PART IV:WRANGELL ST. ELIAS

 

 

The next part of our Alaskan adventure took place in Wrangell St. Elias National Park.Wrangell St. Elias National Park is the largest park in the country.Incredibly, itís six times the size of Yellowstone.Combined with Glacier Bay National Park and several parks in Canada, it is also the largest protected wilderness on the planet.The park contains four major mountain ranges, which include many of the tallest peaks in the country.These peaks include 18,000í Mt St. Elias, several active volcanoes, and many of the largest glaciers in the world.

 

While the park is massive, most of it is very difficult to get to.Most of the park is only accessible by float plane.Unfortunately, we didnít have the time or money to go that route.Instead, we had to settle for a brief visit to the old mining town of McCarthy.McCarthy is the most accessible part of the park, but even it requires a marathon drive.To get there, weíd have to drive a 60-mile dirt road.

 

 

EXHUMING MCCARTHY

 

 

We left the Worthington Glacier behind, but enjoyed some additional views of it farther down the road.We made good time along the Richardson Highway, and spotted the Alaska Pipeline, which runs from the Arctic Ocean to Valdez, on several occasions.A bit before the town of Copper Center, we found the turn for the road to Chitina.This road was also paved, but rather rough.In fact, it may have been rougher than some of the dirt roads we traveled.

 

We passed by Kenny Lake, which was hosting some sort of music festival.In the Eskimo town of Chitina we took advantage of our last opportunity to get snacks and gasoline.The gas was $3.49 / gallon, and a big bag of Doritos ran us $7.50. I was glad we picked up most of our groceries in Valdez!We needed to be well provisioned though, as we were about to embark on the 60-mile gravel road to McCarthy.

 

The first few miles out of Chitina were quite rough.Plus, we started out following a Subaru.Thanks to the drought, all we could see was a cloud of dust.Fortunately, the road conditions improved as we went.Also, the Subaru pulled off a few miles up the road, and we were able to drive in the clear most of the rest of the way.

 

Early on, we crossed a bridge over the Copper River.We were now many miles upstream from the Copper River Delta we had visited outside of Cordova.Itís a big river even here though.From the bridge, we spotted dozens of Eskimos fishing the river using nets and fish wheels.I have no idea how these fish wheels work, but it was certainly a fascinating thing to see.

 

A bit later we were treated to views of the Chitina River, which is a major tributary of the Copper.A few miles farther, we reached one of the most exciting parts of the drive.The road crosses an old railroad trestle 238í above the river.The bridge spans an impressive gorge, and driving across the bridge was quite the exercise in concentration.Itís nowhere near as bad now as it used to be though.In the early days of the road, the bridge hadnít been modified from its railroad days.Back then, you had to drive across the railroad ties, without the benefit of guard rails.Personally, I donít think Iíd be able to even attempt it.These days, guard rails have been added, and a deck has been built over the old ties.Even with those improvements, Christy was a nervous wreck, and she wouldnít let me drive!

 

We stopped on the far side to take some photos of the bridge before continuing on.The next interesting feature was another old railroad trestle.There isnít much left of this one though, and a relatively new roadbed has been built below it.The new road offers some interesting views of whatís left of the span.We checked this one out and stopped at a primitive rest area before resuming the journey.

 

The road from here was in good shape, and we averaged about 40mph the rest of the way.Honestly, Iíve driven highways in Pennsylvania that were rougher.The only difficulty was oncoming traffic.We passed cars going the other way frequently, and most of them were flying.Perhaps there was some sort of competition going on to determine who could drive the McCarthy road the fastest?This is really only noteworthy because most of the road is one lane.†† When youíre driving 40mph and someone is coming toward you at 65mph, it doesnít leave much time to get out of the way.Apparently there is some unwritten rule that traffic coming from McCarthy has the right of way.I was looking forward to taking advantage of that on our way back out.

 

Aside from dodging traffic, the reminder of the drive was less exciting.We occasionally got views of the surrounding mountains, but most of the ride was in a scrubby, dusty forest.Adding to the gloom was smoke from a nearby forest fire, which seemed to get worse as we went.By the time we neared the end of the road, we began to wonder if visiting McCarthy had been a mistake.

 

Just before the end of the road we stopped at a small National Park information hut, but it was already closed for the day.We continued on to the end of the road, which terminates at a footbridge over the Kennicott River.Local residents can drive across another bridge just downstream to access town, but this bridge is not open to the public.Instead, we turned around and investigated the two private campgrounds at the end of the road.

