History of Copper Valley
In the 1800's, the Ahtna Athabaskan Natives occupied most of the upper Copper Valley; "Ahtna" is the Athabaskan name for the Copper River. Most settlements were either fish camps or winter "villages" along the river, or hunting and trapping camps in the uplands. The Native residents were divided into clans and the various groups had their own hunting, fishing and berry picking areas. Until the early 1970's after the adoption of the Ahtna Tannah Ninnan Association (now the Copper River Native Association) following statehood, each local Native group had remained autonomous.
photo courtesy of Ahtna Heritage Foundation
Though historical records show Russian contact in this area as early as the 18th century, it was not until the late 1800's that the Ahtna People had their first true involvement with outside explorers. Several years after the United States purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, Lt. Henry Allen traveled the Copper River as far north as the Tanana River. With his exploration came the word of the large concentrations of copper found in this volcanic valley.
In 1898, thirteen years after Allen's exploration, the United States Geological Survey published reports on the geology of the region. In 1900 the great copper deposit was staked on a ridge just north of what is now McCarthy, overlooking the Kennicott Glacier in what is today known as the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The Kennecott Copper Company developed the mine and built the railroad between Cordova and Kennecott/McCarthy, which was active from 1910 until it shut down in 1938.
Captain Edwin Glenn then assigned Lt. Joseph Caster to head a scouting party that would eventually blaze trail from the Cook Inlet to where Circle City is now located. His charted course became the route for the Glenn Highway (#1), which was completed in 1945. In 1899, surveying began for what is now known as the Richardson Highway (#4).
Discovery of gold in 1898 and 1899 in the Klondike resulted in the creation of the Valdez-Eagle trail as an alternate route for gold miners. The Copper Basin was a staging area for thousands of prospectors who were traveling to the interior regions of Alaska from the coast at Valdez; hundreds wintered at Copper Center. It later became an important stage coach and mail route for those people who, under the Homestead Act, had settled through the Copper Valley region.
Roadhouses sprang up along the trail and even today one can visit many of the historic sites that offered rest and food to travelers and gold seekers nearly a century ago.
Once transportation routes were in place, communication came to this once isolated land. Telegraph lines were constructed from Valdez to Copper Center, Eagle, Fairbanks, and other interior posts. In 1941, the Alaska Road Commission received appropriations for the Glenn Highway, which was completed four years later.
Perhaps the greatest social and economic impact to this region occurred with the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1971. Many small settlements were built through the Copper Valley to accommodate the pipeline workers and their families, many of whom remained after construction was completed.
As progress continued to come to the valley, the villages, under the Native Claims Settlement Act, finally came together to form Ahtna, Inc., a Native regional corporation. For the first time in Ahtna history, the individual groups formed a tribal council of all the Ahtna Chiefs.
The Copper Valley has a sub arctic continental climate, with long cold winters and relatively warm summers. Winter temperatures range from 40 to -65 degrees F, and in the summer between 60 and 90 degrees F. The area has one of the drier climates in the state, with mean annual precipitation ranging from 8-17 inches across the basin. The annual snowfall is 47-49 inches, and snow is on the ground an average of 180 days per year. There is almost 24 hours of daylight from May until July. On the shortest day of the year, December 22, there are just less than 5 hours of direct sun, with dusk and dawn adding up to an hour of additional light.
Geology and Topography
The Alaska Range and Talkeetna, Chugach, and Wrangell Mountains rim the Copper Valley. Rocks bordering the basin consist of sedimentary and volcanic terraces with over 12 volcanoes recognized in the Wrangell Mountains. Mt. Wrangell is considered to be an active volcano and still has steam venting from near its summit. The Denali Fault and several other minor faults dissect the region. November 3, 2002, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake shook the region, severely damaging some 28 miles of highway, on local airstrips and houses.
During one or more early Pleistocene glaciations (35,000 to 9,000 years ago), glaciers from the surrounding mountains covered the entire basin floor. However, the last glacial advance left large areas of the basin ice-free. During periods of each major glaciations, ice dammed the channel of the Copper River through the Chugach Mountains forming a large proglacial lake in the central basin. Lacustrine or lake-derived sediments partially buried older glacial features. Over time, the lake level fluctuated widely, and eventually drained completely about 9,000 years ago. There are broad, nearly level terraces that extend for several miles on either side of the Copper River and its tributaries consisting of these clayey lacustrine sediments.
Following retreat of the glaciers and drainage of the lake, permafrost began to form in these fine textured lacustrine and glacial deposits. Rivers began to incise canyons in these sediments, and loess began to accumulate in proximity to major drainages. Away from the river canyons and above the terraces the landscape is dominated by low relief morainal hills and extensive till plains formed from glacially deposited materials.
Data obtained from USDA and NPS Geologists
photo courtesy of WUnderground: MtDrum (center)
Permafrost underlies the entire valley at varying depths except on flood plains and under lakes. The depth at which it occurs and its ice content varies widely. Permafrost characteristically occurs as ice crystals disseminated throughout the soil. Although not extensive near the soil surface, massive ice wedges and lenses do occur in the subsoil in some areas. A perched water table and saturated conditions are common above the permafrost during the summer due to restricted drainage.
