Copper River Highway washout forces early business closures

Erosion along the Copper River Highway is never unexpected, but now the raging Copper River seems intent on cutting a new channel, as evidenced by a washout at mile 45 that cuts off access to the Million Dollar Bridge.

Jack Stevenson, owner of The Riverside Inn & Childs Glacier Tours, shared the news on Aug. 19, and word spread quickly.

Going “out the road” is a way to unwind, submerge the mind and body in nature, and escape from the constraints of life in town; something not easily done in the community which has no road connecting it to mainland Alaska. “Out the Road” was even featured as the 2002 Cordova Iceworm Festival theme.

Childs Glacier Lodge owner Luke Borer vividly recalled spending his weekends in high school out the road and the times his father took him to the Million Dollar Bridge, at 48-mile, in a Ford station wagon in the early ’60s. The bridge was built in the early 1900s.

“That’s how long I’ve been going to the Million Dollar Bridge and I’m 62 now,” said Borer, who has been running jet boat tours on the river since 1993, “…a memory you can’t forget.”

In 2011, the Alaska Department of Transportation closed the highway at Bridge 339, near mile 36, due to unsafe conditions. Shortly after its closure, the bridge partially collapsed into the Copper River.

Tour boat companies such as Childs Glacier Lodge and The Riverside Inn & Childs Glacier Tours transport visitors, campers, and others to Childs Glacier for recreation, tours and work projects.

“While we were out there the other day … we could hear the embankment giving away every couple of minutes …,” Stevenson said. “You never know where the ground could collapse … if you did accidentally fall in there, there’s no coming out of it. The river’s so swift.”

Borer watched the river drastically change the landscape at mile 45 after the initial washout he estimated to have happened on Aug. 17. He noted that by 10 a.m., about 20 feet of the road, about three quarters of the way across, was gone and by the next day, well over 100 feet was washed away.

He flew his drone over the washout periodically over the weekend. In his Aug. 19 footage, alders that once lined the highway can be seen giving way to the current.

As of Aug. 22, the washout created a 21-foot drop straight off the bank, once the highway, and into the roaring Copper River.

“The way it washed out, I think the river’s looking to make a new channel there,” said Wendy Ranney, owner of Orca Adventure Lodge. “Personally, I think we might be done with vehicle access there.”

Ranney and her husband Steve created a tour for their clients to Childs Glacier, originally transporting clients there themselves. Once Stevenson began his air boat operation six years ago, they began utilizing his services.

“When Jack decided to do the air boat across, it all became very clear that that was the perfect solution,” she said. “It really changed the safety factor exponentially for us. It was just a better trip.”

Since the washout, Ranney has been forced to find an alternative and comparable tour for clients who have already booked with them.

Stevenson has suspended tours to Child’s Glacier for the season, while Borer will continue his jet boat service.

Local entities are exploring the possibility of brush removal to open up a landing strip near the Million Dollar Bridge.

The tour to Childs Glacier was the only tour for Orca Adventure Lodge that accommodated limited mobility visitors said Ranney. Their other tours required hiking.

“We need to sit back and kinda watch how it’s happening,” Ranney said. “The river has a mind of its own, as we saw at 36 mile.”

Ranney, the Stevenson’s and Borer expected a washout to happen at that area after having watched the river get closer and closer to the highway in the last two to three years.

“It was pretty scary after being out there for six years and having things be pretty normal and pull up and have the road be gone,” Cherrie Stevenson said. “We’re trying to be optimistic about it.”

Discussion has begun on the future of the highway at mile 45.

“This is a unique road and a unique situation,” said Caitlin Frye, northern region information officer for DOT. “Typically for our roads…you can drive to it.”

Frye said that the inability to transport heavy machinery to the area restricts construction options, but acknowledged frequent use of the land at the Million Dollar Bridge, made accessible by boat and highway. “Normally, they would get operators and people out to repair,” she said. The highway is owned and maintained by the state. Lands around the road belongs to Eyak Corp.

“We don’t know what the solution there is going to look like yet…,” Frye said. “But, we are in conversation with our partners and trying to figure out what a solution is going to look like.”

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Emily Mesner is a staff reporter and photographer for The Cordova Times. Reach her at emesner@thecordovatimes.com. Emily graduated from Central Michigan University, earning a degree in photojournalism with a cultural competency certificate. She first visited Alaska in 2016, working as a media intern for the National Park Service in Kotzebue and Denali National Park and Preserve, and has been coming back ever since. To see more photos, follow @thecordovatimes and @emilymesnerphoto on Instagram.