Brad Grossweiler, our host, observes with his slow drawl that he was surprised no one was up when he came over at 8am. But this morning everyone slept in and caught up on all the frentic travel that has happened to date. We eventually dislodge (nice pun) ourselves and walk up to McCarthy, pause there then press on to Kennecott. Its an 8km easy walk up the ‘Wagon Trail’ which passes alongside the main road which in our continues to follow the original railway line and its gradient. Its interesting to spot in the road numerous posts that were no doubt part of original trestles supporting the railway, many of them around the McCarthy junction where the museum is located. Just across the road from that museum in the Soapberry bushes is hidden the original turntable, the cradle still sitting in its pit. The locomotive would be turned around here after coming up from Cordova then it would reverse the flatbed rolling stock up to the mine, collect the ore (in hessian bags) then roll down hill back to Cordova 196 miles away. On this dry clear and sunny day the Wagon Trail offers the advantage of not walking in the choking dust of the road thrown up by passing shuttle vans and the occasional Parks vehicle. The traffic for such a remote area is surprisingly busy but that is perhaps because it is so remote, the impression of activity being accentuated. The shuttle service is run to provide visitors a connection between where one walks over the Kennicott River up to McCarthy or further on up to Kennecott. (All natural features named after the explorer Kennicott reflect the spelling of his name. All references to the mine including the company that owned follow the misspelling thus: Kennecott). Only locals are allowed to drive here, along with National Parks or other government vehicles of which there seem to be none. The is no law enforcement officer here, or other local government. They would have precious little to do in any event. But there is a catch for those who wish to drive here. McCarthy residents pay about $500 a year to access town via a private bridge. A local (and very entrepreneurial) lad purchased two blocks of land on either side of the river, on facing banks, then built a bridge between them. He charges anyone who wants to use it a fee. Locals pay theirs, a nominal amount I guess. Government vehicles pay 14,000 per annum! And if a large project needs to use it, such as the restoration of the old mine site (for example the multimillion dollar mill stabilisation project) then a percentage of the profit is negotiated. We are told he made $100,000 from that project alone. One might be outraged but even the locals grin when they tell the story. They grin because they admire the Alaskan entrepreneur, or even and especially the ‘Alaskan chutzpah’. But they actually appreciate this choke point for preserving their tiny village. I have to say that I share the admiration for the same reasons but especially because it means McCarthy is mainly given over to foot traffic, dogs and free range kids. And what of everyone else? Everyone else who wants to visit has to park outside ‘city limits’ and walk a foot bridge over the river, to then catch a bus to McCarthy or Kennecott. Or both. The footbridge is actually wide enough for quad bikes (or ATVs as they call them here) and motorbikes which is handy since dozens of locals on this side of the river don’t wish to pay the $500 fee, so ride these sorts of vehicles into town. Each day we are on this route quads, motorbikes and push bikes move up and down the road as the principle means of traffic. The option apart from the bus shuttle (five dollars one way) is to walk, which is what we elect to do this day.
We quickly enter a dense garden of aspen laced with spruce, decorated with any number of wild flowers. Alaska Lupin (a bit less dramatic than its NZ cousin), Fireweed, Eskimo Potato (which looks a lot like Fireweed) Prickly Rose (a pretty pink petalled rose with a yellow centre), Dogwood, Hemlock an obscure looking thing called Pink Pyrola or wintergreen) (its small, pink balls hang off a stem rooted in dense and deep green, ground hugging leaves) Dwarf Fireweed, Wild Geranium, Bluebells (which some of the team pick and eat on the way on later trips having learned from Ell, our Mill guide, that they are edible) and Nagoonberry which I initially mistake for Blackberry. And numerous tiny, tiny Twin Flowers which constantly draw our eye to their delicate structure. We make our way along a deep green garden, mud black underfoot and mossy green on the verge. Beech appears at various points along the way, along with Birch. It’s all a dense wall of green really, making the scan into the forest as we go (keeping an eye open for bears) all the more challenging. Moose with calves are one thing. But bears are the animals front of mind, and we don’t really know what to expect. We learn later from Jamie that we should be scanning up in the tree for bears rather than the undergrowth as they tend to climb to get out of our way. He tells an amusing tale of surprising a bear along this track while on his motorbike. He stopped to take a photo of the animal as it raced up a tree near the track but had to quickly pocket his camera and ride away for, as the bear ascended higher and higher the tree slowly bent towards the ground, but directly towards and above Jamie. The last thing he wanted was a startled bear to land on him. We pass a couple of settlements which consist of multiple buildings buried deep in the forest and then one which is literally buried – the original mine cemetery with men buried here under white crosses with most names now completely faded off. We discover the Parks service no longer allows the locals to keep the white picket fence in good maintenance, preferring some sort of idiotic ‘historical decay’ . The locals find it abhorrent and prefer to honour the men who died here. Sadly sections of the fence are lying on the ground and in this climate it wont take long to rot away. The graves are for men who were not able to be returned to their families after their deaths. The company made what seems to be an extreme effort to find the family of a miner that had died but many of these men came from Scandinavia or other foreign parts and finding relatives in those days would be difficult. And of course some men came to these parts of the world in order not to be found. But I’m inclined to the view that there should be a memorial kept of some sort. Sad yet poignant is the story of Oscar Sales, a miner who survived a fall into glacial water but was severely affected by the experience. The record notes that, traumatised by the experience he ‘was never the same, eventually disappearing from the face of the earth.’