The fire history of the site and the thickness of the insulating organic layer on the soil surface control depth to permafrost and water table, in part. Disturbance of the organic layer usually results in increased soil temperatures and a lowering of the permafrost level. As permafrost thaws, a large volume of water is released. Variation in the ice content of the permafrost and the rate of thawing results in differential subsidence of the soil surface and slumping on steeper slopes. The occurrence of permafrost requires special consideration when selecting lands for clearing and agriculture and during construction of roads and buildings.
Data obtained from USDA “Soil Survey of Copper River Area, Alaska.”
Hydrology and Water
The major tributaries of the Copper River within the area are the Gakona, Gulkana, Tazlina, Klutina, Tonsina, and Chitina Rivers. Except for the Gulkana, all major rivers are glacial in origin. These rivers are characterized by steep gradients, braided floodplains, and high volumes of suspended sediments. Several mineralized springs, locally referred to as mud volcanoes, occur within 15 miles of Glennallen. Mud volcanoes are cone-shaped mounds of silt and clay from which mud, gas and mineralized water have been discharged.
There has been little documentation of the surface and groundwater sources in the area and their quantity and quality for drinking water and other uses; well log data are limited.
Subsurface water throughout much of the area is under artesian pressure beneath fine-grained material and/or permafrost. Water availability and quality varies dramatically throughout the region. Some of the Kenny Lake area has water at extremely deep levels; Glennallen water is highly mineralized sometimes iron-rich. Wells drilled in Glennallen, Gulkana, and Gakona have produced water that is somewhat saline.
There are multiple lakes with potable water in the region, but their accessibility, ownership and use concerns, organizational capacities to develop their use, and capital/operation/maintenance cost concerns need to be considered for long term viability.
Excerpts taken from USDA publication ”Soil Survey of Copper River Area, Alaska” and United States Geophysical Service
Forest Ecosystems and Native Vegetation
The Copper Valley is an extensively forested area. Forest types on productive well-drained sites include aspen, white spruce, mixed white spruce-aspen, and mixed white spruce-balsam poplar. In the southern end of the region, mixed stands of white spruce-paper birch can be found. Stunted black spruce and white spruce forests of low productivity occur on north facing slopes and other cold, wet sites with shallow permafrost. Seasonally flooded river wash on the floodplains of major rivers supports dense alder shrub. Willow and heath shrub occupy bogs, fens, and narrow drainages. Wet sedge meadows are common on the margins of lakes and ponds. Steppe vegetation, characteristic of semi-arid areas elsewhere in northeastern Asia and northwestern North America is found on steep south-facing terrace escarpments.
The Copper Valley has a long history of frequent wild fires. Between 1900 and 1950, an average of 10,000 acres burned annually, although this average has been reduced with improved fire protection measures. Extensive fires in the 1940’s burned through much of the region. High intensity crown fires that typically kill entire stands characterize the natural fire regime. Following forest fires, willow shrub dominates most sites until eventually replaced by forest vegetation. Stands are then replaced through natural regeneration.
Common berries found in the Copper Valley are low bush cranberry, trailing raspberry, rosehips, low bush blueberry, crowberries and currants.
Photo courtesy of Greg Boyd
The diversity of the landforms, vegetation types and abundance of streams and wetlands of the Copper River Area provide habitat for a wide variety of Alaska’s game and non-game mammals and birds. It is home to moose, caribou, fox, coyote, wolf, wolverine, lynx, hare, porcupine, bison and black and brown bears. There are over 140 species of birds including eagles and trumpeter swans.
Moose, the most important big game animal in the survey area, are found throughout the Copper Valley. They are common at higher elevations outside the area in the summer and fall and concentrate along the rivers at lower elevations in winter. The winter range and calving grounds of the Nelchina caribou herd are at higher elevations north and east of the area. Occasional caribou wander into the lower elevation forests. The Chitina bison herd inhabits the area between the Cheshnina and Nadina rivers on the east side of the Copper River. Many of the terraces and escarpments in this area are heavily grazed in summer and fall. Dall sheep and mountain goats are found in the Wrangell and Chugach Mountains adjacent to the area. They are an important sport game in the Wrangell St. Elias National Preserve.
Both black bears and grizzly bears are in the area. Black bears intensively utilize the floodplains and stream terraces along the Copper, Klutina, and other major rivers. Grizzly bears occur throughout the uplands, and concentrate along the Tonsina and other rivers and streams when spawning salmon are present. Among the more important furbearers in the area are coyote, red fox, martin, mink, lynx, muskrat, and beaver. Porcupines are common and snowshoe hare populations are cyclical.
Population levels are determined by the stage of vegetative succession, interspersion of vegetation types and other habitat features, seasonal animal migrations, hunting and trapping pressure, and other factors. Human uses of area wildlife include subsistence harvesting, trapping, and sport hunting.
Approximately 135 species of birds are summer residents of Interior Alaska; another 3 dozen or so are spring-fall migrants or occasional visitors to the region. (Armstrong 1980) Many of these birds can be found in suitable habitats in the Copper Valley. A variety of waterfowl, including Trumpeter Swans, nest in the area and utilize local lakes and ponds for rearing young. Bald Eagles nest and fish along the major rivers. Spruce Grouse are common in spruce forests throughout the area.
** Exerts from the 2003 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy Plan (courtesy of Copper Valley Development Association)