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The Road to Pothole, ahem McCarthy

August 8, 2018

Alaska Diary (3)

Sunday 8 July 2018

We hear a patter of rain through the night but not really enough to stir us. ‘Night’ is a misnomer for it is not dark at any point. The sun sets at 2315 or thereabouts and the remainder of the evening until sunrise is a strange grey half light bright enough to cooperate without a head torch or any other artificial lighting. We aim to be out by 9 and so arrive at the King for a Day campsite by 8, wrenching ourselves away from Brad and Ramona and lots of stories over coffee, with great reluctance. We have such a meeting of minds even after all these years. We find the rest of the crew mostly ready to depart. Tents are down and breakfast eaten so after sorting out the payments for the tents we get on the road just after 9.30 and drive up to the National Parks Centre, back up the highway towards Glenallen. We buy maps and pick our bear canisters which Brad has kindly booked for us, and educate ourselves on the history of the park as well as things such as the various scat we might encounter as well as what various paw prints look like. While I wrangle maps and paying for them the rest of the team watch a movie about the park.

From the National Park Centre we drive down into Copper Centre proper. There is not a lot here to write home about. The town seems to be a loose collection of single story, low roof pitched houses scattered among the trees. The Mt View gas station is also a store of sorts, set back off the highway behind a large open area of gravel which throws up lots of dust when anyone rolls in behind us to fuel up. (We time our arrival well for having topped up a handful of people pull in which apparently insatiable fuel tanks, and not even RVs). The single gas pump is in poor repair, rusty and patched with gaffa tape and apparently misaligned to the owners advantage, but I’m not going to argue a few cents. We pause here for a while and cross the road to buy coffee and an overly sweet hot chocolate from a Lithuanian selling his drinks from a ‘hole in the wall’ on the corner. Quite literally a hole in the wall, otherwise known as a window, in Klutina Kates B&B. How a Lithuanian came to be out here no one knows (or has the time to ask) though Denis gives him some tips on how to better utilise his coffee machine. Copper Centre lies in a low hollow, cupped against the bluff above the boiling Klutina River and pointing itself towards the Copper River. From what we saw the town is in a state of quiet decay. Any number of vehicles lie about with summer growth thrusting through them, the only sign of life. Buildings are unpainted and if repaired carry a mix of incompatible materials, clearly those things just to hand. As we discovered yesterday there is a sub culture here that is very protective of the place. We made to pull over on an open strip of land in order to take photos of Mount Drum before Brad and Ramona called us away from the area, to take photos from the Princess Wilderness Lodge lookout instead, warning us that some in town might not take too kindly to us wandering around. Even as we pulled over people stepped off their porches to see what we were up to.

Armed with fuel and fast food we finally leave town, cross the Klutina River and the King for a Day camp ground on our right.  Our next stop is Willow Lake which we drove past the previous day. We aim for the information boards but the wind is up and we are quickly chilled so we are pushed back onto the road very quickly. Mount Drum is back in cloud in any event. We swing onto the Edgerton Highway which cuts a dead straight lone for just over then kilometres, dropping gently to give us a magnificent view across the Copper River basin to the Wrangall Mountains. We cut through Black Spruce and Aspen although in many spots there is a hedge only and open fields lie beyond, at least as we run through Kenny Lake. It’s hard to see what is farmed here and I can’t see any stock. At the end of this straight stretch is Kenny Lake which is the centre of this farming community. WE pull into the grounds of the High School. Brad and Ramona taught here years ago and Brad has suggested there is an excellent one hour walk out of here. We briefly entertain the idea but figure we have a long drive ahead and we have been told we should spend some time in Chitina, so we decided to forego the walk and push on instead. Besides, once again our day has gotten off to a slower start than I had planned and our lingering at the fuel station at Copper Centre has put us behind well, the schedule we actually don’t have. But I don’t want to roll into McCarthy at an unreasonable hour. We soon cross the Tonsina River which rushes out of the hills on our right and flood into a broad confluence with the Copper River. Its impressive enough to stop us on a bluff overlooking the scene and we marvel at the breadth of it. Geoff has a brief ‘moment’ thinking he had lost his keys to the van, long enough for me to wonder if I could jump start it. I doubt it – it’s not the old HQ after all. Everything about this country is big and the broad river junction with banks of gravel , swaths of water and a vast plain of spruce on the far bank stretching back to the Wrangalls only reinforces the impression. We Australian fancy we do big. We do. Alaska does it too, but much greener.

