If These Old Walls Could Speak
Copper River Record March 2017
By Robin Mayo
“If these old walls, if these old walls could speak.
What a tale they’d have to tell, hard headed people raisin' hell.
A couple in love livin' week to week.
Rooms full of laughter, if these old walls could speak.” Jimmy Webb
Every old building feels like it is bursting with stories, especially cabins in the wilderness. I’ve always loved reading the tattered notebooks left in cabins to record visitors’ thoughts and adventures. The logbook at Nugget Creek Cabin in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park did not disappoint on a recent visit.
The cabin is over 50 years old, with a long history as homestead dwelling, trappers refuge, and now public use cabin. And it is actually the new kid on the block, nearby are the tumbled remains of a mining settlement which is over 100 years old. Although the current logbook has been in use for only 5 years, it includes a rich and highly entertaining narrative. One especially chatty and opinionated writer has a long history in the area, and his annual entries are a great touchstone interwoven with the stories of diverse strangers from all over the world:
“Thanks to the park service maintenance crew, the trail was easy to negotiate. Probably the best it’s been in my 45 years of annual visits. 1969 was the first year for the Copper River bridge, so traffic on the Nugget Creek trail really increased because of that access.”
As you’d expect, stories of adventures on the trail are a common theme.
“The first 17.5 miles were great, the last 500 ft. not so much….the creek completely changed course since I was here a month ago.”
“About midway up the trail we nearly turned around. The mosquitoes were greatly diminishing our enjoyment.”
“We got to the cabin at around 2:18 pm after leaving the car at 9am. The hike was easy, maybe a bit too flat.”
“New snow formed great clumps on skis no matter what wax (even w/o wax) so we trudged with skiis on…quite a workout”
Once travelers arrive at the cabin, the woodstove is a common topic:
“I read past cabin notes where the folks rave about the heat output of the stove, but that is never my luck unless I put up with smoke in the cabin during the initial warm up”
“We think the stove works great & wish the one in our own home was as nice.”
Reading through many entries to get to the bottom of the stove controversy, I discovered that many of those who complained about excessive heat output were summer visitors who built and stoked a fire, then discovered the windows don’t open and the mosquitoes are abundant. One group who found the Plexiglas windows damaged by a bear ended up pitching their tent inside the cabin.
Park rangers and maintenance staff usually leave short, businesslike notes, but one trail crew waxed poetic after finishing their unglamorous task: “Dug new outhouse hole and moved outhouse. Hopefully all who partake will find respite; if not, may they at least find relief. As always we strive to leave things better than before. The view from the previous throne was difficult to improve on, but we hope you find we did just that.” Their hard work did not go unnoticed: “The outhouse is kind of amazing, I’ve never done my business with such a view.”
Wildlife also provides lots of stories: “Three NPS trail crew people were charged by a decent-size bull moose right outside the cabin while having a fire. So heads up! Bear and moose abound.”
“The only wildlife we saw was a porcupine, & whatever Joanna ‘thinks she saw’ during a midnight nature’s call.”
One of the most entertaining threads starts with this statement, on June 5, 2013: “We named the porcupine Harald.” When his name is later misspelled “Harold,” it is quickly corrected with reference to the page number and date of christening.
“Harald the porcupine munched on the cabin all night. We tried to scare him off, albeit unsuccessfully. We are trying to figure out what nutrients he would get out of eating the cabin.”
“Harald was around to see me last night—twice. His first feeding was at 0100, so I went out and took a picture of him. His dessert was at 0400….”
“I have had luck in eliminating the ‘Harald’ issues! When he starts knowing (sic) on the logs (for salt I’m sure) I make sure other folks in the cabin are awake before I start beating the large and small steel dustpans against the stove walls. That maneuver has been 100% successful twice now….”
“ P.S. Met Harald—what an a#@%&. Signed, Clean B & Dirty D”
Then finally: “Harald the porcupine has decided to take an extended vacation, floating Nugget Creek with an intended stop in Chitina for some dipnetting.” The demise of Harald caused dismay to some tenderhearted visitors, but soon afterwards another porky named Ralph takes up where Harald left off, so visitors are not deprived of the experience of being kept awake by gnawing in the night.
