8-3 Into Wrangell-St. Elias 9 AM- 10:30 PM
Gloomy, Drizzly, 49 Degrees, Later, Sunny!
Today we spent the day driving into the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and it was a full day! From our campground we drove 25 miles on the paved Edgerton Highway until it met the McCarthy Road, and drove the entire 62 mile length of the gravel road.
The first thing we saw was what looked like funny bison. They were actually Yak from Tibet, and were being raised on a farm there as an alternative for beef. They are suited for a cold climate and do well in Alaska, and are good meat animals. It was a private farm, but the owners had taken the time to put up signs for visitors to read, which was really nice. The yaks have long leg hair like the musk ox, but are much larger.
The road itself out through the park was not as scenic as some other roads we have been on this trip, partially due to the cloud cover over the mountains this morning. We were also on a mostly flat road with trees on each side with not much else to see. We saw small lakes, a few campgrounds, and a few waterfalls. We drove down a side road by a little airport (mostly just a landing strip and a place to refuel for small planes) to see a couple of fish wheels not currently in use that are used by Alaskans to catch fish in the river. The baskets on them are turned continuously by the current in the river, and the fish are caught and dumped into the catch bin.
Later as we crossed a river, we saw men in the river down below, fishing with a row of about 15 fish wheels. We made a detour over the rocks beside the river bed for a closer look. We have definitely tested our truck’s capabilities this trip! The fish filleting tables are right out in the shallow water for the fishermen to use as they empty the fish wheels. This is another method for subsistence fishing, for Alaskans only, for food, not sport.
We passed 3 Mile Lake, 2 Mile Lake, and yes…1 Mile Lake on our way to the town of Chitina, pronounced Chit’-na. The town grew overnight in 1910 when the railroad was built to haul ore from Kennecott copper mines near McCarthy to Cordova and then Seattle. Chitna became a supply town for both the RR and the mine. As fast as it grew, it also became a ghost town almost overnight when the mine closed in 1938 when the ore ran out. Now several remaining buildings have been restored and are being used by businesses.
Chitna is also Alaska’s dip netting capital. I mentioned dip netting at length in one of my earlier posts when we watched it at the Kenai River, but it is for Alaskans only, for subsistence fishing. We drove back a mountain-edge unmaintained dirt road, one lane some places, with a steep drop at the end not for the fearful, to see the fishermen at their task! We were told the red salmon here at the Copper River are world-renowned as being some of the best available salmon anywhere. They are strong and hardy to have come as far as they have to come, and have much more oil... I guess that is good. Can you tell I’m not a fish eater?
We were told about the Kuskaluna River Bridge by one of the rangers at the Visitor Center yesterday. It is a 600 foot steel bridge built in 1917, spanning the 238 foot gorge over the Kuskaluna River. Until recently it had no guardrails, and the ranger said to just think about this as we went across. Well, it is a one lane bridge, high above the river below! Cross without guardrails? I don’t think so!
We stopped at 2 small lakes for some bird watching where there were a number of different ducks. Tim and Terri and avid birders, Mike is fast becoming one, and I love them for about as long as it takes to get a picture or two. I do enjoy the eagles and swans, and herons and cranes.
We saw the huge railroad trestle at the Gilihina River. It is an example of the trestles that 15% of the railway was built on because of the rugged landscape. It is wooden, 890 feet long and 90 feet high. It was the last leg of the railroad, there was ore waiting to be moved, and the men built it in 8 days in 50 Degree below 0 weather!
Long Lake has a unique salmon story. They reach the lake late, and spawn between September and as late as April. It was one of the last things we passed before we reached the end of where we could drive.
There is a pay parking lot on private land, and then visitors can walk across a foot bridge and either walk or get a pay shuttle to the old towns of McCarty and Kennecott. We opted for the shuttle, and went the 4 miles first to Kennecott, the farthest.
The Kennecott Mill is a huge complex of barn-red buildings that is now a National Historical Landmark. It is one of the park’s best known attractions. We first watched a short movie about the mill at the small visitor center in the old store, and then visited the historic post office in the back of the store. The National Park Service has or is restoring a lot of the buildings. The mill was built in 1907. It was connected to the mines by 5 aerial trams, and the mine operated between 1911 and 1938. The mill is in disrepair, and the Park Service has bought the buildings and is working to restore and stabilize the site. Most buildings are not open to the public because of safety issues.
We walked around town, enjoying the old buildings and the view of Kennicott (correct spelling) Glacier because the sun was finally out. The terminal moraine below the town which is on a hill was an awesome sight. The moraine (what is left behind when the glacier recedes) is huge, the hills and valleys deep, and there is still ice under the surface of the gravel.
We took the shuttle from Kennecott to McCarthy, and there is more of a present town there. More has been restored and is in current use. There are about 3 small hotels, several restaurants, a bar, several gift shops, and several “outfitters” that will take visitors on plane rides, raft trips, or ice climbing adventures. There were a number of dogs greeting the visitors, and an ice cream store that we decided to critique. It passed muster! There are several stores and historical buildings. The town originally grew to provide for the miners from Kennecott.
We didn’t get back over the footbridge until almost 8:30 PM, and still had a long trip home. We didn’t make many stops, but had to do a few for photo of the beautiful moon that was out over the mountains. The sun was still out until after 10:30, and we got some good pictures. We stopped for a coyote that crossed the road ahead of us, and he trotted right up to the car, looked at us, and then climbed the bank beside the car. Unfortunately, by that time it was too dark for good pictures, but still light enough to see well.
We also saw a moose in a lake right beside the road as we drove. She looked up at us in interest as we passed, but didn’t pause in her dinner! They like the tender grasses that grow in the water.
It was about 11:30 when we got home. The sun was down and you definitely needed headlights, but it was still light enough to see what was beside the road and ahead of you where the headlight weren’t hitting. Much lighter than in Ohio now, but different than where we were near the Arctic Circle mid June when it was light as day almost all night!