Gear laid strewn out in every direction as we attempted to pack for the coming 48 days in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. We moved as a group from one task to the next, from making sure our boots fit into our ski bindings to bagging one of the many pounds of food we would consume over the coming weeks. Andrew along with our two new instructors for this section, Jesse (JQ) and Kevin, assisted us in determining what equipment was essential so that we could travel as light as possible. Following the hectic day, we all piled into the bus once again, eager to make the 7 hour journey east towards our starting point. We chatted excitedly, passing the numerous mountains, glaciers and valleys that bordered the single lane highway, eager for the unknown challenges that lay ahead.
Awaking on the grassy airstrip at Devil’s Mountain Lodge we were anxious to begin our first day of hiking and shake off our sea legs. The night before we had been swarmed with mosquitoes but they did not seem to want any breakfast this morning. Our hike today would be fairly straightforward, hiking along an ATV trail until we reached a trail breaking off which we would follow to our camp next to the Jacksina River. Supposedly, there was an abandoned gold mine along the ATV trail and that was the talk of camp that morning as myself and others were really hoping to see it. After breaking off into hiking groups, we were off into the wild.
As we had expected, going was pretty easy along the ATV trail as I became accustomed to my 55 lb. pack that would be my “home” the next 50 days. Kevin, one of our new instructors for the mega section, pointed out the plant, Spanish Blue Bell, which is wild spinach and it was delicious. It was an excellent fresh snack to grab on the go, one that I would come to greatly enjoy. We continued on, finding the possible entrance to the trail but scouted ahead to make sure it was the right spot. On our scout further up the ATV trail we stumbled upon the gold mine. Kevin was probably the most adventurous of our instructors and we decided as a group we would go explore.
We entered the large clearing and were awed by the building that sat up on a hill. We could see mine shafts further up on the mountain with chutes leading down towards the building. After taking some pictures at the base of the building, we climbed up to begin exploring. We were able to look inside the old wooden building, seeing various machinery and operation equipment, yet couldn’t go in the first floor because the flooring didn’t look very stable. With that, we climbed an old broken ladder and went in on the second floor. There were tools and equipment everywhere, if it wasn’t so dusty you would have thought the mine was still in operation. It was fascinating to see the old electrical system that they used for electricity as well as the various pulleys and giant machinery they used to mine the gold.
We went back outside, around the rear of the building to see what more we could find. We found where the chutes came in from the mountainside above. There was also an intricate weighted system that they used as a pulley system, involving large rocks in wooden crates. Walking over to the other side of the building we sat down and enjoyed the beautiful view of the valley around us. One of my peers began playing with the rocks and found one that was yellowish and sparkling. Gold! We were filthy rich! Not quite, it was fool’s gold, almost completely worthless but making men crazy and broke since the gold rush.
For some historical context, we later learned that the mine was in operation from the 1920s before shutting down before World War II in the 1940s. The miners were able to mine gold, silver as well as other minerals. They had been able to mine over $8 million dollars in gold at this location, which is close to $100 million today. The owners and the employees had abandoned everything when it shut down and the mine has sat unused ever since. Someone was able to purchase the mine for himself some years ago and it is private property.
After spending over an hour at the gold mine, we decided it was best if we continued our travel to the Jacksina River. On our way out of the clearing, we passed one of the other hiking groups who were on their way in to inspect the mine for themselves. We later learned that this group had a run in with a grizzly bear at the mine. They were in the clearing below the building when they had heard some rustling in the bushes. All of a sudden, a grizzly came bumbling out walking curiously towards my peers. At this point, the group had pulled their bear sprays out (safeties off) and were prepared for any possible problem. The bear continued to move closer to the group until it was about 30 yards away. After telling the bear, “You don’t want to do this bear”, “Go home bear you’re drunk!” and other various things the bear turned back around and stumbled back into the woods, just as he came. I wouldn’t recommend trying this at home. It is highly unadvisable to tell a bear it is drunk or to speak to them in a threating tone. They are not very understanding.
Eventually, after travelling through boggy area and doing a little bushwhacking we arrived at the gravel bed along the Jacksina River. After debriefing, we learned and practiced techniques for crossing rivers, as we were hoping to cross the Jacksina the following morning. In order to cross, we would have to scout this large flowing river. Eight of us split up into two groups of four to scout locations both up and downriver. There are various techniques that a group can use to cross a river, such as an eddy line or the New Zealand method. These methods involve forming a connected line of people, facing upriver and perpendicular respectively, in order to gain more stability and control in fast moving water. Using the eddy line method, we were able to strategize and move across the river, moving from one strip of rocky sandbar to another. Some parts of the river were much more challenging than others but our scout team, as well as the others, had found a way across. We were all set to continue our journey tomorrow at 5 am.
At 5 am we awoke to the news from Kevin that the river had not fallen as we would have hoped and we were going to try again later that morning. Glacial river (such as the Jacksina) flows are largely dependent on temperature. A higher temperature means the glacier’s rate of melting will increase, resulting in a higher water levels and faster river. Usually, the flow of these glacial rivers decrease during the night due to cooler temperatures. We happily laid back down on our sleeping pads and dozed off until we prepared to cross around 10. We would be following the route of the upriver scout team as we and they thought that their route was much less challenging than ours.
We began moving across, with some surprise at certain points as the rest of us were informed by the scout team that certain parts were much easier or harder the day before. Reaching a sandbar in the middle of the river we realized that the rest of this route would not work as we had planned. The river was too deep and was moving way too fast to cross at this point. We would have to continue scouting. Groups moved about both up and down river, trying to find a spot where we could cross in a safe and efficient manner. After much time had passed, we were able to find a way across and make it onto dry land. What we had thought would be a quick 30-45 minute crossing turned out to be a three-hour ordeal. One of our instructors said it had been the most challenging river crossing he had ever done with students.
We spent some time relaxing on dry land and drying out our boots and socks in the strong sun before moving on in our hiking groups an additional 2 miles, to our camp for the night. With gold mine, a grizzly encounter and a large challenging river crossing under our belts we were already well on our way to an epic Alaskan adventure.