Still Country, Still Cool
Copper River Country is where the wilderness meets the road in roadside Alaska. Far
enough away from both Anchorage and Fairbanks to develop a certain independent self-reliance, people are unfettered by local government.
something needs to be done you don’t wait for somebody
else to do it here. You step up to the plate and pitch in.
The local newspaper is the Copper River Record.
This is Fred Ewan of Gulkana Village, demonstrating the proper way to preserve fish.
The Copper Valley was a Huge Lake
Over 20,000 years ago, the area now drained by the great Copper River was a massive lake, covering 2,000
In nearby Tangle Lakes (on the Denali Highway) signs of human life go back 10,000 years. Scientists speculate that ancient
people used the northern mountains as a migration route to what is now the “Lower 48” and South America.
In some parts of the
region, the ancient shorelines of the lake are still clearly visible at around the 2,000 foot level.
Only in Copper River Country:
Copper River Salmon
Copper River salmon are fattier than others because
they have to travel hundreds more miles, and need more reserves. Yes, they’re considered the best in the world.
Salmon from any Copper
River Valley river, no matter what its name, are Copper River salmon.
For example, a Tazlina River or Gulkana River salmon is still a Copper River salmon. Here's
a map showing the major tributaries of the Copper River.
Water isn’t always easy to get when you don’t have a city water system.
In rural Alaska, deep wells have to be drilled – a major cash outlay
for the average cabin-owner. Businesses with good wells sometimes sell
water. You take plastic jugs in your truck to the wellhouse, pay, and
slosh back home.
Paxson Leads to the Denali
Before the Parks Highway was built in the 1970’s, the major roads in Alaska were the Glenn and Richardson
Paxson, which is little more than a roadhouse and a cluster of buildings surrounding a highway maintenance camp, was,
at that time, the only access to the 135-mile long Denali Highway.
And the Denali Highway was the only way to drive to Denali Park (though
you could get there by train.) The original 1906 Paxson Roadhouse was a tiny cabin and two tents.
(Photo, Robert Gaucher)
the Tok Cutoff to Wrangell-St. Elias Park
Officially part of the Glenn Highway, the Tok Cutoff starts at Gakona Junction and heads northeast
to Tok. It skirts the Wrangell Mountains and parallels the Copper River.
The cutoff connects the Tanana River region to the Copper Valley.
It passes by a number of Athabascan Indian villages.
The Nabesna Road, at Mile 64, leads into the northern end of Wrangell-St. Elias
"Fishing is Life"
Sometimes said as a joke, but for rural people, the importance of the salmon migration up the Copper River and its tributaries
cannot be underestimated.
For centuries, Copper River salmon have provided sustenance for people living in the Copper Valley. They are
a far more dependable food source than the large mammals like moose and caribou, whose populations fluctuate.
Excellent protein, salmon
are heavy with omega-3 fats for their trip from Cordova north. Once caught, they are also relatively easy to preserve (even before freezers
were invented) by smoking and drying.
Three Rivers Meet Near Gakona
The Gakona and Gulkana Rivers enter the Copper River near Gakona Junction.
The Copper River drains the whole
region, and runs all the way to Cordova.
The silty Gakona River, which starts north, in the Alaska Range, meets the muddy, many-channeled
Copper River at Gakona.
There is a great viewpoint of this confluence at Mile 1 Tok Cutoff. The Gulkana River is a clearwater stream, full
of grayling and salmon. It comes south from Paxson Lake.
At the turn of the century, there were two roadhouses in this area, one at the Gulkana
and the other – still here today – is Gakona Lodge, on the banks of the Gakona River.
+ Here's a map showing these three Gakona rivers, plus a lot more.
Tough Stuff: The Past and Future of Urethane Foam
During the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, many future Alaskans left their homes in the “Lower 48” and
came north. Once here, the arduous task of building a home from scratch began.
The first problem was where to stay while building. The
second problem was how to insulate your new house.
So in the 1970’s, Alaskans discovered the miracle of urethane foam, a wonderful but
doubtful-looking insulation that can be sprayed over any surface.
