I didn’t really express in the prior post just how awesome the Skookum Volcano hike was. Some words to describe the feeling of having done that hike is to use the word “epic”, or “awesome” or “simply incredible”. The weather had been almost perfect the entire day. The scenery was simply incredible – beyond words. You know the phrase: location, location, location – the hike had it all! It was everything I could have hoped it to be and then some. Yes – getting rid of the mosquitoes would have made the hike even more pleasant, but mosquitoes and Alaska go hand in hand. The hike and day were simply epic.
We have had another “epic” day since then. That was our Columbia Glacier boat tour day this past Thursday. I’m getting ahead of myself though.
So, where was I? Yes, back at the end of our down day. You know, a down day every now and then has been really refreshing. We wouldn’t have the luxury of taking down days if we were on a tight six week schedule to see all of Alaska and be “home” before the end of the six weeks. I’m so grateful we have been blessed with the time to be able to take it slow and not have a hard date we have to be back. I think we are enjoying the trip and the experiences even more than we would have.
Sunday (6/12) morning we decided to head out to the end of the Nabesna road so we could hike the Rambler Mine trail. After packing our lunch Hannah, Hilary, and I headed out to the end of the road. (Breann wanted an afternoon to herself back in the bus.) After driving about 50 minutes to the end of the road we set out on the hike up to the trail head. To reach the trail head you have to hike along the remains of the road – currently closed – and then head up the actual trail. The hike along the old road is very level. The trail up to the mine is quite steep however. Even so, the trip to the mine went very quickly with Hilary only having to stop two or three times to catch her breath. She is doing so much better!
The Rambler Mine has been shut down since the late 30s and has since been sealed up by the park service. There are a few artifacts from the mining days still on site which makes for an interesting hour or so of exploring. Of course, you can’t go inside the mine, but still it was a worthwhile hike. Being about 400’ above the valley floor also afforded us some very nice views off to the west. We saw two bald eagles hanging out on the edge of a little pond as well as the Nabesna river, which flows down from the large Nabesna glacier field up in the mountains to the west of the mine (not visible from the mine area).
Along the path up to the mine we came across this antler shed. It has clearly been gnawed upon by rodents over the winter months. I think it is an elk shed.
In these two pictures taken from the Nabesna Road, I’ve captured the back side of the Skookum Volcano. We had hiked up to the notch between the ridge on the right side of the picture and the mountain on the left side. It doesn’t look very high here, but as seen from the pictures on the prior post it is way up there!
After the hike we drove all the way out the Nabesna road to the entrance so we could check out the visitor center and find out how much the Kennecott mine tour cost. Along the road, no more than 2 miles from the visitor center (ranger station) we saw this moose in the willow “bushes” alongside the road. We stopped and watched her for a little while until she grew weary of us watching her. She headed back deeper into the woods/bushes and as she headed away we saw she had a baby with her. The baby’s fur coat was coppery in coloring. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get a picture of the baby before it headed off after its mom deeper into the woods.
Monday we continued south on the Richardson Hwy towards the Edgerton Hwy. Our destination for the day was to find a place to park the bus so that we were staged to drive out all the way to the end of the McCarthy Road on Tuesday. On the way south we stopped in Glenallen for some gas for the Jeep and also had a repair shop put a patch on another tire puncture on one of the rear Jeep tires. (This is getting to be a theme here) Copper Center is also the location of the main Wrangell St. Elias National Park visitor/welcome center. We took an hour and stopped at the visitor center to explore and see what we could learn. The visitor center staff was very helpful and made us feel very welcome. The video was also well done and worth the time to watch.
One of the things we learned is that while the park hosts 9 of the 14 tallest mountains in North America it also is home to an active volcano. Mt Wrangell is 14,163’ high and is volcanically active today. We were told it is not unusual to see steam coming out of the top of the mountain. We did not see any activity while we were in the park though. Just a bit further to the east of Mt. Wrangell is Mt. Sanford. Mt. Sanford is the highest peak in the park and is 16,237’ high. It is flanked to the west by Mt. Drum, which is 12,010’ high. These three peaks are within a 10 mile radius of each other. On a clear day they make an awesome sight with the sun reflecting off their snow capped peaks. Truly spectacular!
This picture is looking east down the Edgerton Hwy as we were heading towards our stopping point for the night. It was rainy and cloudy for our drive in, if it had been clear we would have had a spectacular view of the three mountains directly ahead. (On our drive out it was mostly clear and we got to see what the view would have been if it had been clear on our way in.) Our stopping point for the night was a gravel pit just to the south of Liberty Falls. It was a great staging location for our drive out to the end of the McCarthy road. Combined, the Edgerton Hwy and the McCarthy road take about three hours to drive one way and is gravel about 2/3rds of the way.
