Alaska´s Copper River Valley

Why Alaska: 

I had 4 days free in Los Angeles and wanted to visit somewhere that I could not visit on a weekend trip from either Los Angeles or my future home in New York. I noticed that there were nonstop flights to Anchorage, Alaska for under $200. I have only been to Alaska once before, on a cruise with my family. I had not traveled independently to the state. 

September is considered shoulder and many attractions (especially National Park visitor centers) close for the season, but after doing some research I was able to cobble together a route where everything was still open. I would start by driving to the interior of Alaska to visit Wrangell St. Elias National Park, then return to Anchorage and visit Kenai Fjords National Park. 

So, I decided to give it a go!

September 24, 2021: Into the Wild

My flight arrived at 00:30. Luckily the rental car companies are all open until 01:00. It was lightly raining. I drove 30 minutes north to my hotel and went to sleep. 

I woke up around 8:00 and the room was completely dark. The power was out. I looked outside and there was snow everywhere! In the fall, a heavy snowfall can accumulate on leaves and cause branches to fall, which can sometimes down power lines. I scraped the 3 inches of snow off my car and drove north to the town of Palmer which weirdly did not have any snow. 

A snowy surprise!

There, I got breakfast at a local café. I ordered a reindeer omelet. I chatted up the older couple after the lady commented that it was snowing earlier than normal this year. It turns out that the lady was born in Glendale, a city very close to Los Angeles. They have lived in Alaska for 30 years. While they (and many people) consider themselves “Alaskan”, there appears to be a hierarchy. Those that were born and raised in Alaska are at the top. Then there are people who moved to Alaska and have stay year-round. These people have Alaska IDs and receive oil pipeline revenue. And finally, there are people who come only during the summers. All three of these types of people call themselves Alaskan but in the eyes of many, some are more Alaskan than others. 

The couple sneakily paid for my meal. The lady said she had a soft spot for Californians and said that this was a “pay it forward” type of restaurant. 

Continuing east, Alaska Route 1 headed through a narrow canyon with a roaring river. Snow started to reappear on the ground. Eventually the road was covered in snow.

Snowy road

Some places I was driving on were completely on snow, but in some places just the right wheel was snow free. In a few places, the entire car was on pavement. Even though I knew how to drive on snow, I was on very high alert. I only fishtailed once – at a slow speed. 

Really snowy road

The snow lasted for about 60 miles (about 2 hours of driving) before the road was plowed and the snow completely disappeared. I pulled into remote Glenallen fired up. Somehow this tiny town had all sorts of amenities. There was a Wells Fargo bank, a Radio Shack, supermarket and even a Thai restaurant. The town must service a wide radius.

Glennallen is located on the Copper River, the 10th largest river in the US. The Copper River is famous for salmon. The best salmon in the US live in this river- although not this far inland. The river discharges in Valdez. The surrounding terrain is relatively flat and is known as the Copper River Basin.

Autumn on the Copper River

I continued north along the Copper River for 90 more minutes of gorgeous driving with peak fall colors. Eventually I reached the Slana entrance to Wrangell St. Elias National Park.

Wrangell St. Elias is the largest national park in the US. At 50,000 square kilometers, the park is 25% larger than Switzerland! It contains 6 mountain ranges including 9 of the 16 tallest mountains in the US. The tallest mountain in the park is the 18,008 ft (5,489 meters) Mt. St. Elias. Wrangell St Elias, along with Glacier Bay and Canada´s Kluane National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Slana is not the most popular part of the park. However, it was the only visitor center still open this late in September (if I´m traveling this far, I am going to get my National Park Passport stamp). I was told this visitor center is open later due to the moose hunting season, which brings people to the area. 

From the Slana Visitor Center, there is one road that enters the park: Nabesna Road. The first 14 miles are paved. Then its gravel for another 16 miles to reach an old mine. My rental contract did not allow me to go on unpaved roads, but the ranger said the views are much better on the gravel section. So I decided to go 5 miles (8 kilometers) on the gravel to reach the Caribou Creek trailhead. 

Gorgeous woods

There I did a 3-mile (5 kilometer) hike through a short forest where I got fantastic views of Mt. Sanford, the 6thtallest peak in the US.  

On the way back, I visited a beautiful lake and saw a moose!

At a beautiful lake with enormous mountains in the back

I clearly saw just a tiny portion of this enormous park, but I got a good feeling for the unmatched beauty and remoteness of Alaska.

Since there are no hotels in the region, I booked an AirBNB on the way back towards Glenallen. My host´s name is Chantelle, and she was a homesteader. The Homestead Act was passed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 and was used as a tool to help populate the western US. Under the act, a person could get 160 acres of free land under the condition that they lived on the land and maintain it. The Western US was completely settled by homesteaders in the 1930´s. Homesteading was officially repealed in 1976, but a provision allowed homesteading to continue in Alaska where it lasted until 1988. Not many people took up the bargain because living off the land in Alaska is so difficult, but Chantelle´s parents did. They developed and received title to 88 acres of land in Slana.  

