You read a lot of scary things about driving in Alaska and for the most part they are exaggerations and/or ancient history. But today we ran into a stretch of road repairs that left us coated in mud and shaken and stirred. It was so long we had to wait twenty minutes for the pilot car to lead us through the goo. But goo can be washed off and if you take these stretches slowly, the equipment comes through just fine - so far.
We stopped at the visitor center for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest national park in North America and a ranger gave a talk about permafrost. Black spruce are about the only trees that can manage to make of it on the permafrost with their shallow root systems. They grow very slowly and you could wrap your hand around the trunk of a tree that is 100 years old. Every so often the ground shifts and their trunks start growing in a different direction. Eventually they give up and fall over on each other. That's why locals call them the drunken forest.
Global warming is causing permafrost in Alaska to melt as it never has before. Homes that were on solid ground are starting to look tipsy just like the trees. Lakes that used to form over the frozen ground now sink into the melted soil and migrating birds find that their favorite lake for breeding no longer is there. The permafrost also has locked in huge amounts of biomass that will give off more carbon dioxide as it thaws and decomposes, compounding the problem. You can understand why Alaskans and other Arctic people are especially worried about climate change.
When we visited Alaska in 1989, we knew about Wrangell-St. Eliias National Park, but there was no way to visit it without being a very fit hiker or a bush pilot. Luckily things have changed.
The following passage in our guide book lured us here:
Looking at a relief map of Alaska, you'd think the portion drained by the Copper River was so overweighted with mountains that it might topple the whole state into the Pacific. The Alaska Range, in the center of the state, has the tallest mountains, but this Gulf of Alaska region, straddling the Alaska-Yukon border, has more mass - the second and fourth tallest mountains in North America plus 9 of the tallest 16 peaks in the United States. Four mountain ranges intersect, creating a mad jumble of terrain covering tens of millions of acres, a trackless chaos of unnamed, unconquered peaks. The Copper River and its raging tributaries slice through it all, swallowing the gray melt of innumerable glaciers that flow from the largest ice field in North America. Everything here is the largest, most rugged, most remote; words quickly fall short of the measure. These mountains are so numerous and remote that one guide service makes a business of taking visitors to mountains and valleys that no one has ever explored before.
Tomorrow we will leave the motor home behind and drive sixty miles on a gravel road over what used to be a railroad bed to a bridge where we will park the car, walk over the bridge with our luggage, catch a shuttle and spend three days as deep inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as we can go without a plane. We will tour a deserted copper mine where the largest copper deposit was ever found, hike a glacier, go rafting and fly back out.