Kennecott, Alaska: Seeking Answers to the Questions

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My dad, Buddy, AKA “Grandpa Points” has a love for travel as fierce as mine, yet our travel patterns are distinctly different. He and my mom are now in their mid-60’s, are (mostly) retired, DSCN4512and are ticking off “bucket list” destinations quicker than they ever thought possible thanks to miles, points, and travel deals.  They have an intense love of this country, of its National Parks and treasures, and have no problem with a clean budget hotel room and an economy airline seat on a budget airline as long as it gets them where they want to be.  A photographer by trade, his adventures are usually captured not just in his mind, but in his camera.  He shares his thoughts and travels here from time to time, and I’m excited to share another one of their adventures.

Check out their previous posts on Alaska to read about the complete adventure, including the role miles and points played in the journey.

At Last, Alaska

Shedding Some Light on the Midnight Sun

The message was subliminal but obvious. Satellite photos and Google Earth images were showing an unusual and suspicious amount of activity in an isolated part of Alaska.                                                                                    DSCN8563                         DSCN9000

“Our mission”, if we chose to accept it, was to secretly investigate the legendary Kennecott Mine site to look for the reason behind the increased traffic. Was there buried treasure, UFO sightings, a Russian attempt to reclaim the territory?

 

There was something going on and it was our duty as good American travelers/covert agents to accept the mission and uncover the answer. Our cover was that of three sixty somethings on a once in a lifetime trip to Alaska. We did the typical touristy things and blended in inconspicuously, unnoticed. And then, after a week of hotels, tours and sightseeing, we made a sharp turn down an unmarked dirt road and went off grid. Our tracks were not traceable, our paper trail non existent. We were running silent. It was exhilarating but we had the calmness of trained biathlon athletes. We were ready.

 

 

 

 

Kennecott is remote even by Alaskan standards. We could have driven for 2 hours on 60 miles of unpaved road that many deem as unsafe, but we decided to fly in under the radar in a bush plane we contracted using aliases. We met the plane at an isolated, almost deserted, gravel landing strip. DSCN8543

 

Words were few as we strapped in for our 30 minute flight.

 

 

 

The plane climbed and flew slowly as we weaved a course in valleys between peaks.

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We shot through mountain passes and held our breath through tight ridged gaps.

DSCN9707And when we crested the mountain summit, we saw beauty, sheer beauty.                                                                                                                  DSCN9440

It truly felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie. We were confident we were undetected except for the mountain goats and sheep that gave us only a cursory glance. We flew over the extended arms of ancient glaciers that seemed to point the way like the Lines of Nasca might have done for ancient astronauts. DSCN8649

Soon, a clearing became visible and our plane sat down and coasted to a quiet stop. We were told to be back in 50 hours and for us not to be late. Or, else….!

We quietly made our way to Kennecott to begin our “undercover work”. And speaking of under cover work, we checked into the Kennecott Glacier Lodge, a comfortable and homey retreat on the side of a lush hillside. DSCN8569

Maybe it was just our trained mind control, but a relaxed,  peaceful and lowered blood pressure tranquility soon engulfed us. Our conspiratorial side raised the possibility that maybe it was a counter espionage sleep gas that was affecting us. We reached for our emergency epi-pens but declined their use as the calmness felt so natural. We decided to sit down on the long, open veranda and take in the view and soon we were welcomed by the aroma of nearby bountiful hanging baskets.

Our mission could surely wait while we recharged our batteries. If something sinister was about, it sure was being quiet. Soon, the sweet floral fragrance was joined by a mixed delicious sensory delight of fresh baked bread, stuffed pork chops, seasoned greens and topped off with a hint of a warm cobbler. We all agreed that a good meal would fit into the overall strategy. We were surprised to see about 20 other normal looking people joining us for dinner. What attracted these people to Kennecott? We would keep our eyes and ears open. After dinner we retreated to our room to compare notes. The food was great, the other guests and staff were amiable, the atmosphere was warm and cordial and the cool mountain air was intoxicating. Okay, enough of the pleasantries. We had a job to do and we would get serious first thing in the morning.

Our sleep was deep and was interrupted only by the smell of breakfast wafting down the hall. Bacon, eggs, fresh rolls and fruit were our alarm. We arose with a smile. A quick bite and then…to work.

