Celebrating One Hundredth Anniversary of our National Parks

August 25th was the 100th anniversary of our National Parks system, and since visiting them has been one of the best parts of our new life, we wanted to do something special to celebrate them.  So we changed our days off so we would be available, and weeks ago I had planned to complete the Wrangell-St. Elias trifecta and visit Nabesna Road Wrangell-St. Elias is not like most of the other National parks because it is difficult to access.  The park is absolutely huge (larger than Switzerland) and can only be accessed a few ways.  The easiest is to visit the main visitor’s center, get your book stamped, and watch the movie.  From there you can take a short hike that leads to an overlook of the park.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach (I have recommended it to many people this summer) and I did exactly that when Jim and Barb came to visit.  Here’s the post from that day if you are interested, and I really do recommend the movie, it was a good one.  

The second way to access the park is via an unpaved road past Chitina where you can go and see the Kennecott Mine. This is much more complicated, and requires some planning, plus a very long drive on a 62 mile unpaved road.  You can stop and turn around much earlier of course, but if you would like to experience the entire trip here is my blog post explaining how we did it.  

The third way, however, we had not done yet, and that was to travel the Nabesna road.  This road is off of the Tok cut-off and when we passed it coming into Glennallen I knew I wanted to go back.  I had been saving this experience for today because I though it would be the least crowded of the National Parks in my area.  Well, that was absolutely the case, in no small part because it was unfortunately raining the entire day.  We take drives in the rain and generally have some luck with rain breaks, but not today.  It poured almost the entire way and was actually worse when we got into the park.

I have to say at this point that my husband really loves me. Driving the Tok-cutoff, which is still pretty torn up even though they have been working on it all summer, is not fun, and then driving down a muddy road after that was not much better.  Still, he knew how important this was to me and was totally game.

One of the best parts of the day was the small visitor’s center at the beginning of the road.  It was a tiny one, with minimal staff, but I really liked it.  Tiffany was on duty and she was great.  She shared with us that she had moved to the area when she was 7 years old with her parents who took advantage of one of the last homesteading opportunities in the US.  It was even more impressive when we learned that of the 400 claims that had originally been staked in 1984, only 50 people were left.  Not only had her family succeeded where so many others had failed (-60 degree temps and poor farmland were the major cause), but she had grown up to work in our parks service,  very cool.  I liked the visitors center so much that I splurged and bought a T-Shirt there.  The design was made by local natives and I really liked it, plus Tiffany gave us a free CD that we could listen to in the truck while we were driving the road.

Got our sign!!

Got our sign picture

Small store

Small store

Here's Tiffany...she was really helpful

Here’s Tiffany…she was really helpful

So off we went, with some warnings as to which point 4-wheel drive was recommended, listening to the CD as we went. It was a very interesting CD, but we had to laugh when they talked about the views, since by this time it was really raining and we couldn’t see anything.  Lee was a trooper though, and we continued on despite the road getting worse and worse.

The road before it got really bad

The road before it got really bad

There were mountains behind those clouds just couldn't see them

Here’s a peek of what I am sure were beautiful mountains we were supposed to be seeing

Wanted to show the mud

Wanted to show the mud 🙂

The road was practically deserted though, and I was hoping we would see animals, but it is active moose season and the park allows subsistence hunting.  So we didn’t see any mammals of any kind, but we did get to see two new birds which was really cool.

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock Ptarmigan along the road

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Close up

A huge Tundra Swan

A huge Tundra Swan

As you can see, it was raining, so the rest of my pictures I actually had to take with an umbrella over me,  and because we were getting worried about the condition of the road we only went down to MM 21 (the road goes 42 miles) and saw the campground and then turned around.  The Kendesnii campground was really nice, and if we ever come back to Alaska in a smaller rig I would love to stay there.  It sat on two lakes and had a really nice walking path along them which I went a short ways on to get a few pictures.  There was a family of trumpeter swans on the lakes and I bet it is absolutely stunning when there are mountain views.

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On the way back the rain even slowed a bit and we got a break in the clouds to catch a glimpse of the surrounding mountains.

