Copper River- From Chitina to Flag Point (near Cordova)
by Jim Strutz
I think mid-July or August are usually the best floating times for the Copper River. Early July trips may encounter snowdrifts at campsites near glacier. Plan on at least 4 full floating days. At high water, it can be done in three, but it’s a nicer trip if you allow for 5 days. The trip is about 150 river miles, and the water is fast & flat for most of the way.
13-18 foot rafts are probably the ideal craft for the Copper, but I used a smaller cataraft. Sea kayaks, and inflatable kayaks work well for this river, and to a lesser degree, whitewater kayaks. There is no real reason for not taking a canoe on this river, except that if you did tip over mid-stream, you would probably need to be close to a more stable craft to help you out. Swimming to shore is usually not an option, hypothermia would disable you before you got there.
If you are paddling a small craft that might get turned over, or you might fall off of, you should consider tying yourself to the boat with a thin tether. If you were to fall out, and the frequent wind is swiftly blowing upstream, you would quickly get separated from your boat. Other nearby rafters may not be able to row fast enough to fight the wind in time to retrieve your now drowned body. Make sure any tether has a quick release.
For most of the trip, you will be able to see parts of the old railroad that runs near the bank on river right. This was built in 1910 to create transportation for copper ore from the Kennicott Mines near McCarthy.
This old rail bed has been converted to a road for much of its length. The 70-mile section from McCarthy down to Chitina and then on to at least O’Brien Creek is all driveable, and the 50-mile section from Cordova to the north end of the Million Dollar Bridge is as well. It’s the section in the middle that is missing, and as you float the river you can see many signs of the old rail bed. There have been attempts at finishing the conversion to vehicle traffic but has run into many logistical, financial, political, and environmental roadblocks. The most popular plan in the last few years has been to forget about much of this old rail bed and put a road in from the Richardson Highway, down the Tiekel River, and thence to the north end of the Million Dollar Bridge. It may never get done.
Along the float you can see one section where one of the rails still holds as it hangs high over a river valley, totally unsupported. Obviously this is a continuously welded rail. Much of the old rail was removed years ago and sold for scrap. The only sections with actual rail remaining are in the middle where it was too difficult to remove. Much of the rail bed that runs opposite of Bremner Flats has been washed away, and you can see sections of rail that run off into the water, and a few miles downstream reappear the same way.
River Description & Features
This is a very large & fast river. At higher water levels it is often over a mile wide & flooded bank to bank. It takes a long time to move a heavy raft from one side to the other. Its average speed is 9 mph, one of the fastest rivers in North America, and at high water some sections are considerably faster. Abercrombie Rapids was doing over 20 mph the last time I saw it. I have never seen a river move so fast without being vertical.
Mostly this is flat water. In the first constricted section, Wood Canyon, ten miles downstream from Chitina, and just below O'Brien Creek, there are very large & powerful eddies, whirlpools, and reversals near the edges of the river. Most of these should be avoided, as some of them can be very difficult to get out of.
After you finish the canyon Haley Creek comes in on river right. In the recent past it has been possible to drive four-wheel drive vehicles this far. In 2002 or 2003 some of the road had washed out just above O’Brien Creek and I’m not sure of the conditions of any of this road at present. You can find many decent campsites along both sides of the river from here on.
The Uranatina River enters at about mile 30. Just below here there is a railroad tunnel that has been camped in before, and should make for a decent shelter if needed. The Tiekel enters at about mile 50, and across the river near where Dewey Creek enters is another good campsite if the water’s not too high. At mile 75 the Tasnuna River enters on river right with the sand & silt fields of Bremner Flats on river left. The wind is most often blowing upstream for most of the trip and you will often encounter the blowing silt from the flats. It’s often advisable to wait until the wind dies down in the morning to run through this section. Unless the water is running high, this is a slow section, and competing with the wind & silt is not worth the struggle. In the morning it is usually a comfortable 20-mile float.
The current generally flows fastest down river right through the flats, and you want to finish this section near river right if the water is high. What looks like deep water on river left is not and has caused me considerable grief.
At about mile 100, Baird Canyon narrows and picks up speed. There are good camping areas on river left, by the way. The river then widens briefly and has more current on river left, but you must move to river right before it ends. This is very important and not as easy as it looks, as the merging current tends to push you river left as the river reforms for Abercrombie Rapids. So start moving river right early and swiftly. You can see the rapids coming up by noting the disappearing horizon line that approaches.
At low water there are no rapids at Abercrombie, but at high water it is at least a Class III, and the waves can reach ten feet or more. There read one report of a group of boaters encountering a flash flood as they approached these rapids and they estimated waves of 20 feet height. A natural dam gave way in heavy rains, draining a lake into the river, with the resulting flood coinciding with their arrival at the rapids. There is a good write up of the story in the book, "Cheating Death" by Larry Kanuit.