 

Neither of the campgrounds looked impressive, but the one at the river looked marginally more appealing.It features campsites on the gravel river bar as well as shady sites in a spruce forest.We checked in at the campground hostís trailer, where we wrote a $20 check for the first night.Then we found a decent site in the woods, out of the sun and the wind.We werenít lucky enough to get a site with a picnic table, but it featured plenty of rocks and logs to sit on.Oddly, the campsite across from us featured no less than three picnic tables.Unfortunately that site was occupied by a family from Ohio that seemed to only speak French.

 

We set up camp and had a dinner of hamburger helper, salad, and green beans.Afterwards, we were treated to a colorful sunset courtesy of the smoky haze.Once the sun dropped, we set off on our next adventure Ė an exploration of the town of McCarthy.

 

We walked from camp, and crossed a relatively new footbridge over the glacial Kennicott River.From there, we followed the continuing road / railroad bed towards town, passing a small church along the way.We stopped at the McCarthy museum, which consists of a small building and an old caboose.Improbably, the museum was open, even though it was 9:30 at night.Where else in the world can you go and find a museum open that late?We tried to check it out, but it didnít have any actual lights, and it was pretty dark inside.We decided to come back the next day when we could actually see the displays.

 

From there, we strolled into McCarthy.McCarthy is an unusual little town.Itís inhabited by an eclectic mix of hippies, mountain climbers, guides, beer drinkers, pilots, musicians, artists, and crusty old-timers.A few of those folks live there year-round, but the population really swells in the summer.The town itself features a few blocks of shops along with a hotel, a bar, and a restaurant.Of course, it goes without saying that the community is surrounded by dramatic mountains.You might say that McCarthy is a miniature version of Asheville, NC, but without the traffic problems.

 

McCarthy has an interesting history.It came into existence due to the Kennecott Copper Mines a few miles away.The town of Kennecott was adjacent to the mines, but alcohol, prostitution, and other fun stuff wasnít allowed there.So McCarthy was developed to provide all of the ďservicesĒ not available in Kennecott.After the mines closed and the railroad stopped operating, both towns were largely abandoned.†† However, in the 70ís and 80ís a few adventurous souls began to relocate there.In recent years, McCarthy and Kennecott have turned into something of a tourist destination, albeit one well off the beaten path.Tourism is pretty much the only industry there now, but somehow the whole thing seems to work.

 

We wandered through town, but ultimately ended up at the bar.The place was packed, and there was a pretty good band playing bluegrass.Christy and I enjoyed a couple of Alaskan Ambers and took in the local culture.The people were friendly, and best of all, there were dogs everywhere.By this point we were missing our dog.In McCarthy though, if you donít have your dog, itís easy to borrow someone elseís for awhile.There were plenty of dogs strolling down the street, and we sat outside on the deck where we could play with a few of them.

 

While we were there, I noticed something interesting.†† It appears that McCarthy doesnít have a police department.I couldnít help but wonder what happens if there is a conflict.Could it be that there are no conflicts or crime there?Well, probably not, but my guess is that the people there manage to work things on their own, kind of like one big family would.McCarthy also does not have a post office, a fire department, or a real grocery store.Itís a long haul to Chitina for groceries!

 

We hung out in town for quite awhile, and it was actually fully dark when we headed back.We walked back quickly and went straight to bed, as we had a big hike planned for the next morning.It was a pleasant, cool evening, and we both slept well despite the faint smell of smoke from the nearby forest fires.

 

 

 

ROOT DOWN

 

 

We slept in until 8am and then had a breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and Canadian bacon.Somehow our lazy morning evolved into a scramble to catch the 10am shuttle van to Kennecott.The shuttle is $5 per person, one-way.The only other way to get to Kennecott is to walk the 5-mile gravel road.Thatís not unreasonable, but we wanted to spend our time walking to the Root Glacier and the Stairway Icefall.The shuttle van picked us up on the far side of the footbridge.It took us into McCarthy, where it made another stop.The van was packed from there, and the ride to Kennecott was rough, cramped, and hot.It was a relief when we finally reached the edge of town.

 

Kennecott is an interesting mix of private buildings and buildings owned or managed by the National Park Service.Some of these have been restored, others are being renovated, and some are still in their natural condition.A number of buildings are open to the public, while some are only accessible on guided tours, and others are completely off-limits.We walked down the main street through town, following the railroad tracks.The Concentration building was on the hillside above us, but it is only open to guided tours.We did investigate some of the other structures.The most interesting was the boiler room, which generated power for the mine and the town.We also checked out one of the row houses and a couple other buildings before heading for the far end of town.

 

Kennecott is certainly impressive, and it was much bigger than I expected.Best of all, this ďtourist destinationĒ wasnít crowded.There were a few other people wandering around, but for the most part we had it largely to ourselves.

