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Wrangell - St. Elias 1995

Anchorage to McCarthey

Saturday, August 19   Up surprisingly easily, considering the lack of sleep, at 6:45 am to a crisp, cool 50 degree clear morning that prompted our breakfast waitress to exclaim, "Isn't it a beautiful day!" They've had a bad rainy summer, until the last few days. I jogged about 4 miles, down to the Chester Creek Trail and along it a way. A beautiful trail, so green and it temps me to do more than I have time for. Maybe later. I get slightly lost and ask a walking couple if the trail leads to Minnesota Avenue: "We don't know, we just flew in from Texas but think we drove from the airport on Minnesota." Then, for some reason, they ask: "Are you from Texas too?" I meet Barbara and Regina on the way back walking to a place near the motel, and we eat a huge breakfast. It contradicts the stories of high Alaskan prices -- for $6, we each get the Spanish Skillet that's more than anyone can eat: 3 pancakes plus salsa, mushrooms, onions and peppers covered with eggs and hashbrowns.

After Roger and Susie take Erin to the Airport for the flight back to her father's, we load a 10 person Dodge van and Chrysler car and head north on schedule, 9:30 am. Route 1, the Glenn Highway, through mountain ranges that would probably be a national park in the lower 48. Roger has stocked our van (Ray, Barbara, myself, Regina & Barbara A , Tom, ) with a cooler full of drinks, but they're all diet to Barbara's chagrin. I kid her that they're concerned about her weight problem. Her retort: "the weight problem is in my pack there." Her pack did seem heavy this morning, we'll have to resort the stuff.

A trip to Alaska isn't normal without some abnormal problems. After seeing spectacular river valleys and mountains for most of the day, the van begins making clacking noises when it's running at low speeds. It gets worse, and Ray and Tom, our mechanics, diagnose differential problems. The rest of us don't know a differential from a hub cap, so it's good to have them along.

In Glennallen, we stop at the Hub, one of only two service stations for miles. The mechanic confirms a bad differential, "but I can't get to it until Monday." He also confirms he once drove a car with a bad differential for several hundred miles. Roger calls the car rental company, Thrifty, and they're no help, basically saying go on and see what happens. The mechanic suggests it might help to put some additive in the differential, so Roger and Tom drive off to a parts place to get some. The mechanic can't put it in, however, and won't let Ray do it because "of liability." So we go to the other station, a Chevron, whose mechanic "will be in Monday." But the young man in charge lets Ray fix it on the lube rack, which involves Ray's sucking some of the fluid out by a hose, then putting in the additive. Roger is only slightly anxious as we wait.

Finally we're off again, and at least for now, the additive works. No noise. The weather is mainly grey in the afternoon, but with sun now and then.

In Copper Center, we stop at the modest, small Park Headquarters. A brief slide show and comments of the female ranger emphasizes the dangers of where we're going, mainly river crossings (3 people almost drowned recently at Toby Creek which we will cross) and the Goat Trail, a section of very steep trail across barren earth. And there are always bears ("keep a clean camp"). But the pictures are of such absolute beauty that I can't wait to be there.

At the "town" of Chitina, we leave the pavement for 60 miles of hard dirt road driving. Across the huge Copper River and up the Chitina River valley, following an old railroad bed that was built to get the copper from Kennicott (above McCarthy) to the coast. Between 1911 and 1938, the Kennicott mines were extremely productive. The ore ranged up to 70% pure copper, versus today's average of 2%. McCarthy served as a bedroom community for Kennicott (and red light district and bar) and peaked at 300 population in 1915. Gradually the town was abandoned after the mines closed and the railroad bridge across the Kennicott River washed out, but a few people remained. Now, it's an end of the road destination in the middle of a national park, home to a few dozen people who mainly live off tourists.

The drive turns into an endurance run, few great views but lots of potholes, washboards, and rough road. We stop talking much, numbed by the drive. Ray doesn't want any relief driving, but he's getting tired of it. Finally there is the Kennicott River and a motley assortment of vehicles, shacks, and tents. McCarthy is hidden behind trees and hills on the other side. A trailer is selling burritos and "hand cut french fries." And at the side of the river is the famous "hand tram."

Barbara and I cross the Kennicott River on the hand tram first, since everyone else seems to be busy getting ready, possibly even putting it off. Crossing the river has been Barbara's prime fear of this trip, since the tram looks a bit risky. I tend to rely on things like that without much thought. We quickly get on. Several people on the other side are coming across, so they provide most of the hand power to get it across. As we move out toward the center of the river, there's a dirty, white torrent below us that could be scary. There are no seat belts, and it certainly would be possible to fall out. Likely some people have, although we've not heard of any deaths. We make it fine, and I head back across to help everyone else. The others do fine, although Roger is a bit intimidated, and Barbara reports that as he neared the other side, his head was between his hands, not looking. One of the other people who are going across yelled, "You can look up now." On the last ride over, I decide to stand and lean over the center of the tram with Anne on one side and Dolph on the other. Some guy said the tram was pretty strong, indeed, he had seen five people and "a bed" on it once.

We're across by 9:15 pm and begin the 1/2 mile walk to the McCarthy Bed and Breakfast, where we have reservations. The way is along a gravel road that fords the much smaller McCarthy Creek, with a small bridge for pedestrians. The proprietor of the B&B, John Adams, picks up our equipment half way in a dilapidated pick-up that was brought across the river by a forklift which they were using for heavy construction work on the recently renovated air strip. We continue walking, and I strike up a conversation with an older woman, who has an eight-year old girl. Grandmother and granddaughter, the grandmother spends her summers in McCarthy and winters in Washington State. She reports that the tram is soon to be a thing of the past, since they are planning to build a pedestrian bridge next year. The state had actually wanted to build a car bridge, but near unanimous opposition in McCarthy stopped it; only one resident wanted the car bridge. She says the winter population of McCarthy is thirty or so, while in the summer it's fifty or so.

Downtown McCarthy is simply a dirt road with a collection of some dilapidated, some renovated older buildings. A lodge, two airplane companies, some sort of non-profit foundation, a pizza place, and a general store that really only has snacks and gifts and is hardly ever open; someone reports that they are sometimes open on Wednesdays. The B&B is a set of five small, crude and self-contained cabins, but they're clean and new, and there is a bath house in the middle with hot water showers. Nearby is an old renovated cabin where John and his mother and son live. He's amazingly laid back and very friendly. After checking in, we make for the pizza place but learn that the ovens were just turned off at 9:30 pm when we were actually arriving. So, none of the delicious looking pizza that everyone else is eating in spite of our pleas. Instead, we get a green salad, some bread and really, really good but bad for you cinnamon rolls. Ray, Barbara A, and Tom eat at the Lodge, which is reportedly very expensive. They got only potatoes and green beans, which weren't so bad.

As we head for the cabins for bed, it begins to rain and rains well into the night, pretty hard. Barbara reports that Susie says that Roger is furious at Ray for driving so slowly down the dirt road and that he had cursed more than she had ever seen and felt they could have made it one-half hour earlier if he had been driving. On the other hand, everyone in the van felt Ray was, if anything, going too fast. So it's a matter of perception. We're to bed and quickly asleep, pretty worn out by the drive and excitement of the day.

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William H. Skelton, 1995