When you have no job and 20 hours of sunlight a day, time ceases to exist in any way you’ve known before. Each long-lit day bleeds into the next like water-splattered ink drops, and often the events within a 24 hour period are enough to actually make up two days, or perhaps even three. Life takes on a dream-like quality–though that could be the lack of sleep–and it becomes normal to start an adventure at 10 pm, to finish an adventure at 1 or 2 am when the sky is just a darker shade of blue.

Such was the case when we visited the hamlet of McCarthy, a village of creatives and unconventional folks nestled at the foot of the Wrangell Mountains. According to the 2010 census, only 28 people live in McCarthy year round. That number swells in summer when tourists flock to McCarthy and its sister town, Kennecott, an old mining town that is a gateway to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. When we arrived in McCarthy days before the solstice, summer season was in full swing.

In order to get to town, we first drove 60 miles to the end of unpaved McCarthy Road, which has a reputation for blowing tires and busting wheel bearings. Once a mile from town, we parked in a designated lot and walked across a series of foot bridges to get to downtown: a handful of frontier-fashioned buildings planted along the dirt main street. All electricity in town is provided by one large generator and most buildings don’t have running water. Showers are an anomaly.

The Kennecott Mine

The Kennecott Mine

We were seeking a solstice celebration but first we had a date with the Root Glacier, a mile-wide, mild-sloped ice field that crawls out of Mt. Regal’s Stairway Icefall. We hit the trail out of Kennecott at 6 pm, strapped on cramp-ons at 7, wandered off route, lost our way among compression cracks and crevasses, and finally reached camp as sunlight was softening around 11:30 pm. We were greeted by bear scat and a pair of kissing porcupines. We posted up on a lush island between the Root and Kennicott Glaciers. For two days we lingered among the moraines, watched endless sunsets crown the ice waves gold.

The Root Glacier

The Root Glacier

When we returned to McCarthy on June 21, solstice eve, the entire place was buzzing. We stopped into The Potato, home to the only espresso machine in town. “Are you going to bluegrass?” Jeff, an acquaintance we’d made a few days earlier asked. “Of course!” We chorused. We stopped into the general store for AfterBite. “You gals heading to the bar tonight?” the friendly cashier inquired. We nodded enthusiastically. “You girls know about the bluegrass band tonight?” the parking attendent asked when we dropped our backpacks at the car. “There’s a tequila party too!”

The Golden Saloon is the social epicenter of McCarthy and Kennecott. Naturally, it’s the only bar within 60 miles. When we entered its double doors around 9:30 pm, we were hit with a blast of hot, humid air and big upright base notes. The bar was two bodies deep, dining room tables full, dance floor not yet hopping but would be soon. Where did all of these people come from?! I wondered. And they kept coming.

The night raged on, so did the light. People spilled out of the Saloon’s deck, beer cans, pints, martini glasses in hand. There are no cops in McCarthy, and no open container laws. I met a collection of fascinating people–a poet from Montana, hydro engineer from Anchorage, natural resource professor from Berkeley, a native cultures anthropologist, a pilot, a glacier guide from Minnesota, a 60 year old woman from Taos who was cycling solo around Alaska. The polished wooden dance floor pulsed with writhing bodies, stomping feet.

Around 1am I stumbled outside to check the light. It was dim like that you’d find in an early dusk. The monster moon glowed ivory, hovered above the historic building fronts. Sometime around 3am I swayed my way to the parking lot. I stopped on the footbridge, watched the waters of the Kennicott River snarl and curl under my feet, gazed out to the Root Glacier still illuminated in the now early morning light.

Tomorrow was already today, the transition from one day to the next seamless, almost as though there was no transition between them at all.

It's 3am, I think it's getting lighter...

It’s 3am, I think it’s getting lighter…

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I’ve gotten a nickname since arriving in Alaska. I’m the Yes Girl. Want to skiff across the bay? Yes. Want to camp on the beach even though we might get swallowed by the tide? Yes. Want to go pick mussels at midnight? Yes. Want to ski a chute that requires hours of bushwacking and post holing to get to? Yes. Want to take a sea plane to a glacier, ski for three days and raft from the glacier to the ocean?

Um, are you kidding?!

The Wosnesenski Glacier is considered small among Alaskan glaciers, but when you’re talking about glaciers, size is negligible. A glacier is a glacier: a mass of grumbling ice surrounded by rocky peaks that breathes, expands, retracts and by way of melting provides the world with water its been storing for over 3000 years.

A glacier is a glacier and glaciers are captivating.

Alayne’s friend Kenton also has a nickname: the Wizard of Woz. He has spent a lifetime exploring the nooks, snowfields, serac colonies of the glacier. He arranged the float plane and he, Alayne and I landed at the mouth of the Woz late on a Wednesday evening. We cooked a feast of mussels we’d gathered the night before. We hid from hoards of mosquitoes that bit our faces, arms and legs, even through clothing. We slept excited, fitful sleeps.

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The amount of gear required for a summer glacier expedition is staggering: skis, boots, crampons, ice axes, ropes, tents, sleeping bags, food, more food, chocolate, clothes, and even a couple of mini skirts. Braced against our overloaded packs, we picked our way up the moraine, a wide fan of lumpy cracks and fissures where glacial ice meets land. We playfully nicknamed our crampons snow leopard claws. Ice turned to snow, we traded claws for skis, skinned up a wide snowfield, admired seracs along the way. We set camp in a rock nook at 3,300 feet and hid from the relentless sun.

