Sydney to Copper Centre, Alaska

August 4, 2018

Alaska 2018

Diary Friday 6th July 2018

The idea started with Frank. Brother Frank that is. Sibling not priest, though he’s pretty good with sacrifices on the altar of Ruger 30-06. He dreamed aloud about going to Alaska and thought some fishing and shooting might be in order. It was a good plan. Still is. But in the meantime it’s been modified somewhat. A handful of our team have often wondered if they could get the wilderness experience but without the rigours of climbing. The initial answer was Alaska and our first discussions with friends Brad and Ramona had me thinking that a week long kayak expedition would be a good idea. It’s an outstanding idea actually. But it would still be too rigorous for some, so the plan evolved into something more tame. Not too tame, but a wilderness experience into which each traveller could stretch themselves as far as they wanted. The answer is Wrangall-St Elias National Park, the largest national park in the US, described as the size of Yellowstone and Switzerland combined. The size means little to us. It’s more appealing for the fact that it is remote. Our lodgings are quite literally at the end of the road, a road we are told very few Americans travel. And on the edge of that road, within five miles of its absolute termination, ¬†lies a lodge which we have booked out for the week. McCarthy¬†hindered by streams only passable by footbridges lies a bit further on, and Kennecott Mine right at the end of the line. From our lodge environs the adventurous can scout. And within which the less adventurous can repine with a book. Or beer. Or whatever. The lodge is a series of cabins overlooking a glacier and is well placed to be a walking hub to lots of scenic and historical sites. I’m looking forward to the historic.

So here we are out of Sydney on Air Canada, boring through the sky towards Vancouver but more than an hour late and waiting for the food service. Some are asleep already. Everyone has made their own way through immigration and it’s been a pleasure to not have to shepherd anyone, but then, it’s a group of adults. Nephews Sam and Lachlan are with us, Sam being the youngest but he is fitting in and making his way just fine. I’m pleased they have been able to make this trip. We see too little of them and I’m always keen to connect, especially if it’s in the sorts of environments with which they are not so familiar.

Saturday 7th July 2018
Smoke drifts across the yard from a fire which is cooking salmon fillets prepped by Ramona and Brad. Brad got the fire going using propane, a ‘shock and awe’ process that entertained everyone. The scent of spruce is sweet on the warm air and we all lounge about in little groups under a blue sky but curtained about by forests of green, talking or simply soaking it all in. Some are helping get the meal ready. Others wait in anticipation. Locally caught salmon are lashed with sauce and baked then served up with other fishbake dishes, salad and ladles of friendship. There is a relaxed and convivial air over everything which I enjoy being part of and enjoy watching. We are really only one day into this but already the conversations are starting to intermingle and I am pleased with that.

We arrived in this yard at 1am on this same day though it now seems since forever since then. Friday of course went on forever as we crossed the dateline, then spent hours getting up here. Five hours of driving but a few additional hours shopping and taking pictures, before stumbling into Saturday and the back woods hamlet of Copper Centre. We arrived in Vancouver after a long run across the Pacific and were through Customs and into the US by 9am, a relatively painless process if you have ever entered the US via Los Angeles, New York or Dallas. But we had a few hours to wait before our connection to Anchorage so we took the opportunity to review some travel administration and to refresh on some remote area first aid. I’m never sure about what really goes in with the first aid but if such a briefing makes people a little more careful in a foreign wilderness that can’t be a bad thing.

The run to Anchorage merits the same attention as any small connecting flight (3.5hours) anywhere on the planet except for the extraordinary view of many of Alaska’s glaciers of which there are 20-30,000, and of which about 600 are named. Perhaps that is why the Russians sold it off so cheaply. Too much ice?!

