Remote Camping, Clothing Exchange, and a Bear on a Fourwheeler

Last week, Austin and I had Friday and Saturday off work so our friend/Austin’s fellow pilot, Bill, flew us to a remote airstrip and dropped us off for an overnight camping trip.  The whole time we were there the only evidence of other human life was the one airplane we heard overhead.  After he took off we hiked about a mile up the side the Kennicott Glacier and pitched our tent in a grassy meadow.  The area looked like a Japanese garden with a small bubbling stream boasting waterfalls, bright green grasses, and lovely moss flowers.  Later in the day we hiked up a rock glacier just above our campsite.  A rock glacier is 95% rock and 5% ice.  Its movement is measured in inches per year, whereas ice glacier (95% ice and 5% rock) movement is measured in yards annually.  Climbing was tough as the rocks were not anchored to anything and every step placed moved underfoot before settling.  Tired and slightly nervous to continue, thinking of the descent, I remained seated on a fairly sturdy rock, sending Austin farther up to explore alone.  He took a great video with his GoPro of himself rolling a large rock off the side of the mountain—it didn’t stop rolling for over a minute!  The view from that height was astounding:  Mt. Blackburn, America’s 7th(?) tallest mountain, the Kennicott Glacier (27 miles long), a rock glacier, a distant waterfall, and Parka Peak (which has the perfect pointy mountaintop shape).  If the internet signal improves, I’ll attach a photo/video later.  We made our way down the slope and for the final descent we “skied” down a patch of melting snow.  Crawling into our tent, we read aloud “Frankenstein” before falling asleep.  The next morning we made oatmeal and coffee while listening to a sermon on Ecclesiastes that Austin had on his phone.  We broke camp and hiked back to the airstrip where we ditched our heavy bags and continued down-glacier to get a view of Hidden Lake (see the note at the end of “A Not So Lazy Sunday Afternoon”).  We didn’t have enough time to go all the way down to the drained lake, but we hiked a few miles past clear ponds, through thick brush, up and down steep inclines and eventually had a great overlook of the beached iceburgs in the drained Hidden Lake.  Sometime, I want to do this hike before Hidden Lake breaks, and again afterwards and make it down to play among the burgs!  We made our way back to the airstrip and played the card game “There’s a Moose in Your House” that Austin’s sister, Maggie, gave him before we left (thanks, Maggie!).  Bill did a fly-by to check the winds above the airstrip and landed on his second go-around.  He took us back to the airstrip and we caught a ride up to Kennecott so we could finish our trip with a big, cheesy, pepperoni from the pizza bus!  Mmmmm! Eating out is a special occasion here as the cheapest meal around is $8.  Tourists often complain about the cost of food, but it takes a lot of effort to bring in groceries, but by the time food is shipped, made, and employees are paid for their work, a plate easily reaches $15.  So, Austin and I usually cook on our two-burner propane stove at the cabin.  We keep frozen food at the crewhouse in town and I bring it home to thaw on my lunch breaks.  We eat soups, pastas, burritos, eggs, and game (given to us by Don—again see the note at the end of “A Not So Lazy Sunday Afternoon”).  At the beginning of the summer Laura, who has spent her 13 summers in McCarthy, and I went to Costco in Anchorage to purchase 6 weeks’ worth of groceries.  My strategy was to follow Laura and buy half of what she purchased, since she was feeding four and I only had me and Austin.  I’d say that was a pretty successful plan.  We’ve had one more large grocery run which will last us through the end of the summer.

It’s hard to believe that we have already passed the halfway mark of our time in McCarthy this summer!  Today, our friends from Colorado are heading back home to start school.  Many leave about now as holding teaching jobs lends itself well to the seasonal lifestyle.  The leaves have begun to change from bright green to yellow and after 10:30 pm we now need flashlights to walk home at night.

