McCarthy/Kennicott/Kennecott – Alaska

If you ever fly into Alaska and rent a car or motor-home, there will be a clause on your contract that forbids you from driving on certain roads. The first is the Dalton Road to Prudhoe Bay, the second is the road to Chicken, and the most notorious is the McCarthy Road, and it’s infamous for a good reason. The builders never meant it to be a road.

Kennecott Ore Processing
The massive multi-story building processed ore from the mines and loaded it on train cars.

In 1900, two independent prospectors discovered a large copper deposit on the mountain above the Kennicott glacier, later tagged as the Bonanza Hills. Much political wrangling went on over the next ten years, and investors formed a publicly-traded company, except the person filing the papers misspelled the glacier’s name. Today, if you’re talking about the glacier below the mine, it’s spelled, Kennicott. Otherwise, anything to do with the mine is Kennecott. I’m glad to find out that I’m not the only one who flunked spelling classes.

Kennecott Power Plant
This building supplied the power needed to process the ore.

Getting back to the road, the company needed a way to get ore down to the Cordova port. Like any good corporation, they started another corporation to build a railroad and named it the Copper River & Northwest Railroad (CR&NW). Detractors used the initials to call the investment “Can’t Run & Never Will Railroad.” However, the scheme worked and ran successfully for twenty years before copper prices plummeted, and in the thirties, the company closed the mines.

Kennecott Shift Manager's House
Although small, most of the wood detail in the house is exceptional. I wonder how the manager would have reacted to the building leaning in his window.

Years pass, and someone salvaged the rails from the track, but there’s still a historic old mining site upriver from Chitina that could draw tourists. So, some brilliant entrepreneur dumps gravel over the ties, and that becomes the McCarthy Road. During its early years, the discarded spikes tore up a lot of tires. Since those are collector’s items now, they’re not as big of a problem. The road covers sixty miles and, on a good day, takes two to three hours to travel.

Kennecott Processing and Bonanza Hill
The processing plant towers over the town with its complex architecture. The mountain that supported this ingenuity is in the background.

The problem now is that engineers never built the road for automotive traffic. The road is not maintained well, so it is full of ruts and potholes; there is a frequent blockage due to rocks and mudslides, there are no shoulders, and the road runs through bogs. The road is essentially one lane wide, so cars passing need to give way. This year alone, there have been two incidents where a motor-home has pulled over to the ‘should have been a’ shoulder and needed rescue. Last week, one just flopped over on its side, and on my trip, we called a hook for one listing thirty degrees.

McCarthy Hotel
Whereas Kennecott was a company town, McCarthy was the place to let loose. There is still a functioning hotel there—good luck in getting a reservation.

OK, I cheated. I hitched a ride on the scheduled shuttle bus. It cost a lot less than calling a tow truck and the wear and tear on Fritz. Even though I thought the Chicken Road was worse in hindsight, I still felt it was the better choice. I only had enough time to work before the return bus and couldn’t hang around for the perfect light. Unless you want to pay $250.00 for the private bridge across the Kennicott river, you have to walk or take the shuttle up the four and a half miles to Kennecott anyway.

McCarthy Groceries Meats and Hardware
If you couldn’t buy it here, it was probably up on Silk Stocking Road.

If I were to make the trip again, I would consider paying another hundred dollars to McCarthy Air and flying from Glennallen to McCarthy. Then I wouldn’t even need to walk over the footbridge the park service built. To land at the McCarthy’s gravel field, you have to circle a couple of the mountains and come in over the glacier. That would be cool.


Little Susitna River – Alaska

This was a very satisfying weekend. The weather was nice, a little humid, but nice. Sally, Fred and Deb caught up, they were in the campsite when I got back from fishing Saturday. Yesterday, I joined the local SCCA for a day of Autocrossing, followed by a delicious salmon dinner. How could things get any better?

