Sunday, October 3, 2010

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

On Labor Day Weekend we decided to finally make the long drive to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (#60 on the list). It is the largest National Park in the country, but there are only two roads that go into the park - the McCarthy Road and the Nabesna Road. They are both poorly maintained dirt roads, but we decided to take the 60 mile McCarthy Road.
We left right after work on Friday and drove past Glenallen as far as we could until it got dark. We decided to stop and camp at Liberty Falls State Recreation Area (new entry #114). That night was very clear and the stars were very bright and amazing. The next morning we woke up early and completed the short hike to the waterfall.

Afterward we got back on the highway and soon began the slow, bumpy drive along the McCarthy Road. The National Park Service recommends 3 hours to complete the 60 miles. Early on we got to see the sun rising over the Copper River (famous for its tasty Red Salmon)

We managed to complete it in around 2.5, but this is probably the worst road we have driven on in Alaska. There were even some narrow 1 lane bridges over river gorges.

After 60 miles the road just ends. There is a campsite and a couple of bed and breakfasts, but not much else. In order to get to Kennecott and McCarthy you have to cross a long foot bridge over the river that is fed from the Kennicott and Root glaciers.

From there you can either pay to take a shuttle or you can walk the .5 miles to McCarthy or 4.5 to Kennecott. Since we were going to Kennecott first we decided to pay the $10 each for the shuttle. Kennecott was a copper mining town run by the Kennecott Copper Corporation which started operations in 1903. By the time they were done, this proved to be the richest and purest concentration of copper in the world.

We toured the picturesque town along the edge of the valley.

When the town was created, they did not know they were in a valley. The Kennicott Glacier filled the valley completely. It has now receded greatly, but you can still see it in the valley. Most of what you see now is the terminal moraine, which is where all of the dirt, gravel, and rocks the glacier pushes with it are deposited. Under those hills of dirt and rock (which are not man made) is still ice. The Kennicott Glacier moved back to the left, while the smaller Root Glacier moved back to the right.

We even got to tour inside the building, including the mill where they did all of the sorting, crushing, and other processes. The technology here was very advanced for the day.

That evening we went into McCarthy to the bar (yes, there is only one bar). Everyone gathers at the bar in the evening. From the tour company guides, to people you went on tours with, to the few people that live and own land/businesses in McCarthy - everyone was there. This weekend was their final operating weekend so they brought in a live band! (exciting, huh?). McCarthy was created originally as a town to support the Kennecott Mine. Kennecott was a dry town and only workers as well as upper management's families were allowed to stay in Kennecott.

The next day we had scheduled a rafting trip, so naturally it was the only day of the weekend that was wet and very cold. We went with Copper Oar Rafting and the trip was very well done. They had some wet and warm gear for us and then we loaded into the boat. Now I was expecting we would have to row (and with how cold it was I was actually looking forward to having to move), but the guide is the only one to row. There were only 4 of us going, but since we were going to the middle of nowhere the company had to take 2 rafts for safety. We put in just South of the footbridge on the Kennicott River. From there we floated into the Nizina River and into the Nizina Canyon. Once we were in the canyon, and safely out of the wind, we stopped for lunch along the banks. The lunch was actually very nice as we had hot chocolate and sandwiches. They put up a tarp so we could be out of the rain and had portable tables (complete with tablecloths) and chairs.

After warming up and eating more than enough food we continued on our journey through the canyon. Later that afternoon we met the Chitina River and pulled ashore at a little grass airstrip. Since we had floated in the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere the only way to get back to somewhere was to fly back. So, the rafting company had arranged for the local pilot to pick us up. I did not take any pictures on the rafting trip because of the rain, but I did get a few pictures from the small plan on the way back. Typically they take the scenic route back over the Root Glacier and the 7,000 foot Stairway Icefall (basically a very steep part of the glacier as it comes down from the tall mountains of the Wrangell Range), but due to the weather and bad visibility we did not get that part of the trip.

That evening after dinner we were still a little cold. And our tent was still wet from the rain the night before.

Even though it had stopped raining already (and actually turned into a very nice Labor Day Monday), we decided to make the long drive back to Anchorage that night. We arrived just after 2 am and spent Monday resting and relaxing.

(a police officer rolled up to us as were taking this picture wondering what we were possibly doing)


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