Dear persevering reader,
When my husband Sam and I set out on the Copper River last week in a 14-foot raft, I knew we would travel through wild, beautiful places. It was an opportunity for me to get to know a landscape that I have been walking through in my imagination for months. What I didn’t yet comprehend was the powerful nature of this river.
Earlier this year, I was awarded a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation to enable me to float the river to research my next novel. We went armed with a camera, a write-in-the-rain journal, field identification books, maps, freeze-dried food, the report of an 1885 expedition up this same river, chest waders, rain gear, and a rifle for bear protection.
We launched the raft with the help of a friend near Chitina, Alaska, and spent the next week floating to Cordova, toward the ocean. Every second, the Copper discharges more than 400,000 gallons of icy, silty water. In that deep gray beneath our raft, thousands of sockeye salmon swam toward their spawning grounds.
About half-way through the 80-mile trip, seals began to appear. They would surface and bob near the raft, their eyes wide and watchful. Occasionally one would have a salmon in its mouth. One morning, they awoke us from our tent with their playful splashing in the river.
Wherever we pulled out on the river bank, we saw sign of bears. Tracks in the sand, piles of scat, bloody salmon remains in the bushes. We tried to camp where there was the least amount of bear traffic, but it seemed inevitable that we would eventually see one. Not far from Haley Creek, there she was — a female brown bear with two cubs. She walked along the beach, stopping occasionally to eye us and wait for her cubs. I could have watched her all day from that safe distance, but the river swept us away.
We encountered every kind of weather — sunshine that scorched our faces, winds that kicked up sand storms and white caps on the river, drizzly rain. Sam rowed us around giant, swirling eddies, through Abercrombie Rapids, and between house-sized icebergs from Miles Glacier. We floated through towering canyons, past waterfalls and sand dunes, ancient glaciers, and the decaying remnants of a railroad that brought copper out of the mountains 100 years ago. In the distance, we heard glaciers calving and it sounded like canons being fired.
All the while I had the growing realization that this place was relentless, that no matter feats of engineering or little rubber rafts, this river was rushing, cold and silty, to the ocean just as it has for thousands of years.
At one point, Sam and I watched the wind obliterate paw prints across a sand bar.
“Tracks don’t last long around here,” he said.