Cabin 1 was completely foamed to stop the flow of air through
the log walls.
Cabin 2, the log cabin in Glennallen at the Hub, has a urethane roof covered over with grass and
sod. It has never leaked.
A Fish Camp
The village of Chistochina has grown up around the Chistochina fish camps, where people use fish wheels to harvest Copper
home to the Cheesh’Na Tribe. About 60 people live here.
This photo shows community elders Ben Neeley and Bill Joe.
(Photo, Mt. Sanford Tribal Consortium)
Park Visitor Center on Nabesna Road
A short way up the Nabesna Road, on the right, is the Nabesna District Visitor Center. It’s open
from 8 am to 4:30 pm, 7 days a week.
This is a smaller facility than the one in Copper Center – but they have
some kind of program daily.
You can go on a botany walk from the ranger station on request. Weather, staff and trail conditions permitting
they offer a natural history walk for people interested in seeing the country.
They have a Kids’ Corner at the visitor center and offer
a Jr. Ranger Program for kids under 12 years old. They also have a book store.
(Photos, National Park Service)
Home Sweet Homestead: Slana,
Slana, located in the harsh wilderness off the isolated Nabesna Road, was the very last place in America to be homesteaded.
By 1986, when homesteading finally ended in Alaska, 800 pieces of land had been staked in Slana.
But below-zero winters, tent homes, and
a lack of jobs eventually drove off over 70% of Slana’s hardworking, hopeful residents.
Only 100 homesteaders actually got patents
to their land.
Gold Mine at the End of Nabesna Road
The road to Nabesna (at Mile 60 Tok Cutoff) leads into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park’s northern
Less than a mile from the junction, on the left, is the hand-hewn log Slana Post Office.
scenery along the Nabesna Road is spectacular, and there are several
good grayling lakes. Nabesna, an old gold-mining town, is 46 miles up
the road. The Nabesna Mine is privately owned.
This road was built in 1934 by the Alaska Road Commission so they could haul gold ore to Valdez. Today, people drive
the road because it takes them up into the headwaters country of the Copper River and Upper Tanana River.
on the lower trails can be very muddy and buggy. Past Mile 36, the
trails get better as you get into the high country. You need to get a
permit if you’re going to use an ATV (all-terrain vehicle).
There are no gas stations up the Nabesna Road, so be sure to fill up before you go.
Road Is National Park's Northern Entrance
There are only two road routes into America’s largest park, Wrangell-St.
Elias National Park.
The northern entrance is at Slana where the 46-mile 2-wheel drive gravel Nabesna Road starts. (The southern entrance
takes you to McCarthy and Kennicott.)
Mile 29 on the Nabesna Road, there are 3 creek crossings. Check at the
ranger station in Slana for road conditions and to see maps of the park.
Athabascan Indians Were Skilled Traders in a Good Place
The language spoken by the Athabascans who settled in the Copper River Valley is
closely related to some Indian languages spoken in the Southwestern United States.
Athabascans in the Copper River Valley were adept at fashioning copper
implements, which they traded with coastal Natives. They lived a
semi-nomadic life, based on the cycles of fish and game in the region.
Also well known as skilled traders, due to their location on major trade routes, Copper Valley Natives were important
carriers of goods across Alaskan cultures.
The Athabascan people here now create intricate bead and leather work. Around 20% of the Copper
River Valley’s population
is Athabascan at this time.
Young children from the region are taught Native dances, and respect for traditional Native culture is strongly
This is Coleen Charley, getting into the spirit of life in the shadow of the Wrangells, at a local Potlatch.
(Photo, Mt. Sanford Tribal Consortium)
Dog Musher, Hunter, Artist...
Lena Charley (above) of Chistochina typifies the rugged, hardworking Alaska lifestyle.
A life-long dog musher,
she has competed in many major dog races, even after becoming a grandmother.
She’s a beadworker and skin sewer.
And, she won the Alaska
Federation of Natives’ annual
hunting and fishing award for her ability to provide food from the land.
