By Robin Mayo
On Friday January 15th, Kate Morse of Copper River Watershed Project shared a long term project to better understand the impact of culverts on salmon habitat in the Copper River Watershed and implement on-the-ground projects to improve fish passage. Over 50 people from across the country tuned into the Web-based lecture to learn about the projects.
The CRWP convened a Copper River Fish Passage Partnership in 2007, which includes Alaska Department of Transportation, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Bureau of Land Management, Wrangell St. Elias National Park, and U. S. Forest Service. The groups goal was to address issues found in a 2002 study of culverts in the Copper River Valley which found 64% were inadequate, 32% required additional information, and only 4% were considered adequate for fish passage.
The partnership took on the daunting task of filling in missing information about hundreds of culverts and their associated habitat, and setting priorities for which ones needed attention the most. A system for measuring, ranking, and ultimately replacing the offenders has been undertaken, with some amazing success stories. Because of the way they restrict streams and change the dynamics, culverts can become a “bottleneck” which affects large areas of natural habitat. As an example, Kate showed a map of the Little Tonsina watershed, upstream from the culvert on the “Burma Pit Road” near mile 74 Richardson Highway. A web of red lines on the map estimated over 70 miles of streams which funnel down into that one crossing. The original culverts were blown out in a high water event in 2006 and the temporary replacements have a multitude of issues.
Why do culverts have such a dramatic effect on fish passage? The first thing we are likely to think of is spawning salmon migrating upstream, but it is important to remember that our stream systems are also home to large numbers of juvenile fish. For several years between hatching and heading for the ocean, they travel widely looking for good sources of food.
Culverts often constrict the stream flow, causing it to speed up, which leads to deep scour pools downstream. “Perched” culverts have a drop at the lower end creating another obstacle. Unlike natural waterfalls and rapids, there often is no pool upstream of the culvert to allow fish to rest. During normal or low water, the stream may be too shallow in the culvert for fish to traverse, and during high water the stream becomes too fast and turbulent. Poorly designed culverts which are not in line with the steam flow can create all kinds of unintended consequences, including erosion of the roadbed.
Kate noted that there are big differences between the unnatural obstacle created by a culvert, and natural features such as beaver dams or fallen trees. Natural obstacles usually spread out and slow the current, and are important because they create shelter for juvenile fish. In contrast, culverts often constrict water to one fast channel. Natural obstacles are part of the ecosystem where the salmon have evolved and thrived, while culverts are a recent addition.
The first step in the project is filling in the data gaps. Culverts are assessed for their fish passage qualities, and also the potential for upstream habitat. With hundreds of culverts throughout our road system, this itself has been a massive multi-year effort. They are scored and prioritized, and the partnership works to choose which culverts to move forward on repairing. High priority goes to culverts with poor fish passage, but promising habitat upstream. All data on culverts on fish-bearing streams in the watershed can be viewed at https://copperriver.org/wp-content/uploads/CRWP_CulMapper/.
Kate summarized several successful projects, including Goose Meadows on the Copper River Delta, Little Tulsona on the Tok Cutoff, and Chokosna Pond on the McCarthy Road. Design goals for the projects include matching slope and elevation of the stream, aligning with the natural flow direction, completely spanning the stream to avoid constriction, and putting natural substrate in the pipe itself. In before and after photos, the difference is dramatic. The traditional small, round pipes are replaced with huge, flat bottomed culverts which are assembled on site. The unusual shape provides the widest possible stream bed with efficient use of materials and reduced need for excavation.
The Little Tonsina project is currently in the design phase, and a two-lane bridge is being planned to replace the culverts. The partnership hopes to complete the design, relocate utilities, and obtain construction bids in 2021, with a goal of constructing the project in the summer of 2022. One of the biggest challenges is lining up funding. For this project, it will come from Alaska Department of Transportation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Restoration Center, US Bureau of Land Management, and the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund, reflecting the diverse group of resource managers and stakeholders in the project.
This article only skims the surface of what Kate covered in her talk. If you missed it, a recording can be viewed at www.wise-edu.org, and more information on the fish passage projects can be found at the Copper River Watershed Project website, www.copperriver.org.
In February, the WISE Science Lectures will feature a two-lecture series titled “Archaeology on the Shores of Ancient Lake Atna.” On Friday February 5 at 5pm, Lee Reininghaus, Archaeologist at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, will give an overview of recent discoveries in the park along the shoreline of Lake Atna, a glacier dammed lake that filled the Copper River Valley thousands of years ago. A week later on Friday, February 12 at 5pm, John T. White, a doctoral student at Texas A&M University, will share “The Excavation of Site NAB-0053,” one of the most interesting sites so far.
