Alaska – Gravel, Grandeur & Goofy Grins (Part 7)
As we had seemingly been waiting for all day, we finally came to the fork in the road where we left the pavement and hit the gravel for the sixty mile jaunt to McCarthy. Almost immediately we began a fairly significant climb on a loose gravel surface road with no guard rail. It was quite a way down to the water below, but we were by this time quite use to the feeling of riding mountainous gravel roads with no guard rails. We continued further into the road and civilization quickly started to vanish. The road became a single two track that had us wondering for a while whether we had actually made the correct turn to McCarthy. Grass grew three inches high from between the two well defined wheel tracks and the trees closed in to only a few feet from the sides of the tracks. The road was beginning to look more like a trail than a road.
Hmmm… After about 20 minutes of this type of riding I began to wonder whether we were indeed on the correct road. But shortly thereafter, the road began to widen and some beautiful vistas became evident. Below us glowing a bright silver in the late day sun was what/who we would find out was the Copper River. She was wide and wonderful, carving large sweeping swaths between the mountains, sometimes running fast with white water, and other times merely dawdling along. She was full of life and effortlessly showed her power while letting her magnificence be known. She was breathtaking and she knew it.
Onward we rode and signs of civilization made themselves known in short spurts along the way. A few houses huddled here and there, out in this wilderness among the towering trees, mountains and bright blue sky. However as we continued deeper into the forest, we came to recognize that to live here you must be sturdy and self sufficient. Here, the laws of nature come first and are in control, not the laws promulgated by man. Winters with double digit sub-zero temperatures and snow measured in feet not inches are not for the weak of body or mind.
Nearly two hours after leaving the pavement, we came to the parking lot (yes, parking lot!) for the place we would be staying for the next few days; the Kennicott Glacier Lodge. We had found this place nearly by accident on the web and when we found what it was near, we decided we had to visit. But here’s the deal, you can’t ride or drive there yourself (without permission from them which is almost never granted). You must take a foot bridge across a section of the Copper River to a waiting van that will drive you the last couple of miles to the lodge. In all honesty, there are other means to get there, but the natives keep that to themselves and it’s only fair to leave it that way for them.
So what’s so good about the Kennicott Glacier Lodge you ask? Well despite great accommodations in the middle of the Wrangell-Elias mountain range, it’s located directly beside the Root Glacier and a short walk from the Kennicott Mine which is now a National Park maintained in a state of arrested decay by the National Park Service. As such, it looks like an abandoned mine that it is, but it is not being permitted to decay any more than it has to date. Therefore, you can visit and experience some of what the miners life was like and what conditions they dealt with 100 or so years ago.
So it was at this awesome place that we decided to give our bikes a rest and take some time to soak in what the Wrangell-Elias mountain ranges had to give us. One day we took a flightseeing tour and flew over numerous glaciers. Words really can’t express their beauty. They are truly something that defies description so you must make it an absolute to visit a glacier in person during your lifetime.
A glacier’s amazing attributes make it one of the wonders of the world. A slow moving dynamo, a glacier is an unstoppable force, one that the earth itself cannot stop. Able to render solid rock from the walls of a mountain and carve new pathways, they possess incredible beauty often glowing so brightly that they are difficult to look at. When you do gaze upon them you may find them to be solid white or silver, striped, or brown/grey, completely covered with the rock and gravel they have scoured from the mountains as they have slowly journeyed past.
It was therefore an even greater treat to walk upon the Root Glacier for a 4 hour guided trek, where we found the glaciers not only to be beautiful, but alive. As we approached, the scene was a bit lunar like as the surface was grey and rocky with the murrain that the glacier had removed as it traveled along the mountain’s sides. However, as we made it to the top, the surface glinted and gleamed under our crampons as we walked up the side. As we crested the first peak of the glacier and investigated its surface, we saw that it indeed had the attributes of a living being. There were streams that twisted and turned, ponds of bright blue and dark azure, deep crevices and soaring ridges, all located on the body of this single glacier and all viewable during this short hike. Amazing. We stopped for a short lunch from a ridge overlooking a bright blue pond and sooner than we knew it, it was time to leave. Having been on the glacier only 4 hours, we felt cheated but at the same time honored to have witnessed its power and beauty so close and at such a personal level.
Next, we toured the Kennicott mine. Again we witnessed amazing sights but on a more human and personal level. This mine was one of the largest copper producers in the world. But producing the copper took a gigantic toll on the men who extracted the copper from the mine. The mine was truly in the wilderness and as such Kennicott had to be totally self sufficient. Rail brought in supplies and took out product, but that was about it.
You were on your own and needed to work hard to make a living. Your bunk was supplied by the company and it was a hot bunk. When you were not sleeping in it, someone else was. You worked in the mines or in the factory that separated the copper from the ore and you did it 7 days a week. The temperatures we in the double digits negatives and the heat supplied was not for the workers but to keep the machinery working. It was the lucky worker who was stationed next to the heaters that heated the machinery. If you were far from those heaters, you got the temperature the environment gave you. As we said earlier, this land required stout people.
Before we knew it, it was time to leave McCarthy and the Kennicott mine area, get back on the bikes and continue our Alaskan adventure. In the morning we would once again wait for the van beside the Root Glacier and be taken back to the foot bridge so we could make our way towards Seward where we will take you in Part 8.