I made a few glances at the weather report as the bicyclists inhabiting Gakona Lodge on Sunday morning griped that that they were in for a wet day on their two wheels. The forecast had a storm front coming in and hitting that part of Alaska by around 3 pm. Thinking about my route down to McCarthy and Kennicott, it likely meant that I had until mid-afternoon to tour the abandoned mine and make it back out to the main road so that I would not have to test my skills on slick gravel.
I still set out a little late - after lunch & gas I did not find myself riding the Edgerton Highway towards McCarthy until about noon, much later than I had planned. I did not exactly know what to expect since the ride reports on road conditions had spotty detail. The last decent spot for gas was about 7 miles in at Kenny Lake. Passing by the motel on site, I was pretty happy with my choice for Gakona Lodge the night before. Onwards the road was nicely paved but towards Chitina (about 33 miles) you do start to get some issues with payment gyrations from ground conditions. Nothing major, but just something to keep an eye on. Chitina does not have a whole lot, but there is a wayside point to take a break, and a halfway decent food truck which I stopped at on the reverse journey.
Then things start to get spotty as you merge into McCarthy Road. A bit of unpaved area along with a river bridge populated by a lot of fisherman on the Copper River. The ensuing dirt road after the bridge is in awful condition. The good part is that it does not stay that way. I have a feeling that they keep it that way to scare off the out-of-towners in RVs and cars who may not be capable of the longer dirt road conditions on the rest of the way to McCarthy. Either way, get the bike past that and you are back onto some clean pavement for 15 miles.
You reach an interesting river bridge (Kuskulana), which I thought was worth a stop. You can park the bike right after the bridge, and I walked down to the base and climbed onto the iron frame to walk to the center of the river bridge. It was a great view as long as you do not suffer from vertigo.
After that, the blacktop ends. You start down dirt and gravel. Depending on the bike you have plus the weather, you may find it is a fairly nice & easy adventurous ride through the side country of Alaska. I think the speed limit is around 35, but again depending on the bike most stretches without curves are practical to take up to 60 mph. At least for my ride, potholes were few, and the road was flat and clean. The views of Mount St. Elias came by early, and then it turned mainly to views of gravel road and scrub trees.
After 90 some miles of riding you finally reach the end of the official road. There is a day lot for the St. Elias Alpine Guides where you can park you bike and buy a pass for the shuttle to Kennecott Mine Camp.
The official tour of the Kennecott Mine Camp (which is spelled, via an accident of history, slightly different from “Kennicott” the location) is worth the $27.50 fee, mainly to get you guided access to the Concentration Mill facility. Back in the early 1900’s a couple prospectors discovered a mega deposit of copper ore, far from any civilization. Mining it for half a century, the company running the mine became rich pulling the metal from the ground and shipping back to the rest of the world. The massive complex they built to mill and concentrate the metal was abandoned by 1952, but eventually the park service took hold of it to preserve the history. The only misconception I had before coming was that I thought you could quietly explore long abandoned buildings and many discover history. At this point the National Parks control almost the entire area – some of the old buildings are now re-painted and partially rebuilt making this more of a museum than a ghost town. All the same, very cool views are found at each turn.
I headed back to the town and debated hitting the Roadside Potatohead restaurant for dinner before getting back on the road. It was already 6pm so it was probably too late to avoid getting wet from the incoming storms. I may as well have a full belly for the 4 hour ride back to the main highway. As I was walking around McCarthy I heard a shout from Wally, one of the guys I met on that day’s Kennecott Mine tour. He was sitting on the patio outside The Golden Saloon and invited me over for a beer. I bit at that and sat down to chat with with Wally, who was originally from British Columbia but now lived in Australia. He introduced me to another couple in town visiting their son who was working for the park. One beer turned into two, and the prospects of making it back onto road slowly dimmed.
My beers at The Golden Saloon were fortuitous – it led me run into one more of the refugees from my early June ferry ride to Alaska. Randomly, Ben from the UK (who had a tent right next to me on the back of the ferry) came strolling by while beers were being consumed that evening. Ben had exited the ferry in Juneau to fly to Anchorage, and then travel around Alaska in a rental car (starting in Denali and the north). It was quite random odds that like me he traveled a 90-mile dirt road to quite literally the middle of nowhere in McCarthy, the same afternoon as me. But, it gave us a good chance to catch up over a beer on Alaskan road tripping.
I decided by then that it was not worth the twilight motorcycle ride back along the Edgerton Highway that night, especially if I wanted to take the speed up a notch. Always a chance in this state that a moose or other wildlife jumps from the bush. My back-up idea was to stay at the Kennicott Hostel. That was Ben’s idea as well, and we ended up splitting the cost of a two-bed room. After checking in we hiked back to McCarthy for more evening brews.
I was considering Valdez for the next leg. Ben was as well, before he caught his flight back to Jersey (in the UK). At D2D I received a recommendation to take the motorcycle on the ferry from Valdez to Whittier then ride from there into Anchorage. And coincidentally the next one departed tomorrow morning. I also was flying out of Anchorage this week, to head home to the Midwest to visit family. The timing would be ideal for me, but I wondered if space on the ferry would be available on that short notice (and if it was not, that added 180 miles to the motorcycle trek to Anchorage).
We left the hostel in the morning – Ben had not yet toured Kennecott Mining Camp, so he stuck around for the early afternoon tour. I jumped on the bike to tackle the gravel road as early as possible and give some extra time for any bad road conditions, telling Ben I would give him a status update later that afternoon. It was a very enjoyable ride out and I made great time. Once the cell service came back online around Kenny Lake I gave the Alaska Marine Highway System reservation office a quick call. They said no more spots were available in the morning for the ferry from Valdez, even for motorcycles, but I could check in the morning and they might fit me on the boat. Since that meant a 4 am check-in with questionable prospects, I just made the call to start heading North back to the Glenn Highway towards Anchorage.
Online I found an affordable spot (Uncle Nicolai’s Inn) for the night at Copper Center, a room with two beds for $85. I sent an email to Ben on the accommodation plans if he had the interest to head that direction too. Copper Center lay along the Copper River, one of the best fishing stretches around. It was only about 25 miles from Kenny Lake so a short final ride for the day. As I rode the bike into town I passed many fisherman with waders in the Klutina River coming into the area. After check-in I came back to take a quick snapshot of them.
Ben met up with me that night after his long drive from McCarthy, and we headed on over to Copper Rail Depot Saloon, where the owner/barkeep Ron is actually a local historian of the Kennecott mines. He spent thousands of hours researching the Kennecott railroads with a keen interest in fact finding what it took to build the 52 mile underground complex of tunnels which created the copper mines. The bar itself was classic Alaskan – but as Ron pointed out to us (in an annoyed way) he does not throw any of those crazy summer solstice parties anymore (we were now at the peak of summer, which is a day famous for all-night parties in the big cities of Alaska).
Next morning (Tuesday) was the final ride before I caught my flight home and put a slight pause on this trip. I connected to the Glenn Highway which is one of the most scenic in Alaska. Wide open vistas narrow to cliff-side views of glacier fields and snow capped peaks. The weather mainly cooperated as well. Although, by today the Suzuki V-Strom looked more like a dusty squashed mosquito than a machine so a little rain would not have been a bad thing. Either way, a great cap to the first month of this 20,000+ trip across the hemisphere. By my end point in Anchorage the odometer racked up 3983, a very good start with hopefully many miles of clean driving ahead.
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