(Photo, Mt. Sanford Tribal Consortium)
Only In Mentasta: Katie John,
Champion of Rural Rights
Mentasta matriarch Katie John’s name is synonymous with a landmark Native subsistence
rights legal battle, which she won.
In 1984, she sued the federal government after being denied use of her family’s traditional fishing
grounds near Mentasta.
Now over 90 years old, Katie John cheerfully raised her own 14 children and 8 others.
Don't Mess With Katie!
(Photo, Bill Hess for Mt.Sanford
Huge Quake Hit Mentasta in 2002
In November 2002, one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded in North America pulled open the Tok Cutoff near
Mentasta leaving holes 12 feet deep. The epicenter was in the Alaska Range between Cantwell and Paxson.
The earthquake seriously damaged homes, wells
and roads in Slana and Mentasta. The Tok Cutoff was completely closed, and the Richardson Highway between Paxson and Delta was closed.
the tracks of the 18-wheeler that came to an abrupt halt when the road cracked open beneath his wheels.
Fortunately, nobody was killed in the Alaska
Quake of 2002.
(Photo, Shannon & Wilson)
Moose Nose Soup
nose is a delicacy in the north. It tastes like beef tongue, and is a
rich, highly-textured meat. Locally, moose stew is made by cutting up
the meat in very small pieces and boiling it with vegetables into a
rich, hearty broth that can be fed to a large group as an appetizer
+ Read up on Alaska Wildlife at the Alaska Wildlife page.
+ Activities + Things to Get
+ Where to Stay + Where to Eat
North of Glennallen
UPPER COPPER VALLEY BUSINESSES
In Copper River Country, Don't Miss...
Tok Cutoff Mile 1 Viewpoint
• Nabesna Road Visitor Center
About the Copper River...
The Copper River is 287 miles long. It drops an average of about 12
feet per mile, and drains a total of 24,000 square miles – an area the
size of West Virginia. The river has 13 major tributaries and runs
along at an average of 7 miles per hour. It’s a mile wide at the Copper
River Delta, near Cordova.
of the traditional Native American villages located in the Copper River
Valley are at the mouths of tributaries (or smaller rivers) entering
the larger Copper River. Some examples are communities at Slana,
Chistochina, Gakona, Gulkana, Tazlina, Copper Center, Tonsina, and Chitina.
means “River” in the Ahtna language. So the names of the rivers are
often combinations of two words. The Copper River gets its name from
the enormous copper deposits that formed the basis of trading wealth
for the Ahtna people.
Eastern road through the Alaska Range
The Tok Cutoff
winds along the Copper River, then up through Mentasta Pass in the
Alaska Range, and down into the Tanana River drainage. There are active
Native communities in Mentasta, Chistochina and Gakona. This is dog
mushing country. Upper end of the Copper Basin 300 mile sled dog race,
a qualifying run
for the bigger Iditarod.
Permafrost is ground that is frozen year-round. It affects everything.
Travelers notice permafrost as they look ahead, and see the road rippling like waves on an ocean. Local
residents notice it every time they drop an orange and it rolls all the way across the room.
creates much of the natural environment you’re driving through. It
prevents surface water from draining into the soil below, creating the
boggy, swampy black spruce forest. It also creates small ponds and
lakes, where ducks, geese, swans and muskrat all live.
only time permafrost really causes trouble is when it melts. That’s
exactly what happens along the roads; the blacktop melts the permafrost
underneath and the road sags. In buildings, when the warm floor melts
the permafrost, the foundation sinks.
One of the effects of global warming is that permafrost is actually getting warmer and melting. As the
permafrost melts, swamp and bog levels lower, making them unsuitable as wildlife habitat.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is the largest National Park in the
United States. The Park remains almost completely wild and is a major
attraction for experienced hikers and outdoors enthusiasts. Find out
more about it here.
The Copper Basin 300
A qualifying race for the Iditarod, the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race
takes mushers into the heart of the Copper River Valley.
Website of the Ahnta Corporation, an Alaska Native Regional Corporation and major landowner in the Copper River Valley.
Copper River Native Association
The Copper River Native Association represents and protects the tribes and communities of the Copper River Valley.