"Carry these rocks with you", our guide Dave told us. For a moment I was perplexed what they were for. He wasn't saying anything more but he truly meant something. So off we followed him down the path, each of us carrying a large piece of rock weighing at least 15 pounds. Soon, we were at the base of Kuskulana Bridge, spanning across this deep canyon while below us was this raging river fed by glaciers in the Wrangell mountains. This was just a stop in our road trip from McCarthy to Valdez - on McCarthy Road.
|McCarthy Road begins in Chitina...|
|...and ends at the footbridge in McCarthy|
On our way to the tiny town of McCarthy, we flew half-hour on a bush plane - the easy, comfy and extremely scenic way of traveling within the state. While I would have wanted that again, the opportunity of driving through the entire 60-mile (96.5 km) length of this legendary road was also very exciting. It is unpaved, sometimes rotten after a heavy downpour, taking usually 3 hours to travel each way. I wasn't worried about the driving part - we had Dave thankfully to do that for us.
McCarthy Road is the only road that connects McCarthy to the rest of civilized Alaska (most of Alaska doesn't have roads anyway, hence the popularity of bush flying). A good part of the road follows what used to be the railway that brought copper ore from Kennecot Mines down to Cordova 196 miles away. It was officially called the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, popularly nicknamed "Can't Run and Never Will". The road which starts in Chitina ends at the footbridge in McCarthy.
After a filling brekkie at the Kennicot River Lodge & Hostel, we all secured our backpacks to the van's roof rack. It was a cloudy day, intermittently raining, far different from the plentiful sunshine we've enjoyed while in McCarthy and Kennicot. By 10 AM, we were already moving down the road at a much slower speed due to potholes (although not really as bad as I have expected. I've seen much worse, like the road going to Siem Reap, Cambodia from Thailand's border).
While the clouds kept most of the nearby mountains hidden, we were at least treated to some attractions along the way. First, there was a coyote. I was really hoping for a brown bear but the sight of this wild animal stopping right in the middle of the road while staring at us was memorable. It would have been a much longer interaction with this solitary animal had it not been shooed by other over-enthusiastic travelers on another vehicle.
What's perhaps the most ambitious project made as part of the railway construction was the 775-feet deck truss bridge that spans a deep canyon where the Kuskulana River swiftly flow through. This was a herculean task that was accomplished in the dead of winter in 1910. From being a railway bridge, it was eventually turned into a vehicular bridge with some recent modifications to allow for a much safer passage. It was just before we crossed the bridge that Dave got us those rocks.
"We're going up there", Dave motioned to us. We were standing at the base of the bridge. He quickly clambered up a support column and into the catwalk that led all the way to the opposite end. I was terrified at what we were doing. Was this even legal in the first place? I guess it's not as long as no one else was looking. One after the other, we followed suit, hoisting our heavy rocks along. As I began walking on the steel catwalk, I couldn't help but feel giddy - it's 238 feet below and it sure does look very much like a long way down.
When Dave reached the middle part of the catwalk, he merely tossed the rock down to the river below. A few seconds later, we heard this big sound of a "plop" as the rock hit the water. Ah, so this was what the rocks were for. We took turns like kids playing in the park. There's joy in seeing gravity at work. Plop. Plop. And more plop. What a nice diversion it is from just sitting on our butts in the van.
"Does anyone care to bungee jump?", Dave finally asks everyone. I thought he was kidding but I could see the spark in his eyes. He's done so many crazy things, many of them just at random. He confided doing it right there, jumping from the catwalk while tethered to a rope. We all looked at each other but no one was ready to bite the free offer. "I have the ropes in the van", he confidently says, " just in case you changed your minds."
No one among us changed his mind.
We drove the next few miles into sleepy Chitina where we shared a late picnic lunch. We may say no to bungee jumping - especially in the middle of nowhere - but not to food when we're already starving. It's another long drive to Valdez.
(Note: Trip was arranged by Get Up and Go!, a locally-owned adventure tour company based in Anchorage, Alaska)