The homesteaders were not settling on uninhabited land. Indigenous people (Alaska Natives) have lived here for tens of thousands of years. Most of eastern Alaska, which includes the area around Wrangell-St. Elias is inhabited by the Athabaskan ethnic group, which consists of many smaller tribes. The homesteaders and Natives lived near each other and often interacted with each other. They lived off the land in a similar manner, they suffered through the same winter together and their kids became friends, but the two groups lived very different experiences within the context of U.S. Law and history. The Native population had thousands of years of local knowledge and a system of self-governance. The homesteaders had no infrastructure, communal land or hierarchy, but were linked to others through a common desire to live life “in the wild”. Chantelle was raised in this most unusual setting. 

The Copper River in interior Alaska

Chantelle’s husband, James, is a member of the Cheesh’na tribe and he works as a station manager on the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. The pipeline, which transports oil from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to Valdez in the south of Alaska runs across Native Alaskan land. The oil companies pay rent to the regional native corporation, which is made of individual tribal shareholders. Each shareholder is entitled to a portion of the corporation’s earnings. More importantly, each shareholder is part owner of a large area of land that the Ahtna Corporation holds, per the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Essentially, Alaska natives were granted back a portion of land that they once had full stewardship over. 

Chantelle and James built their home 25 years ago, but moved to Anchorage for seven years to finishing raising their sons and experience other opportunities. Their sons are now grown, and Chantelle is able to work remotely as a bereavement counselor, so they recently moved back home.  “I´m a country girl at heart” Chantelle told me. Living off the land in such a cold place is very difficult and requires one to be exceedingly scrappy. James and Chantelle rely heavily on moose meat, which they hunt. They also get salmon from the Copper River, and forage for berries and mushrooms. Now into the late fall, they were stockpiling wood to heat the home during the long winter.  

The winters can be hard but provide time to think of new ideas to add to the life they are building. They started an ecotour business twenty years ago, providing rustic accommodations, but were too busy with small kids and survival to continue. Now they have more time and resources, and are reviving their old dream. They have two cabins for travelers, May through mid-October. One has electricity and the other is “off the grid”. I was given the option and decided to stay in the one off the grid. The house did have a gas-powered fireplace and solar-powered lights. It was cozy. 

My tiny house in the woods

At around 17:00, Chantelle came over and brought me dinner: moose soup and biscuits with blueberries. Moose meat is a delicacy in Alaska. Moose meat can only be eaten if you hunt it or if the hunter gives you the moose meat for no charge. It cannot be bought or sold. In the soup, the meat tasted like a very lean beef. 

Moose meat soup

I was invited to visit the family´s indigenous steam bath. The steam bath was a small wood hut, with a tarped shelter for a changing room. It was situated near the main house. I stripped naked in the entry chamber before crawling into the hot carpeted pitch black room. To make the room even hotter, I used a ladle to pour water onto a pile of lava rocks that had been heated over a fire. This caused the room to get considerably more humid. After what felt like an eternity but ended up being just 10 minutes, I had sweat through every pore in my body and had to leave. 

The steam bath

When walking out, I ran into James who said that steam baths were the only way that Natives in the old days could bathe in the cold winters. He said that the steam baths clean you both outside and inside. I totally got what he meant, with no lights or distractions, I suddenly became extremely introspective.

Exhausted from the long day, I went to bed early.

September 25, 2021: An Inspiring Chat

The next morning, I went over to the main house for breakfast. Chantelle made me blueberry muffins and tea from a local plant called rose hip. We ended up having a 3-hour discussion. We bonded over our love of writing (Chantelle is a book author and newspaper columnist) and experiencing different cultures. Chantelle said that the only way to truly understand a culture is to be both an insider and outsider. By being an insider, one learns the traditions and frames of logic of a culture. By being an outsider, one can place those traditions and frames of logic into a wider context. I believe my understanding of American culture is deeper precisely because I have lived in different continents and regions of the country. 

Chantelle’s final advice to me was that it is better to be respected than to be liked. 

Final Thoughts: 

Interior Alaska is off the tourist radar. The highlight is undoubtedly the natural scenery. The mountains and remote terrain are the best in the United States. But if you can find it, the culture is quite unique. The people, homesteader and Native, who choose to live in Interior Alaska during the winter are a hearty bunch who test the limits of human survival capabilities.

AirBNBs sometimes give you a unique opportunity to interact with the local culture. I booked Chantelle´s place purely because it was the cheapest option in the area, but I ended up getting to meet one of the most interesting people I have ever encountered. 

If I were to go back to the region, I have heard that the town of McCarthy, which lies inside the main part of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is incredible. 

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