Chitina: Bald Eagles, Fish Wheels on the Copper River

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Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to see one bald eagle in the wild.  But what about 5?  Or 10?  All at once? That’s the magic of Alaska, and more specifically, the Copper River near the town of Chitina.

Location

The road to Chitina begins south of Glennallen, along the Richardson Highway (Alaska Route 4).  The Edgerton Highway (Alaska 10) heads east, then south for 33 miles, ending at Chitina.  McCarthy Road continues another 60 miles beyond the Copper River crossing to the town of McCarthy, providing access to the Wrangell/St. Elias National Park and Preserve.  McCarthy Road is a rough dirt road, and is not recommended for unprepared drivers, however, the Edgerton Highway is paved from Richardson Highway to Chitina.

My Visit

As much as I would have loved to drive all the way out to McCarthy, I knew that on this day, I didn’t have enough time.  But I still drove straight through Chitina, hoping to touch just a bit of the legendary dirt road, before turning around.

After passing through Chitina, the paved road turns to dirt and squeezes through a narrow pass…

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… then crosses this bridge.  Just after you reach the far side, you’ll enter Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Preserve, America’s largest National Park.  And even though you’re just hitting the very edge of the park, it’s quite a remarkable place.

After crossing the bridge, I turned left onto the wide gravel riverbank of the Copper River.  Just about any car should be able to handle this area with careful driving.  I made my way over to the edge of the water, and noticed something interesting.

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Oh, look.  It’s a bald eagle.  That’s pretty cool… hey wait…

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… it’s a lot of bald eagles.  Maybe a dozen of them (you can see at least three, maybe four, in this picture alone).

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The bald eagles spread out and grab spots on sandbars, watching for their lunch to swim by.

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They are not the only birds looking for a meal — there are plenty of seagulls hanging out here, as well.  And the spot is very popular with fishermen, especially those seeking Copper River Salmon.  According to the Fairbanks News-Miner, in 2015, personal-use fishermen netted more than 225,000 red salmon at Chitina, subsistence-use fishermen bagged another 100,000, and nearly one million slipped by the fishermen and made it to their spawning waters.

Of course, a number of rules and regulations are in place for salmon fishing.  This website outlines some of them.

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Of course, these fishermen don’t have to follow any rules.

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Back up on the bridge, I noticed that I was driving just below the seagulls.

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There’s so little vehicle traffic on the bridge, you can probably stop and enjoy the view for a moment.  This is the view looking downstream, to the south, at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina Rivers.

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Looking north from the bridge, you can see a few trucks and campers parked on the banks of the river.   A bit further (too far to see in this picture, sorry) are dozens of “fish wheels”.  These contraptions use the flow of the river to spin a wheel with attached baskets, which scoop-up fish, then dump them out the side.

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While I didn’t take a good picture of the fish wheels at the Copper River, I did see a replica of a native-American-made fish wheel at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitor Center, on the Richardson Highway.  The more modern versions are made of metal, instead of wood, but operate the same way.  Fish wheels are only allowed in Alaska on the Copper and Yukon Rivers, and have been banned in other parts of the country.

I could have stayed and watched the bald eagles along the Copper River for hours, but high winds were creating dust-storm conditions.  I decided to retreat to Chitina, explore the town, then head on to Valdez.

The Bottom Line

You’ll have one of those “only in Alaska” moments as you stand on the side of the Copper River and watch several, maybe even dozens, of bald eagles fishing and fighting with seagulls.  This alone is worth the long drive to Chitina.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a time-lapse look at the drive from Richardson Highway to Chitina and the Copper River:

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