Friday, July 27, 2012

July 26 – Kennecott Mine

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I am seeing that the posts are getting rather long. We take a lot of picture and it seems a shame not to post a lot of them.

Today we did the 60 mile dirt road to McCarthy and the Kennecott Mine. I won’t say we were disappointed but it certainly didn’t live up to our expectations.

We left the RV at about 8:30. To get to the road we have to drive about 30 miles to the end of the paved Edgerton Highway at Chitina. As it turned out this was where we got the best views of the mountains of the entire day.


First 12000 foot Mount Drum.



and 14000 foot Mount Wrangell


Mount Wrangell is so massive and wide it was hard to believe that it was so high.


Crossing the Copper River. It is famous for its salmon.



We had heard a lot of horror stories about the McCarthy Road. It is built over the remains of the railway line used to get things in and out of the Kennecott Mine. In some places railroad ties and rails are still exposed. Also the occasional spike is left exposed when they grade the road. They say to always have a full sized spare because flats are very likely and no large vehicles because it is so pot holed. Even the lady at the RV park said it was in bad shape given the last few days of rain.

All in all it wasn’t that bad. We did see a few of the ties and rails but no spikes. We escaped unscathed, just a bit dirty. Someone else in the park was not so lucky. They had a Jeep Wrangler with huge off road tires and got a flat. Not from a spike but an ordinary nail. There are tire repair places at either end of the road and the guy that fixed it for them gave them a spike anyway as a souvenir.

I would divide the road into 3 sections. The first 15 miles initially seemed OK but them we ran into the road repairs. There was a constant stream of very large dump trucks laying a layer of somewhat large gravel on the road. Even though the road was wide and “flat” you had to go slow because of the roughness and for fear of kicking up one of the large rocks.



The next 15 miles were in great shape. It was easy to do 40 – 45 mph.



The last 30 miles were very pot holed so it was pretty slow going. There would be nice spots that would fool you into going faster and then bam.


The sneaky part was that the worst pot holes were in the shade where we were blind after being in the bright sunshine. It guess these spots never dried out so the water could work its magic.

We were not sure what happened to these guys. They were standing behind the car on their cell phone. We figured that if the grader guy couldn’t help there was little we could do.

My expectation was, that since this national park is know for its mountains, that we would get some good mountain views on the trip in. Nope. No close up mountain views at all. There were very few things that made you stop and say wow.



Jennie kept her eyes averted as we went across this bridge. The gorge was very deep.


The bridge has a wood deck that is fairly new. I read in the guide book that it wasn’t too long ago that the deck was very old wood with some planks actually missing. They called it the most “interesting” part of the trip.


We also stopped to take picture of this railway trestle. It was hard to believe but the info board said it only took 8 days to build it in the dead of winter.


We also saw out first moose in quite a while.

As I was slowly driving by, another one in the bushes right beside the road surprised me. As I moved forward so would it. I didn’t want it running out in front of me. Finally it veered off and we were away.

You can’t drive all the way into McCarthy or Kennecott. At the end of the road you have to park, cross over a river on a couple of foot bridges and then walk about1/2 mile into McCarthy.

If you park right at the footbridge you have to pay. We stopped at a free lot several hundred yards back up the road.


It was eyes up for Jennie at the steel grate was see thru if you looked straight down.


Before the foot bridge was in place they had to go across in a hand tram on a cable like the one on the trail I did a few weeks ago.


Once in McCarthy you pay $5 each way for a shuttle van to take you to the Kennecott Mine site which is five miles away. You can walk if you want. The road between them was very rough and I wondered about the lifetime of the vans. The preferred mode of transportation by the locals is ATV.


It was about 12:30 now so we had lunch while we waited for the next shuttle.

Here at least we got to see some high mountains and glaciers

The mine is on the hillside of a glacial valley. When a lot of people come here they think the piles of gravel are left over from the mining but they are actually the moraine of a glacier that has receded.


The only reason the mine is here is because they found a very rich vein of copper. At most copper mines the ore contains in the low teen % copper. Here it was 80% copper. That made it economically feasible to build the mine and all its associated infrastructure in such a remote location.  It produced over $100 million dollars worth of copper in the early 1900s which would be billions today.

We first hit the visitor’s center, watched a movie and got a map for a walking tour. Then we grabbed quick snack of frozen yogurt from this bus cafe.


Due to the cost of shipping even this high grade an ore to the refinery in Tacoma Washington they did as much refining here as possible. The 14 story high building on the hill below is the concentration mill. They used gravity to move the ore from process to process.




A lot of windows.


They are still in the process of restoring what they can here. A few of the buildings are open but there is not really much in them other than a few historic pictures. The only way to get in the mill is to go on a $25 a person tour. We had asked a local about it and he said the movie in the visitors center showed you most of what you would see so we saved the $50.

There was a balcony on the side of the power plant that was open for you to see the huge steam generators.


We hiked up to the top of the mill for a look.


When we got there we saw a family talking to a workman there. He said they had found some old blasting caps and explosives and he was preparing for the experts to come in and remove them. Not very reassuring.

Even though we were supposed to be on a tour to go in, he let us and the other family in to look around the top deck. Jennie went in a bit but didn’t like the look of it. I don’t blame her.



You could see all the new beams they had installed to shore it up.


The ore would come down to the top of the mill from the mine on aerial tramways. One cable came from just below the white line of snow, center top in the picture below.



The trail down from the top lead to another trail that went 1.5 miles out to a glacier.



We went part way out to see if we could get any views but decided it would be hard to top Worthington Glacier yesterday so we went back.


Some building were in better shape that others.


There were workmen and construction everywhere.


We also looked in the manager’s office, the refrigeration plant and the accounting office. I didn’t bother with any pictures because as I said there were basically empty.

By 3:30 we had seen enough and took the shuttle back to the footbridge and then walked to the car. When we had come in I had parked at the recommended free spot in a small state park about 1/2 km from the foot bridge. It turned out we could have parked much closer for free. It seemed like a long walk back.


I am not sure what these fluffy plants were beside the road but it seemed that in the next wind the air would be filled.



I think I drove faster on the way home but we got to the car at 4:20 and didn’t get to the RV until 7.

All in all we could have easily skipped this place. They just didn’t seem ready for prime time. In a few more years when there are more displays, more buildings are open and maybe a less than $25 a person tour, it may be worth the 6 hours of driving.

As we were getting out of the car, the guy from the next site came over to ask us what we thought, just as I had done to someone else the previous night. I told him basically what I said here. He went over to talk to the people with the Jeep as well. I noticed this morning that they didn’t go and had packed up and left.

A VERY long day.

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