Alaska is renowned for many things; big mountains, big rivers, and big Salmon to name a few. In fact Alaska has many, many of each. The Copper River is one such crick, born of the glacier and thrust knowingly towards a great and mighty sea to the south. It’s waters fast, deep, silty and cold; all the hallmarks of a great and fearsome Alaskan River. Being the tenth largest river in the United States, it is also home to one of the greatest Salmon runs in the world, and in a place festering with mighty river’s running full of the hardest working fish in North America, that’s saying something. July and early August are the time of Red Salmon or Sockeye as it is known; to me, the very tastiest of all Salmon’s. Theses beautiful fish congregate in large numbers at the mouth of the Copper, near Cordova, at the Gulf of Alaska. Over the course of a few short weeks, they swim, upriver, in search of their ancestral spawning grounds, to the place of their birth, to continue the cycle of life. Along the way, people have been harvesting these fantastic creatures for sustenance for thousands of years.
2 o’clock in the afternoon, Sven, Billy, and I pile into Sven’s truck and head south for the 6 hour drive from Fairbanks to Chitina, a tiny hundred year old fishing and mining community, born from the days of the mighty Kennicott. Chitina is a beautiful place indeed; nestled in a deep valley, surrounded by high forested and craggy walls, giant glaciated peaks of the Wrangell Mountains, festooned with wildlife, and situated at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina Rivers’. On the drive down, we stop at a pullout with mind numbing Alaska scenery, an eyeful of the central and eastern Alaska Range and it’s plentiful glaciers. It had been a couple of years since I had been to this place and it was as magnificent as I had remembered. We arrive in Chitina later, and meet up with Sven’s friends Cynthia and Diane. We will be crashing at Cynthia’s cabin and they will be joining us tomorrow, at the river. The last time friends were here, a couple of weeks past, they had caught their limit between the 4 of them: 70 fish! That’s a lot of cleaning and filleting, but in the end, it is a freezer full of the best eating there is.
The trail in from the road to the good dip netting spots are 5 or 6 miles down river, however, Sven’s four wheeler ATV makes fairly quick work of ferrying 4 people, dip nets, gear and ice chests to the chosen location. By 8 o’clock, we have our ropes tied to the shore trees and to ourselves, and the nets are in the water. The river was intimidating at first; it is the sort that, if one fell in, you might be a goner. It is super fast and cold, with hidden logs, rocks, and all sorts of strainers, waiting to snag anything that happens to be in the water big enough to catch. It is also full of glacial silt; it’s appearance is that of fast, cold mud. It’s visibility is zero. But it is full of Salmon; I hope. After a couple of hours, Diane has managed to net 2 fish, a small one and a good sized one, and for the next 5 hours we were only able to land 3 more, for a total of 5 fish. Not the fish bonanza we had hoped for, as the cost of the trip necessitates a good yield. The river was definitely higher than normal; this probably attributed to the low numbers. One never knows when it comes to the Salmon running. One day they could be so strong that, could you see through the murky water, one might be able to walk across the river, supported only on the backs of the working Salmon. On other days, scarcely a few seem to be near by. Perhaps when the water is so high, they hide out in the eddy’s and holes, saving energy, awaiting the lower water and easier swimming, upriver and towards their goal.
By mid afternoon, we, with our 5 fish, decide to head out as it is a long drive home. As Sven is ferrying loads back to the truck, I clean the fish, pour the last bits of diesel fuel into the truck, and clean up. While the fishing was of limited success, the day was a fulfilling one, hanging with friends, taking in the best Alaska has to offer, and generally enjoying ourselves all around. Additionally, 3 of the 5 of us had seen bears today. Sven and Diane had seen a big Blackie earlier, and in the afternoon, Billy had come across a Griz crossing the trail and headed to the river, no doubt attracted the pungent odor of the Salmon. Afterwards, we say goodbye to our Chitina friends and hit Uncle Tom’s Tavern in Chitina, for a celebration beer; and afterwards, a long and tiring drive to Fairbanks, but with smiles on our faces.