My brother David was a terrific host. He had suggested floating the Copper River. That morning he talked to each one of us, asking how disappointed we would be if we didn’t do it. He said he thought we could have a great trip. We could go to the Kennecott Copper Mine, drive the Denali Highway, take the bus through Denali Park.
The five of us visitors were clear that Dave had to make the decision. We were disappointed, but standing on the banks of the Chitina, watching the speed of the flow, feeling the unrelenting wind – the experience was daunting.
What we wouldn’t learn until we arrived in Anchorage a week later was that the wind didn’t die down, the Copper would rise by a foot overnight, the salmon couldn’t be seen in the rising glacier water, and most of the tourist and service fishing outfits would shut down for the week because of the tough conditions. We would have really been alone out there, in dangerous conditions.
So we loaded our gear, hugged the two Saras goodbye, watched them drive the pick-up with the raft, life jackets and extra gear back to Anchorage, and headed for the town of McCarthy in the center of the Wrangell. Elias National Park. When we turned away from the Chitina River, the wind died down.
It’s a 60-mile dirt road, no gas stations or groceries available. We stayed at a private campsite that night were the host hauled in his own water.
The road was originally a railway constructed to haul copper from the mill to Cordova at the mouth of the Copper River. Most of the rails and ties have been looted, but there’s still some evidence of that track – ties and spikes that create hazards.
The Kuskulana Bridge at mile 17 was constructed during the winter of 1910. There’s a state park sign describing its construction. It’s just a one-lane bridge and until five years ago it had no guardrails. It is 238 feet above the river, and even with rails, it’s a harrowing crossing.
Our campsite was at mile 60, the end of the road. But McCarthy and Kennecott were another 5 miles in. We hiked across a footbridge and waited for the shuttle to the copper mill. McCarthy looked to be a cute village; we didn’t stop there. And we didn’t take the mine tour or go to the museum. Instead, we sat on the hillside next to the mill and ate our lunch. It was gorgeous.
It turns out Dave had been one of the assessors years before, when the Park Service was evaluating whether to open the mine as a park. Back then there wasn’t a footbridge over the Kennecott River. There was a kind of hand-pumped trolley you hauled yourself across on. Dave teaches about national park land and management and he described how private owners were there before the Park Service and how Kennecott grew to be seen as state history and worth preserving.
Equally interesting and more spectacular was the glacier working like a conveyer belt to move thousands of tons of dirt and rock through the Wrangell Mountains. We hiked the five miles back to camp, visiting along the way with rangers and summer interns.