We surveyed the land and saw a few simple buildings just below the lodge. Two were marked  as “guide services”, the other some sort of store/art gallery/ souvenir and book store. DSCN8599DSCN9685

These were surely fronts for the suspicious activity we suspected was here. We visited each and found very friendly folks wanting to be of service. Whatever these people were hiding, they were real pros at it. We scheduled a tour of the main mill. This 14 story structure dominated the landscape and surely would provide us the insight we were searching for. DSCN8638

Guides were also available for treks to the nearby glacier, river rafting, ice climbing, fishing and flightseeing. We would investigate these options as needed. As we walked along the old railroad bed that now serves as the main street, we passed multiple buildings that were all the same color as the mill, an earthy barn red tone. Everywhere you look you see the same color. It must mean something. Maybe, it has an impenetrable shield like lead to an x-ray and keeps imagery from seeing what is inside. Our guide said it was just the cheapest paint. Oh, sure it is, we thought.      Our minds were filled with a thousand questions as we scaled the abrupt hillside to reach the top of the century old mill. DSCN9513The view was impressive as were the thoughts of the tons and tons of high grade copper that had been carried to this point by ore cars from the mines miles away.

DSCN9522The ore was some of the purest copper ever found and it was processed in this complex that had been both state of the art and a work of art. This operation highlighted capitalism, industry and ingenuity at its best. We lost track of our real mission as we went down floor by floor. Each level had its own wow factor. While there is much restoration needed, the magnificent core construction, superb craftsmanship and beautiful equipment stands as a testament to American quality of that period.

It was like walking in a museum.

We toured the bunkhouses, school, rec center, hospital, company store, post office, dairy barn, meat locker and main office. They were all living, breathing history books of a twenty five year period where thousands of individual puzzle pieces came together to create one enormous and successful picture. EVERYONE here was connected to the mine. DSCN8575

A nearby town, McCarthy, sprang up to support the mine and apparently served as a “what happens in McCarthy stays in McCarthy” type relief valve.

We scoured all the buildings with wide open eyes. It all looked so legit. No sign of an illegal casino, chop shop, counterfeit operation or Kryptonite production that could be drawing the people to this out of the way destination.  We decided a tour of the land might give us the clue. We thought for sure we had found it when, after just a short hike, we stumbled on a dilapidated  shack that was claiming to be a jewelry store.

DSCN9467What? Why not a tuxedo rental store? Surely, that would make as much sense. We entered suspiciously and were met by two engaging gentlemen straight out of The Lord of the Rings. Speaking of rings, we left with 3, a pouch of interesting rocks, a negative $300 and a memory of a pleasant conversation. Darn, and we thought we had them there.

We continued our re-con into the nearby surrounds. We passed a roaring waterfall and a cascading stream. DSCN8574 We saw flowers and fern fresh from Eden and hiked a lovely path to the foot of the glacier and threw rocks at imaginary targets as if we were kids.

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And as we reached for another stone to toss, we noticed small and dynamically colored stones of blue and green. One here, two there. Very small, very powerful, three more underfoot. We must have looked like we were looking for a dropped contact lens. Our heads were down our arms outstretched harvesting our treasure.DSCN8644

Comparing our finds, relishing our discovery of such simple pleasures, we filled our pockets till the sun tucked itself in. We made our way back in the twilight to the lodge and its culinary delights. We were not disappointed with the day or the dinner.

In our room we scanned the hundreds of photos we had taken looking for the something we must have missed. We kept coming up empty. The next dawn brought with it our last few hours on the ground. We made our way to the mill again, taking more photos, even a selfie or two. DSCN8578DSCN8616

Why are we smiling so?DSCN8584

This is serious business and time is short. We reached down for another turquoise nugget and added it to our stash. We longingly stared at the area and added a few extra mental memories to our already full trove. We sighed and headed to our rendezvous with our plane. As we flew away, our thoughts were conflicted. We had not found that secret reason why so many were seeking Kennecott out.

Why were the sirens of Kennecott calling out to so many? There must be a reason, there just must be. We had only found beauty, serenity, friendship, adventure, a comfortable bed, mouth watering food and the unique smell, the special sounds and the reinvigorating air and joy that only comes with time spent in the mountains. And we had found all this wrapped around a site of explosive history where you could hear the ghostly echoes of lives long since past and witness the monument they had left with a legacy as rich as the ore they had mined. We may just have to go back to that lure of the lore and look again. We just don’t get it.

