Valdez to Chitna, AK
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Overcast, 54 in am, high 70 and beautiful later
Today’s drive followed the Richardson and the Edgerton Highways and McCarthy road. We drove to the end of the paved road at Chitna. There we left the camper for the day at a riverside campground beside the Copper River.
The Copper River is probably the only place we’ll get to see fish wheels in operation that actually catch fish for consumption. We could see, perhaps, twenty of them in operation near the bridge at Chitna. Fish wheels are devices that trap fish, usually salmon, in large baskets and, rotating by water power, rotate the basket up, dumping the catch into holding boxes. The fisherman has simply to anchor the fish wheel near the river bank and stop by periodically to remove the catch. Fish wheels are permitted in Alaska only on the Copper and Yukon rivers.
We then proceeded to drive the 60-mile gravel road to McCarthy. The road was in pretty good shape and we averaged about 40 mph; better than we figured we’d be able to do. The road ends at a foot bridge. We walked across the bridge and paid for the shuttle van that would take us through nearby McCarthy and to the Kennecott copper mine, five miles up the road.
By the way, you’ll see Kennecott also spelled Kennicott. The former refers to the mining company and was a spelling error made when the company was formed. So Kennecott refers to the company while Kennicott refers to the glacier and other geographical references.
The Kennecott story is widely known. The buildings that were part of the initial venture of the company are now a National Historical Landmark. Major restoration is underway to stabilize many of the buildings on the site. Others are too far gone and will be allowed to deteriorate. Still others will be rebuilt for commercial purposes.
The well-known, red, main mill and concentrator building is 14 stories tall, climbing up the mountainside. Ore was transported to the building by trams from several mines set higher on the mountain. The mining company provided facilities right on site for almost everything mostly single, male mine workers needed. That included housing, meals and wholesome entertainment. Other notable buildings included the power plant, recreation building, main offices and dormitories. We walked around the site, touring a couple of buildings, though many are closed due to reconstruction that is underway. It’s a really neat place.
Dominating the landscape is a huge, black glacier. It’s the Kennicott Glacier and it is covered with black rocks glacial till that litters its surface. The glacier is melting and was about 300 feet thicker at the time the mine was constructed in the early 1900s. The surface of the glacier is hilly. This is due to the fact that areas where rock cover is thinner melt faster. We walked the four-mile trail that leads up to the area where the Root Glacier meets the Kennicott Glacier. The contrast between the two glaciers is striking because the Root Glacier is white on top. The day was warm and sunny and we found ourselves over-dressed for parts of the walk that were in the sun.
Back at the mine area we also toured the Kennecott Glacier Lodge. The building had to be rebuilt in 1980s after it burned down. It’s a large, old-fashioned, cozy kind of place. The walls are covered with an impressive collection of memorabilia that adds to the cozy feeling.
The small settlement of McCarthy was built by other interests to provide the kinds of not-so-wholesome entertainment, like bars and brothels, that were not available near the mine. The settlement now houses a couple of tour companies, a restaurant and a small museum in restored buildings scattered in the woods. We’d intended to spend an hour or two there but where did the day go? They closed at 7:00 pm, just about the time we came back on the shuttle.
So we crossed the bridge and got back in the car for the two-plus hour drive back to the camper. Arriving back just after 9:00 pm, we found we were completely alone on a desolate and very windy riverbank. We decided to move the camper into Chitna and the Wrangell View RV park. It was very basic but did the job. However, it was 10:00 pm by the time we got set up. Therefore, dinner, if you want to call it that, was veggies and humus and sweet cherries; directly from the pages of Bon Appétit!