The McCarthy Road, Wrangell – St. Elias National Park.

Sign warning of danger, dangerous weather and road conditions on the McCarthy Road, in winter, Wrangell - St. Elias, Alaska.

Hey Folks

Well, I’ve not got a lot to tell you, unfortunately. For various reasons, none to exciting, I’m in Anchorage until after the holiday. Around the first of the year I’ll be heading to McCarthy. Not for a trip, but for the winter. That’s right, I’ll be staying just outside a town that has about 5 people in it during the winter. I’m not sure how often I’ll get internet access, but hopefully I can work that out and stay in touch. For those of you who don’t know much about McCarthy, the photo posted here gives you a little idea. This is a sign posted by the side of the McCarthy Road as you LEAVE McCarthy, headed back OUT of the park! How often do you see signs like this warning of danger as you’re LEAVING the backcountry? The road is 60 miles of gravel road, running between the tiny rustic hamlet of Chitina, on the Park boundary at the Copper River, and McCarthy. It used to have a sign as you begin the road claiming you were entering ‘The Worst Road in Alaska”. It’s not as bad anymore, but the road does lay claim to numerous tires every year, and the odd van as well. It’s not maintained very often during the winter, from what I’m told, but hopefully will be passable. I’ve got 4 snowchains and a bag of gumption – hopefully that’ll get me around OK. 🙂

Once at the end of the road, I’ll be living in a tiny cabin in the woods; no electricity, no running water, no cable TV, and no coffee machine. I will, however, have my snow shoes, my crampons and 5 tons of fleece. It’ll be different, for sure, living in a cabin in the woods in Alaska in the winter – I’m not sure how many people have ever moved to McCarthy in January before. It’ll be quiet, I’m sure of that.

Like I said, I’ll be a few miles from McCarthy. It’s not actually possibly to drive in to McCarthy. The Road ends a 1/2 mile before you reach the town, at the Kennicott River. There’s a few parking lots there, some private and some owned by the NPS, and then you walk across a footbridge and on in to town. It’s kind of neat, though I’m sure I’ll think it’s less neat in January. Not that I have a lot of reason to go in to the town in winter – last trip there I was there, a month ago, I didn’t see a single person in town, and I think there was only one resident there at the time – most of the folks had vacated for warmer (and no doubt electrified) climes. There are other people in the area, outside of town, and it’ll be cool getting to spend some time with some of the local people.

It’ll also be great to see more of this place in the winter. I figure if I really want to photograph this park, I need to be there. Anchorage is a lot closer than Georgia, where I was previously, but it’s still a day, or even 2 day’s drive in the winter. So my plan, for now, is to head over after Xmas, probably around the start of the New Year, and stay in the cabin. I’ll be back to Anchorage every so often, of course, because there’s no food or supplies available in McCarthy – the “town” consists of 2 streets, and 2 cross streets. In the summer, you’ll probably see more dogs walking the streets than people. I’ll try to write a few more posts between now and when I take-off, and then keep you updated as often as possible. Right now I just can’t say how often that’ll be.



17 thoughts on “The McCarthy Road, Wrangell – St. Elias National Park.

  1. Ron Niebrugge

    Hi Carl,

    That makes a lot more sense then living in Anchorage – I was wondering if you wouldn’t eventually do something like that. We lived in a cabin like that we we moved to the Copper River Valley many moons ago.

    I’m surprised how few people live out there these days in the winter, there used to be more. I guess that guy from California didn’t help that any.

    Well you have a generator? If not, how will you charge camera batteries? I have a feeling Caribou Clatter is going to take on new meaning for you – I might just have to call the radio station to leave you a message! 🙂

    It should be a fun adventure. I imagine you will have plenty of stories good and bad after this winter. 🙂 I will look forward to hearing them! Just be careful man.

  2. Carl Donohue

    Hey Ron,

    I remember you telling me about your times in the cabin over there – I thought “well heck, if Ron can do it, it can’t be THAT hard”. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Yes, this winter is somewhat of an anomaly there .. even Kelly and Natalie, from Wrangell Mountain Air, are in Anchorage. Also, when I was there last month a few of the locals were gone for a couple of months or so, but they’ll be back sometime in the winter. Gary Green was one of them. But really, most people that do live in the area don’t live in the tow, but live at least a few miles outside it.

