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Thursday, February 18, 2010


Sitting out back of the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge, we overlook America’s largest National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias, equal in size to six Yellowstones! Our stop here at Copper Center reveals another kind of Alaska, so independent that until recently there was no local government.

This National Park is primarily primitive, so Rob and I take a tour with another Alaskan transplanted from the lower 48. This naturalist, Dave, as other transplants we've met, has a “background.” Dave is a retired teacher who came to Alaska in 1978 and has spent the last 19 winters here. In this area people live in log cabins or simple houses and many do subsistence hunting. Dave explained there is a tiny but very expensive, grocery store about four miles from his house. When he and his wife get to Anchorage to see a doctor or to run other essential errands, a 4½ hour drive each way, they stock up with as much as their truck can carry. Dave is also the founder of WISE, the Wrangell Institute for Science and the Environment, a non-profit group whose mission is to provide science and environmental education and to instill stewardship. Dave’s love of Alaska is practically palpable, and our four hours with him is educational, fascinating, and one more highlight of this trip. Dave gives us a wonderful tour of the area. We move, once again, to another world. The watercolor landscapes of Denali and the shrubs and bushes along the Denali Highway give way to spruces, aspens, and other taller, thin trees. There are ten species of trees in this area of the state among which are black and white spruce, cottonwood aspen, birch, balsam, and poplar. A temperature of forty below zero is the cutoff for growing even though the area does get about ten inches of rain yearly. Only the hardiest varieties grow here. Trees grow slowly. While they may appear young by their sizes, many are quite old.

The temperatures of -40° and -50ยบ also make lakes like the expansive and beautiful Willow Lake unable to support fish. Fish simply cannot survive these winters. These are not facts that lure me to pack up and move, I can assure you. But there is a growing population in this part of the state, and that is the cause for beginning local governmental authorities.
We travel in a mini-van, and with Dave we are able to get up close to the Alaska Pipeline. Rob and I know people who came up here to work on the pipeline. The best part of our time with Dave is spent on the two trails we walk. He shows us different ecological systems and explains how they work. We see the important work of beavers, learn about permafrost and come to understand the lack of variety in tree species. The trails we follow help us solve that age old question, Does a bear…..We walk along ridges overlooking the Copper River Valley where once again we are treated to jaw-dropping views. In a tent reminiscent of our Girl Scout platform tents, Dave has a trail-side museum with artifacts illustrating the many things we’d learned during our time with him. Some kits show us the skulls of animals in the area, and he has skins, donated, which are fun to touch and in the case of a grizzly bear, to try on. He emphasizes, as did our guide in Denali, the inter-relationships that exist in nature. Right now, for instance, the snowshoe hare population is declining. They are food for the lynx. What will happen to the lynx? The Denali guide indicated that this is cyclical and that nature adjusts. The hare will return and then the lynx will too. Amazing to me is Dave’s presentation of the mandible of a moose. (not the above photo) It is so heavy I cannot pick it up with one hand. He explains how in nature every part of an animal is utilized. The rodents, for instance, eat the moose antlers as a source of calcium.

As we continued on the trail, we taste some of the mainstays of the local diet—both human and animal: lingonberry and pumpkinberry, for instance.

Later in the afternoon, Rob and I take a walk through the woods along the marked North Trail at the Lodge. Along the trail we are treated to an incredible variety of mushrooms, and near the lodge to strikingly vividly painted flowers. No matter where we are in Alaska, the beauty is overwhelming. We also get to see a food cache up close. Remember that the legs of these caches are greased up to prevent climbing animals from getting in.

We also see a fish wheel, an interesting and efficient way for the Native Alaskans to fish.

How enlightening is this trip! I’ve absolutely no complaints. For more information about WISE, the Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, please go to, or

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