The bus

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When a motor vehicle dies in Alaska, it does’t go anywhere– there are old trucks and buses scattered all over this land.  This Ford school bus is situated just a mile from the Nabesna Road on the Tok Cutoff (Glenn Hwy) behind the Midway Grocery in Slana, AK.  Jay and Debbie Capps welcome cyclists by the dozen every season, allowing them to camp on their property or spend a night in “the bus”.  Power and propane are luxuries to a touring cyclist; a cassette player, a dinner table and a drip-coffee maker are divine.  With a selection of groceries nearby and a propane stove, creative home-cooked meals are possible and I finally sampled a can of corned beef hash that I’ve been seeing in rural groceries for four years.  Augmented with lentils and curry, it was a treat.  I stayed in the bus the night before my Nabesna adventures and again on the night following.  I drank a lot of coffee; read John Steinbeck’s account “About Ed Rickett’s” who was the real life “Doc” from Cannery Row; and got lost in Neil Young’s Harvest on a worn cassette tape.  I think Neil was a road guy like us.

“Think I’ll pack it in and buy a pick-up
Take it down to LA
Find a place to call my own and try to fix up
Start a brand new day

The woman I’m thinking of, she loved me all up
But I’m so down today
She’s so fine, she’s in my mind
I hear her calling'”

“Out on the Weekend”, Neil Young, Harvest, 1972

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The aura of goodwill and kindness extends to the handwritten notes on the walls:

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And assorted memorabilia from past bike trips:

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Be sure to stop in Slana at the Midway Grocery.  Our welcoming hosts, Jay and Debbie:

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The forgotten Nabesna Road

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Visitors to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park typically visit from the south entrance, which is a 60 mile dirt road ending in the revitalized town of McCarthy and the expansive copper mine in Kennecott.  By most reports, it’s an “adventurous drive” as it is probably as long any most people have driven on dirt in a long time, if ever.  “Check locally about road condition” say all the guidebooks.  I’m sure it’s fine, but be sure to tighten the straps on the canoe on top of your RV and the bikes on the back.  I’d have visited if I had been passing the south entrance, but the flow of tourists deterred me from going out of my way.  I recall visiting Talkeetna for the first time, which is often described as “quaint” and a “town”.  Although people do live in the area, it’s a well-disguised tourist town with unique eateries and gift shops, but it’s not a real example of Alaska.  I suppose this is the Alaska that they want.  It’s also the Jackson, Breckenridge, and Key West that they want as well.  I’d still like to go to McCarthy and Kennecott.

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From the town of Slana on the Tok Cutoff of the Glenn Highway, the Nabesna Road pierces the park from the north.  The settlement of Nabesna, which is no more than a few private lodges and an airstrip, is located forty-two miles down the road.  The Nabesna and Rambler gold mines are a short distance away.  See my post about the Nabesna Gold Mine.  The road is mostly dirt and quite passable in most conditions.  Only after a rainy week or during the spring melt is travel restricted, although four wheel drive vehicles can almost always pass.  Several stream crossings near mile 30 were as much as a foot and a half deep as I found them, and I was easily able to ford with my bicycle.  I’ve heard about these streams from many miles away when asking about the road.  It’s amusing to encounter a relative trickle.   The first eleven miles of road are sealed; after that, the road is generally well-graded dirt while some spots appear to become a little muddy after a good rain.  Until the three stream crossings near mile thirty, the road is like most dirt roads– passable, but a little bumpy at times.  By bicycle, the road is thus far accessible with almost any bike, although a 32mm tire or larger is encouraged.  A typical touring, hybrid or cross type bike will do, while proper mountain bikes are well suited.  In dry summer conditions, it sounds as if the streams may almost completely dry up and make travel to Nabesna possible in any two-wheel drive vehicle.  On a bicycle, you may get your feet wet.  The remaining ten miles to Nabesna become more scenic as you enter into the mountains, although you lose elevation into Nabesna, with a few short climbs.  Several sections of the road cross stream beds of gravel and cobbles, but were ridable on a larger tire.

To start, eleven miles of sealed roads through boreal forests are following by graded dirt roads.  A few signs of a muddy spring are present, but mostly the road was fast and dry.

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The road is largely unregulated, at least in the way you might expect in a National Park and Preserve.  There are many turnouts for camping, including several waysides with pit toilets.  Several campgrounds along the way offer multiple sites although none were in use, owing to the low traffic volumes on the road.  At mile 29, the Sportsman’s Paradise Lodge operates a bar with wireless internet, and has potable water.  I’m not really sure if they do much business; they’re still flying the Palin flag with pride.  When I stopped, Copper River salmon were being prepared –a few hours to dry in the sun followed by a full day in the smoker.  A handful of rocks and a watchperson stands guard against camp robbers– the persistent gray jays.

After the stream crossings, the final few miles to Nabesna become a little more rugged, and scenic:

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Nabesna is a really only an airstrip with a a few homes and small planes.  The Ellis’ Lodge has been in operation for over 40 years, long before the park’s inception in 1980.  The road officially ends here, while several miles of unmaintained road take you to the Nabesna and Rambler Gold Mines.  Either by foot or by bicycle, they are worth a visit.

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The Rambler Mine is up a 0.7 mile trail that gains about 700 ft of elevation; the trail begins about a mile past the Nabesna airstrip.  A hike to a secondary mine shaft ascends another 700 ft (approx.) to superlative views of the Nabesna River and the surrounding ranges.  Regarding sites of historical interest, both mines are quite raw without printed history on display.  This is real discovery.

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For out of town visitors, a good way to make a day trip to the mines would be to leave a car at the first stream crossing and ride the remaining ten or twelve miles to Nabesna– this is the most scenic part of the road anyhow.  For cycletourists, ask at the Midway Grocery for a place to spend the night before or after riding the road.  Located about a mile east of the Nabesna Road on the Glenn Highway they offer an old school bus, refit to accommodate several people and have ample space for tent camping.  Jay and Debbie are inspiring people, and the bus is wallpapered with warm thanks from travelers.  Their grocery is well-stocked and is the best place to pick up supplies between Glennallen and Tok.  A NPS office is located about a quarter mile down the Nabesna Road.

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Nabesna Gold Mine

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The color and geometry and antiquity enamored me.  Located on a small tract of private land within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the Nabesna Gold Mine is a charicature of frontier industry.  It would never have been recreated this well by historians and set-artists, but the contrast of order and chaos is exactly what it would look like if it had been.  A 42-mile dirt road penetrates the park from the north to the settlement of Nabesna.  There, a muddy two-track takes you the additional four miles to the gold mine at the end of the road, which was abandoned back in 1945.  I tip-toed and shutter-clicked around the decaying structure, careful not to awake any ghosts or critters.  I put one foot forward with half my weight, testing floorboards and stairs and ladder rungs.  And when I was done I walked briskly back to my bike, stopping for a few extra clicks of crusted ferric sediments, a broken window and the orderly disorder of rusting barrels.  The circus left town on this place; I left just as quickly,

One of only two roads into the largest national park in the United States, the Nabesna Road is under-visited, largely due to the rough dirt road and multiple stream crossings which thwart most two-wheel drive cars and larger RV’s when the waters run high.  Additonally, there are no tourist facilities at the end of the road, such as in McCarthy.  By bicycle, the road is quite rideable but offers enough challenges to come home hungry at the day’s end.  There is another small gold mine near the end of the road only a short hike away.  See my post on biking the Nabesna Road.

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