All of the lectures are being held online, and pre-registration is required. More information and the links to register can be found at www.wise-edu.org.
WISE is grateful to partners Prince William Sound College, US Bureau of Land Management, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and Copper Country Alliance for assisting with our lecture series. Funding comes from Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and many generous WISE donors.
Photo Credit, Copper River Watershed Project
The Little Tonsina culverts at mile 74 Richardson Highway which are scheduled to be replaced with a bridge in 2022. This picture shows how the constriction causes turbulence at high water.
By Robin Mayo
If you are looking for an adventure that is within reach and family friendly, I highly recommend planning a trip to the Castner Glacier Ice Cave. With a two-hour drive from Glennallen and a one-mile walk, you can access a truly breathtaking experience.
The cave is approximately 50 feet wide and 40 feet tall at the entrance, and tapers as it goes back about 200 feet into the glacier. (Note: these numbers are pure estimate, I’m wishing I’d done some pacing!) Part of the floor is smooth ice, and the rest a mix of ice, dirt and rocks. We followed the curving cave until it was pitch dark, and the ceiling was too low for walking. Best of all, it seems to be pretty stable in the winter, so it can be explored in relative safety if basic precautions are followed.
One of the surprises for me was how many other people were there! On a December weekend we saw about 40 other people on the trails and at the cave, and I’d estimate there were over 100 on a weekday during the holiday break. It was fun to see so many people respectfully sharing the trails and enjoying themselves, but if you want to experience the place in solitude you may need to choose a weekday and/or be prepared to wait patiently.
Near the entrance, the ice was shining, with a unique scalloped texture and run through with ribbons of gravel reminiscent of polished marble. Further in, the ceiling is festooned with ice crystals, some reminding us of perching butterflies, and others needle-sharp or feathery. We could hear water gurgling beneath the ice, and a few damp spots reminded us to be very cautious.
The cave is accessed from the Castner Creek Bridge at mile 217.3 Richardson Highway, about 20 miles north of Summit Lake. Two trails go to the east up the creek, one from the parking area at the southeast corner, and the other about 100 feet north of the bridge. DOT has made crude but usable parking areas around the bridge. At my last visit in early January both trails were beautifully hard packed and easily walked. About halfway to the cave they come together on the creek. The trails are mostly similar and both well used, but the southern one included a steep 15 foot drop down to the creek, and the northern one is partly in the woods so more sheltered.
If you go, I’d recommend checking the weather for Delta Junction and Paxson to get some idea of conditions. This is a notoriously windy area, so come prepared with extra layers for the wind chill. I’d also recommend having snowshoes or skiis available in case the trail is blown in, which was the case on my first visit in December.
Although this is a relatively easy adventure, please have safety in mind. There was no cell phone coverage, so someone should know where you are and when you plan to return. Much of the trail is on an active creek, so give open leads a wide berth and be alert for new holes, which could open up even in the trail. At the cave, you may want walking sticks and/or cleats for your boots to make it safer to walk on the ice. There are rocks suspended in the ice which could fall, especially as the weather gets warmer. And towards the back of the cave, we could hear water and saw evidence of recently overflow and seepage, so be very cautious on the ice. If you want to explore the very back of the cave you will need a flashlight or headlamp, which we also found very useful for getting good photographs. Families with young children might want to bring along a sled for taxi service for tired little explorers.
Although this place feels like the middle of nowhere, it is important to be prepared for and considerate of other visitors. The parking areas are small, but workable if people don’t hog space, and are careful not to block other vehicles. Lots of dogs were enjoying the adventure, but everyone had leashes and was keeping their pet close, which I appreciated. The walk is so short a snowmachine would be needed only for someone who couldn’t make it otherwise. If you do bring your machine please yield to foot traffic, who have the right of way. In a place like this, it is also courteous to stay on the trail as much as possible, to keep the views pristine and also avoid creating lots of side trails which make the main trail hard to follow.
I wish I knew more about the history and geology of this cave, which appears to be formed from the combination of the stream running underneath, and the warm summer air melting out the entrance. It sounds like it has been there for quite a few years. The mouth of the cave faces roughly northward, which means it is spared long exposure to the sun which would speed up the melting. WISE is considering leading some hikes there later in the winter, if you are interested please let me know and I’ll fill you in on details, or keep an eye on the WISE FB page and website.
