Wrangell-St. Elias Mountain Area, AK

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This page includes several places we stayed around and north of the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountain area. It felt very different leaving the seashore and got into the mountain. Most notably, the number of mosquitoes multiplied and so did their aggressiveness.

Alaska locals call mosquitoes their state bird : ) How appropriate. From late May to July, they are the King of the woods. Alaskan mosquitoes are big, mean, aggressive, persistent, and greedy. In this season, hunters often find old caribous drop dead in the forest because of losing too much blood to mosquitoes. Even the strongest insect repellents (100% DEET, strong enough to dissolve plastics) cannot drive them away completely. Here's the story: Qing and I were having an after-dinner walk in McCarthy, about 8pm. I was wearing a baseball cap, and suddenly I felt this intense itch on top of my head. By instinct I pat myself on the head, and see the picture, lied on my palm are four huge mosquitoes. I took off my cap and found one more bloody mosquito dead inside -- didn't know how it got in. So face your destiny: if you come to Alaska at this time, you will be bitten, one way or the other, no matter what you do.

 

The scenic Richardson Highway (Highway 4) is a very pleasant drive. So glad to see these graceful Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) again! And this is probably the last chance to see Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), since these fish-eating predators usually live near the seashore. In the last one is a Black-Bill Magpie (Pica hudsonia).

There're so many glaciers I won't even try to remember their names any more... Near Chitina, people use big flying wheels to catch the up stream coming salmon (1st row, last pic) -- something I've never seen before.

 

Flight into McCarthy. The small town McCarthy is connected to the outside world only by a 60-mile narrow one-lane gravel road, which is notorious for its condition. So we decided it's a good idea to fly to McCarthy instead of driving. This has to be the smallest airport or airstrip we've been to -- one wooden lodge and some half a dozen Cessna single propeller planes. But the flight was pleasant. Look at the patches of the tree, the darker areas are dying or dead trees attacked by the little beatles shown in the last pic. Somehow the Alaskan feel that it's nature at work and decided to stay out of this. So the plague is still spreading at this moment.

Take a look at the glaciers from the sky. Those beautiful colors in the ponds come from different minerals dissolved when the glacier melts.

 

McCarthy and Kennicott, AK. Talk about in the middle of nowhere, probably no place fits the bill better than McCarthy. Located in the heart of the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountain range, this town has only some 30 permanent residents. In the tourist season like now, there're a lot more people. Well, "a lot more" meaning another 60 or so : ), including someone like us, only staying for a couple of days. But don't get me wrong, I think this is a very neat place: surrounded by snowy mountains, glaciers; buildings feel like a century old; junks...well...maybe antiques, are everywhere. Trust me, these junk vehicles actually run. And don't worry about getting caught for missing a head lamp or licence plate. This is McCarthy, after all. Nobody pay their licence fee.

A walk outside of the town. Beautiful view of Root Glacier. A few Mallards and Butterflies. Dandelion in Alaska are huge, just like everything else.

Imagine a small town with less than 100 people and it's very difficult to get out, everyone has to learn a bit of everything to survive. That includes taking care of your own vehicles. For the visitors, since there're no auto parts store and mechanics, once your car is down, you leave it behind. So over the years, this local junk yard built up. Here we've got car models date back to the 60s. And free parts for the people too.

McCarthy and Kennicott is the left over of an old mining town. In its heyday, meaning 1911-38, there were over 800 residents, among which some 300 were copper miners. The town had grade school, hospital, dental office, saloon, dress shop, photography shop, two newspapers (no kidding), and even a whore house : p. Here in the Museum of McCarthy, you can still find trace of the prosperity of the old mining time. Guess what that strange equipment in the 3rd picture is? I would've never guess it right -- a laundry machine.

Kennicott, now almost a ghost town, was the original site of the Kennecott Copper Corporation. The Kennecott Ghost Building , now a World Heritage Site, used to be the mill house. This awe-inspiring 14-story building has extracted over $ 200 millions worth of ore during its 3 decades of operation, making it one of the richest copper mine in history.

Old mine buildings and facilities.

Trace of the now deserted old Copper River Northwestern Railway, where the ore were shipped out.

 

A Hike on Root Glacier! You didn't think that we came to McCarthy just to taste a hermit's life did you? McCarthy is actually one of the few places in Alaska you can have safe access to glaciers. So put on your crampon, let's take a walk on the beautiful Root Glacier. These dirt field may look like a construction site to you, that's the work of the glacier. Underneath the dirt and rocks is ice, which melts and gather into brooks. As we hiked up along the glacier, the dirt underneath our feet slowly turn into ice.

Here we are, the icy world of Root Glacier.

All kinds of ice features. Pin holes, bath tubs, brooks, valleys...

 

From Chitina to Delta Junction. The colorful range is called Rainbow mountain. Along the way is the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. A huge moose (Alces alces) was enjoying the grass. Look at the 2nd picture, his two eyes have different color : ) didn't know how I got that special effect.

 

A trip across the Arctic Circle. This trip is relatively dull compared to other Alaskan tours. We did that just for the sake of crossing the Arctic Circle. We first took a flight to Coldfoot camp, which got its name because many gold rushers were tortured by coldfoot in winter up here. From the sky we had great view of the Yukon River, the James Dalton Highway that goes all the way up to the Arctic ocean, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Wild fire is burning the spruce forest, but no fire fighter as long as it's a natural fire -- Alaskan always leave the nature alone.

We took a bus on our way back. Believe it or not, our tour guide said she is a professor in the Geology Department of University of Alaska at Fairbanks. It turns out that at the Arctic Circle is pretty damn hot, arguably the hottest place we've been in Alaska. That big rock in the 2nd pic is call Finger Mountain, and it is pointing toward the direction of Fairbanks. That's where we met a couple of brave motorcyclists heading their way north. We also stopped by a gift shop near Fairbanks. I laughed when I saw that "For Sale" sign in this Chevy Truck -- but maybe it's not meant to be a joke.

 

Trans-Alaska Pipeline. One of the longest pipeline system in the world. Finished in 1977, the pipeline spans 800 miles from the Arctic Ocean to Valdez. With 11 pump stations at work, it is capable of transporting up to 2 millions barrels of oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez daily. The pipeline is well engineered to withstand all kinds of harsh weather and natural disasters, such as earthquake or wild fire. Below are a collection of the pix I took along the way.

 

Northpole, AK. Bill itself "Home of America's Santa Claus." So it makes sense to have a gift shop call the Santa Claus House. From there you can send postcards around and they'll be postmarked "Northpole, Alaska." Cool eh? Santa Claus' house should keep a group of reindeers (Rangifer tarandus), but only two showed up.

 

 

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