Visiting McCarthy, AK

McCarthy, Alaska is located across the river at the end of a sixty mile dirt road (known as the worst road in Alaska) in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. A foot bridge provides access to McCarthy. There are two ways for outsiders to get to McCarthy - fly or walk across the footbridge. If you have not read the previous blog post, End of the Road, you might want to do so before reading this post since it provides some background information about McCarthy.

We flew to McCarthy since the driving option did not sound very attractive and flying offered the benefit of seeing Wrangell-St. Elias National Park from the air. The plane we flew in on was the plane that provides mail service and package delivery to McCarthy twice a week. Boxes were addressed with a name and McCarthy, AK; there were no street addresses because there are no street addresses in McCarthy. There is no TSA at the Gulkana Airstrip. The pilot asked if we had bear spray (I did). The bear spray could not travel inside the plane so he duck taped it to the outside of the plane for the trip.

The plane was packed with just enough room for the pilot and three passengers. The flight was through towering mountains and past glaciers larger than Rhode Island - stunningly beautiful. We landed on a dirt airstrip and were greeted by many of the citizens of McCarthy. Mail day is a big event in McCarthy. The mail is taken off the plane by McCarthy residents to a tiny shack where the mail is sorted into cubby holes with various names on them. There is no post office, no postmaster and no post office employees. The people who live in McCarthy do the work. Once the mail was sorted, we were loaded into a pickup truck and taken to town.

There are no paved roads in McCarthy, there aren't even gravel roads. The roads are dirt. There are no sidewalks, no parking spaces, etc. There are vans owned by the various outfitters and businesses, a good number of vehicles that do not look like they are roadworthy, a couple of pickup trucks and quite a few dirt bikes and four-wheelers. Dogs are not leashed in McCarthy and they roam throughout the town occasionally running through the saloon or stoping by the few local businesses for a chat. The residents seem to know them all by name - by the time we left, we knew several of the dogs' names.

McCarthy is pretty isolated - there are no TVs and little communication with the outside world. The big news while we were there was that a bear was swimming in "the bathtub" a small lake on the edge of town that the locals use for swimming and bathing; the local that "got a little crazy" and flipped his four-wheeler was big news; a forest fire that could be seen from Kennicott was also frequently discussed.

We had a room booked at the historic Ma Johnson Hotel. The hotel lobby looks as if it is out of the 1800's except for all the cellphones, tablets, cameras, etc. sitting around charging. The hotel does not have electrical outlets in the rooms. The lobby has powerstrips for guests to charge their devices. People hook up their device and go out exploring for the day or hook up their device before going to bed at night. Our room was upstairs. With no government, there are no building codes in McCarthy. The stairs were at most six inches wide and at a very sharp angle. Guest rooms do not have bathrooms, there are three bathrooms for all to share. Each room has one overhead lightbulb. In our room, there was barely enough room to walk around the full-size bed. At the end of the bed there is a little more room - but only because the door has to open. Our room had a corner shelf hanging in one corner and a few hooks on the opposite wall. On the bed were towels, bathrobes, slippers and small handmade bars of soap. There was a small window behind the bed that provided air conditioning (or not). We were late booking a room so our room may not have been the norm for Ma Johnson's, but I suspect the other rooms were not much different. We were just grateful to have a room. The rooms at Ma Johnson's do not have locks on the doors.

The owner of the hotel and many of the other businesses in McCarthy built a "power plant" to provide electric for his businesses. The hotel, lodge and restaurants have running water, but based on talking with the McCarthy residents, I do not think any of the houses have electric or water. The only home energy source (other than wood) that anyone seemed to have was propane. Water is carried from a spring-fed stream to the houses. Clothes are washed in a wash tub and hung on a line. Baths are taken in the wash tub in winter and in a lake the locals call the swimming pool in warmer weather. Most of the summer guides live in tents in the woods.

The citizens of McCarthy seem very friendly and very interested and concerned with the welfare of their neighbors. We met several of the locals and they were eager to share info about how they live, McCarthy and Wrangell-St Elias. The Golden Saloon is the center of town and the social hub of the community. Visitors and locals eat breakfast and dinner at the saloon. After dinner the locals hang out on the small deck. Since there isn't much seating on the deck, four-wheelers are pulled up alongside to provide more seating.

McCarthy has all kinds of social activities and events - Tuesday Night at the Races, Open Mic Night on Thursday, Friday Night Softball, dances, parties, etc. According to all the locals we talked with everyone attends these events. Other big days are mail day (every Monday & Thursday) and truck day (every Thursday). If something keeps the mail or truck deliveries away, everyone is upset. One of the summer residents (a 73 year old woman) told us a story about one of the recent community events - a prom. Her date for the prom was a 20-something year old guide. She was crowned prom queen. The theme for the prom was spirit animal and everyone ordered their outfit from Amazon. One local told us there was so much going on he couldn't keep up. Fortunately activities and events are posted on handmade signs at the Saloon.

There is something very endearing about McCarthy and its citizens. Initially I thought it would be a great place to live - it is in a beautiful setting, everyone seems happy, life seems simple. After learning that for most of the people who live in McCarthy, there is no running water and no electricity, when I started thinking about living in McCarthy on a daily basis I realized it is a hard life.

We were to fly out of McCarthy on a rainy, foggy Thursday. A couple of hours before we were supposed to leave, Martin told us that flights were on hold. Ultimately flights were canceled. Dean, one of the locals, had wrecked his four-wheeler and had to be taken to the hospital in Anchorage. Dean was to be the fourth person in our plane. The back up plan was to drive us to GlennAllen (where we flew from) and then fly Dean on to Anchorage. There was concern about the condition of the 60 mile dirt road, but Dean had to get to the hospital. Community members were upset because the mail was not going to be delivered and if the road was in bad shape the big delivery truck might not make it either (Thursday is truck day). The plan to get Dean to Anchorage was a van would leave from GlennAllen heading to McCarthy and a van with passengers from McCarthy would head toward GlennAllen. When the vans met, the passengers would be transferred from one van to another.

We loaded the van, crossed the Kennicott River on the narrow wooden bridge, passed through the gate (which was locked behind us) and headed on a bone jarring trip to Glenn Allen. Our McCarthy adventure was over - the gate to McCarthy was locked to outsiders once again.

Helpful information for people thinking about visiting (or relocating to) McCarthy:

McCarthy is very isolated.
McCarthy has no government, no mayor and no government services. McCarthy is self-governed and the citizens do all the necessary jobs.
There is no law-enforcement or police officers in McCarthy.
McCarthy has no garbage collection. Trash must be taken to a dumpsite over a hundred miles away.
McCarthy is off the grid. There are no public utilities in McCarty (except cell service which was paid for by a grant). Electricity is provided by generators and solar.
Local sources of drinking water are the nearby creeks. These are marked so visitors will help keep the water clean and safe. Water is pumped from the streams to local businesses. People carry water to their homes.
There is no fire department, no rescue squad, no post office, and no medical services.
There is one hotel and a backpackers lodge (the two combined have 28 rooms). Do not plan to spend the night without a reservation.
There is a saloon, a sandwich type restaurant and a fine dining restaurant - the food is excellent in all three.
The streets of McCarthy are dirt and when it rains, they are mud.
The town of McCarthy is located east of the Kennicott River - all the places on the west side of the river that claim to be in McCarthy are not.
The general store has ice cream - if you know Paul (the person who runs the store), he will open the store at night to get you some ice cream.