By Robin Mayo
On December 18 WISE and our partners held our first Science Lecture of the season, a talk by Alaska Department of Fish and Game Area Wildlife Biologist Heidi Hatcher on the Nelchina Caribou Herd. The talk was held online, which opened it up to people from out of the local area. Interest was huge, with well over 100 people registering, and 96 households logging in to listen.
We started the evening with a look back at the long history between humans and the members of the deer family known as caribou in North America, and reindeer in Europe and Asia. As well as being an important game species for thousands of years, they have been domesticated and used for a wide variety of purposes including dairy production and beasts of burden, a tradition that still continues. They also held a strong place in mythology, which help explain how we ended up with reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. Even Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has an explanation in biology, as their noses have increased blood flow in the winter to keep warm.
In Alaska there are 32 caribou herds, generally named based on their calving areas. The Nelchina Herd is fairly unique in that it usually spends spring, summer, and fall in relatively accessible areas. The herd is in high demand for hunting, and since the 1990’s has been what Heidi described as “a notorious experiment in Caribou management.”
As she reviewed the history and current status, Heidi wryly observed “One thing that’s certain with caribou is that if you try to generalize them they will inevitably find a way to defy the rules that you outline.” There is a basic understanding of the status of the herd since the 1860’s based on oral history and observations. The first scientific census was in 1948, when there were roughly 10,000 caribou. Regular counts began in the 1950’s and continue to this day. Throughout that time there have been drastic fluctuations in the population, range, and average distances travelled. Count estimates range from 10,000 to over 70,000 animals, and the herd has travelled as far as Dawson City, Yukon Territory.
The current management objectives for the herd are to keep it large enough to provide for hunting, but below the carrying capacity of the range. This is challenging for a number of reasons, including the difficulty of getting an accurate count every year, changes in range, switching between herds, and the challenges of “managing” the herd of humans who are hunting.
In the early 80’s an objective of 20,000 adult animals was set, and that number was adjusted over the years. Currently the population goal is 35,000 to 45,000 total animals. Factors including herd size, productivity, and harvestable surplus are used to determine the harvest goals for the next year’s hunting season.
ADF&G uses several methods to gather information on the herd. Every October they put VHS radio collars on 20 female calves. When the animals are captured and drugged for collaring they also collect measurements and biological samples. Weighing the calves helps determine the general status of the nutrition available on the range , which affects the health of the herd. They also have 40-60 GPS satellite collars on animals in the herd which can be tracked more easily from the office. These collars help them determine location and mortality for the herd.
Population counts are also undertaken every summer, but conditions don’t always cooperate. Teams of counters fly a grid of the area in Super Cubs, and depending on the concentration of animals, they are also sometimes able to use special planes equipped with GPS linked high resolution cameras. Heidi shared an excellent video, Counting Caribou, on the annual counts which can be seen at: https://vimeo.com/471257951
The researchers also conduct surveys to estimate the number of males, females, and calves in the herd to determine the composition. All of these numbers are combined to come up with population estimates for the year. This information is used by ADF&G to determine hunt quotas to try and achieve a harvest that reaches their objectives. They use these quotas, as well as hunt extensions, emergency closures, and winter openings to help reach the desired harvest rate and gender ratios.
Estimating that a hunter gets 60 to 100 pounds of meat from an animal, each year the Nelchina Caribou Herd produces about 240,000 pounds of food for Alaskans while maintaining a fairly stable population.
It is a challenge to summarize the huge amounts of information Heidi shared in her talk and the question and answer session which followed. The full recording of the December 18th talk can be accessed at the WISE website: www.wise-edu.org.
WISE has more Science Lectures scheduled for January and February, including learning about Copper River Watershed Project’s Salmon Habitat Restoration Projects with Kate Morse (Noon on Friday, January 15) and two lectures exploring Archaeology on the Shorelines of Ancient Lake Atna on February 5th and 12th. To register for any of these online events, you can find registration links on the WISE website. They will also be recorded if you’d like to watch them at a latertime.
A huge Thank You to Prince William Sound College for providing technical assistance for these lectures, and to our funding partner Alyeska Pipeline Service Company for financial support. Copper Country Alliance and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve are also program partners.
ADF&G Photo. Heidi working with a sedated caribou
By Robin Mayo
As we jumped out of our warm cars and quickly got dressed for a day hike in the Alaska Range in December, my friend observed that she’s always trying for the perfect outfit. We agreed that it is an elusive quest, and there is rarely a perfect solution. At the parking area, sluggish from the drive and facing a brisk wind, we bundled up. But just a few minutes down the trail, which was blown in and involved occasional “post-holing” we were stopping to take off layers and stuff them in our packs. At our destination, where we stopped to take pictures and have a snack, the layers went back on. I was a little chilly when we started walking back, but again warmed quickly as soon as we got moving.
To make the problem even more challenging, everyone’s body reacts to cold a little differently. Some people suffer from cold toes, while others fiercely dislike wearing hoods or large hats. Dressing for the cold is not a single formula but a complicated personal creative process. But please don’t give up! Especially with all the wondrous modern insulations and fabrics, it is worth figuring it out so you can get outside and enjoy the winter beauty.
The Basics: For any sustained time outdoors in winter, you will need to add insulation to your whole body. The biggest parka in the world will not help you if your legs are clad only in jeans, or enable you to go without decent boots, mittens and headwear. The basics include “base layers” for the whole body, especially warm socks and long underwear. You should also have insulated and windproof layers for your whole body, including pants, coats, hats, mittens, and boots.
Insulation = Air: Truth is, it isn’t the garment itself which keeps you warm, but the air it traps. Look for items which are puffy and loose enough to trap some air. If an insulated garment is too tight, the insulation won’t be able to do its job. My current winter jacket is a men’s large, which makes me wonder what large men wear, but it has room for several layers underneath, and the sleeves are long enough to pull over my hands. When in doubt, choose the larger size, keeping in mind that if a garment is way too big it will be drafty and not as warm. A mushing friend uses the memorable rule of thumb that “your snowpants should be so puffy that you need a back-up beeper for your butt.”
Layers are the secret ingredient: Even if your jacket and snowpants are excellent, it is important to wear several layers underneath. This traps more air, eliminates drafts, and gives you options. On a drizzly blueberry picking foray in Thompson Pass last fall, I suddenly realized my young puppy was dangerously cold. I took off one of the layers I was wearing under my raincoat to wrap her up, and soon after made her a raincoat of her own.
Ideally your “next to skin” layer should not be cotton. It traps moisture and can make you cold. Instead look for synthetics, silk, or wool. Technical base layers can be expensive, but many pajamas and loungewear are made of synthetic materials. Last time I was at New to You there was an amazing array of fuzzy pajama pants and lightweight fleece jackets and pullovers which would work perfectly.
Windbreakers are magic: For WISE programs, we have a bag of raincoats and rainpants, which are often deployed in chilly situations even if there is no rain. Especially if clothing is at all damp, the slightest breeze sucks the warmth out of you. As well as windproof layers for your body and legs, think about windproof mittens and make sure your jacket hood is big enough to fit over your hat.
Accessorize for the perfect combo: Collect a variety of hats, mittens, socks, and neckwear so you can try different combinations and learn what works for you. I like to wear a lightweight stretchy neck tube (Buff is a popular brand) under a thicker fleece neck gaitor. These layers can be pulled up or down in various combinations to protect my chin, cheeks and nose. For strong winds or riding the snowgo, I add a lightweight windproof balaclava. I top it off with one of my many fuzzy hats, and pull up my hood if needed. That old adage about losing 30% of your body heat through your head is true, plus ears, noses and cheeks are easy prey to frostbite.
For my hands I also use a layering strategy. A pair of thin gloves enable me to operate zippers and snaps, and can slip inside a larger pair of mittens. I wear my overmitts dog-musher style, on a cord around my neck so they can be easily slipped off but won’t be left behind.
Ignite your Inner Furnace: Your body generates heat from movement, but when we start to feel cold we often “shut down,” and stop moving. A brisk walk, jogging in place, some jumping jacks, or a silly dance are often all you need to crank up the furnace. I’m going to take a potentially unpopular stance here and discourage use of those neat little “hot packs” as a substitute for dressing right and moving your body. Don’t get me wrong, they have some great uses, especially in emergencies and for people with compromised circulation. But especially for kids, using them as a substitute for learning to dress warmly and use the power of our own bodies is a disservice in the long run.
It is also important to feed your furnace with high-energy foods, including quick-burning fats and carbs. This is another self-care skill we can teach kids, paying attention to fueling their bodies. Eating may make you colder at first as your body kicks into digestion mode, but especially in the long run it is super important.
Know the signs of trouble: Cold injuries and conditions are serious and escalate quickly. Frostbite and hypothermia are the most common, and can be hard to diagnose in ourselves, but easily spotted by companions. A patch of white skin on the nose, cheeks, or ears is often the first sign of frostbite, and should be covered and gently warmed immediately. The first sign of hypothermia is “the -umbles.” The victim may mumble when they talk, stumble when they walk, and fumble when they try to use their hands. Unfortunately, hypothermia also often includes apathy and even flat-out denial, so you may need to be assertive to help your friend add layers and get moving to warm themselves. More advanced hypothermia and frostbite are serious medical emergencies which require skilled response.
Photo Caption: My Mom celebrates her 83rd birthday with a January hike in the Alaska Range. It was about -10F with a cold breeze. She is wearing light gloves to operate the camera, and keeping heavy overmitts ready.
By Robin Mayo
WISE is taking our Science Lecture series online, with web-based presentations from a wide variety of experts. Although we will miss the camaraderie and personal experience of live lectures, there are some cool advantages to online events which we plan to enjoy.
First, we are not limited to presenters who are willing and able to make the trip to the Copper River Valley in winter. This has opened up a whole new set of people we can tap into, and it is exciting. Potential speakers do need to be willing to master the technology, but in 2020 everyone seems to be embracing this.
Similarly, our audience is no longer limited to those within driving distance. There is no such thing as a “central” location, no matter where a live lecture is held, it will too far for some. With online lectures, we can even invite participants from other areas. Because of this, we are scheduling most talks for 5pm to make them accessible for those in earlier time zones.
Here is what we have planned so far!
Friday, December 18 at 5pm--the Nelchina Caribou Herd with Heidi Hatcher. Heidi is the Glennallen Area Wildlife Biologist for Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and has a wealth of knowledge of this important subsistence resource. She’ll also explore some of the history of our relationship with caribou and reindeer, including their appearance in holiday traditions.
Friday, January 8 at 5pm—Bird Research in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, with Carol McIntyre and Jeremy Mizel. These two National Park Service researchers will share their research on Golden Eagles and songbirds.
Friday, January 15 at NOON—Fish Passage and Culvert Projects with Kate Morse. The Copper River Watershed Project has a variety of projects in the area, including a major culvert replacement at 74 mile Richardson Highway. Learn about their system for evaluating culverts, the dynamics of culvert replacement projects, and the significant impact on fish habitat.
Friday, February 5 at 5pm—Archaeology Discoveries on the shores of Ancient Lake Atna with NPS Archaeologist Lee Reininghaus. This is the first of a two-part series on recent archaeological discoveries in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, including some cool collaboration with geologists to identify likely sites.
Friday, February 12 at 5pm—The Excavation of NAB-533 with John White, Texas A&M University. This talk will zoom in on one of the most interesting recent sites found in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
To attend any of these talks, please email email@example.com to request a link. We will be using a platform called Cisco WebEx, which is very similar to Zoom. You will need to download an app if you want to join by smartphone, and it is recommended that you log in a few minutes early, especially if it is your first WebEx meeting.
We are working on more lectures for the rest of the winter, and welcome suggestions for topics and speakers. Looking forward to seeing you on the screen and learning together!
By Robin Mayo
WISE is working with three local public libraries to make “Discovery Packs” so families can learn and do simple science experiments at home. We are starting with a few packs at Kenny Lake Public Library this week, and by the end of the year hope to have a total of 24 packs available at Kenny Lake, Glennallen and Valdez libraries.
The idea grew as we thought about how we can support local families through remote and home schooling, and keep up with our In-Class Science program in spite of the pandemic. Since libraries already have systems in place to check out materials, they were an obvious choice for partnership. Copper Valley Electric Community Foundation and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company have already pledged funds to support the program, and a request is pending with the Foundation for Rural Service via Copper Valley Telecom.
Although designed for elementary aged students, one of the goals is to include materials that will appeal to a wide variety of ages and interests. The electricity pack is one of the first we tackled because it is one of the core building blocks of the In-class Science program. Included are books (Ms. Frizzle and her Magic School Bus,) safety information, batteries and bulbs, and experiments with static electricity. The Renewable Energy Alaska Program (REAP) assisted with this pack, so we there are also materials to build your own wind generator, hook up solar panels, and measure energy use in the home.
The packs will be able to be checked out just like a book. They will include a checklist to help borrowers make sure they get everything back in the pack. Between uses, the librarians will check and replenish the contents, wipe things down, and let them rest for a few days to “decontaminate.” Since each library has developed their own procedure for Covid19 safety, please check with your librarian for the best way to choose and pick up materials.
We will start with some basic topics, including Simple Machines, Electricity, Sound, and Magnets. Then we will branch out with packs for Aquatic Ecology, Birdwatching, Mammals, Geology, and more. Some of the packs we will have three of so they will always be available at all locations, while others will rotate between the libraries every few months.
Public input is very welcome on this project! What topics or materials would you like? After you try a pack, we’d love to hear how it went, and how it can be improved. We’d love to continue to grow this project with your ideas.
Photo: The Electricity Discovery Pack includes experiments in static, current, and renewable energy, safety information, and books.
By Robin Mayo
In a year full of disappointments, last week we were able to complete a much needed project to clean up the Copper River Watershed. A team of volunteers joined heavy equipment donated by Cruz Construction to extract abandoned vehicles, fishwheels, and other debris from the Kotsina River floodplain, just upriver from the Copper River Bridge at Chitina. Nonprofits Copper River Watershed Project (CRWP) and Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment (WISE) led the project, joined by Bureau of Land Management Glennallen Field Office, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Chitina Village Council, and Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission. Even the weather cooperated, delivering a very low water flow which made the project easier and safer.
Although cleaning up this mess has been on the wish list for years, the estimated $40,000+ price tag was daunting. But a phone call in July changed all that, when Dave Cruz of Cruz Construction offered his heavy equipment to extract the debris. He was looking for nonprofit partners to help with organizing the project, and WISE and CRWP were excited to jump on board. We just needed to come up with the money to haul away and dispose of the junk.
CRWP launched a crowdfunding effort, and the response was overwhelming, with $15,000 raised in donations large and small. We also received funds from Chitina Village, Ahtna Inc., and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. The State of Alaska, Chitina Village, and Ahtna Inc. cooperated in issuing the needed permits.
Starting on September 29, two big rock-hauling trucks and an excavator worked the floodplain, pulling out debris. Many of the large vehicles were partially buried and had to be dug and lifted out, coming out in pieces. A team of volunteers organized by Dave Cruz operated the machinery and provided ground support. The grin on Dave’s face, especially when he tugged on one tire sticking out of the river channel and pulled up a whole chassis, echoed everyone’s satisfaction.
The debris, which included at least 6 vehicles and many derelict fishwheels, was hauled to a staging area near the road, and crushed to facilitate hauling. It was loaded into highway trucks and taken either to the landfill or a recycling facility.
On Saturday, a team of about 20 community volunteers tackled the smaller trash. Job one was cleaning up the staging area. The Styrofoam floats from many of the fishwheels broke into tiny pieces, which were patiently picked up. We did a sweep of area campgrounds and roadsides all the way down to Haley Creek. A crew also scoured the shoreline of Town Lake. The volunteer effort filled a pickup truck and 20 foot trailer with about 30 bags of garbage as well as tires, metal, and large debris.
Afterwards, the volunteers celebrated with a delicious lunch by Sarah Nelson of Copper Basin Creations, and collected Tshirts as thank-you gifts. One lucky volunteer went home with the “door prize,” a CRWP tote bag full of goodies.
At every stage of this project, we’ve had conversations about how to prevent this from happening again. Certainly all the landowners need to be proactive about educating and enforcing. Since a trashed area tends to attract more trash, quick cleanup of large and small messes is challenging but essential. Chitina Village does an outstanding area of keeping up with summer trash, but need help and support from all stakeholders. We hope to make signs, and the idea of having youth artwork on the signs was presented at the volunteer event. Cruz Construction has already volunteered to install the signs!
As I finished this article for submission to the paper on Monday, I received word that a large pile of household/construction debris had been dumped on the Kotsina Floodplain. Sadness, anger and disbelief flooded my mind. But Ahtna Inc. responded quickly, sending out a crew to clean it up. We remind everyone that littering in Alaska is illegal and punishable with fines of up to $1000 and up to 90 days in jail. Working together, we can prevent another mess on the Kotsina, and keep our whole watershed clean.
Photos Left to Right- Dave Cruz uses an excavator to extract a vehicle chassis from the Kotsina River. Oversize Rock trucks were used to transport debris across the river to the staging area. At the staging area, the debris was broken into smaller pieces for loading into highway trucks. Photos: Paul Boos, WISE. The volunteer crew that removed the large debris included Denny Wallace, Gene Kubina, Chris Watson, Jeff Keller, Dave Cruz, Mike Uher, and Kade Nelson. Photo: Lisa Docken, CRWP. As this article went to press, news came in that a large pile had been dumped on the Kotsina Floodplain. Ahtna Inc. quickly sent a crew to clean it up. We encourage anyone who knows anything about this mess to contact the Alaska State Troopers. Photo: Mike Christenson.