Life here in the middle of a national park sometimes feels surreal.  Looking out our front door and seeing the cottonwood trees changing to yellow with towering mountains behind, I almost have to pinch myself to ensure that it’s real life.  Last week, though, a car wreck involving six young people was a big reminder that we still live in a broken world.  Driving too quickly down the dirt road from Kennicott, the driver lost control and the car rolled off the road and down a hill.  Three were evacuated via plane to Anchorage.  A young man had a broken leg, one young woman had broken ribs and a collapsed lung, and another gal had no feeling below her belly button and may not walk again.  The guy has since come back home, but I believe the two gals remain in the hospital.  The doctors have performed a surgery or two on the gal with the spinal injury and are cautiously optimistic.  It’s sobering.  Many prayers have been sent up from praying people in and around McCarthy this week.

On a lighter note, transitioning from July to August not only coincides with the aspen and cottonwood trees beginning to shed leaves, but the women here, also, begin to shed their clothes.  In early August, ladies of all ages and sizes meet at the Tony Zak house (the McCarthy equivalent of a community center, donated by… Tony Zak) towing bags of no-longer worn clothes and dishes of girly potluck items.  After a little while of eating and chatting, the clothes are piled in a large heap on the floor and Reba, the originator of the party says, “go!”  Clothes are flying and, all shyness set aside, the ladies scramble to try on and claim new wardrobe pieces.  I walked away with a “new” jacket, jeans, and four shirts!  All unclaimed garb is donated to a second-hand store in Anchorage.

Before arriving in McCarthy, I told someone where my cabin was located and she responded, “oh, yeah.  That’s black bear heaven.”  As soon as I arrived, I developed the habit of singing, clapping, and/or swinging my keys while walking to and from the cabin to guarantee that I didn’t sneak up on an unsuspecting bear.  Given the description of our cabin’s location, I expected to see one soon after arriving.  When this didn’t happen I wondered, “Are the bears watching me come and go, just where I can’t see them?”  All summer, tourists have come into the museum and told me about a bear they saw while hiking or a moose they spotted while driving the McCarthy road.  Having only seen one very young moose from far away during my first week here, I began to joke that all these sightings were made-up.  I gained ammunition when Austin said, “I saw a bear on a four-wheeler today,” (meaning that Austin was on the four-wheeler when he spotted the bear).  Boy did I have fun with that one!  Anytime Austin claimed he saw wildlife I blew it out of proportion and asked if the moose was racing the bear on the four-wheeler.   But, all good things must come to an end: I saw a moose cross the road in front of us as Austin and I were driving from Kennicott down to McCarthy, and with that my kidding ran out of fuel.  Then, just a day or two later, I saw a young black bear cross the road out of the museum window.  What a strange sight! I know we live in a wild place, but having been here several months without witnessing this type of wildlife, the bear seemed out-of-place.

I imagine I’ll have closer bear encounters as black bears gorge on soapberries which, incidentally, are the only bushes as far as the eye can see when standing on our front porch—hence, “black bear heaven” and my habitual singing in the woods (which almost always ends up being “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens for some strange reason).  I think my fascination and fear of bears are, both, a little oversized.  Sometimes I generate escape plans.  My most entertaining and thought-out idea, according to Austin, is the scenario in which I am near the outhouse when I encounter the angry bear, and subsequently enter the building quickly.  If the bear continues to try to get at me and successfully breaks down the door I can fit into the potty hole—too small for the bear, of course.  (I’m not serious about this, by the way!)

Because of my fear of walking around the woods by myself, on my days off I’ve been limited to wandering around town unless Austin or someone else has a day off too.  Dogs are great hiking aids as they can easily tree bears and/or warn you when there’s one nearby.  I’ve been wanting a dog for a while and seeing as we’re planning on returning year-after-year to the area, Austin and I decided to get a puppy!  We settled on a Chesapeake Bay Retriever since Austin had a Chessie growing up and their characteristics are well-suited for summers in Alaska and winters in Colorado.  There’s a gal nearby who breeds Chessies and happened to have a litter born in June.  We were planning on picking up “Eddie” (short for Edison, haha) Friday, but the puppies were sick so we have to wait until they’re well.  Chessies are known for being intelligent but hard-headed.  However, with good training and bonding with the owner, their faithfulness is second-to-none.  They were made to retrieve ducks in cold water for hunters, so they are excellent swimmers.  I look forward to taking him to our swimming hole and watch him play around.