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Overfly Alaska

Wrangell-St. Elias is the largest National Park in America; at 13.2 million acres it is six times larger than Yellowstone and is the premiere mountain wilderness area on the continent. Over 100 major glaciers run from the four mountain ranges that meet here; it is home to the world’s largest non-polar icefield, and nine of the 16 highest peaks in the US can be seen from the park.

Situated in the south of Alaska, Wrangell-St Elias is a UNESCO world heritage site and offers some of the most diverse and breathtaking landscape in the US, if not the world.

McCarthy and Kennicott are two small Alaskan towns on the edge of the park that offer accommodation and tours to the handful of tourists that make the journey to this area. It takes almost three hours to reach McCarthy from the nearest small town of Chitna; a 60-mile long gravel road separates the two.

The Chitna to McCarthy road runs through the China River Valley, following the disused railway tracks that transported copper and workers from McCarthy during its mining peak in the early 1900s.  The road ends at a small glacial river; visitors, who do not wish to attempt the crossing in their vehicles, must take the footbridge and continue the last mile of their journey into McCarthy on foot.

The best way to appreciate the true scale and beauty of Wrangell-St Elias is from above. A small airstrip – which is mainly used to keep the residents of McCarthy and Kinnicott supplied with provisions from other towns – is just five miles from McCarthy and offers flight-seeing trips over the park and wilderness hiking in the interior.<–page–>

Wrangell Mountain Air offers these trips, as well as flights from Chitna; for those that don’t want to brave the gravel road. Charter flights to and from McCarthy are also available from many popular Alaskan destinations: Anchorage, Fairbanks, Valez, Cordova and Denali National Park.

Four trips are available over the icefield, ranging from 35 to 90 minutes, all offer stunning views of the glaciers and valleys, as well as the copper mines that made McCarthy and Kennicott the towns they are today.

Little more than a dirt track, the road to the airstrip is littered with potholes and bumps. The airfield is little better; a large gravel area filled with a few small planes and a large rusting fuel tank. Yet, with a backdrop of surrounding mountains the views are impressive before you even leave the ground.

Two Americans, Sandy and Bert, who were taking a year to travel around the US, joined me; Alaska was their last stop. ‘Saving the best to last’ Sandy told me. They were currently staying at Glacier Lodge in McCarthy; which they assured me was very comfortable. I was sleeping on rocks at the campsite at the end of the Chitna to McCarthy Road; the view from my tent- of the nearby glacier and mountains- was stunning.

Our pilot, Bill, introduced himself as he led us over to a small plane on the edge of the airfield. He gave us brief instructions on how to use our headsets: ‘If you need to speak: press the red button. You’ll always be able to hear me’ and safety: ‘The exits are here. Don’t open the door until I tell you or we could be in trouble’. After donning our headsets and buckling-up, Bill pressed a button on the control panel in front of him and the engines spluttered into life.

Heading down the runway, Bill told us a little about himself and the history of McCarthy, he had been flying around Alaska for years, and never tired of the views, or the long winters. Still talking, Bill pulled off the runway and over the surrounding trees. Our flight had begun.

The huge Kinnicott glacier was just in front of us as we flew above the Kinnocott mine; a huge red timber building spreading down the mountain towards the glacier. The mine closed in 1938 and has since been designated a National Historic Landmark. Bill occasionally runs tours in the mine and works on some of the restoration projects. It seems as if everyone in McCarthy (or any other Alaskan town come to that) does a little bit of everything.

The crystal blue Kennicott glacier ended at, what appeared to be a huge strip of earth; hundreds of meters wide and disappearing around the next hill. Bill told us that the murrain – the rocks and pebbles that collect on top of a glacier – has given it this appearance. In time, small bushes and shrubs, and even trees, may grow on top if a sufficient amount of nutrients are deposited.  But like everywhere in Alaska, the short summer mean that everything grows slowly. Later that day, I would walk on both these glaciers; on an ice-climbing trip that is run from the old power station in McCarthy.

With two small windows in the back of the plane, four to my side and the large window in the front of the plane, it was possible to get an almost 360 degree view of what was below, and occasionally, to the side of us.

The first half of the trip was spent flying over green valleys, which form only a small part of the park. Moose, with their young, could be seen running from rivers to the cover of  undergrowth, Dall Sheep were dotted across the tops of mountains and birds took to the air as the plane approached.

Wide glacial rivers trickled down the valley, meandering between rocks that were left as glaciers receded. Many of the rivers around Wrangell-St Elias offer excellent white-water rafting and, along with ice climbing, attract sports enthusiasts from all over the world.

As we turned steeply to fly up another valley, the vegetation began to die down; it was replaced with the grey and black colours of rock, spotted with light blue lakes that had been filled when the glacier nearby melted. Just meters from these lakes was the start of the Bagley icefield; the horizon was filled with the white and blue of ice and snow, potted with black and grey where the mountains peaked through or murrain ran across the top of glaciers.
From above, the crevasses and cracks in the ice below looked little more than ripples, but were deep enough to kill anyone that was unfortunate enough to walk into such a trap. People have often survived falls into glacial fissures, only to be crushed when the ice contracts a few hours later.  Bill assured me that the climbing I was doing later that day would have no such risks.

Bill continued his commentary: several of the mountains we were flying near reached almost 14,000 ft. Nine of the summits in the park are over 14, 500 feet and the highest, Mt St Elias, was over 18,000 feet; third highest on the continent.

We all stared below as we flew into another valley, in which a huge glacier stretched form one side of the horizon to the other, broken only by the mountains that supported other ice floes and glaciers, a black trail of murrain snaked its way across the frozen valley below.

We flew on past the ‘mile high cliffs’ and into a narrow valley. Cliffs and mountains seemed to surround the plane; looking above the wings only white peaks, against the deep blue sky, could be seen. Shortly after this, we began to see the return of plants and rivers, as the frozen mountains gave way to the lush valleys. The vegetation and rivers seemed all the more alive after what we had just seen.

Below, we could see a few of the small wilderness cabins that are totally cut off from the town, or any other area. ‘In the winter’ Bill told us, ‘those people won’t leave their home for months’. The towns of McCarthy and Kennicott become almost empty during the winter; the tourist season ends and the only road out of town become impassable for most of the season. Only a few residents brave the temperatures that regularly fall below –30, and with a snow fall to match many residents move to Anchorage, or other more accessible areas, to get through the winter.

Just before we landed at the McCarthy airfield I caught a glimpse of the campsite that I was calling home for the next few days. The town of McCarthy came into view soon after; one main street with just a few homes dotted away from the centre; the whole town could be seen through one small window in the plane. With the town settled against the mountains and glaciers of the park, I could see why people choose to live in such an amazing place. For the sake of the residents, and the park, it is fortunate that only a few choose such a place to call home.

The plane bumped its way along the runway before we taxied to a stop somewhere in the middle of the gravel strip. Bill went to refuel the plane as I said goodbye to Sandra and Bert. I waited for a lift into Kennicott town, where I was going to take a closer look at some of those glaciers.

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