Archive for July, 2010

Nigh is Night

"Nuit 1" print by Aliette

Returning home from the long weekend, we approached our sleepy little town very late in the evening and it dawned on me that it was the first time I had ever seen Palmer in the dark of night with street lights aglow and my little red house shrouded in darkness.  What a strange and unusual feeling; everything so familiar yet so different. 

Illustration by Aliette is available for purchase here.


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Well, the furry variety anyway.

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Mel & Wayne (top left), Wayne & Will (bottom), Kennicott Mining Town (right)

Further on up the road we explored the mining town of Kennicott.  Here is where all the action went down!  The tallest building you can see in the picture above on the right is actually the tallest wood structure building in North America.  Impressive.  We took a free one-hour tour, led by the National Park Service, to a few of the industrial buildings including the power plant, leaching plant, and machine plant as well as a typical cottage. 

At its peak, the five mines and town employed 600 men and had one of the best hospital facilities in the vicinity, a general store, school, dairy barn, and recreation hall for movies and dances.  Over the course of its 27 years in operation, the mine produced 4.625 million ton of ore for an estimated $100,000,000 profit. It was fun to imagine what this place would have been like in its hayday.

Currently the NPS and local non-profits are working together to restore and curate existing buildings as well as gathering stories from former residents to further tell the story of Kennicott for future generation of visitors.  I would love to go back someday and explore the area further; hiking to the mines, staying at the cozy looking lodge, and filling my pockets with more azurite and malachite (don’t worry, it’s legal).

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Typical Buildings (left top & bottom), Mel & Will on bridge towards McCarthy

On another day trip from Chitina, Will, Wayne and I set off to explore the areas of McCarthy and Kennicott, which despite being only 60 miles east of where we were camped,  consisted of a two-hour one-way drive down an unpaved road.  The drive was definitely worth it for the senery alone though (we spotted one owl, a coyote, and a big pile of fresh bear scat in the road).  Once we came to end of the road we had to take a footbridge across the river to get to where we wanted to go.  Previously, when Wayne was growing up, the only way get access was to use the hand-operated tramway perched a few feet above the violently flowing river below.  Let’s just say I’m glad there’s a footbridge now because I don’t think I’d have made it across otherwise! 

The two towns were established in the early 1900’s when copper was discovered in nearby Kennicott Mountain.  McCarthy came to embody all things that Kennicott was not, that is, a place where one could illicit illegal services and products such as alcohol and prostitutes.  For many years the town thrived, eventually adding a gymnasium, hospital, and school to the roster of bars and brothels.  It wasn’t until 1938 when mining in the area slowed (due to the war and copper supplies) and eventually led to population loss.   In the 1970’s the town made a comeback by appealing to young crowds working on the pipeline and later to people interested in the history of the area.  At the time of the 2000 census, it was reported that 42 people call McCarthy home.  It was a fun little area to explore but there wasn’t much going on down that one block long strip of main street.

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Chitina Fish Wheel

Mel & The Copper River (top), Checking the Fish Wheel (bottom left), Will Claiming the River (bottom right)

Ever since I heard about a “fish wheel” a few weeks ago, and was generously invited to the Smith Fish Camp, I eagerly counted down the days before it was time to go.  In my head I imagined this huge water wheel, going round and round with bright red salmon shooting down a ramp onto the shore, and everyone busily cleaning fish in the summer sun with cool fresh water running by.  Boy was I naive.  The fish wheel actually consists of four arms, two paddles and two scooping baskets, with a holding pin under the water.  The Copper river is actually extremely wide, cold, brown, and at the time we were there, abnormally high. The weather well, it was cold, windy, and rainy.

To give you some background on fishing via wheel, the permit is issued only to Alaskan residents who claim subsistence fishing.  They are put into the river at the end of May and taken out at the end of August and must maintain a distance of 75 feet between them.  Once the wheel owner is on site, the wheel can start turning but the holding pin must be checked every ten hours and any fish removed.  The limit is 60 salmon for a household of two.

On this particular weekend, the water was abnormally high which caused numerous problems.  First of all, in order to catch any salmon the buckets must be as close to the bottom of the river as possible.  Since the water was so high it was nearly impossible to adjust the wheel that low plus the fish had many more options for navigating upstream.  Second of all, wheels were crashing left and right from the high currents and trying to get out in the river to fix any problems, not to mention checking the holding pin was extremely dangerous.  When we woke Saturday morning, the pathway to our fish wheel had been knocked off and was caught up in the next wheel’s deadman.  The guys spent all day trying to get it untangled and reassembled. 

In the end we returned with zero salmon but it was still a fun weekend adventure nonetheless.  Some of the camp is still out there so I’m crossing my fingers that conditions only improved and that the fish are rollin’ on in!

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Mel & Wayne @ Ground Zero (top), Mel @ Outhouse (bottom left), Blueberries (bottom right)


This past weekend, we enjoyed an outing to Chitina (pronounced “chitna”), approximately 200 miles southeast of our home base and situated on the boundary of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, on the edge of the Copper River. We came here for some good fish wheelin’ fun but more on that to come!  Given that the cabin [site] wasn’t far away from camp, we dedicated one day to exploring the site: documenting the landscape through photograph, taking a few measurements of the still intact outhouse, and tasting the blueberry stock growing wild on the moss-covered hill.  This was my first trip to the cabin; unfortunately I never visited before it was washed away by a huge flood in 2006.  Wayne spent many hours here and has fond memories of times spent designing and building things, hiking and fishing, and passing the time with his family.  Though it is sad to know that the cabin is no longer standing, we are excitedly dreaming about the possibilities of building another shelter with our very own hands and making memories of our own.  We plan to get back at least once more this summer to do some bushwhacking to get a better trail in (as of now one must hike in 1 mile) and make a clearing for the potential cabin site.  In the meantime we’ll keep designing and scheming a sweet little cabin in the woods.

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Mel in the Fireweed

A few shots of the lovely fireweed (epilobium angustifolium) growing madly and wildly in the field behind our house.  These perennial herbaceous plants are part of the willow-herb family and are considered “pioneer plants” as they often grown in cases where land has been disturbed such as a forest fire sites.  They have been used both medicinally and as a food source by the various native cultures in Alaska and today you can easily find fireweed jams, candies and teas in many shops throughout the state.  Blossoming from June through September it is told that as the individual flowers open in slow succession from the bottom to the top of the tall stock, one can can gauge the passing of summer and the changing of the seasons.  Thankfully, we’re not quite there yet!

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