Thursday, 1 September 2011

Warner & Spidey get lucky

Alaska: McCarthy

When the opportunity presented itself to go to McCarthy, a town at the end of an infamous 60 mile one way road, I was nervous.  Reading about this town some years back had triggered my nascent fascination with Alaska – the town had become the mysterious hero in my own mental wilderness novel - and this made me nervous because you should never meet your heroes.   More prosaically I was nervous because we would be driving a hire car, a hire car with a location transponder no less, down what was for a long time referred to as ‘the worst road in Alaska’.  I have a deep-rooted and unshakeable distrust for hire car companies, and had images of me returning the car with a small chip in the bodywork to be told that I would be charged a squillion dollars for my oversight, them pulling out our route map and pointing out the ‘bad road’ to silence my increasingly hysterical protests.  So I was nervous; one part fear of the unknown to one part distrust of the known. 

But since when, I asked myself, have nerves got in the way of you doing something?  If they did, I reasoned, then I wouldn’t have disappeared for a year, wouldn’t be in Alaska, and certainly wouldn’t be gently idling the car at the mouth of this famous road; a narrow and foreboding passageway blasted out of millennia old rock.  And you know what? The road was a doddle.  Although there was mild peril to be found in the occasional shards of old railway sleeper that poked out of the ground, a reminder that this was once a railroad servicing the copper mines at Kennicott, just up the hill from McCarthy, the ‘worst road in Alaska’ proved to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing.  My assessment of what constitutes a bad road may have been, I’ll admit, skewed somewhat by African roads which dispense with the ‘pot’ and just do ‘holes’, but even so this road did not live up to its fabled billing.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed by this, but given the choice between (a) a smooth and incident free journey and (b) a front tyre blow-out and a close up view of a tree, I’d have to opt, on consideration, for the former.  Helen and Kate, my co-pilots, needed no such consideration and were happy, given that navigational duties were redundant, to resume deeply meditative wildlife spotting. Snoozing to you and me.

So despite being a disappointing doddle for those in search of a driving challenge (try it in winter, smartass, I can hear the residents saying in my head), the road is still exciting.  There is undoubtedly something exhilarating about heading down a one way road, knowing with certainty that the road will soon come to a dead stop, and slowly watching the wilderness take hold around you.  I giggled at the irony of a road sign that pointed off to ‘wilderness’, a waggish reminder that we were entering what many consider to be the wildest terrain Alaska has to offer; the Wrangell St. Elias National Park.  It made me reflect on quite how tough, and possibly mentally deranged, the two prospectors who discovered the staggering quantities of copper in this remote place must have been.  It was their discovery that triggered the brief but concerted copper rush at the Kennicott mines, and the establishment of McCarthy as a frontier town servicing the social needs of the miners – where men were men and women were picky. 

Now, I have, on rare occasions, worked in environments that could be considered hostile (where a disconnect in respective ideology can preface a disconnect between your head and neck), but I struggle to imagine quite how hostile this environment must have been for these two prospectors – Clarence Warner and ‘Tarantula’ Jack Smith (Spidey to his mates) - who trudged their way through virgin wilderness, blindly searching out a fortune in the ground.  The story goes that upon stopping for lunch next to McCarthy Creek they initially mistook the green shimmer on the mountains for grass, before doing a double take and going ‘hang on a second’...  

Imagine, if you can, paddling in a stream and commenting to your companion (let’s nickname him ‘Mamba’ to get us in the mood) that there was a lot of glass on the river bed.  Now imagine Mamba turning to you and saying ‘that there’s not glass nancy boy, them be diamonds’! I like to think that Warner and Spidey shared a similar moment of revelation upon ascertaining that the green tinge on the mountainside was copper, not grass; the two of them dancing a little jig hand in hand, shouting into the air ‘we’re gonna be rich’, Warner holding Spidey’s hand tenderly and letting eye contact linger for just a little too long, before Spidey rebuffs him with a grunt and a muttered ‘I’m lonely but I’m not that lonely’. It was these two men, with their special relationship, and even more special discovery that was the start of a typical boom and bust pioneer history that would, over a hundred years later, find the three of us standing at the bank of the same creek, staring at the same mountain range.  And with the same spirit of discovery that motivated these early pioneers we crossed the footbridge leading into McCarthy, searching for our own riches: dinner and a pint.

It’s easy to walk the length of McCarthy’s main drag, as we did, get to the end and go ‘er, is that it’? And that’s why I loved it.  This is a ghost town, a speck of civilisation in the vast wilderness, but it’s a ghost town with perks, not least of which is a snug pub with a hearty menu.  Adjoined to the pub is a rather innocuous fine dining restaurant; its innocuous location being the main selling point I think, although I gather that the food is really rather splendid.  It’s not my cup of moose stew though; I considered the bear shaped plates we’d bought for our camping a superfluous luxury on account of my belief that camp cuisine is best serviced by a fire, some meat, and a stick.  If it’s a special night then I might crack out the napkin shaped leaves.  So the prospect of dealing with not just one, but several, sets of cutlery was simply an affectation too far in this ghost town.  Instead we got tipsy on a surprisingly diverse selection of beers, ear wigging the conversations of the local residents, and hearing snippets of what passes for day-to-day life in a town where the road ends and wilderness begins.  Lost dogs and bears seemed to dominate, although I couldn’t confirm that the two were related.

And so we spent a couple of days enjoying being on the edge of wilderness; sitting around a campfire, hiking the nearby glacier with crampon’ed feet, and listening intently to the strange sound in our ears: silence.  It’s Alaska’s soundtrack, after all, and I like to imagine that it was maybe shattered late one night in 1900 when, from a lonely tent, Spidey's gruff tones rang out; you better pray that that's a bear got into our tent who's touching my leg Warner, or you and I are gonna fall out.                       

Sshh! Don't tell the hire car company.

Just so you can tell the difference

'The worst road in Alaska' - what-evs!

Bridge across the McCarthy River. Pete McCarthy tells the tale of two local residents who, on their return from Anchorage with a live pig as cargo, thought it would be fun to bungy the pig off the edge.  The pig enjoyed it apparently and so began a short-lived bungee jumping business.

Ice hiking on a glacier just outside McCarthy


  1. I've been a bad friend and really have not read this as much as I initially planned. However, the combination of finally buying a lap top and the loss of a husband to the rugby world cup (can you feel my pain of his obsessional ways?!) means that I'll be waiting with excitment for the next installment!

    As we are now watching the highlights of the games he has already watched since 4am this morning I've had plenty of time to get up to speed. You've made me chuckle and great to hear how you are getting on.

    Love to you both and thank you for the postcard.

    Sarah x

    P.S In support of Helen and the Laos treehouses Beth loves The Tiger who Came to Tea book (yes the version you gave her) and definately is not scared of that 'big, fury, stripey tiger!'

  2. So exactly how much is a "squillion" precise.