Winding down our two months of truck tripping through Alaska, we venture into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park (UNESCO World Heritage Site), the largest national park in the United States. Six Yellowstone National Parks could fit inside of it.
Just when you see a sight on the Alaskan road that blows your mind, and think that nothing could top it, you turn the corner and delve into a different ecosystem.
Spotting roadside wildlife like bears and moose boils down to a matter of luck, but it happens.
Running into Alaska’s unique characters along the way enhance the entire experience.
At the end of a 92-mile dead end gravel road, we park at a river and walk across a pedestrian bridge to the small town of McCarthy. Once the commerce center and a place to get a drink for the miners from the “dry” copper mining town of Kennecott eight miles away, the old buildings still stand. Quirky gift shops and other tourist support services now fill the old wooden buildings. Apparently, the saloon persists along with about 30 hearty, “unique” year-round residents, but we left before it opened.
We walk the road to Kennecott, very aware of the large amount of bear scat along the way. (Probably should have brought the bear spray). After clearing the forest, we come across what we believe, at first glance, was the carnage and destruction left behind of huge mine tailings.
Turns out it’s the Kennicott Glacier moraine. Moraines are accumulations of rocks and dirt that are on the surface of the glacier or have been pushed along by the glacier as it moves.
In this case, the ice is underneath, and it is one of the few glaciers that is growing rather than receding. Currently, it’s in a state of holding its own.
Copper was discovered here in 1900. The copper in the hills in Kennecott was of such high quality that it was worth building infrastructure in these harsh and remote conditions to mine it.
We set camp outside of McCarthy alongside a lake in the middle of nowhere. In Alaska, you can pull over and camp almost anywhere, free of charge.
While we sit lakeside by the fire, a truck pulls in behind mine. An elderly man with a long grey beard gets out holding a .30-06 shotgun, wearing belts of ammo like suspenders. No doubt one of the areas “unique” residents. He walks towards me with confidence and I figure he’s going to kick me off his property or something. The only weapon we have with us is bear pepper spray.
“Do you mind if my kids swim here for a little while?”
“No, not at all,” I respond. “We don’t own this spot.”
“I’m Bud.” We shake hands. He apologizes for not shaking Marilynn’s hand. “I don’t touch women outside of my family.”
About 12 children, dressed in traditional Amish clothing that covers most of their flesh, exit the truck and run for the water that was frozen not that long ago. Strange sight for us to witness young girls swimming in long skirts and hats, while boys swim in long sleeves and pants. One boy was dressed in shorts and I asked Bud why he wasn’t dressed like the others.
“He’s not one of mine,” Bud responds. “We don’t care about anybody else’s religion as long as they don’t care about ours.” He looks into my eyes. “You have a shotgun out here don’t you?”
“I don’t go anywhere without a shotgun.” He says. Then he explains that they live in traditional Amish manner, except for the Iron Horse. “A horse and buggy just won’t work in the Alaskan bush.” A Vietnam Vet, he married at age 56 and made 12 children. We wonder if “Papa Pilgrim” is reincarnated. “I built my house with plywood from all the old mining shacks.”
The children swim and laugh and play until their lips turn blue. They listen to Bud’s every command. Then his cell phone rings. It’s his wife. After they hang up, he yells to the kids, “Let’s go! Get in the truck and sit in the exact seat that you came out in.” The kids respond quietly, but I see that mama truly runs the show, just like most families. “Don’t you dare cough in front of your mother. I’ll be in trouble if you catch cold.”
Meanwhile, we can’t bring ourselves to leave this beautiful spot. Guess we will chill-out lakeside next to the fire for one more night. What a privilege to travel without strict timelines. Thank you, Abundant Universe.