Saturday, September 27, 2014

Wrangell St Elias, Chitina, McCarthy and Kennecott

Wrangell St Elias is the largest national park and preserve in the US, encompassing 13.2 million acres. It actually has three towns within its borders.  Nabesna is located along the northern edges of the Wrangell Range and can be accessed via the Nabesna road.  The road is dirt and has several fjords which often make it impassable.  It ends in the mining camp of Nabesna, which is currently inactive and privately owned.

Kennecott  is an inactive mining town. It is a National Historic site that was suddenly abandoned by the mining company in 1938.  It is at the end of McCarthy Road, the second access point to Wrangell - St. Elias by car. Finally the most populous town is McCarthy, Kennecott's illicit sister city.  McCarthy sprang up just five miles down the tracks as the mining corporation had strict rules about drinking, gambling, etc.

The Kennecott mine developed overnight and began constructing a direct rail route between the mining town of Kennecott and Cordova the nearest shipping port.  The stretch between the mine and Chitina was the first leg developed and the railway became the only means of access to the rural community of Kennecott and it's suburb, McCarthy.  

Chitina was the last stop on the Alaskan roadway system in the Wrangell Range but is not within the park.  When copper was discovered in large quantities about 65 miles east of Chitina the priority was not road building but railroad building.

Since the passageway between Kennecott and Chitina is mostly glacial river valley and muskeg, the soft moss that grows extensively upon permafrost, the railroad was the most effective transportation choice.  A road was not built until the railway was abandoned. In fact, the McCarthy road is mostly a dirt road where the rails once laid.

We set up camp in Chitina and that's where are drive to the mine began. We drove through a narrow gouge barely wide enough for a train, worked our way down to a beautiful bridge that crosses the Copper River and then wound back up to the valley alongside the Chitina River.  Spectacular views of the convergence allows one to witness a transformation of time as the locals continue to fish with dip nets and fish wheels.

Like all roads in Alaska, directions are given in mileposts.  Of course construction crews have been busy over the summer and between miles 3 and 10 the road was heavenly.  The next 30 miles the views of the remnants of the railroad impressed and frightened us. Seeing heavy construction trucks drive across the one lane railroad bridge built in 1911 hovering above the raging river, impresses one while 11 miles down the road seeing the remains of the timber truss curve built at the same time frightened us.  Had we seen the second bridge first we may not have driven across the first!  Signs said the bridges were built in just a few days! Amazing feats no matter their current state.

During the final ten plus grueling miles, we passed several private properties including airstrips and B&Bs.  If we ever return, we will fly in as the goat trail of a road was just rough for both us and the dogs.  We parked in the last free lot, asked for information, found out the dogs could take the shuttle to McCarthy and Kennecott with us and began walking toward the footbridge.

The footbridge is next to a cable crossing the river.  Small four passenger carts hung from the cable where passengers used to pull themselves across the river until the late 1980's. We walked across the open grate footbridge which frightened Keila as she could see the swirling waters below us even if she couldn't hear them raging.  Frances was cautious but didn't hesitate to move forward.  Upon reaching the other side, we were greeted by a sign telling us it was an active bear area.

We decided not to wait for the shuttle and hoofed it toward McCarthy.  Joy had forgotten the map and the two mile walked seemed much longer than it should have been.  We were grumpy and hungry when we reached town and ate at the first stop, The Potato.  The name completely misleading, the restaurant or bus parked behind he front wooden facade, produced Austin like food, wraps and sandwiches with micro greens and humus. We ate inside with the dogs because a muddy puppy and a three legged dog wanted to play with Frances and it just made her nervous.

After lunch Joy flagged down a shuttle, asked for directions where to catch it and then walked to the shuttle stop in downtown McCarthy.  We purchased tickets and waited for the shuttle.  This area is noted as dog friendly so when another loose dog appeared Frances began to bark and act aggressive.  When the shuttle arrived it was nearly full so the driver told us we could get in the back seat of the 12 passenger van.  Joy picked up Keila lifted her in and then tried to help her make her way to the back.  They made it to the middle row and the gentleman sitting there slid over and made room.  Frances still upset by the loose dogs was barking.  A chihuahua and her owner sat in the front row.  The owner said, "watch out for that one," meaning Frances.  Kathy handed Frances to Joy and then climbed into the last seat.  Frances growled and looked around cautiously while the driver told Kathy to make sure the dog wasn't on the seat.  We were not delighted about our welcome to this dog friendly community.  During the five mile drive everyone settled in and no incident occurred.  We waited for everyone else to exit in order to help Keila get out.  No one even offered a hand climbing down from the van.

We saw the view of the fabulous Kennecott glacier and the badlands like ice hills before us and nearly ran down the hill to see them.  Since the edge is not protected by any fence or railing of any kind this seemed quite dangerous especially since the valley below contained the metal refuse from the mill, mining camp, and village.  We walked on toward the mine, stopping to look into a building that served as the butcher shop, the mercantile, and the railroad depot.  We walked through one of the Mining company directors homes with two safes and colored burlap wall paper.  It had light switches and elector outlets like her childhood home in Hibbing, MN.  We viewed the heart of the town which was the powerhouse.  Huge coal furnaces converted heat to electricity and kept the mill and town running. Another stop, a small four room house that would have been for a working family and may have housed six or eight people. This was an advanced society with a church, school, and community building that showed movies and allowed residents to play basketball inside during the cold winter months.  They had a telephone system between buildings for communication for mining operations and safety.

A few locals remain, some descendants of those who worked for the mining company some who came for the land grab of the 1970's where one could get free land but homesteading it by living on it at least six months a year for five straight years.  No matter how or when the locals arrived they are an interesting breed wanting to live so remote in a tourist ridden ghost town.

Exhausted by the long day we began to make our way back to the shuttle van.  We chatted with a nice park ranger who patted Keila as she laid wrapped in her own leash.  Frances didn't even jump up on her because she was worn out too.  The van driver allowed Keila to sit between the front seats while we sat in the first row behind him.  We took the shuttle to the footbridge and took our chances for finding something to eat on the other side.

After we loaded the pups in the Jeep, we stopped at a place that cooked everything on the grill.  We didn't want to wait thirty minutes for dinner so we bought two candy bars to keep us fueled during the long drive back down the bumpy road.  The drive seemed shorter.  Joy says it's because we were more familiar with the roads so we drove faster.  By the time we got to Chitina it was after 8:00 pm and everything was closed. We drove to the RV, fed the dogs, had a snack, and went to bed.

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