McCarthy: The Road, The Town, and the Cabin

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7/21/19  Blackburn Cabin ‘Dora Keen’, McCarthy, Alaska

And what about that road that we had been prepping for the entire trip?  If you recall, the McCarthy Road has been, all by itself, a major factor in planning this portion of the trip.  Really, if you want to see Wrangell – St. Elias, you have to do it by air (to appreciate its immensity), but also on land if you want to experience more intimacy with the Mother Nature found here.  And there are really just two options by road, the Nabesna and the McCarthy Roads.  Both take you to inactive mine sites which, culturally, are the only reason these towns were started in the first place.  We did the Nabesna Road a couple days ago and managed to totally ruin a tire.  That caused a flurry of activity to get replacements, which we managed, without impacting the rest of our trip.  Because you definitely do not want to attempt either of these roads without good tires and a spare.  (In fact, we passed one group on the side of McCarthy Road and they were, in fact, changing a tire!)

Both of these roads are on the ‘Do Not Travel’ list of all the major car rental companies in Alaska – they do not want to have to come rescue their vehicle so they prohibit travel on gravel roads period.  We ended up renting a rent-a-wreck from A1 Rentals in Anchorage.  Stan, the owner/manager, really doesn’t care where you drive his wrecks and, I have to say, he has been more than gracious in at least promising to fully reimburse me on all of our expenses on HIS truck.  We shall see if he makes good on his promises, but I have a pretty good feeling he will.  With the two new tires on the rear wheels, and the alternator from earlier, he now owes us about $600…

Despite our experience on Nabesna, we decided we weren’t going to change our trip plan over some silly flat tires.  While the mechanic at the filling station replaced our tires, we went across the street and stocked up on a few groceries – we knew that McCarthy was going to be a place where we were going to be doing some of our own cooking.  And we were kind of looking forward to the change of pace.  

Once the tires were paid for and the groceries loaded into the truck, we began the trek to McCarthy.  From Copper Center, where we spent the night, it is 112 miles to McCarthy; from Glenallen where we were, it is an extra twelve miles.  The first half of the trip is all paved highway.  (Although ‘highway’ takes on a slightly different meaning here in Alaska as adjusting to permafrost conditions modifies the road somewhat; I’ll post on that later). You take Route 4 (towards Valdez) for several miles, and then follow the signs for Alaska Route 10, the Edgerton Highway – Alaskans don’t use numbers; they have so few highways they give them all names.  The road takes you through beautiful boreal forest which mostly rises up on both sides of the road, but occasionally breaks to give you spectacular views of mountains or rivers.  The road essentially parallels the Copper River all the way down to Chitina (the second ‘i’ isn’t pronounced, so it is a two syllable name.)

The sink inside the cabin.

It was after 1:00 by the time we reached Chitina, so we looked for a place to eat, but there wasn’t any so we continued on towards McCarthy.  Just outside Chitina there is an ominous sign, the road becomes rock and gravel, and it narrows to one lane as it enters a cut through a mountainside that is barely a car length wide.  They aren’t kidding – this is quite the road.  For about sixty miles, your maximum speed is about 30 and sometimes you have to slow down more than that, especially when you hit a patch of washboard and the rear of the truck starts swerving off the road as it bounces along.  There are plenty of places for spectacular views of either mountains or rivers, so the trip certainly isn’t boring.  But it is long, and rough,  and by the time you get to the McCarthy area, you are definitely frazzled.

The Communal Kitchen

You don’t actually get to drive into McCarthy.  Instead, you unload all your stuff at the nearest end of a foot bridge and then go park your vehicle.  You can park right there, but capitalism is alive and well here, so you will pay $10/day to park where it is most convenient.  If you go back down the road a quarter of a mile, you only pay $5.  And if you are willing to walk a full half-mile, you can actually park for free.  I decided on the quarter mile option, paid for five days, and walked the dusty and hot road back to the footbridge.

By the time I got there, Joan had already moved all our stuff across the bridge and loaded it into the waiting van for Blackburn Cabins, our lodging for our stay in McCarthy.  (You phone them once you arrive and they send the little van down to pick you up).  Then we were driven yet another mile and a half, past the town of McCarthy to our lodging, Blackburn Cabin #3.

I don’t think I was quite prepared for this – especially after some of our ‘finer lodges’.  The cabins are really quite roomy and the beds, while a little lumpy, are still very warm and we’ve been sleeping quite well.  They are decorated in a rustic style, with old fashioned knick-knacks on the window sills, and mismatched furniture throughout.  Our cabin was stocked with plenty of games and used paperbacks to peruse.

