Off the Beaten Path
Aug 9, 2011
| Our adventure today took us off the beaten path into Wrangell-St Elias National Park, America’s Largest National Park at 13.2 million acres. This National Park didn’t become a park until 1980. So, unlike the parks in other parts of America, it’s not only the country’s largest, but one of the least known and developed. There is very little physical access to the park. There are only two roads into the park. We took the southern route, McCarthy Road, into the park on a long dirt/gravel road (60 miles) to Kennicott and McCarthy.
Our first stop on the trip was outside the small town of Chitina. Along the banks of the Copper River, we were able to view active fishwheels. A large wheel shapped apparatus with two baskets and two paddles is floated in the river and turns with the current scooping up salmon from the river. Alaska residents are allowed to use fishwheels as a subsistence method of catching fish. We talked to the two guys with the inflatable boat full of salmon. They said they had 106 fish in the boat and they were caught by the fishwheel in the last 12 hours. Another man told us someone “caught” over 200 in one night!
Mile 0 of the McCarthy Road starts just past the fishwheels. McCarthy Road originated in 1909 as a railway constructed to support the Kennecott Copper Mines. When the large scale mining ended in 1938 the rails were salvaged for scrap iron and were no longer maintained. In the 1960’s, the rail bed was covered with gravel, creating today’s road surface. In places, remnants of railroad ties may surface, along with the occasional spike, creating unexpected hazards so it was recommended we have a good spare tire with us.
Did I mention it is raining AGAIN today? Well, we were already getting an uneasy feeling about this road within the first mile as sides of the hills were washing mud onto the already messy narrow road. We were told the first 10 miles were the worst with bad areas of washboard and potholes and the rest of the road was doable at 30-35 mph. The first ten miles were pretty bad and we could only drive 15-20mph. We were able to pick up some speed after that for awhile any way.
At mile 17 we came upon one of the major attractions or “distractions” as it was for me (Sherry) who is afraid of heights, the Kuskulana River Bridge. Built in 1911 it spans a 238 ft. gorge on The Kuskulana River. The 600 ft steel bridge received new decking and metal guard rails in 1988. It was quite scary to drive across. Thank goodness Sandy was driving.
At mile 29 we came across another historic attraction, the Gilahina Trestle. The picture shows what is left of this abandoned railroad trestle. When we left mile 29 the road became riddled with washboards and potholes again. Once again we were only able to drive 20mph. This continued the rest of the way to McCarthy. It took us over 3 hours to drive 60 miles. BUT we both agree it was worth it!!
You cannot drive into the town of McCarthy as the road ends at the Kennicott River. We had to cross a foot bridge and catch a shuttle. The shuttle took us to Kennicott, 5 miles from McCarthy, which was our primary reason for taking the trip.
The history of Kennicott began in 1900, when prospectors spotted the green glint of copper ore in the mountains above the Kennicott Glacier. However, without a way to transport the copper to market, it was worthless. In 1907 they began to build a railroad to the port of Cordova. The first train left Kennicott in 1911 just ten days after the railroad was completed, filled with $250,000 worth of copper. A boom town was born, where 800 people lived, worked and played. There was a hospital, store, grade school, dental office, bunkhouses, a recreation hall and even a tennis court. Within 20 years the strike proved to be the richest known concentration of copper ore in the world. Over 200 million dollars worth of copper was transported out of Kennicott which in todays dollars would be in the billions. Because the Kennicott Copper Corporation couldn’t compete with the falling prices of copper, they officially closed down the mines in 1938. Train service was also discontinued. In November of the same year, the last train left Kennicott for Cordova taking most of the remaining people with it.
Now a National Historic Landmark, the copper mining town of Kennicott is being restored by the National Park Service who purchased the mill site in 1998. The centerpiece of the town was a massive 14-story mill building where copper ore was processed. We actually got to take a tour of the inside of this building from the top story all the way down to the bottom floor. Although the building looks like it could tumble down the hill the tour guide assured us it was safe. Of course, we had to sign a waiver of liability before we started the tour!
After a 2 hour tour of the town we took the shuttle to McCarthy. McCarthy sprang up as a place for mill workers to let off steam and have some freedom from the restrictions of Kennicott. Today it has a small year-round population that has moved into, and built houses around, what was once a thriving supply center.
We couldn’t leave without finding the only geocache in this area. It was under the steps at the McCarthy Hotel. It was 5:30 pm and time to hike back to the car and make the long drive back to Kenny Lake. We got back sometime after 9. We were very thankful we did not get a flat tire!