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So it wasn’t the perfect day, but that’s alright because it was wild and vast even in the rain, and I have definitely put it on my list of places to come back to on a clear day.  The most important thing was that we were together and in a National Park on the anniversary and that in and of itself made it special.  I can’t even imagine taking a Thursday off to visit a park in my old life.

Oh, and of course Friday was a beautifully sunny day and we had to work.  Ah well, sometimes that’s just the way things shake out.


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First Time at Kennecott Mine

One of the many day trips I had scheduled was Kennicott Mine.  To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much.  I knew it was a long drive on a poorly maintained road, and mines in general are really not my thing.  Still since so many of our guests take this day trip from the campground I wanted to give it a try so I could give my honest opinion about it, and since it was an overcast day it seemed like a good choice.  Overall I was pleasantly surprised, not in small part because my expectations were so low.  I wouldn’t rush to do it again, but it ended up being a three-moose-sighting day and that’s never a bad thing!

Instead of taking Richardson Hwy all the way down to Edgerton Hwy we decided to take Old Edgerton Hwy instead.  The road was rougher and mostly woods, but along the way we did pass this family graveyard and I stopped to take a couple of pictures.  Many of the cemeteries here follow the Russian tradition which is a reminder of the impact that Russians have had on the culture up here.  Next to the cemetery are the ruins of a log cabin, but the graves themselves were obviously tended.  Perhaps the descendants decided to move a little closer into town.

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The Bell Family cemetery

Once we entered the new Edgerton highway (at Kenney Lake) the drive was the same as previously covered in the post First Time at Liberty Falls and Chitina  with the notable exception of a native gift store that we stopped at this time along the way.  This little store wasn’t open the last time we came through, and it was so worth the stop.  There is a sign along the road right before the yak farm (yes that’s how we give directions out here in Alaska lol) and it was not only native owned, but contained some absolutely beautiful pieces of art.  The owner of Tonsina Native Arts and Crafts also had a small case of historical items at the store,  and really it was everything I had been hoping to find in a store.  I ended up buying something for one of my nephews but there were many beautiful pieces I wish I could have been able to afford. They also had a basket full of pieces of moose horn priced from $22 -$35.  Many people want a piece of moose horn to use in a craft or take back with them, and this is the first place I have seen the raw material for sale. 

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These spirit masks were absolutely beautiful and this one was priced at $90 which I felt was reasonable for the amount of effort and materials that had gone into it.  I would have loved to have bought it, but simply have no where to put something like this.  DeDe if you want it …I’ll be happy to go back and pick it up for you!!

 

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The hand made beaver caps were extremely well made and the beaver gloves (on top shelf to the left) were so beautiful and soft. At $350 -$300 an item it was steep, but again I thought those prices were fair, considering they are hand made and are incredibly warm.

 

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They also sold the furs and the black coat was made in the “traditional” style.

 

I could have spent more time in there, but Lee was getting a little restless, so on we went towards Chitina.  This time we saw a moose right outside of town before we got there and we got a few shots of her as she crossed the road.

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We didn’t linger in Chitina, but headed straight for McCarthy Road, which is right across the long bridge.  The road has tons of warning signs, is completely torn up, and made us hesitate a bit before driving up it.  After the first couple of miles though it was much better and it was obvious someone had graded the road through that section.  I am not sure why they didn’t complete the job all the way down to Chitina but I am guessing they are actually trying to deter motorists from using this road.  I had read that there were several small lakes between MM 12 -16 and a guest had told me he saw a moose there.  We were not disappointed as we got to see our first bull moose who is growing his horns.  He couldn’t have cared less about us, and since he was across the road, Lee got several beautiful pics of him feeding.  So far the day was definitely exceeding expectations!

My favorite beaver dam so far

My favorite beaver dam so far

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After the moose the road was still relatively decent until we reached the huge trestle bridge at Mile 27.  The bridge is absolutely beautiful and there is a large pullout which we used to take some photos and eat lunch.   The moose and the bridge were absolutely great, and I definitely recommend the first 27 miles of the road.  That being said, if you just wanted a short day trip you could absolutely cross the bridge and turn around on the other side, because the road from that point gets significantly rougher.  Not 4-wheel drive rough, but 20 mph rough, which is why a 62 mile drive takes at least 2 hours. A lot of people also just like to park on the near side of the bridge and then walk across and then back again. It’s not for the faint of heart, while it’s a very sturdy and solid, well made bridge, it’s also just barely wide enough for a single vehicle, and although there’s a low guard rail, there’s no waist high railing. And it’s very, very, very high, and long, with a raging river at the bottom in the gorge.

