McCarthy, Kennecott, Root Glacier

Like countless school children before me, I blame it on the dog. Our poor pet sitter planning forced us to back out of a float down the glacial fed Matanuska, with plans to camp along various gravel bars over Labor Day weekend. So we scoured the bucket list for a three day camping trip that sent us northward, away from the smoke of the Swan Lake fire ravaging the Kenai Peninsula. We hit on Root Glacier via Kennecott Mines via McCarthy.

Root is this easily accessible, relatively safe glacier. Glacial travel is dangerous for sure, and there are always inherent risks, I mean you’re traveling on a creaking river of ice knifed through with gaping crevasses. That said, I’ve always wanted to get the kids up on one.

The toe of the glacier is where the ancient ice gives ground to land or water, so often getting up onto these ice rivers can be quite treacherous. Root is a wonderful exception. Gravel moraine molds gracefully into ice, forming a ramp, so you literally walk out onto the ice.

The glacier was dotted with people as we approached the ramp to Root. You are trekking next to debri strewn glacier for a while before you come to the clean, blue ice. Root Glacier meets up with Kennicott Glacier on the other side of the small butte below and from there on they become one.

There were all sorts of things to explore once on the ice.

Pools whose depths required measuring,

Evidence of heat absorption differences by color,

Streams to leap over,

And from which to collect and sip—so smooth and cold!

Ridges and hills to climb,

And goats…?

Back to blaming the dog. He’s a very good, old husky. At 13 years, we attribute his great condition to his years as a sled dog (Iditarod finisher in 2009!). When our float plans fell through because we didn’t want to stuff him in the raft, we called up a friend who had been to McCarthy and asked about dogs and shuttles, received a verbal thumbs up and packed the car.

You can’t go to McCarthy by accident. At 230 miles from Anchorage, 60 of which gleefully try to put a hole through your tires with old rail spikes or trestle stumps, the trip is a commitment and like a lot of roads in Alaska, dead ends at the destination. After the five hour drive to McCarthy Road, you begin down it—a gravel, often washboard trek over what is actually the old train track bed, once used to haul hundreds of millions of dollars worth of copper out of the Alaskan wilderness. Some of the views along the way are spectacular.

If you stopped in Chitina and waited for the ranger to finish her lunch at the hotel restaurant, like we did, then you might of grabbed a free cd copy of the McCarthy Road audio tour. This is a splendid way to tune out squabbling children and pay attention to the drive. There are some incredible bridges.

Like the Kuskulana Bridge built in 1910 that the tour cues you to climb on.

It is a nice break for the legs and heart stopping for everyone concerned (it soars over 200 feet above the Kuskulana River). Another bridge whose story enthralled me was knocked down each year by the spring breakup, as ice washed down the river. So workers eventually figured out they had to pull up the rails before the thaw, see what was left of the bridge after, repair it, then lay the rails back down. EVERY YEAR.

Around the time you figure out the washboard sections are less jarring if you speed up, the road comes to an abrupt end at Kennicott River and tapers to a footbridge. Alright, there were four wheelers waiting until the bridge cleared of people before they darted across, but cars can’t traverse over. Makes you wonder how the shuttles got there in the first place.

We convened on the other side with another good sized group and after tallying the numbers plus backpacks plus dogs, decided not to wait for a shuttle but instead to hike the mile or so to the town of McCarthy.

What is a string of buildings from the 20’s along a dirt road is McCarthy. Kennecott had been the dry, stringent working town while McCarthy, its wild sister. There are some really neat restored buildings here housing modern businesses, restaurants, a hotel and old brothel, shuttle and tour services.

It was in McCarthy at the shuttle station that I got back to blaming the dog. We realized our information was old and the shuttle no longer allows canines aboard. We had planned to camp at Root Glacier, but once deflated, decided it was instead time for an early dinner. We got iffy directions on a place to camp a mile out of town (near the lake and containing a bear box) and a tentative alternate shuttle option for the dogs: “a guy’s number who might be willing to take your dogs and you up to Kennecott tomorrow. Sometimes he’s available—when he answers.” It is another 5ish miles up to Kennecott and we planned on legging it out to Root after an explore, so a morning shuttle sounded real nice.

So again with the dog’s fault (i.e. our poor planning). We eventually found the camping spot after a few million digressions into the woods on random paths, and got a hold of the dog shuttle guy, scheduling a pick up in the morning.

The dads and dogs took a pickup up to Kennecott the next morning while the moms and kids made for McCarthy’s shuttle office and squeezed aboard.

The Labor Day crowd was really pushing McCarthy to its limits this year, the shuttle driver told us wearily.

Because we were now down to just one full day, we had to cram Kennecott in with the glacier hike. As this turned out to be an exploratory trip—we really want to come back, I mentally noted that we definitely need a day to do each.

We meandered through, filling our pockets with green rocks (oxidized copper).

The fourteen story mill building is only accessible by paid tour, and I don’t know how much longer it will be available as the park is out of restoration money. They have repaired as much as they can, so the tour is definitely going on our refined bucket list.

Looking out over this glacier covered in the rock it has scraped from the mountainsides as it slides through the centuries, it is easy to see the copper mill and glacier are bound together by the passage of time, the mine tailings and crumpling structures mingle into gravel drug from miles and years past.

I would say that about a third of the structures have been restored for visitors to explore.

There are plenty of buildings such as the one below that the park does not allow you in as they can restore it no further.

And plenty that the park just has to let slide back into dust. In the picture below, the buildings to the right are rotten inside but have been re-roofed and freshly painted to give them a few extra years, while the buildings to the left have been forsaken.

On our way back from Root, we ran into a few outliers we’d missed and were able to help shut up shop.

Buildings are locked at 5pm sharp.

We caught the last shuttle down while the dogs got taxied back, and we tucked in right before the rains came. It rained cats and dogs all night long, but there’s nothing quite like being in a tent during a rain storm, with your dog. Here’s to poor planning and absent dog sitters.

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