Travel Route: Chitina – McCarthy – Kennecott Glacier – Kennecott Copper Mill

A Flight to McCarthy: A Bird’s Eye View of the Wrangell-Saint Elias

McCarthy is only accessible by air or a 60-mile road from Chitina. I was hoping to drive, but my RV rental company said no because of the road conditions. I looked for alternatives and found that a small outfitter offers 30-minute flights to McCarthy, which is at the heart of the largest national park in the USA, Wrangell-Saint Elias. The outfitter’s website said the flights were weather-dependent, so I called the day before my planned departure, and lucky for me, they had a seat available.

Sitting in my seat, I couldn’t contain the thrill of excitement I felt. It had been a long time since I had flown on an airplane of this kind, and the anticipation was unmistakable. As the plane ascended, I was amazed to discover aerial photography. The photos were like a beautiful abstract paintings, with the details and colors of the earth below forming interesting shapes and designs. The bird’s eye view of the area was breathtaking, and I felt so lucky to have such an amazing view of the world below.

How Glaciers Form and Shape the Landscape

I had always known that glaciers were huge and that they moved, but I never knew how they formed. I learned that more snow is dropped in the mountains each winter than can be melted in the short summer. When the next winter’s storms arrive, some of the last winter’s snow remains, and more snow accumulates each year. Eventually, the buried snow is gradually compressed until it becomes solid ice. The whole mass of ice and snow begins to move downhill under its own weight. Therefore, a glacier is a river of ice.

A glacier flows down the valley following the contours of the land but also carves them, carrying immense quantities of mixed rocks known as till. As the glacier slowly moves, it leaves the till behind in its wake. These materials build up over time, creating a large mound of debris we call moraines. Moraines can be seen as large ridges, oftentimes running parallel to the glacier that formed it.

To get a better idea of what moraines are, imagine yourself with a toy bulldozer on a lawn filled with dry leaves. Pushing the leaves aside with the bulldozer is analogous to how a glacier moves and deposits its material along the way. The leaves that are pushed aside and left behind would be considered a moraine. Similarly, the leaves that are pushed forward become sediment and get deposited elsewhere, while the leaves that are left intact make up a new surface layer.

The Kennecott Copper Mill: The American System in Action

The Kennecott Copper Mill is the perfect example of how the American system works and some of its key values: discovery, ingenuity, and capitalism. In 1898, the area now known as Kennecott, Alaska, was nothing more than a small mining camp. Two prospectors, Bingham and McCarty, found a vein of high-grade copper ore and staked their claim. They began mining operations, and the Kennecott Copper Corporation was born. However, the process of extracting the copper was extremely difficult and required significant investment. The development of the Kennecott Copper Mill was a major undertaking that required the involvement of many different people and organizations. When studying American capitalism, the story of the Kennecott Copper Mill is an excellent example of the system in action. In its first year of operation, the mill produced more than $30 million worth of copper. The mill soon became one of the most important copper processing centers in the United States.

Glimpses of a forgotten era remain in the artifacts and structures of Kennecott Copper Mill. The 14-story mill building where copper ores were processed and other buildings are standing as a sentinel of history. Their interior has a unique atmosphere that evokes a sense of decay and decrepitude while simultaneously telling a unique story of the past. It is an impressive reminder of America’s westward expansion. A period defined by exploration, discovery, and technological innovation, these ruins stand as a testament to the nation’s ambition.