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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Alaska Wonderland

Air Date: Week of

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The Copper River Delta in Alaska is one of the last truly wild places in the country. Producer Guy Hand rafts down river, and tells a story of unexpected personal discovery.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. There are few places left in the world as majestic as Alaska’s Copper River. This is a watershed bordered by massive glaciers. And the Copper River Delta that runs through them forms the largest undivided wetland on the west coast of North America. Each spring its skies grow dark as millions of shorebirds and waterfowl return. And so do millions of salmon. Producer Guy Hand went down the Copper River on a raft and found that facts and figures amount to only a fraction of this river’s story.


HAND: As a journalist, especially an environmental journalist, I often write about loss, about lands that have been diminished or even destroyed. But this assignment should be different. The Copper River, although it’s threatened, is one of the most pristine waterways in the world. And I see another difference. My 12 raft-mates don’t look like the scientists, policy-makers and hardheaded pragmatists I’m used to.


HAND: We’ve all been invited to the river by the Eyak Preservation Council, a conservation group based in Cordova. None of us know each other. It’s a kind of six-day blind date.


HAND: David Grimes, an old hand at Copper River rafting, welcomes us to fast, frigid water.

GRIMES: By great miracle we have all survived in our lives long enough to be here together today for a life-changing adventure. As a friend of mine has said, at the end of the river trip you’re not the same person that you were at the beginning. So, think about what it is you might want to – how you might want to be different or what you might want to be like when you’re done at the other end.

HAND: David’s got the long hair, mischievous eyes, and mystical flourishes of a shaman. And I’m suddenly wondering if we’re headed into the terrain of natural history or some druidic form of self-improvement.

GRIMES: But this is one of the world’s great wild salmon rivers that still remains. As you know, down the coast a ways, they’re going extinct, and up here they’re still thriving. And that’s because there hasn’t been so many rascal humans around here so much. And one of the reasons we invite you all here to this home country is so that you will fall in love with the salmon and the bears and the water, and you will become more like salmon and bears, and so that we can take care of this precious place.

HAND: Reporters struggle to keep a certain emotional distance, not only from the people they interview, but from the places they report on. That’s why I often find it easier to work with botanists and biologists than poets and philosophers. Scientists describe nature through facts, figures, things a reporter can dive into without drowning.


ALL: One, two, three!

HAND: We divide ourselves among three rubber rafts and lug them to the water. Once on the river, my worries fade a little, as the sheer power of this place begins to sink in. The current pulses past alder forest at a fast clip, and soon we’re lost in the kind of country that few people ever see or even imagine exists. It’s so remote, only a handful of mountains have names.


HAND: So what’s this mountain?

GRIMES: Spirit Mountain, which as we were saying, is the only named mountain for the next 80 miles on the river. It is a spiritual place. And spiritual in a very physical sense, too, because you’re different when you get out in places like this. You go onto river time, and pretty soon you don’t really remember when you weren’t on the river.

HAND: After a few hours, I begin to see that David, an accomplished songwriter and musician, may lean toward the mystical, but it’s grounded in real, hands-on experience. He’s floated the Copper for years. And soon I realize that no one can read its shifting currents better.

GRIMES: Let me spin the boat around here or we’re going to fetch up on the bar here.

HAND: I tilt my head back, staring up at Spirit Mountain some 7,000 feet high, and realize I spend way too much time with reading glasses grafted to my face, focusing on facts no further than a foot away, forgetting how big the world really is.

GRIMES: You know, in places the valley’s a couple miles across and you can see a long ways.

WOMAN: Yeah!

GRIMES: You get the knife okay?

HAND: At camp we catch a salmon.

WOMAN: It’s a beautiful one.

LANKARD: Every time we catch these beautiful fish, it’s an honor to just have them a part of our lives. You’re able to feed everybody that’s with you.

HAND: Dune Lankard, an Eyak native and another of our guides, grabs a knife to clean the fish. Dune has become one of the area’s most vocal proponents for keeping the Copper River watershed in its natural state.

LANKARD: My Eyak name is Jamachakih. And Jamachakih means "the little bird that screams really loud and won’t shut up." And I received that name shortly after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

HAND: The Exxon Valdez ran aground just west of the Copper River Delta in 1989. It devastated the local fishing economy but created a community dedicated to protecting this place from future environmental tragedy. Salmon like the one Dune holds in his hands and begins to scale are one of the most obvious reasons he’s gone from fisherman to activist. Salmon are the fragile cornerstone of an ecosystem that feeds not only people, but bear, seal, eagle, otter, and many others. Salmon are reason enough, Dune believes, to fight development that threatens to chop this watershed into pieces.

LANKARD: Right now, you have just a whole bunch of development ideas from people that are sitting back deciding how they’re going to compartmentalize this whole region and not look at it as one whole ecosystem. Right now, the University of Alaska is trying to choose land up around Long Lake and they want 20 percent of the Copper River salmon-spawning habitat so they can clear cut it and build subdivisions. You’ve got the Chugash Corporation that wants to build a gold mine on the Bremner River. Then you have the governor, who of course wants to build this 65-mile trail so he can bring at least 100,000 to as many as a-million-and-a-half users annually down the river.

HAND: There’s also talk of oil drilling, remote resort lodges, and a deep water port that would draw large commercial vessels and cruise ships to the delta. Pro-development groups believe the Copper River communities need to expand their economic bases beyond fishing. They cite the Exxon Valdez incident as a perfect reason to diversify, to not shrink from development, but embrace it.


HAND: As we settle around the campfire and Dave sings one of his songs, I realize we haven’t seen a sign of other people all day long. The sky is a forest of stars.


