Into Big Wilderness

A bush plane takes off from McCarthy airstrip

Alaska is America's big last frontier; so big you can fit 4 times the size of California in it. Its vast wilderness is even more magnified by the fact that it is the least densely populated state in the entire U.S. With 710,000 inhabitants sharing 586,412 square miles, that translates to only 1.2 person per square mile! Anyone who loves the outdoors surely have more space to romp around, not like New York's Times Square where there's probably one foreign tourist every square foot.

Alaska feels like one big national park

While there are excellent paved roads connecting major cities and towns, a big part of Alaska remains undeveloped and inaccessible by car. That's where the convenience of flying comes in. No, we're not talking about big metals like Airbus or Boeing. Bush planes, those small single-engine planes with huge tundra tires (or removable floats/skis), are the real workhorses in transporting people and goods all over Alaska. These little things have "short take-off or landing" (STOL) capabilities on just about anywhere that's flat.

Our group of six was flying in one of these bush planes later in the afternoon. Our destination?  A remote hamlet deep in the heart of the largest U.S. national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site - the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and National Preserve. With a whopping 13.2 million acres, or 6 times the size of a Yellowstone, this is a park that's as wild as it can get and an absolute "away from it all" for all those Christopher McCandless wannabe's.

Matanuska glacier

After a hearty breakfast Dave prepared, we all helped with camp chores, taking down tents and securing everything up on the van's cargo rack. We made sure we left the camp site in pristine condition. By 9 AM, we were on the road again, on Glenn Highway, admiring beautiful views of spruce forests and mountains and glaciers. Considered one of Alaska's most accessible, we stopped briefly at a vantage point just next to the road to ogle at Matanuska Glacier. This river of ice runs 27 miles from its source in the Chugach Mountains.

It was such a sunny day while we were on the road that we all can't help but feel happy about seeing the  Alaskan mountain range, considered a rarity on most days. We stopped at the Wrangell-St. Elias Park Headquarters and Visitor Center, a cluster of small buildings which include exhibits, a bookstore and a theater showing a movie about what we are going to see and experience for ourselves in the next 2 or 3 days. A quick stroll on a trail here led to a viewpoint of the Wrangell mountains.

Along Richardson Highway just outside the park's border, we walked into an open gate to see up close a section of the 800-mile long Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. Built in 1977, this was designed to transport crude oil from Alaska's frigid north down to the ice-free port of Valdez, crossing 3 mountain ranges and 30 major rivers. What really surprised me was how easy it was for anyone to just sneak in and get close to the pipes given all that obsession for security in airports and federal buildings all over the U.S. 

While standing there, looking at this pipeline, the thin line that divides oil and conservation became all the more palpable to me. It's a big issue with big consequences. Since Alaska's unemployment rate is currently at more than 7%, many Alaskans who are fed up trying to make ends meet (in a land with less manufacturing or farming) are actually now in favor of opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling for oil. Oil means jobs for them - no matter how loud the talk is about global warming, etc.

From Richardson Highway, we inched closer to Wrangell-St.Elias as we drove on paved Edgerton Highway. It was almost 3 PM, or six hours since we left that morning, and we still have about an hour to spare before flying so we stopped at the Liberty Falls State Recreation Site for a quick walk up a very steep incline to view the waterfall from a different perspective. It's not a massive cascade but the walk was energizing especially since we've been sitting on our butts a good part of the day.

de Havilland Beaver DHC-2

Dave drove us to the little airport in Chitina which is nothing but a gravel runway with a small padlocked office. As has been planned, Dave will be driving the van with our gear to McCarthy (where we meet him later that evening) while we take the 30-minute scenic flight. Just before 4 PM, our plane arrived, a vintage de Havilland Beaver operated by Wrangell Mountain Air.  Out from the plane came Bill, the pilot, who was beaming with pride as he walked to meet us and then ushered us to his 1949-built "flying half-ton truck". We each took a seat, all by the window.

Prior to this flight, the smallest plane I've been on was the 19-seater LET 410. The de Havilland can carry 8 people including pilot. Bill instructed us to wear the provided headphones to lessen the noise and allow communication between pilot and passengers (or between passengers). After Bill gave us a rundown on safety procedures, we were good to go. With its high wings, Bill maneuvered the plane effortlessly down the gravel runway and after a short take-off roll, we were airborne. There wasn't even a bump on our way up.

According to the pilot, those three tiny white dots are Dall sheep

As soon as we reached our cruising altitude, the in-flight entertainment was in full swing....outside. All of us were so smitten with the views that Bill had to remind us not to scratch the windows with our camera lenses. We were so lucky with the weather as the mountains and glaciers were all visible. There were Dall sheep and mountain goats high up in the slopes but my zoom lens unfortunately couldn't keep up. Just before we landed on McCarthy's airstrip, we flew above Kennicott and Root Glaciers, skirting the abandoned Erie Mine bunkhouse perched precariously on a mountainside. I'll take this in-flight entertainment over any movie anytime!

