Thursday, August 4, 2016

Look for Alaska: A Tiny Town with a Big Heart

Day #57

We are parked in Chitina in a tiny RV park that sits on a gravel lot. There are no laundry facilities or bathrooms. They don't even have a front office. You just drop money in an envelope and pick a spot. No frills camping. Jessica is reading a book about crazy Alaskan pioneers and the boys are feeding their new obsession, Pokemon. Not that 'Pokemon Go' stuff that is taking the world by storm. We
play that too but they really like the card game. We are having a relaxation day because sometimes we are just a family that lounges around in an RV all day. But that was certainly not the case yesterday. 

We spent the night in McCarthy last night. You may have seen the show "Edge of Alaska" on the Discovery Channel. If you have then you know about this town, though the locals all insist it's more of a dramatized reality that is sometimes guided by producers. I have never seen it so I just know what the locals told me. Anyhow, the town is really remote. If you started in Anchorage you would drive 150 miles to a tiny town called Glennallen. From there, you turn off the main highway and drive 65 miles along wavy, frost heaved concrete to the even tinier town of Chitina, that's where we dropped the RV. From there you drive 62 miles along a dirt road through America's largest national park until you reach a river. You park there and cross a foot bridge and walk (or bike in our case) one mile to the town of McCarthy. 

The town is technically in Wrangell St. Elias National Park. In fact, the townies and the Park Service sort of have some tension between them. It's easy to see why too. The locals have owned their land since the early 1900's then one day, back in the 80's, the NPS designated the vast wilderness surrounding them as a National Park. Suddenly the place where they hunted, hiked and snowmobiled was a well regulated piece of government property established for the purpose of conservation. Meanwhile, the park service employees were sent to work at this park that encapsulates a town of pissed off people. This tension plays a role in many of the towns controversies. 

If you travel another 5 miles past McCarthy you come to the reason why locals settled in this area, the town of Kennecott. Once the home of the most profitable Copper Mining operation in America, Kennecott was, at one time, the largest town in Alaska. The mining started around 1908 and ended abruptly on November 11, 1938, when the last train left town and never returned. Ask the locals, guides and historians why it shut down and they'll tell you the copper ran out. Or that the unions drove labor prices up and the price of copper plummeted. Or they might say the State of Alaska began crushing them with regulations and railroad restrictions in an effort to cash in for the state. I am guessing it was probably a perfect storm combining all of these factors. 

The history of these two towns is huge and fascinating. I could seriously go on all day about vandalizing NPS aircraft, mail day massacres and hippie communes but you probably have to get back to work or wash your car so I will stop there. 

We showed up to town with one mission: hike on a glacier. We had planned ahead a little. We made reservations at a hotel which turned out to be more like a Hostel with shared showers and bunk beds. We got free breakfast at the Saloon with our reservation so that was nice. Dining in Alaska is expensive and the further you go into the bush the crazier it gets (i.e. $19 for a burger and fries). We also had some trail food and water so we were able to skip a meal and just eat on the trail. 

One of the things we needed to get in town was crampons. You know, those spikes that ice climbers and glacier hikers strap to their shoes. We had heard some of the guide companies rent them so we took a chance. As it turns out, for liability reasons, all of the companies stopped renting them. So, we decided we would hike TO the glacier, check it out, maybe play around near the edge, and go home. Okay, great, where is the glacier? Just bike 5 miles uphill along this bumpy dirt road, then hike 2 miles and you'll be at the edge of the glacier.

...or hire a guide who drives you there, provides you with crampons and teaches you shit along the way. So we did that. It is NOT cheap to do it this way but we went to McCarthy to hike on a glacier dammit. 

The glacier was awesome. Breathtaking, once in a lifetime, holy-shit-I'm-hiking-on-a-glacier awesome. But the more time we spent in town the more drawn to the people, history and way-of-life we became. 

We spent a lot of time hanging around the saloon where the locals all sit on the porch and watch tourists. They all smoke cigarettes and carry props like books (Michener's "Alaska" was being passed around the local guides) or beer glasses. 

We hung out in front of the general store all afternoon and shared laughs with the store clerk. I was just telling him how incredible their fresh bread was when the town baker showed up. She gave me the recipe and told me her secrets. She got the technique from a baker in Italy. It's an herb focaccia bread and I am pumped to start making it. We learned the names of the dogs that live in town as they came to the store. Their masters would walk inside and they would instinctively stop at the door. There are probably 50 dogs in McCarthy and not a single dog leash. They just wander around, usually following their masters and always waiting outside the bar, store or restaurant. 

We ate lunch at the Potato, the town cafe, where the owners son, Max, invited Noah and Sam aboard his pirate ship, a fort that him and his dad constructed from pallets and other junk scraps. They played for a couple hours while Jessica and I bummed around town. Like the dogs, the kids are free range and don't have leashes. And the parents aren't worried about it. The way it should be, really. 

We made our way back to the car late this afternoon and as we rode off we waved to people that we had met. Some of them walking, some on 4 wheelers and bikes. It was weird to think that just 24 hours earlier we were biking in the other direction wondering just what the hell we were getting ourselves into. 

This side trip was sort of the Alaska finale for us. Tomorrow we head back to Tok. We will toss some pancakes and eat some Thai food for the last time. Then we will head across the border and back towards the lower 48. So we went out with a bang. This was easily one of the most bizarre and memorable experiences of my life and it will definitely be in the front of my mind when I think back to our summer in Alaska. 

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