National Park Number: 10 of 59
I’ve been to some amazing places. I’ve trekked through the Amazon and stood atop Alps and boated up and down the Norwegian Fjords. I’ve roasted a marshmallow over an active lava flow and showered in waterfalls and galloped a horse through the canyons of Petra. I haven’t been anywhere close to everywhere, but I’ve seen some stuff. And Wrangell-St. Elias is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.
There is an epic, untouched quality to this park that exists in few places on the planet. Being here, you get to see what much of the Earth looked like during the Pleistocene Era. The park is the biggest in the NPS system, larger than Switzerland and with higher mountains. It contains 9 of the 16 highest peaks in North America and has a single glacier larger than Rhode Island.
The St. Elias mountain range is the highest coastal range in the world. The Wrangell range contains some of the highest plug dome volcanoes in the world. The park has the largest concentration of glaciers anywhere on Earth.
It is impressive and it is completely, ridiculously gorgeous. And for the first several days we were in the area, we couldn’t appreciate any of it because all we could think about was bears.
I don’t know how much of this news makes it to the lower 48, but 2017 has been an exceptionally bad bear year. In the past 130 years, there have been 6 attacks by black bears in all of Alaska. In just the week before we set foot in this park, there were 2 attacks resulting in 2 deaths. Both times the bears were predatory, not acting defensively, and both times the victims were approached from behind.
This is all terrifying and made more so by the fact that we have two delicious-looking children to take around this state. I don’t even eat meat and I have wanted to eat my children on many occasions; it’s a mom-nivore thing. We take standard bear precautions—carry bear spray, make lots of noise while hiking (Graham is the best bear repellant imaginable. Boy is LOUD.)—and we’ve learned (and memorized verbatim and drilled and role played) what to do if we have an encounter. But aggressive predatory bears are another story—the rules no longer apply—so finding this all out had us spooked.
What got us obsessing over this bear stuff was our own encounter on the 4th of July. We were spending the night in a pull-off in Chitina near the lake; David was off taking pictures and I was making dinner in the bus, kids playing behind me, bus doors open to let in some air. I looked up from the stove and saw a black bear standing feet from me at the (open) doors of the bus, sniffing our dinner.
In order to close the doors, I had to walk toward the bear to the switch; I did it as quickly as I could and the noise of the doors closing made him jump back a bit, but he didn’t leave. Instead, he stalked around the bus for half an hour, sometimes wandering over to the bushes, but mostly sticking near us and our food. David made it back in the bus and then we weren’t quite sure what to do. It was a very small bear and we were safe inside the bus, so we just waited him out. After a while, a fisherman from across the road saw him and yelled a bit til the bear went back to the bushes; he stuck close by for another 10 minutes or so, then trotted off down the road.
We had not, up to this point, delved into bear issues and if we’d known then what we do now, we would have been more active about shooing the bear away. Clearly he was habituated and we weren’t doing enough to discourage him. His boldness combined with my Googling had me up most of the night, convinced we’re all going to get eaten in Alaska and wondering if we should just bag the whole thing and retreat to some bear-less place for the rest of our trip.
We discussed this with a park ranger in Chitina, right outside the park, who had a very “it’s your funeral” attitude about hiking anywhere in the entire state, so that didn’t help.
The day after that, we went to the main visitor center near Copper Center and talked to another ranger, who described the Chitina ranger as “a bit salty” and reassured us that aggressive bears are almost always found near cities, that both attacks were in the Anchorage area by habituated bears, that there had been no encounters in Wrangell and that normal bear precautions were perfectly adequate.
This one conversation did a pretty good job of quelling the horror bear scenarios playing in my head, and it was probably good for us to have a scare—we learned a whole bunch about bear safety and we’re better prepared now—but all the joy I got before from our random bear sightings is dead.
Better than us being dead, though.
After checking out the visitor center, we headed up to the Princess Lodge in Copper Center for a ranger walk. Most of the ranger programs put on by the park are held here, a hotel run by the cruise line, which makes them a little odd. Our ranger walk took us about 100 yards along the hotel grounds to look at a tree, an old fish wheel, and a view of the mountains. It wasn’t the most enlightening ranger program we’ve attended, though the view from the lodge is gorgeous.
We were in the area around Wrangell for several days before actually setting foot in the park. But Alaska is so vast and undeveloped that the whole state has the feeling of being set aside, saved so that people still have a place to go to experience wildness. Driving between Glennallen and Chitina, we saw this moose just off the road with her calves. I can’t imagine living in Alaska and having this kind of sighting as a normal occurrence. Incredible.
McCarthy is mostly unpaved, heavily washboarded, and stunningly picturesque. We drove it during the late afternoon on an overcast day, so the light was gloomy and grey, and combined with the remoteness of the area made the drive a tad creepy. We camped on the side of the road near mile 55 and were very happy to wake up to a sunny morning, not having been killed by axe murderers during the spooky night.
We made our way into McCarthy by bicycle and after checking out the very neat town, continued biking up the road to Kennicott. Bikes are a good way to go here; the road leads you steadily uphill for 5 miles to reach the Kennecott mines, one of the main centers of activity in the park. We, though, only biked a little over halfway before we realized we were going to miss the mine tour we’d planned for (because biking uphill while toting kids always takes longer than you want it to), so we turned around, coasted back to McCarthy and hopped on the shuttle.