It is usually fun and safe to run right down the wave train near river left, but the rapids are more commonly avoided. This is easily done by staying river right, although at very high water there may be an absolutely huge hole on the far right side, followed shortly thereafter by an even larger eddy that can be very difficult to exit. Usually you will want to take out on river right to scout these rapids, but be careful of the frequent bear visits to this convenient and popular fishing area. Get your flare guns ready.
As you exit the rapids, move river left and stay to the left side as you enter Miles Lake. It's about seven miles directly across, but unless the water is quite high the sandbars in the middle section will be an island blocking your path. The easiest way to the other side is found by sticking to the left side of the lake. There is a fairly strong current there and this also allows you to get a closer view to Miles Glacier, which calves directly into the lake.
For most of the summer, there are a bunch of icebergs floating in the space between the glacier and the start of the shallows towards the middle of the lake. Try to stay to the left of these icebergs as long as possible in order to keep your boat in the fastest current. You want to end up on the left side of the lake just before the bridge.
Alternatively, you can stay on the right side of the lake and pull out on the north end of the bridge. But I understand that camping is better on the left side.
The lake narrows near its southwest corner and reforms as a river and runs under the Million Dollar Bridge. The bridge was built at the beginning of the 20th century for the narrow-gage railroad that went from Cordova to the Kennicott copper mine. There is quite a story about its construction and its near-collapse during the 1964 earthquake. You can read about it from the signs near the bridge.
Just upstream of the bridge, on river left, is a slow moving eddy with a sandy bank and good camping above. If you walk around here you can see this is a small area of sand dunes with a few tractor trails. You can take a short walk up to the road and access the bridge. On the other side of the road from the dunes is a real, honest to goodness, US Government campground, with clean pit toilets and everything, including a 50-mile dirt road to Cordova. However, in recent years the river has changed channels and taken out one of the bridges along this road, and it still may not be open. At the far end of the campground, overlooking the river, there are a couple of covered viewing stands. Across the ¼ mile wide river is the 600 foot high, calving face of Childs Glacier. This glacier runs directly into the river’s path, forcing the water to take a hard left. The river, in turn, forces the glacier to shed large sheets of ice into the water. It's like a continual battle between two gigantic forces, each unwilling to yield to the other. The calving is most active during warm weather in July and August. This is probably the best view of active ice calving you can get anywhere in Alaska, and the noise is amazing. The thunderous sound can be heard for many miles upriver.
If the water is high the waves from the glacier calving can be extremely violent as they crash onto the opposite bank. While running past this, you need to keep away from the left bank. In the middle of the river waves will just be smooth rollers. If you see one coming, head directly into it, not away from it. If the salmon are running these waves will often blast fish onto the bank and strand them on the rocks. It seems that both the bears and the campers know about this, and in the past there have been some unpleasant confrontations about particular “ownership rights.”
After you pass the glacier, you will be traveling with a lot of recently freed ice, some of which comes in large chunks. There is a certain fascination having an iceberg bobbing under your cataraft. You can reach right down & knock off a piece for your cooler. However, the larger pieces ground out as the river gradually shallows. Then they roll over and rise straight out of the water. Just watching one get upended forces you to realize that you need to steer clear of the big pieces.
After you pass the glacier you need to keep your boat river right. The river starts to form its delta and spreads out into dozens of small rivers. Take all the active channels that lead to the right. Some of them may reunite with a more direct, and left channel, but most don’t. Your goal from here on out is to end up on the right bank of the far-right channel if there is still water in it. There is a decent place to take out on the upstream side of the bridge. There is also a parking lot and driveway leading up to the road. Cordova is about 20 miles west.
Camping on Native Lands
Much of the land that the Copper River runs through is owned by AHTNA native regional corporation. In order to legally camp on their land, you need to get permission first. Some of the native corporations have regular fees for this. Always check first, and camp accordingly. I believe it is always permissible to camp on the old railroad right of way, but some have argued that this is not so. Also, many islands have good camping areas. Wherever you camp, make sure that you are far enough up from the river to deal with rising water.
How to Get There
Chitina is over 250 miles from Anchorage on mostly good roads. Head out the Glenn Highway and just past Glennallen turn right on the Richardson Highway for about 60 miles. Then turn left on the Edgerton Highway and drive 20 miles to Chitina. Most services are available, but may not be open late or even every day.