As we close in on Chitina (The locals drop the second ‘i’) the country closes in on us and Black Spruce gives way to White Spruce, in dense dark forests. We pass three lakes though ‘First Lake’ is the most pronounced and I’m tempted to stop and take photos but by the time I seriously consider it we are rolling into Chitina. (the name comes from the local natives called the Ahtna whose Chittyna apparently meant ‘copper’).  I’m not sure what I am expecting but it’s not this, though it has a charm of its own. Someone has painted their house a garish purple and overlaid a cartoon picture of Casper on it, commentary no doubt on the ‘Ghost Town’ nature of the place. Houses are set back in long grass or scrub, looking mostly tired and forgotten, often surrounded by abandoned vehicles. We let everyone loose for an hour which proves more than enough time to take in the sights of the village rotting away in polite decay. It’s a mix of current and careless industrial (road repair and vehicle maintenance) and historical. Once a thriving hub for the railway to Kennett Copper Mine (the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad (CR&NW, or “Can’t Run and Never Will’, so labelled by those who thought it would never be completed) it’s now a faint shadow of its former self with little to commend it except for some photogenic angles, an art gallery and a pub which serves a reasonable meal – although when that is delivered and the quip “this looks good’ the gum chewing waitress is miffed and with a toss of the head declares “of course it is”. Lachlan asks a couple of chaps (the only other patrons) who look the part where we can find the fish wheels we have read and heard so much about. They say they have no idea which must be nonsense as we discover a little later. Lunch done we drift back to the vans and point our noses to McCarthy at 1405.

The road out of Chitina is via an old railway cutting which of course was the railway to Kennecott mine. We check there is no traffic and poke through this slice in the rock. It’s like passing though some sort of portal and we are released on the other side to the open sprawling valley with the Copper River spread out below us. We are barely in the valley, crossing the river when we spot the fishing wheels. But they are not functioning. In fact al the wheels are submerged in silt or abandoned in the river. Floods have wrecked them, playing havoc not only with the wheels but with any number of RVs and caravans which are semi submerged along the banks of the river. We leave the road and drive down to the river flat to have a look. We look about, skip some stones then bolt back to the vans. The breeze pulling down over this ice fed water makes its presence felt. As we are about to depart a mid twenties something chap approached and asked if we were interested in some white water rafting which he promised would be exhilarating at this time of the year. I’m sure it is. He is sandy haired  and tousled with a ruddy outdoors complexion. I politely decline though it was obvious our party of 19 had put a gleam of hope in his eye. We inch out of the water trap and continue on up the valley. The road is completely flat which is hardly surprising since it follows, indeed sits on the old rail route.

The fish wheels sit on the confluence of the Copper and Chitina Rivers, the latter mow running roughly East-West. We follow it for the briefest period to start with but its soon lost to the south of us among a million square miles of spruce. And more spruce. About twenty miles in we are distracted completely by the Kuskulana Bridge which sits above a river by the same name, by quite a heady distance. 70m in fact. The Kuskulana River cuts neatly through a narrow rock ravine and the drop below made for formidable engineering challenges in 1910 when the bridge was built, not least because it was built through the depths of an Alaskan winter.  It’s still in use today, one of the few visible and complete and working remnants of the original engineering (if we discount the gravel road, though in places closer to McCarthy sleepers and posts still are visible in the road base). We drive over to the far side and park. The narrow single lane and the low barrier make Brad’s story all the more remarkable – he told us about crossing it in a snow machine at night in heavy snow at a time when there were no safety barriers. It all seems mad enough in the dry and with side rails in place. We park and walk down to the base of one of the trestles and climb up onto the maintenance catwalk which runs for most of the length of the bridge. It’s an exhilarating walk though some of the antics proved worrisome – there is plenty of scope for bodies to slip through gaps and to plunge into the torrent far below. But as for training children when the potential to suggest possibilities even while sounding a warning I refrain from suggesting ideas by sounding any caution. Besides there were moments when I was nervous for my own skin so stayed focused on that.

After a solid hour of amusing distraction at Kuskulana we proceed to the next distraction, the Gilahina Trestle, a towering, well trestle bridge that sweeps grandly through a curve high  above a gushing stream and a small valley. Now in serious disrepair it is still a majestic structure which we stop and admire. Who were the men who put this up and what did they endure? We know this railway was pushed through in winter time, an horrendous task in any one’s book.  Unfortunately the disrepair was exacerbated by some fool who attempted to drive his bulldozer along it. How that worked out for him I shudder to think.

