August 08, 2004

Anchorage to Whitehorse

September 8.   We drove in fine weather from Anchorage to near the entrance to Denali (Mt. McKinley) National Park, to start a 3-day all-expense package with  (click here) Denali Backcountry Safaris .   We usually shun the inflexibility of packages, but because of the imminent seasonal shutdown of park accommodations and their popularity, this was the only way we could travel the one road into the park, ending at Kantishna, near the center of it.

After supper we each were given a bottle of water in case the pipes froze that evening, 2 nights before the lodge closed for winter.   We left a faucet dripping, and the temperature only descended to 22 degrees, so there was no problem.   We were told that a previous group had left the faucets on full blast, so they had no water left in the morning.   After ablutions and breakfast we were herded into a small bus at 6:15 AM: ugh.   The sun rose soon after we were under way, and the erudite driver told us to call "Stop, stop" if we saw wildlife, and that each was allowed three "Sorry, it's a stone" stops.   Thus it took 7 hours to drive the narrow sinuous dirt track.   We counted 6 brown (grizzly) bears, a dozen ptarmigans (Alaska state bird, "chicken"), 2 Dall (bighorn) sheep, and 12 moose.   Alaska meece are much bigger than Maine mooses.    The bears browsed an average of 100 yards from us, as we tourists were cautioned to only whisper as we climbed over each other for vantage points at the windows.

At Kantishna Marge and I spent the afternoon indolating on porch chairs, facing a beautiful rushing stream, golden aspens, and the glistening white McKinley panorama beyond.  (Picture taken next AM).

We were told that only about one day in 50 was as clear as that day.   The smoke haze from the combustion of 1,300,000 acres of Alaska timber that summer had temporarily blown away.   That evening a professional photographer showed us slides of bears and Northern Lights.   The 3 of us had an interesting discussion earlier.   He had experienced only 2 "bluff charges" in his career.   In these the bear runs at you, then stands on his hind legs and roars, trying to scare you off by looking ferocious, which for a half-ton omnivore is not difficult.   How does one distinguish between a bluff charge and lunch time ?   The answer was fuzzy....

I mentioned Timothy Treadwell, who tented each summer among the giant Katmai variety of grizzlies, telling the world in his books that they were misunderstood, until he and his girlfriend were found half eaten the previous year (2003):  click here for more on Treadwell.   In 1996 Marge and I, with some apprehension, had helped him break camp and get into our hired float plane.  He told us that in the unlikely event his furry friends killed him, it would have been worth it.   We wonder if he changed his mind in his last few seconds.   The photographer was quite critical of Mr. Treadwell.

Signs were posted at the lodge stating that if a certain signal were sounded, we were all to stay in our rooms until the grizzly was chased away.   The next morning, September 10, Marge and I, with the encouragement of the staff, walked a half mile to a beaver pond.   In mud we found a grizzly paw print, a big moose print, and some wolf scat.   On our bus ride out that afternoon we saw about the same number and variety of beasts, plus 4 caribou and a pika.   We were told that caribou have the biggest antlers in the deer family for their weight. The only difference betwixt caribou and reindeer, we were told, is that the latter fly on Christmas eve and have red noses.   Our package ended after the next breakfast.

We headed east on the Denali Highway, the east-west 85% paved 134 mile road that connects the Anchorage-Fairbanks highway to Route 4, which follows the Valdez - Prudhoe Bay pipeline. We'd read and heard various opinions of the quality of this road, the last one being that we should carry 2 spare tires.   We have only the Toyota "toy tire" spare, but had no trouble. The route was at least as beautiful as all had told us.   I made compound errors in arranging a room for the night.   I had booked, then cancelled, a coupon-half-price room at the deluxe Princess Lodge at Copper Center, because I mistakenly thought we couldn't make it, then found the place full when I tried to re-book.   We settled for a friendly but more expensive hotel,  our worst accommodation since El Salvador.   We used the few square feet of non-bed floor space in our bedroom partly for storage and partly for careful stepping.   Three demented dogs had free run of the place.

Here's a link to a superb article in the magazine we just received (Jan. 7, 2011)  from the National Parks Conservation Association.  It supplants and is better written than what follows, and has excellent links to other sites, but I don't have the heart or time to shorten the text and pictures below now.   click here

Jan. 9, 2011:  And here's a link to even more information, and some excellent photos, not otherwise in this blog or the link above.  Go to the entry posted today, The Kennecott Ruins, in:  click here  

The semi-ghost towns of McCarthy and Kennecott in the Wrangell-StElias National Park was our destination the next day....  For millennia Ahtna Indians in the high glaciated mountains between what now are the Alaska Pipeline and the Canadian border had made weapons, tools, and ornaments from pieces of nearly pure copper they found there.   About 1900, the story goes, a chief told 2 white prospectors about these deposits.   The ore was so rich, 50% to 90% copper, that in some places the ground surface was green like grass.   J.P. Morgan and friends started the Kennecott Corporation, and a 163 mile railroad was built in formidable terrestial and climatological conditions, at a cost of 23 million 1911 dollars, to the new town of Kennecott (spelling varies).   100 million dollars of copper was shipped out, until the operation was abandoned in 1938 because of the Depression and exhaustion of the rich ore.   Kennicott was a model company town, where decorum was strictly regulated so that families of officials could live there.   The town of McCarthy, five miles distant, was a typical mining town, where routine commerce and the usual iniquities flourished.   Both towns are still there, semi-ghosts, on private land in the middle of the Wrangell- St. Elias National Park, the nation's largest.

