We scoured the riverbanks along the east shore of the Copper River, searching for the historic Copper River and Northwestern Railway tunnel near the Tiekel river delta, on our float trip from Chitina to Cordova, Alaska, in 1998. The shoreline all looked similar. This massive river is fed by many glaciers, summer heat causes glacier melt, as waters rise debris and silt are scattered changing channels and sometimes blocking known access points. We already experienced this on the first night when we couldn’t get to shore at the Uranatina River, instead ended up camping on a large sandbar on the delta. We were disappointed to be unable to explore that region. This time we didn’t want to miss our goal of the tunnel. In swift current when the exact destination is unknown it is almost impossible to set up and paddle a raft to the desired spot. Missing a landing point is pretty much a loss, the Copper River is too fast to travel up stream by raft, only down. It can be tricky but we were fortunate to have some skilled paddlers on board. Good fortune and skill guided all three boats to a perfect place to tie up at the north tunnel entrance.
We spent a good deal of time exploring the immediate area and held a group discussion at the south tunnel entrance where a huge boulder blocked the rail bed. Obstacles such as large boulders, collapsed tunnels, and the absence of bridge crossings at the river deltas made the goal of a Rail Trail seem insurmountable. Nevertheless, all possibilities were discussed in great detail. It was a fascinating and interesting experience.
Down the rail bed a few hundred yards we found the remains of a small railway shed, with its identifiable red paint still visible. The above photo shows my husband, Bob, sporting a shotgun loaded with slugs ready to defend against bears. Everyone carried pepper spray, bug spray, water bottles, and snacks when exploring the shore. Deep into an uninhabited wilderness it was best to be prepared. Sometimes in very dense foliage shouts of “Hey bear, Hey bear, bear” from members of our group warned of our approach. Surprising a bear sleeping in thick bushes was not on our agenda.
Gail Niebrugge, Alaska artist