Standing on a glacier, you expect the world to be a vast expanse of white.
But beneath your feet, or rather, beneath the crampons keeping your feet stable, glacier ice is so densely compacted that it absorbs the other colors of the spectrum, leaving a blue so blue it is stunning.
That revelation came to me during a family trip last summer to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, one of Alaska’s most vital treasures. At 13.2 million acres, it is larger than Switzerland and more than one-fourth of it is glacial ice, comprising about 60 percent of the glacial ice in all of the state. The park has four of the United States’s six highest peaks, including 18,010-foot Mount St. Elias.
Yet it remains one of the least visited national parks, its potential long undermined by its contentious beginnings (more on that later) and the lack of easy access. Those who do make the trek discover there is something for everyone, from hard-core wilderness backpackers to an outdoorsy family to history or photography enthusiasts with less of a taste for physical adventure.
Our time in Wrangell-St. Elias actually began as an afterthought, added to our 1,500-mile family road trip itinerary because we preferred driving a loop instead of merely reversing course from Fairbanks to Anchorage. (We talked baseball with locals at an Alaska Baseball League game in Anchorage, and we visited the Fairbanks home and dogs of the inspiring Mary Shields, who recounted her days as the first woman to complete the Iditarod in 1974.)
We had already reveled in the popular Kenai Fjords National Park — a boat ride offered us a close-up look at otters, porpoises and sea lions — and we undertook the Harding Ice Field hike, which gains nearly 4,000 feet of elevation in four miles; at Denali National Park, we had flown close to Mount McKinley in a small plane and improvised hikes in the trail-less park, seeing rams and grizzly bears, not too close but not too far away.
But all that paled compared with the mesmerizing white and blue we found in the frozen world at the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias, which welcomes, at most, a fifth of the 400,000 visitors that Denali draws each year. It was created, along with Denali, Kenai Fjords and many others, by President Jimmy Carter over the vociferous protests of many Alaskans who resented any government intrusion, even if it protected from development the natural landscape they cherished. Wrangell-St. Elias provoked particular hostility because people lived on those lands and preferred being left alone.
The first residents arrived a century ago, crossing the inhospitable landscape to work in mines, after prospectors discovered an ore that was an astonishing 70 percent copper. When the mines were depleted in the 1930s, the mining town of Kennecott vanished, but five miles away, McCarthy, which had sprouted up to provide liquor and brothels for the miners, remained, a handful of hardy folks who relished their ability to survive the brutal winters that scared away even many Alaskans.
McCarthy drew the attention of the outside world in the 1980s when one resident went on a killing spree and in the 2000s when a cultlike outsider established a homestead and then bulldozed parkland in a showdown with the National Park Service that ended when he was jailed for rape and incest. (The author Tom Kizzia reports the grim but riveting details in the 2013 book “Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier.”)