Coal Country

A band of sanddstone stretches across the valley.

A band of sandstone stretches across the valley.

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.

Bands of coal in the cliffs.

Bands of coal in the cliffs.

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.

Alaska? Looks like Utha or Arizona.

Alaska? Looks like Utah or Arizona.

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.

coal and oil ooze out of the mountains.

coal and oil ooze out of the mountains.

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.

A geologist playground.

A geologist playground.

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.

The sandstone is so soft that this willow, blowing in the wind, creates grooves in it.

The sandstone is so soft that this willow, blowing in the wind, creates grooves in it.

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.

A strange landscape.

A strange landscape.

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.

sandstone detail.

sandstone detail.

Learn more about industrial coal and gold mining in the Alaska Range at:

usibelli.com

www.groundtruthtrekking.org

northern.org

www.denalicitizens.org

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Tangle Lakes

Pond near Lower Tangle lake, Amphitheater Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

Pond near Lower Tangle lake, Amphitheater Mountains, Eastern Alaska Range

Not all of the Alaska Range is remote and rugged. One of the more popular areas in the Alaska Range is the Amphitheater Mountains off the Denali Highway. The Amphitheater Mountains are a small sub-range of the eastern Alaska Range. They are a mixture of rolling tundra, craggy peaks and beautiful alpine lakes, the most accessible ones being a series of lakes known as Tangle Lakes.

My first trip into the Amphitheater Mountains was in 2005, when my usual partner in crime, Sy, and I did a circumnavigation of the mountains. We went in early June and ran into deep snow on the north side of the range. We encountered many caribou and my first and only encounter with a wolverine. Weather was mediocre and I created few good images.

Last week I went up to the Tangle Lakes area with my wife and son along with a whole bunch of family friends. We canoed, hiked and picked berries, all in the rain. Okay, we did have one nice morning that didn’t turn ugly until the late afternoon.

my son picks blue berries. Lots of records were set in 2013, the most months with snow on the ground, the warmest summer on record and possibly the best blue berry season ever.

My son Walker picking blue berries. Rain or shine, berry picking is always fun.

This was my first trip since the ill-fated Neacola trip and I wondered how I was going to feel around so much cold water, but I felt fine, even when the wind, rain and waves picked up during one of our canoe trips. Unfortunately, just like my last trip, photography was mostly a bust.

The Delta River, a designated Wild and Scenic River. This image was taken in 2006

The Delta River, a designated Wild and Scenic River. This image was taken in 2006

The Tangle Lakes are the headwaters of the Delta River, a designated Wild and Scenic River, that splits the eastern Alaska Range into two sections. The Amphitheater Mountains (and the neighbouring Delta and Clearwater Mountains) are the home of the of Nelchina caribou herd. The Nelchina herd’s primary winter grounds are the Amphitheater Mountains.

A large bull caribou of the Nelchina herd. This image was taken in 2006, in the Delta Mountains.

A large bull caribou of the Nelchina herd. This image was taken in 2006, in the Delta Mountains.

The Tangle Lakes biggest claim to fame are the human artifacts that have been discovered. There are more than 600 historic and prehistoric sites within the Amphitheater Mountains that help to tell the story of human occupation and hunting for the past 10,000 years. The Tangle Lakes Archaeological District was accepted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

Even with it’s natural beauty, bountiful wildlife and long history, the Tangle Lakes area is constantly being surveyed and probed for possible large-scale mines. Almost every hour a helicopter passes through the area to the many drills sites north of the Amphitheater Mountains. In the adjacent Delta Mountains, one of the area’s finest hiking trails was bull dozed in order to get drilling rigs to remote sites.

Proposed Tangle Lakes Wildlife Refuge

Proposed Tangle Lakes Wildlife Refuge

Because none of Amphitheater Mountains are under state or federal protection, a dedicated group of locals have begun the process of creating the Tangle Lakes State Wildlife Refuge. Creating any type of protected land in Alaska these days borders on impossible. So, If you have spent time in the area and would like to see it stay as wild and beautiful as it is, please consider helping out.

For more info on the Amphitheater Mountains and the creation of the Tangle Lakes State Wildlife Refuge visit:

The Northern Environmental Center and Save Tangle Lakes

Cotton Grass and Round Tangle Lake.

Cotton Grass and Round Tangle Lake.