    The hardest part, I think, is going to involve the camera stuff. I did get a little generator for the batteries, etc, so we’ll see how that works. I really started to think about buying an old film camera, a bunch of AA batteries and dealing with it that way.

    I don’t wanna have any “bad” stories after this winter – I just want some good ones. Of course, if it gets too bad, I ain’t above packing my shizzle and driving back to Anchor-town. I really don’t have too much pride. 🙂

    Hope all’s well down your way.



  3. Ron Niebrugge

    Hey Carl,

    Well hopefully you don’t have any real bad stories – I’m thinking more of the kind that really aren’t so bad – the kind you are able to turn into hilarious stories with your sense of humor.

    I was just hearing about a Discovery Channel show which is just wrapping up filming where they took 4 groups of people and dropped them off at cabins in the Wrangell’s. I understand they had to step in and help some of them out. Too bad you weren’t part of that show – you could have become famous, and got a chance for some serious shooting. Maybe I should say more famous. 🙂

    Have you run into one of the Wilson brothers? I thought one of them was living out there these days.

    Are you going to get a snowmachine, or just wait for the road to be plowed.

    All is well down here.

  4. Carl Donohue

    Hey Ron,

    Thanks for the info – no, I haven’t run into the Wilson Brothers? Who are they?

    I’d love to get a snow mobile, but my last trip ate most of my funds for such accessories. I’ll be wearing out those snowshoes, I’m sure. And I’ll be on my sat phone to the DMV asking then to come plow the road when I need to do some driving.

    That Discovery program would’ve been cool to be involved in. Do you know which cabins they were in? Probably Glacier Ck. I’ve always wanted to go spend some time in the Huberts Cabin sometime in the winter, I think that area would be awesome – up the end of the Chitina River, towards Mt. Logan.

    I don’t want any bad stories, of any kind, humorous or not. 🙂 🙂



  5. Ron Niebrugge

    I went to school with the Wilson brothers. I thought my mom said one of them was living out there about a mile before the bridge – just thought you might have run into him.

    I think they did the show on some cabin in-holdings, but they were way up the Chitna River.

    Do you have a source for water, or will you have to melt snow? The one thing that stands out with me when living like you will in cold weather is how much time and work it takes just to exist. Will you keep a journal – you should.

  6. Pete Zwiers

    Hey Carl,

    You’re really going to go off the grid, eh! Sounds like quite an adventure for sure. It’ll be interesting to hear just how much time out of each day the basic chores take – especially without power or running water. Some kind of small solar charger for your laptop & camera would be pretty nice to have … otherwise a big stack of books would certainly be a necessity. Ever read War & Peace?

    Are you planning on making any overnight forays into the backcountry of the park this winter? Flying in or just hoofing it from the cabin?

    I have to admit, I’m certainly somewhat jealous on one level! But then, I just have to remember that winter hasn’t actually started yet. Cheers! 🙂

    – Pete

  7. Carl Donohue

    Hey Ron,

    I haven’t met too many of the folks out in that area yet – but dare say I will before too long. I’ll be sure to drop your name to everyone. 🙂

    Huberts cabin is way up the Chitina, but there are some private ones closer down to where Paul Klaus and Ultima Thule lodge is at.

    No, no running water, but I do have access to water via a bore – so I can cart it.

    I’ll definitely be doing some journalling over there, and writing (and reading) a heap of stuff.

    You should come visit. 🙂



  8. Carl Donohue

    Hey Pete

    Well, not THAT far off the grid – but it should be pretty cool, yes. I’m looking forward to it, definitely.

    I’m hoping to do some backcountry stuff – have spoken to a couple of pilots about drop offs, etc – it’ll depend on cash and weather and whatnot – typical stuff. We’ll see how it goes.

    As for winter, it’s been balmy here, up til the last few days. Hardly any snow at all around, although over n the park they have some more.



  9. Ron Niebrugge

    Hey I should come visit. If I do, I’ll bring a handful of newspapers!

    Yeah, Discovery was working with Paul at Ultima Thule.

    I wouldn’t think solar panels would be very effective this time of year. 🙂


  10. Richard Wong

    First time visiting your site Carl, but man this sounds like quite an adventure. I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend a winter out there, but I will definetely check back here to see what you come back with. Good luck dude!

  11. Carl Donohue

    Hey Richard,

    Thanks for coming by the site man, I appreciate it.

