A Copper River Almanac

 

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.

—Robert W. Service (1905)

 

It was a Sunday evening in late May, the shoulder of an ephemeral Alaskan summer, and we were driving west across a lonely two-lane road that splits in half a vast piece of land the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. The blacktop was deformed by so many frost heaves it seemed on the verge of being consumed by the wild environment it trespassed across.

I felt the distortion of time, watching the blur of the passing landscape. Everything I saw reminded me of something else.

About fifty miles away, where the plateau met the mountains, was an isolated spring storm. Hanging above the Chugach Range were shimmering veils of rain, like sunlit curtains billowing across an open window. The wet hillsides were flush with contrast, making the details of the faraway topography look seductive, like the curves of a voluptuous woman.

I knew the rains would be ice cold, but a deeper part of me wanted to be there, in the distance, traversing her mysteries.

For several hours I watched outside the truck window as the storm unfolded and light danced across the contours of a never ending front-range. We were doing 70 mph, but my perspective never changed.

Behind me were the fading edges of the eastern skyline, and behind that is where I’d just come from a long trip down the Copper River.

I went there to explore a strange pursuit, in the heart of unfamiliar territory. I went as an observer, and came back as something else.

 ***

For over 25 years Steve Johnson has worked without fanfare, or the desire to draw attention to himself, in the remote corners of Alaska.

He’s amassed enough epic experiences to fill the pages of all the pop-culture adventure magazines, but you won’t find the likes of his stories there. And despite offers from reality TV, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see his face there either.

In fact, odds are you’ll never hear any of his recollections of a life spent working in the extremes. Not unless you’re floating some remote river with him, suffering with him through an early winter storm, or standing around a campfire with him, likely with a half-full bottle of whiskey lying in the dirt between you.

After his final tour on a Cold War era nuclear submarine, Steve migrated to Alaska in the mid 80’s and started out as an inexperienced young guide who had everything to prove and nothing to lose. He began under the harsh tutelage of one of Alaska’s most accomplished bushmen. He learned despite, and because of, adverse and adversarial conditions, in a place that’s indifferent to the will of men: the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountain Range.

Steve evolved into a confident big game guide and a self-styled wilderness historian who possesses an uncanny ability to deflect the consequences of bad luck.

The paradox is Steve has never sought out the kind of adventure that his lifestyle exudes. When you spend as much time working in the mountains as he does, trouble inevitably finds you. Real adventure just happens, and in a world where adventure seekers are now a dime a dozen, Steve’s part of a dying breed.

There’s enough intention in Steve’s every step that you might think he has a rugged sort of swagger. He walks like a cowboy, is built like a logger, and he’s tenacious as a stubborn goat; qualities that manifest a level of street-smart toughness that’s unattainable outside a rough-and-tumble environment where getting your ass kicked by the elements happens routinely. But there’s a caveat: Steve’s toughness is overshadowed by a genuinely affable, generally self-effacing, quintessentially rural demeanor. In truth, there’s very little not to like about this guy.

I’m not a hunter, but three years ago I began a personal foray into Steve’s profession, an unorthodox yet classic Alaskan job that shares equal amounts of frontier machismo and ideological controversy.

We spent over half our time in storms born from the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. There were dreary autumn days, and multi-day ordeals involving harsh conditions with no real option for Calling Uncle if things were to unravel.

I followed Steve over mountain ranges where few people ever go, and reveled in the raw beauty and isolation, to the extent that I rarely thought about the world outside that remote environment. I didn’t miss my warm bed, or a hamburger and beer at my favorite pub. Nor did I miss my friends, or any other comforts that are part of life outside of untamed places.

Because we spent time in hard to reach locations, I felt the joy of flying over seemingly endless and unpopulated landscapes. I climbed into assorted bush planes, squeezing into Super Cubs that trade comfort and space for power and efficiency, comparatively roomy Maules, and even larger Cessna 185s. And I felt lucky to be the passenger of skilled yet eccentric bush pilots who all share a special brand of stoicism unique to the northern latitudes.

Occasionally we flew in weather severe enough that it made me wonder about crashing among the magnificent mountains I’d grown to love. Tossed about in the sky by hidden forces, I embraced an odd sort of peace and acceptance in knowing I had no control over my fate.

When I approached Steve about my portrait project, and asked if I could join him to study his work, I suspect he obliged me because he knew I would gain insight. Not just of him, as I had originally intended, but more of the wild places he works in, and the way these places affect the people who are inexorably drawn there.

Before joining Steve on his hunts, I felt neither the desire to kill big animals nor the compulsion to protect them. I was indifferent.

