Editor’s Note: I wrote this post on Saturday night the 28th of July, but I was then without any cell service for several days, and after that, I have been traveling hard, so I haven’t had a chance to update the blog. I’ve covered over 1700 miles in the last three days on two-lane roads, and am now in Alberta. I’ve updated my route map: Entire Route So Far. I’ve had many adventures since I wrote this and hope to update the blog soon. At this point, additional photo uploads will almost certainly have to wait till I get back to California next week.
Last night passed uneventfully but somewhat noisily. What is it about rural unorganized campgrounds that invites the locals to roar through on their unmuffled ATVs at 2 AM? I can only assume it is a misguided attempt at advertising their own virility. Or perhaps it’s actually successful with their target audience. I suspect alcohol might be involved too. Who can say?
I broke camp around 9 AM and headed up into the hills, back to the other side of Hatcher Pass, to the Independence Gold Mine state park. The website said the park opened at 9, but the sign at the entrance said the new hours began at 11 instead. At 9:45, I had the place to myself and began wandering around. The setting was surprisingly photogenic, high in the mountains just below the pass, and the day quickly became clear and sunny. Some of the buildings were still in good repair, but others had collapsed completely in the 70 years since the mine was abandoned. I basked in the special kind of solitude that seems to arise when finding oneself alone amongst evocative ruins, and I took many photographs.
After maybe an hour of wandering, pondering and photographing, my phone’s battery was running low. I decided to go back to the car to get a spare charger. On the way back, I began to notice a fair number of people walking in to the park. When I got to the parking lot, I saw the source of the problem: a tour bus, bane of the independent traveler’s existence. Nothing ruins a spot so quickly and so thoroughly as a massive tour bus arriving and disgorging its contents on the scene. I felt the same sense of hopelessness and inevitable doom that the ancient Egyptians must have felt on seeing a swarm of locusts appear on the horizon. When I am elected Supreme Ruler of the Universe, my first official act will be to have every tour bus ever built burned to the ground. My second official act will be to track down anyone who ever designed a piece of clothing using fabrics that can be damaged by Velcro, and then placed Velcro fasteners on that same piece of clothing, and have them summarily shot.
Anyway, my worst fears were confirmed, and for the next 45 minutes or so, each view and every vista was overrun with tour bus passengers. The good thing about these tour buses is, they are usually operating on some preposterous schedule, like “See Southeast Alaska in One Afternoon!” So they don’t stick around that long. Within an hour I had the place mostly to myself again. I wandered up into the hills above the mine and saw a small additional cluster of old mine buildings up at the end of the valley, just in front of the wall. There was no obvious way over to them from where I was, though, so I began to climb back down. Along the way, I looked down and saw an old man with a shovel digging away at the hillside, a couple hundred feet down the slope, but the path didn’t take me near him. He didn’t seem to notice me either. When I got to the bottom of the hill, there was a sign posted informing me that the trail I had just been on was closed. Whoops.
By this time it was about about 12:30, and the welcome center was open, so I went in. It was in the old superintendent’s house, and seemed cozy and homelike enough. I heard a loud argument going on behind a closed door marked “private,” and I wondered what they could possibly be arguing about, but I never found out. On the mantlepiece, I noticed some old books, including one with a beautiful gilded cover titled “The Great Eccentric Characters of the World.” I did see a sign advising that a ranger would take anyone who wanted inside the bunk house at 1 PM. So I stuck around for that. On the way over to the bunk house, I happened to catch a glimpse of the other mine buildings further up the valley, and I asked the ranger about them. She told me a 92-year-old man still lives up there, mining for gold. I guess I saw him at work. It must be a lonely existence, up at the end of that valley. I wonder if his self-imposed isolation is born out of a natural misanthropy, or if it is a contemplative, monastic existence. Maybe it is an act of penitence and self-denial. Or maybe he just has terminal gold fever. Maybe it’s all of it wrapped up together.
Inside the bunk house, I found some more old books, including two prominently displayed romance novels called “Honeymoon Delayed” and “Marriage is Possible.” It began to dawn on me that whoever is mainintaining the building interiors might have a sly sense of humor. That, or any old book that comes to hand will do. But I lean towards the former.
By now, I had stayed far longer than I had intended at the Independence Mine, so I high-tailed it on out of there and headed north-east on Route 1. There isn’t much to tell about the trip; I drove for over five hours along a very scenic route. The road seemed to run through a broad, high valley, with occasional glimpses of glaciers and lakes. One glacier in particular was just a couple of miles off the road, and it was shockingly blue. When I first rounded a corner and saw it, my breath was taken away for a moment.
I finally turned off the main route and headed down a road out into the middle of nowhere. At the end of 70 miles with no side turnings, I came to the “town” of Chitina. Here, the pavement ended. A sign warned me that even this dirt road ended 62 miles ahead, and that from this point onward, there were no services and I would be traveling at my own risk. Oh, and watch out for railroad spikes. I should expect the next 62 miles to take 3-4 hours to drive. I passed through a deep, narrow cutting that had obviously originally been for a railway, then crossed a bridge over a wide river with very swift swirling waters. And with that, I entered Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, my last destination in Alaska.
Wrangell-St. Elias is the nation’s largest national park, at a stunning 13.2 million acres. It is also one of the most remote; this road is one of only two ways in, and by far the busiest. Nine of the country’s sixteen highest peaks are located inside its boundaries, as is Mt. Wrangell, Alaska’s highest volcano. When I crossed the bridge, it was already 6:30 PM, and I decided I didn’t want to risk being caught out at night on the long, lonely, bear-haunted road between here and McCarthy. Road conditions are said to be rough, and if anything were to go wrong, I wanted it to be during the day. The map indicated a solitary primitive campground just at the end of the bridge, so I turned off and made my way down into the encampment.
Immediately, it was clear I was an outsider. This appears to be mostly a fisherman’s camp. There are lots of “tents” consisting of tarps strung between trees, or whatever else was available. To call this place a campsite is overstating things; it’s a no-man’s-land down by the river where people set up however and wherever they feel like, with the authorities turning a blind eye. All the trucks have Alaska tags, and most of them have boats in tow. I took a walk along the river side and back over the bridge. The temperature was cool and pleasant, although it has begun to rain again. A lot of people were down fishing in the river. I suspect most of the people in this camp are not going on towards the national park. Of all the places I’ve been in Alaska, none has given such a strong impression of isolation and remoteness as I am feeling tonight. Ironically, right now I am surrounded by several hundred people. But tomorrow, I know they will be remaining behind, and I will be traveling on alone.
When I got back from my walk, I made dinner. I stocked up in Wasilla but I didn’t really buy enough. I have plenty to drink but not so much to eat. I may have to tighten my belt, as a review of the map suggests I won’t see another supermarket until I get to Dawson Creek, which is still 1700 miles ahead of me. Until then, it will just be gas stations and the odd small grocery store. I took the opportunity to transfer my GPS tracks for the last two days to the computer, but in the process, I accidentally deleted them instead. Damn! At least I have my back up, less accurate tracks, but I wish I had been more careful. I also hope this rain lets up. It would be a shame to come all this way and not see some beautiful scenery. But that’s Alaska for you.