I don’t like coal. It’s a dirty fuel whose negatives far out weigh it’s positives. But coal is cheap energy and it isn’t hard for a hand full of people to get rich, fast. So the world continues to find a source for their coal habit. One such source is Alaska and the Alaska Range. It is estimated that Alaska has one of the largest coal reserves in the world.
The Alaska Range is home to the only active coal mine in Alaska, a massive open-pit mine near Denali National Park and Preserve.
The Usibelli Mine is about 20 miles from the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve. Founded in 1943 outside Healy, the mine sells coal to six state power plants as well as South Korea and other Pacific Rim countries. The exported coal is transported on the Alaska Railroad about 300 miles to Seward, which is an ice-free port and home to Kenai Fjords National Park.
In September, my Dad and I did some exploring in the mountains east of Denali National Park, near the Usibelli mine. I have seen signs of coal during many of my expedition in the Alaska Range, but in this area, it literally oozes out of the mountains. It is a bizarre landscape, resembling Utah or Arizona. Honestly, I have never really seen anything like it in Alaska. The Delta Mountains have some pockets that look similar, but this area is really special and fun to explore.
There are a collection of narrow canyons you can follow. The sand stone in these canyons is super soft and crumbles easily, the ground was moist and gooey. We were forced to stay in the canyon bottoms, though occasional I would try to scale the cliffs to get a better perspective, boots sinking into the sticky soil.
I spent as much time admiring all the fascinating rocks as I did taking photographs. We both felt that at any moment we would stumble upon some great fossil of a mammoth or dinosaur and we naively searched, having no idea what to look for.
I have been bullied and harassed throughout my years photographing in the Alaska Range. I have been told by many an old-timer to “Stay out of their mountains” and to “leave the miners alone”. These sourdoughs still cling to the frontier Alaska of long ago. A time of Mom and Pop mines, rough lives living in the Alaskan bush, adventure and solitude in remote wilderness.
That Alaska spirit of solitude and adventure still exist. It is alive and well in the hearts of guides, bush pilots, boat captains and remote lodge owners. It is alive and well in Alaska’s wilderness, wildlife, healthy rivers and ocean.
To me, there in nothing that screams non Alaska more than big industrial coal and gold mines. Mines run by big business, with product and money being sent to foreign markets. Mines that actually threaten the things that make Alaska different then anywhere else in the world, the things that make Alaska…Alaska.
Learn more about industrial coal and gold mining in the Alaska Range at: