Copper River Record October 4, 2018
By Robin Mayo
Along the western end of the Denali Highway, from Paxson to Tangle Lakes, there are dozens of places to pull off the road. Some are real pullouts, others just wide shoulders, or places where the ditch is shallow enough to make good parking. And in early September, it seems nearly every one holds a vehicle or two. This time of year, chances are good the occupants are either hunters or berry pickers. It’s usually pretty easy to tell which is which, although occasionally you can be surprised when a well-armed team in camo shows up to claim a Subaru.
My Mom and I spent several days roaming the area recently, filling our buckets with Blueberries. A gentleman in the campground asked us how long we’d been picking berries together. Or he may have been asking how long we have been coming to Tangle Lakes for a blueberry pilgrimage, but nonetheless I blurted out “53 years” to his surprise. But it is true, I have no doubt that the first Autumn of my life I was bundled in a backpack and taken berry picking. Soon I had my own berry bucket, a tin can painted dusky blue, with a cord to go around my neck. It wasn’t very big, and I remember occasionally accumulating an inch or two of berries, ready to eat, spill, or possibly even contribute to the family supply in my Mom’s big bucket.
We had a few false starts before we found a spot to settle down and really pick. Sometimes the brush is much taller than it looks, or the ground turns to swamp, or there just aren’t good berries. But we did eventually find what we call a “Gobby Spot,” a place where you can just sit down and pick, hardly needing to move.
From our spot, we can hear the traffic rumbling by on the Denali Highway. At the end of the Labor Day weekend, much of the traffic is outbound, big rigs hauling swamp buggies and four-wheelers. One of the things I love about berry picking is that once you find a good spot and your fingers get going, your mind is mostly free to wander.
I notice that most of the hunting rigs are not displaying antlers, so are probably not taking home any meat for the freezer. Smugly, I reflect that it is hard to get skunked berry picking. Even in a bad year, if you persevere, you will bring home the goods. From that thought I start imagining what it would be like if berry picking were regulated like hunting, with seasons, bag limits, and mind bogglingly complicated regulations. We’d be punching our harvest tickets for each gallon we collected, and planning to stop in at the Department of Fish, Game, and Fruit to have our harvest sealed and tested for size and sugar content. How many of us would it take to over-pick this area? Would they shut down the season if escapement goals were not met? Would the berries we ate while picking count towards our limit?
I shake my head to dispel the fantasy, and return to picking. While I daydreamed my bucket has been filling steadily, and it is time to make a trip to the car for a fresh container. This is the secret of successful wild harvesting: the progress can be so slow and incremental, if you pay too much attention to it you will get discouraged. Instead, let your mind wander and stubbornly refuse to evaluate your progress, and then be thrilled when the handfuls add up to quarts and gallons.
My Mom has some tricks up her sleeve. She has brought small plastic containers, applesauce jars with nice screw-on lids. She is a clean picker, and when she comes across especially good berries she picks them neatly straight into the container, puts on the lid and they are ready for the freezer. Apparently this skill is not hereditary, I am far too messy a berry picker to get away with such a stunt. Instead, I will spend several hours once I get home, rolling the berries down a cookie sheet covered with a tea towel. The leaves, twigs, and bits of tundra will be left behind, and I will fill ziplocks with nice clean berries ready to freeze. I’m not a jam eater, so I freeze them whole, ready to go into smoothies, muffins, and pancakes.
My mind is wandering again, this time to blueberry pancakes. I wish I’d brought a frying pan so we could make some in the morning. We’d mix the batter and pour out the pancakes without the berries, then gently sprinkle them on the raw side of the pancake as it starts to cook on the griddle. This works with frozen berries too, and is so much better than trying to mix them into the batter.
After three days of such musings, all our containers are full, and nightly frosts have turned the berries soft. The seat and knees of my pants are purple and stiff, and my tongue and teeth may be permanently stained. The berries will join the salmon and vegetables in the freezer, each bag carrying the memory of bright autumn tundra, and the taste of sunshine.
Copper River Record July 2017
By Robin Mayo
Last week, WISE hikers were treated to a new perspective on an old favorite location. BLM Archaeologist John Jangala led a hike in the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District, and showed us how to discover ancient evidence of hunters and gatherers in the area.
The Tangle Lake Ridge Trail takes off from the BLM campground at mile 21 Denali Highway, and makes a long diagonal traverse up the ridge. This area was heavily glaciated, and the series of rolling hills are actually old eskers, the streambeds under the glacier which create ridges of gravel. The Ahtna people have used this area for over 10,000 years as a prime spot for fall hunting and berry picking.