I soon realized that when you’re standing in front of a killing, there’s no comfort zone, no impartiality. And no such thing as indifference.

It didn’t take long to discover how primal it is to stalk a big animal in the middle of the remote wilderness. And how unsettling it is to see the destructive power of a high velocity bullet.

The gun makes apparent, with instantaneous clarity, the consequences of one’s actions. I began to see the gun as more than just a powerful weapon; it became a powerful metaphor, too.

To watch a majestic animal die, and then cut all the meat from its still-warm body while steam rises into the cold air, releases the kind of aboriginal chemicals in a man that aren’t physically accessible when you select a plastic-wrapped package of pork chops off the shelf from your local Whole Foods Market.

Raw experience quickly nullifies the comforts of hypocrisy and indifference. I began to realize that the contradiction of safety is that it sometimes slowly kills you. And in a way that would probably make sense to no one but me, this is how I found myself on the banks of the legendary Copper River.

I joined Steve and one of his clients, an affluent safari hunter and a dyed-in-the-wool, Massachusetts native, on a hunt for Ursus Arctos Horribilis—the Alaskan Grizzly Bear.

Paul Kolivoski is a distinguished but loquacious 70-year-old with a thick Boston accent. On our trip, he had a mix of qualities that at first seemed incongruent with our primitive surroundings. His proclivity for colorful language, new hunting clothes, perfectly manicured goatee, perpetually clean face, and a modern-gentleman smell as if he was always ready for a Sunday Meeting, were attributes that sharply contrasted those belonging to his guide.

Nothing made me look sideways at Paul as as much as his oddly restrained, yet long-lingering chuckle that followed his frequent anecdotes.

At first I thought I had this East-Coast man figured out.

But this changed three days into our trip.

At 11pm one night, I witnessed Paul suddenly rouse from his sleep, quickly stand up outside our tent in his bare feet and underwear, muster the wherewithal to raise and accurately aim his rifle in less-than-desirable light, and with one precisely aimed shot, kill a 400-pound black bear that was trying to climb into the riverboat with me while I was reading a book by the light of my headlamp.

The image of a potbellied old man in his skivvies with a .375 Holland & Holland Magnum over his shoulder, and a dead bear between the two of us, is now indelibly marked in my memory.

At first Paul annoyed me, that is until I found his words concealed a story that only took shape when I paid more attention to the things he didn’t say.

I fell into a trap set by my own impatience, of trying to understand a man by only looking at his motives.

As Hunter S. Thompson once said, I sought to “understand the goal and not the man,” and therein lies “the tragedy of life.”

 ***

The Copper River is a muddy and debris-strewn torrent flowing through country that grows more enigmatic with every passing mile. It’s like a surly old man who lives at the end of an overgrown dirt road, a man whose nefarious reputation is as much a part of the truth as legend.

In the early 1910’s, the southern reaches of the Copper River and Chitina River Valleys began filling with the labors of miners’ ambition. Thousands of transplanted men quickly built a 200-mile railway that connected the newly built, coastal town of Cordova with the copper-rich Bonanza Mine, deep in the interior mountains.

The Copper River and Northwestern Railway became one of the most audacious engineering projects of the early 20th century. Steam trains would travel up and down the valley three times a week, carrying ore one way, supplies and men the other. For nearly 30 years, this remote corner of Alaska became the epicenter of frenetic progress.

And then it ended. Abruptly.

The price of copper plummeted at the beginning of the Great Depression, and three years later the Kennecott Corporation permanently closed the mine. The last train departed the interior on November 11, 1938. After it arrived in Cordova, the railway began its inevitable decay. The valley slowly became wild again.

Today, most of the original infrastructure is gone or concealed by the surrounding forest.

Not far downriver from Woods Canyon, hidden inside a grove of stately cottonwoods, is a three-story-high railroad trestle. The near perfect geometry of milled wooden beams is camouflaged by limbs and leaves, making the massive bridge look like some kind of monument left behind by another civilization.

Twenty miles farther downriver is an almost pristine engineer’s building, standing 10 feet square and painted in classic, iron-oxide red. With its front door torn off long ago, an active bear trail now replaces the old railway. Paw prints the size of dinner plates cover the white walls inside, like strange graffiti marking the passage of curious bruins.

Even farther downriver is a partially collapsed depot that’s obscured by dense alders and willow trees. Inside the rotting structure is a kitchen, with pots and pans still hanging on the walls, and through a narrow hallway, there’s a dining hall, and next to that, a room full of rusty tools.