Tuesday (6/14) we packed our lunch and dinner, a couple gallons of water, and our cameras and hit the road (oh – and coffee too!). We were up and going down the road just before 8 AM. Along the way we crossed over the mighty Copper River just to the east of Chitina. At the bridge area we saw lots of people fishing, camping along the river delta, and many, many Eagles! Further down the road we crossed the famous Kuskalana Bridge. This was the only steel bridge built by the railroad when they pushed the railroad from Cordova, on the coast south of Valdez, out to the Kennecott mine. All the other bridges were built out of wood to keep costs down. However, due to the nature of the sheer cliff faces and depth of the river gorge the decision was made to build this bridge out of steel. It is still standing and in great shape. We took the time to walk along the catwalk that is beneath the road deck. (Side note: Several of the bridges along the railroad route would get swept away every spring. During the spring thaw the river ice doesn’t all melt before the spring water flow causes it to be swept downstream. When this happens the sheer volume of ice becomes too much for the wood bridge pilings to withstand and they end up from the immense pressure of the ice being swept downstream. The railroad found it more economical to rebuild the bridges every spring than to replace them with steel. In fact, we were told one bridge was replaced every single year the railroad operated – about 39 times!)
The mines in the Kennecott area had such high grade copper that even with the expense of building an ore processing plant and railroad the company still made a 100% profit over the course of the years it operated. Kennecott is currently managed by the park service with the intention of preserving and arresting building decay so future generations can come explore the area. The main attraction is the Kennecott Mine copper ore processing building. While the copper ore was extremely high grade, it did not make financial sense to send the raw ore to the smelters in Idaho. The job of the ore processing facility was to extract as much copper from the ore as possible and only send that down to the smelter in Idaho. By the end of mine operations in the early 30s they were extracting 96% of the copper from the ore!
While Kennecott was a company town, just down the road 5 miles is the town of McCarthy. McCarthy was the opposite of Kennecott. Let’s just say the town catered to the whims and desires of the mostly male miners. Therefore it has a very colorful history including illegal alcohol, “ladies of the night”, and other services. Today the town is setup to service the tourists from about the middle of May to the middle of September. Even given its very remote location there are about 70 year round residents in the area. Hardy souls!
Tuesday afternoon we took a guided tour of the town and mine. Our tour guide took us into many of the old buildings with the highlight being the 14 story tall ore processing facility. The park service has the building in a state of “arrested decay”. This means they are not trying to restore it, but have shored it up and structurally improved it to where it is no longer decaying. Much of the building they have also approved for people on the guided tour to walk through (only with a tour guide!). When the processing of ore was in motion it was very noisy indeed we were told. It was possible to hear the ore processing (rock crushing) in the town of McCarthy five miles away. Since the mine ran 363 days a year, excluding Christmas and the 4th of July, the rock crushing was an ever present noise to those in the area.
Main ore processing building – 14 stories tall:
Just to the north of Kennecott is the Kennecott glacier. Back around the 1900s it was so high in the valley that the glacier was taller than the Kennecott mine processing town. Today it has shrank down where it is lower than the mine in the valley. In the below picture you can see the glacier and the rock moraine. It is the random “peaks” of rocks all throughout the valley floor. The glacier is still active today and while we were there we saw piles of rocks slide down their little peaks as the ice under them melted in the warmth and sun of the day.
You can also see from the pictures just how beautiful the day was. It was about 70 degrees, light variable winds, and crystal blue skies almost the entire day. Fantastic weather!
National Creek flows through the center of town (along with debris left over from the mining days):
View of the design of the cable used within the plant and up to the mines:
Oh – on the subject of the town of McCarthy, since it is a tourist town with private ownership, it has a different feel to it than Kennecott. One of the neat things we saw was an iron property “fence” being built by a local owner. He is decorating the fence and constructing it out of random items. Very creative! I should also mention that National Parks in Alaska are different than National Parks in the lower 48. When a park is created (legislative action) in the lower 48 private owners are given a 100 year lease whereby at the end of the lease they have to turn over the property to the federal government. In Alaska the decision was made to allow private ownership perpetually within the park boundaries. If property was privately owned before the park was created it could stay privately owned. Some owners have sold to the Park Service, but most still own their property. This property may be passed on to heirs or sold to other people at the whims of the property owner. Therefore, even within the town of Kennecott, there are private properties. It is strange to walk into a park building and then just next door see a sign saying “private property” or “no trespassing”. This was a very unique experience for us having never been to a national park in Alaska before.
At the conclusion of our guided tour we took the shuttle back down to the foot bridge. Oh yeah – forgot to tell you about that. There are no tourist vehicles allowed just to the west of McCarthy and beyond up to Kennecott. In fact, there is a foot bridge over a river you have to cross about ¼ of a mile before the town of McCarthy. We left our Jeep in a parking lot on the west side of the foot bridge and then walked up to McCarthy. From McCarthy we rode the shuttle ($5 per person each way) up to Kennecott. At the end of the day we rode the shuttle back down all the way to the foot bridge.
Anyway, after getting back to the Jeep we started the drive back down the McCarthy road to where we had the bus parked. Not five miles from the end of the road the low tire pressure monitor alerted. I pulled over and found the left rear tire had a massive air leak. Where we had had the tire patched previously must have caught a rock in just the right way so as to almost rip it out of the tire. Those dirt/rock roads are hard on tires! After putting the spare tire on we made it back out to the bus without further incident.
What a fantastic day! We all collapsed into bed for the night and slept soundly even with the daylight streaming in the windows. Yep – it never truly gets dark up here. In fact, in Valdez, where we are right now, the sunset is 11:23PM and the sunrise is 4:07AM.