I've been in a rut lately, feeling like I'm not doing anything interesting, and certainly not anything worth writing about here. Nonsense, of course, but it's a hard rut to climb out of. Anyway, I'd meant to share a bit with you after I headed north for a KCHU public radio board meeting. We decided to have our June meeting and biannual strategic planning session in McCarthy, a tiny town nestled in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, about a 4-5 hour drive north of Valdez.
Honestly, just getting to McCarthy is a bit of an adventure, especially if you're not used to traveling in Alaska. From Valdez, you drive 90 miles north on the Richardson Hwy. and turn off to the east onto the Edgerton Hwy. The term highway is used very loosely at this point (of course, it always is in Alaska). You drive 30 miles through the community of Kenny Lake and on into Chitina. Each of these communities has at most a couple of hundred people - I suspect Chitina has many fewer, especially in winter.
At Chitina the Edgerton "Highway" becomes a gravel road. It is built on the bed of the old railroad that serviced the Kennecott copper mine over 70 years ago. It used to be that you had to be careful driving this section of road because you risked getting a flat tire from old rail spikes. I suspect that's not much of an issue anymore given the amount of road work that's been done in the past 10 years. For a gravel road, it's really in pretty good shape right now. Darn good thing since you have to follow it for 50 miles until the road ends at the Kennicott River.
At this point you're still a mile from the community of McCarthy and about 5 miles from the Kennecott mine, but you've reached the end of the road. Relax, find a place to park ($5/day for parking), and walk across the footbridge and on into town. There's a shuttle service available for those who don't want to walk or who have too much stuff.
Instead of just parking, I parted with $20 for an unimproved "camp site" so that I could sleep in the back of my truck for the night. Here's my set up while I was cooking breakfast the next morning. This was the first time I'd camped in the camper I bought 10 years ago for this purpose, and I was quite pleased. I don't know what my hesitation has been.
I'd planned ahead and brought Pali, my mountain bike, with me for a rare ride together. I'd been wanting to ride up to the mine for quite some time, so as soon as I was parked I saddled up and rode across the footbridge across the Kennicott River.
It's about a 5-mile gentle climb to the remains of the Kennecott Copper Mine along the old railroad bed. During 27 years of operations, 4.625 million tons of copper ore was dug out of the mountains and hauled 196 miles to Cordova by railcar. One of Alaska's few historic ruins, this site is probably one of the most photographed places in Alaska as many of the buildings are still in decent repair given that they were abandoned in 1938, and the setting in the Wrangell Mountains is sublime. Most of the site is owned by the National Park Service, but some buildings are still privately owned and have been rebuilt for continued use. The park service has also been doing some work to stabilize a few of the more prominent buildings.
The Kennecott mine area is just a part of what's hidden here over the bridge at the end of the road. There's also the tiny community of McCarthy, a town originally founded by mine workers as a place for their families to live and as a place to recreate. As of the 2010 census, there were officially 28 residents, but, like many places in Alaska, the population explodes during the summer to accommodate tourism. My WAG is that there are probably 200+ people living/working in McCarthy during the summer, but I could be way off. (If you happen to know, please comment on this post and inform the rest of us.)
I've been to McCarthy a few times in recent years for fun and to take workshops through the Wrangell Mountains Center, a non-profit organizations dedicated to "connecting people with wildlands through art, science, and education in the Wrangell Mountains." I spend several days camping out in the area a few years ago taking a field sketching workshop with Kristin Link, and came to appreciate both the region and WMC. (You can read my thoughts on the workshop here.) On this trip, KCHU arranged to hold its meeting in Porphyry Place, a wonderful log cabin the WMC acquired a few years ago as their work expanded. Their main building is the old McCarthy hardware store.
Just in case you're interested (I was), Wikipedia told me that the term "porphyry" is from Greek and means "purple". Porphyry is a textural term for an igneous rock consisting of large-grained crystals such as feldspar or quartz dispersed in a fine-grained feldspathic matrix or groundmass. The larger crystals are called phenocrysts. In its non-geologic, traditional use, the term "porphyry" refers to the purple-red form of this stone, valued for its appearance.
Okay, back to McCarthy. Tourist season was in full swing while I was there, Ma Johnson's Hotel was open for business if you wanted a real bed instead of a truck bed, and after my ride to the mine I was thrilled to have a cold beer and pulled pork sandwich at The Golden Saloon. Although recreational opportunities near McCarthy and the greater Wrangell-St. Elias National Park are endless for the intrepid, there's not a lot for the casual visitor to do in the evening. Luck would have it, however, that I was there on a Friday night and in time for the weekly local's softball game.
I could hear the shouting and cheering from main street, but it took me a while to follow my ears along the right side "street" to the game itself. I didn't mind, though, as a wrong turn took Pali and I down a two-mile track through the woods to McCarthy Creek. The peace and quiet was interrupted only by a chunky porcupine who was amenable to sharing the creek bank with me.
I finally made my way back to town and found the game just before it ended. The "field" was a roughly mown area of irregular shape near some houses, and the players seemed more interested in their beers than the bat and ball. I was invited to play (women can't strike out), but I chose to just watch. I did retrieve a ball that flew out of sight into the brush near me, though, so I felt a bit like I was part of things.
I didn't check out the real estate market while I was there, although I'm sure you could find a cabin to fix up or a lot to build on if you wanted. I did see that the local used car dealer had a number of vehicles for sale should you decide to relocate. You might want to check into the availability of a mechanic first, though.
I didn't take nearly enough photos to give you a real feel for the area, but I hope they were enough to spark you interest. I'd like to get back out to McCarthy one of these summers just to spend a week hiking and camping in the mountains. Care to join me? Perhaps you, too, will be serenaded to sleep by a local bagpiper.