United States of America

The circle of life

The circle of life

August 2022

We left the Kenai Peninsula and just before Anchorage we tracked down two more bald eagles that willingly allowed themselves to be photographed, albeit at a distance, in Potter Marsh Park.

Arriving in Anchorage, for a while we watched the seaplanes taking off and landing at the largest seaplane airport of the world – Lake Hood – and then drove across the airport area to the place where we had agreed with Thomas and Sima, and we had a pleasant evening in their camper.

Of course, it continued to rain the next morning. Considering the bad weather, we decided to go hiking in the woods. Kincaid Park lies within the city limits of Anchorage and is home to the largest concentration of moose in all of Alaska. Something we hadn’t really taken into account was the fact that moose can also be aggressive. Regarding danger we have only been thinking about bears, but with moose it is also necessary to be careful. We were just passing Little Campbell Lake, when 150 meter away a moose cow and her calf crossed our path. Curious, mom’s big ears went up and we were closely watched.  So far we have been only afraid of bears…but now suddenly had also great respect for moose. They remain imposing animals.

We had a second encounter with a cow and calf the same day on the road trip along the Glenn Highway towards Valdez. Considering we felt safe in our car, this encounter went better for us.

Moose in Kincaid Park Anchorage
Moose along the road to Valdez
Moose along the road to Valdez

Valdez marks the end of the Richardson Highway that begins in Fairbanks. At the town of Glennallen we refueled and turned right toward Valdez, hoping the weather would be better on the other side of Thompson Pass. We passed the pass at an altitude of 900 meters and with a lot of imagination we sometimes could see a glacier appear out of the dense fog.

Overnight place on the way to Valdez
Matanuska Glacier

Thomas and Sima had given us the tip to drive to the local salmon breeding station in Valdez. They had been lucky enough to see a grizzly there while catching fish. Maybe we had more luck with wildlife spotting than with the weather? It ended up being an experience to remember! Just 100 meters after the turnoff we saw the first bald eagles, which were easy to spot with their big white heads high up in the trees. In the almost still water below them swam a few salmon that were ready to be eaten.

What we saw next is beyond words. Out of the dense forest a creek meandered down toward the sea. There was not much water in it, but it was truly teeming with salmon! So many fish in the river, there really wasn’t room for anything else! The perfect place for bears to strike, wouldn’t it? 

Just a little later, on the road to the salmon breeding station, a black bear mum walked with her two young born on the side of the creek. Occasionally a salmon was pulled out of the water and the two little ones would cozy up.  Another bear ate his fill and pulled one salmon after another out of the water. Very special that we could witness this from about five feet away.

Salmon is bred at the Solomon Gulch Hatchery. There are dozens of such breeding stations in Alaska. Salmon have the property to reproduce at the exact same place where it was born. In this case that is this salmon breeding station. We turned around and drove on to Valdez where we found a laundromat with a good wifi connection. The perfect combination to spend a couple of hours, being useful.

The salmon spectacle had impressed us so much that we decided to drive back after dinner. Secretly we hoped for a grizzly bear, but unfortunately we did not see one. However, there were about six sea lions in the water in front of the breeding station feeding on the salmon. The uneaten remains were left for the countless seagulls.

The alarm clock went off early. Today it was not supposed to rain in Valdez and full of good hope we slid our curtains to check the situation. A must-do of any visit to Valdez is a boat tour of Prince William Sound, culminating in the 10-kilometer-wide Colombia Glacier calving into the sea. Having already been unlucky with the weather in Seward, Valdez had been our last hope for a boat tour. Although we could see across the fjord from our sleeping place this morning, we still didn’t dare take the gamble. Too much of a risk to pay 3x our daily budget and then we maybe wouldn’t even see the glacier.

Instead, we drove back to the breeding station. Getting up early was rewarded. Enjoying a cup of coffee in the car, we looked out over the stream full of salmon. Less than half an hour later, the first black bears appeared for breakfast. We had seen it so many times in nature documentaries, but to experience this in real life was priceless.

We left Valdez and headed for another natural spectacle. At 53,000 square kilometer Wrangell – St.Elias National Park is the largest one in America. It was only officially opened in 1980 and is home to 16 of the highest mountain peaks in the US. The park is not easily accessible, unless one charters a bush plane that can drop one off anywhere.

Richardson Highway with view of Valdez

In 1900, copper was found in the area, which at the time was even more lucrative than gold. This eventually resulted in the largest copper mine in the world at that time. To transport the mined copper, a road was built to the resulting villages of McCarthy and Kennicott, that connected to the Richardson Highway. The mine has long since closed its doors, but can still be visited and is great to combine with a visit to the National Park.

We took the turn toward the park and not long after, the first white giants came into view. We could see the snowy summit of Mount Wrangell very clearly. Wrangell is the highest volcano in America at over 4,300 meters. Its neighbor Mount Blackburn is even slightly higher at 4996 meter, and the highest mountain in the Wrangell mountain range. We spent the night at a free campsite in Chitina,  at the end of the asphalt road. In the evening we were rewarded with a black bear who came to visit us at the campsite.

Wrangell-St. Elias Mountain Range

It was a wonderfully quiet night that was disturbed early by the ringing of the alarm clock. There was another 90 kilometers of gravel ahead of us before we could park the car in McCarthy and continue on by foot. We stopped along the way to take some pictures of an old railroad bridge that dates back to the time when copper was mined here.

Life in McCarthy has been at a standstill for quite some time. A few dozen people live here remote from the rest of the world, but that’s the way they want it. The state has offered to build a car bridge to connect to the street network, but this option is rejected by the residents themselves in order to keep their distance. It is like walking on the movie set of the new western movie with Clint Eastwood, complete with saloon and old cars.

The copper mines of Kennicott are about 5 kilometers away.  Partly because alcoholic beverages and prostitution had been forbidden in there, McCarthy grew as a place to provide illicit services not available in the mining town. It grew quickly into a major town with a gymnasium, a hospital, a school, a bar and a brothel. The Copper River and Northwestern Railway reached McCarthy in 1911.  In 1938, the copper deposits were mostly gone and the town was mostly abandoned. 

Kennicott is now a ghost town and has been and is being restored for tourism. Some buildings are accessible, explaining the origins and life during the copper era. One can also visit the giant copper mill in which the limestone was separated from the copper.

While visiting McCarthy and Kennicott one would almost forget that this is the middle of the wilderness, although the glacier that runs right past the copper mine reminds one of this. We followed the trail until, after exactly an hour, we entered the Kennicott glacier. The first part was still gray, but as we slowly walked further up the ice, the beautiful white-blue ice appeared.  We had some great views from there. Back in Kennicott, we were taken back to McCarthy on the free shuttle bus. Then we drove the same way back to the campground in Chitina. The black bear that paid a visit on our first night, also showed up here the second night.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was the final highlight of our time in Alaska. In about three or four days we would be back in Canada. From Chitina we drove back to Tok where our trip through Alaska had begun three weeks ago. From here we would steer back toward Whitehorse.

We got a good impression of life in the 49th. State of the US. We saw the highest mountain on the continent. Enjoyed bears, Wapiti and moose. We witnessed a salmon run and saw the blue ice of glaciers. Unfortunately, the weather was sometimes a spoilsport in our schedule, but the last two nights just before the border with Canada made up for everything! We will tell more about that in the next blog…

Overnight camp on the way to Tok

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