Friday, September 05, 2014

Alaska - Chitina to McCarthy

Continuing from part two of our Alaska trip, we pull up in the van at Chitina International Airport.  That would only be true if you hired someone to fly you to Canada.  What you see below is the entire airport with the exception of the gravel runway.  Thank God Julie and I both have our TSA Pre clearance so we didn't get stuck waiting in the long lines.
As we were waiting for our plane to fly in, I took this shot.  If you double-click on it, you get a better view of the float plane going by.  I was wondering if those clouds were going to give us a rough ride.  Thank goodness, no.
And our limo arrives... It is a 6 seat Cessna with almost no room for cargo.  Fortunately, Ian was taking the van and all our baggage the long way around.  We got to do some nice flightseeing on our 30 minute trip.  I took some photos but they weren't interesting compared to our flight two days later, so I won't bother you with them.
We flew into the lovely town of McCarthy, Alaska.  McCarthy is right up the road from Kennecott, a copper mining town from the early 20th century.  For those of you in the Salt Lake City area, the company used their success here to open the Kennecott mine at the base of the Oquirrh mountains.

McCarthy was more like the Alaska I had pictured and this photo tells a huge part of the story.  This is the main street (and almost the only one).  There are dogs wandering around keeping in touch with each other and all the day's events.  That Subaru is parked in the middle of the road.  The people on the left are at the town's bar and restaurant which was clearly the social focal point for McCarthy.
This is the hotel where we stayed.  The owner is one of the 20 people who spend the entire year in town.  Everyone else leaves as the tourist season ends. To spend a long, snowy, dark winter in a tiny town, hours from anything resembling civilization takes a very strong character.
Somewhat like Park City, there is a lot of history everywhere you look.  McCarthy had something unique though.  For a long time, the only bridge to town was a walking bridge.  To get a car over, you waited for the river to freeze.  Now someone built a private bridge and for a fee, you can cross.  However, with the significant burden of getting a car there and the harsh roads and climate, the trend seems to be: "Drive it until it stops running and leave it there." The same applies to snowmobiles and ATVs.
We ate a dinner and a breakfast at the Roadside Potatohead.  What a wonderful, tasty local dive.  The burritos were excellent and more than filling.  The small town feel was great.  You ordered, got your food, ate, and then whenever you got around to it, paid. Try that in a big city.
Here is the local watering hole in McCarthy.  Hard to see, but sure enough, there is a bottle of Park City's High West bourbon.  That stuff is everywhere.  We were lucky enough to be sitting at the bar one night when one of the locals rang a large bell.  That meant he was buying a round for everyone at the bar.  Nice!
The area around McCarthy and Kennecott was spectacular.  No wonder tourists work so hard to get there. 
There were a few interesting waterfalls in the area.  I love taking long exposure photos but I didn't have a tripod.  That makes it hit or miss, and mostly miss.  This one shot came out OK though.

Our first big activity in McCarthy was to go hiking on the Root glacier with St. Elias Alpine Guides.  This glacier runs into the Kennecott glacier where two valleys merge.

I keep mentioning the problems with judging size in Alaska.  See those people walking at the bottom of the picture?  They look like they are about half way there.  Actually they are still about 6 miles away from the 7,000 foot tall ice fall.  For reference, the tallest mountains around Park City are about 3,000 feet above the surrounding area (in topological terms, that's called prominence).
We saw numerous moulins on the glacier.  These are holes where water flows from the surface down into or under the glacier.  They can be very deep.
For traction on the glacier, we were all wearing our stylish crampons.  They provide great grip but it seems easy for someone with weak ankles (me for instance) to catch a spike and roll an ankle.
The shapes and colors on the glacier were beautiful, especially on a sunny day.
They have texture on a very large scale.
Julie and I were in a small ice cave when a Danny head popped into the picture.
To judge the depth of a moulin, our guide let us toss rocks down in and listen to the delay before it splashed.  Once Danny discovered this idea, the rocks just kept getting bigger. We began to worry that he might actually fill all the moulins in, changing the structure of the glacier.
Our group, taking a break in the sun.
Up on the hillside were stunning rock formations and very green foliage.  Once again, that peak is over 4,000 feet above where we are standing.
The leaves were just beginning to change, but you could see the variation day-to-day.  If we had been there 3 or 4 days later, I think it would have been wide open Fall.  That's 16,400 foot Mt Blackburn in the background (the 5th highest in the US).
After spending most of the day hiking around the glacier , it was time for our next activity.  We had enjoyed the short flight in so much, we opted to take another flightseeing trip, this time in the evening. I think we were finally getting payback for all the rainy days we endured.  If it was raining or very cloudy, we couldn't have seen a thing.  Clear blue skies and it wouldn't have been as pretty.  Instead, just enough clouds to make it one of the most breathtaking things I have ever done.
It is so hard to convey the magnitude of what we were seeing.  These mountains soar 10,000+ feet from their bases.  Ones that seemed close enough to fly into were a half mile away.  Mountains off in the distance weren't 10 or 20 miles away, they were 100 miles off.
The evening light was gorgeous and our pilot from Wrangell Mountain Air was as knowledgeable and interesting as you could ask for.  The only downer was having to shoot through a small plane's plastic windows. 
The Wrangell St. Elias National Park includes 13.2 million acres of land and it is part of a Unesco World Heritage site that spans both sides of the U.S. - Canadian border.  It is called Kluane / Wrangell-St. Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek and includes 32 million acres of protected land.  You would think Unesco would hire a marketeer from Disney to come up with better names for their special areas.



