Going Underground

A couple of days ago I went underground. Literally.

It all started with a drive to Ouray, which is 19.4 miles away from Lake City as the crow flies. But because (at least in the winter) you have to drive around lots of mountains, Ouray was actually 136.5 miles away.

Once there we got to a road which reminded me of the Alpine Loop. The sign on the locked gate was a little ominous.

But our business was further up that road – so we continued on. Past evidence that the sign was accurate…

…until we reached a mine that is being readied for working again after a long period of inactivity. The price of precious metals is currently very high (March 2012). In times of uncertain economies, gold and silver tend to do very well on the markets. I suppose they seem somehow timeless, secure investments. So, it is currently worth re-investing in mines which had previously been un-economic to run.

The history of mining is a constant iteration of boom and bust cycles. I imagine all this activity means that we’re currently in a boom. It was possible to see old mining buildings, still on the site from one of the previous mining booms.

Once up there, we donned the requisite safety equipment and headed down (actually up – though it felt like down) into the mine. It was a little bit muddy, but not unpleasant. The hissing of water and air pipes accompanied us. Many mines rely on air being pumped into them, but this one has natural ventilation, which will be helped along by fans in certain places, as the mine develops.

The miners who were giving me the tour (I will call them Luckies No. 2 & 3) showed me where some fellow miners were drilling into the wall of the mine to make a drill station. From the drill station they will sample the rock to find out the location and size of the vein that they will be mining.

To extract metals, the miners drill into the rock face, and then load it with dynamite to blast out the rock so that they can take the ore to be milled. There is an art to everything; the number of holes you drill, the direction they point in, and the timing of your explosives can all make an important difference.

I was at the mouth of the mine when this particular round went off (far away, and around a corner mum, don’t worry). I felt my lungs compress as the series of explosions took place. The corrugated tin building shook, and I screamed, ducked, and tried to cover my head and my ears at the same time. I am very tough. Luckies No. 2 & 3 thought so.

What all of this mining is about, is extracting metals for stockbrokers to trade, for us to wear, and to use in medical, digital, and transport applications (amongst many, many others). We all use this stuff. It’s in the computer you’re using now. And the amazing part is that it was created through the interaction of water and heat and rock – a process called mineralisation. These minerals form in a crack or void that was already present in the rock, and that shows up as a vein.

Some are very skinny, others are wider, and some are fractured. This one is a real corker, each colour represents a different substance, some of which we value very highly. The white is quartz, the yellows are various stages in oxidisation of minerals.

When wandering around the Ute Ulay I often see pretty coloured rocks on the ground and I want to pick them up. I wonder if the very first miners were inspired by pretty rocks too.

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The Alpine Loop

Many folks visit the Lake City area due to the precipitous and thrilling alpine loop backcountry byway. If you have a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, you can travel over un-metalled, bumpy (terrifying) routes that were carved out by miners in order to access remote work places at up to 12,800 ft. Along the route you will see many traces of mining in the landscape, like the coloured piles of waste-rock and tailings in the mid-ground of the picture below.

You may also see ghost towns, and bits and bobs of leftover mining structures and infrastructure.

Up in Lake City tourism is an important part of the economy. Since the tax base from private land is so low, it makes sense that visitors bringing in money from outside is a great way to boost income. Plus, Lake City is an interesting and unique place – it has a lot to offer the holiday-maker: sublime views, calm and isolation, wilderness, a ski-hill suitable for learners, a whole host of historic buildings, taxidermy galore, friendly mountain men and women, and a cat in the post-office who pops out of the lower PO boxes on occasion.

As a confirmed map geek I love the maps created and shared by the Alpine Loop Spatial Analysis and Mapping project (check out this beauty).

The Ute Ulay mine site straddles the alpine loop, about just outside Lake City. There were 611,000 Alpine Loop user days in 2008 – that means there is potentially lots of passing trade at the Ute Ulay. Click on the graphic below to see numbers of visitors.

Animas Forks

Case Study Name: Animas Forks

image: Anna MacLeod

Location: 12 miles north of Silverton on the alpine loop backcountry byway, San Juan County, Colorado, USA. Co-ordinates: 37°55′51″N 107°34′3″W

Initial Funding: Structures were stabilised in 1997 and 1998 with assistance from Colorado State Historical Fund Grants.

Ongoing Funding: No income; Animas Forks will be reliant on further grants, as necessary.

Organisations Involved: Managed by San Juan County and the Bureau of Land Management.

Description: Animas Forks is a popular, ghost mining town that sits on the Alpine Loop, a precipitous road that bumps between Lake City, Ouray and Silverton in the San Juan mountains in Colorado. The site is at around 11,000ft elevation, and is inaccessible in the winter.

The empty, wooden buildings have been preserved, and you can go inside them and see the structures. It is interesting to note the building styles. All personal traces of inhabitation are gone (I don’t know if they were removed deliberately), and the buildings feel clean. There is no glass in the windows, and since the site is not inhabited, I wonder if the glass has been removed for safety.

Visitors are welcome to make their own way around the site, and explore the buildings. When I went there I enjoyed the view of the town as we approached – but I wished there were more details to see once we had arrived. It is good that the site has been preserved for people to see, and it draws lots of people to visit.

By comparison the Ute Ulay has much more texture and detail to offer a visitor, as long as that can be made safely available. It could also be burdensome for the local Lake Citians to have to fundraise to keep the site open and safe – so the Ute Ulay should at least bring in enough revenue to pay for itself.

Itsy Bitsy

I was thinking about how you can almost drive forever from Lake City to get to any other town, and how you can drive the same distance from Manchester and be unable to count how many towns you drive through. American cars are bigger, the wilderness is bigger, the  food portions are bigger…. is everything bigger?

Well, when I compared the size of the entire United Kingdom (and don’t forget people, that is 4 countries!) to the size of Colorado (only 1 out of the lower 48 states!) it’s fair to say that I was somewhat bamboozled. Was I reading correctly? I checked – not just wikipedia – and checked again – and it seems that Colorado is bigger than the   e n t i r e   U K ! (!)

Click on this picture for more details.

Don’t get me wrong… size isn’t everything. I mean – small is beautiful. It makes sense of my 5.5 hour drive from Denver though.

So having a remote inactive silver mine site, out here in remote Colorado, is really very remote. In fact, Hinsdale County (home of the Ute Ulay mine site) is the county with the most ‘roadless space’ in the conterminous United States according to a paper in Science Magazine (full article). It’s the place to come if you want space to breathe, a little solitude, or a reminder of how itsy bitsy each human really is.