Notes from an Icy River
By Ray Voley
They came; they saw; they filmed.
Filmed? For seven days 11 Kenny Lake students and 10 adults, which included boatmen, chaperones and a teacher, battled unruly Copper River winds, tempting mud puddles, and pesky mosquitoes -- all for the goal of acquiring film footage for a documentary on the history of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway.
The team launched on June 8 upstream of the Chitina Bridge and took out some 80 miles later at the Million Dollar Bridge on June 13. Wrangell St-Elias National Park and the Bureau of Land Management generously provided six rafts and boatmen for the trip, and the Kenny Lake students provided the elbow grease to keep the trip moving by cooking meals, cleaning dishes, and setting up the state-of-the-art outdoor potty. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park District Ranger Pete Dalton led the trip along with Heath Emmons for the BLM. Marnie Graham organized most of the major logistics for the trip.
The primary purpose of the expedition was to collect on-scene video footage for the documentary the students have spent the last year researching and writing. Dirck Rosencranz completed more than 30 narrations at choice locations – from railroad tunnels to the Million Dollar Bridge, from Child’s Glacier to Cordova. Kristi Knutson and Leah Carlson arranged costumes for students who played such notable characters as Henry Allen, William Abercrombie, and various railway workers. The other students helped in a variety of roles serving as actors, photographers, boom microphone engineers and cue card holders. Rounding out the team were Tessa Wygant, Mariah Doty, Alichia Stevens, Wesley Voley, Jake Harvey, Audrey Shepherd, Cody Brown, and Sam Carlson.
Students were able to appreciate firsthand the logistical and geographical challenges the railway workers battled against. The 196-mile railroad stretched from Cordova to Kennecott and was completed in 1911. It ceased running in 1938, after a slump in Kennecott copper prices and production. More than 6,000 men worked on the railway that crossed mud flats, the unforgiving Copper River, and glaciers -- while traversing its way through steep Woods and Abercrombie canyons.
The trip was not all business. Students took time to become “The Lost Tribe of Copper Mud Children” by wallowing in river mud and running through camp to spread their joy. Julie Knutson and Ray Voley dazzled the students with their lightening speed during “capture the flag” games along the beach. The students also showed their appreciation for the expedition’s boatman by toilet papering their tents on the last night, and delivering a high-spirited talent show in the Cordova High School gym. Throughout the trip the 11 students learned to work together as a team by helping each other cook, clean up, load rafts, and set up camp. The camaraderie and character of the students impressed the guides who expected the students to be rather high maintenance, but were pleasantly surprised to find the students self-reliant, resourceful, and respectful.