An unruffled Madam with a big bottom
Following our trip through the Whittier tunnel, and after a quick stop in the tiny town of Hope on the Turnagain Arm to bag myself a few salmon on the fly, we enjoyed a day trip in Valdez. Seeing the end of the Alaska Pipeline, we’ve covered its entire length, and by doing so gone the distance across all of Alaska accessible by road. Valdez was very different to how I expected: Not a touristy town by any stretch, but rather a local’s haven with a bustling hobbyists marina. We then drove north to reconsider Anchorage.
Apart from a devilish stop at a Walmart, Anchorage had no draw. Sadly though, I’m afraid to admit it but I ate crisps for the first time on the trip. Americans call them chips, but they’re my Achilles heel. Imagine the Cookie Monster has a fellow furry cousin. I, am that furry cousin. KP can no longer feel quite so guilty about having his daily dose of cookies as I am keeping up with a face full of fried potatoes. However, aside from snacking distractions, more importantly we’re approaching our next colossal landmark. The photos are from the few days drive from the Turnagain Arm, but soon we’ll reach Wrangell St Elias.
Where? What? Wh… but whah??
Don’t worry, it doesn’t get much attention.
Normally, my mind would be jigging about, thrilled to be reaching a wilderness such as Wrangell’, but after some reflection, this feels a little different…
Wrangell’ is most definitely not your average bear. She only has a few dirt roads totalling less than 100 miles of track. They intermittently slide between private, subsistence hunting land and the park boundaries, and barely penetrate the wild with glancing attempts at just a couple of points of the protected area. Her interior is more difficult to get into than North Korea…or a Mini Cooper when you’re 6’5″.
Wrangell’ is both the largest and the least tampered with wilderness I have encountered in North America, and although I can see how beautifully she disrupts and destroys her horizon; I haven’t entered her abusive presence yet. Sensing her size, she is indeed the biggest area managed by the National Park Service in the USA. She has 9 of the highest 16 peaks on the north continent and is six times the size of Yellowstone. If North America was a brothel, without question, Wrangell would be the immovable and unruffled Madam with a big bottom. Stern and unflustered, she’d be all the rage in any gold rush city. Around her active volcanos are both the largest glacier and the longest glacial valley in the world. In her south, icebergs drop into the rich ocean where her coastal ice cliffs are pummelled and battered by the Alaskan gulf. Stretching north into her frozen core, a mix of giant ice mistresses shift around some of her storm-shrouded mountains. The dramatic, unpredictable behaviour of the atmosphere is only matched by the stubbornness of her weathered peaks. Her treacherous land seems untameable and uninhabitable. Piercing the agitated sky with shear white blankets of her own decoration, the size of the mountains simply beg belief. Severe cases of drop jaw are common and alongside her beauty and magnitude, she is unpredictable, unmerciful, forever changing and relentless in her dominance. Further north, the Alaska Range cuts a substantial line around her boundary and continues west, south of Anchorage. Wrangell’ alone totals 13.2 million acres. To put her colossalness into context and to try and fathom how anyone might venture into the titanic temptress, expecting to see or experience her entirety will be impossible. She doesn’t have roads, she doesn’t have many trails, she doesn’t have shops, toilets or shelters, she doesn’t come with detailed guides, and she keeps some nature here that will never see a human. She is almost too much for anyone to handle, and certainly too complex to comprehend in one visit. She is her own country. The largest allotted wilderness in the United States, and she’s considerably bigger than Switzerland.
You can access one tiny section of Wrangell St Elias via the ocean, but remaining on land and possibly perturbed by the scale of this wild woman (as well as year round frozen conditions in her peaks and centre), I’ll see what can be found using the only roads available. Isolated, at the end of a dirt track on the west side of the park is the remote, tiny town of McCarthy. It was developed in 1910 by the Kenicott Mining Company was a base for its workers. Sixty two miles into the wilds of the mountains (just beyond McCarthy), the Americans began mining for copper. McCarthy became the hub for most of the miners as well as the small time businesses which kept them entertained. Both the mine and McCarthy sit beyond the mighty Copper River and you must walk over it before being able to take a five mile shuttle to the historic buildings which remain. Workers would have presumably hiked along the berry and bear-riddled route from McCarthy to the mine – still a popular snack spot for every flavour of bear – and the now wooded area, flanked by a dirty frozen glacier in the valley, is quite a commute. The mine, most of McCarthy and the rail road were abandoned in 1938 and now there are barely half a dozen people that live here year round in the remoteness of Wrangell’s harsh and callus buxom. Our next target, and understandably an undeveloped tourist attraction at the end of a sixty mile dirt track, is McCarthy and the remains of the abandoned Kennicot mine.