HAND: But as we break camp one morning, a sign that we’re sharing this place with other creatures is everywhere. Joe Hickey, from Lexington, Kentucky, woke up in the middle of the night.

HICKEY: I heard something. I didn’t know whether it was a bear or not. But it didn’t sound like a human. But I didn’t realize that he was this close to the tent.

HAND: In the sand, inches from Joe’s tent, are huge grizzly prints.

HICKEY: He was a big guy.

HAND: In spite of these close encounters, Nana Borchert is glad to be here.

BORCHERT: Having lived in Lapland for quite long, in Northern Sweden, where the nature’s also very beautiful but where all the rivers have been dammed, it’s so amazing to see that here salmon can still spawn and live, and whereas in Lapland none of the fish can spawn anymore because of the dammed rivers. And all the people have disappeared there too, that lived there, from fishing for subsistence. It just feels very good to know that people still can fish here and that the fish have their home here too.


HAND: Back on the Copper, maybe it’s our fourth or fifth day now. My earlier worries of suffering a week of eco-mysticism have faded away. I recorded lots of conversations about the science of this place. But even the most hard-nosed reporter would soften, surrounded by all this water, all this wilderness. We float past a sandstone cliff and throw a few echoes over the river.


HAND: Around noon we hit the beach.

MAN: The ground is just covered in bear tracks.

WOMAN: It’s like a beach party.

WOMAN: It’s incredible.

HAND: And soon we see more than tracks.

HOLLAWAY: You are too far right. Go left a little more.

HAND: Megan Hollaway tries to help Andy Woods zero in with binoculars on a couple of grizzlies as they fish for salmon on the far shore.

HOLLAWAY: So, go to the water, and then just at the edge of the water, where the current spins right there, there’s a mama and cubs.

WOODS: Oh, yeah!

HOLLAWAY: And you have to...

WOODS: I got him, I got him, I got him!

HAND: You see him?

WOODS: Yep. My first ever bear.

HOLLAWAY: Grizzly bears.

WOODS: Grizzly bears.

HAND: Dune smiles. Andy’s bear sighting is exactly the reason he brings people on these trips.

LANKARD: Because once they get here and they see this place, they’ll never go all the way back home. They’ll figure out how to help us save this place.

WOODS: I’m standing here naked with a pair of binoculars on, and I could die happy.

HAND: The Copper River watershed lies within the Chugash National Forest, the second largest in America. Ninety-eight percent of it is still unroaded, untouched. Yet few laws stand in the way of development. Not a single acre is protected as wilderness.


LANKARD: The glacier behind us is Miles Glacier, and all these icebergs that we’re going to be coming into here are pieces that break off.

HAND: Dune is paddling us toward a massive, frozen river that the Copper has cut into a four-hundred-foot cliff. Luminous shards of blue ice, some of them the size of office buildings, drift by. When the light hits them just right it breaks into rainbows. But we soon learn that just because this land is beautiful, it isn’t benign.


HAND: Chunks of ice are calving off the glacier face in the warm August sun. So far, they’re small. But if a large piece falls, a tidal wave could form.

Have you guys ever been here when a big hunk calved off?

LANKARD: On this glacier, no. In my lifetime, I’ve seen two big faces fall.

HAND: One year, a 30-foot wave came off a glacier near here.

LANKARD: And it pushed these two women who were standing by the bank 250 feet back into the brush. And when they came to, one of them was in a tree, and the other one had big icebergs lying all around her, and she heard this flopping. And she kind of leaned over and looked to her right, and here was a big, fat salmon floppin’, trying to get back in the water.


HAND: Small pieces are breaking up all over one section of the glacier.


LANKARD: There it goes. Oh my God!

HAND: Suddenly, the whole face seems to break free. It falls in slow motion. And as it disappears, water explodes from the river, shooting hundreds of feet in the air.

LANKARD: Okay, that’s going to be a big wave.

GRIMES: We’re going to get a big wave.

LANKARD: Okay, get your paddles ready.

HAND: The horizon seems to lift up. Hundreds of displaced gulls launch into the air, and we grab for our paddles.

LANKARD: And if it’s pretty high – do you see a lot of ice moving? Then turn your heads this way so…

HAND: At this point, I turn my recorder off and stuff it into a bag I’ve tied to the raft. But then we see that the wave is rolling at an angle, the worst of it moving to our left. And all we get is a gentle rise and fall.


HAND: We set up camp just west of the glacier. Nana accompanies Dave on fiddle as we quietly eat soup around the fire, lost in a kind of near-miss euphoria. Leah Rachocki from Anchorage.

RACHOCKI: I thought today was unusually spectacular. I’ve never really had a day like today. Four hundred feet of ice fell into the water, and magnificent waves came, and we survived in a little rubber raft. (Laughs.) And now the stars are out and I saw a shooting star and it’s lovely.

HAND: In the distance, blades of ice are still falling into the river, and if that isn’t enough, the northern lights begin to lick across the sky in cool blue flames. It’s a kind of thunder and lightning I could never have imagined. It’s stunning.

Okay, it’s easy to slide over the top, trying to describe the sublime in nature. That’s why I mostly stick to the measurable. But on this last night on the Copper River, I can hear in the voices of those around me something else. E.O. Wilson calls it biophilia, a biological need, if not downright love, for the natural world. He says we humans are hard-wired for it. I’ll just call it wonder. And how do you measure that?

WOMAN: Wow. That was the nicest shooting star I think I’ve ever seen in my life.

HAND: For Living on Earth, I’m Guy Hand.

WOMAN: Wow. And it left a trail.

MAN: Are you seeing things again?

WOMAN: Yeah. It might have been the mushrooms I ate earlier. I wasn’t sure if they were hallucinogens or…



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