Water giants washing away the walls of Canyon Creek/Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
CANYON CREEK – Following the Seward Highway south as it made the turn at the Hope Cutoff and climbed into the 5 a.m. dawn of the already fading Alaska summer, it was impossible not to notice the lush, green jungle of alder and spruce blanketing this seemingly wild Kenai Mountain valley.
Or, if you knew the history of the place, to think about the amazing ways in which nature heals itself in the north.
Man once laid waste to this valley. At the start of the 20th Century, it was the gold-fueled Galt’s Gulch of the Kenai for those familiar with the late novelist Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”
Then the gold ran out, and the reported 2,000 people who’d come to call home a community named Sunrise downstream on Turnagain Arm faded away. Today, if you take the Cutoff to its end in Hope – population less the 250 – you’re likely to drive through Sunrise without even noticing it is there.
Not much is left.
Even less remains of the mines and communities that once dotted the Canyon Creek valley and the surrounding ridges. Mining was already fading by the 1920s, and Mother Nature was beginning her reclamation work.
B.T. (Before Twitter)
In these times when the world seems to exist largely in the Twitter of the moment, it is easy to forget the natural and never-ending changes that are the reality of everything around us. Evolution is not only a human constant; it is a planetary constant.
Death comes to everyone and everything – fauna or flora. But life rolls on through it all. Humanity is today at war with an invisible enemy, a microscopic pathogen the likes of which the species has not been seen the Spanish flu more than 100 years ago.
The Spanish flu arrived about the same time the human war on nature in this valley was drawing to a close. What the flu did to humans, humans had done to the valley. Historical accounts would indicate they ripped the heart out of it to get at the gold
Hungry for riches, they blasted rock with dynamite and washed away gravel and vegetation with water cannons.
By the time they were done, what was left pretty much looked like a strip mine for 10 miles or so from this creek’s confluence with Sixmile Creek to Lower Summit Lake. You’d never know it today.
Most who drive the highway these days doubtfully even notice the ancient tracks of earlier visitors still discernible in the distinct band of alder following an old road cut up the far side of the drainage and the overgrown adits that zigzag up some of the surrounding mountainsides.
Anyone interested in knowing more about this is directed to a 2014 video produced by the Kenai Mountains – Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area. How little known the industrial history of this now wild area viewed by tens of thousands of travelers along the highway every year might well be underlined by the fact that as of this writing the video had been viewed fewer than 300 times.
History is an easy thing for humans to overlook or forget. We live mainly in the here and now with an eye to the future colored by our expectations good or bad. There’s always the hopeful “next year” for your favorite losing sports team, and now there is for some the COVID-19 fear of not living to see the next year.
Some of us won’t make it. But then some of us never make it.
The odds in New Jersey – the world leader in COVID-19 deaths per capita – are 1 in 562 that COVID-19 will kill you, and they are getting worse by the day as the deaths per 100,000 residents continue to creep upward.
But the crisis will end eventually end because they always do, because change – both good and bad – is as inevitable as evolution. And because humans have shown a remarkable ability to bend the trajectory of nature to suit themselves.
We were supposed to reach global carrying capacity by the 1970s at which time “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.” Or so forecast Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife, Anne Ehrlich in the 1968 book “The
Luckily, the Green Revolution was underway, and it would grow even faster than the exploding human population. Nature’s effort to kill us then didn’t work, and nature seems to be struggling again.
When the pandemic started, better than one in every 10 of the people diagnosed with the disease died. The number of survivors has been going up ever since. The latest data from the COVID-19 tracker at Worldometer shows that, globally, 94 percent of those who catch the disease today recover.
Unfortunately, that number can vary based on who you and where you are. Old people and people of color are, in general, at greater risk of death. The New Jersey data would indicate only about 88 percent of people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 in that state survive.
In Alaska, on the other hand, the data indicates that of the 755 cases with outcomes at this point, 737 – almost 98 percent have recovered. But that could change because change is constant.
About halfway between the Hope Cutoff and Lower Summit Lake, the Seward Highway passes the ghost town of Wible, though it is an overstatement to call it a ghost town. It is more of a gone town.
If you follow a trail that winds its way south along Canyon Creek on the opposite side of the creek, it’s easy to find the reservoir which once provided water for Wible and for constant mining operations, but you’ll have to poke around in the brush to find much more.
The main structures in the town fell down long ago. It’s namesake founder, Simon Wible, has been gone even longer. He died in San Francisco in 1911, according to a biography compiled by the Alaska Miners Association (AMA). He was 79 years old.
He’d come north late at that age of 67, according to the bio, but he left a big impression despite his age.
“He recognized an extensive system of alluvial gravels on a bench about 100 feet above Canyon Creek and over the next several years developed the bench with flumes, pipe lines, and ditches,” according to the AMA, which voted him into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame. “Boulders that would have hindered hand miners were pushed over the canyon walls into Canyon Creek by the force of hydraulic giants; reportedly Wible had expended $50,000 on the development of his claims on Sixmile and Canyon Creeks. The ground was not rich, but Wible’s efficient operation netted a profit. A good year for Wible was about 1,000 ounces of fine gold.
“Wible’s methods were widely copied in the Sunrise district and within a year or two, most larger operations used hydraulic technology in the form of giants and elevators. Technology introduced by Wible spread rapidly, and similar operations were run in the early years of the Nome district and at Flat.”
They are so gone that were it not for internet entrepreneurs trying to sell you things, you might think they never existed.
“We know of eight airports near Wibel, of which one is a larger airport….Also, if you like playing golf, there are a few options in driving distance. If you need a hotel, we compiled a list of available hotels close to the map centre further down the page.”
Needless to say, most people won’t be looking to stay in Wibel (the differing spellings come from the USGS mapping) because they have forgotten it exists or never knew.
Humans have an amazing ability to move on. It might leave us ignorant of our history, but it likely contributes to our resilience.
“Many factors that determine resilience – such as genetics, early life experiences, and luck – can’t be modified,” according to Psychology Today. “But specific resilience-building skills can be learned. These include breaking out of negative thought cycles, pushing back against catastrophizing, and looking for upsides when faced with setbacks.”
Overflowing with optimism, we followed the highway past Wible and on to the mouth of the Kenai River. The numbers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game tracking sockeye salmon movements in Cook Inlet had made it look like Monday would be a good day for dipnetting at the mouth of the Kenai River.
It wasn’t. The fishing was only so-so. But it was a beautiful morning to be on the beach. It left me feeling almost as resilient as the Canyon Creek alder.