Prep for The BACKCOUNTRy
As you plan to step into Alaska’s backcountry there are many things you will need to take into consideration: from safety to comfort to thrill level. Alaska’s wilderness is some of the most amazing country you could ever hope to experience; your trip is guaranteed to be one you will never forget. Exploring the area and traveling through it, however, can be challenging. Proper preparation and planning are necessary. Your scenic flight to one of many destinations in the park is where the backcountry begins. The type of trip you choose after the flight is up to you. This rugged country offers everything from solitude and relaxation to adventure and challenging situations. Our locations offer ready access to fishing, glacier trekking, ice and rock climbing, mountaineering, rafting trips, horseback riding, exploring historical mining ruins and more!
Please note that McCarthy Air / Wrangell Mountain Air is not a guide service, though well-versed in the terrain and are familiar with all of our backcountry drop-offs. It is your responsibility to determine your skill level and what you want to experience on your trip. We will provide the flight and some helpful hints about terrain at each backcountry drop-off and mother nature will provide the rest!
HOW TO PACK FOR YOUR BACKCOUNTRY ADVENTURE
When preparing for your time in the backcountry keep in mind that the best trips are well-planned. It is important to consider our unpredictable weather, whether you are in the mountains or not. This does not only mean being prepared for rain storms, freezing nights, or hot and sunny days with the proper gear. Occasionally conditions may prevent us from reaching the pick-up location on schedule. In extreme cases; wind-storms, rains and heavy cloud cover may delay flights for up to several days. Pack enough gear and food in case of an extended stay. Be sure to pack enough warm clothes and sleeping gear to prepare for any type of weather. When severe weather conditions ensue you may be unable to cross streams/ rivers safely. Always be prepared to cross streams and rivers with extra gear and the proper knowledge of how to cross. Additionally, rock and scree slopes can turn into dangerous mud-slides. It is important to know that these changes in the surrounding environment may accompany changing weather.
Some backcountry locations are equipped with free public use cabins. While we make our best effort to inform you about cabin availability, the cabin system is operated wholly on a first-come, first-serve basis. This system helps keep the cabins free of charge and also makes it easier for visitors to utilize them--you do not have to register with the park service prior to using them. Be prepared with gear to sleep outside (in tents) in the event that another party is occupying the cabin you wish to use. Please try to be considerate to the people who may already be using the cabin.
Other important items you should consider: compass, first aid kit, flashlight/headlamp, knife, water bottles, cooking kits and accessories and fire starting devices. Generally water purification devices are not necessary. If you are concerned about water quality you may wish to carry something of the sort with you, though.
Aside from animal trails and a few historic pathways that are left over from the mining days, the Wrangell-St. Elias backcountry is virtually devoid of trails. Conditions in this area have changed drastically over the past 100 years and most trails that do exist are not maintained and are not well-marked. Many traces of trails are overgrown, have sloughed off cliffs or are covered by rock and mud slides. Streams and rivers change course often and give no mind to where trails are. Proper route-planning, route-finding tools and good maps are essential to making your backcountry excursion successful and safe. Buy or download your maps prior to arrival in McCarthy as they are not available in town.
Keep in mind, too, that this is a dynamic area and is always changing. Many maps are not updated often enough to guarantee accuracy. Streams and rivers change directions and patterns, mud and rock slides choke off valleys and other unexpected things may occur. In many cases, the locations of airstrips have changed since the maps were developed. Be sure to double check the accuracy of your pick-up and drop-off locations with our office before heading into the backcountry.
Also, be aware that this park is unique in the fact that there is private property within the park. Please respect any and all private property boundaries!
There are many challenges in the Wrangell-St. Elias backcountry: from traveling over glaciers to crossing streams and rivers to dealing with wildlife encounters. You should be well educated on and prepared for the possible encounters you may have, as well as how to best handle them. If you feel you may not be fully prepared for your trip there are local guide services that would be happy to accompany you on your trip.
One of the most unique aspects of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is its high concentration of glacier and impressively huge peaks. Glacier travel is not necessary on all backcountry trips, but can be exhilarating and amazing when done safely. Glaciers are some of the most unique formations around. While traveling on these moving masses of ice, hikers witness mysterious creaks and groans, crystalline blue pools and amazing formations. If you plan to cross or hike on glaciers while in the backcountry, do be sure that you have some glacier knowledge. Be wary and sure-footed. One of the biggest keys to safe glacier travel is confidence and attention to footing. Not all glacier travel requires crampons and ice-axes, though extended glacial traverses are made safer and much more enjoyable with the addition of these tools. As of now ice-travel tools are not available for rental in our area without the services of a hired guide. If you will need ice tools you should contact a local carrier in your area or in Anchorage before heading out here. Try AMH or REI in Anchorage. When you plan to cross a glacier be sure that you are familiar with that specific glacier’s characteristics. Some glaciers may seem like a piece of cake on the map, but when you get to them they may be too crevassed to cross or rise too steeply from the ground to get onto it without sophisticated ice-climbing tools or experience.
Water levels fluctuate through the season as well as from day to day with weather changes. Be aware of how much rain the area has had a few days prior to your trip. We can let you know approximate water levels in the area you will be hiking. Generally water levels tend to be lower early in the morning and higher in the afternoon. To be safest, if necessary don’t hesitate to camp overnight at the crossing to wait for early morning low water levels. High temperatures in mid-June tend to produce the highest waters of the summer.
It is important to be aware of the types of water sources you will encounter before you head out into the backcountry. Usually, there is no lack of clear, running streams, but it is essential to know that you will have water sources. Clear running streams as well as fresh glacial water make some of the most refreshing and purest water sources. There is no need to filter these. Most larger rivers are silty or muddy. If you cannot see through the water or if it extremely milky, it is not recommended for drinking straight from the river. You should let it settle for at least 30 minutes to one hour before drinking or pour it through something like a coffee filter in order to filter the fine glacial silt. Other water sources, such as small ponds or lakes should not be trusted. Many of these ponds have beaver living in them and are often pretty stagnant. The water in them may carry Giardia or other bacteria and most likely does not taste very good. If you must get water from one of these sources it is strongly recommended that you use some sort of water purification/filtration system. If the circumstances are right, we recommend that you enjoy the purity and unique cleanliness of the area by enjoying Alaska’s refreshing, clean water without use of filtration.
We are not rafting guides, but we can suggest ideal rafting excursions and give general information some rafting trips. For information on local rivers or for a guided raft trip you may contact the local rafting companies Copper Oar, McCarthy River Tours and Outfitters, or for packrafting trip details Kennicott Wilderness Guides.
There are many wild animals in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park backcountry and encounters are not rare. It is essential to have proper knowledge and be well-prepared for any possible encounter. Aside from the obvious threat of bears, there is plenty of other wildlife in this area. All animals you encounter in the wild are potentially dangerous and proper precautions should be taken when any wildlife is seen. For your safety pick up bear canisters at the Visitor Center in Copper Center before driving into the valley. Most prolific bear problems occur in areas with public use cabins.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game posts comprehensive information about traveling in bear country.
We do allow you to travel with bear spray or firearms but they must be declared. Bear spray is not allowed inside the aircraft; it may be attached to the outside of the plane.
As you explore this spectacular land, don't forget to take a deep breath and relish in the crisp, clean air and your impressive surroundings. Above all, enjoy your trip and be safe.