Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dam Tourists!

Before going on a public tour, I try to give the tour guide a heads up. My dad and I are not your average tourists. Unfortunately, I forgot to warn our Glen Canyon Dam tour guide. Caught unprepared for our detailed, unusual questions, she tried to deflect: “I’m not allowed to give those specifications, but you can look them up on the internet.”

By halfway through the tour, she was exasperated. Unable to answer our questions, she began questioning us. What was our background? Why did we want to know this stuff? Simple curiosity didn’t seem to be an acceptable answer.

I had to remind my dad of the time he almost got thrown off the coffee plantation tour in Hawaii because they thought he was an industrial spy. Glenn Canyon Dam is protected by Homeland Security, and I really didn’t want to get into too much trouble. So we just closed our mouths for the remainder of the tour.

On the elevator ride back to the top of the dam, our guide admitted to us that she usually goes all day without having a question she hasn’t already answered a hundred times before. All of our questions were new.

When she returned to the comfort zone of the front desk, she immediately turned me over to the NPS ranger for answers. The ranger tried to refer me to the movie in the auditorium, but I had too many comparable statistics from Hoover Dam to be placated by a general video. The ranger retreated to the back room and sent out a superior.

I urge the NPS and the tour guides at Glenn Canyon to think about our questions and their mission to educate their visitors. For most people, the standard tour is enough. But for the occasional visitor who wants to know more, have knowledgeable guides on staff who can engage in a detailed discussion.

As with most of the tours I go on, I’m always trying to answer the question, “Why do people want to see this?” In the case of the Glenn Canyon Dam, clearly tourists don’t want to learn about electricity generation. If they do learn the fundamentals of hydro-electric power, I think that’s great. But a quick check in at the coal powered power plant only two miles from the dam confirmed my suspicions. There were no regularly scheduled tours, no gift shop, no interest from the public.

Kennecott Sidetrip II

Just as I was bemoaning the fact that geologists never discover ore in convenient locations, I come across the Kennecott Copper Mine located just off Interstate 80 in suburban Salt Lake City.

Just as Kennecott was closing down its interests in Alaska, they bought up the Bingham Canyon mine. It was a very different grade of ore and required a very different type of mine. They pretty much invented open pit mining. This is one big hole.

As a museum professional, I hated the visitor center. I could list all of the faults I saw with it, but I was clearly in the minority opinion. Walking through the center, I heard Spanish, French, German, and English being spoken. The audience was incredibly diverse, especially for Utah. Intergenerational groups were talking with each other about copper. All around me a heard exclamations of, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” A quick look over their guest book showed geologists from Germany, visitors from South Korea, and folks from over a dozen different states – and that was only for today. Despite my reservations, it was clearly a success.

What is your inclination?

Articulated trucks low gear!

Box trucks watch out.

Car to truck conversion?

Trucks probably shouldn't be on this road if the cars are having problems.

Not even safe for bikes?

So Much More than Potatoes!

This is my first trip to Idaho, and I am loving it! Not only is it a beautiful state with friendly people, but it also has a number of surprise attractions for the Technical Tourist.

Tired of driving, we pulled into the tiny town of Challis. Showing no signs of sustainable economic activity (not enough agriculture, clearly not a tourist destination, no factory infrastructure), we were puzzled as to why there were a dozen motels lining the main road. Of course, when there is no outward sign of industry, look underground. The bartender at our motel confirmed our suspicions – mining! But not just any old mine, this is the only molybdenum mine in North America. Who doesn’t love moly?

Thomas Creek does offer tours of the mine. Our bartender (who also drives the fuel truck up there sometimes) gave us the phone number of the guard station, but everyone in town suggested we just drive up to the mine. Unfortunately, when we arrived all of the managers were in a meeting and no one could give the authorization to get us in. Better luck next time.

Continuing our drive south, by noon I was getting peckish, and forced my dad to pull over in the town of Arco. Another grand surprise. As the sign outside city hall proudly proclaims, Arco was the first city to be lit by atomic energy. We went inside to find out more information and discovered the front desk staff leafing through the archives of the local newspaper, the Arco Advertiser. Arco is celebrating its centennial this year, and they are busy putting together a cd of the town’s history.

The exceptionally friendly staff told us all about EBR-1, the experimental breeder reactor down the road a few miles, and encouraged us to take a tour. They also urged us to return to Arco in a few weeks to celebrate Atomic Days, their annual town celebration. I’m tempted.

