Dirty dusty if it is dry, and messy muddy if wet, the road to McCarthy is hard. It is 60 miles of rocks, gravel, dirt, broken pavement, pot holes, landslides, frost heaves, and the occasional railroad spike. The repetitive washboard ridges in the road left by the tracks of the bulldozers and road graders are the worse. They create a chattering that builds and builds. But rather than reaching a spine jarring crescendo (like the myriad of potholes you dodge and weave to avoid, but sooner or later hit), they just continue in a seemingly endless teeth chattering, jackhammer shake that won’t stop…until it’s ready!…and it is always too long!
After 3 hours of traversing mountain passes, crossing over streams, and rivers, circumnavigating lakes, and wetlands, and passing through meadows with most of the journey enveloped in a maze of boreal forest, you reach the end of the road. Here you will find a small host of cabin rentals, and primitive campgrounds where you can set up camp before crossing the bridge over the Kennicott river and walking the last half mile into the town of McCarthy. Another 4 1/2 miles further will bring you to the abandoned mining town of Kennicott. These unique places lie just below the Kennicott and Root Glaciers and are surrounded by the Wrangell mountains…a mountain range that holds some of the highest peaks in North America. McCarthy lies on the edge of…while Kennicott is within the borders of and is managed by… the Wrangle-St. Elias National Park. This lesser known park is actually the largest National Park in the United States encompassing over 20,000 square miles! Of course there is an easier way!… you can opt to fly into McCarthy on a chartered bush pilot flight and have you and your luggage ferried by van shuttle to a small hotel in McCarthy or to a lodge in Kennicott…but where’s the fun and adventure in that?!
While it has grown in tourist popularity, McCarthy remains small and relatively unchanged. Perhaps because it is so remote. Boasting a couple of restaurants, a handful of other shops, and adventure sports guides, its population of about 80 in the summer shrinks to less than 30 the remainder of the year with temperatures occasionally reaching lower than 30 below zero! By Alaska’s standards perhaps McCarthy isn’t that remote!…after all there is a road to it!
But Alaska is a state that is mostly inaccessible except by bush plane or boat and only has a dozen “highways”! It is ridiculously big! As Mark Adams describes in his book Tip of the Iceberg - “Alaska is essentially a small continent: big enough to hold Texas, California, and Montana (the second- third- and fourth largest states) and still have room left over for New England, Hawaii, and a couple of metropolises. It contains seven mountain ranges and ten peaks taller than any in the Lower 48. Its waterfront accounts for half of all the coast in the United States. Louisiana has four times as many miles of paved roads.” Alaska is crazy!
So then, what is the point in traveling over 8,000 miles to end up sitting at an old abandoned copper mine on the edge of a glacier’s terminus with a special gifted bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, some cheese, and some dark chocolate, and to stare out at the permafrost, wild flowers, the glacial fed river, and the snow capped mountains?
Because it is sublime. Because it is still a place that holds some purity. Because if not completely uncorrupted it is at least less corrupted. Because it troubles me that as William Cronon said in his essay The Trouble with Wilderness, we find ourselves in the position that “we have little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like”. Because it was real. And because the journey had meaning….it required effort to come to this place.
We are learning that while it is increasingly difficult to find places that create an awe because of their wild not their wilderness, that they exist. To experience them is attainable, but it requires effort. It is sitting quietly in the sublime that one begins to see the depth of what we are overlooking out of our simple lack of effort.
In Thoreau’s essay Walking, he forewarned much of where we are in our relationship with nature and our access to it. Thoreau said “Possibly the day will come, when land will be partitioned off…in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive leisure only. When fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road…Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come.”Read More