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Unintentionally on this trip, I had been following the story of mining in North America. From the boom towns in Sacramento and Seattle where hopeful young men had bought the supplies they would need to survive the winter further north, I’d traced their journey into Alaska and Northern Canada. Admittedly, my transportation choices had been a little more comfortable, but I still got an idea of the seemingly endless and unforgiving journey they would have faced. Visiting Kennecott, McCarthy‘s neighbour in Wrangell St Elias National Park, tied up the end of the story very neatly for me. Kennecott, an old copper mining town on the bank of the Root Glacier, is actually the reason that McCarthy was built. The miners needed somewhere to relax and enjoy themselves, and the mine owners needed to make sure the men spent their money so they’d have to keep working. The mines themselves are all way up on the mountain. It’s possible to hike to some of them, which I attempted but unfortunately, due to an injury the previous day, I didn’t get far up the steep and rocky route. The men who worked the mines would ride up and down on the tram buckets that moved the copper ore down in to the valley. I don’t blame them, but even that was a 45 minute journey. Men would frequently fall off the tram or get decapitated, their bosses making them sign a liability waiver. All the mines have really positive names like Bonanza, Jumbo and The Mother Lode. Down in the town itself is the 14 storey mill where the copper ore was processed. It was due to be destroyed after the mine closed, but thankfully for us that job was given to a con man who simply took what was valuable, along with his commission, and disappeared. There are 3 mill tours every day, and I highly recommend you take one of them if you go there. The two hour walk up to the very top of the mill building and then back down through many of the lego-like rooms is not particularly easy, but it’s a fascinating tour. The guides in McCarthy are all excellent and really knowledgeable about the area and all the activities they run. Ashley took us on our mill tour. She showed us photos of how the mill and the mines looked when they were in operation, as well as some of the guys who had to deal with deep snow and falling rocks to build the railroad. Her excellent commentary wasn’t even disrupted by the two young children in our group who asked her twenty questions a minute and ran off in different directions when they saw some dangerous mill machinery to climb on.
Even if you only make it as far as the town of Kennecott and the mill tour, you will have experienced the national park. However, the outdoor activities are really what it’s all about there. We had two full days in McCarthy and Kennecott, but there were so many activity options to choose from that we couldn’t do it all. I opted for a glacier walk with crampons. The Root Glacier runs right alongside Kennecott. What most people think is tailings from the mine is actually glacial moraine. At this point in the glacier, the ice is covered by a thin layer of rocks which turns it into a moon-like landscape. Our guide, Kirk (also excellent), led us down a trail to where the ice was the more traditional blue and white. Then, we donned our crampons and off we went. We walked around the glacier for a good few hours, and it is one of the most incredible things I have ever done. I’ve walked on a glacier before in Europe, but it was nothing like this. From a distance, the glacier looks quite flat. However, when you’re on it you realise that it’s an intricate landscape of hills, crevasses, pools and waterfalls. The water is so pure, you can fill your water bottle up. Kirk showed us lots of different features of glaciers and told us about how the glacier is constantly changing. Lakes and waterfalls quite often suddenly appear, only to disappear again just as quickly. Kirk also boiled up some of the glacial water and made us hot drinks, which I thought was a nice touch.
If you want a slightly harder challenge than just trying to walk on crampons, there’s also the option to go ice climbing on the glacier. Either way, you will not regret it.
Kennecott Mill Tour: $27.50
Root Glacier Walk: $80