The landscape is swallowing history whole, and what little remains is a haunting sense of the past.
On previous trips down the Copper with Steve, we always made it a habit to stop along the river and explore. After tying off our boat in a protected eddy, we’d take to the thick devil’s club and brush and head toward the old railway bed, some distance from the river. Mostly we encountered Alaskan-style jungle. But sometimes we’d stumble upon the oxidized traces of men who were there a hundred years before us.

The Copper River flows through country that’s largely forgotten, ignored, and unexplored.

 ***

After the big river leaves its icy headwaters in the Wrangall Mountains, it takes a braided path for 165 miles through wide-open country. Eventually it converges with the Chitina River, and beyond this tumultuous confluence, after doubling in size, it begins the most isolated part of its journey through the labyrinthine Chugach Range. For eighty miles, the river plunges through a mountainous corridor with peaks that rise steeply from the rivers edge. It’s as beautiful as it is formidable. A trip down the Copper keeps you on edge.

During our recent trip the mountains were filled with smoke that drifted from a huge wildfire burning out of control on the Kenai Peninsula. The distant conflagration transformed the place into a moody, sepia toned scene. It looked like a faded photograph from the 1850’s, of the lawless and untamed Wild West.

It was under these desolate conditions that I watched Steve and Paul follow fresh brown bear tracks crossing a wide floodplain. The two hunters carefully traversed a mile-wide swath of river rock, and then disappeared.

After awhile, I climbed onto the bow of our riverboat and raised my binoculars for a look, focusing on the area where I had last seen them. And in that instant, in the center of my vision, a big brown bear emerged.

With the peculiar anonymity of ten-power optics, I watched the bear begin running at a speed that defied its enormous size. Then came a startling crack in the air. And another. The delayed report of rifle shots gripped me as I watched the bear gain speed and then vanish in the woods.

For a tense fifteen minutes, nothing moved except dust blowing across the flats.

I jumped off the bow of the boat as two vague figures reappeared in the distance. The men retraced their steps, and slowly came back into my range of vision. It was then I saw concern in Steve’s face, and I knew the bear was hit and now wounded.

As Steve got even closer, something else piqued my curiosity. I saw vulnerability in one of the toughest men I know.

I raised my camera to capture that moment, the dichotomy of a middle-aged mountain man, a man who’s part of a dying breed.

I saw the reticence of an aging gunfighter, a natural-born protagonist who doesn’t actually enjoy the killing.

It occurred to me that sometimes the only resolve we have is simply doing what we’re good at, doing what we know… because it’s all we know.

Thinking about the complex unfolding of this man’s life, it led me to wonder about the path of any man’s life, and how the emotional topography we navigate is often related to the physical geography that surrounds us.

I wondered about the cumulative affect. The hard decisions, the things done with intention, and our unconscious actions. The people we surround ourselves with. The things we pursue. What we leave behind. And the intersections that only gain significance long after we pass through them.

The luxury of contemplation was slowly replaced with an awareness of the river next to me. The never-ending rumble got my attention, as it always does when I’m on the Copper. And I remembered that somewhere in the dense woods around us was a wounded brown bear, and that few things in the world are more dangerous than this.

 ***

A few days earlier, we had stalked two brown bears from a distance. At the end of the day we left them undisturbed, and probably unaware of our presence.

We finally climbed back into the boat around 10pm, headed back to our camp about twenty miles downriver. Halfway there we passed an eagle struggling to drag a spawning sockeye from the shallows. As the raptor fought with its slippery catch, a few seagulls circled overhead, waiting for leftovers. The enormous black bird had its talons sunk into the body of the fish, and he seemed annoyed by us. I was in the driver’s seat and Steve asked me to turn the motor off so we could drift quietly.

The river took control of our boat and we followed a natural path in the big channel. During the time it took for alpenglow to slowly paint the mountains around us, no one spoke a word.

While Steve walked around the boat deck, it dawned on me that observing natural phenomenon is what he does. It’s part of his job, but more importantly it’s his nature. I studied him studying everything around him, and it occurred to me he wasn’t just watching the scenery go by, but practicing a lost art: learning the lay of the land.

As the powerful current carried us downriver, I started to wonder if we, mankind, have lost our way because we’ve lost our primitive instincts. We’re no longer in tune with our environment, nor does it even seem to matter anymore.

My most profound memories of the wild are highlighted by a sense of my own precarious existence, when self-reliance was mixed with more parts vulnerability. This was an absolute place where I discovered real strength in the absence of illusion. The moment a man senses there are no real consequences for his actions is the moment he begins living a lie.

