Wow the weather is giving us a break today and we headed off toward what is know as the McCarthy Road or AK highway 10, the only road into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Once you pass the town of Chitna and cross the Copper River Bridge the 59 ½ mile gravel road is made on an old railroad bed from the railroad that was built in 1908-1911 to carry ore from the Kennecott Copper Mine out of the mountains to the coast to be shipped to smelters. The history of the development of the mine and the area is fascinating and the National Park Service is still working hard to restore many of the buildings related to the mine.
The mine area, known as the town of Kennicott, was a company town with quite strict social rules but a nearby town of McCarthy also developed with all the more wild activities of drinking and gambling and frontier life. Today the few buildings in McCarthy that survived are shops and bars and lodging places for the tourist trade.
It took us three and one half hours to drive the 59 ½ miles of gravel road into the park. We found the gravel road much improved from the dirt and pot hole road it was when we drove it in 2005. The state was grading the first ten miles and we had to drive in a very narrow edge between the pile of gravel being left by the grader and the very edge of the road for much of that section. In the whole 59 ½ mile trip into the park we only encountered about 8 or 10 vehicles going out and only one other going in. Along the road in there are many small lakes, lots of views of rivers, one long old railroad bridge converted to handle vehicles and of course some great scenery. See photos. There is a mixture of public and some private land along the road in and in the areas around Kennicott and McCarthy, with most of McCarthy being private. It was about 3:30 when we arrived at the end of the road.
The road into the park ends at a foot bridge where we parked the car and walked across the bridge over the Kennicott River that flows from the Root, Gates and Kennicott Glaciers. The glaciers majestically dominate the upriver scenery. We caught a shuttle van the other side of the footbridge to go to Kennicott with the intent of having dinner at the Kennicott Lodge. HOWEVER, in chatting with the van driver, who was from the Wrangell Mountain Air flight seeing company, we altered our plans and signed up to take a flight seeing trip around Wrangell-St. Elias! What the heck, we’re here and let’s just do it! It’s only money!
The next available flight was a 90 minute flight starting at 6:30 PM so we booked ourselves on it. That meant that having dinner at the lodge was out as dinner at the lodge seated at 7PM. Off we went in search of something to eat. We found the only alternative in Kennicott was to have pizza at a bus that had been brought in and set up on a small private lot right among the old mine restorations. It was really good! We then wandered around Kennicott taking a few photos of the lodge and the old mine buildings.
We took the shuttle back to the town of McCarthy to pay for the flight and then up to the gravel airstrip. There were 6 or 7 small planes there and soon the one we would fly in arrived. Our pilot was a nice man named Bill and there was one other couple, Martin and Ellie from the Netherlands, who were to be on the flight plus a local guide named Kevin Smith who was going along. As Bill and Ellie told us Wrangell-St Elias NP is larger than their entire country! Dick got to be the co-pilot and fly up front while Pat was in the back seat alongside Kevin and Martin and Ellie took the middle seats.
Words are inadequate to describe the scenery that we viewed from the plane. Bill started out by flying over a couple of river valleys covered with black spruce and aspen and giving us a tease of what lied ahead. The sun was still high but starting toward the western horizon, casting beautiful shadows and providing lighting that highlighted the contours in the ice and snow. We were flying what they generally call the Grand Tour Route 1, a 90 minute flight to the Bagley Ice Field and over the Jefferson Glacier, Logan Glacier, Tana Glacier all of which are around the Chugach Mountains. We could clearly see Mount St. Elias, 18,008 feet in the distance and it was over 60 miles away when it first came into view. We could also see Mount Logan, 19,551 feet high further in the distance. Such heights are just incomprehensible when flying over so many mountains. Bill took advantage of tail winds to allow us to go even further toward St. Elias until it dominated the skyline and we were able to photograph it clearly. We will attach a number of photos of the awesome scenery on this flight and try to let the photos speak for themselves. We have hundreds of photos from the flight and will be glad to share them separately upon request, so just email us for more if you want to see an album of more photos.FONT>
We ended the flight flying by the Kennicott Lodge and mine buildings with warm glowing evening sunshine on them and briefly over the lower portion of Root Glacier before landing back at the McCarthy airstrip. We had taken off at 7 PM and landed a few minutes after 8:30.
What a fantastic trip to see a part of the world that so very few have the opportunity to view. It is a primal wilderness that covers a part of the earth that is still growing mountains and has ice in the Bagley Ice Field that has recently been determined to be over 9,000 feet thick with the lower portions being actually nearly 3,000 feet below sea level. In other words it would be a deep fiord if it was to melt. The ice field seems endless and there are numerous un-named mountains and smaller glaciers covering the vast area.
The trip back to Kenny Lake was a nice ending to what had become a long but wonderful day. The sun was still up as we started home about 9:15 and before we had gone several miles a lynx ran out across the road right in front of us. We also saw lots of snowshoe hares along the road. The setting sun coming through the black spruce along the roadway provided Pat with many opportunities for some fantastic photos and she took full advantage of it. As we reached the end of the McCarthy Road from the park we were crossing the bridge over the Cooper River and stopped to photograph about a dozen people on a sand and gravel bar who were dip netting for Salmon. Subsistence fishing and hunting is a way of life in this part of Alaska and the law provides for it unlike anywhere else in the USA. Dick had made very good time driving home and we arrived back at Kenny Lake about 11:45PM with plenty of daylight but in a light rain. What a day!