Back to Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Back to Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

After our grocery store breakdown, our plans for relaxing and enjoying Whitehorse seemed to have hit the ditches. That is, until we met up with a childhood friend of Bryan’s, Arwen, and her husband, David. We met them at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, where we got to see lots of cool northern animals including moose, lynx, and foxes.

Arwen & David visit the preserve frequently, so they know the animals well and had lots of interesting info to share! They also made us a delicious dinner of homemade pasta, which was quite the treat. Plus, they had a ton of crazy and hilarious stories from their own travels. It was nice spending time with friends who could relate to the challenges of long-term travel. So far, we had been fairly antisocial on our trip, mostly keeping to ourselves during our hostel stays. We had forgotten how enjoyable it could be to spend time with people besides each other (especially when our own interactions seemed to mostly involve arguing about hummus at this point). So our visit definitely improved our mood, and after having to put our fighting on hold for a few hours, we decided things would be better if we just continued to get along with each other.

The next morning, we stopped by David’s restaurant, The Burnt Toast Cafe, for a delicious breakfast. Then it was time to hit the road again, to Haines Junction to visit Kluane National Park. We stayed at the Wanderer’s Inn – a really nice hostel that we both loved – but some of our hiking plans had to be put aside due to the weather and an injury to Lisa’s toe.

Back to Alaska

At the hostel, we met a really tall Australian guy named Stu. He was trying to make his way to Fairbanks, so we offered to give him a ride part way, to Tok. As we had started having some disagreements again after leaving Whitehorse, having Stu along in the car was great, because we couldn’t fight while he was there. He was like a 6’6” anti-fight talisman, and we enjoyed our 24-hour reprieve. It turns out that pretending to get along can lead to actually getting along with each other (fake it til you make it). And he had some crazy stories of his own which were quite something to hear.

When we dropped Stu off in Tok, we were sad to part ways, but also excited for the next leg of our journey, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

The McCarthy Road

In order to get into the park, we had to drive an infamous stretch of 60 miles of unpaved road called the McCarthy Road. With our luck, it was in rough shape due to recent heavy rains. In fact, one of the park rangers at the visitor centre advised us against taking the road at all. However, another park ranger told us we could always check it out and turn around at any point if it became too rough. We figured it couldn’t be worse than the roads in Mexico, and our vehicle was better equipped to handle it than our rental car had been there. And the ranger had just recently sent a Hungarian family in a sedan to give the road a try. Surely if a Hungarian family could do it, we could!

We set out, and the first part wasn’t too bad. We knew it should take about 3 hours to do the road in normal conditions, and we hoped it wouldn’t take us a whole lot longer. By mile 20, we were optimistic, looking forward to getting in to McCarthy nice and early. By mile 30, things were markedly different. Potholes covered the road as far as the eye could see. We were probably averaging 5-10 miles per hour (mph), between short bursts up to 20 mph, and extended slogs as slow as 2-3 mph to navigate this road-turned-into-minefield that we had chosen to traverse. With every bump, the morale in the car got a little worse, and Bryan’s shoulders became a little more tense. Bump bump bump. Our optimistic timeline stretched from 3 hours to 3.5, and then to 4. Bump bump bump. Mouths smiling from jokes slowly slipped into gritted teeth and down-turned lips. Bump bump bump. Bump bump bump. Bump bump bump.

“I’m never doing this again,” Bryan declared, though of course every mile we drove in was a mile we would have to drive out. We continued through the morass of potholes, hitting a few small sections where the road was washed out, and passing a few large-ish rocks sitting on the road. And eventually things cleared up, with us finally arriving in McCarthy about 4.5 hours after setting out.

A Backyard Bear Encounter

One of the most memorable parts of our trip was when Lisa was at the kitchen counter of our cabin looking out the window, and saw a large black bear traipse through the garden about 3 metres away. That in itself was neat, but what really got Lisa’s heart racing was that Bryan had just gone to the outhouse, and the bear was heading right down the path towards him. She panicked for a few seconds and then opened the screen door a crack to call out and warn Bryan (fortunately for Bryan, we weren’t fighting anymore at this point).

Luckily, he heard her and stayed put inside the outhouse. He was then treated to a close-up view of the bear walking by only a few feet away, all the while thinking how unfortunate it was that the opening between the outhouse door and the roof was large enough for a decent-sized black bear to climb through. However, the outhouse held no interest for the bear, and it wandered off into the trees. We were both very relieved. And then we were annoyed that neither of us had our phones or cameras available to get a photo. Oh well, that’s what your memory is for! Here is Lisa re-enacting Bryan’s outhouse encounter (he wasn’t smiling quite as much though):


We went flightseeing with Wrangell Mountain Air, who were really great about only sending us if the weather was clear enough for us to get the full experience. Since the weather sucked, we had to postpone the flight a number of times. We ended up waiting until our last morning in McCarthy, and managed to do our 90 minute tour in probably the only good 90 minute window of weather that occurred during our whole visit. It was magical… other than both of us getting motion sick with about 10 minutes to go. It’s hard to describe in words, but we took some video, which you can see here, along with some footage from the McCarthy Road:

After we finished up in McCarthy, we had to brave the road again. After a similarly arduous drive, we made it back to the paved road, for which we had a newfound appreciation. We spotted a huge bull moose in the trees on the side of the road. Lisa snapped a photo while Bryan kept his foot near the gas pedal in case they needed to make a quick escape – you never know with moose!

Shortly after, we noticed a cow moose in the water, diving down to grab plants and then chewing away! It was a great way to finish our visit to the park.


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