McCarthy and Kennicott

I rose early the next morning at first light, packed the panniers, and rode towards the heart of the Wrangell St. Elias National Park and the famed copper mining towns of McCarthy and Kennicott.  I arrived at Chitina, a small town at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina Rivers.  The road veers left into a narrow, dynamite-created passage through sheer rock faces on either side.  Sixty tasty dirt road miles to McCarthy.  The Copper River reveals its massive misty countenance.  Gumdrop-shaped aquamarine domes rose from the banks of the legendary salmon fishery.  I stood on the pegs as I crossed its murky waters.  A violent gust of wind slammed my left side from the north causing my bike to veer dangerously close to the guardrails of the bridge.  On to the other bank of the river, energized by adrenaline, I marveled at the dozens of giant fish wheels harvesting countless sockeye.  One of two rivers in Alaska where this practice is legal.  The Copper River’s sockeye run is the earliest of the year.  Many of these two million spawning delicacies will be dispatched at great cost, especially to the environment, to the lower 48 to satiate gourmands of restaurants with five stars.
I pulled to the road-side to devour the vista and swill some java.  As if I were invisible, a camouflaged, heavily armed Alaskan hunter on an ATV motored directly towards me, veering left to narrowly avoid a collision, and then dismounted.  Only ten feet down hill from my location and continuing to ignore me, he peered through his high-powered binoculars in search of his prey, maybe a moose or even a bear.  The hunting rifle slung across his back and his ignorance of my presence caused a flittering of anxious thoughts.  While unwarranted and illogical, I wondered for a moment if my life was in danger.  Traveling alone and vulnerable in the wilderness caused a primal fight or flight response.  After a few seconds of an I-need-to-get-the-hell-out-of-hear feeling, my rational voice kicked in, and I talked myself down.  I snapped a picture of the hunter, marveled at the oddity of this encounter, and continued down the road.
Those 60 miles to McCarthy were the most technical and exhilirating of all the roads in Alaska.  Swampy, potholed sections opened into razor sharp rocks intermixed with cavernous ruts that swallowed the BMW’s front wheel.  For the first 20 miles, I proceeded gingerly due to my concern for damaging the rental bike further.  But the slow pace seemed to worse the jolts and rattles of the road, so I removed worry from my mind and attacked the dirt like a motocrosser.  It was the correct strategy and made for a smoother ride.
The Edgerton Highway/McCarthy Road follows the defunct route of the railway that transported the copper haul to the Copper River which was then shipped down to the Copper River Delta at Cordova to be sent worldwide.  Almost to McCarthy, I reached the Kennicott River footbride, the only crossing over to McCarthy and Kennicott.  I stopped to ask a local where to park the bike.  He told me I could ride across the four foot wide bridge.  I did a double take.   “You mean to tell me I can ride my motorcycle across that footbrige?”  I still couldn’t believe it, but I proceeded as directed.  It was one of those times where motorcycles allow you access to areas restricted to others.  I explored McCarthy which is mainly an extreme sports center and the abandoned mine at Kennicott with its towering red buildings and views of copper green valleys and glaciers.
I searched for a restaurant in McCarthy for a lunch time nosh.  Nothing opened until later.  Instead, I settled for a Clif bar and a canteen of coffee.  The next stop on my list was the infamous port town of Valdez via the spectacular Thompson Pass.  The 60 mile McCarthy road seemed much shorter on the way out of the Wrangell St. Elias Wilderness.  I put my trust in the motorcycle and let the 1200 cubic centimeters and the high tech suspension do the work.

I headed south on the Richardson Highway towards Valdez.  Cloud cover emerged and the rain began.  Thompson pass at 2800 feet in elevation is the snowiest locale in Alaska with about 551 inches of snowfall annually.  As the elevation increased, the temparture plummeted towards freezing.  My eyes nervously served as sentinel to the thermometer gauge.  At the summit of the pass, it read 33 degrees fahrenheit.  A frigid pearly blanket preempted the attempts of any plant life to take hold in this, the snowiest place in the USA, and probably most animal life as well.  An eery feeling of the absence of life consumed me. “I shouldn’t be here,” I shuddered.  But experiencing lifeless, inhospitable environments like Thompson Pass often provide an unparelled awe, perspective, and appreciation for the contrary.  I snaked down to the shores of Valdez, flanked by bridal waterfalls so ethereal, I’ve only seen them in my dreams. Road construction halted my ambivalent experience of the Chugach mountains.  A chain-smoking 20 something flager recommended the Totem Inn as a cheap bed for the night.  The rate was 125 dollars, not cheap by any means, but a deep freezing exhaustion had crept into my bones.  I would’ve paid 300 if it meant I didn’t have to climb back on my bike and search for another hotel.

I rushed to my room, hurriedly discarded my riding gear and undergarments, and huddled under the life-giving warmth of the Shower Massage head.  I needed a drink and some company.  Reinvigorated, I walked next door to Landshark’s Bar.  I chose a seat in front of the craft beer taps.  The ambiance of tacky Jimmy Buffet’s Parrothead paradise seemed like it was trying to hard.  But the clientele was getting rowdy, and with AWOLNation’s ‘Sail’ playing on the jukebox, a song my brother promoted over the airwaves of privately-owned, indie CD102.5 in Columbus, I felt a little at home.

After two Alaskan IPA’s, I sauntered outside to the patio to proposition a fellow patron for a cigarette. Justin turned out to my cigarette supplier for the night.  He was tall, skinny with pale skin and sunken eyes. His nose protruded from his face as if it were a topmast on a clipper.  Justin’s soul seemed sad and lonely. He was a contractor for Alyeska, working on the pipeline.  He pointed to his camper on the bed of his truck in the adjacent parking lot.  “I work then I come here to this bar.  I’ve been up her for 6 months.  I’m recently divorced and my kids are back in Oregon, so it’s pretty lonely, but at least the money is good.” I empathized with that notion and headed back inside for another of Alaska’s finest hoppy libation.

When I returned, Justin seemed different. The manner in which he talked and his body language exuded a sort of violence.  He began invading my personal space and his speech oscillated between physical compliment and emotional manipulation. His eyes were glazed, leaving his sad soul empty. As his inebriation progressed, the more it became apparent he was attracted to me sexually and attempting to pick me up for a one night stand in his truck camper. While I was flattered, the drunken and aggressive approach caused a deep, nauseating feeling in my gut.  I needed a companion to interact socially that night, not sexually. After I swilling my fifth brew, I returned to my hotel room to retire for the night.  But lying in bed, I regretted not confronting Justin about his disconcerting attempt to seduce me. I just left without saying goodnight. Of what was I afraid? Being wrong or maybe being right? Being criticized? Of not knowing what he’d say or feel? And another question crossed my mind, was I being homophobic? Maybe, he wasn’t hitting on me, but his gregariousness was merely enhanced by drink. Intellectually, I am an LGBTQ advocate and ally, but have I retained a bit of homophobia on an instinctual, physical level?


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