At the top of the ridge, we emerged from the brush and took a lunch break on the bare domes of gravel that top the ridge. John showed us how to observe carefully, looking for stones that were shaped like chips or flakes instead of the glacial-rounded ones that were the norm. He brought along an example of a larger stone that small tools were flaked from. Soon we were finding small remnants that told the story of ancient hunters sitting on this same spot.
Stone age tools in the area were made of a rock called Landmark Gap Argillite, and there are several sources of it in the Amphitheater Mountains. Compared to obsidian and other stones commonly used for tools, it is very humble in appearance, a sandy grey-brown color. The small pieces we found were often covered with lichens like the other stones, so it took a sharp eye to pick out their distinctive shape and color.
When first flaked off, stone tools have such a sharp edge that they have been used for open-heart surgery. After some use the edge becomes duller, but can be re-sharpened by taking off tiny flakes to create a serrated edge which is useful in cutting tough tendons when butchering game. Dull blades could also find use as hide scrapers.
Ancient hunters also made multi-pointed projectiles by embedding several tiny sharp stone shards in antler or bone holders, which were then lashed to wooden shafts. With a limited range, the hunters relied on their knowledge of the habits of the animals, and patiently waited near trails until the game came close enough to reach with a spear. They also used a one-handed holder to fling the darts or spears, to add to their speed. This technology was also shared with coastal hunters, who needed to be able to keep a boat steady while also throwing their weapon.
As we ate our sandwiches, fruit, cheese, cookies, and other modern treats, we were struck by the difficulty of providing enough calories to live on year-round by hunting and gathering, even in the relatively rich Tangle Lakes area. We are so used to using large amounts of energy to acquire our food, including farming, processing, and shipping it from faraway places. Modern day subsistence hunting nearly always relies on petroleum powered transportation, and plenty of calorie-dense snacks to give the hunters energy. But to stay alive in the wild you’d need to keep ahead of the game, consistently procuring more calories than you consumed.
Exploring and finding artifacts is exciting, but John stressed the importance of leaving things where they are found. Near high-traffic areas like the campground and local trails, they are most likely already known to the archaeologists, and leaving artifacts in place gives others the chance to discover and learn. If an interesting item is found off the beaten track, it should also be left where it is found. A good picture and GPS or Map coordinates are greatly appreciated by the Archaeology teams, so your find can become part of their knowledge base.
BLM Archaeologist John Jangala shares the pre-history of the Tangle Lakes Area with a group of WISE hikers Tommy Matia/WISE Photo
Copper River Record November 2016
By Robin Mayo
Technically, the Tangle Lakes area is not really the Copper River Basin, but since so many of us love to hunt, fish, pick berries, and explore in this area, I couldn’t resist including a hike. The first few miles of the Denali Highway from Paxson are still in the Copper River Watershed, but the Lower Tangle Lakes drain into the Delta River and therefore this hike is actually in the Yukon River Watershed. A little further out the road, the McClaren River flows to the Susitna and on down to Cook Inlet. So you can experience the headwaters of three great Alaskan rivers in just a few miles. No wonder it feels like the top o’ the world up there!
Many trails leave the Denali Highway in this area, and you can have your choice depending on your mode of transport. Hikers are forewarned though, many of the trails frequented by off-road vehicles feature a lot of mud!
A favorite quick Tangle Lakes hike takes off from the BLM Campground, 21.5 miles from Paxson on the Denali Highway. Take the spur road from the highway towards the campground, then look for the trailhead on the left as you enter the campground. The well-developed trail traverses up the ridge, revealing awesome views of Tangle Lakes and River. At the top of the ridge the route gets somewhat less defined, branching out. This gives you the perfect chance to explore the network of open ridges. On a recent berry-picking foray we found not only fantastic blueberries and lingonberries, but also bearberries, crowberries, timber berries, and nagoon berries.
On one of the larger open patches at the top of an old glacial moraine, someone has arranged loose stones into a spiral maze. Normally I’m not a fan of finding signs of human intervention in an otherwise pristine place, but this spot feels magical enough that it works. We were feeling fanciful late one evening and tried a slow walk to the center of the spiral, hoping it would transport us through time. We were miraculously transported to the future, about 2 minutes from when we began! The exercise did spark a great conversation about when in history we’d like to visit. My choice: ride the Copper River and Northwestern Railway in the 1920s.
Taking care to keep your sense of direction, you can continue to explore almost indefinitely from this spot. Since you are in the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District, keep an eye out for signs of long-ago hunters, and please be respectful of anything you find. I guess the time travelling really does work, because this area always fills me with a feeling of peace and connection to those who came before us.
This trail never fails to reward you with panoramic views. Lauren Vos photo
Exploring a spiral maze at the top of the Tangles Ridge Trail. Lauren Vos Photo
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.