The Fourth of July. The day each year when Americans, by which I do not mean residents of the Americas but residents of the United States, celebrate our freedom to not go to work on a summer day. As a product of American public schools, by which I mean the public schools of the United States and not the public schools of Chile, Canada, or El Salvador, I of course have no idea what the Fourth of July is supposed to be celebrating. I imagine it is a holiday invented by someone who was jealous of school teachers and students who were spending the warm summer months free from responsibility, traipsing about the world like lazy afternoons caught on a breeze. What ever the basis, C and I took advantage of a three day weekend to point the car east and drive to (or rather very near) McCarthy.
The McCarthy Road
We had been intending this trip for many years, and had gone so far to make tentative plans as far back as 2005. Yet we were always deterred by stories of the road. The road is a former rail bed, narrow and reportedly rough. The road devours tires, using rail spikes like teeth. The road destroys oil pans, using large and sharp rocks like hammer drills. The road will crumble beneath your wheels and send you and your car tumbling to certain doom at the bottom of a lovely, but deadly, canyon. We took it all to heart and time and time again shook our heads and said, "No, not this time. Not until we buy a truck." Well, we didn't buy a truck, but apparently got tired of waiting, because this time we said, "How bad could it be?" The answer? Not bad at all. The road did not live up to its reputation. A little research indicates that the State has done a lot of maintenance over the last five years. The road was in great shape, and an absolutely gorgeous drive.
The town of McCarthy sits in the heart of Wrangell - St. Elias National Park, just across the Kennicott River from road's end. After following the Chitina River up stream for 60 miles, the road gives its last gasp in a collection of parking spots crudely marked out with chalk in a gravel bar. There, a nice gentleman will gladly charge you $5 a day to leave your car. As we quickly learned, if they can sell it in McCarthy, they will. This may be the middle of nowhere Alaska, but don't expect to park for free.
After settling your account with the parking attendant, a foot bridge leads across the silt laden and churning flow of a glacially sourced river. The foot bridge is actually a relatively recent addition to the town, circa 1997. Prior to that time, you had to wait until winter and freeze up to walk across or pull yourself across in an incredibly exposed hand tram. C, who visited McCarthy in the hand tram era some 20 years ago on a family trip with her grandmother, recalls the family tale of the river crossing. Her grandma, a fine and proper lady familiar with the urban jungle but a stranger to mountain wilderness, set foot on the far side and declared, "Just wait until I tell the ladies back home."
"No kidding, Grandma," C replied. "Pretty impressive to pull yourself across this raging froth."
"The river? Goodness no. Wait until I tell them I used an outhouse!"
I guess you can never tell what will make an impression.
Once across, whether now by foot or then by tram, it is a half mile walk up to the town proper. And these days it really does appear proper. You can stay in a hotel (we did), eat at one of three dining establishments (we hit two), or go to a museum (we did that too). You can also drink at the bar, although I have a distinct feeling that that particular amenity has been available for some time.
The Fourth of July is the biggest weekend of the year in McCarthy. People come funneling in from near and far. We missed the parade and litany of events on Monday in favor of beating traffic home, but were there for the Saturday night "block" party. The town shut down main street to traffic, which is easy to do in a town with no road access, trucked in a band (at least as far as the pay lot), and invited representatives of the Alaskan Brewing Company to come and, in true McCarthy spirit, charge an arm and a leg for a couple of their rough draft beers that are not available in bottles or taps elsewhere. The band was good and the party went on much later than we did. Of course, as the distance of our hotel room from the party could be measured in feet, we still got to listen to the crowd and the band from beneath the comfort of a comforter until the wee hours.
As you might imagine, in any rough and tumble wilderness out post, some folks are going to spend more time in the beer line than attentively listening to the music. We talked the next day to another guy from Anchorage who told the story of spotting an acquaintance talking to one such character. The girl acquaintance motioned Anchorage over, "Come join us!" Anchorage, wearing a hat with a big "TC" for the Twin Cities, turns that way. The drunk guy bellows, "No one from Texas is welcomed over here."
"Texas?" puzzled Anchorage. "What makes you think I'm from Texas?"
"Your Texas Christian hat, that's what."
"Texas Christian? No, man, that's the Twin Cities. I'm a Twins fan."
"I know my hats!"
The drunk guy started to huff and puff, let out a "Oh, we're going to do this," and was ready to wield the ancient might-makes-right rule of law to establish that he did, in fact, know his hats. His wife calmed him down, but I don't think Anchorage joined their social circle.
Just up the hill from McCarthy, the former mining town of Kennicott sits in ruined glory. It turns out that the mountains in these parts contained very high grade copper-ore that brought in a large scale mining operation in the early 1900s, financed by the likes of the Guggenheims. Ore was drug out of the earth from the 70+ miles of tunnels veining the upper ridges above McCarthy and shuttled down in tram buckets to an immense copper mill in the town of Kennicott at the margins of the Root and Kennicott glaciers. Bringing the ore to market required putting in a rail line from the coastal town of Cordova to the mine, across some incredibly rugged terrain. One day the accountants back east ran the numbers and decided that after a number of years of wealth generation, the mine was no longer going to turn a profit. The owners sent word to the mine workers: "The last train leaves in two days. Unless you want to stay, you ought to be on it." The whole operation was basically abandoned. Despite a few attempts over the years to rework some of the mine tailings, the buildings are still largely in tact.
A few years ago, the Park Service bought some of the old mining buildings. Others are still in private hands. Some of the buildings have been completely renovated and house modern businesses: a lodge, guiding services, the Park Service offices. Some have more or less fallen into rubble. Some were filled with gravel during a couple of different flood events along National Creek. And some, including the massive 14-story mill building, are standing in a state of suspended animation. We took a tour of the site, and while we balked initially at the cost ("$25 to walk around?"), it turned out to be well worth it. The history was interesting, and the tour granted us access the the mill, which was otherwise locked and could not be visited.
We brought bikes and were able to bike between McCarthy and Kennicott, a distance of about 5 up hill miles. Our first night in town was sunny, so we took advantage of the clear weather to take a quick look at the old mining town, and biked up what is called the Old Wagon Trail, a rocky path off of the main road littered with bear scat. The lighting was great, but building thunder storms chased us back to McCarthy. We returned the next day under heavy low clouds and rain. The downhill return saturated bike, bodies, and bone with creamy mud. It was that moment that we were most glad we had spent the money on lodging, with showers. If you didn't want to walk or bike the 5-miles to and from Kennicott, a shuttle service would be glad to charge you $5 each way. Bringing bikes saved us $40 in shuttle fees.
Surprisingly, the McCarthy lodge brought in a chef with palmares, having worked for stints with Thomas Keller in California (Bouchon, not the French Laundry) and at WD-50 in Manhattan. He was making a go at a high concept dining room in a dusty frontier town. The food was good, but not great. The service was top notch. The wines were very good. All in all, recommended. We also ate pizza from a bus up at Kennicott, and agreed that pizza in an unexpected location -- in this case sitting at the margins of the Kennicott glacier as the crowds filtered away for the day -- always tastes good.
I'm working through the photos and will post a few up once the cull is complete.
In the meantime, a public "hang tough, whether in the Mid-West or in Houston" to K-Dawg, a frequent contributor to the comments to this blog. I don't know if you'll have web access or be wasting time with my long winded diatribe above, but if you do we are thinking of you here in Alaska!