Alaska, Featured, Outdoors, Travel

A Winter Visit to McCarthy

Quiet Day in Downtown McCarthy. Photo: Allison Sayer

What is McCarthy like in the winter, when all of the businesses are closed and the roads are covered with snow? Earlier this winter, a friend who lives in McCarthy had taken my dog there while I attended a training. My boyfriend Ben and I went to pick up my dog, using the trip as an excuse to catch up with friends and the McCarthy landscape.

Shut Till Summer. Photo: Allison Sayer

We drove in on a hard-packed snow road, and quickly got to the footbridge, where we parked. Then we started skiing in to our friend’s house pulling a large sled laden with food, clothes, and supplies.

We had barely made it 200 yards when someone came by on a snow machine and offered to bring our sled to our friend’s house. Throughout our trip, we would never go too long without seeing someone whiz by. Some people we knew, some we had never seen before. People were going out to haul water, gather firewood, visit friends, work on paid construction projects, trap, or just enjoy the scenery.

After our day of packing and driving it was great to slow down into proper winter mode. We took our time making dinner on the wood stove and settled in. Our host had some persistent injuries, so I had brought some therapeutic massage tools.

The next day started off quite cold, -25, so we drank coffee in the morning until the sun warmed things up.

Drinking coffee is a serious activity in McCarthy, practically a sport. Every home has a stellar view, and people know how to sit down and savor it with a cuppa. After about 2 hours of Olympic coffee drinking, we were ready to go cross country skiing. This was the scenic highlight of our trip.

Standing by a Giant Iceberg. Photo: Ben Larson

The Kennicott Glacier terminates in a series of lakes, which flow into the Kennicott river. Our host lived on the glacier moraine, and we went from her home through the fairy forest landscape and onto the lakes.

Huge icebergs that had broken off during the summer were frozen in place in the glacier lakes. We explored a small cave in one stranded iceberg. The ceiling was filled with gems of glacier ice mixed with stalactites of meltwater ice. Towards the rear of the cave, delicate frost crystals grew on the lake and the glacier ice surface. A small opening beckoned us to squeeze farther, but it would have been a very tight squeeze.

Ice Stalactite Ceiling. Photo: Ben Larson

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At the far end of the glacier lakes we visited with a friend of our host. He immediately made us some coffee.

I came to another realization about why I love McCarthy so much while we looked out over the glacier. Everyone is a naturalist. We enjoyed some bird feeder time with our coffee. I call it “Bird TV”. Redpolls, chickadees, and grosbeaks flocked around the feeder. We listened to stories about which birds attacked with their beaks and which with their feet, what temperature it had to be to get which kind of chickadee, and a funny story of grey jays laying low on the porch to avoid a merlin. Before we left McCarthy, we would hear about an ermine taking a bath in someone’s dish tub and flying squirrels that could be petted by a homeowner who stuck peanut butter to his wall.

Ice Cave Entrance. Photo: Ben Larson

Before the temperatures really dropped, we skied back over the moraine and got going on a meal to make for our host and some of our friends.

We woke up the next morning to pouring rain. This was an unexpected and serious problem. The road was too soft to drive. We later learned that several slides came down onto the road as well. We were stuck.

Locals always have things to tie up on a rainy day. There’s always some nagging house project, and pretty frequently a group of people scratches up a poker game. Without our own projects, Ben and I were slightly more adrift, but we did the best we could to occupy ourselves.

Inside the Ice Cave. Photo: Ben Larson

Of course we drank a lot of coffee. We helped our friend with a project on her house. Ben knitted and I read and did yoga. We poked around “downtown,” and checked out the destruction of the old Golden Saloon that had finally fallen down (the New Golden Saloon is still alive and well.) We made landscape paintings on scraps of wood. Thanks to a generator and 4G Internet, we even watched a couple of movies on Netflix. I played some music for a few friends at the residence of a departed old timer that now doubles as a community center.

After a couple of days, the temperatures dropped low enough for us to attempt the drive. We checked out the road, but soon realized we should not drive all the way out. It had frozen smooth and slanted. Even with 4 wheel drive and studs catastrophe lurked. We went back to our friend’s house. We learned later that another person who had tried the road had slid around enough to turn back that day.

After another day or two, the road gained some texture from the weather. We found a set of chains we could borrow and a companion vehicle to make the drive with. The person who helped us get home was someone we don’t even know very well, but that is how it often is in McCarthy. We made it out, although we had to stop a few times to tie up exploded parts of the old chains that flapped loose along the way.

Everybody says the same thing about McCarthy, but it’s the truth. You come for the landscape and you stay for the people.

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