One of my favorites.
This is a rock glacier.  It is formed by leftover debris from an ice glacier.  It actually continues to move like a glacier, slowly coming down the hill with the freezing and thawing of snow fall and ice.  One of these rock glaciers is predicted to destroy the little town of Kennecott, but they have well over 1,000 years to go.
Two interesting things to notice here.  The first is the clearly defined line between different types of rocks.  It turns out that this transition is where they found all the copper. The second is the Erie Mine's bunk house.  I wish I had been able to capture how it sit on the edge of thousands of feet of very steep hill. What a great job it must have been to tell newly arriving miners "You?  You'll be up at the Erie Mine.  Right up there."  Then just watch their total disbelief.
Still in the plane, looking down at the Root Glacier.  There were beautiful blue ponds in the ice and the little streams that are created never seem to follow a straight path.
This is what is left of the town of Kennecott.  It is in surprisingly good condition. The top building is where the oar came down the hillsides in a tram. Back in the 1950s, the original owners paid to have the town destroyed to remove any liability.  Fortunately that work failed.
This is the reason these places are even on a map.  Copper.  When mining was at its peak, the ore was 70% copper and had noticeable traces of gold and silver. It was the richest copper deposit in the world. It took a very serious commitment to get that ore out of Kennecott.  They build over 100 miles of railroad through some extremely harsh, difficult terrain.  It took the money of JP Morgan and the Guggenheim family to pull it off.  Several major railroad bridges had to be rebuilt after every spring because the flooding was so severe.
Mount Blackburn again,  25 miles away.
The second day in McCarthy, we went for a little walk.  This was actually one of the steepest hikes I have ever done. It was only 4 miles up, but you climbed 4,000 feet along the way.  For those bike racing fans, that's over a 17% grade. This photo was shot when we were about 75% of the way up.  In the shade on the left you can see an old oar tram tower.  Further up, in the sunshine, is what is left of the Bonanza Mine.

By the way, Julie was very happy with her new pack, very functional, comfortable, and purple.
Here's the old Bonanza mine.  Not quite ready for a makeover.  Boys will be boys, so we carefully walked through it.  Every step was carefully tested before you put any weight on it. There were four other mines as part of the Kennecott complex.
At the far end of the mine, only accessible by traipsing through the wreckage, sat this little Ptarmigan. No idea what he was doing hanging around in the ruins, but he seemed quite happy with where he was.
The reward for going to the very top was a spectacular view. Danny was enjoying the sights, with his GoPro on his head.
We started this hike from down in the valley. My poor cartilage-free knee knew that we had to walk back down that 4,000 feet.
One our last night in McCarthy, Julie and I got up at midnight and walked about a half mile to the footbridge.  As you might expect, this town doesn't have any streetlights.  Actually, it doesn't have electrical service, phone, gas or sewer.  Those are all up to you. There is no grid up there to even bother being "off of".

We wanted to see the Aurora Borealis, and we did!  It wasn't quite this pronounced to the human eye, but it was obvious.  This was the result of setting my camera on the bridge and taking a 20 second exposure.  Pretty cool, including the reflection in the river.  As we sat there for 30 minutes or more, it moved around, disappeared, and then came back.
The Milky Way was amazing.  You could see stars by the millions.  To capture this photo, I just laid the camera flat on its back on the bridge and tried to snap a shot without moving it too much.  Did I mention I wish I had one of my tripods? It is a crappy shot with no horizon in it, but I couldn't do that unless I could get the bridge to turn up at a 45 degree angle and that would have been an indicator of something very bad happening.

We loved McCarthy and our flightseeing trip was off the charts stunning.  I would love to get back there again sometime.

One more blog entry as we head to Valdez and then on to Anchorage.
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