Copper River Record February 2017
By Robin Mayo
With the returning sun, there is more motivation to get outdoors on skiis or snowshoes, and explore some of our trails in winter. In fact, winter is the preferred time to travel across wetlands easily without risking damage to the fragile and essential ecosystems.
The Tonsina River Trail heads south from mile 12.3 of the Edgerton Highway, and goes about 1.3 miles in a gentle downhill, first to the bluff, then west along the bluff to a gorgeous picnic spot overlooking the river. WISE often uses this location as an outdoor classroom where we can learn surrounded by panoramic views, birdsong, and the spicy scent of sage.
There is a nice pullout on the south side of the road where you can park, and a small kiosk at the trailhead.
The first half of the trail tends to be wet in the early part of the summer, and of course with our boots we dig the trench deeper and wider, compounding the problem. I like to wait to use this trail until a good dry spell, or towards the end of summer. Or why not explore it in winter and avoid the mud altogether? Locals ski this trail fairly often, so there is a packed base to support cross-country skiis or snowshoes.
Like so many of our Copper Basin trails, the land status is a little complicated. The trail itself is on a 17(b) easement. Test time: who remembers this unique Alaskan land designation from my article several weeks ago on land status? Gold stars all around! In a nutshell, 17(b) Easements are special corridors which were created to allow access across lands that were conveyed to Native Corporations by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA.)
When I was researching land status for this trail on BLM-Alaska’s Spatial Data Management System, I noticed that the Ahtna region is the only area of the state for which the easement data is complete. Way to go land managers!
The easement for the Tonsina River Trail is only 25 feet wide, so please stay on the trail to avoid trespassing on surrounding lands.
This trail is a great one for wildflowers, and we often come across wood frogs. Kids always want to hold critters they find, but may be unaware that frogs have a fragile and very important slimy skin covering that can be badly damaged by handling. It is best to observe them as they hop about, then let them go on their way unharmed. I always try to imagine how I’d feel if a giant frog picked ME up…
Happy hiking everyone, and be sure to get out and enjoy the “warm” weather!
Copper River Stewardship Program 2013 students enjoy the view at the end of the Tonsina River Trail. Kate Morse Copper River Watershed Project Photo.
Copper River Record January 2017
By Robin Mayo
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park rangers maintain an excellent cross-country ski trail at the Visitors Center which the public is welcome to enjoy. It is groomed frequently by several rangers, and used daily when the weather cooperates by the Wrangell-St. Elias Ski Team, a cheerful group of employees who like to take a turn around the track on their lunch hour.
I was excited to be invited to join the ski team for a tour of the trail, but with the temperature at 20 below at midday, we chose to keep our toes warm in mukluks, and explore by snowshoe. Snowshoes, especially if they have claws, can ruin a groomed ski trail, so we were careful to stay off the ski track itself. There was room to walk alongside while wearing our small trail snowshoes. Please note that walking on the trail without skiis or snowshoes will definitely ruin it for everyone else—don’t be that person!
The trail makes two big loops, one north of the visitor’s center and one south, for a total of 1.3 miles. To access it, park at the pullout at the entrance to the Visitors Center at mile 106.8 Richardson Highway. This will put you outside the gates, so your car can’t be locked in while you ski. Then walk east towards the visitor’s center, ducking under the gate if it is locked (outside business hours.) About a hundred yards from the parking area you will see bollards on both sides of the road, and the trail heading into the forest on the Old Valdez trail.
Take a left for the northern loop, which winds through the boreal forest, then turns south and travels near the edge of the Copper River Bluff. As we snowshoed along in the early afternoon sunshine, we were treated to amazing views of Mt. Drum. It was fun to see the familiar visitor amenities such as picnic tables buried under deep snow, and to have the spot all to ourselves.
The trail passes close to the administration building, then heads south to a large gravel pit. This is normally a dusty spot, but the snow transformed it into a perfect bowl of white, with some gentle hills which made me wish for my skiis. We looped past the summer seasonal housing, a normally lively place now shuttered and quiet, then connected back to the old Valdez trail, headed north back to where it intercepts the road.