Kennicott glacier
Root glacier & Stairway Icefall
Erie Mine Bunkhouse
Group shot in McCarthy with the vintage plane that brought us there

There was a free shuttle waiting to whisk us straight to McCarthy's main drag but since the weather was so good, we opted to walk instead. We walked along the length of the runway and into a wooded path interspersed with a few log cabins and houses. A few minutes later, we reached McCarthy's Main Street, looking every inch like a very quaint American village. There's only 46 permanent residents. We headed straight to Golden Saloon, the area's only bar/social hub. Over mugs of Alaskan Stout beer, we reviewed the day's adventure.

Main building of Kennicott River Lodge & Hostel
Bunk beds
Our cabin. Bears not welcome.

Following Dave's sketch of McCarthy leading to the hostel, all six of us resumed walking, still energized by what we've experienced so far. It was almost 7 PM but the sun wasn't setting until 9 PM. After crossing the famous footbridge, we finally got reunited with Dave who was busy preparing dinner at Kennicott River Lodge & Hostel's communal kitchen. Our accommodations are rustic dormitory cabins with bunk beds. Even though the toilets are in the main building, we have at least the whole forest just outside in case of emergent call of nature. Now we're really talking wild. Hopefully no bears join me while I pee.

(Note: Trip was arranged by Get Up and Go!, a locally-owned adventure tour company based in Anchorage, Alaska)


  1. beautiful! specially the matanuska glacier and root glacier from the plane.

  2. incredible scenery. so jealous.

  3. Awesome views and the shots you took of them! Once again I am curious, how did you arrange all of this? Did you piece things together yourself or did you have a travel agent plan the whole thing?

    And I am slowly thinking that we're geeks of the same kind: it makes sense that you know the existence of Airliners.net!

  4. dong ho,
    I think you meant the Kennicott instead of Matanuska - both Kennicott and Root glaciers were not far from each other.

    Photo Cache,
    Do this scenic flight should you ever got back to Alaska.

    This was all part of the trip I signed up for as mentioned in the previous post. DIY requires long driving and that's not appealing.
    Yes, I'm an aviation buff and regularly check airliners.net :) now that makes us birds of the same feather haha!

  5. I would be happy just to take that 30-minute scenic flight. The thrill of the ride and the amazing view from the top are enough to make my day :)

  6. lakwatsera de primera,
    That flight was a definite highlight - I'd like to do a longer one someday since there are more glaciers and mountains worth seeing from up the air!

  7. alaska, wow. i am so envious on what you are doing that i am thinking of quitting my job and just go. (pero syempre wishful thinking lang muna yun sa ngayon).


  8. wow! first time to see your blog. so envious of your adventures! i wish someday all i would do is just travel and go around the world!

  9. Lawstude,
    thanks, I also thought about that pero dahil na rin sa mahirap nang maghanap ng trabaho ngyon, I'm keeping my job - which finances my travels :)

    Wild Butterfly,
    ah! the RTW trip is a big dream. for now, let's just do one country at a time. thanks for visiting!

  10. going to alaska never crossed my mind even on a free airfare (like this trip, you had it free, right?) but this post made me think twice, hehe!

    fantastic shots of the glacier! i also like that photo with rainbow and the absoultely-eye catching dried mangoes!

    thanks for flying us to alaska, dennis!

  11. docgelo,
    It's costly to fly from the East Coast to Alaska so the free Continental Airlines ticket from my mileage account was really a manna from heaven.

    I'm hoping you, Tina & Gabby can see and experience Alaska for yourselves - it's really worth the long flight!

    BTW, that dried mango was a bonus hehe!

  12. What a great post and gorgeous photos!!! That is one small plane - yikes!! Your words and photos take me along every step of your journey. I love Dried Mangoes too!

  13. My kind of travel! Kaya lang oldie na ako - my legs are still good for a 10 to 15 miles hike but on friendly ground with very little elevation change.

  14. Mari Sterling Wilbur,
    Thanks. Dried mangoes are one of my "outdoor snacks" -they're in your nearest Asian grocery store :)

    kaya pa ng tuhod mo ang Alaska Bert. there are plenty of knee-friendly trails there!

  15. darn! hangggggandddddaaaaa! I just recently saw the movie Into the Wild, naiyak ako sa ganda ng alaska. pero your photos are better I think.esp yung kuha sa plane. ;)

  16. thepinaysolobackpacker,
    Salamat! That movie also helped motivate me to visit Alaska (although Discovery Channel's series of shows cemented that plan).


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