Sunday, August 24, 1996 – When I left off, it was Day 14 [Sunday, August 18, 1996], and we had left the cross-roads town of Tok. About five hours later, we pulled into Chitina (pronounced Chitna, for some reason).
A flyer for the town says “It’s not Chitna, but you can see real Alaskans in their native environment.” What it looked like was a Bosnian refugee camp. There are about 10 buildings, and once you get off the main street, it’s trailers and lots of junk. Old cars, fallen down buildings, sinks and all sorts.
Needless to say, we didn’t dwell long in Chitina. We got some water, then stopped at the ranger station to get information about Wrangell St. Elias National Park, which Chitina sits on the edge of. The ranger looked like Robin Williams and seemed very lonely. We could hardly find a way to excuse ourselves from the station after having gotten what we needed.
He was very helpful in explaining the fishwheels used near Chitina on the river. These look like the type of wheels on the back of a steamboat. There are four “paddles,” two of which are actually scoops. Water pushes on the two non-scoop paddles, making the whole thing turn. Fish are caught in the scoops,
then spill into the killbox, or something like that. He said up to 500 fish a day can be caught by them, and they apparently made a big difference to the natives, since the glacial silt in the Chitina and Copper rivers makes it difficult to fish.
We saw the fishwheels in operation as we headed a mile out of Chitina to the campground across the Chitina River Bridge. The tent went up, and we had an early night.
Day 15 [Monday, August 19, 2006] – It was up early and scurry as we packed quickly to make our 8 am pickup at the Chitina Airport. We were heading to McCarthy, a town at the end of the McCarthy road. The road is gravel, 60 miles long and prone to what’s called washboarding–where the surface is bumpy like the back of an old-style washboard. We decided to spring for a shuttle van one way, then to fly back the next way, in order to spare the Festiva.
The shuttle got us at the airport — airstrip is more appropriate — and we were off on the road. It shortly grew apparent that the Festiva could have easily handled what’s reputed to be the worst road in Alaska. We drove over worse where they were repairing the Alaska Highway near Destruction Bay. Still, we didn’t have to drive, and we did get someone knowledgeable about the area.
The road is built across what used to be an old railroad pulling copper from the Kennicott Mine, near McCarthy. Along the way, we went across a very narrow old steel bridge built in 1911. We also stopped by an abandoned trestle, where I got to be nature boy again by finding some wild raspberries to eat.
We also passed along numerous homesteads, all of which seemed to have their own airstrips. People seem to have planes in the park in the way we have cars elsewhere (there’s a lot of private property scattered in the parkland). For some, it’s the only dependable way in and out.
It was a riot of cars and people at the road’s end. 4x4s were parked everywhere in the lot, and people were wandering with all sorts of packs. There was also a small line of people waiting to use the tram across the river.
The Copper River cuts McCarthy off from the road that takes its name. Every year, glacial water breaks loose and causes a flood at the end of July for one or two days. These floods repeatedly washed away bridges linking the town to the road. Now, there’s only a tram to let people cross to the other side and the
town, a 1/2 mile from the other shore.
The tram is a sight to see. It has two seats and hangs on a cable slung across the river. A rope worked through pulleys let you pull yourself across the river. You never have to pull, though. There’s always someone waiting, and the etiquette is to pull for other people, because it’s really hard to pull the tram
while you are in it.
Though anxious to use the tram, we chose to set up camp, first. We checked in at the tram station, a small shack at the river’s edge, then went over to put up the tent. We didn’t have our usual set up, meaning no air mattresses nor the car in which to store the food. That means I had to sling the food up in a tree because of concern over bears. Chances are, we would have been fine, and I came no where near suspending our bag of food ten feet off the ground and hung between two trees. Instead, it just sort of hung off a branch of a nearby tree, no doubt not a hindrance to any determined bear.
Next we stopped at the pit toilets which we were informed desperately needed to be pumped. What’s that mean? Well, normally when you look down in a pit toilet, you see a big, dark chamber filled with waste. Instead, these toilets basically had giant mountains of waste nearing the seats, threatening to emerge.
They also smelled horrible. I was in and out, and Lorna said she only wretched three times while squatted over the seat.
Tram time! We lined up, and soon I was helping to pull people across the river. Our turn to ride came, and we glided across smoothly. Great fun! On the other shore, we ate lunch, then walked the half mile into town.
We’d just gotten past the museum on the outskirts when one of the shuttle vans heading to Kennicott came by. McCarthy predated the Kennecott Mine and the now-abandoned town of Kennicott, just four miles away. No spelling mistake, at least of mine. A clerk for the mine company spelled the company name with an e by mistake, and it stuck.
We jumped into the shuttle van and drove along the dusty track. Along the way, we talked with Glacier Woman, as we dubbed her, a very nice young woman who’d been living the summer in McCarthy, taking people out for walks on the nearby Root Glacier. She said it was an easy 1/2 hour walk to the glacier, so we went toward it after getting off the van.
Along the way, we passed by the abandoned buildings of the Kennecott mine (and here). They were great to see, these slowly collapsing wood structures perched on the edge of the mountain. It’s eerie to see buildings that have just been left devoid of people. I saw a similar sight at Bodie, near Mono Lake, where an entire town sits as if everyone just got up and left, all at once.
Many pictures later, we passed through the last of the buildings and started nearing the glacier. It’s amazing how cold it starts to become as you get closer. It was a hot day, and we were both in shorts, but soon our sweaters and jackets went on to guard against the cold wind coming off the glacier.
