A Mine Here?
~Friday, July 8, 2022~
Day 18 of Alaska Trip
I’m really happy that we started in this section of Alaska, where things are exactly as I imagined it would be….pristine, remote and BIG. And the people….so real, down to earth, and tough (in terms of resiliency). What a way to start off a trip. And what we anticipate they’ll all have in common is the uniqueness of each and every one.
Beautiful day, but the weather’s a’ changin’. Like so many places on earth, Alaska too is feeling the effects of climate change. “Normal” for them would be rain at least 3-4 times per week during the summer months. They haven’t seen rain in WEEKS. With our eye on traveling the Last Frontier, we hoped not to witness some of the changes, but they are here, and they are real……receding glaciers (though still magnificent), lack of rain, calmer rivers. In fact, we found out during our tour today, that the crackling sounds we’re hearing coming from the glacier’s direction are from rock or ice falls. It’s not too shocking since the temps have been rather warm these last few days.
We had three options to take the 5-mile dirt/gravel road to Kennicott Mill….shuttle, bike or walk. We missed riding, so we decided to take the bikes. Jeff’s bike is suitable for this kind of terrain, but with mine being a hybrid, not so much. The tires are a lot thinner which also means I have to pedal harder. Since the road to Kennicott Mill is the former train route to Cordova (about 100 miles away) it would be a GRADUAL 500-foot elevation gain in 5 miles, not challenging on pavement, but on gravel, very. Even though we were carrying bear spray, the route was a little too quiet for my liking. I thought there’d be more cyclists or pedestrians making the trek from McCarthy to the mill, but we were the only one’s on the road….us and the occasional shuttles kicking up dust. It’s obvious that the preferred mode of transportation is on 4 wheels. When we finally made it, the ride took us double the time it would have on pavement…about an hour.
Prior to touring around the Kennicott Mill and Mines, we had read up on its rich history and extraordinary feats to establish a mine in this part of Alaska. It all tells a story about Alaskan exploration, westward expansion and technological advancement. But what we found even more intriguing, is the intimate story about the people who took on the challenge of living and working here; what a wild, remote and isolated place to be.
The Kennecott Valley, in the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, is by no means a place for industry, or so one would think. But the rugged landscape of Alaska actually holds some of the world’s richest ore deposits in the world. Even though the Ahtna people had been collecting copper for generations before the wake of the ‘98 Gold Rush, prospectors discovered what appeared to be green pastures, which turned out to be stained with the emerald hues of copper ore. Enter the young east coast mining engineer Stephen Birch who would eventually be at the helm of managing the mine/mill, with the financial backing of Havemeyer, Guggenheim and J.P. Morgan. Together, they formed the Alaska Syndicate. It didn’t take long for them to realize how profitable their endeavor would become with the Syndicate turning into the Kennecott Copper Corporation. Even today, it still operates mines throughout the world. It’s hard to imagine that to survive here, EVERYTHING had to be brought in from the outside. Kennicott’s workers had to bring in everything from the outside in order to survive. And the mill….a 363-day, 24-hour-a-day operation. It was a 363 day, 24-hour a day operation. In its 38 years, it employed over 1,000 people and produced between $200-$300 million dollars worth of copper and silver (2 billion by today’s standards), supplying the world with copper for electrification, utilities, industrial development and munitions for World War I efforts. Thank goodness the National Park Service, private donations, and community help has preserved this national historic landmark (since 1998) so that future generations can appreciate it in years to come.
Our first stop was the visitor center where we met a very knowledgeable ranger explaining a little about the process of mining and processing the ore. We were even able to hold a sample of mined copper, feeling the difference in density of each….some ore with only 3-5% copper and some with 70% copper. With the 70% copper sampling (the size of a grapefruit), it took 2 hands to hold it…it was that heavy.