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Stopped on the bridge real quick to take this pic

Stopped on the bridge real quick to take this pic

Next up was an abandoned trestle bridge near a narrow but fast flowing river.  This one was really cool, as it reminded me of roller coaster tracks and Lee and I took several shots.  Couldn’t help but go black and white on a few of them as it gives the feel of it.

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Lee's shot

Lee’s shot

Lee's shot

Lee’s shot

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The next section was unfortunately the worst piece of road so far and not much great to look at.  There was a long lake at one point with a beautiful vista but largely it was just trees and no animal sightings.

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Finally we made it to the end of the road and this is where it gets a little strange.  There is a foot bridge across the Kennecott River that you walk over to get a shuttle ($5 each way per person).  The shuttle runs every half hour and first stops at McCarthy and then at the Kennecott Mine.  You can walk to McCarthy and pick up the shuttle there (3/4 of a mile) but I wouldn’t recommend it.  The road was muddy and congested with cars, bikes, people, and 4 wheelers.  We learned later there is a private bridge that businesses and locals can purchase passage on, but the costs runs as high as $500 a season to use that bridge so most people working there for the summer leave their cars on the other side.  We parked in the visitors center (which was almost full) and then walked to the pedestrian bridge. It’s a pretty terrible system, but the roads are so bad it takes each shuttle just under an an hour to make the round trip drive from the bridge, to McCarthy, to Kennecott and back (which is right around 12 miles, round trip) and honestly I’m not sure how else they could do it.  The foot bridge was cool though, with a great view of both the Root and Kennecott Glaciers.

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Root Glacier

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Kennecott River

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Kennecutt Glacier

McCarthy though was really disappointing for me and in the end we didn’t even get off the bus.  The roads are mud and the buildings were ramshackle, probably because the place started out as a saloon/brothel town for the mine.  Historically restored building isn’t that impressive when the original building wasn’t that great.  Still, lots of young people found it interesting, and there were tons of hikers in and out of the place.  We kept going though and finally made it to Kennecott in time to take the 3:30 tour.

I wasn’t really planning on taking the tour since it was $27 a piece and walking the town itself was free, but Lee in an uncustomary fashion put his foot down and said “I didn’t drive all that way to not do the thing.”  OK then, we are taking the tour.  I briefly considering passing, but the town isn’t large enough to keep me entertained for the two hours, so off we went on the tour, both of us feeling a little cranky about the whole thing.  In the end I am glad we took the tour as that is the only way you can get inside the 14 story tall refinery building, and it was more interesting than I thought it would be.

Our tour guide was Nells and this was obviously not his calling.  Sweet guy, but pretty dry.  Later we found out he was a geologist who previously worked for a start-up geotech company.  Once I understood he was a scientist I was a little more forgiving.  He knew all the stuff about the rocks though which was neat.

Nells

Nells.  Behind him if the gravel left behind as the glaciers have receded.  There was miles of that.

 

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What remains of the old dam which is obviously no longer needed because no glacier

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Here's an historical picture from 1919 that shows how the glacier was bvery tlal and came right up to the town

Here’s an historical picture from 1919 that shows how the glacier was very tall and came right up to the town

After the introduction we wandered through the town seeing the supporting buildings (some have been restored and others have not) and heard a little of its history.  The town was abandoned after the initial rich ore strikes were played out and sat empty for many years until in the 70’s an enterprising bush pilot starting conducting informal tours there.  When the company who owned it found out they sent a man to burn it to the ground, but he ended up stripping it of valuables and largely left it standing instead.  Finally, the Kennecott Mine company (which still exists today) donated it to the National Park Service and luckily for us they understood it’s significance.  They hired a concessionaire to run the doors and have slowly been restoring buildings with the profits.

