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Wrangell - St. Elias 1995

Flight into the wilderness

Sunday, August 20   I got up around 6:30 and went for a jog through McCarthy and out the road heading up river for Kennicott. No views, simply a dirt road through the forest. On the way back, I met Barbara and Tom, walking, and she confided that Tom was thinking about not going on the backpack. His primary worry is The Goat Trail and river crossings, particularly after, unfortunately, seeing the slides at the park office yesterday. We then meet him walking also; the two of them had planned to go to the van to get their backpacking chairs. I try to talk him into going, telling him that, to my knowledge, no one has ever died on either The Goat Trail or river crossings, which must mean they are pretty safe. I jog on and cross the river on the tram by myself, get their chairs, and my boots which I had, in haste, left in the van yesterday. I walk back to the B&B with Tom and Barbara, giving Tom some more encouragement to go on. A total of about four miles, mainly jogging.

Breakfast at the B&B is a real calorie feast, consisting of mainly huge pancakes (I could eat only two), butter, syrup, with some fruit cocktail for variety. John spends the year round in McCarthy and last winter was one of only three people in McCarthy during January and February. Apparently, some people consider themselves year round residents but get out during the very coldest months. He is planning to move the B&B to the other side of the river. When I asked why, he had to think awhile but finally said that so people could drive to the B&B. His attitude toward the park wasn't totally clear. He did say that the Park Service considers the McCarthy area as "in holdings" while the McCarthy people consider themselves "surroundees."

We walked down to Wrangell Mountain Air, and thus begins a series of miscommunications. Initially, the fellow at the desk tells us that they may not be able to land at near Lower Skolai Lake, because the airstrip is too wet. He says to wait. About ten minutes later, he says everything is fine, and two people need to leave immediately. Since Roger is so anxious and would not do well waiting, we send him and Susie on. The rest of us mill around; and, a little while later, we're told that all of us may not be able to go in until late in the afternoon. This is a big change from what they had just told us, which was that we would all be in during the morning. Something about a National Park Service official they've got to take somewhere and a tourist group they have to take back to Anchorage to catch a plane which they did not know about. It's rather obvious they're putting other people ahead of us, but when you're in business you have to try to make every customer happy. They probably figure, correctly, that our getting in a little late really won't matter too much.

Barbara and I, Regina and Ray load up and head to the airstrip. Improved last year, and over-improved according to one of the pilots, it's a huge gravel strip cut out of the hills above McCarthy. We sit in an old Volkswagen bus and wait for Kelly, who's flying Roger and Susie in, to return. Kelly and Natalie Bray own Wrangell Mountain Air and are the only two pilots who are qualified to make the mountain landings. There is one more pilot, who isn't qualified. Somewhat unusual obviously for a couple to both be bush pilots.

About 10:15 am, Kelly returns, and we quickly load and are off. A spectacular ride up, hard to describe to give it justice. The impression is that wherever you look there are looming black mountains, huge glaciers in the valleys and dark clouds overhead. He cannot go the preferred route up Nizina Valley but must fly over a mountain to reach Lower Skolai Lake. We see sheep several times, white dots on the black mountains below. Finally in the distance is Skolai Lake.

I really don't see an airstrip and had expected something pretty much improved. Instead, it's simply a couple of tracks across the tundra for one hundred yards or so with a Safeway plastic garbage bag for an air sock. No problem landing, however, and we quickly join Roger and Susie who have been scouting campsite locations. Because we're not sure when the others are coming in, we decide to camp near the air strip, off to the side. We get behind some small bushes, as that's about all there is this high up. We're mainly above timberline; but, in a few places, there are some small trees/bushes. The trees also provide protection from the incessant wind that's blowing. Up valley we see a huge, white glacier, and the cool winds are probably coming off the glacier. Ray and Regina arrive about an hour later (it's a forty minute round trip). We also set up a tarp for cooking. Everyone then heads off for hikes in their own directions.

Barbara and I climb the treeless ridge above the tents and gradually make our way up to the west. Toward Hole-In-the-Rock Glacier. As we walk, we're looking up at a high hanging glacier seemingly on the mountain top which feeds a white necklace of a waterfall. We see ptarmigan, somewhat stupid ground-dwelling birds that don't seem to fear man very much. Also, the most beautiful collection of forget-me-nots, Alaska's state flower, and a bluebird blue color. We've seen several, but in one place there were two groups of them that stood out from a distance. We finally reach the top of the moraine that looks up the Hole-In- the-Wall Glacier. Glaciers are coming all down the sides of the valley in numerous places and down below is a huge dirty mess of a glacier. Covered with rock and dirt, it certainly doesn't look like ice, but the ice is there.

We head back down, and the last flight arrives with Dolph and Anne, around 4:15 pm. They are both pretty laid back and didn't mind waiting. They got to eat pizzas, and the flight in was probably better, because it has somewhat cleared.

Dinner is cooked under the tarp, Prego spaghetti for Barbara and me and Regina who's eating dinner with us each night. Dolph and Ann are so full from the pizza that they don't even cook. As we're finishing up dinner, four backpackers from up canyon come to the airstrip. We'd seen their tents. They had been up to the pass and are to be picked up tomorrow. Kelly, the pilot, tells us that we're going to be the only people in Chitistone Canyon as far as he knows. Which is good, because the area around the air strip here is showing signs of too many visitors. Obvious trails, obvious tent sites, and even a fire ring. But no significant litter. Roger builds a small fire on some rocks for burning trash. However, sitting around the fire is shortcut by an approaching rain storm that begins very gradually. Off to the tents around 9:30 pm.

I'd worried that Tom was going to fly back out with Kelly on the last flight. He was talking about it, since he got into camp. Barbara was pretty much put out with him and was telling him that "you'll never accomplish anything unless you take risks;" and, every now and then, "you need to do something that's a little out of the ordinary." He simply mumbled and is very much afraid of the river crossing and The Goat Trail. But, he elected to stay, so we'll see how it goes with Tom.

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William H. Skelton, 1995