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March 2003

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Monument of Ice and Stone

By John G. Mitchell
Some people like their landscapes tamed and tidy. Some folks don't. Some like them wild, remote, large, and lonely—say, like Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in southeast Alaska. Here is a landscape that could swallow all of Switzerland. It could swallow you too, if you'd let it.

At the park's headquarters near Copper Center—four hours by car from Anchorage, five if you take some time with the roadside views—a new visitor center had just opened when I dropped by. It was empty. So was the parking lot. Over at the administration building, Gary Candelaria, the superintendent, said an accurate head count of visitors was impossible because Wrangell-St. Elias has no tollbooths or entrance fee. "We're not about numbers of visitors," he said. "We're about the preservation of natural ecosystems." Still, his best guess, for visitors, was between 30,000 and 60,000 a year. That top figure is what Great Smoky Mountains National Park might expect on a summer weekend. Moreover, a visitor can't really experience this park the way one might driving through Yellowstone or Yosemite. There is no through here, only over. "It's a flyover sort of park," Candelaria was saying. "It's so spread out. To get any real sense of the place, you have to go up in the air."

At Glennallen, just up the road from Copper Center, charter pilot Lynn Ellis talked for a while about the scale of the place. "Once in a while," Ellis said, "we get someone who thinks you can see the whole park in a couple of hours. 'Well,' I say, 'I've got a plane that can do 140 miles (225 kilometers) an hour for four-and-a-half hours before refueling. And even then, you won't see the half of it.'"

No wonder. At 13.2 million acres (5.3 million hectares), Wrangell-St. Elias is far and away the largest unit in the entire National Park System, nearly six times the size of Yellowstone. With Canada's Kluane National Park and Tatshenshini-Alsek Park next door, and the United States' Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve just around the corner, Wrangell-St. Elias and its neighbors embrace a United Nations World Heritage site that is the largest internationally protected wildland on Earth.

Four majestic mountain ranges converge here: the outliers of the Alaska Range on the north, the volcanic Wrangells—part of the Pacific Rim's Ring of fire—merging into the St. Elias Mountains in the center of the park, and the snaggle-toothed Chugach confronting the Gulf of Alaska on the southwest. Mount St. Elias tops out at 18,008 feet (5,489 meters), the highest peak in the U.S. after Denali. Mount Wrangell, a 14,000-footer (4,267-meter), remains tectonically active; plumes of steam occasionally rise hundreds of feet above its icy summit.

There is no shortage of ice in the high country. Moist maritime air colliding with the coastal mountains annually deposits up to 50 feet (15 meteres) of snow, enough to nourish scores of glaciers. The Malaspina, North America's largest piedmont glacier, sprawls at the foot of the St. Elias Mountains across an area nearly half the size of Delaware. The Nabesna, flowing north from the Wrangells, is said to be among the longest nonpolar valley glaciers in the Western Hemisphere.

Gray rock, blue ice. Peak after peak, valley after valley. And wilderness—9.6 million congressionally designated acres (3.8 million hectares) of it, a tenth of the entire National Wilderness Preservation System right here in one largely untrodden, wonderfully untamed, magnificently underappreciated national park.

Flying charter was not an option for the early explorers who came here to put names on the emptiness of the map. St. Elias? That was Vitus Bering's contribution in 1741. The summit was the first piece of the Alaska mainland to catch the seafarer's shoreward eye. Cruising the coast, Bering named a cape on the feast day of an obscure saint, Elias. Mapmakers later sainted the mountain. A half century later Alessandro Malaspina sailed into Yakutat Bay in search of the fabled Strait of Anian—the long-sought western portal of the Northwest Passage. What he found instead was a wall of ice. So the cul-de-sac came to be known as Disenchantment Bay. And Malaspina would get his name on a glacier.

Fast-forward a hundred years and behold the May 29, 1891, issue of National Geographic.

Here is Israel C. Russell of the U.S. Geological Survey (and a co-founder of the National Geographic Society) with a 114-page account of the previous year's expedition "to study the geography, geology, and glaciers of the region around Mount St. Elias" and to ascend that unclimbed peak as well. It would be the two-year-old Society's first sponsored exploration, a venture personally financed in large part by its first President, Gardiner G. Hubbard. In gratitude Russell attached Hubbard's name to a 15,000-foot (4,572-meter) mountain and a 75-mile (120-kilometer) river of ice—in Russell's view the "most magnificent of the tidewater glaciers of Alaska yet discovered." And in tribute to Russell, the U.S. Geological Survey later attached his name to the fjord at the Hubbard Glacier's foot.

After two attempts under blizzard conditions to reach the top of Mount St. Elias, Russell was obliged to turn back, but his mapping of potential routes enabled an Italian duke to succeed a few years later.