Human visitors to the cabin bring their own special moments and shenanigans:
“He proposed at the top of a hill overlooking the glacier on a beautiful sunny day! Needless to say, Nugget Creek cabin and the view of the Kuskalana Glacier will always have a sweet spot in our hearts.”
“I’m back with my daughter and grandson….” “This is his grandson. I am very ill-prepared by his standards. Yes, I did miss a few things...My Grandpa has the cutest little tools and methods to help him on these trips. My Mom and I laugh all the time.” “This is the daughter/mother of the previous two. I love those two guys! Getting out here is not so great for my hair, but so incredibly awesome for bonding with my two favorite men.”
“Two Russians, one American. Wild mushrooms, wine & Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. Rain...Abandoned Jeep, exhausted mine, dilapidated cabins. Rain. We ate, we read, we played, we smoked, we drank, and finally we tattooed ourselves.”
“You always wonder what was on the pages that were torn out. By whom and why?”
“A good place to turn 30 during a weird year.”
“The kids loved it so much that they begged to stay out here. After a very brief discussion we agreed that it would not be inappropriate, and told them we’d be back before school starts to get them. They seemed to think that the bag of marshmallows and 4 snickers bars would be sufficient for 5 weeks. So if anyone happens to stop by, just be kind to the feral children and feel free to leave any food for them, and maybe a toothbrush.”
This is just a sampling of the gems from the most recent 5 years at Nugget Creek Cabin, someday I’d love to peruse the older books as well. We didn’t meet a porcupine by any name, or encounter feral children, but enjoyed the warmth of the stove and added more echoes of laughter to this well-used and loved retreat in the wilderness. Before securing the bear shutters back on the door and windows, it felt like an honor to add our chapter to the never-ending story in the logbook.
Photo: Nugget Creek Cabin, Photo by Kelly Smith
Copper River Record January 2017
By Robin Mayo
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park rangers maintain an excellent cross-country ski trail at the Visitors Center which the public is welcome to enjoy. It is groomed frequently by several rangers, and used daily when the weather cooperates by the Wrangell-St. Elias Ski Team, a cheerful group of employees who like to take a turn around the track on their lunch hour.
I was excited to be invited to join the ski team for a tour of the trail, but with the temperature at 20 below at midday, we chose to keep our toes warm in mukluks, and explore by snowshoe. Snowshoes, especially if they have claws, can ruin a groomed ski trail, so we were careful to stay off the ski track itself. There was room to walk alongside while wearing our small trail snowshoes. Please note that walking on the trail without skiis or snowshoes will definitely ruin it for everyone else—don’t be that person!
The trail makes two big loops, one north of the visitor’s center and one south, for a total of 1.3 miles. To access it, park at the pullout at the entrance to the Visitors Center at mile 106.8 Richardson Highway. This will put you outside the gates, so your car can’t be locked in while you ski. Then walk east towards the visitor’s center, ducking under the gate if it is locked (outside business hours.) About a hundred yards from the parking area you will see bollards on both sides of the road, and the trail heading into the forest on the Old Valdez trail.
Take a left for the northern loop, which winds through the boreal forest, then turns south and travels near the edge of the Copper River Bluff. As we snowshoed along in the early afternoon sunshine, we were treated to amazing views of Mt. Drum. It was fun to see the familiar visitor amenities such as picnic tables buried under deep snow, and to have the spot all to ourselves.
The trail passes close to the administration building, then heads south to a large gravel pit. This is normally a dusty spot, but the snow transformed it into a perfect bowl of white, with some gentle hills which made me wish for my skiis. We looped past the summer seasonal housing, a normally lively place now shuttered and quiet, then connected back to the old Valdez trail, headed north back to where it intercepts the road.
The whole loop took us an hour, including time to admire the views, take some quick pictures, and adjust our snowshoes. I returned to my office invigorated by the cold air, and inspired by the beauty.
Finding places to explore in winter is always a challenge, so it was a treat to have a guided tour of this hidden gem. I’m looking forward to warmer spring weather to enjoy the groomed trail on my skiis, which are much more accustomed to clattering along on whatever we can find, or breaking their own trail.
The views are spectacular from the Copper River Bluff near Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitors Center. Barbara Cellarius Photo
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.
Wrangell Institute for Science & Environment
WISE is a