The first thing I spied when we rolled into Wasilla last Wednesday was the Three Rivers Fly and Tackle shop. Since Fred and I decided that we would exclusively fly fish on this trip, I’ve found that the box stores can’t give the kind of local information that the independent fly shops can. So, after dropping Fritz off at the dealer, we hopped into the beater and paid a visit to Three Rivers.

Normally, these stores are an esoteric experience. You get the feeling that you should wear a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe with one hand, while balancing a glass of 12-year-old in the other. This store isn’t like that. It’s more like a garage where guys hang out to b.s. because they like what happens there.

The first thing I noticed when we walked into the crowed store, was they had two rods set up on contraptions that seemed like homemade lathes. They were actually making repairs to someone’s equipment right there in the store. Not the normal, “Yes, we’ll send it out and have it repaired. You can expect it back in two weeks.”

I waited my turn, and then told them how we’ve come up from the States, oops I meant the other states, and how I’d like to do some salmon fishing. After a couple more questions, he pulled out a local map and gave me two local places that are twenty and thirty miles away. I guess in Alaska, that’s local. Then he showed me how to set up my rig before finally recommending flies.

On the tray before me, lay an assortment of fuzz and feathers that no self-respecting fish would ever consider putting in their mouth. They were the colors that my little sister wore in junior high school. He swore that they worked, so I bought a mix of several colors and put them in the bag. “Why do you need to buy more flies?” Anne questioned from behind. “Because, they’re there,” was my feeble reply.

After I got all of my chores done the next evening, I drove out to the Little Susitna River and in spite of leaving my waders in Fritz, I walked into the water up to my knees. The fish were there, I could see them swirling. I couldn’t get to them. The new flies were weighted, and when I would try to cast, the weight would jerk and snap like the outside person when you played ‘crack-the-whip‘.

When I got home fish less that night, I researched the Internet to find out what I was doing wrong. Friday we went to the car dealer and retrieved my waders and a couple other items. Saturday morning, I left for the fishing hole. With a few rig adjustments and my waders, I was able to land the flies right where I saw fish two days ago, and I did. Hour after hour, I perfectly landed flies on target, before retrieving the line and doing it again.

The afternoon passed and I grew weary and decided to call it a day. “Three more casts,” I thought to myself. On the third cast, the line stopped its drift, so I snapped the rod to the vertical. Something pulled back, and in milliseconds a silver rocket broke the surface of the water, clearing the lower tree branches. Then just as quick, it jumped a second time every bit as high, before it turned and looked at me then gracefully . . . spit out the hook. It was gone.

Thrilled and disappointed simultaneously is how I felt. “At least I hooked one,” I thought. But now there were several swirls in the water before me, and with all that activity, I gave in and made one more cast. As before in mid drift, the line stopped and I set the hook. Like an instant replay, the fish jumped only this time when she came down, she began to take out line. This was a good fish.

For twenty minutes we battled (even I think that sounds corny). She would take out line, before I would reel it back in. Finally she tired and other than a few head shakes, she was a big weight at the end of my line. I needed to land her and I looked around. I didn’t have a net. A boat full of fishermen were watching nearby, so I gestured that I could use a net, but they didn’t understand and powered by with thumbs up. I did the only thing I could. I began to step by step make my way to the shore, where I beached and subdued her. She was a female seven and a half pound silver salmon. My first.

I put it in the garbage bag I brought for such an occasion, and placed it into the trunk. On the way back to camp, I stopped and bought ice for the bag. I drove the rest of the way home with a smile on my face.

Fred, Deb and Sally were in camp when I arrived and the inevitable question came, “Did you catch anything?” Without saying anything, I opened the trunk and pulled out my trash bag.

Fred said, “Wow!”

Deb said, “Beautiful.”

Anne said, “Ewww!”

This morning Fred and I are going out fishing. He wants to catch one like we had for dinner last night, and I promised to show where I caught it. On the way, we have to stop off a Three Rivers, so he can buy some ugly flies and I can have them replace the tip of my fly rod that I broke on Saturday.