We walk into Kennecott in light rain and discover the not so historic Meatza Wagon from which we buy lunch which is particularly good. Apparently the owner was trained in the kitchens and schools of Europe. We check in at the Parks Information Service where we get a very clear message about Erie Mine and that it is extraordinarily difficult to climb. They tell us that climbers get lost and have to be choppered out, or get up the rock but can’t get back and the choppers are called for that scenario as well. Apparently a girl was choppered off the place last week after discovering she couldn’t descend after her ascent. Later this evening Jamie says laconically “Don’t let the Parks guys put you off” but then proceeds to give me various, conflicting and convoluted directions how best to get up there. In hindsight he was probably right and we could (should) have climbed up there. I wish now that we had. But at the time I was conscious of those in our group not entirely comfortable with being on rock and figured attempting something so precarious might have us on the front page of the newspaper for all the wrong reasons. We’ll go back one day and get ourselves up there. So we take as much information from Parks as we can get and ask for a weather update (it’s still going to rain tomorrow) and head out to explore what we can, poking into this place or that. A number of buildings host exhibits which we use to educate ourselves about this remarkable place. Kennecott was a mining operation and town, from which the richest copper deposit on the planet yet discovered was mined. Portions of the copper were so concentrated (about 70%) and rich it was sent directly to Tacoma (near Seattle) to be smelted. The rest, also highly concentrated but on average around 13% was released from its limestone base, processed and railed via Cordova and on to Tacoma. Remarkable given deposits with less than 1% ore can be profitably mined. The demand for the copper was high with the US embarked on the massive task of rolling out electricity and telephone grids across the country. We are told most of the copper stretched across the country came from this mountain. World War 1 demand only helped the company.
In 1938 the company walked away and left everything intact, giving some people like the railway staff only 1.5 hours notice that the last train was leaving. The company did not even wait until their ‘notice of intent’ was approved by the government but simply cleared out. Apparently cutlery and plates still sat on tables set for dinner well into the 1970s. Sadly many buildings have been destroyed by event (flood) and weather but also humans. The company, which still exists was apparently worried about liability issues relating to visitors being hurt or killed on the site, so contracted a chap to burn down the facility. He made a brief start by ripping off a portion of the roof of the mill then taking what he could (I assume his pay ‘up front’) and vanishing into Canada. So many of the large buildings but especially the largest – the mill in which copper was separated from the limestone – remain intact and, thanks to the Park Service, in good repair, or at least good maintenance. Buildings such as the main office have been dismantled stick by stick and rebuilt on new concrete slabs (well hidden) and are a delight to visit. We spot new slabs and foundations being prepared and hope for more of the same sort of restoration.
We drift back down the Wagon Trail eyes peeled for bear but see none. Glacial ice has bumped into the Kennecott River by the time we return and we allow ourselves to be briefly distracted by a sight we would never see at home.
Our evening is spent around the fire. We introduce everyone to the joy of ‘damper on a stick’, cooked on a thick green piece of sapling, the resulting hollow being filled with maple syrup. It beats the damper most have tried on school camps and which most dislike as a result. And with everyone sitting around eating marsh mellows and trying out a new damper recipe we take the opportunity to brief the walk to Erie tomorrow. Gear. Timings. And all the usual reminders.
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