The ore processing building

The ore processing building

Although all workers were single men the management team was allowed to have families there and

Although all workers were single men the management team was allowed to have families there and this was the children’s schoolhouse

One of the men's dormitories

One of the men’s bunkhouses

Remains of the hospital on the left and another dormitory on the right

Remains of the hospital on the left and another bunkhouse (being repaired) on the right

We didn’t tour the all of the buildings, but we did go into the managers office which Lee and several others on the tour liked.  They found what looked like a passage to get into the ore refinery (although it was closed off) and a really old safe.  Since they had to remove everything by train they only took what was cost effective to take, so most of the machinery was left behind.  And speaking of the train, it cost 100 million dollars in 1909 to build the train tracks from Cordova, but they ended up making a profit of 200 million which is billions in today’s currency.

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Took me forever to get this picture with no people in it 🙂

Managers House

Managers House

Old Safe

Old Safe

To start the processing tour we had to walk up a pretty narrow trail and a steep hill.  There were plenty of breaks along the way, but keep this in mind if you plan on doing the tour.  Also, there is large vegetation along that path that looks like huge Queen Anne’s Lace that we were warned would cause blisters if we touched it.  I kept my hands in my pockets.

Path to the top of the refinery

Path to the top of the refinery

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These plants were about as tall as I am

The climb was worth it though as we had really spectacular views of both glaciers and the town below.  The National Park has reinforced the main walkway but you have to wear a hard hat when going through the building.  You start on the 11th floor and then walk down 10 flights of very narrow stairs.  The building isn’t heated either, and most of the windows are gone, so it can get quite chilly.  Definitely wear a jacket.

The top of the ore processing plant

The top of the ore processing plant

This was to the left of the walkway a little scary

This was to the left of the walkway a little scary.  The thick cables are where the ore came in from the mines in the hills above

The walkway

The walkway

Cool view down on the town

Cool view down on the town

We followed the processing process as we went down each floor which was actually pretty interesting. This is where Nells’ geological knowledge really came in handy and I ended up finding the tour interesting.  Lee loved it.

The initial sorting machine

The initial sorting machine

These straps were two stories tall and were wrapped to help stop them from coming off

These straps were two stories tall and were twisted to help stop them from coming off

There were three floors of these shaker machines

There were three floors of these shaker machines, for scale, each one is about 5 feet wide and 30 feet long.

The size of the machinery was amazing

The size of the machinery was amazing

To give you some scale

To give you some scale

The power plant was next door and the furnaces were still in pretty amazing condition. According to some local experts this plant could be up and running again with minimal effort

The power plant was next door and the furnaces were still in pretty amazing condition. According to some local experts this plant could be up and running again with minimal effort. Each one of these furnaces was about 25 feet on a side and around 18 feet tall.

The furnaces were made in Erie, Penn

The furnaces were made in Erie, Penn

After the tour we were starving, but we also needed to make the next shuttle, so we grabbed some food at a food truck, the Meatza Wagon (which was really quite good), and barely made it to the van in time.  It was 6pm at this point and there were twice as many people as there was van space, but luckily we got in the first one while others had to wait 20 minutes until a supplemental van arrived. Then it was back to McCarthy and then back to the footbridge and the walk to the car then the loooong drive back.  We didn’t get home until 10pm and although I enjoyed the day I will say we could have gone as far as the trestle bridge at Mile 27 then turned around and I would have been just fine. We were lucky enough to see Moose #3 on the way home though right outside the ranger station in Chitina where we think we saw the same moose the last time we came through.  This one is pretty chill and I had lots of time to take some pics.  A three moose day is never a bad thing though and I am very glad we did it so I can help our guests when they are planning a trip to the area.

 

Food Truck. We had pork carnitas which were very good

Food Truck. We had pork carnitas which were very good

Loved the chefs sign

Loved the chefs sign

On a side note, Lee took tons of video in the refinery but has not  had a change to put it together for me.  We have been having some issues with the local help showing up for work this week and he’s had to work some overtime.  If he gets it done in future though I’ll mention it in that post and link it back here as well.  Lee says it takes longer to edit than write!  

Moose #3

Moose #3

She posed for me

She posed for me

 


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