From the trestle we hum along a well graded gravel road through textbook Alaskan countryside. Spruce on the Crystalline Hills on the left, numerous small and medium mirror lakes and eventually the Long Lake, not inappropriately named for its three mile length. It is postcard perfect and we stop, walk down to a small jetty and take pictures. The water is crystal clear at our feet and we admire the clarity. A short ten miles later we roll into McCarthy, or rather into the Kennecott River Lodge site. We turn into a tree lined driveway just before the end of the road which we can see just ahead of us, and the driveway winds slightly up and through a cutting which closes the site off from the road altogether. The trees open up and then vanish altogether opening up a view on our right which looks up into the mountains across the gravel cap of the Kennecott Glacier and onto the gleaming blue and green and white of the Root Glacier Icefall more than twenty kilometres up the valley but which looks deceptively close such is its size. I would be lying if I said I was not appreciative of the oohs and aahs that erupted form the van as we pulled to a stop. Not only is the site an impressive one as far as the facilities go but the view up the Root Glacier is dramatic and stops us in our tracks. Someone suggests I might have outdone myself. I have to agree that I might have unwittingly done just that.

Brad Grossweiler is our host. He’s been out here 22 years (the number varies slightly from story to story but it’s been a while, and besides we lose track of the days after our first weekend here so we can forgive him some flexibility on the numbers). He steps out of a small ‘Office’ (the sign says so) on the porch on which sit two younger men in baseball caps watching us. Brad is a tall, loose man in no hurry whatsoever. He is a warm host and quickly shows us what is what and what is where and leaves us to our own devices. The office is actually the original building on the block Brad purchased via another Brad – our friend in Copper Centre who was a real estate agent in those days. It’s a classic small, one room log cabin with a steep pitched roof and decorated with flowers. A tattered pirate flag flaps from a pole attached to a barge board. (We read that some locals had been upset at the appearance of a Pirate Flag planted on Fireweed Mountain and secretly hope it might have been this one).  We have a central building which includes a bedroom, lounge area, kitchen, central bathroom and extra showers at the back of the building. Brad cleverly appeals to everyone to preserve water but there is actually plenty of that stuff around here. What is more precious(costly) is the propane he needs to ship in here to heat the water but who is going to respond to an appeal to preserve propane? Along a low ridge slightly north of the main cabin a row of individual cabins stretch down a gravel path, each able to house five or six people. Soon everyone is working out who is camping where and otherwise making themselves at home.

After all this travel I’m glad we are finally here. We have been continuously on the road since leaving Sydney and it’s good to stop. Despite the hour it is still light (as I write this its 2339 and writing by the evening light) so we walk up to McCarthy by way of a recce. And perhaps to confirm we really are here. McCarthy’s original name, by the way, was Pothole, perhaps reflecting a less than salubrious site than the source of great wealth just a bit further up the road at Kennecott. It was also called Shushana Junction at some point. When the name changed I have no idea but in 1899 a local prospector called James McCarthy camped on what was named McCarthy Creek, which flows past the bottom of the town. I assume the town was also named after James. A decade or so later, as the copper mine flourished McCarthy Creek was the site of the infamous “row” – a row of bordello dwellings on the outskirts of town.

McCarthy is actually still a couple of kilometres away, accessed only via two foot bridges that cross the Kennecott River which drains the Kennecott Glacier Tal and a second, natural overflow, spillway which sports a pool of clear water on which float toys you might usually expect to see in a backyard pool. Brad has warned us we might see bikini clad women lying in the sun beside this frigid water but Bondi is not what we expect to see out here. As we cross the noisy water below us we can see up into the Tal at the point where is drains into the river. We can see numerous ice floes caught on the edge, and even some entering the river mouth proper. This ice is news to some of the team who had not yet appreciated that the gravel they could see from the Lodge was in fact a glacier. On the far side of the first bridge is Rigor Mortis’ so named home made vehicle of a chap who came out here in the 1930s. It sits under a solid framed shelter. The local preservation of the artefact is impressive. We walk into McCarthy via the Museum (we later discover shortcuts through the bush) which used to be the local railway ‘station’. In fact some of the local railway is still visible, poking out from under trees and rubble, monuments still to the energy and effort of men who toiled in a hostile place achieving the most amazing feat of railway construction which I understand is held up as one of the most accomplished in all US railway building history. That is quite a claim but given the country we have driven through and the rivers we have crossed I’m inclined to agree. But equally impressive as its construction is its almost complete annilation. The splinters that remain I therefore find quite moving, fragments only as poignant memorials to the men who worked so hard through winter weather to build it. We wander past ‘The Potato’, a pub of sorts on our left and slightly out of town. Two hundred metres later and atop a slight rise is a small collection of front porched buildings on a dirt ‘Main Street’ which is the sum of this tiny town, population 29 in 2010.  Kennecott, further up the track and yet to be explored, was a dry town so McCarthy sprang up here 8km away, and as the booze and brothel centre of activity for the miners, all of whom were employed and accommodated further up the line, but only if they were single. Card sharps must have had a field day here. We drift around town, find ourselves down at McCarthy Creek, throw some stones, circle around ‘the block’ then wander back to our Kennecott River Lodge, all the while keeping an eye out for bears, hands never far from the pepper spray shoved into our pockets. It’s been another massive day.

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