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.