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And then, we skied. For two days we toured among the towering rock faces and snow fields. We left our signatures in figure eights down mountain sides. We scouted each line, first checking for cravasses, then yipping and hollering as our knees dropped telemark turns into velvet corn snow. In the afternoon we hid from the sun that burned so hot and bright I felt my brain was melting.

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On the third day we packed up camp, skied 3000 vertical feet to the glacier mouth. Skied within feet of gorgeous serac colonies. Picked across scree slopes so steep and loose I forgot to breathe while crossing them. Finally, our feet were on the ground but the next phase of the journey was yet to come: the river.

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The Wosnesenski River is a glacier-charged channel of water that snakes and winds 16 miles from the glacier mouth to the ocean. We’d packed in a raft, which we pumped up and loaded down with piles of gear. We pushed off across the lake around 5 pm after having spent the entire morning skiing and hiking. And then we floated, charged, skid, scuffed, bumped, waded but mostly cruised for five hours until our raft met the ocean.

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The journey from water to air to lake to glacier to snow to summit to snow to glacier to lake to river to ocean was complete.

With adventures like these at the ready, how could I say no?

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The morning started slowly–perhaps too slowly–with coffee, oatmeal and friendly banter with neighboring campers. Our goal for the day was to reach, and perhaps touch, the toe of Le Grande Brazuea, one of Jasper’s largest icefields. No established trails led to the glacier, which means that 4.5 miles of Canadian bush stood between us and our goal. We packed extra snacks.

At last, as 11 o’clock rolled around, we stuffed our daypacks into the sea kayak and kicked off across Maligne Lake. The glacier-fed waters were still, milky turquiose. Our paddles gently broke the silence–splash, pause, splash. Rock walls loomed above evergreen shores.

We pulled onto the gravelly shore and began picking our way up the pocketed creek bed (Canadian ‘creeks’ are often as wide as Colorado rivers. The full girth of this creek ranged from 50-100 meters). “I hope you have the heart for bushwacking,” Brendan remarked. He was fresh out of the Wyoming backcountry where he’d spent two months searching for wolves in unmarked territory. His skills were sharp.

“As though you doubt me?” I replied, slightly annoyed. “This ain’t my first rodeo.”

Initially, the terrain was easy. We walked among creek stones, navigating small tributaries as needed. But then we made our first mistake: rather than stay close to the riverbed with an eye out for game trails, we headed to tree line, hoping to gain the advantage of altitude.

And then progress slowed to a crawl, literally–over branches, under evergreen boughs, between spiny bushes. Spongy moss carpeted the forest floor, enveloping our boots, making for snow-like conditions that required extra effort of each step. When we reached a boulder field bordering a sheer rock cliff, we thought the worst was over. Wrong, the worst was yet to come. Beyond the boulder field was a thicket of bushes so thick the rubbery branches tossed us around like pinballs. One hundred yards took 10 minutes, easily.

“Every time I bushwack I hate it,” Brendan growled as we re-entered the mossy forest-maze. “It’s harder to give up when you’re alone, but when you’re with other people it’s easy; everybody is miserable.” We weren’t giving up yet, but the enthusiasm in my eyes was dimming. How much heart did I have for this after all?  “It’s just so unrelenting,” I replied, “I can see no end in sight.”

The playful gurgle of water lured us to the creek where we paused for a break. The surging current rushed, giggled and splashed, its peaceful white noise weighted our eyelids and soon we were both fast asleep.

Fortunately the latitude of Alberta is such that summer days are elongated, with sunlight stretching into nine or 10 o’clock in the evening. When we woke at 4pm and checked our map, we realized we had about 1000 feet elevation to gain; doable even if it meant we’d be paddling home in the dark.

And then, we were shown a way. First: logs across the creek. Then: a game trail.

The trail climbed and plunged like a roller coaster along the now torrential creek. We cruised from mossy forest floors to exposed cliffsides, our glutes burning from the unforgiving uphill. The glacier-fed creek morphed into a dirt brown waterfall plunging over house sized boulders. Suddenly the sporadic game trail spit us out onto a moraine–channels of rock piles deposited by the receding glacier. We charged up the rocks, now so close to our goal.

Of course each high point on the moraine was a false summit, however. The going slowed. Then quickened. Then slowed. Until at last we were surrounded by an amphitheater of snow, ice and peaks in every direction.

Le Grande Brazeau wrapped around the peaks before us, its bulk extended well beyond our line of sight. Waterfalls poured out of abrupt edges where glacier met moraine, formed thin creeks that merged in a dirty alpine lake. There was no green, only brown, slate grey, dirty white, blue ice.

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Brendan turned to me, his face lit up in delight. “This is my country Manass, this is it!”

We laughed, smiled, photographed until at last a sobering time-check curbed our fun. We shouldered our packs, bid farewell to the glacier. Headlamps at the ready we braced ourselves for the descent, each of us quietly hoping for an easier way out. And we found one, but that’s another story or another time.