By Robin Mayo
WISE and Copper River Watershed Project are moving ahead with plans to remove abandoned vehicles and other debris from the Kotsina River and floodplain, just upriver from the Copper River bridge at Chitina. Dave Cruz of Cruz Construction has volunteered heavy equipment and a crew to do the removal, and a crowdfunding campaign and generous donations are getting close to the required amount for trucking and disposal fees.
Airplane and drone flyovers of the cleanup site have shown that several of the vehicles have disappeared, but we have not yet determined if they are broken up, covered, or already washed into the river. There are also many abandoned fishwheels and other debris to be cleaned up. The project team is hoping for lower water levels in the fall. Heavy equipment will be working in the area the week of September 28-October 2, and a volunteer cleanup is scheduled for Saturday, October 3. If weather or other factors don’t cooperate, we may have to adjust these dates.
Volunteers are needed to help pick up small debris from the removal and staging areas, and also do a clean sweep of area boat launch, dipnetting and camping sites. A cleanup in the fall of 2019 yielded two pickup loads of garbage. Chitina Village has been doing an outstanding job of managing trash and outhouses this summer, but there is still work to be done.
If you’d like to help with the volunteer event, please contact WISE at 822-3575, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Lunch and gifts will be provided for volunteers, as well as protective equipment. We will be practicing social distancing, and volunteers also have the option of signing up to clean an area any time they choose during the week of the cleanup. We request that everyone who plans to volunteer sign up, so we can plan accordingly and keep you informed if there are changes.
The response to our crowdfunding campaign has been amazing, with over 100 donors contributing a total of over $10,000. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and Chitina Village have also contributed to the project. We are still fundraising to cover the trucking and disposal fees. Vehicles and recyclable metal will be hauled out of the area, and the remainder will go to the landfill in Gulkana. Costs are estimated to be about $15,000, not including WISE and CRWP staff time. The crowdfunding campaign can be accessed from the WISE website, www.wise-edu.org, or a check can be mailed to WISE at HC 60 Box 338A Copper Center, AK 99573.
Seven different teams are competing for the spot of top fundraiser, and right now the rising star is “In Remembrance of Jason Esler.” McCarthy resident Esler was passionate about creating waste solutions for the McCarthy/Kennecott area, and was tragically lost in an accident last fall.
The team is also hoping to have enough funds to design, purchase and install signs encouraging users of the area to practice good stewardship and help protect the area. A trashed area attracts more junk, while a clean, pristine landscape and good public education can help prevent another mess.
This project is a bright spot in an otherwise hard season, when we have had to say “no” to many things. Thanks everyone for your enthusiastic support, and especially Cruz Construction for making it possible.
By Robin Mayo
If you’ve ever crossed the Copper River bridge near Chitina, chances are you’ve noticed several half-buried vehicles, motorhomes, and other junk upstream from the bridge, where the Kotsina River joins the Copper River. And chances are if you’ve noticed, you’ve wondered why “someone” hasn’t done “something” about it!
Various local groups have been aware of the problem and looking for a solution for years, but it is a thorny one, with multiple landowners, a meandering river, and a huge cost. Legally, responsibility for removing abandoned vehicles falls to the owner, and after 14 days without a permit they are considered to be trespassing. In 2017 the State of Alaska contacted all of the vehicle owners requesting their removal, but received no response.
Why is this project important? As well as being an eyesore, the vehicles contain toxic fluids and materials which are washed into the river as they break apart. They create a hazard to safe boating and enjoyment of the area. And sadly, junk serves as an invitation for more junk, while a clean environment encourages users to be better stewards of the resource.
Another question we’ve been asked about this project is “Why doesn’t the state and/or vehicle owners (or someone else) take care of this? Why ask for donations to clean up someone else’s mess?” Yes, someone else should be cleaning it up, but they aren’t! At this point the cost of removal far exceeds the value of the vehicles. The challenges of cleanup and risk to the river increase with time, and we’d just like to be part of the solution.
Copper River Watershed Project has had this on its “wish list” for years, but funding has been a huge barrier. There was a breakthrough this summer, when Dave Cruz of Cruz Construction volunteered to provide machinery and a skilled crew to extract the vehicles. A local property owner, fish wheel operator, and lover of Copper River salmon, Cruz has a construction crew working in the area and saw it as an opportunity to do a public service and help protect the fishery.
With the Cruz Construction offer removing one of the biggest obstacles and many other projects hampered by Covid19 restrictions, this fall is great timing. The State of Alaska recently issued a permit for the project, and we are in the midst of conversations with other potential partners. WISE is providing local support and organizing a volunteer effort to help with removing debris that can be collected by hand. Last fall a cleanup of popular camping and dipnetting spots in the area yielded two pickup truck loads of garbage.