The whole loop took us an hour, including time to admire the views, take some quick pictures, and adjust our snowshoes. I returned to my office invigorated by the cold air, and inspired by the beauty.
Finding places to explore in winter is always a challenge, so it was a treat to have a guided tour of this hidden gem. I’m looking forward to warmer spring weather to enjoy the groomed trail on my skiis, which are much more accustomed to clattering along on whatever we can find, or breaking their own trail.
The views are spectacular from the Copper River Bluff near Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitors Center. Barbara Cellarius Photo
Copper River Record January 2017
By Robin Mayo
Disclaimer: This is intended to be an introduction and summary, not the final word on a very complex issue!
Since I started sharing the armchair hiking series, it seems there has been no shortage of topics for conversation at holiday gatherings, grocery checkout lines, and other hot spots for socialization. It has been great fun hearing about favorite hikes and gathering ideas for future columns. Inevitably, the conversation leads to some variation of one big question: How do I know where it is OK to hike?
There isn’t one easy answer to this question, but a basic understanding of land ownership in the region helps. Obviously, hiking an established trail with a sign and kiosk at the trailhead guarantees that you have permission to go there. Even then, be aware—many trails are on fairly narrow easements crossing private land. But what about all the other cool places we are tempted to explore?
Here is a simple summary of land ownership in the Copper Basin.
We have vast amounts of public lands, owned by the state of Alaska or the federal government. State Lands are administered by Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Federal Lands in this area are looked after by either the Bureau of Land Management, or the National Park Service. With some exceptions, public lands are open for human powered recreation. Sometimes there is limited access or permits required, such as backcountry permits for National Parks. Wrangell-St. Elias has very few restrictions, permits are only required if you are with a large group, operating an off-road vehicle, or hunting. Staff at the BLM Glennallen Field Office are glad to answer questions or help you determine land status.
Native Lands are private land owned by a regional corporation, a village, or an individual. In the Copper Basin, Ahtna Inc. owns a lot of land, Chitina Village and Chugach also have holdings in the southern regions. Native owned lands have no-trespassing policies, but some land managers provide ways you can get permission for recreational use. Ahtna, Inc. has a variety of passes available for purchase, from an individual day use for $15, to a $125 season pass. Chitina Native Corporation also has a permitting system for access to their lands.
Following me so far? Here’s another layer of intrigue. 17(b) Easements are special corridors which were created to allow access across lands that were conveyed to Native Corporations by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA.) There are many of these routes scattered across the Copper Valley, and they can be used by anyone. You need to understand that the easements only allow you to cross, not to stop and camp, wander, pick berries, or hunt. Sometimes they are marked, or they can be found in the online tools detailed below.
Private Land is scattered throughout the area, and of course should not be crossed without permission. There are also bits and pieces of land owned by the military, mental health land trust, and other entities, but in my experience they are not usually an issue.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline occupies a right-of-way, which is an easement across land owned by another entity. Alyeska does not mind hikers crossing the right of way , or travelling along for a short way to access recreational sites. But you still need to have permission from the land owner. If in doubt, you can contact the Glennallen Response Base to help figure it out. For large groups, long distances, or motorized travel they will usually give permission with a few days notice. Right of Way Use Guidelines (RUGs!) are available at Pump Stations and the Glennallen Response Base to help you understand the rules. Such entertaining reading—“A RUG is necessary for linear use of the ROW…”
There are several online mapping tools available to help you research land status, and make sure your hike doesn’t become a trespass. These are very comprehensive databases that are made available to the public, but they aren’t what I would call user friendly for the average Jill or Joe. Depending on how you are with technology, it can be a ton of fun, or a hair-tearing frustration that has you swearing you’d rather live in a cave. Try enlisting the help of someone under the age of 30 with good intuitive techno skills, and make sure your computer and internet connection are smokin’.
Alaska Department of Natural Resources Mapper (dnr.alaska.gov/Mapper) is a very thorough statewide database, but also pretty technical. Give yourself some time to figure it out and you will be rewarded with a wealth of information.
