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.)