Wait a minute, what did we just say? We need to read that last part again, out loud. Hmm, wow, maybe we do get it. Kennecott, we do get it!  You are magical and magnificent, you are historical and heavenly, you are natural and man made. You are the reason people are coming. You are Kennecott and we are glad we met.

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Comments

  1. You should give a spoiler alert. There is a TV Show EDGE OF ALASKA on Discovery that is all about McCarthy and one person spear-heading the movement to open the mine and surrounding to tourism. He was looking at having something like a tram to carry you up the mountain.

    • Wow, how interesting! We will have to watch the appropriate episode(s). I was going to include a few photos of McCarthy, but, the blog was already quite full. Thanks for the heads up about the show and for being a reader of Mommypoints.

  2. Until reading your stories (and they truly are short stories!), I had no inclination to see Alaska. Now, I do. Had never heard of this historic landmark. The pictures and accompanying text were terrific as usual!

    • We had never heard of it either before we started our trip research. We truly like ghost towns and monuments to our past. Have you been to Bodie, California? The ultimate ghost town is worth the effort. Kennecott became one of must sees and we were most happy we made the choice. Thanks for the great compliment you shared.

  3. I felt compelled to comment on this post as an Alaskan resident. The road to Kennecott is just a normal gravel road. You can drive it in a regular car, albeit there will be the normal car rental restrictions for driving a gravel road. You do not have to take a plane. For further clarification, you can drive to the town of McCarthy, and then there is a regular van service that will transport you from the town of McCarthy to Kennecott. There is a campsite at McCarthy (the lodge in Kennecott is not a chain, and there are no chain hotels in that area for miles). Just wanted to offer some clarification for those who may not be able to afford the flight there (that flight likely was a private charter that did not use airline points).

    I like this blog and don’t mean to be critical; I just wanted to avoid the viewpoint many reality shows take on Alaska. Kennecott is very worthy of a visit, and glad you enjoyed our beautiful state!

    • Thanks for taking the time to read the story and for being a Mommypoints follower. We had planned initially on driving the road as our research had indicated most everyone now travels the road safely and with no issues. Our car rental company, from which we had secured a fantastic rate, did not allow its use on this road. So, we opted for the flight route. It was expensive, by our standards, but a special adventure in itself. It was my intent in this blog to create a story that provided both an interesting approach of narration as well as a positive report on a fascinating area. My original written report was very straight forward and, when finished, did not entertain or excite me. I let it lie and went a more creative direction. I believe the story does nothing but illustrate the beauty, the allure and the very compelling history of Kennecott. I apologize if my intent and style was unsuccessful.

  4. Also, one other clarification—it is incorrect to call McCarthy remote by Alaskan standards because it is still reachable by roads. Most part of the state are not connected to the road system–those are remote. McCarthy is more of a popular 3-day weekend destination for people who live in Anchorage. I highly recommend going there during the 4th of July.

    Alright, off my Alaska soapbox now; I just didn’t want people to think this place is impossible to visit without a bush plane.

    • Sorry again. The reference to remote was more of a figurative statement to embellish the story than a literal one. It was just part of the storytelling. I obviously enjoyed Kennecott and hope that part got through. I do understand that the 4th of July celebration in McCarthy/ Kennecott is a much anticipated and enjoyable event.
      Thanks again for sharing your opinions.

  5. Having visited Kennecott several times, I will also note that this is a pretty easy drive — at least for anyone who’s ever driven off a paved surface. The mine is interesting, although not as interesting as 20 years ago before the NPS “secured” everything and made it more museum-like. Also, the glacier keeps receding so it’s a little less pretty. That said, it’s certainly one of the more adventurous places you can get to in Alaska by road, so well worth the trip.

    I’d also note that the (overpriced) Alaska Toursaver book usually has a 2 for 1 coupon for the Kennecott Lodge, which makes it more affordable (assuming you can get your money’s worth out of the Toursaver book by also using a couple other coupons).

  6. If we were to ever get the opportunity to return to Kennecott/McCarthy, I would make the drive for the adventure, the scenery and the Kuskulana River bridge. I would anticipate the road and the car rental companies will reach a friendly accord in the next decade. I have never heard of The Alaska Toursaver book but a 2 for 1 at the lodge would be a pretty substantial benefit. Thanks for writing and adding to the discussion.

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