How can the technical tourist refuse an invitation to see the first experimental breeder reactor? Of course I knew the basic history of the Manhattan Project and the reactor at the University of Chicago, but I had no idea that Idaho played such a big part in researching the use of atomic energy. Idaho National Labs is clearly still doing some interesting research, but the Department of Energy clearly wishes to confine tourists to its historic work.

My final Idaho surprise came after a disappointing trip to the Hagermen Fossil Pits (Don’t get your hopes up. There are no fossils to see.) On a whim, we turned off the road to see the National Fish Hatchery. I was surprised to discover we weren’t the only tourists viewing the fish hatchery on a random Tuesday afternoon. I was even more surprised to learn that their visitation rate would make most museums jealous. And I was even more surprised to find out that 75% of the stocked trout in the US is grown in the high plains of Idaho. It takes about 11 months to grow a fish. They had just shipped out all of their stock, and they ship all over the country. Now, every time I see a truck on the highway, I wonder if it is full of fish.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Kennecott Sidetrip

The luxury of traveling in your own vehicle is that at any point along the way you can on a whim decide to turn right and drive 94 miles down a pothole-filled, gravel road hoping that there’s something worthwhile at the end. Admittedly, it often ends with a headache, sore back, screaming at your traveling companion, and being rejected by the hotel when you show up at 11:00 pm due to the size of your dog. (We had even double checked on this when we made the reservation before heading down that bumpy road. Argh.) But sometimes the trip is actually worth it.

Thus we toured the remains of the Kennecott Mine. It’s a fascinating industrial site situated in the middle of a picturesque, rugged landscape, but makes me wonder why geologists can’t ever seem to find ore in more easily accessible places.

One of the books I have along with me on this trip is The Official Guide to America’s National Parks (Fodor’s 12th edition). In its glowing description of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, it gushes that “the largest protected roadless wilderness in the world, encompasses towering mountains, glaciers, meandering rivers, and volcanoes.” Nowhere in its description of “the mountain kingdom of North America” does it mention that one of the nation’s most productive copper mines – a company town that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places – sits in the middle of this wilderness. (Nor does it mention the second-growth trees surrounding the town. During the heyday of the mine in the early 20th century, they clear-cut the forest for fuel for the trains. I wonder what the backpackers would think if I suggested denuding the forest?)

Some of the buildings in Kennecott are privately owned, some are in varying stages of collapse, and some are being restored, or at least stabilized, by the National Park Service. The most impressive building in the group is the mill house, which cascades 14 stories down the side of the mountain. Perhaps one of the more structurally unsound buildings I’ve explored lately, but I’m thankful that the Park Service let us in at all.

You can only tour the mill by paying for a guided tour with the St. Elias Alpine Guides, who were unfortunately unable to answer any of my technical questions. Of course, the NPS rangers couldn’t answer my questions either. A suggestion to the Park Service: If you are going to preserve two major copper mine sites, you should be able to make a comparison between the two. You just might get a crazy tourist or two who have been to both. (The other copper mine, Keweenaw, is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and is worth an excursion. They were mining elemental copper, which is just plain cool.)

Dredging Sounds So Much Easier

So I’ve seen the pictures of the Klondike Goldrush stampeders, and it really doesn’t look like fun. It looks cold and muddy, and I know I’d never make it. (I think it is good to know your own limits, and I’m pretty sure mine fall well short of trekking hundreds of miles in 50 below temperatures hauling a year’s supply of food on the chance that I might strike it rich. I’m more suited to playing the lottery or aiming to marry well.)

What I didn’t know was that gold mining quickly became industrialized. Goodbye Jack London shivering in a log cabin. Hello giant machinery. (Log cabins lack structurally integrity anyway – who thought it was a good idea to build a straight wall by stacking round things on round things.)

As soon as the completion of the railroad made the transportation of these behemoths feasible, they arrived on the scene. A team of up to 120 workers would steam the permafrost in advance of the dredge so that it could scoop out the muck and the rocks, sort out the gold, and spit out tailings in its wake. Dredges transformed the landscape into snaking piles of large rocks. I’m sure in a thousand years archeologists will speculate what caused men to make such strange mounds.

There are dredges scattered about the area – Dawson City, Chicken, Fairbanks, Skagway. They all seem to be in a slow state of decline. Some have passed through multiple owners who now can’t tell you how they operate. And just about everyone is reluctant to let you inside. What are they afraid of – that we might learn something?