We arrived to a quite warm Anchorage and bundled everyone into taxis to get up to the Midnight Sun car rental lot where, after a slight SNAFU with the credit card (don’t forget you might have a daily limit on it!), we managed to get clear with two 12 seat vans. I’m pleased that the traffic is light as we move up the highway to REI as it takes some concentration to get my head back into driving on this side of the road again. We pull into the REI carpark after a five minute drive and what starts out as a shop for bear spray and an air horn turns into a slightly lengthy shop as every one discovers everything from freeze dried food to clothes. It’s an excellent store and I find myself distracted in the same way, including by climbing gear. Everyone walks out with more than we went in for. We now have some freeze dried strawberries and a berry shake mixture, also freeze dried.
We swing out of the REI carpark, drive west a short distance then turn right onto Highway 1 which takes us straight out of town, sliding past the Sheraton, another airfield with lots of floatplanes (Kavitha reminds me of a popular TV program “The Beachcomers”) and suddenly out of town. Anchorage is really a large regional town not unlike say, Newcastle. The traffic is typically US however, and the road out of town is busy and the traffic fast. I have my eyes peeled for the turn to the Glen Highway which will take us to Palmer and eventually McCarthy, but tonight to Copper Centre. But almost straight away we are all distracted by mountains, snow and dramatic scenery and the cameras are soon clicking and the video’s rolling. The road takes us out across flat river deltas out of which the mountains lunge steeply up, not unlike the way mountains do in New Zealand. But here the mountains are covered in spruce in a way we are not used to seeing mountains.

We cross sprawling rivers and open grassy plains before the traffic is thinned by our joining the Glenn Highway – most of the traffic seemed to be heading to Fairbanks. The Glenn Highway takes us to Palmer where we planned to stop and do a grocery shop. The Fred Meyer store is about the biggest thing in this town which is a very small country town really. We shop here forever. Well, a lot longer than I had planned but shopping for groceries to last a week in a store with which you are not familiar, compounded by unknown brands and products, drags things out. Matches. Cereal. Pasta. Sausages. Greens. Butter. We buy an air horn – another bear deterrent – and eventually clear the shop by 8pm. The sun is still well and truly up but we stop at the local Subway rather than push up the highway. We have no idea what the fast, or even slow food situation is on the road so we might as well eat here. 19 diners choke the Subway system and its staff who are more used to a slow Friday evening. We liven things up for them.

Its 9pm before we leave town. The sun is still up (we will marvel at the amount of light for the whole trip) and we appreciate catching the scenery even though driving so late at night. Shortly out of Palmer the road tracks beside a wide gravel bed river which stretches across a wide valley against a backdrop of spectacular mountains. The Matanuska River. Past place names like Chickaloon. On and up past a view out the right hand side of the Matanuska Glacier spilling out of the mountain ranges, until we top out on a broad plateau covered in Black Spruce and the occasional pond of water. As we climb up to here we stop to take photos on numerous occasions, though in truth we could have stopped more. We pass swimmers at a picturesque lake, swimming late at night but in full light. A couple of moose are spotted grazing on the side of the road and we pull over to have a close look at a porcupine. Which all leads us to a Glennallen stop just after midnight.

Glennallen sits on a T junction. Turn left to go to Fairbanks. Turn right and go to Valdez. We pull into a servo (gas station) as much as for a pit stop as to get bearings. In the strange half light about half a dozen RVs are pulled in, refuelling. The bugs are thick and the air cool and after gathering everyone up from a service station at which nothing is purchased we push the 14 miles down the road to Copper Centre. We dropped everyone at King for a Day campsite, which sits on a glacial bolder delta alongside the Klutina River which boils and rushes past. It might be midnight but campers are sitting beside small fires talking. Some are out fishing. In this land of the midnight sun no-one seems to want to go to bed. We cant find the actual site we have been allocated (We eventually find a reference to our booking on a white board at the ‘office’) but there seem to be plenty of vacant sites so we simply grab and settle for the first one we land on. There is plenty of space but the ground is lumpy and takes a little bit of prepping. We help set up tents and once we are happy everyone is settled we drive back up the road to Brad and Ramona who greet us at the front door at 1:15 in the morning. It’s been a spectacularly long day which really started in Sydney all that time ago. But we enjoy spending time talking with Brad and Ramona and wander out to the edge of their property which overlooks the Klutina River below and the campsite where we can see the other van and some of our tents scattered in among the cottonwood. When I finally lie down to sleep it is dreamless unconsciousness that grabs me.

Alaska Diary 6 July 2018

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