The gang goes North: Part 8- Girdwood, Valdez, McCarthy/Kennecott and the Yukon

July 26-August 1

Glass on Kenai Lake awaited us the next morning. We’d decided to make our return trip back up the Kenai Peninsula that day, but had some time to spare.

Blowing up the kayak, we floated out onto the water. About a mile wide, and about 22 miles long, with two deep bends, I wanted to get to the east side, across the skinny way. A mountain cascade poured into the lake from beneath a tunnel of small trees, and we traveled to the mouth of it and relaxed for a half hour or so, in silence, save for the stream. Jamie and Charley took a nap. I couldn’t stop staring up at the long bowl that we floated within.

We packed up camp after coming ashore a half hour later, back on the west side. The day remained clear and sunny, and we enjoyed the rugged Kenai as we drove north along the Seward Highway, back to Girdwood.

A familiar campground was the plan for us that evening. Bird Creek, just outside of Girdwood, seemed to be an appropriate stopping point for the day. I’d been in touch with our friend Joe, who had us over for dinner a couple weeks prior.

“I think I can make this evening work. Let’s go flying!” he exclaimed via text.

Sounds good! Jamie Charley and I had a beer back at Girdwood Brewery before meeting Joe at the airstrip in Girdwood, just down the road. He landed, returning from western Alaska for work, and we threw our gear in. Jacket, camera and lenses, phones, dog.

His 4 person Cessna housed 3 persons and a dog that night around 830p, and we got a glimpse of Girdwood from above as we climbed in altitude and entered a valley to our north.

“I never knew this valley even existed until I started flying,” Joe remarked. We felt privileged and grateful to see it, too.

The high glacial valley was difficult to process. A moment ago, we were in dense green forest, in a settled town. Now we were floating above mountain goats dotted in the green-grey slopes, hundreds if not thousands of feet up sheer walls. Dall sheep, and a couple black bear we spotted, going about their evening routines in the mountains. Moose were all about the valleys, wading in marshes and beside meandering streams. Glaciers poured out from every gentle high slope, cut up and crevassed, glowing pale and blue in the evening light. Waterfalls fell out of the glacier where it was weakening.

Joe brought us down on a strip of brushless rocks near a glacial lake full of icebergs, and we 4 deplaned and headed over to it. We were surrounded by- nothing. But also, by so much. It was remote. Serene.

Joe pulled up a chunk of glacial ice from the lake. “You guys have had cocktails with glacier ice, right?”

When we said no, sadly, we hadn’t, he borrowed one of Charley’s (unused) poop bags and tossed the ice in.

“Well, you have to. I’ll make us some margaritas when we get back to town.”

We loaded back in the bush plane, and took our time flying back to Girdwood. Charley alternated between sitting next to me in the back row of the plane, and shaking uncontrollably on my lap. All things considered, she did better than we could be hoped.

“Wanna fly?” Joe asked Jamie.

She took the controls and Joe gave her a crash course (pun NOT intended) on the basic physics of aviation. It was pretty cool to see her gripping the yoke.

How about those margs? Joe whipped them up back at his house, and we chatted all things Alaska for a bit. What an experience. Not one we will ever forget.

The next morning, Jamie made pancakes (what a treat) at camp, and we left Bird Creek around 10am.  Driving along Turnagain Arm, as we did a couple weeks prior, we made our way into Anchorage for groceries and dog food. Western Alaska rose up from the Cook Inlet in front of us, with its rugged white peaks piercing the horizon.

North on AK-1, Denali also came into view. We felt blessed to see the mountain again. We hooked eastward along the Matanuska Valley, climbing progressively higher from the murky grey waters of Matanuska River. Its lifeblood, the Matanuska glacier, greeted us as we entered the town of (appropriately named) Glacier View.

Memories of the old Denali Highway came to mind when we entered the high tundra after that. Scattered hearty pines withstood the terrain at 3000 feet above sea level, while ponds and lakes were strewn about, seemingly without order.

