Thursday, 17 Aug 2023, McCarthy AK
BACKGROUND: I had visited Alaska once before this challenge, a 1991 trip with my friend Nick to see four of Alaska's eight National Parks. Wrangell-St. Elias NP, at eight million acres, ranks as the largest park in the country. Despite its size, only two gravel roads enter the park. (Many people fly into the park with outfitters for their adventures.) The McCarthy road runs 60 rutted, potholed miles from the Richardson Highway to a parking lot across the Kennicott River from the town of McCarthy. When planning the challenge, I discovered it would cost over $1100 (and a full day of driving each way) to rent a car in Anchorage, drive to the park and spend three days there. Then I discovered I could fly to McCarthy round-trip on the US mail plane for $845...
8:00 a.m. Looks like a grand day to fly. In Anchorage, the skies are clear but for a few straggling clouds perched on the surrounding mountains. I take a photo of the lake blindly into the glare of the rising sun; not until moments later do I discover I'd caught an ascending float plane in the pic.
Appropriate - I've heard that this is the largest float plane base in the country.
8:45. They load our bags along with other material bound for McCarthy. Every Monday and Thursday planes take the US mail to the town inside Wrangell-St. Elias NP (though someone said the mail is driven to Gulkana, then put on the plane). With a 35-pound limit for luggage, I spent last night repacking my goods into my small duffel (yeah, my luggage is like a set of nesting Russian dolls). My large duffel and laptop get to stay behind to await my return. I call this trip the one where my luggage and I take separate vacations, as I'd spend 2/3 of my first two weeks in Alaska miles from much of my gear.
9:00. As we fly east in our eight-seater plane, the scenery grows more interesting. To the south, the peaks of the Chugach Range loom. The skies soon sprout clouds below us, but it remains clear at our altitude.
Time to reset my baseline expectations, though - while impressive, the scenery doesn't come close to the Lake Clark Pass flight on Monday.
10:00. The ground crew in Gulkana greet us upon landing. Time to transfer from Reeve Air to Copper Valley Air for the leg into McCarthy. They stash my duffel and daypack in the new plane and ask us to sit tight. "The weather in McCarthy this morning was good, but a little disturbance has set in. We'll wait here for it to settle. It looks like it will clear quickly - we don't expect to have to cancel." I hope not - it's the mail, right? Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, or something like that?
12:15 p.m. Tired of sitting, tired of writing blogs. I grab my camera to take pictures of the next plane, a four-seater this time!
As I look around, the pilot strolls over. "Glen? I'm Jonathan. I'll be flying you to McCarthy today."
"I can't wait! This will be my smallest plane yet."
"It's the world's most popular plane. More of these have sold than any other."
The ground agent called out to us, interrupting our conversation. "You're cleared to go!" Finally! I grab my jacket from inside and head to the plane.
Jonathan has the other passenger, a female, get in the backseat - "We need to have our heaviest weight forward" - then slides the seat back so I can get in and play co-pilot. Gotta make sure not to accidentally hit the foot pedals while in flight! After doing his flight checks, Jonathan taxis to the end of the runway, turns the plane, and guns it. We leap into the air.
On the flight into the park, he identifies points of interest. "That is one of the park's mud volcanoes. Doesn't throw out much mud anymore, mostly just vents volcanic gas."
He points out the rivers and the peaks below us. "Normally I fly closer to the mountains, but I can avoid the clouds today by following the Chitina River. It's a nice change of pace."
While not as spectacular as Lake Clark (but what is?), I still enjoy the aerial show. As we approach McCarthy, the bright oxide-red buildings of Kennecott come into view. Jonathan executes a 360° turn, a holding pattern to let another of their planes land first, then he aims for the runway. Closer, closer. But still too high! He guns the engine to regain altitude, then circles for a second try. "This is a great plane, but it has one fault. It doesn't want to come down. Do I really need to know that?
1:20. Ahh, back on terra firma. After admiring the icy backdrop of our valley,
I turn my attention to logistics. May airBNB cabin lay two miles west of the pedestrian footbridge across the river. Since the cabin was hard to find (and I had a small duffel bag to tote), Stefanie (my hostess) arranged for her brother-in-law to meet me at the footbridge around 6:00 and drive me over. In the interim, I could relax at The Potato (the popular eatery in McCarthy) for the afternoon.
I ask the men handling the mail bags for directions. "The Potato?" one replies. "I can drive you over. Let me finish with this sack of letters."