But the real fun begins with the electrical and plumbing systems.  The entire place is solar-powered, which is fine by me, since I live off the grid anyway.  At this time of year, anyway, where the sun never sets, there is solar energy all night long.  Our chauffeur told me they do have a battery system, but I haven’t seen it yet.  I suspect it might not be real beefy, though, because the only outlets available are USB charging ports for our devices.  I don’t see any standard receptacles to plug anything into.  So if you require something like a hair dryer, you apparently have to make special arrangements and connect to their Honda standby generator or something.  Fortunately, recharging our cell phones and iPads are all we need to do for a while.

And how about the plumbing?  There is a small sink inside the cabin and it runs water, although only cold water is available.  If you want hot water, they supply you with a propane burner and a hot water kettle, so you fill that up and heat it yourself.  

Notice the Pretty Flowers on the way to the Outhouse.

Of course, there is no toilet in the cabin.  Actually there is no toilet anywhere.  There IS an outhouse that you can reach with a short walk (the walk lengthens for us old folks at 2:00 AM) through the woods.  On approaching the outhouse, you are supposed to call out and wait for an answer.  If there is no answer you can proceed.  The outhouse is the classic kind with a standard toilet seat fastened to a wood board covering a deep and smelly hole.  There is no door on the outhouse, but rather a screen which keeps the flies out, but is totally see-through.  So while doing your thing, you also get to bond with nature.  Apparently the ‘septic system’ is a little fragile because there is a paper bag next to the wooden hole and you are requested to put all toilet paper in there, ‘not down the hole.’

The shower facilities aren’t much different.  There are two of them and the water runs through a flash heater with one control for temperature and one for pressure.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well as mine at home and we both found it difficult to adjust correctly- Joan’s shower was, shall we say, ‘refreshing’.  But it is kind of fun to shower looking up at towering spruce trees!

Fireweed and other Wildflowers.

Cooking is another public activity.  I suppose we could use the propane burner inside the cabin, but that would generate a pretty good mess that we would have to clean up.  So, instead, we use the communal ‘kitchen’ outside.  There is a propane gas grill with six burners plus a side ‘stove top’.  Surrounding it is a shelter of sorts and stuck on nails all around the grill are an assortment of pots and pans.  Basically, you pick what you need, bring your food out to the grill, cook it and either return to your cabin, or eat in the communal tent that has a table and four sections of tree trunks for chairs.  You are responsible for cleaning up your pots and pans, but it isn’t clear how often people do that – some of them look like they haven’t been cleaned in quite some time.  And the grill, well don’t look underneath or you will find all kinds of cobwebs.  Let’s say this is an interesting operation.

Part of the mile-long trail from our cabin to the town.

I mentioned that we brought food so we could avoid restaurant expenses somewhat.  That’s a good option, as long as you can use the public kitchen.  But nowhere is there any refrigerator.  Upon request, they will provide a used cooler, but the problem is ice.  They don’t have any ice, probably because that would require substantial power and they don’t have it.  So you have two options – you can hike down to McCarthy and buy some ice (at $5/small bag), and then cart it back to the cabin before it melts.  Given the Alaskan heat wave that is hitting up here, that is difficult to do, especially since it is about a mile each way to the town, and there is no shuttle service.  (You can borrow a bicycle which is moderately better.)

Or you can borrow the bicycle, or walk, the mile down to the TOE glacier, hack off some ice from the icebergs floating near shore on the glacial lake there, and then cart that back before it melts.  We’ve tried both options so far and the glacier one is more work, but is cheaper.  You lose about the same amount of ice to melting either way!  The trip to the glacier was actually a lot of fun and we have lots of spectacular pictures which I’ll share in a later post.

Half of the town of McCarthy

Finally, about this town of McCarthy.  This is one strange duck, and apparently always has been.  Because of its river location, it has long been a Native Athabaskan (probably Ahtna) camp ground.  With the discovery of substantial copper deposits at the Kennicott mine site (up the road a few miles), McCarthy took on the role of supporting the mining operation.  The Kennicott mine ended up extracting more than $200 million in copper ore, making it the richest copper deposit in the world.  McCarthy became a supply depot for the mining operation, including the availability of substantial amounts of alcohol and women for sale – it was a perfect model of a Wild West mining town.

They make some good drinks in here!

After the copper was depleted, McCarthy’s population dropped to almost zero.  Then, the Alaskan pipeline construction began and that propelled a resurgence in interest and economics of supporting the construction.  (In 1983, a deranged individual, upset at the pipeline, murdered six of McCarthy’s 22 residents, so it hasn’t been without conflict!). After the park was established, the economy shifted again and it now supports tourism of multiple flavors including flightsees, rafting trips, and all kinds of outdoor excursions.  It boasts three places to eat, and a saloon.  Prices are a little high, but it isn’t easy to get stuff here.  Currently, the full-time population is around 30 all of whom – according to a summer-time waitress – ‘are crazy!’

We’ve been here now two nights and, despite the difficulties of getting some basic things done, are enjoying the primitive experience.  Clearly, it is different than any of the other places we’ve been to, but as a home base for our explorations of Wrangell-St. Elias, it is tough to beat.