At road’s end, instead of the National Park Service’s usual barrage of signage, there is little except a footbridge, a satellite pay-phone booth, and several privately run parking lots. We grab our packs and walk across the footbridge, then down a mile-long trail that leads to the town of McCarthy.
A cluster of private land with a historic frontier-town main street, McCarthy makes few concessions to the fact that it is the hub of the country’s largest national park (Wrangell’s headquarters is 117 miles away, outside its own boundaries). An untethered rottweiler growls at us as we walk in; an ATV zooms by; a tourist couple asks about public restrooms (there are none); some locals sit on the saloon’s porch, nursing a BYO case of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“It takes a while for McCarthy’s charm to kick in,” says Millen, who seems to know everyone in town. “But when it does, it’s the kind of place you don’t want to leave. I mean, I once walked out of the hardware store and saw a grizzly chasing a moose down Main Street.”
Millen and I begin our hike 5 miles north of McCarthy in Kennicott, site of one of the 20th century’s richest copper strikes. By 1938, the area’s most accessible veins were almost played out, and the last train departed, leaving it a ghost town of crumbling mills, general stores, houses, and hotels, which the NPS is now in the process of preserving.
Much of our hike will consist of bushwhacking and glacier-walking, but we leave town along a maintained trail that runs parallel to the Kennicott Glacier. Bathed in spring sunshine, Millen and I walk parallel to the glacier’s moraine, stepping to a soundtrack of collapsing ice walls and rocks tumbling from frozen cliffs.
In contrast to the Grand Canyon’s monumental stasis, the landscapes of the Wrangells are constantly being transformed, often on a grand scale. Glaciers advance and melt back, rivers change course, mountainsides tumble away. But about 150 years ago, as the Industrial Revolution began, the pace of melting picked up. When the mine was open, residents couldn’t see past the towering Kennicott Glacier. Now, the retreating glacier is 300 feet lower, and the town has unobscured views of Fireweed Mountain, across the valley.
“Just a few years ago, we’d be hiking on snowshoes in late May,” Millen says. On our way to McCarthy, we had stopped to visit his friend Mark Vail, a homesteader who lives off the grid. Vail told us that in the late 1980s, he counted 26 frost-free days one year. “Last year,” he says, “we had 104.”
Millen is the perfect backpacking partner–enthusiastic and backcountry-savvy, a powerful walker, an aficionado of bluegrass music and strong coffee. A native of Iowa, Millen jumped onto an Alaska-bound ferry in Bellingham, Washington in 2000, and has called himself an Alaskan ever since. Even in seven short years, Millen has seen the 49th state change, as it warms at more than twice the global average.
“Apart from scientists and native people, most Alaskans didn’t notice it until a few years ago,” says Millen. “Then we began having huge spruce bark beetle infestations, more forest fires, and invasive species coming from the south. When the permafrost started melting, we were suddenly spending more on road repairs, and people’s houses were tilting.”