Flying High Over Wrangell St Elias

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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From the choice of activities we had at Wrangell St Elias National Park, our decisions were vey much weather dependent. If it had ended up raining for three days, I probably would have gone rafting. Well, you might as well if you’re going to get wet anyway. On our first day there, a layer of grey cloud covered the sky. My hope of taking one of the flightseeing excursions with Wrangell Mountain Air looked like it was going down the drain. Then, at the end of a really long and tiring day of activities, the sun came out just in time to catch the last flight. And boy, am I glad I made that decision.

Flying over the national park in a small, six-seater plane really helps you to understand the scale of it and how all the different parts fit together. Distances and sizes in the park are so huge, at some points you feel you are going to fly right into a mountain when in fact you are still over a kilometre away. The views of the mountains and glaciers from above are incredible. Our pilot, Bill, chatted to us and told us all about the area as we clicked away with our cameras. Bill was just as good as our guides on the ground, and helped us gain a new perspective of the park and life there.

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There are so many activities to choose from in McCarthy and Kennecott, but flightseeing is definitely one of the best ways to see the national park.

Useful Info:

70 minute flightseeing tour: $205

Kennecott and the Root Glacier

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Useful Info:

Kennecott Mill Tour: $27.50

Root Glacier Walk: $80

Magical McCarthy

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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Almost as soon as we left Valdez, our guide Miles became like an excited school kid on a field trip. Our next stop would be McCarthy, his favourite place in Alaska.

On paper, McCarthy looks far from the most exciting place on Earth. The year-round population is between 25 and 40 people (as with all statistics in Alaska, it depends on who you ask), plus their dogs which about doubles it. ‘Downtown’ consists of two restaurants (one of which doubles as the bar), 2 hotels (owned by the same person, who owns most of McCarthy), the grocery store and a couple of excursion offices. However, as soon as we arrived in McCarthy we immediately understood why Miles was so excited. The town sits in Wrangell St Elias National Park, which was formed in 1980 and is home to the second and third highest peaks in the USA as well as nine of the 16 highest peaks. Only about 80,000 people visit this national park every year. Some national parks get more visitors than that in the month of January alone. One of the big reasons for the low numbers is that Wrangell St Elias is not easy to get to. There’s one road in, a dirt track that is labelled on the map as a highway and really shouldn’t be. It’s 60 miles long, and takes about 3 hours to conquer one-way. If you don’t like bumpy rides, this isn’t the place for you. You’re driving along the route of the old mining railroad, and it’s advisable that you don’t go over 35mph so as to avoid the old rail spikes sticking out of the gravel. As one local told me in McCarthy ‘In Alaska we don’t have a side of the road we drive on. If there’s a pot hole on the right hand side of the road, you drive on the left’. The road ends at the Kennicott River, where you must walk over a bridge then on into McCarthy, or catch a shuttle bus for $5.

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So, the people who make it to Wrangell St Elias are the ones who really want to be there. And that’s what makes it such a great place to visit. Everyone who enters McCarthy immediately relaxes into its gentle pace of life and chilled out culture. We stayed at the Lancaster’s Hotel. Upon arrival we were told we would have a short introductory talk and tour of the hotel. It always makes me nervous when hotels have introductory talks, as they usually comprise of a huge list of rules and regulations. However, Becky just wanted to welcome us personally and tell us that if we needed anything all we had to do was ask. If no-one was on reception, she told us to press the intercom and someone would answer. It’s the complete opposite to Anchorage, where a member of hostel staff had looked put-out when I asked where the washing machine was. We soon discovered that everyone in McCarthy is this friendly. Both the restaurants, which are actually staffed by the same team, were happy to accommodate my vegan and gluten-free requirements. The grocery store, by no means big, had an impressive selection of gluten-free and vegan foods that could put some British supermarkets to shame. The lady at the grocery store also makes the sandwiches, for which you have to hand in a slip of paper with your order on the night before.

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Although you have no desire to use it once you get into the McCarthy pace of life, there is wi-fi available for a charge. I believe it works in both hotels, but the reception is limited. I spotted a local sat on her quad bike outside the pub checking emails on her laptop, which leads me to assume the internet access is not available in the ‘suburbs’ of McCarthy.

Although I’m aware there are a lot of reality TV shows set in Alaska, I’d avoided watching them before I went there. Which is why I was a little embarrassed when I met one of the stars of The Edge of Alaska at the pub in McCarthy and I had to admit that I didn’t have a clue who he was. Two of the guys I was drinking with got very excited about the encounter though, and Jason was super nice in answering all our questions. I chatted to him for a while about all sorts of subjects, he told me he didn’t mind that I’d never seen the show and I promised to watch the next series.

Visiting McCarthy leaves you in two minds. You want to tell everyone you know about it, because it’s so cool. But, on the other hand, you also want to keep it a secret to stop more people piling in to the town.

Hello from Rainy Denali

Wow! I’ve done soooo much since I last posted. We’ve been making our way across Alaska, where most of our stops have limited internet access hence me not posting. It’s taken me a whole day and over 5 attempts to upload these photos!

We left Valdez and headed into Wrangell St Elias national park, probably everyone’s favourite place on the trip. We stayed in a town called McCarthy (year-round population 25-40, depending on who you ask). It is such a cool place, and I think we are really privileged to have stayed there because not many people get to.

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I joined in with the weekly softball game (by the way, I was the only person from my group who played)…

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Whilst in the national park, I did an amazing glacier walk on crampons…

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I went on a tour of the copper mill in Kennecott…

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And I also took a flightseeing tour so I could see the glaciers and icefield from above…

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Unfortunately, once we arrived in Denali national park the good weather I’ve had for the past three weeks left and we haven’t been able to see much. I was hoping to at least see part of Mt McKinley/Denali, but even the mountains in front of it weren’t visible.

DSC_0321 DSC_0325Our eight hours sat on the bus through Denali national park weren’t completely wasted, though. We saw a brown bear, caribou and more moose. So, even though I didn’t get to see the mountain, I’ve ticked off my list all the wildlife that I wanted to.

We’re driving back to Anchorage tomorrow, then I have to fly back to the UK on the weekend 😦 I’ve  got lots more photos to share with you all, so keep checking in for further posts.