The face of the glacier was maybe half a mile long and perhaps as high as it was far away from us. Justus and I decided that was something like three or four hundred yards, although it was very hard to tell. The bangs, cracks, and groans were really loud now, and almost constant, though most were not accompanied by any activity visible to us. I wondered what we’d see if we could see what was making those noises – were they just caused by slight movements of pieces of ice against each other, or pieces falling off inside this vast, apparently solid chunk? Zach said it was more active than he had ever seen it. As we gazed at the great blue cliff, we saw a piece break off, cascading into the river below, followed by a particularly loud sound a split second later.
“Sound travels slower,” Tony muttered. We watched spellbound as a wave rose up where the piece hit the water, slowly traveling towards us. “It was a biggish one, but it’s gonna be fine,” said Zach, his eyes glued to the approaching wave. Sure enough, it lifted us up and set us down again easily, washing several feet up on the rocky shore to our left.
“How often do you get really big ones?” I asked, slightly nervously.
“There was a wave thirty foot high about fifteen years ago, it wiped out several houses that were near the bank. We’ll be in trouble if one of those comes along!” Zach laughed gaily. “Most of them are no bigger than the one that just passed.”
The people who needed to get back to Valdez the next day had to carry on down to the estuary where they would meet with Zach’s dad, who was bringing a truck over on the ferry to Cordova, the town that sat near the estuary, where the ferry from Valdez would dock. So one raft went on, Zach with it. He told us that it would take about three hours to get to the meeting point at the estuary. Those of us who were staying to watch the glacier beached our rafts and walked along to sit on top of the bank where tourists normally viewed the magnificent sight, waiting breathlessly for the big one, taking bets about when it would happen, pointing out particular chunks that looked ready to go. Justus and I were several hundred yards behind the others, when another piece fell, this time in one chunk rather than a cascade of small pieces. We stopped to watch the wave approaching. It washed up about ten feet onto the beach. Justus glanced back at the rafts that were lying on the edge of the rocks, then frowned, his eyes narrowed.
“Is that… is that boat tied up?”
His eyesight was better than mine, and he started to run back while I was still peering. Then I saw what he had already seen, that the furthest raft was floating away from us. I started running too, a little halfheartedly, since those rocks were hard to run over, and I figured it was highly likely that Justus wouldn’t need my help, which proved to be true.
“Damn, it’s a good thing you’re on the ball,“ I said, when he’d secured it.
He nodded with fervour. “It’s a good thing we were still down here to see it!”
We watched and listened to the glacier for an hour or so, entranced by this splendid show of nature’s grandeur. Then it was time to go. Everyone was quieter by now, and I enjoyed floating peacefully and silently. But by eight o’ clock I was a little concerned. It would be dark in two hours, and we would not be able to navigate without light to show us where the shallows were, especially as the river was so wide now, with many islands. Zach had told us to stay to the right, but we had to be able to see where ‘the right’ was. Chris and I started to row as hard as we comfortably could.
Justus and Pete had taken off earlier in the little raft to take a closer look at the glacier, and they hadn’t rejoined us. It was possible they were ahead of us, since the river was wide enough for them to have passed on the other side of an island without seeing us. Someone had the smart idea of firing off the shotgun to attract their attention, and within five minutes we heard them motoring towards us. I was happy to see them, not least because, with their speed and maneuverability, they would probably find the meeting point easily.
Now that they were back, I felt quite calm about our situation, although as darkness gradually encroached, I detected an air of anxiety on the boats. We were already two hours over Zach’s estimate of three hours, which didn’t surprise me since I knew that time was not his strong point. I was about to suggest that Pete and Justus needed to go ahead, when they worked it out themselves, started up the motor and quickly shot off into the darkness.
Only minutes later we heard shouting, and then a patch of flames appeared briefly to direct us to shore. Later I was appalled to find out that Pete had poured some gasoline directly onto the ground, and set fire to it. In any case, very soon we were all on land, at the end of a long bridge by a radio tower, just as Zach had described. He arrived by truck within half an hour, and meanwhile everyone got very busy in the darkness packing up all the stuff, deflating the rafts, and finally squashing a preposterous amount of stuff into the back of the pickup, which looked quite dwarfed when we were done.
Chaos reigned, as the consequences of our lack of planning became clear, but in the end I went into Cordova at midnight to get some camping gear, and drove the truck back on my own, to sleep by the river with half a dozen others. In the morning, just as we arrived at the ferry terminal, where a huge pile of our stuff sat in the middle of the parking lot, the truck got a flat tire. Of course there was no jack. I sorted out fixing it, while we all hung around, exploring Cordova or trying to take naps in the parking lot to catch up on our lack of sleep. I was glad not to be hurrying back to civilization. Everyone agreed it had been a great trip. “Good weather,” several people remarked.
“A little cold, don’t you think?” I questioned.
Justus shook his head. “If it had been any warmer, we’ve have had horrible mosquitoes. Apart from a little drizzle last night, it didn’t rain, so we were lucky.”
A kayak had been brought over from Valdez for me to use; I was planning a solo trip back to Valdez through Prince William Sound, figuring it would take me seven or eight days. Everyone else was going on the ferry, which would take three hours to go the same distance. I spent a couple of hours in the parking lot, sorting out what I needed and packing it into the kayak. At six, I had someone help me carry the boat over some rocks down to the water on the far side of the dock. I climbed in, waving goodbye as I paddled off, both relieved and a little sad to be on my own again.
By eight thirty I was well round the first point, and looking for a place to stop along the very rocky coast. At sea now, I had to be careful of the tide, and when I found a tiny rocky cove with a small flat space just big enough for my tent, I dragged the kayak up about fifteen feet, laying it on one side so no rain would get in it. As soon as I’d pitched the tent, I fell into my sleeping bag, and was dead to the world within minutes.