God’s Coun­try: Alaska

The Cop­per River Delta over­flows with wildlife, rugged vis­tas and down-to-earth peo­ple.


Born of the glacier-crowned Wrangell Moun­tains, the Cop­per River be­gins its jour­ney not far from our home in Alaska’s in­te­rior. For 286 miles the great river heaves and hur­tles to­ward the sea, gain­ing size and power as it takes on trib­u­taries laden with heavy loads of glacial silt.

At its mouth in the Gulf of Alaska, the Cop­per drops its pay­load of silt— some 69 mil­lion tons per year, most of it dur­ing the sum­mer months. These de­posits have cre­ated a 75-mile-wide delta that en­com­passes 700,000 acres. The Cop­per River Delta is the largest con­tigu­ous wet­land on the Pa­cific coast of North Amer­ica. Each spring, bird­watch­ers flock to the area to watch mil­lions of mi­grat­ing shore­birds stop to rest and for­age in the delta’s ex­ten­sive mud flats. It’s one of the most im­pres­sive bird­ing spec­ta­cles in the world. All ad­ven­tures in the Cop­per River Delta re­gion be­gin in Cor­dova, a small, friendly fish­ing com­mu­nity perched on Orca In­let. I have been com­ing to Cor­dova for more than 20 years. Di­verse wildlife, ever-chang­ing moods and sim­ple com­po­si­tions beckon the pho­tog­ra­pher within me. The jour­ney it­self is an ad­ven­ture—there are no

roads to Cor­dova from main­land Alaska. To get there you must take a plane or a boat. One spring I spent three weeks on the mud flats, where the delta meets the gulf. Dur­ing the last half of April tiny western sand­pipers were on an epic mi­gra­tion, go­ing from stop to stop along the Pa­cific coast­line en route to dis­tant Arc­tic breed­ing ter­ri­to­ries. Western sand­pipers make up the vast ma­jor­ity of the amaz­ing shore­bird mi­gra­tion, but are joined by dun­lins and a sprin­kling of other species such as whim­brels, Hud­so­nian god­wits, short-billed dow­itch­ers and least sand­pipers. So many species can lead to drama. On the last day of the month a lonely dun­lin sought the com­pany of a black-bel­lied plover on the empty mud flats. These first ar­rivals gave no hint of what was about to oc­cur. Stormy weather, in­clud­ing heavy snow­fall, cre­ated a bird dam, halt­ing their north­ern progress for a few days. Record num­bers ac­cu­mu­lated and I saw up­ward of 100,000 for­ag­ing shore­birds in Hart­ney Bay at high tide. In the steady driz­zle I took pho­tos of a long-legged whim­brel as it strode past mats of snooz­ing sand­pipers. The whim­brel probed the mud with its long curved bill, oc­ca­sion­ally bring­ing worm­like crea­tures to the sur­face. These seg­mented worms were flipped and whipped, rinsed and then swal­lowed. Sud­denly the whim­brel dropped, ly­ing flat in the mud, its long neck and bill held straight out. Sleepy sand­pipers snapped their heads to at­ten­tion. Some­thing flashed past me just inches off the mud, and shore­birds launched. A pere­grine! The large fal­con di­vided the mass of birds into two, flew up 100 feet, flipped over and stooped. The whim­brel in­stinc­tively held its po­si­tion as the pere­grine chased the churn­ing, dart­ing balls of shore­birds. In this chaos the fal­con missed cap­tur­ing its tar­gets. And need­less to say, I missed cap­tur­ing the ac­tion. But the pere­grines and

