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Of Mines and Bergy Bits

Friday, 18 August 2023, Kennecott AK

Rays of light from the rising sun streamed through the kitchen window. I got up to look out just in time to see a black bear amble up my driveway.

Yep, still in Alaska.

Hollis's bike delivered me to McCarthy in good time - only took 30 minutes. As he predicted, no one disturbed it as I left it for the whole day outside the McCarthy Center as I gallivanted about. The free shuttle whisked me to Kennecott with a half-hour to spare to wander about for photos.

From my 1991 trip writeup:

Tuesday we hiked 4 1/2 miles to Kennicott, an easy walk along a graded road, and spent the day poking around, photographing the town. Miners extracted 591,000 tons of copper (along with 900,000 ounces of silver) from the hills behind Kennicott between 1906 and 1938, setting records as the richest copper strike in history. When the mine finally played out, the mining company abruptly left, leaving behind buildings and equipment.

I'd signed up for the morning tour of Kennecott (various sources disagree on whether to spell the name with 'necott' or 'nicott'), to see the inside the massive mill and hear about the area. Clint (the guide) started with a history of the town. Reports of copper in the area inspired a syndicate to buy up the land claims, build an ore mill, and construct a railroad to cart the refined ore away. As we slowly walked up the street, he told anecdotes of the people who worked the mine, regaling us with stories like the Potato-Eating Award and the Bacon Complaint.

Most of the buildings in town sported the same oxide red paint. The notable exceptions were a couple of white buildings: the hospital (where female nurses worked) and the women's quarters. "If any man was caught in the white buildings, they were in serious trouble."

The guide talked of the disrespect with which Kennecott management treated the workers. As the company failed in the late 1930s, those in charge didn't tell the peons that the company would soon fold. Many found out only when the company announced that the very last train out of town would leave in 30 minutes.

Despite the forests surrounding the site, most of the buildings were built from wood brought in from elsewhere. An exception was the sawmill - and we can see how well the native wood stood up to the elements.

Clint led us down the main street,

then up a steep trail leading to the top of the 14-story mill building. After providing us each with hardhats, he led us into the remains of the town's processing plant.

From my 1991 report:

Many of the buildings remain, still colored their original oxide red. Several walls lean and sag; some roofs have collapsed (laborers were busy at work, shoring up other roofs to prevent further deterioration); many floors have disappeared, leaving black gaps into unknown spaces; dirt and rocks have invaded the ground floors of other buildings. Peering through windows, many broken, reveals articles left behind: a scramble of paperwork here, some furniture there. Smokestacks still pierce the sky from the powerhouse; inside, the giant motors still stand, waiting to be turned on. Many of the officers' or workers' huts still stand, some lived in yet. And the centerpiece of the ghost town set, the smelting building that received the ore, still dominates the town, sidestepping 14 stories up the slope of the mountain. Behind the scene, providing backdrop for this relic of greed, loom the snow-capped peaks and glaciers of the Wrangell Mountains.

Note: the 'dirty ripples' behind the building lie on top of the glacier, a thin coating ranging from an inch or two to a yard covering the ice. The before-and-after pictures show that the glacier's height has visibly shrunk.

But back to the tour! Stepping into the building, my first views took in the sight of a semi-demolished floor.

The NPS maintains this site in a state of 'suspended decay' - not to make it look brand new, but to maintain what still exists, and shore it up so it does not worsen.

Clint pointed out the equipment we passed and told how it works as we descended into the mill. I loved the name of one machine: the Buchanan Jaw Crusher.

Working our way down the 14 floor of the mill was an adventure in itself. many of the staircases had low clearances, forcing me to lean back as I stepped down. A few were little more than permanently-installed extension ladders that we had to step down backwards.

Clint talked about how this place served as a salvage yard for years. "Think about it - there are no hardware stores within many, many miles of here. So if someone needed a pipe, or wiring, or a screen, they would come here and take it."

As we descended through the mill, he pointed out the numerous windows overlooking the scenery. "The architect that planned the building in the ealry 1900s had a lot of foresight. He knew that someday we'd all have cell phones, so he added windows to provide photo ops."

One highlight was a vibrating screen. It no longer had a motor, "but I can give you a hint of what it sounded like," Clint said, "by pushing here with my foot..." Indeed, just this one piece made quite the noise. With several going at once, "you could hear the racket all the way down in McCarthy, five miles away. Some of the guides here like to say, 'Hearing loss in the mill was unheard of,' but I wouldn't dream of making that pun."

A fascinating 2½ hours.

With a free hour, I headed down to the Meatza Wagon, Hollis's other favorite lunch spot. After feasting on a chicken souvlaki salad - I need my greens! - I checked in for my afternoon event.

My luck from yesterday must have persisted - no one else had signed up, so Olga gave me a private kayak tour.

After shuttling me to the McCarthy office, she outfitted me with rain pants, rubber boots, and PFD, and handed me a dry bag for my camera. A short drive and short walk took us to the pro-glacial lake, where two inflatable kayaks awaited us.

We launched with no problem, and leisurely paddled up the lake. The day's delightful weather held, partly sunny skies overhead, around 70°, clouds lending drama to the surrounding mountains.

Olga pointed out how the glacier here is covered with debris torn from the rock walls, so you can't see the wall of ice calving. We did, though, see several small bergy bits in the water that we could paddle up to.

A relaxing afternoon to keep my park winning streak alive. I had a slight concern when both my feet started to fall asleep as we neared the top of the lake, but I quickly flexed them and retrieved feeling. I still fretted over how my right arm continued to experience the rubber-band feeling, not improving despite scaling back my physical activity. Why didn't I buy Icy Hot in Anchorage?

I capped the day with a Bonanza Burger at The Potato, the best burger I've had in years. At my cabin, I found my backup bike awaiting me. I'm a two-bike family!

Who knows what delights tomorrow will bring?

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