McCarthy, Alaska: Last Frontier Charm
By Laura Stearns
The antlers that decorate the exteriors of the houses in McCarthy, Alaska, are the color of old snow. They seem befitting in this town of whimsy and mining lore. Although it is mid-August, there is already a hint of perpetual winter, stacks of firewood and tarp-covered snowmobiles—a pervading sense that survival in these parts distills down to two character types: those who can cope with the brutal subzero temperatures and those who cannot. Having endured the Hellgate Canyon winds in Missoula, Montana, for three years, but now the consummate Bay Area resident, I am unsure of which category I fall into when it comes to the measure of stamina. I want to believe that I would be unaffected by the tree-cracking cold and days of darkness, but I am not entirely sure. There is nothing like the big city for art galleries and opera. Then too, I often crave the solitude and simplicity of small-town America, especially the kind that is available up here in the quintessential land of frontier freedom. For the moment, McCarthy’s ever-present Wrangell Mountains with their periglacial morains and streambeds, luminous in the distance, seem to be winning.
I am visiting Alaska on an eleven-day hiking odyssey in three of the state’s parks: Denali, the Kenai Peninsula, and Wrangell-St.Elias. We—our tour group of twelve plus one dangerously cute, mountain-man-next-door tour guide—have left our campground in the Tangle Lakes region to drive 210 miles southeast to the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias for our midtrip award: a two-night stay in McCarthy’s rustic, Ma Johnson’s hotel. I have been anticipating this stopover ever since I took my first two-minute paid shower in a campground outside of Denali five days ago. The last leg of our day’s trek includes a 60-mile, kidney-bruising drive that begins on a gravel road outside the quaint town of Chitina (“Gateway to the Wrangell Mountains”) and ends at McCarthy’s pedestrian footbridge, the only access to town save a charter air taxi. The gravel nightmare—its officially called the McCarthy Road—once served as a railroad track for the now defunct Copper River Northwestern Railway, which from 1911 to 1938, transported a staggering 220 million dollars worth of copper ore from the region. Any one who attempts to drive on McCarthy Road should expect to encounter railroad spikes, blind curves, and heavy washboarding. Then too there are the occasional trucks hauling trailers, although there are plenty of signs prohibiting this activity. Foolhardy drivers try anyway, inevitably breaking wheel rims or reeking some other type of costly repair that leaves them stranded for hours.
This trip, aptly titled “Alaska Treasures,” is my self-prescribed cure for the doldrums of too many hours in a cubicle at work and a body that is steadily creeping towards middle age. Never a candidate for a cruise ship, I signed up for this trip after wading through a plethora of websites, which offer everything from scenic walking in England to mountain biking treks on China’s fabled Silk Road. Initially I intended to tour Romania, my grandmother’s homeland. Then I was hooked on Costa Rica, mainly because of itineraries that promised visits to the very ethereal sounding Cloud Forest and a butterfly preserve. For some inexplicable reason at the last minute the compass shifted, and I was heading north to the land of permafrost, the Northern Lights, and an occasional igloo. Much to my amazement, I agreed to cook, pitch a tent, and load and unload gear. What I didn’t know was that I would raft on level five rapids, encounter a grizzly bear in Denali, listen to the forlorn bellow of a moose during a hike at one in the morning, and find small-town bliss in a southeastern Alaska town, which boasts a summertime population of 100.
Getting ready for the trip was a baffling indoctrination into the world of the well-prepared adventurer: Gore-Tex jackets, ThermaRest pads, and chamois bath towels that barely cover an average-sized rear-end. The list of suggested items that I dutifully acquired over a six-week period bore scant resemblance to the days when my parents splurged on a 9 x 12 Coleman tent at Montgomery Wards. I cut myself off at the $600 mark, having decided that if Lewis and Clark managed to navigate the Northwest Passage without the benefits of polypropylene rain pants, I could certainly hike through a few rain-sodden forests in a twenty-dollar poncho. During a torrential downpour in Valdez, I learned how ridiculously impractical my frugal nature could be and could only sheepishly smile when one of my fellow hikers suggested that the group pitch in and buy me a proper rain suit.
This is not to say that I was not a semi-experienced camper. During most of my twenties I was married to a National Ski Patrol volunteer and avid backpacker who rarely ventured anywhere without the ‘10 essentials.’ When the marriage ended my interest in the Great Outdoors waned for at least a decade. Packing for this trip, I marveled to think how the passage of years had finally brought me to this life’s juncture, where I could happily travel alone without a man at my side.
A postage stamp size of a town, McCarthy sits in the majestic Copper River Valley, an area replete with opportunities for high-spirited adventure. Spend a few days breathing in the pure mountain air, and you begin to understand the fever that lured even the sanest of men and women north. Even today, decades past its glory days as a thriving town that supported Kennicott’s 600 mine and mill workers, McCarthy works its way inside of you. Adventuresome types set up seasonal businesses, which offer them a viable excuse to return, summer after summer. Some of the business owners return even when the money isn’t good, bewitched by the town’s charms, undaunted by ledgers that seem to be forever in the red.
There are approximately 25 year-round residents in McCarthy including the owners of Ma Johnson’s Hotel and the McCarthy Lodge, which includes a saloon that boasts the largest plate glass mirror in Alaska. The husband is a terminally bemused hippie with his rainbow suspenders and thinning long hair, while his wife appears as the organizer, tallying up the guests’ bills in an all-business manner that leaves little room for small talk. Then there is the female pilot who came here on a vacation from Down Under, met her future husband, and never left. When I asked Natalie how I could locate the local chamber of commerce, she smiled and said, “I guess that I’m it,” sliding a data sheet across the counter at Wrangell Mountain Air, a charter-plane service that she and her husband own.
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