Kennicott is a fascinating area historically, but also because so many of the National Parks and NPS areas are currently threatened by mining interests and in this park, it’s an actual mining site that is being preserved. (In case you’re interested in calling your representatives about public lands, know that 40 national park sites, including Grand Teton NP, Mesa Verde NP, Everglades NP, and several other National Parks are actively being considered for drilling and mining development right now. We are trying to think of ways to appeal to conservative lawmakers’ values in fighting to protect these places; it’s a tough fight because so many of them receive huge donations from the companies who want to develop. If you have any ideas about effective efforts here, please let us know!)
The view from Kennicott is amazing. It looks almost like the valley has been filled with mine tailings, but the piles of dirt filling the valley are actually the toe of Root Glacier. Just beneath the dirt you see here is ice, hundreds of feet thick. In some places, you can spot the ice where the dirt hasn’t fully covered it, giving a sense of the immensity of the glacier that runs through this valley.
Many of the mine buildings are open to the public and there’s a lot of good historical information available on signs and pamphlets for a DIY tour. We opted to dig a little deeper and take an official guided tour, which also gave us access to a few of the most impressive buildings at the site.
We learned a ton about copper mining and about the odd characters who ran the town. The whole operation started when two prospectors were checking out the area and saw on the hill a green field they thought might be a good spot for sheep grazing. When they took a closer look, they discovered that the green wasn’t grass, but malachite. Stephen Birch, a mining engineer backed by a conglomeration of wealthy East Coast families (such as the Guggenheims and Morgans) got ahold of the land and the Kennecott Copper operation was born.
At the beginning of the tour we climbed to the top of the 14-story concentration mill. During the years the mine was operational, this building was in constant production, 24 hours a day. Maybe because of the frenzied work pace, the building was expanded in nonsensical ways, with half floors and beams supporting nothing and doors leading nowhere. As we worked our way from the top floor to the bottom, we learned about all the ways the copper was extracted from the rock; the mine was extremely effective at getting as much copper out as possible, using buoyancy tests and ammonia leaching and lots of other clever processes.
After the concentration mill, our tour took us to the power house, the location of several massive furnaces that powered the town.
After the tour, we headed out to Root Glacier. We had to be back in McCarthy a few hours later for our flightseeing tour, so we were short on time and Margi and David headed back early to get memory cards and batteries so our camera would be ready for the epic flight. Graham and I kept hiking, racing to get to the glacier. But right before we reached the toe, I knew we’d miss our tour if we kept going even another minute; we turned around and ran back (literally ran) and barely made it to McCarthy in time. I was bummed we didn’t get to climb up on the glacier, which is about as easy of a glacier climb as you can get, but we did get awesome views and hiking one-on-one with Graham was a blast.
When planning our visit to Wrangell, we mostly shied away from the idea of flightseeing. Alaska’s parks are so expensive to visit since most of them are only accessible by plane, so we didn’t know if we could justify taking a flight that wasn’t “necessary” to actually getting into the park.
But we also kept reading about the insanely epic views of Wrangell from the air. It’s the biggest park in the NPS system and driving the McCarthy Road had allowed us to see only a tiny fraction. Even though it’s possible to drive into this park, it’s still not really easy to get to and we wanted to take advantage of being there and make the most of our visit.
I contacted Wrangell Mountain Air a week or so before we arrived to ask about the possibility of making a marketing video in exchange for a discounted flight. They agreed to partner with us and we worked out a deal the day we arrived in McCarthy so that we were able to do a tour. This route obviously isn’t available to anyone who visits the park, but in our position, it’s amazing when we can leverage our skills into experiences like this one.
And what an experience it was. Partnership with the company aside, this was hands-down one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. Wrangell-St. Elias is an incredible, vast, breathtaking place and there’s just no other way to experience many of its features than from the air. We took the 70-minute tour, and my jaw was on the floor of the plane the entire time. We saw loads of glaciers, ice falls, mile-high cliffs, braided rivers, Dall sheep, abandoned mine buildings and mile after mile of pristine boreal forest. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.
Bill, our pilot, was amazing and taught us all about the glaciers and ranges of the area.
If you are visiting Wrangell, our main piece of advice is to do a flightseeing tour. Save your pennies, sell some plasma, and get up in the air (or if you’re one of those non-road-dwellers who actually has money, just use your debit card). It is a mind-blowing experience. We heard from everyone we talked to that flightseeing in Alaska is the best in the world, and that flightseeing in Wrangell is the best in Alaska. It’s also, maybe because of its remoteness, one of the cheapest places to do it. If there’s any way you can make it happen, do it. We promise you won’t regret it.
We started our time at Wrangell scared stiff over bears and we’re still praying we won’t encounter one. But as we drove back to civilization on the McCarthy Road, still in awe over what we’d seen of the area from the air, we had a distinctly different feeling toward this place—wonder replaced wariness, our lungs loosened and we drove into the midnight twilight thanking the Universe for places like this and for days in which to explore them.