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Seeing Alaska's Childs Glacier, Million Dollar Bridge via airboat a summer thrill

CORDOVA -- True or false: You can actually get to Childs Glacier and the Million Dollar Bridge near town these days.

True. In fact there are two great ways to get to one of Alaska Magazine's top destinations, and whatever you are thinking of doing this summer, this should be on your list. Also true, due to the bridge closure at Mile 36 on the Copper River Highway, the glacier and famous Million Dollar Bridge are not currently accessible in your car, but thanks to two local guide services, a day at the glacier is still possible. After two years of just thinking about it, last week I went for it and it was perhaps one of the most memorable days in ten years of living here.

For my outbound excursion, I travelled with Jack and Cherrie Stevenson, owners of Riverside Inn and Airboat Tours whom I met at mile 34 on the Copper River Highway. Jack is well known in these parts, having worked for Alaska Department of Transportation for years, he knows the Copper River Highway and surroundings, some say, as well as anyone here.

Riding in an airboat is an addiction-level thrill. Captain Jack expertly maneuvered us through the plain of river braids that comprise the Copper River delta. After 30 minutes on the river, we re-joined the Copper River highway, at Mile 46 on the other side of Bridge 339, where the Stevensons stage a six-passenger enclosed ATV.

Surprisingly, the road from there to the Million Dollar Bridge looked as it always has. We did not see any bears, but there were a few piles of scat here and there. At Goat Mountain we stopped, where fellow passengers Marty and Brenda Colburn, resort and marina owners from Kentucky, and professional photographers, took a few shots of the surrounding landscape. Arriving at the Million Dollar Bridge we drove out to the mid point and piled out of the ATV to take in the view.

Million Dollar Bridge

Just like the Copper River Highway, the Million Dollar Bridge looked like it always has, crossing the Copper River between Childs and Miles Glaciers.

The bridge's magnificent steel trusses are painted a characteristic iron red color. Graffiti scratched into the paint surface goes back to the 1980's chronicling the lives of many Cordovans. The adventures and dreams of youth. Romances recorded with hearts and arrows. High school graduations. Stevenson says sometimes he recognizes the names and takes photos to send to friends long since married with grandchildren.

The Million Dollar bridge project was sited in the summer of 1907, during the era of the Rockefellers, Guggenheims, Carnegies and JP Morgan. It was the era of oil, steel, automobiles and electricity. The era of corporations, stocks and trusts. It was a time when anything was more than possible, it was doable.

The primary reason for building the bridge was to facilitate railroad construction from the terminus in Cordova to the Bonanza Copper mine, approximately 200 miles upriver in Kennecott. The so-called Alaska Syndicate, representatives primarily of the Guggenheim mining and Morgan banking interests, bought out the Close Brothers and Heney interests in the railroad project in exchange for stock, and hired Heney to build the railroad for their Copper River and Northwestern Railway Company. From 1911 to 1938, 1,339 million pounds of copper ore were hauled across the bridge with an estimated value ranging between 200 million and 300 million dollars.

The building of the Million Dollar Bridge was the world's first example of major "Arctic Engineering". The techniques developed by E.C. Hawkins, Chief Engineer, for setting the foundations and steelwork for the bridge became the standard for future arctic construction and have been studied by engineers working on major arctic engineering projects.

During the peak of construction, 6000 workers were employed on the project. Amazingly, it came in at just slightly above Heney's original estimate of $1,304,570, with an actual cost of $1,424,774.14.

The steel bridge is set on steel beams and concrete, rising 28.019 feet above water mark with a construction depth of 49.74 feet below river bed. Steel cables were stretched from towers on either side of the Copper River and a trolley and pulley system were used to move materials across the construction site.

The official 1910 Engineers Report, written by A.C. O'Neel, Bridge Engineer, and E.C. Hawkins, Chief Engineer, is a fascinating record of the methods and challenges of the project. A copy is on file at the Cordova Historical Museum and it's well worth a quick read. Also available at the museum, and equally interesting, is the 1976 draft nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

Until the 1964 earthquake, which knocked one end of the forth span of the bridge into the Copper River, the original construction remained unchanged with very little required maintenance. In the 1970's, boards and eventually thick metal plates were put in place, somewhat precariously, creating a ramp from the bridge to it's fallen span and the far side of the Copper. The span was lifted back into place in 2005, but braver locals still laugh about driving across those boards and the sound they would make as they rocked between spans under the weight of your car.

Childs Glacier

Piling back into Stevenson's ATV we headed over to the Childs Glacier observation and picnic area maintained by the US Forest Service. Once again, things looked pretty much like they used to. Stevenson started a fire in the seating area directly overlooking Childs Glacier. Steve and Wendy Ranney, owners of Orca Adventure Lodge, the other guides offering charter trips to Childs Glacier, had arrived with their guests and Wendy was preparing to cook a Copper River salmon filet on the grill under the picnic pavilion.

Mike Scott, ---- and friends were relaxing on the benches taking in the view. Every so often the glacier would boom. Small chunks of ice would crumble into the river below. There wasn't any big calving that day, but nobody was disappointed, we were just so happy to be there.

The scale of the glacier is hard to fully comprehend from the other side of the river. About three hundred feet high and three miles long, the glacier and the river are a massive demonstration of the forces of gravity, water and ice. There are certainly glaciers that are easier to reach, but Childs Glacier is still easily accessible by Alaska standards; and if you want that combination of spectacular wilderness, jaw-dropping landscapes and epic history, if, as one writer said years ago, "you want it all" then Childs is the glacier to see.

Return trip

For the ride home to Cordova, I travelled with the Ranneys, owners of Orca Adventure Lodge. From the far side of the Million Dollar Bridge, we loaded onto their landing craft, the Williwaw. After a safety briefly by Wendy, Captain Steve took us briefly into Miles Lake where we got a close look at small icebergs floating down river. Small being at least the size of an SUV.

Making our way down the Copper was a magnificent experience. Surrounded by mountains and glaciers, the silty waters of the Copper River are the life blood of the surrounding delta. At thirty-five miles wide, this wetlands complex is one of the largest and last remaining contiguous wetlands anywhere on the planet, supporting an incredible array of wildlife including bears, migratory birds and the world-famous Copper River salmon.

Two guests from Israel and Mike Scott's friends were dazzled by the day, as were Marty and Brenda who've travelled extensively in Alaska.

Perhaps more amazing was how we Cordovans felt. At first, seeing those places, sitting on those familiar benches was like Old Home Week. We glanced at each other in silent recognition of a part of our lives that is temporarily missing. While the engineers wrestle with replacing Bridge 339, I'll be planning my return to Childs Glacier. This time I am thinking about loading up some camping gear and making a weekend out of it.

Jennifer Gibbens is editor of The Cordova Times. Used with permission.

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