The meandering Kotsina River, which emerges from a canyon and flows across a wide flood plain before joining with the Copper, is one of the trickiest challenges of the project. For years it was confined to the west side of the flood plain by dikes, making a large area of riverbank upstream from the Copper River bridge easily accessible. But with the dikes no longer maintained, the Kotsina has rerouted, and the vehicles ended up on the other side, or in some cases right in the channel.
(At this point I’m going to diverge a little and explain that the Kotsina River was just doing what rivers do best: carrying sediments, depositing them, seeking low places to flow to, and meandering about on the flood plain. Having been restrained for a while, it was not a surprise that it shifted to the opposite side. For a detailed description of this process and man’s mostly ineffectual quest to manage it, I highly recommend John McPhee’s book “Control of Nature,” with a fascinating section about the Mississippi River and Atchafalaya Basin.)
If all goes to plan, the actual removal will take place in late September or early October, when low water levels will make everything easier. The vehicles will be extracted, any remaining fluids removed, and broken into pieces for disposal. We will also remove other debris such as derelict fishwheels. The team is looking into the possibility of recycling some of the metal.
And here is where the “someone” who should do “something” about this mess becomes YOU! The next big obstacle is finding funding to haul away and dispose of the estimated 50 cubic yards of debris. As well as asking for support from agencies and businesses, we are running a crowdfunding campaign so that everyone who loves the area can pitch in. Links to donate can be found on the WISE website (www.wise-edu.org) and Copper River Watershed Project website (www.copperriver.org) You can also donate via text message: text CLEANKOTSINA to 44-321.
Photo Credit: Copper River Watershed Project. This photo taken several years ago shows abandoned vehicles and fishwheel debris in the Kotsina River, just upstream of the Copper River bridge at Chitina.
By Moses Korth
Kids Don’t Float is a statewide project where lifeguard loaner stations are installed and serviced by local organizations. WISE fulfilled the wish of a local family by installing one at Pippin Lake. Hura for the joy of it.
Unconventional. That is the only way to describe the rollercoaster of a year we're having. But even as Covide-19 tries to cripple the productivity of our community; WISE has adapted its methods. WISE has begun looking at our programs, changing them so that they're still relevant, but that they honor social distancing. Robin Mayo, (the executive director) has declared, “The world is a dynamic place, and I hope I’m able to continue to do my job, and continue to have a positive impact on the decisions being made.” We have been trying to protect our community from virus spread by leading by example, and to that end we have made many sacrifices. But just because we have stopped face to face programs that doesn't mean our mission has failed. On the contrary this wrench in the works just means we have to get a little...creative.
“Our mission is to provide science, and environmental education for all ages. Support for scientific research, and share the natural wonders of the copper river valley.” Robin told me during our interview. She said, “I’m motivated by a desire to share the outdoor privileges I had growing up with these kids.” And, “The knowledge that I can make a positive impact on them.”
To this end we took up this project. We hope that this will give more kids the chance to play at Pippin Lake with the safety equipment they need. These life jackets could save someone's life, and are already being used. Effectively eliminating one obstacle in the way of your family, and enjoying the outdoors at Pippen Lake.
This project was inspired and founded by the family of the late Sam Lightwood. It was his dream to build a swimming pool, but a pool would be too much up-keep, so his family compromised by using the money he left to found this, and other organizations. But keeping it stocked with life jackets is no mean feat. If you would like to become part of the effort to keep kids safe, and have extra flotation devices in good condition; then give us a call, at 907-822-3575. One more way you could help is to notify us when gear breaks. The last thing we want is to provide faulty equipment.
I’m the intern here at WISE, and when I first heard about this project I was super excited. I had never heard of Kids Don’t Float, and had no idea what went into setting up a kiosk. Building this sign has been a very educational experience. First I had to get permission from DOT, then I had to build a blueprint to find out what materials I needed, and after I had the materials I had to build it. I had lots of help along the way. My dad helped me build it and let me use his tools, and Robin, her daughter Elvie, and part of the Upstream Student Council helped install it. We ate pizza and had a blast.
I’d also like to thank everyone who was a part of making this a success. Especially BLM and the Lightwood family for funding, and Doug Vollman who obtained the life jackets. The Upstream student council, and my dad. Robin, Elvie, and Paul Boos who provided the trailer. And most importantly everyone who is using and enjoying the fruits of our labor.
Construction is complete.
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.