During some of the most dangerous experiences I’ve had, I vividly remember both Steve and I smiling and laughing. Not in defiance, but more in acceptance of the twisted beauty of those situations, in knowing we might not survive, but that we were fully alive, and living honestly.

There’s an incredible feeling of freedom that comes from existing in harsh conditions, especially when it’s with companions with whom you share a soulful connection.

Two years ago, Steve and I were far down the Copper River doing reconnaissance. We camped one night, only to wake up the next morning and discover that the river was massively flooding. It looked like the Mississippi River in March, except it was plunging through a narrow valley.

We were fifty miles downriver from Chitina, where we had launched days before. And conditions were worsening.

We quickly inflated our Zodiac and began lashing down gear on the boat deck.

Just minutes after we got back on the swollen river, I felt a sudden pit in my stomach. There was an ominous object moving toward us. At first, it was camouflaged against the undulating, murky waterscape. But as it got closer, I realized it was a fully mature spruce tree in our path.

The enormous tree was still alive, but now strangely supine in muddy waters. Bright green needles were still sprouting from its prolific branches and it was still covered in healthy bark. The former patriarch of an interior Alaskan forest had been torn from its native soil.

Steve cranked the tiller on the outboard and adjusted our course out of its way. Time seemed to slow down as the stately tree swept by us in the current. I felt a strange mix of curiosity and sadness, watching the hundred-foot-long body passing by our comparatively tiny raft. Its gigantic limbs were shaking so violently in the waves that they looked more like human arms desperately reaching for something solid. When the immense root system was finally behind us I watched the tree disappear.

I was captivated, staring toward some interminable point down valley. And I felt an unsettling sense of my own destiny. Not because of the dangerous conditions we were surrounded by, but because of the unpredictable inevitability of my own mortality, likely outside of the mountains. And that thought concerned me more than the possibility of dying on the Copper River.

A shiver brought me back to reality. It was then when I realized the intensity of Steve’s attention on the river.

When I turned around to look back upriver, a barrage of silty spray hit me in the face. Ahead of us was the equivalent of an angry sea, overflowing its banks like a boiling cauldron. The river was unrelenting and the time for pondering was over, so I clenched the grab lines on the bow and kneeled onto the deck of the wildly thrashing boat.

When I peered over the pontoons, looking to the right or left of the boat, the water level next to us was constantly falling and rising. It would drop five feet, and then rise well above our heads. Because of the steepness of the waves, the jet unit on our outboard was constantly coming out of the water and the motor would scream like a demonized banshee. Then the back end of the boat would suddenly plunge back down into the river and we’d gain forward thrust again.

I felt like an alcoholic on an all-night bender.

The surging waters made fourteen feet of leaking Hypalon and 55 horsepower seem absurdly inadequate. But the stark reality of our circumstances seemed pale compared to a rich experience with a capable partner in the middle of a savagely beautiful place.

With my hands still gripping the bowlines, I turned around to see how Steve was doing.

The first thing I saw was the back end of the boat full of water. Our gear was either floating inside the boat, or being tossed about. Then I saw Steve, the intrepid navigator sitting in the middle of it all. He was soaking wet and covered in gray silt, but his bright blue eyes and wrinkles revealed a trademark grin that I’d come to associate with defining moments.

Steve was in his element. And I was in mine.

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.


—Jack London

After a full day of thrashing by the infamous Copper River, during which there were many moments of keeping our fingers crossed, of going hell-bent for leather, we made it back up through Woods Canyon, where a volume of water equal to about ten times the size of the Colorado River was being squeezed through a space just 200 feet wide.

Another hour went by and we finally reached the Chitina confluence, where we began our trip three days before. The bow of the boat was now stationary on a rocky beach.

I walked a short distance to the truck and grabbed my bag of comfort clothes, then returned to the edge of the river, water dripping off me the entire way.

Soon I was standing in my bare feet on a garden of flat river rocks, struggling to maintain my balance as I stripped off wet gear. Naked and surrounded by all my water-laden clothes, I drifted back to earlier in the day when that huge tree floated by us in the current. The image was so evocative, it made me think of my dying grandfather, whose final days I had missed.

After wiping some tears from my face, I looked down at my hands and saw they were covered with wet silt from the thousands of glaciers all around me. And in those moments, I felt an unbreakable connection to the place. I knew I was home.

Steve was in the truck, jockeying the trailer so we could load the boat, so I quickly dressed to help him. Then we began the same routine we’d performed many times before. No words, just action; managing all the gear and getting the boat loaded.