One good put-in is a mile or two past the town of Chitina on the way to McCarthy. Just drive straight through the gap and out towards the McCarthy Road. Most people launch across the Copper River Bridge on the upstream side of the road. There is adequate parking and camping areas, but some of this area may flood in very high water. The Chitina River enters on river left just below the bridge.
Alternatively, you can drive south along the river’s right bank to O'Brien Creek and put in there if the road is open. You're likely to encounter numerous fishermen at both places. Camping is better at O'Brien Creek but may be more crowded, and you miss the first several miles of the river. Also, the road is often bad.
Take out is at Flag Point at the far west side of the river, where it crosses the gravel road going out to Childs Glacier and the Million Dollar Bridge. It's about 27 miles west to Cordova. The airport is a few miles closer. From the airport into town the road is paved. Years ago a shuttle service was available to Cordova, but since the bridge washout it may not be available. Last time I did this, it was still $25 per person, with boat & gear-hauling included. In the past you could take out just above the Million Dollar Bridge and avoid drifting in front of the active glacier, but I don’t think that is an option anymore.
Logistics of Shuttle
It is over 250 miles from Anchorage to Chitina, almost all of it paved. Plan for five hours.
There are several ways to do travel & shuttle logistics. I’ve done these three:
1) Shuttle vehicles to Valdez, use shuttle service to Cordova and the ferry back to Valdez.
2) Have someone drop you at Chitina and pick you up 5-6 days later in Wittier.
3) Have someone drop you at Chitina and pick you up 4-5 days later in Cordova.
We used the local shuttle service that charged us $25 per head and they carried all of our gear and boats in a rather interesting bus. For our large group they dropped us off at the hotel, held our gear for the night, and picked us up the next day to deliver us to the ferry terminal. Call Copper Rivers/Northwest Tours for more information: (907) 424-5356. Or look at http://www.cdvcoastal.com/Shuttle.htm for a different service from Cordova Coastal Outfitters. There may be other locals willing to do this as well.
In any case, you will have to take the ferry from Cordova to Valdez or Whittier. Last I used them, the Alaska Ferry Service required all boats gear to be on a truck or trailer. However, we discovered that you can (almost) always find empty trucks waiting in line for the ferry, who are willing to haul your stuff if you offer them money. In fact, the bus driver may even find the empty trucks for you.
For more information you can contact one of these businesses if they are still in business.
Alaska River Rafters
PO Box 2233, Cordova, AK 99574
Copper River/Northwest Tours Box 1564, Cordova, AK 99574 (907) 424-5356
Cordova Coastal Outfitters
Cordova Taxi Cab Co. Box 2083, Cordova, AK 99574 907-424-5151
Trip Report & Schedule
Drive to put in & camp.
Get the boats & gear ready launch.
Run shuttle to Valdez if necessary.
Stop for a short break at O'Brien Creek and make sure everybody still knows which way is downstream.
Wood Canyon. Stay near the middle of the river, especially if the water is high, to avoid whirlpools.
Take a break and regroup after the canyon. Then continue on to a good campsite.
Drift up to or into the Bremner Flats section, to a good campsite.
The scenery is fascinating along the way, especially if the sun is shining
There can be a phenomenal number of waterfalls in the passing hills, depending on the weather.
If the wind is blowing upstream, you will start to get a lot of silt in the air as you approach Bremner Flats.
Bremner Flats is a slow water section.
It’s better to camp before going too far into the flats and finish in the morning when the wind dies down.
To the last campsite
As you finish the Bremner Flats you will want to be near river right as it is too shallow and slow on the left.
As Bremner Flats ends, Baird Canyon begins, which ends in Abercrombie Rapids.
Before you see the horizon dropping away, quickly make your way river right to scout the rapids.
Drift the left side of Miles Lake, near Miles Glacier & through iceberg fields. Stay left on the lake.
Take out on river left above Million Dollar Bridge. Check out the bridge and watch the glacier battle the river.
You can camp here or a couple of miles below the glacier on river right
Float to Flag Point.
Run the glacier section by staying 50-100 yards off the left bank.
If any large waves develop from ice calving, charge right into them. Stay away from the left bank.
Avoid following any large icebergs, as they suddenly rise out of the water as they hit shallows.
Stay river right and take all right channels, as you want to end at the bridge at Flag Point, not some other bridge.
Take down boats and pack gear.
Catch your ride to Cordova
Day 5 or 6 - Catch the ferry to Valdez or Wittier.
Check the ferry schedule before you go or you might have to kill some time in Cordova.
Get to the ferry terminal early, check-in & buy your tickets, and then look for empty trucks heading your way.
Jim Strutz is an experienced whitewater rafter and local Alaskan who has floated dozens of rivers in Alaska. In addition to his river skills, he is a fine riverbank chef who has prepared many meals for groups large and small.