We didn’t have anything to guard against the very real threat of bears, especially since the Canadians had confiscated our pepper spray earlier at the border. Actually, the best defense is to make noise so the bears know you are coming. They don’t want to mess with us any more than we want to mess with them.
Alaska has both black and brown — grizzly — bears. Ironically, black bears which are considered mostly pests but not threats in California are much more feared here. This is because they are more aggressive here, having to defend their territory against brown bears.
So there we were, clapping and occasionally calling out, “Hello Bears!” as we’ve been told to do, to warn them we were coming. At every step, Lorna became more nervous. Things became worse after we repeatedly passed bear spoor on the ground, still fresh and glistening with wetness.
Lorna was about ready to turn back and let me face death on my own, but then more people began turning up on the trail, including Glacier Woman and an old man that she was guiding. Assured that we wouldn’t die alone, we carried on.
Soon, we were at the glacier. It was wonderful to be actually on it. We climbed up at a place where the glacier turned from black to white. For about a half mile, you pass what looks to be mounds of dirt but which is actually the dirt-covered ice of the glacier. The earth spills on to the ice as it twists its way out of the mountains. But where we climbed up, there were still stretches of white ice.
I braved onto the ice first, heading up to the top of first peak. Glacier Woman had said it was OK to venture out onto the smooth surface for a bit without crampons. Lorna joined me once she saw others had made it up the face without disappearing into some unknown crevasse.
We didn’t stay too long because it was cold. We were basically standing on top a giant ice cube. As we headed back, we passed Glacier Woman and the person she was guiding, now both wearing crampons and heading toward places further out on the glacier.
The walk back seemed faster than the walk out, as usual. We passed a girl with bells on her shoes, meant to warn bears of her approach. They were so annoying that I figure bears would seek her out just to silence her. We also passed two guys armed with the biggest bottle of pepper spray I have ever seen. It looked like a small fire extinguisher was hanging off the guy’s belt. Meanwhile, the two teenage French girls who’d been on the shuttle with us skipped their way along the trail, seemingly unconcerned about evil, wild animals.
A shuttle ride later, we were back in McCarthy, this time looking for food. We tarried long enough to book a flightseeing trip for the evening, then went to get the good food we’d read about at the McCarthy Lodge, one of McCarthy’s 8 or 10 buildings along its main street. Unfortunately, the lodge wasn’t yet open for dinner, so it was across the street to Tailor Made Pizza, where we had a surprisingly great meal of spaghetti, salad and locally made bread.
With time to kill before our flight, we went to the bar of the McCarthy Lodge and had some drinks to stiffen our resolve. The bartender filled us in on local facts, such as how the cellular-based telephone system had just arrived and how locals get to drive the cars into town only during winter, when the river freezes over. Once the freeze breaks, cars are stuck on one side or the other. He also had participated in bungy jumping off the tall, narrow bridge we went over in the shuttle van and attested to the rumor that those jumping naked were allowed to jump for free. Two people had braved the cold air and the stares of
others as they plummeted downward in their birthdays suits when he jumped.
Flight time had arrived. We joined up with a British woman who Lorna, being British, naturally chose not to speak to. She sized up her accent and declared her to be a “Sloane,” which is the American equivalent of being some upper-crust woman from the east coast, such as a Preppie.
We climbed into a little Cessna, joining our pilot who’d apparently been flying all day with out a chance to eat or drink much. We heard all this while waiting in the lobby of the air tour place, as they joked about bringing him up a powerbar to energize him on the last flight of the day. Nevertheless, our confidence quickly rose as he appeared to be a friendly, competent sort.
Meanwhile, Lorna and the British woman had bonded. She was our age and turned out not to be from Sloane Square, London, but rather from Brighton. It also turned out she’d spent a year at UC Irvine and was visiting friends from UCI with her boyfriend, a UCI graduate. Apparently, McCarthy is where old Anteaters take their English degrees to make a living. No doubt I’ll be there soon.
Small plane flying has become old hat to Lorna and I now, so there was no nervousness as we lifted off. We’d heard that the flightseeing here was the best in the Alaska, since you are so close to the glaciers that you can quickly get out to them. Still, I was surprised at how incredible it was. In the mountains, the glaciers are gleaming while, streaked occasionally where two come together. The day was cloudy yet bright, so it look as if the huge glaciers we saw went right up into the clouds.
It was also quite an experience to be in a small plane flying toward a mountain, rather around it. We headed straight toward a peak, then slowly turned over the valleys created by the glaciers.
It all seemed to be over too quickly when we set back down on the gravel runway. A shuttle brought us back the two miles into McCarthy, and I had a quick chat with the British woman’s friends about UCI English professors we’d had liked and hated. Then we made the walk back to the tram and, to Lorna’s dismay, the pit toilets.
Lorna was desperate to go but also had no desire to renter the gas chamber also called a toilet. While she debated, another woman entered and amazingly lasted for nearly a half-hour in there while Lorna squirmed uncomfortably. I used the time to call my mother from a pay phone, tying up one of McCarthy’s four cellular lines to the outside world. Isn’t technology great?
Back at the tent site, it being 8 p.m. and us having absolutely nothing to get up early for the next day, we regretted not having brought our books. This far north, it’s perfectly light until about 10 p.m. Actually, I regretted having said not to bring them and Lorna berated me for it Yes, but our packs were much
lighter, weren’t they!