She also knew quite a bit about the weather patterns in the area as well. With the high number of mountain ranges, and the valleys between, the amount of precipitation varies. When the weather comes off the Pacific Ocean, it dumps the heaviest amount of snow in the Chugach Mountains, that follows with a rain shadow over the next valley, until it hits another big set of mountains which is what we’re surrounded by….the Wrangell Range. And since Kennecott is at the foot of those mountains, it gets more snow and colder temps than McCarthy does, just 5 miles away, and 500 feet lower. Fascinating. Before we were on our way, she also acquainted us with the glacier tour map and the map for the mill. Even though much of the mill can be self-guided, she highly recommended the 2-hour Mill Tour for more in depth information.
Thirsty from our bike ride, we couldn’t pass up the mill’s food truck services called the MEATZA Wagon, where we stopped to wet our whistle….me a seltzer and Jeff a Dr. Pepper. What?? A $1.00 surcharge for using a credit card? I guess I shouldn’t have been too shocked with how remote we were. The menu looked amazing which lines up with its 4.9 Google rating. Sadly we brought our own lunch, so drinks were the extent of what we had there. But, it was meant to be that we stopped by because it gave us an opportunity to meet a really nice guy from Alaska, Sam (the owner of the food truck), his faithful husky, Chuga and his sous chef, Sara. Sara’s a very good self-promoter for their coffee ice-cream (which we said we’d be back for later) while Sam filled us in in a nutshell about his 20 years in Alaska, indicating he’s “one rare bird”. I guess you have to be, to live in THIS area. He also talked about the changes in landscape, especially with the moraine at the base of the glacier and what runs parallel with the mine/mill. For those not familiar with the term, a moraine is glacial ice covered by rocks and dirt. In this particular location, many think its mine tailings from the mill. It’s basically deposits of what the glacier’s left behind, as it recedes. For Sam and the mill, the moraine used to be high enough (about 300 feet higher), he couldn’t see the mountains across the valley. That’s how much has changed in just 20 years. It was also shocking to see at the foot of the moraine
were dozens of discarded 55-gallon rusted out drums from the mill, laid to rest forever. It would be just one example of the many consequences of mining that weren’t really taken into consideration back in the day. Concerns of waste and pollution were not on the agenda. It was all about the almighty $$.
On our self-guided tour, we were able to go into several buildings at the mill…..the refrigeration plant, the post office, the general store, the recreation hall and the warehouse where a short 20-minute feature film was played about the mine. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to see the mill in its entirety, nor the mine up the hill. If anyone asked us how much time should be devoted to touring this fascinating piece of history, we’d say at least an entire day. For us, it would be 2 afternoons. We’ll be back tomorrow.
Taking up the ranger’s recommendation for the Mill Tour, we stopped at the St. Elias Alpine Guides shop to sign up. They also offer glacier hikes which sound amazing, but would have to forego another time, at another location. So we’re all set for the 11:30 tour tomorrow and to finish up what we didn’t get to see today. Now for the 5-mile ride back to the campsite, which was all downhill, until Jeff let out a “CRAP!! You’ve got to be kidding me!!” Never a good sign. When he packed the bike lock in his backpack, he forgot to grab the keys for it (they’re on a separate keyring though maybe that’s about to change). I could tell he was deeply frustrated and shocked since he’d never done that before. Luckily, the shuttle was still operating and even better….only a 20-minute wait. It sure beat having to walk back 5 miles. One of the bonuses of riding with locals was getting answers to our mysterious questions. Remember the crushed, abandoned car I mentioned in a previous post? Well, evidently about a year ago, a young driver was going about 50 mph on a slight curve when he hit an embankment, rolled the car twice, landing right side up, and survived to tell the tale. Crazy!!
The shuttle dropped us off in McCarthy where we walked back to the campsite to get Sadie for some swim time. Then the 3 of us walked into town for some Friday night entertainment at the Golden Saloon. Live folk music, yummy berry margaritas (the special) and plenty of dogs for Sadie to mingle with. It’s funny how with a small town atmosphere that we keep running into the same people….workers, locals and tourists. Pretty cool scene!