Surface approach to the two towns is on a 58 mile dirt road "recommended for the adventurous motorist" (per The Milepost, the Alaska motorist's bible), on the bed of the former railroad.   The track is therefore nearly level, often one-lane with steep dropoffs and no guard rails. Every source warns that tires are apt to be impaled by old railroad spikes, which rise to the surface in the spring like rocks in Maine fields.   In the picture below the road diverts from the old rail bed and its ties for a short distance.

Of course the road also diverts from the several old railroad trestles.  Notice snow coming down to lower elevations on the mountains, as winter approaches.
A seasonal van service and bush planes are available for the curious but cautious. We drove, averaging 25 mph, and had no trouble.   At road's end we parked our car, carried our gear across the long footbridge over the turbulent Copper River, and waited for the car we had summoned. Until 1997 we would have had to sit in a seat suspended from a cable and pulled ourselves across.   Only the cars of the few residents are on the far side of the bridge: they got there in the winter on an ice bridge.

We stayed 2 nights in the small McCarthy hotel, a former brothel, in another tiny room with bath down the hall. 

A concentrator mill was built up the side of a mountain,  14 stories high, the world's tallest ghost town building.   It was connected to by tramways to copper mines above it.   One of the few surviving structures in Kennicott,  its fame has attracted Federal funds to restore and preserve it.

A young woman offered to guide us through the structure, so Marge and I ascended with her the 280 intricately constructed inside stairs to the top, admiring the complicated abandoned machinery.   Animals could come and go through big holes in the building exterior, so bear scat  was on one of the landings.  Following the photo of Marge on the stairs is one of some old rock-crushing machinery and one looking out one of the big holes in the walls.

Outside, our guide showed us that the road gravel was rife with pebbles of blue azurite and green malachite the size of wooden match heads.   We gathered a few, though they are too small for polishing into gemstones. More treasure remains in the mountains: aerial magnetometers have located 4 sites at least as rich as the original deposits, but these are untouchable in a National Park. 

We hired a small Cessna to fly over some of it.   The mountains are not as tall as Mt. McKinley, but great in number, and mingled with vast untrammeled glaciers.   It was awesome, as our grandsons also would say. We were fortunate that was our last clear day for a week.  The second photograph shows one of the mine headings (which one, Art ?) that fed ore by tramway down to the concentrator in Kennecott.


The people who are attracted to work in those two towns in the summer are not the same as you and we, and winter residents are even fewer and more different.   One category is open and friendly, mostly young people who have backpacked the world and some gays like those that ran our hotel.   The second category is not open.  Its 50 people in a circle of 50 miles diameter may include those in the witness protection program, and the local family with 15 kids and at war with their "neighbors".   Part of their income is the one to three thousand dollars that very Alaskan living soul is paid annually from oil revenues.

We stayed the night at a bed-and-breakfast in Tok. Like all USA B&Bs the owner seemed more interested in showing her superior taste than in guest comfort. We had hardly any shelf space, giant ornamental pillows had no place to be moved so the bed could be occupied, a giant teddy bear held the toilet paper, etc. However, nearly all Canadian B&B's we've used seem to be the opposite.

The final day in this segment we drove the Alaska Highway back to Whitehorse. Enroute we saw snow on steadily lower elevations: on mountain tops, on adjacent tree tops, on shoulders, then on the road. Temperatures gradually declined to 29 degrees, and we went many apprehensive miles without seeing another car or building.   Finally the road descended, the pavement turned black again, and we arrived at the capital of Yukon Territory, where we stayed 3 nights.   The first was at Hawkins House, which must be the best B&B in the world: physically worth an Architectural Digest article, with hospitality and food to match.   Because the city was hosting yet another convention, we had to spend the final 2 nights at High Country Inn, where we had superb facilities and a half-price coupon was accepted cheerfully.

More blogger problems.    The rest of the trip story should appear below, but instead, to get it  you have to 

  click here for Rest Of The Story


Blogger Racn4acure said...

Hey - nice account! The trip to Denali sounds great. I wanted to stay in the center of the park but the money and time involved met leaving something out on our two week trip. You might as well try to see Europe in 2 weeks as Alaska. Kennicott was amazing, and to think of all that being transported in and built in the wilderness 100 years ago is staggering. I hiked up to the Bonanza Mine, a gain of nearly 4,000 feet. I did collect a small (2 inch by 1 inch) piece of copper ore at the top. I know you are not supposed to, but I worked hard to get up there and given the millions of tons of ore extracted, it seemed small enough. Art

8:19 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home