THE TOWN OF McCarthy, Alaska – population 28 – is not a place that’s easy to get to.
For starters, it’s nine hours from the city of Anchorage, and four to five hours away from the nearest town.
But for Irish photographer Paul Scannell, the small town had such a draw that on his first visit there, he skipped his flight home so he could stay. He wound up camping in the town for a few months, becoming a volunteer gardener in exchange for food.
He became fascinated with McCarthy – which swells to a population of over 300 in the summertime, but sees people leave en masse before the big freeze of the winter sets in – so set out to capture what he saw there.
Now he has compiled his best shots into an exhibition (McCarthy, Alaska – A Frontier Town) that shows off the wildness, isolation and grand scale of the town.
During his time in McCarthy, Scannell lived in a tent in Wrangell St Elias National Park. It truly was a life in the wilderness – he couldn’t even bring toothpaste into the tent, for fear a bear would approach.
Into the Wild
He ended up in Alaska after going on a trek with a group of friends to see the bus from the movie Into the Wild.
This was the location where Christopher McCandless tragically died, aged 24, in 1992 after going on a solo trek in Alaska. After a book and subsequent film on McCandless’s death, the bus has become somewhat of a pilgrimage spot for people to visit, despite its location.
“Alaska had always been on the list so I thought now or never, so I rounded up a group,” he explained. “It’s not a good idea to try and get to the bus on your own, it’s 20 miles into the wilderness.”
Though his intention was to do a Greyhound bus tour of the United States afterwards, something about McCarthy captured his imagination. As he and his friends were reversing out of the car park to head to the airport, Scannell suddenly announced: “I’m not going.”
My mate, she handed me an Icelandic kronur – she said flip it and if it lands you need to stay. So I landed it on heads, and I stayed.
The attitude towards creators in McCarthy is one of openness, said Scannell – many people living there are creative people themselves. So when he told them he had decided to stay for an extended holiday, the locals were happy to feed him in exchange for volunteer work, like gardening.
When you’re so remote – they are in the middle of nowhere – they are quite outward-looking, they aim to bring artist and musicians and glaciologists and all these people to the town.
McCarthy has somewhat of a shaded past – some of the residents were killed by another resident in a massacre in 1984. But it’s not a dark or foreboding place.
“When you get there it has this sense of history,” recalled Scannell. “Everyone you meet is quirky, everyone is creative. It’s at the end of an eight-hour drive, you can’t go any further.”
“The area is amazing, as regards the history it’s pretty spectacular,” continued Scannell, who ended up being “one of the last men standing” as the winter approached. He described how isolated the town was:
“McCarthy is really two streets – if you go through the forest you’ll see the old main street and tiny lanes of wooden shacks.”
“The shacks are slowly disappearing. The new saloon is the only bar in town – the old saloon collapsed after 110 years a month ago, because of the weight of snow.
“It was the best trip of my life,” said Scannell. ”There is such a sense of human history there, the remoteness, the buildings were just spectacular.” He particularly enjoyed capturing photographs of derelict, run-down buildings “where humans were but are not anymore”.
The town emerged as a place to stop on the way to a copper mine at Kennecott (named after the Kennicott Glacier – complete with spelling mistake). “McCarthy was the centre of vice,” explained Scannell. Originally named Shushana Junction, it grew to look after the needs of people travelling to and from Kennecott.
While there, he lived in a place called the meadow, where he was alone for most of the time, and would go on regular hikes, hiking over the Kennicott Glacier and into the mountains.
“Bears are an issue. If you walk between a cub and its mother you are in serious trouble.
You’d have to bring bear spray with you – it is like very intense pepper spray. A lot of people said it would take you a serious gun to take things down.”
‘He can use a sewing machine and an axe’
Most of Scannell’s photographs from the series are of buildings or landscapes – there is only one person featured in the series, a man named Mark who moved to the town aged 29. He’s now 60 years old.
“He cut a path a mile into the forest and built a cabin,” said Scannell. “He has supported himself on $4,000 a year for 30 years. He can use a sewing machine and an axe.”
It’s how people learn to live and support themselves in such a remote place that really fascinates Scannell. ”It’s like they have six seasons – they have the usual four, but they also have freeze and melt. What they have to do is go out and stockpile wood make sure it’s dry.”
Mark, he literally encapsulated every man that’s there – their capacity for survival. He can as easily use a sewing machine and make clothes as they can use an axe. He’s 60 years old and would have a tree down in a second.
Because of the nature of the climate, people in McCarthy have to be very aware of each other’s needs. “They support each other. If any of them needed anything they’d rush to it.”
‘They welcome your quirks’
One of his friends there was “a 70-year old woman called grandma Pat” who had been married four times. “We ended up the last two in town me and grandma Pat,” said Scannell.
“Everyone is so welcoming in McCarthy. It’s a place where you are welcomed warmly and they welcome your quirks.”
He was particularly fascinated by the hardy folks who stayed put for the winter. “Big burly men with their axes. Wild mountain men but are the most earnest people you would ever meet. The best folk you could meet.”
On the last night in town, one of the McCarthy residents would cook up all his meat and produce and give away all his beer – otherwise it would freeze in the winter.
But as winter began to set in, Scannell got set to leave. ”The weather turns, it’s like we have the seasons that morph into each other. Literally I was in a tent the whole time, the last three weeks in a hardware store. You would wake up and you just knew winter was coming.”
It was when he was getting ready to leave that Scannell felt particularly creative.
“A lot of my photos were taken around that period because I felt you could present McCarthy as this party town but that’s not where I was coming from. It’s the people who visit in the summer who are the anomaly,” he said. His photos aim to show the real McCarthy, the one that’s there all-year round – not just in the summer.
“The real McCarthy is the 28 people. They enjoy the fun of us coming but they are happy they get rid of us as well. It just returns to this really quiet community.”
McCarthy, Alaska – A Frontier Town will run from 29 March for the whole month of April at the Powerscourt Gallery, Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, Dublin.