Out on the Copper River Highway

Out on the Copper River Highway

The primary reason why the area near Cordova is such a draw and hot spot for wildlife is the Copper River Delta. Identified as one of the top spring birding locations in the United States, the Delta offers both shorebird and waterfowl opportunities galore. But most of the people who visit Cordova during the Copper River Shorebird Festival stick pretty much closely to Hartney Bay. But, the best time to watch the birds is around high tide so the timing is particular from day to day. But, when the weather is right, every morning is a great time to be out on the Copper River Highway.

It varies from year to year how far you can go in the spring. This year, the Copper River Delta experienced a stronger spring snowfall then we did in the Anchorage area. At Mile 27, there was a nice wall of snow just beyond the near tunnel-like passage of plowed snow reaching at least fifteen feet high on both sides. A couple of hunters who were walking the road told me it would be a few more days before they brought out the next plow to open up the road some more. Had I been able to go farther, I would have continued across the large span of the Copper River Delta and up to where the Copper River comes out of Miles Lake, right where the Child’s Glacier reaches its icy span across the bank of the river and calves, sometimes rather spectacularly, into the water.

Even on the shortened drive, the highway offers many opportunities to view a vast variety of wildlife. If you enjoy watching beaver, there are several active lodges right near the highway. Moose? I have seen several off in the distance, but with wonderful backdrops of mountains and glaciers. Not to mention waterfowl, which, in the spring time, is plentiful; particularly Canada geese and trumpeter swans. The best place to view waterfowl is down the Alaganik Slough Road. The Alaganik Slough is a massive collection of wetlands buffering the many braids of the Copper River as it flows its way toward the Prince William Sound. There are several pullouts along the road, and near the boat landing at the end of the road is a long boardwalk with several viewing blinds.

I made a trip down the road each morning we were in Cordova for the shorebird festival. Each morning the skies were either clear, or mostly clear with scattered, beautifully textured clouds. I stopped at two beaver ponds each morning, one to photograph with the landscape, the other to watch the very active and busy beaver. When I stopped at the boardwalk at the end of the Alaganik Slough Road, I was disappointed to see that the boardwalk was closed. Apparently, the rather moist and soft environment did not treat the supports for the boardwalk very well as many had collapsed, causing the boardwalk to list seriously to one side. Fortunately, plans are in the works to fix it this summer, so it will hopefully be there next spring. On my second morning, as I crossed a bridge over one of the many braids of the Copper River, I saw an eagle swoop down out of the trees, catch a fish, and land to eat it. I literally parked my car on the bridge, set up the tripod and waited. Over the next twenty minutes or so, he caught another four or five hooligan (eulachon), landing each time to feast on a short stump in the river. When he was done, we threw his head back and let out a celebratory series of chirps. Then, he would go back to watching the stream, hop down, catch a hooligan and go back to the stump again. After getting a few good images, I continued on down the road.

While being a wildlife hot spot, the drive down the road is also a landscape photographer’s dream. It provides both a perfect morning light opportunity as well as an evening light, as the road lies on a straight north-south direction for most of the trip. The mountains to the east of the road are very craggy and jagged, with glaciers spilling out to join the moist landscape. Several braided rivers with gravel bars flow through the landscape as a result. I have often seen dew or frost on the ground in the mornings, adding yet another element to a good landscape or macro composition. Once in a while a thick fog bank, when combined with a rising sun, adds a spectacular but challenging element to include in the viewfinder. The numerous ponds also provide superb reflections. I paused at several along the way, shooting them straight, some with a graduated neutral density filter, others taking several exposures for an HDR composite using Photo Matix.

With as much as people rave about driving the road in Denali National Park & Preserve, there are so many equally wonderful opportunities to capture scenic and wildlife images along the Copper River Road for any inspired photographer. Additionally, there are several hiking trails lead away from the road, giving even more chances to explore more into this magnificent landscape.

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