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July 10, 2011 / Jim Fenton

Alaska Day 3: Copper Center to Kennecott

This article is part of a series about our recent vacation in Alaska.  To see the introductory article in the series, click here.

Our third day began on a relaxed note with breakfast at the Wilderness Lodge and a short hike around the grounds. We haven’t seen much in the way of wildlife, and are beginning to wish for a moose, bear, eagle, or something like that, but nothing yet.

Main Street, Chitina

Main Street, Chitina

We continued south on the Richardson Highway,  stopping to admire a couple of the many lakes along the way. We turned east on the Edgerton Highway toward Chitina (pronounced chit-na). About five miles before town, we stopped at Chitina Airport, where we were scheduled for an afternoon flight to McCarthy, inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. There was a runway here and some parked cars, but no buildings except for a storage building. We were told by some people that the staff from Wrangell Mountain Air, our carrier, would arrive later.

Continuing into Chitina, we stopped at the end of the paved road. It’s also possible to drive (almost) to McCarthy, but it is a long gravel road that causes many flat tires. By “almost” I mean that the road ends across the river from McCarthy, with only a footbridge to get to town. We had our picnic lunch in Chitina, which wasn’t quite as pleasant as yesterday because it was quite windy. We also walked around the town a bit.  The local “pay” phones don’t have a coin slot because local calls are free, but the local Wi-Fi service costs $8.95 a day so we didn’t try it out.

We returned to the airport and chatted with some of the dozen or so fellow travelers, speculating about what sort of plane would arrive to take the 20 or so of us to McCarthy. What did arrive was not a single plane but four, from Wrangell Mountain Air. The five in our party got our own plane, a Cessna piloted by a friendly and knowledgeable pilot named Ben. After loading the luggage into the back, we got in; I got the “co-pilot’s” seat, with a caution that the controls are live and that I shouldn’t step on the rudder pedals by mistake.

Our group with plane in McCarthy

Arrival at McCarthy Airport

Before we knew it, we were airborne. The flight to McCarthy took about 30 minutes, and Ben was an excellent tour guide in addition to being an excellent pilot, pointing out many sights below and answering our questions. The weather for the flight was generally rainy, but we managed to stay below the clouds. We took a pass over the Kennicott and Root glaciers, and got great views of them, before landing at McCarthy Airport.

Soon after we arrived, a shuttle van arrived to take us to the Kennicott Glacier Lodge. We didn’t get to see the small village of McCarthy, but went north on a bumpy road (much bumpier than the flight) to Kennecott. Kennecott is the site of a copper mill that operated from about 1910 to 1938, now designated as a National Historic Site.

The Kennicott Glacier Lodge is a charming building with a long porch looking out over the glacier. It was originally built in the 1910s, then rebuilt in a similar style after a 1983 fire. The rooms were small but comfortable, with shared bath facilities, and artifacts (invoices and other paperwork from the Kennecott Copper Company, old magazine ads, and small implements) all over the walls.

Observant readers may notice that I have used two spellings: Kennecott and Kennicott. The glacier and valley (and the lodge, which is named after the glacier) are Kennicott, but the copper company and the town are Kennecott.  The reasons for the spelling differences aren’t clear to me.

After arrival, we stopped at the National Park visitor’s center and took a tour through town, visiting several buildings, such as the power plant and the manager’s office, that were open to the public.

Dinners at the Lodge are prix fixe, served family-style, and somewhat pricy by normal standards but one has to remember that everything needs to be brought in a long distance. Tonight’s dinner was turkey with all the trimmings (except stuffing) and was excellent. After dinner one of the local guide firms gave a presentation on the tours available from them, ranging from the tour of the copper mill building to technical glacier climbs and mountaineering.

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