The Kenai had felt pretty populated, both with tourists and residents. Now, in the southeastern interior, we felt far removed from civilization again. Mt Wrangell came into view, and dominated our drive for the next hour or so. We were headed right for it. The Wrangells could be clouds, as white as they were. Surely they were not, as sawtoothed as they were.

Mt Wrangell stood at over 14000 feet, but wasn’t the tallest by a couple thousand. We cut right and south for the last 100 miles along the Richardson Highway, through deeply forested river-valleys and up over Thompson Pass at 2600 feet, the snowiest point in the US (not fact-checked, but also not difficult to believe). We descended into the Lowe River valley, heading to Valdez.

The area was described to us by another traveler that we met in Homer as “straight out of Lord of the Rings.” I’d agree, though the whole trip up to that point had felt fictional. Water poured through chutes and clefts, over cascades and falls into Keystone Canyon, before we entered Valdez. Mists covered the mountaintops.

We boondocked in a gravel pit beside the Lowe River that evening- the immediate landscape wasn’t inspiring, but the panorama above stirred us deeply. We fixed up some salmon from our fishing trip back in Kasilof and turned in for a quiet night- we were the only ones in the area.

Valdez was mystical, it seemed. The distant peaks loomed as if they were a Hollywood backdrop. Blue, sunny skies shone down- an unusual occurrence in such a wet place. Taking another recommendation we’d received from a fellow traveler we met in Hatcher Pass a few weeks ago, we took a little detour to the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery. Salmon teemed in the waters at the mouth of the gulch, and were led up an artificial salmon ladder by way of multiple stages. Gulls picked through the fish scraps along the beach at low tide, and sea lions would arrive at high tide to swim in the shallows and feast.

We spent a bit of time in the harbor of Valdez, walking along the fishing boats and halibut anglers, and completing some online requirements for our upcoming nursing contract in Seattle. We’d be back at Harborview Medical Center, and though we wanted our trip to last forever, it was time to think about an income again. Jamie secured us an apartment in our old neighborhood of Wallingford, as we slowly got our lives in order to restart jobs.

We only spent the day in Valdez, but I’m sure one could spend a week there and not tire of its beauty.

Leaving town, we climbed up the Richardson Highway again, passing through Keystone Canyon and toward Thompson Pass. A campground was situated above the valley we’d just drove out of, and we stopped to have a look around. Pivoting from our plans to drive another hour or two that evening, we (literally) flipped a coin and it landed heads- so we stayed there that evening, at Blueberry Lake campground.

It was a stunning setting, across the valley from high, flat green slopes, with deep canyons carved into it, flowing down below to Lowe River. Above, in front and opposite the valley from us, rose peaks that drew similarities to photos we’d seen of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. It was too scenic to pass up, and we’re glad we stayed to enjoy sunset and a night of sleep there.

A beautiful, cold but crisp morning rose on the 29th. We were on the road by 7am, after packing camp. We had an extra hour or two to drive as a result of our decision to stay at Blueberry Lake. We’d be heading to McCarthy, well off the beaten path, and adjacent to Wrangell St Elias National Park. The largest US national park, it was a 3 hour detour each way from our initially planned road trip. In all, we drove 4+ hours that morning, and 62 miles took us about 2.5 hours along dirt roads through the national park to reach McCarthy. 

We followed the Copper River for a bit, eventually arriving in McCarthy in the late morning. The day wouldn’t be just for travel. We had plans of hiking onto the Root Glacier, via a short 2 mile trail beside its rocky moraine. Dan, a local, was running a shuttle bus from our campground to the old mining town of Kennecott, and the start of the trail. He gave us a thorough history of the mining efforts through the years, as well as a brief and topical geology lesson on glaciers. It was fantastic.

When we arrived at Root Glacier, we stretched on our micro spikes over our boots, giving us the needed traction to hike up the glacier confidently. Stepping onto a glacier is a really neat feeling. Something that has been there for so long, and feels so alive. Waterfalls poked through randomly among the ice. Blue pools collected where small streams converged.

