Alaska In The Raw
Trip Start Jun 18, 2010
61Trip End Ongoing
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Kenny Lake Campground.
The Trip to Kennicott Mine
Before I get into the real subject of today which was the Kennicott Mine trip, I would like to pass along a few comments about the Kenny Lake area and the campground that we stayed at.
The Kenny Lake Mercantile and RV Park is (on the Edgerton Highway, Hwy 10) about seven miles east of the Richardson Highway; it is a privately owned campground that has a small grocery and sells diesel and gasoline
Our reason for selecting this campground was its' proximity and access to the McCarthy-Kennicott area and the private shuttle service we reserved will pick up from there. We did not make use of any of the campground amenities except the restrooms so I can not comment about most of their other services (we were in site 12 but had no WiFi). The campground did have coin operated washer/dryers that were the most expensive we’ve seen on the entire trip; fuel was also expensive, gasoline was $3.95/gal. and diesel was $4.20/gal. With that out of the way, on to the fun part.
The mine we are headed to today is within the Wrangell-St Elias National Park which is largest (containing nine of the nation’s sixteen tallest mountains) and probably one of the least known or explored parks within the national park system. It encompasses 13.2 million acres of wilderness; by comparison, Denali is a meager 2 million acres.
One more comparison to give you a feel for the size of this park; it is larger than Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island combined (sorry Chris)
While we are not going into the interior of the park for wilderness camping, here’s the highlights of an article written describing the conditions to expect if you were going into the park’s interior. "YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN! There aren’t any official campgrounds in the park but it is HIGHLY recommended that you register and provide a route with the Ranger Station. When registering, you must provide your itinerary to the Rangers and your family stating when to launch a search if you haven’t returned".
In all of my backpacking, hiking and camping experience, I’ve never seen this kind of instruction; this park is a real wilderness territory! Like I said, this is not the type trip we’re taking today; it’s included to give a glimpse of how remote this park is.
Our entry is off of the Richardson Highway (the one that connects Valdez to Fairbanks) which is about two-thirds of the way between Valdez and Glennallen. This entrance highway is called the Edgerton Highway; it is paved only for about 30 miles to Chitina (pronounced CHIT-na). From there, it is 60 miles of rough, pot holed, gravel road built on top of an old railroad right-of-way to the Kennicott River crossing; this is called the McCarthy Road. The McCarthy Road ends at a river crossing with a steel footbridge for pedestrian or bicycle traffic; no vehicle traffic is permitted on this bridge
The shuttle ride in, over this McCarthy Road, is a spine re-aligning three hour trip; the highlight is a 525’ long railroad bridge that towers 230’ above the river. The note in the Milepost about this bridge was that before its rehabilitation in 1988, many of the planks in the decking were missing and as you crossed, you could see through to the water below. Rest assured, that has all been corrected or one member of this two person expedition would not have gone over it.
Interestingly enough, a more recent incident did happen about one month ago at the Lakina (pronounced LACK-in-aw) bridge. This bridge is about 40 miles in from Chitina and it is a steel girder bridge with a clearly marked 13’2” center. Someone tried to rapidly drive across with a 13’8” load and severely wounded the structure. Now, the state has attempted a temporary fix to allow traffic to continue across, but their usage rules require that everyone except the driver must get out and walk across; only then can the vehicle be driven over. Sounds like government logic to me.
Ok, one more bridge story; after everyone is back in the van, we continue for approximately another 20 miles to the end of the vehicle traffic on the McCarthy Road and this is where we walk across the footbridge I mentioned earlier
Now inquisitive minds would ask how did these vehicles get to the east side of the river that only has a footbridge to cross over on? And the answer is: ice bridges in the winter and a privately owned vehicle bridge downstream that charge everyone (including park service personnel, lodge employees, tour guides and even the locals) an enormous fee to drive their vehicle over. Ahha, good old free enterprise!
After this new van picked us up on the east side of the footbridge, we went into the town of McCarthy (the word town is stretching the definition a bit) to pick up more passengers. These people were an assortment of hikers and people who had flown in. Yes, I said flown in; don’t get the “Southwest Airlines 737” vision going here. We are talking single engine Cessna 170 where the person checking you in is the person loading the baggage and is the same person that gets in the pilot’s seat, tennis shoes and all, and says welcome aboard! With the van full, we head to the mine area; here everyone goes their own way.
Karen and I decided to get in out of the rain so we go over to the Kennicott Glacier Lodge to check out the lunch menu
Following lunch, we only had a short time before the tour, but Karen and I had different ideas on how to spend this time; she wanted to browse THE gift shop and I went after a few pictures that were just waiting to be taken. We reconvened at the St Elias Alpine Guides office for the 1:30 mine tour. This was an additional $25/pp for the 2- ½ hour tour, we decided it sounded interesting and dry; it was still raining. The tour is led by a knowledgeable guide who provides colorful insight into the Kennicott mill town life and access to much of the 14-story mill operation that is otherwise closed to the public.
This structure is suppose to be the largest lumber constructed building in the US and it still retains it’s traditional look with the barn red exterior and white trim; it is now designated as a national historic landmark
Without detailing the entire tour, we descended the steep and narrow stairs through the crushing, grinding, sorting and separation machinery; this entire section is called the Concentration Mill for obvious reasons. As we traverse the different levels, you can easily imagine the noise, vibration, dust and hardships these workers had to endure.
The tour ends on the bottom floor of this incredible maze of rooms and machines in an area where nobody would want to work, "the bagging room". This is where the pulverized fines of copper ore were dispensed into 100 lb burlap sacks to be loaded on the rail cars. Never mind the moving, shaking, thumping machines operating 140’ directly above you, this has got to be the dustiest and smelliest place on the planet; it still is today nearly 70 years after the mine has closed
Was the Kennicott Copper Corporation Mine a success? I guess you would have to ask the descendents of some of the original investor’s, such as the Guggenheims or the Vanderbilts. If I remember my tour facts right, in 1907 when the mine was built, the cost to construct the railroad to haul the copper, build the mill, dig the mines and pay the workers totaled $28 million dollars.
Over the 27 years of operation, the silver extracted as a bi-product of the copper mining essentially paid for the entire $28 million dollar cost. All the $680 million from the sale of the copper itself was pure profit; not bad if you were an investor. Adjusted for inflation, today, that would have to be somewhere in the bazillion of dollars or something like that.
Well, like I said somewhere else on this vacation, I really can show a gal a good time. Interestingly enough, I believe Karen actually enjoyed the tour and the experience of getting out to this remote location. When I read about this area and the mine, I knew I wanted to see it; I guess everyone who comes to Alaska has a different image in mind or expectations. Looking back on the day, this drive and tour just conjures up images of the hardy souls who endured the solitude and hardship of this hostile Alaskan wilderness to attempt to find a better life. The key word here is “attempt”; there was no guarantee or government bail out offered.
For me, the toil and success represented here just reflects the spirit that made America great!
Amazing what you can find when you go on vacation isn’t it?