The US Bureau of Land Management’s Spatial Data Management System (sdms.ak.blm.gov) is another very comprehensive, therefore potentially mind boggling database. At the time of this writing it does not seem to be active, perhaps because BLM is in the midst of a website update. I find it easier to navigate than Mapper, but that may be because I’ve worked past the frustration stage.
Ahtna Inc. has a useful and easy to understand interactive map of Ahtna lands on their website (ahtna-inc.com/lands) and are happy to help anyone who comes in to identify Ahtna lands. And the Chitina Native Corporation has simple maps available (www.chitinanative.com)to help you figure out how to dipnet without trespassing.
These tools will show you the general land status, but they do not list individual owners of private land, to determine this, you need to go to the State Recorders office in Anchorage, Palmer, or Fairbanks, or do an online search at (http://dnr.alaska.gov/ssd/recoff/default.cfm)
Google Maps and ACME Mapper are two online mapping resources which don’t show land status, but can be a huge help in your research.
BLM and the National Park Service both have paper maps available that can help with land status, but beware of old maps, because things change quickly.
Confused yet? There is no easy solution, but I encourage you to learn about and be aware of land ownership issues whenever you are out adventuring. Yes, it can be a hassle, but in the long run respecting the land and the landowners is the best way for all of us to continue to access the places we love to explore.
WISE staff, interns, youth, and adult hikers pore over a map
Jamie Dawson Photo
Copper River Record January 2017
By Robin Mayo
The Root Glacier Trail must be one of the busiest places in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. On weekends it can almost reach traffic-jam status, with large groups maneuvering past each other on the narrow switchbacks nearly bring all traffic to a standstill. But other days you’ll have the place all to yourself. Either way, it is a guaranteed adventure suitable for almost every hiker.
The trail begins in Kennecott, where you can stand among the grand old relics of the industrial past, and try to imagine a day when this valley swarmed with workers and buzzed with machinery. I love the contrast between the manmade and natural sights, and the way the forces of nature are having their way.
Of course, just getting to the trailhead can be an adventure in itself. Give yourself at least 3 hours to drive the McCarthy Road from Chitina, then more time to walk across the footbridge and catch a shuttle van up to Kennecott. Be sure to stop in at the Ranger Station in the old general store for trail maps, updates, and safety information.
Even on hot days, it is important to carry extra layers on this hike. Once you get close to the glacier, the air turns a lot cooler, and the slightest breeze can create a refrigerator effect with damp clothing. Sturdy boots are helpful for the steep hard trails, and essential if you will be putting on crampons and going on the ice. It is a 4-mile round trip, and can easily fill a day, so bring plenty of water and snacks.
The wide, well maintained trail heads north up the valley, and several branches strike off to the mines and mountains beyond. The main trail is cut into the hill beside the Root Glacier, occasionally traversing a stream or diving into the surprisingly thick forest. It is about two miles up to a primitive campsite and access to the glacier. The trail continues on up the valley, but for now we’ll just go to the glacier.
Head left down a steep zigzagging trail. There are tent spaces, bear boxes which are a bit tricky to find, and outhouses located up near the main trail. We spent a night last summer here with a large group of youth and adults, and there was much hilarity as convoys would form to make the trek to the latrine. Bears are abundant in the area, so be sure to take precautions to ensure a safe camp and unspoiled wildlife.
Another quarter mile of switchbacks lead down to a good place to access the glacier. Crampons are necessary to walk safely, and I strongly encourage you to hire a guide or recruit an experienced friend if you want to go out on the ice. Several guiding companies in McCarthy and Kennecott offer reasonably priced options for guided glacier treks. There are many hazards, and rescue is difficult if you do end up in trouble in this remote location.
For a day hike, exploring the moraines and admiring the expansive views in all directions make this destination a very worthwhile jaunt. I always enjoy meeting the groups hiking by, and watching tiny figures exploring out on the glacier. If you want to spend time out on the glacier, consider bringing camping gear and staying a night or two. In the early morning quiet, hearing the creaks and groans of the nearby ice are an unforgettable experience. There is nothing like a glacier to put things in perspective.
A primitive campsite on the lateral moraine is a welcome place to rest after a long day exploring the Root Glacier.
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.