“My buddy here is about to jump in this blue pool,” a guy said as we approached them. He’d nailed in an ice hook and rope for his friend to hold onto, and a mat to climb out of the pool.

“If you want to, you can jump too.”

I had no towel, but wouldn’t miss the opportunity. I wore my ‘birthday suit’ and hopped in the pool- the shock hit instantly, but the feeling lasted the rest of the day. What an experience. It was near spiritual!

We spotted a black bear on the hike back to Kennecott, munching on berry bushes on a slope beneath the trail. We watched for a bit, until Charley figured out what we were looking at and started to bark. We moved along. 

That night, we headed into McCarthy, across a pedestrian footbridge and a 1 mile path, for some live music and a beer. Dogs had free roam in this town, as they strolled about the dirt roads sniffing and ducking in and out of the bar patio. It was pretty neat. We met some new folks, traveling back to the lower 48 from Fairbanks. We chatted with them for an hour or so, while listening to Roland Roberts and his crew play (the same band we’d watched in Hope two weekend before- what are the chances??). It was a great day, capped by cozy chatting and brisk country music beneath a soft glow from string lights above.

We’d be moving along the following morning, swinging west, north, then east, around the far reaches of the rugged Wrangell mountains, and on toward the Yukon- the beginning of our pathway leading home.

A quick stopover night as we passed through near Tok had us camping at the Eagle Trail campground. It was less of an experience and more of a “it’s getting late, this place seems fine” kind of situation. The mosquitoes welcomed us back to the Alaskan interior that evening, but we managed to get out for a quick hike up to a valley overlook, if only to stretch our legs a bit.

The morning of the 31st, it was time to set our heading east-southeast, as we bid Alaska farewell (for a couple days) and entered the Yukon Territory of northern Canada. We crossed over at Beaver Creek, riding the heaves and rolls of the road from freeze/thaw permafrost below it as if we were in the rodeo.

Kluane National Park is a continuation of the Wrangell St Elias National Park, essentially, but in Canada. We settled into Kathleen Lake, within the park, and fixed supper and a fire. Save for the gnarly mosquitoes of the Yukon, it was good to be back at a Canadian campground. It was cheaper, and the fee included free firewood set in a number of roofed structures through the campground.

We started August on the right foot, somewhat literally. After oatmeal and coffee, Jamie Charley and I headed up the King’s Throne trail beside Kathleen Lake. The hike’s stats seem rather pedestrian- 5.5 miles to the “seat” of the throne, and 2000 feet of elevation gain. In reality, the first mile-plus, was flat, followed by a steep climb nearly 2000 feet up in the next mile. Scree and loose stone was our path, in a “choose your own adventure” kind of set up. Trails went up the slope in various directions, showing more and less ambitious paths- some went straight up, others carved switchbacks. 

When we’d arrived, rather weary, at the cirque beneath the King’s Throne ridgeline, we decided we had ascended enough. The view from the basin were spectacular- the fangs of the ridge cut into the skyline, and behind and nearly a half mile below us, Kathleen Lake sat serenely. A distant whoosh of the lake’s waves could slightly be discerned.

A mountain goat went about its business high above us, among the stony cliffside of the inner basin. So casual on that sheer wall,  we thought.

Sure-footed and patiently we made our descent along the same path we climbed. The deep blue lake gazed up at us. We arrived back at camp in the mid-afternoon, ready to relax. I fixed a fire and Jamie attended a Campfire talk with a Parks Canada worker about seasonal food sources of the Grizzly. Pretty neat!

We’d be leaving the Yukon, and Canada, the following day. Back into Alaska along its panhandle, our time on the road was dwindling. Last on our list was exploring the Inside Passage, while we ferried from Haines down to Bellingham, WA, with a stop in Juneau. Stay tuned for the next and final installment of our Great Northern Adventure. 

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