Chitina and Fish Wheels

Chitina Travel Blog

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Our lunch stop today

The Richardson Highway runs north to south from Fairbanks to Valdez.  We turned right (south) on the highway in Paxson, passing through towns with names like Sourdough, Gakona, and Willow Creek.    Breakfast seemed eons ago and by the time we pulled into Chitina, the metal trailer that housed the Chitina Burger Bar looked equally as good as a Shoney's or Kentucky Fried Chicken.    And pray tell, where was Leigh Ann?  Another pay phone had her name written on it.  Time for a call to Adam.
Chitina backyard scenery
   As I sat on one of the road-side picnic tables and enjoyed my hotdog and Diet Coke, I couldn't help but wonder about this little town.  Who were the people that called this place home and why are they here? 

Chitina is the gateway to the largest national park in the entire United States ~ Wrangell St. Elias.  This town provides only one of two roads with access into the 13-million-square mile preserve which is home to 12 of the 15 highest mountain peaks in Alaska and the largest glaciers in the world.  The people that live here have made a conscious decision ~ they have chosen inconvenience and isolation in order to be surrounded in every direction by God's handiwork.  Snow-capped mountains and crystal clear rivers.   Immense fields of glacier ice.
Fish wheel in the Copper River
  A day sky of robin-egg blue and a night sky filled with mysterious glowing colors of purple, green, and red.  

Now, for a brief history lesson.  After the completion of the Copper River Northwestern Railway in 1911, Chitina was used as a supply town.  Goods were received from the port town of Cordova via the railway, then taken by the overland haul road to Fairbanks or by rail to McCarthy and the mining town of Kennecott.   These were good years for Chitina and it was actually thought the town would become the next capital city of Alaska.  But it wasn't meant to be.   Ore prices took a tumble, the Kennecott Copper Mine closed and the last train stopped running on the Copper River Northwestern in 1938.
Fisherman cleaning salmon. The fish are caught in a basket on the waterwheel as it turns with the current in the river.
  The once thriving business community of Chitina had been reduced to a virtual ghost town.   Today the town boast a winter population of 100 that swells to a whopping 150 during the summer months.

Richard took the bridge over the Copper River and pulled off the road, following the tire tracks that led down to the riverbank.   This is a well-worn path, used by the Copper River fish wheel owners during the salmon run between June and September.  Fish wheel fishing in Alaska is only allowed on this river, the Copper, and on the Yukon River.  Typically, the fish caught in the wheels on the Copper are considered to be better quality that those caught on the Yukon.  By the time the fish reach the baskets on the Yukon, they are bruised and battered.   Today found a lone fisherman and his wife working their fish wheel.
Salmon in fish wheel basket
    As the swift current turned the wheel, the baskets would scoop up the salmon that were running upstream and deposit them in a holding tank.   The fisherman would check the tank from time to time and empty it when full.   The gulls were dipping and diving around the wheel, watching and waiting for the left-over tidbits from the cleaning table.  Mr. Fisherman was having a very good day.  He was skilled with his fillet knife and before long, his large coolers were full to the brim.   This was to be his last trip to the river this season.  His fish wheel would be pulled out of the water and left on the shore until next summer when the salmon would again be madly swimming upstream to fulfill their life purpose ~ reproduction then death.
Fisherman working his fish wheel along the Copper River


The 60-mile gravel road from Chitina to McCarthy and Kennecott was once the railbed for the Copper River Northwestern Railroad.  Some of the original railroad ties were visible alongside the road, making it necessary to use caution and slow speeds in order to avoid damage to our rental SUV.   We passed half-a-dozen houses, every one with an airplane parked in the front yard.  The plane of choice had the wings on the top rather than the bottom.  This allowed for better tree clearance with a short runway.  These little planes could practically "jump" into the air and clear the treetops without a problem.  It's understandable that these folks would need a plane probably more than an automobile.   If a life-threatening accident occured, an automobile would be practically useless in these remote mountains.
Road-side scene near Chitina
  Most towns of any size in Alaska have their own little airport, making air travel very common.

After three hours, we came to the end of the road.  I mean this literally ~ the road dead-ended into the Kennicott River.  Richard parked the SUV and unloaded our luggage.  The only way across the river was a footbridge.  With luggage in tow, we took the short walk to the other side where we would be picked up by the courtesy van from the Kennecott Lodge.   The massive Kennicott Glacier was the source of the crystal clear blue water rushing under the bridge.   Overhead I heard the humm of a small plane as it soared across the sky.  Standing still in my tracks, I turned my eyes towards the heavens as the pilot put on a show for us with his skilled maneuvers.  Dipping one way and diving another, then turning up on its side to return the way it had come.  What fun and I was in luck!   Beside the bridge was a small wooden shed with a sign, "Wrangell Mountain Air" where I could sign up for a plane tour over the mountains.  I  bought Leigh and myself a seat on the 9 o'clock flight for the next morning.  The weather report was calling for clear, cloudless skies over the next two days.   It doesn't get any better than this:)
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Our lunch stop today
Our lunch stop today
Chitina backyard scenery
Chitina backyard scenery
Fish wheel in the Copper River
Fish wheel in the Copper River
Fisherman cleaning salmon.  The fi…
Fisherman cleaning salmon. The f…
Salmon in fish wheel basket
Salmon in fish wheel basket
Fisherman working his fish wheel a…
Fisherman working his fish wheel …
Road-side scene near Chitina
Road-side scene near Chitina
Salmon laid open on cleaning table
Salmon laid open on cleaning table
Chitina
photo by: kingelvis14