the smaller mer­lin fal­cons that prey on the tiny shore­birds dur­ing these mi­gra­tions are cer­tainly well fed. The fal­con re­turned to his look­out, a tow­er­ing Sitka spruce over­look­ing the bay. The whim­brel, feel­ing con­spic­u­ous among the flocks of tiny shore­birds, flew away with a cry. De­spite the pere­grine, the shore­birds en­gaged in spec­tac­u­lar flights. More than pure artistry of tim­ing and chore­og­ra­phy, these beau­ti­ful dis­plays cer­tainly mask some es­sen­tial life func­tion. But it’s just magic to me. As the tide be­gan to move out, the mats of roost­ing shore­birds broke up and scat­tered over the mud flats to for­age. Like thou­sands of sewing ma­chines, they probed the mud for tiny clams and in­ver­te­brates. Their sud­den exit was as mys­ti­fy­ing as their ar­rival. I found my­self stand­ing on empty mud flats and won­der­ing, Where did they all go? If you visit the Cop­per River Delta area, low tide is an ideal time to ex­plore fur­ther in­land. A drive up the Cop­per River High­way will take you onto the delta, a birder’s par­adise of a dif­fer­ent fla­vor. Dur­ing early May you’ll find the en­tire delta in a frenzy of wa­ter­fowl courtship and ter­ri­to­rial bor­der dis­putes (the delta is a haven for wa­ter­fowl). The noisy duskies, a dark brown sub­species of Canada goose, de­mand at­ten­tion as they con­test own­er­ship of prime nest­ing sites. Duskies only breed in the delta, and on nearby is­lands in Prince Wil­liam Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. And the delta has the largest pop­u­la­tion of breed­ing trum­peter swans in the world. Be sure to take the short side trip to Ala­ganik Slough, a trib­u­tary of the Cop­per River and part of the Chugach Na­tional For­est. There’s a small camp­ground, and the el­e­vated board­walk leads to views of the delta habi­tat with the Chugach Moun­tains in the back­ground. Moose, beavers and bald ea­gles are a com­mon sight on the delta. De­pend­ing on the time of year, you might also see brown and black bears, wolves and wolverines—so be vig­i­lant and cau­tious. Along the Cop­per River High­way, nu­mer­ous trail­heads pro­vide ac­cess to road­less parts of the delta, Chugach Moun­tains and coastal rain­for­est. Con­tinue up the Cop­per River High­way to Mile 36 and you ar­rive at the Cop­per River. From May through Septem­ber, three species of salmon mi­grate up the river through the delta. Chi­nook, coho and sock­eye salmon spawn in trib­u­taries as far away as the head­wa­ters. The road ends at Mile 36, where Bridge 339 was washed out in 2011. You have to take a boat to reach Childs Glacier, the for­est ser­vice camp­grounds and the land­mark Mil­lion Dol­lar Bridge— all sites worth the ex­tra ef­fort of get­ting there. Childs Glacier can be very ac­tive dur­ing sum­mer months, calv­ing (break­ing off) di­rectly into the Cop­per River. As Childs Glacier ad­vances, it is un­der­cut by the river. When great chunks of ice calve, tsunamis are sent rac­ing across the river. I have stood on

the op­po­site bank ob­serv­ing these thun­der­ous calv­ing events while sur­rounded by big round boul­ders heaved out of the riverbed, an omi­nous sign. Calv­ing is best ob­served from view­ing plat­forms set up at the for­est ser­vice camp­grounds, though safety isn’t 100 per­cent guar­an­teed (there’s a sign warn­ing vis­i­tors that the tsunamis may rise 20 feet above the plat­form). A mile up­stream stands yet an­other tes­ti­mony to the raw power of na­ture that is some­times un­leashed here. Span­ning the Cop­per River, the Mil­lion Dol­lar Bridge was once used to move cop­per ore from the in­te­rior. In 1964, a 9.2-mag­ni­tude earth­quake lifted the delta 6 feet and col­lapsed one sec­tion of the bridge. The Cop­per River Water­shed holds a spe­cial place in my heart. And even though my home lies near its head­wa­ters, my mind of­ten drifts down­stream. Car­ried by an ir­re­sistible cur­rent along this salmon high­way, I dream on. The turquoise face of Childs Glacier now be­hind me, low-fly­ing swans trum­pet my ar­rival onto this wet and wild piece of God’s coun­try. And it’s clear, the Cop­per River Delta must be where beauty, bounty and the power of na­ture were set free.


Cop­per River Delta, Alaska

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: Mats of rest­ing western sand­pipers on the mud flats of Harney Bay; the sun sets over a small lake near the delta; the Smykes, a lo­cal fam­ily, en­joy the wa­ter and re­port wildlife sight­ings over the ra­dio.

FROM TOP: A hump­back whale dives in Orca Bay; sea ot­ter and her pup; a bald ea­gle on the hunt.

Steller sea lions rest atop a buoy. FROM TOP: Trum­peter swan and a cygnet in the nest; a black bear plucks salmon from a stream.

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