    Yes, I’m sure it’ll be [i]”something”[/i]. It remains to be seen how long I’ll stay in a cabin when it gets down to 40 below. Uggh! 🙂 I’ll be getting back and forth here during the winter, so I’ll try to post when possible. Also, a few folks in the area have said I could use their internet access from time to tome, so I should be able to check in reasonably regularly if all goes well. They use satellite receivers out there for internet.

    Hey Ron,

    For power, most folks use generators, though solar panels are pretty common. The fellow who owns the cabin I’m going to stay in has a whole shed set up with solar power, it heats all his hot water, and a bunch more. Works really well, but like you said, not so good in the winter. 🙁



  12. Carl Donohue

    Hey Richard

    I’ll work on some long exposure, night-time photography I think. 🙂

    Not many day light hours, although the days do start getting longer in a week or so! Here comes the solstice – woo hoo!!!!!

    Right now dawn is really about 10:00am-ish, and sunset maybe 3:30pm .. I don’t pay as much attention to the time as I should, but it seems like thereabouts – Ron probably has the times down to the nearest second. 🙂

    Lotta long nights by a fire reading, writing and playing guitar.



  13. Ron Niebrugge

    That is about right – the days are definitely short right now.

    I can’t believe I asked if you are bring a generator – of course you are, you will need it to start your truck. I hadn’t really stopped and thought about some of the challenges you will face until today while I was working out. I suppose you need a big enough generator to start your truck, but small enough to get be able to get it in the cabin to get it started. I know some people who tried to start their truck with a weed burner. I also know some people who burned up the vehicle trying to start it with a week burner. 🙂

    Does the cabin have propane lights or kerosene lanterns? Have they used this cabin in the winter? A lot of cabins have propane lights – but propane freezes in the winter. We used to wrap the regulator with insulation and keep a light bulb in with it, but you won’t have that option. Well, you can’t beat kerosene lanterns for simplicity. You are going to have to haul a lot of sutff!

    Does it have firewood, or will you have to gather some? It is super easy to split firewood in the cold – hey at least cold has one benefit!


  14. Carl Donohue

    Hey Ron,

    Thanks for all our info man – I still need to get a few things .. I think the generator is fine for the vehicle – it’s about 1500watts, so I hope so. If not, guess who just got AAA? 🙂

    The cabin is one of the old cabins originally used when they built the train line .. they had folks who walked the line every day to keep it clear, etc, and so they had these little cabins every 10 miles for them to stay in – I forget the name they had for that – something – anyway, it’s been lived in pretty well – and the folks who own it set it up with extra insulation, etc. Regarding propane, the fellow who owns it says they use propane all the time – he’s lived in McCarthy since the 50’s – longest resident of the town. so we’ll see how that works – if it freezes I’ll just pack up and move into his house and tell him to go live in the cabin. 🙂

    There’s some firewood cut, but not an awful lot – I’m a pretty amazing wood chopper – my dad will attest to that I’m sure, when he chimes in.

    By the way, per your email -“down booties” cost less than 40 bucks. Get yourself and Janine a couple of pairs! 🙂



  15. Ron Niebrugge

    Hey Carl,

    Sounds like a really cool cabin!

    Interesting they haven’t had problems with the propane – maybe it doesn’t get as cold as what we used to get down by the river. I guess it doesn’t get near as cold in general. Kind of funny – I remember the propane would stop working when the temperature starting dropping to near 50 below – I incorrectly assumed it was freezing. I just did a quick search on google, turns out the boiling point of propane is -44. I guess it wasn’t freezing, it just doesn’t turn to a gas – it remains a liquid.

    Maybe this doesnt apply anymore, but in the “old” days, parking brakes would freeze on in real cold temps. To this day I don’t use mine because it is a hard habit to break when its cold. Maybe it won’t get cold. 🙂

    How far out the road will you be?


  16. Carl Donohue

    Hey Ron,

    It gets pretty cold – maybe not 60 below, but certainly down to 40 below, even lower sometimes. I’m gunna email Jim tomorrow about the propane .. he’ll know. he knows all that stuff.

    What’s a parking brake?

    I’ll be almost at the end of the road – you turn right about 1/4 mile before the footbridge, and go down parallel to the river. I’ll be a coupla miles off the road, so traffic shouldn’t keep me awake at night. 🙂



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