The first thing Steve removed from the boat was our cooler. He put it on the tailgate of the truck, opened it and removed two cold cans of beer. Cracking them both and handing me one, he made a toast.

“Cheers, buddy. Here’s to dodging another bullet.”

And we went back to dealing with the business of finishing another epic river trip.

On the six-hour drive back to Anchorage, we didn’t speak a word of the previous three days. As was often the case, the experience was already behind Steve. He was thinking about the future, and seeing his little boy. And all I could think of was the river, and where it leads.

A year later, Steve invited me to join him on one of his guided bear hunts down the Copper River.

My bags were already packed.

 ***

In its flight from the river flats, the large bear left behind nothing: no broken branches, no disturbed ground or leaves, no blood-trail.

Beyond the muddy banks was a maze of dense forest and undergrowth. All we knew for certain was the bear was out there, somewhere. And it was dead, wounded, or waiting for us.

The three of us traversed the riverbank, back and forth, looking for clues.
The entire time, I felt we were being watched.

It was obvious Steve had no choice but to enter the woods and begin looking deeper in the forest. Before he left, he handed me his pistol.

“If the bear comes out first, don’t stop firing until you’re out of ammo.”

With that foreboding decree, he pointed his rifle toward a chaotic array of tree trunks and limbs and soon disappeared.

As I waited nervously, I imagined a huge beast lunging from the forest and attacking me for all the sins I had ever committed.

I had an eery feeling the bear was closer than any of us thought, camouflaged by the flora it was accustomed to living among and moving through.

Steve exited the woods about 10 minutes later, and the tension increased even more. He didn’t want to talk, or answer questions, or debate theories about the direction the bear might have gone. All he wanted was to be left alone to do his job.

He put his head down and entered the next hole in the forest. Immediately after disappearing, his voice boomed from the trees. I jumped. Paul and I ran in to see Steve, standing 30 feet away from the bear, with his rifle aimed directly at it.

The huge animal was still alive, watching us, but it was unable to stand. I covered my ears just as Steve took aim for the bear’s front shoulder and fired a shot, then another, and another.

With each pull of the trigger I felt an irreversible surge of adrenaline course through me.

I watched the bear take its final breath, then watched it collapse under its own enormous weight.

An unexpected flood of memories overtook me.

I saw tears in the eyes of the women I’d loved, most of whom had tried to save me from myself.

I felt the impotence of failing to save a young man on a glacier as he died in front of his closest friends.

I heard the desperate voice of an elderly woman, pleading with me as I tried to keep her husband alive after he had a massive heart attack.

I felt the tension of precarious moments, and the weight and the wounds of the past. I felt everything, but unscathed.

The familiarity of Steve’s voice brought me back. He was asking me to help him and Paul roll the bear out of the alders and onto the riverbank.

Afterwards, the two of them took to the business of removing the bear’s hide with a surgical scalpel. And I knelt down on the rocks to examine its enormous paws and claws.

An hour or so later, as we prepared for the trek back across the flats to the riverboat, I watched Steve methodically fold the hide. With Paul’s help, they began stuffing it into a cavernous hunting pack. Still attached was the bear’s entire head, and as Steve tried to hang onto it like some kind of large and unruly object, he lost his grip. It hit the ground with a macabre thud that punctuated time. As he picked it up there was a moment when Steve and the bear were face-to-face. Two predators, strangely juxtaposed. The apex of the food chain but at opposite ends of the spectrum of luck.

I felt like a young boy with a movie camera as the scene all around me suddenly appeared cinematic. Larger than life. The blood and the guns, the near vertical mountains, the unstoppable river, the remoteness. We were isolated from civilization but it felt like the eyes of the world were upon us.

It was as if we were standing in a classic Charles M. Russell painting. And I wondered if that was the mere purpose to it all—just three anonymous figures depicted in a single, provocative moment.

The artist inside me, no matter how strongly compelled or creative a person could possibly be, knew I would never be able to sum up what was streaming through my eyes, and into my mind. It was the same as grabbing a handful of sand, only to watch it flow out from between your fingers, no matter how hard you squeeze.

Through the dust clouds, I looked out across the river flats at our distant boat and I calculated our walking time. And then experience told me to double it.

As we forded the shallow river channels and crossed the wide-open plain, I knew we’d be headed home soon. The hunt was over, and Steve was ready to go home and see his little boy.

Hours later we were making our way upriver towards Chitina. But I was in the back of the boat, looking downriver. The landscape never seemed to get any smaller, despite that it was disappearing behind me.