 

For more on the history of Kennecott and McCarthy, see:

 

http://www.nps.gov/wrst/historyculture/upload/Kennecottbulletin.pdf

 

And here is a map of Kennecott:

 

http://www.nps.gov/wrst/planyourvisit/upload/2008%20Kennecott%20Map.pdf

 

We continued through town, and found the trail to the Root Glacier at the far end.The trail starts out as a continuation of the old road / railroad bed.Initially it stays high above the glacierís terminal moraine.The Root Glacierís terminal moraine is a long, nasty mess of rocks and dirt below the base of the glacier.The trail itself followed the glacierís lateral moraine, which consisted of a narrow ridge high above the broad glacier.

 

The hiking through here was actually rather easy.The terrain is mostly flat, and the occasional rock slide presented the only difficulties.Before long we passed a side trail down to a designated camping area near the foot of the glacier.A few minutes later we crossed Jumbo Creek and Amazon Creek on footbridges.†††

 

Before long we found ourselves high above the glacier.We were treated to some nice views of the surrounding peaks, as the wind had shifted and cleared most of the persistent smoke out of the valley.As we hiked, we spotted a group of hikers far below, out on the glacier itself.One of the local outfitters offers guided hikes on the glacier, and we had considered that option for todayís adventure.Ultimately though, we decided to save our money and stick with a straightforward hike to the base of the Stairway Icefall.

 

The last part of the official trail featured a couple of narrow spots with steep drop offs.These made Christy nervous, but the hiking seemed reasonably safe to me.This part of the hike featured some outrageous wildflowers, and before long we got our first views of the Stairway Icefall ahead.

 

An icefall is essentially a steep section of glacier, typically consisting of numerous crevasses as well as seracs.While glaciers are often relatively safe to walk on, icefalls are extremely unstable and dangerous to climb.The Stairway Icefall is one of the largest in the world.

 

We reached the end of the trail at a set of cables coming down from the old Erie Mine.The mine is perched high up on the cliffs above, but itís very difficult to see.Itís possible to climb up to the mine, but it requires a potentially hazardous scramble.

 

When I had first planned our trip, I had considered doing a 3-day backpacking trip here.From the end of the trail, we wouldíve continued along the glacierís terminal moraine to Lake Erie.Lake Erie is a small, icy lake adjacent to the glacier.I thought this would be an amusing destination, as Christy spent 5 years or so living on a more famous Lake Erie many miles from Alaska (although with remarkably similar weather).Beyond Lake Erie, we wouldíve climbed up to a ridge with sweeping views of the glacier, the icefall, and many distant peaks.Ultimately though, we decided to spend a few days in Cordova.With that addition to the trip, I had to shorten this trek to a dayhike.

 

We took a long break there to enjoy the view.Eventually some other hikers arrived, rousing us from our naps.Before we headed back, Christy stumbled across a large piece of copper ore.Interestingly, the unrefined copper is actually green.

 

The hike back was uneventful, but we noticed smoke rolling back up the valley as we walked.We reached Kennecott in time to catch the 5pm shuttle back to McCarthy.We got off there and walked down to the general store for ice cream.It was a hot, sunny day, and the ice cream was quite refreshing.From there we walked back to the campground, where we paid for a second night.Originally Iíd thought about heading down the road a ways before finding another place to camp.In the end though, we decided it would be easier to stay where we were and get an early start the next morning.

 

That night we wrapped boneless chicken breasts in foil and grilled them over a fire.Pasta and beans rounded out the meal, which was quite tasty.We spent the rest of the evening playing Scrabble and enjoying the fire along with some beer and a bottle of wine.Later a couple arrived, and for some reason they selected the campsite next to us, even though most of the campground was empty.This was bad campground etiquette, but it got worse.After they set up camp they went to the campsite across from us to cook and eat dinner.That campsite was certainly a better choice for eating, as it featured 3 picnic tables.If they wanted to cook there though, why didnít they just take that campsite?I wonder if they paid $40 for the use of two campsites?

 

We ended up drinking a little too much beer and wine that night, but it didnít matter much.We would be spending the next day exclusively in the car.First weíd drive the 60-mile gravel road back to Chitina.Then, after covering some miles on the Richardson Highway, weíd embark on the next adventure - a traverse of the Denali Highway from Paxson to Cantwell.The Denali Highway runs 135 miles through the Alaskan Wilderness.Most of that road is gravel, too, so we knew it would be a long haul.That road would take us to Denali National Park, where we planned to spend the remainder of our trip.




Continue reading about our trip as we dayhike and backpack in Denali National Park..


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