He introduces himself as Hollis. When I mention I'd visited here in 1991, his face lights up. "Really? Man, it's changed." Amazingly, he first visited the park the same month I did... but he came back in 1995 and for each of the 28 summers (and a few winters) since then. "Hey, I'm not busy. Want to drive up to Kennecott to see if it's anything like you remember?"
I vividly recalled Kennecott, once the site of the world's richest copper mine. In 1991, I'd written:
[Kennecott is] a shrine to the effort expended to cleave wealth from the earth. Dozens of buildings (including a massive powerhouse and a 14-story mill climbing the side of the mountain) that were abandoned 50 years ago are slowly succumbing to the pounding of nature: walls sag, roofs fall, buildings lean, rock and dirt fill in lower floors, but still the buildings remain.
The differences, though subtle, jumped out at me. I could see that the NPS had instituted their policy of 'suspended decay': they would actually restore 'like new' only a few buildings, but maintain the others so that they would not deteriorate further, shoring up foundations, fixing roofs, etc.
I couldn't have asked for a better tour guide than Hollis. He points out the significant changes in the town - a new Visitor Center, new lodge, patched-up buildings. "You want a picture of you with the mill behind you, so you can compare it to your old shots?"
Hollis knows most of the people we pass, stopping to say 'Hi', exchanging a few words, and telling them, "This is Glen. I picked him up off the mail plane. He's visiting here for the first time in thirty years!"
With lunch time nigh, we stop at the lodge for bowls of halibut chowder, my treat. When we finish, he asks whom I was supposed to meet at 6:00. I try to remember. "Does the name 'Morrison' sound familiar?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"He's a good guy. Tell you what - he's working on a house near the footbridge. Let's go check in with him." Off we went, driving down the dirt roads to the home site.
To understand the lay of the land, an explanation is in order. In 1991 I wrote:
The [McCarthy] road dead-ends in a parking lot at the Kennicott River. On a small bluff overlooking the rushing meltwaters sits the tram station - a wooden platform, a metal two-seat cart hooked on a cable (hand-operated), and a bush phone complete with instructions on use. We used the bush phone to radio into McCarthy and arrange our night's lodging, then hopped onto the cart and pulled ourselves 100 yards across the stream.
I had looked forward to taking the quaint cable tram again - like hopping on a time machine to a different era. Time had moved on, though: in the mid-90s, the town erected a footbridge and retired the tram (though the skeleton of it
still sits there). They also put in a car bridge a half-mile downstream, but a locked gate keeps visitors out. Tourist traffic would overwhelm the narrow streets in McCarthy and Kennicott, so only residents and shuttle buses are allowed.
Hollis takes us over the private bridge. When we get to the home site, Hollis does introductions again. "Jason, this is Glen, the client you're picking up tonight."
"Who? What client?" He knew nothing about picking me up, suggesting someone else I may have meant.
Confused, we dr1ve back to McCarthy, where I finally pull out my notes. "Hollis, it says right there, Jason Morrison."
Time to call Stefanie. "I texted him about it a bit ago," says my hostess. "He must not have seen it." A discussion ensues, and we hatch a new plan: Stefanie gives us detailed directions so that Hollis can take me to the cabin. One problem down - now about issue #2... Since I had to be in McCarthy at 8:30 tomorrow morning to catch the free shuttle to Kennecott, I'd need a way to travel the 2½ miles to get there on time. Stefanie says they would try to bring me a bike in the morning, so I could get around easily during my stay.
Back to see Jason, who said he didn't have a bike. (Apparently, no one in town rented bikes - they used to, but maintenance and liability costs convinced everyone to exit that business.) Okay, plan C. Hollis returns me to town pick up my breakfast provisions (and to get introduced to more people - the whole town must know me by now!) and to rethink things. Soon he realizes - "I've got an old Schwinn I never use! It's a five-speed - would that do?" Yes, indeed.
Once we verify that it works - and stop to visit more friends along the way - we let Stefanie know. "Oh. Well, we found a bike and planned on bringing it by in the morning. That'll give you a backup!"
Go with the flow...
Now it's off to find the cabin. Hollis informs me, "You know those cable TV shows about log cabin builders? There're a few different series. Well, your cabin was featured on one of those shows."
It's quite the place - on a forested lot, no neighbors in sight, detached three-sided outhouse.
Despite the off-the-grid vibes, the interior has everything I need - kitchen with gas stove, refrigerator, pot-bellied stove, king bed, electricity and propane heat. And a Verizon cell signal! With all the essentials covered, who needs TV or WiFi?