About this same time, prospectors were coming into the country, lured by the promise of Yukon gold and later by the discovery of a high-grade lode of copper almost dead center in what is now Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

In 1906 Kennecott Mines Company staked its claim near the Chitina River, a tributary of the Copper River, and soon a 196-mile (315-kilometer) railroad was a-building to haul the ore out to the coastal port of Cordova. By the time the lode was exhausted and the operation shut down in 1938, Kennecott had mined more than 4.5 million tons (4.08 million metric tons) of ore valued at some 200 million dollars. Alas, the miners were not as proper at names-making as the explorers had been. The copper company was supposed to have taken its identity from the Kennicott Glacier, which in turn had been named after Robert Kennicott, an early wayfarer in the Great Land. The company never got around to replacing the errant e with the proper i.

In any event, long before names favoring the memory of some plush patrician, forgotten saint, or frostbitten scout began filling the blanks on the map, the oral tradition of the indigenous Native American peoples had already identified some of the same physical features. Thus while the Athapaskan Ahtna people called an active volcano K'elt'aeni, meaning in rough translation, "The One That Controls" the weather, newcomers graciously named it for Baron Ferdinand Petrovich von Wrangel, an early governor of Russia's Alaska territory, handing the baron an extra l in the process.

So vast and seemingly uninhabitable is this landscape, I find it astonishing to imagine it rimmed with traces of aboriginal habitation, some dating back almost to a time when Alaska was just getting out from under nothing but ice. But the Park Service reports the presence of scores of archaeological sites and ancient hunting camps used by the paleolithic predecessors of such cultural groups as the Athapaskans (on the north and west of the park), the Eyak Indians (near the Copper River Delta), and the Tlingit (at Yakutat Bay and along the Malaspina forelands). Today upward of 4,000 people, both Anglo-Alaskan and Native American, live in the little hamlets of the Copper Basin around the park, or on the million acres of private lands within it. For many of them, Wrangell-St. Elias is more than a place of rock and ice. With Dall sheep among the crags and moose in the sloughs of the wooded lowlands, the park continues to serve the traditional subsistence needs of the local people.

Some outsiders—"outside" being the Alaskan's term for the lower 48—have a problem with the idea of hunting in the national parks of the Great Land. Outside, hunting isn't permitted in park system units listed officially as national parks, so how come it's permitted here? Well, the realities of rural Alaska are how come. When President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, establishing Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and bringing a half dozen other big wild areas into the Park System, a policy embedded in the legislation recognized rural Alaska's longstanding reliance on fish and wildlife. The policy allows local rural residents to hunt for subsistence in the areas set aside as national park. But nonresidents and sport hunters, from, let's say, Fairbanks and Anchorage, may hunt only in the areas designated national preserve. (About two-thirds of Wrangell-St. Elias is park; the rest, preserve.) What's more, while motors are prohibited in wilderness areas in the lower 48, the rule book here allows for traditional forms of transportation. In backcountry Alaska, that means snow machines and fixed-wing aircraft.

The Glennallen charter pilot Lynn Ellis, for example, flies a regular mail and air service into McCarthy, near the Kennecott mill site, and often ferries hunters and backpackers up to Nabesna, where his two brothers run a guiding business. Each community lies at the dead end of a gravel road—the only two roads inside the park. The washboarded one that leads 60 miles (97 kilometers) from pavement to McCarthy claims bragging rights as the worst road in Alaska. "Be prepared for flat tires," the brochures warn. No wonder many folks would rather take to the air.

Drake Olson does his flying in Wrangell-St. Elias's southeast corner. We got into a little airplane, and Olson pointed its nose toward Disenchantment Bay and the Hubbard Glacier.

For a big sliver of ice in the age of global climate change, the Hubbard had been acting strangely. Scientists report that most of Alaska's glaciers are slowly receding. Yet here was the Hubbard going the other way; not only that, but advancing so far into Disenchantment Bay as to close off the mouth of Russell fiord, thereby turning the fjord into a lake.

"Well, look at that," Olson said as we banked over the headland of Gilbert Point. Just a month or so earlier he had seen the Hubbard's terminal moraine jammed tight against the gray nose of the point. Now, the dam formed by the moraine had been washed away, and 400 feet (122 meters) of open water separated the ice from the point. "Lake Russell's a fjord again," Olson said.

Onward to the Malaspina. This one is reported to be shrinking, but you'd never know it. From 2,000 feet  (610 meters) it looked to me like a giant saucer of vanilla ice cream with bands of chocolate-fudge ripple—the scoured grit of mountainsides—meandering through. To the north, between the rim of the saucer and the scrim of the clouds, we could see the lower slopes of the St. Elias range on the Yukon border—Mount Cook, Mount Augusta beyond the Malaspina-feeding Seward Glacier, and, straight on, the Samovar Hills shrouding the knees of St. Elias itself.

Then the clouds started tumbling down, so we turned around and headed for the coastal village of Yakutat. That's the way it has to be, sometimes, in big, lonely country. When you can't see the top of the mountain, then you've got a problem if you can't be content just knowing it's there.


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