Last Frontier Charm

McCarthy Alaska
Denali over water Photo by: Carol Gering

The Alaskan North can be full of harsh weather and serene beauty. In McCarthy, Alaska: Last Frontier Charm Pology Travel and World Culture writer Laura Stearns, shares her experiences as she hikes through this wild terrain and is captivated by its tranquil landscapes and small town culture

The antlers that decorate the exteriors of the houses in McCarthy, Alaska, are the color of old snow. They seem befitting in this town of whimsy and mining lore. Although it is mid-August, there is already a hint of perpetual winter, stacks of firewood and tarp-covered snowmobiles—a pervading sense that survival in these parts distills down to two character types: those who can cope with the brutal subzero temperatures and those who cannot.

Having endured the Hellgate Canyon winds in Missoula, Montana, for three years, but now the consummate Bay Area resident, I am unsure of which category I fall into when it comes to the measure of stamina. I want to believe that I would be unaffected by the tree-cracking cold and days of darkness, but I am not entirely sure.

There is nothing like the big city for art galleries and opera. Then too, I often crave the solitude and simplicity of small-town America, especially the kind that is available up here in the quintessential land of frontier freedom. For the moment, McCarthy’s ever-present Wrangell Mountains with their periglacial morains and streambeds, luminous in the distance, seem to be winning.

I am visiting Alaska on an eleven-day hiking odyssey in three of the state’s parks: Denali, the Kenai Peninsula, and Wrangell-St.Elias. We—our tour group of twelve plus one dangerously cute, mountain-man-next-door tour guide—have left our campground in the Tangle Lakes region to drive 210 miles southeast to the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias for our midtrip award: a two-night stay in McCarthy’s rustic, Ma Johnson’s hotel.

I have been anticipating this stopover ever since I took my first two-minute paid shower in a campground outside of Denali five days ago. The last leg of our day’s trek includes a 60-mile, kidney-bruising drive that begins on a gravel road outside the quaint town of Chitina (“Gateway to the Wrangell Mountains”) and ends at McCarthy’s pedestrian footbridge, the only access to town save a charter air taxi.

The gravel nightmare—its officially called the McCarthy Road—once served as a railroad track for the now defunct Copper River Northwestern Railway, which from 1911 to 1938, transported a staggering 220 million dollars worth of copper ore from the region. Any one who attempts to drive on McCarthy Road should expect to encounter railroad spikes, blind curves, and heavy washboarding.
Then too there are the occasional trucks hauling trailers, although there are plenty of signs prohibiting this activity. Foolhardy drivers try anyway, inevitably breaking wheel rims or reeking some other type of costly repair that leaves them stranded for hours.

McCarthy, Alaska: Last Frontier Charm

( this excerpt originally published on Pology Travel and World Culture)